Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Horror

I don't tend to read a lot of horror fiction. Partly, I suspect that the reason is momentum. I didn't take much interest in horror as a teenager, beyond the requisite Stephen King novels and a few, largely unsuccessful, forays into Koontz. I never developed a proper grounding in the genre, never learned to understand its rules and to recognize its sub-genres. Seeking out horror fiction that will interest me as an adult is therefore a precarious, hit-and-miss venture. I find myself, as I do when I try to make forays into comic books, forced to rely on the judgement of others, reaching for the super-popular and unable to recognize the subtle clues that, in another, more familiar genre, would indicate to me whether a particular work is right for me.

But a far more important reason for my lack of interest in horror, both as a teenager and nowadays, is the simple fact that books don't scare me. Whether its purpose is to make me gag or to shudder, horror rarely manages to elicit these reactions from me. A horror novel has to have some quality beyond its putative scariness in order to appeal to me, such as King's exciting plots and effortless storytelling or Mark Z. Danielewski's games with narrative voices, descriptions of various media, and typography in House of Leaves. So it was with some surprise that I realized yesterday that in the last week, I've read as much horror as I read in the entirety of last year (which, before you get all excited, is all of two books. For a while I thought it was going to be three but it turns out that Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy is barely even a genre novel, not to mention dull and badly written), and enjoyed it quite a bit. I wasn't scared, but I didn't get the impression that I was meant to be. The authors of both of the books I read seemed to be using the conventions of horror, but either ignoring or actively circumventing its alleged purpose.

It's actually a little surprising that I enjoyed Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle (Firecracker in the UK), given that, right off the bat, it hit two of my personal reading peeves. Stewart uses pop culture references--in this case, music titles--to set the mood in various scenes, which I find tantamount to admitting that he doesn't trust the emotional resonance of his fiction and feels the need to shore it up by referencing the art of others. The novel is also narrated in the first person, and I have a very low threshold of tolerance for misuses of this voice. I've been trying for a while, but I still haven't managed to articulate just where I draw the line between successful and unsuccessful uses of the first person voice. I usually require, however, that it be strongly naturalistic. Unless the novel is written in an elaborate, overly-formalist and possibly epistolary style (see Nabokov, Collins, and the Brontes), I need to believe that a first person narrator is sitting in front of me, having some coffee and telling me a story. All too often, however, what I find when I read fiction written in the first person is clunky language directed at an invisible, nonexistent audience, a narrative neither personal enough to draw me in nor unobtrusive enough to allow me to ignore it. Wherever the line is, Stewart skates very close to it--there are some incredibly awkward turns of phrase in Perfect Circle--but never quite crosses it, and even the music references are easy enough to ignore. Perfect Circle is no stylistic triumph, but Stewart's failures weren't enough to scuttle my enjoyment of the book's strengths.

This is the sort of statement that could get me into a lot of trouble, especially seeing as I'm a genre outsider, but I often wonder whether, as a genre, horror relies on metaphor to a degree far greater than either science fiction or fantasy. Frankenstein's monster, after all, is a metaphor for scientific hubris run amok. Dracula is a metaphor for our darkest impulses--selfishness, desire, hunger--unchecked by morality, reason, and moderation. And ghosts, obviously, are a metaphor for a past that still troubles us. Will Kennedy, the narrator of Perfect Circle, sees ghosts, which would normally be Stewart's cue to launch into the standard I See Dead People plot, in which the gifted (or, possibly, cursed) protagonist resolves a dead person's unfinished business, usually placing themselves in some peril in the process and possibly resolving some of their issues as well (said issues are usually headlined by the protagonist's distaste for their unique skill). And indeed, there are several instances in Perfect Circle where it seems that Stewart is going to start telling this story, but always he veers away and turns his focus back to Will himself and his more quotidian problems.

Unemployed, living in squalor, divorced from a wife he still loves and who left him because of his morbid obsession with death, despised by her new husband and quite a few of his relatives as a freak and a loser and mostly pitied by his twelve year old daughter, Will Kennedy is himself a ghost. Like the black-and-white specters he encounters wherever he goes, Will won't let go of the past. Rather than doing something to improve his life, Will obsesses over his past mistakes and uses them as a justification for making more mistakes. In the standard mold that Stewart riffs off and distorts, the gifted individual makes a connection with ghosts and gets them to forgive themselves or the people who hurt them . In Perfect Circle, it is Will who is affected--both positively and negatively--by the dead. A vindictive spirit nearly manipulates him into committing a murder, and the spirits of his departed family members finally get him to accept forgiveness and a new beginning.

Which is, admittedly, a neat twist. Just not quite neat enough. There are some odd and eerie moments in the novel in which Stewart makes us feel the weirdness--not the horror but simply the weirdness--of living surrounded by the dead, such a scene in a Thai restaurant in which Will's living waitress is accompanied by the ill-tempered ghost of her dead uncle, who lambasts her for forgetting the specials and to whom Will offers a tip in the form of a burnt dollar bill. But for the most part, Stewart fails to realize his premise's full potential. Ultimately, Perfect Circle is an enjoyable but rather conventional novel about an aimless thirty-something man learning to let go of the past. In trying to circumvent the standard tropes of the ghost story, Stewart comes perilously close to turning the supernatural elements of his story into window-dressing. How easy would it be, after all, to turn Perfect Circle into a naturalistic story about a man at the end of his tether (although the happy ending might be a little harder to justify)?

Interestingly enough, Perfect Circle skates close to a different sort of horror with its recurring theme of spousal abuse. Will is repeatedly confronted with images of women--both familiar and unfamiliar--who are abused by men who claim to love them. Two of the ghosts he encounters were murdered by their lovers, and as the novel's plot progresses Will develops an eerie half-empathy with their killers. What did you do to make him kill you? Will asks of the ghost of his beloved cousin, and frequently throughout the novel he muses that he has never loved a woman enough to kill her. One of Will's most powerful memories is of being taken by his cousin (the same one who will later be murdered by her boyfriend) to the hospital room of a recently-raped friend. The visit is intended as educational experience for young Will--to teach him the consequences of what he himself might some day do to another woman. Stewart comes very close to suggesting that the impulse to hurt and even kill women is inherent to all men, but in the end he won't quite come out and say it, and the entire sub-plot fails to coalesce. Will is nearly goaded into killing his ex-wife for an imagined sin (really, for leaving him and not loving him any more), but neither he nor Stewart will acknowledge the ugliness that would have to exist within him in order to bring him to the point of being thus manipulated. Both the force for and the force against the murder exist outside of Will, with his own will-power acting simply as the deciding vote. Once the murder is averted, Will refuses to look back and wonder whether there might be something fundamentally wrong with him for even contemplating it, and the narrative doesn't suggest that he ought to.

All that said, Perfect Circle is an entertaining and enjoyable read. Will is a likable screw-up, but not unrealistically so--it's easy to imagine how he could have worn away at the affections of all but the most devoted of his friends and relatives. His relationship with his daughter Megan is touching but not cloying--there's a very powerful scene towards the end of the book in which Will receives an angry letter from Megan, excoriating him for his failures as a father and for constantly forcing her to look after him instead of the other way around, only for Megan to call and ask him to burn the letter unread. I'm not entirely certain why the book has received the enthusiastic praise that I've seen around the net, but I can recommend it as an imperfect but worthy endeavor (the first four chapters were serialized in Salon last year:1, 2, 3, 4).

If Perfect Circle was last year's literary horror darling, this year's is unquestionably Joe Hill's superb collection, 20th Century Ghosts (currently available only in the UK). Like Stewart, Hill plays games with the familiar conventions of modern horror (one of the genre's most intriguing characteristics is the fact that even readers who have never cracked open so much as a Stephen King novel have had enough exposure to horror in popular culture to instinctively recognize its fundamental clichés), but instead of trying to circumvent or overturn these conventions, as Stewart did in Perfect Circle, Hill complicates them. Graham Sleight wrote an excellent and thoughtful review of 20th Century Ghosts for Strange Horizons, which pretty much says everything I would have liked to say about the book, so I'll just add that I think Graham is being particularly insightful when he calls Hill a moral writer and a subtle one. Most of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts are concerned, in one form or another, with some sort of moral transgression, and Hill's characters are punished for their sins (as Graham very correctly points out, horror is frequently a genre concerned with punishment--usually of the wildly disproportionate kind) not by some supernatural moral entity, but by their own guilty consciences.

There's a danger here of making Hill sound like a simplistic writer, but there is nothing simple about the stories in 20th Century Ghosts. They take place in a world that is rife with evil and depravity, one in which the innocent are frequently hurt and victimized, where children are abused and neglected by parents and guardians, and the weak are preyed upon by the strong. The narrator of "Pop Art" (not, strictly speaking, a horror story, but a lovely and harrowing piece nevertheless) is the best and only friend of Art, a boy born with a 'genetic abnormality'--he's an inflatable balloon. Art is also almost universally reviled and tormented, both by schoolyard bullies and by adults such as the narrator's father. Observing the cruelty with which the world treats his gentle, harmless friend, the narrator darkly muses
It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of [the narrator's father's violent dog]'s ilk--I am talking here of canines and men both--more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.
Hill's universe, in other words, is horrifying, but not supernaturally so. Another author--possibly Stewart--might have stopped here and concentrated on the horror inherent to the real world, but Hill keeps going. He overlays his mundane horror with the supernatural kind. His characters, no matter how depraved their actions might be, react to both forms of horror as thinking human beings, possessed of a conscience. In "You Will Hear the Locust Sing", a darkly comedic cross between Kafka's The Metamorphosis and the familiar school shooting story, the narrator, Francis Kay, wakes up transformed into a giant cockroach. Hill transitions effortlessly between frank and disgusting descriptions of Francis' new biology and the joy he takes in it, and moments of terrible and brutal violence. Francis kills his neglectful, unloving father and step-mother, and then steps back in horror--"He wanted to tell someone he was sorry, it was awful, he wished he could take it back". Francis later commits more murders, but the very fact that his immediate reaction to the first murders he commits is remorse reminds us that this is, after all, a human being--capable of terrible things, but still a moral creature.

The supernatural element that drives the novella "Voluntary Committal" is the otherworldly quality of the cardboard forts built by the narrator's mentally unstable brother. In Morris' hands, simple cardboard boxes can be made to form a doorway to another world, from which there can be no return. The narrator witnesses the disappearance of his best friend inside one of these forts, but the event that haunts him is a teenage prank gone horribly wrong, in which he may or may not have injured a child. This is the great horror of the narrator's life--that, as a boy, he failed to understand the consequences of his actions, and treated human life with cavalier disdain. As the narrator ages and as the effort of living with the guilt for his actions begins to overwhelm him, Morris' forts come to seem soothing rather than terrifying--a source of salvation and possibly peace.

Hill's characters react to horror--both the quotidian and the fantastic--like normal human beings, and it is this ability to convey realistic and subtle human reactions that is Hill's greatest strength as a writer. Hill is not a great stylist--his prose is largely utilitarian, with a few unfortunate forays into the clunky and the overwrought--but he does know how to fuse realistic and supernatural horror into a single entity, one that would be sadly diminished if either element were to be removed. None of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts could be boiled down to a mainstream story with supernatural elements sprinkled in, or a supernatural story with an unusual amount of psychological realism.

"Best New Horror", the collection's opening story, is described by Graham as Hill's manifesto, a statement about his attitude towards horror and the people who write and read it unthinkingly, revelling in punishment and depravity without a moral frame of reference. At the heart of the story is another story, "Buttonboy", submitted to Eddie Caroll, the editor of a horror anthology. "Buttonboy" was originally published in a literary review and largely reviled by its readers for its twist ending--after describing the largely naturalistic attempts on the part of a young victim of a brutal assault to regain some semblance of her old life, the story ends with the heroine recaptured and about to be killed by her assailant. Eddie calmly considers that mainstream readers aren't accustomed to twist endings, but in this case I find myself siding with the literary review's readers. As described in "Best New Horror", "Buttonboy"'s two halves seem hastily and unconvincingly sewn together--the naturalistic and supernatural horror fighting against each other and destroying the story's resonance. Hill, happily, is a better author than "Buttonboy"'s, and expects us to be better readers than Eddie Caroll. 20th Century Ghosts is a fascinating collection, at the same time lovely and troubling, and I will certainly be looking forward to Hill's next effort, in or out of the horror genre.


chance said...

Graham Slight wrote an excellent and thoughtful review

*cough* Sleight

Graham said...

What would I do without you, chance?

Nice review, Abigail - no time to respond properly right now.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

*cough* Sleight

Ack! Corrected.

Mely said...

Will is nearly goaded into killing his ex-wife for an imagined sin (really, for leaving him and not loving him any more), but neither he nor Stewart will acknowledge the ugliness that would have to exist within him in order to bring him to the point of being thus manipulated. Both the force for and the force against the murder exist outside of Will, with his own will-power acting simply as the deciding vote. Once the murder is averted, Will refuses to look back and wonder whether there might be something fundamentally wrong with him for even contemplating it, and the narrative doesn't suggest that he ought to.

I thought the narrative--and Will himself--very strongly suggested that indeed something was fundamentally wrong with him, and with the culture that allowed him and other ghosts to redirect rage, resentment, and self-hatred into misogyny; and one of the reasons I rate the book so highly is the slow revelation that the likeable, empathetic narrator is capable of extraordinary violence and misogyny along with his slacker sins of omission. (I recommended it to the Tiptree board, in fact, but apparently none of them agreed.)

I also thought the voice was terrific; the evocation of Texas working to lower-middle-class life was amazing.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I thought the narrative--and Will himself--very strongly suggested that indeed something was fundamentally wrong with him

I guess I just didn't see that, Mely. I certainly thought the ending, in which Will 'forgives' his mother for the same transgression that was allegedly his reason for attacking his ex, suggested that when free of the ghosts' influence, Will isn't inclined towards misogyny. I also thought that Will's jokey voice was a hindrance to taking him seriously as a threat, and a way for Stewart to make his attitude less unappealing.

And again, I think Stewart shies away from truly engaging with the question of a society that considers misogyny acceptable. Maybe the problem is the two plotlines - seeing ghosts and killing women - and the way they intertwined. After the book's climax, in which the two storylines come to a head, the issue of misogyny is dropped. Will should be hating himself at that point - for all that the story hammers in the importance of forgiving oneself, I don't think the father of a daughter should be so cavalier about buying into the culture of violence against women (unless, of course, we're meant to believe that the ghosts made him do it). The happy ending seems unearned.

Anonymous said...

Hill is a beacon for a lot of people who don't normally read horor? Why? Because the cliches in the plotting seem original. The collection is good, but not as good as those touting it would have you believe. Simply because those people have no history of reading much horror. In the larger context, he is indeed talented and good, but not to the orgasmic level everyone is putting forward.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hill is a beacon for a lot of people who don't normally read horor? Why? Because the cliches in the plotting seem original.

If you go back and read what I (and Graham Sleight, and John Clute) have written, you'll see that this is the exact opposite of why we appreciate Hill. The clichés he uses are anything but original - they are familiar even to readers unfamiliar with horror. What's original is his adult treatment of them. Now, if what you're saying is that there's more horror out there that deals with the genre's clichés in such a mature, sophisticated and subtle manner... well then, I'm going to want some recommendations :-)

Graham said...

Can I just say to Anonymous, as (I presume) one of the people s/he accuses of "touting" Hill, that I think I am reasonably familiar with the horror genre - both historically, and with what's gone on recently; and I'd be interested to know how Anonymous deduced otherwise. I don't think that either I, or John Clute, or Abigail, or Niall Harrison, are being "orgasmic" in our reviews of Hill: we all expressed reservations of one kind or another.

Also, what Abigail said.

Barry Wood said...

I'm a huge fan of Joe Hill's pen. Abigail, this is a fine review. I bought Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghosts."

He has a new book coming out next year I believe called "Heart-Shaped Box" and that is going to be made into a movie.

Joe Hill is indeed going places and I couldn't be more proud of him.

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