The Nagging Question of “Is it Real or Not?”

When I read Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (superb and chilling, if frequently over-italicized), whatever attention of mine wasn’t absorbed in this long, complex tale of filmmakers, dark inspiration, and mystery was reserved for one question and one question only.  Not what happened to Ashley Cordova–that’s a reader’s question, and part of the above experience.  But the writer’s question, when reading Night Film and books like it, can only be: is it magic or mundane?  This is a somewhat overly reductive and certainly overly alliterative question, but the teetering point, sometimes obscure, between horror and crime often comes down to that dilemma.  Is this the world as we know it, or is there something extra (or, hauntingly, less)?  Sometimes what pushes the work into the metaphorical–because however supernatural, artificial, or constructed, these alterations of the reality of the work often come down to whether or not our literal story takes on the weight of our other fears–is merely a certain grotesquerie, a height of the Gothic: it’s why Hannibal Lecter sits as comfortably in horror as in crime.  But more often, what separates mimetic fiction from the surreal or fantastic is the actual fantastic.  Take a straightforward crime story but give the murderer a shadow that stretches the wrong way and you are, abruptly, tantalizingly, in the realm of metaphor, and therefore horror.
The unsettling concern that the real might give way at any point to something beyond comprehension is a powerful tension that many authors have rightly explored–and exploited–over the years.  Some–like Pessl–do so with intelligence and an appreciation for fear.  Others do so with contempt, constructing a seemingly supernatural house of cards only to blow it all down at the end with a trite explanation of the rationality of it all.  When this is done well, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Done badly, it’s Scooby Doo.  I read a novel by a writer whose crime short stories I had admired and loved; in his novel, he pitted grieving parents against the story of their child’s ghost, supplied them with ample evidence, and then, eventually, unraveled it all.  There’s nothing wrong with telling this story–con artists have, unfortunately, targeted the bereaved over the years, and this narrative in the right hands would come with its own emotional heft (Sarah Waters has done it)–but without careful handling, it falls into condescension.  How dare you have believed, even briefly, that something else might be stirring beneath the pages.  Don’t you know what the real world is?
Well, of course, we do, with considerable latitude for what people may believe about the qualities of the real world–and I’ll be generous there even if that author wouldn’t be–but all of us, however skeptical or credulous in our daily lives, know when we’re reading fiction, and we know that fictional narrative has never been constrained by mere possibility.  There’s no sense, artistic or otherwise, in lecturing your readers for being aware of the lovely flexibility of literature.

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Little Visible Delight, ed. by S. P. Miskowski and Kate Jonez

Little Visible Delight offers its writers the chance to talk about—and write about—their obsessions, which is a chance no writer can afford to turn down.  After all, they’re doing it anyway.  Nearly every writer has a set of obsessions.  They may cultivate them, growing a garden of lush (and sometimes poisonous) stories, or they may ignore them, allowing these fixations to scatter through their body of work like weeds.  But either way, these things take root, and take over.  Little Visible Delight brings them all out into the open and as such, while the collection offers plenty of dark pleasure for the lay reader, it’s particularly interesting for writers or those with a fascination for the craft: here are some excellent horror authors talking about what they can’t stop talking about.  It begs the question: what drives you?  What permeates through you but gives you “little visible delight?”

If your obsession is quality horror anthologies, you’re in luck.

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That Serpent’s Not Just Dreaming: New Alan Ryker

Alan Ryker is one of my favorite recent discoveries in horror and I was delighted to (somewhat belatedly) read his novel Dream of the Serpent. Like all Ryker, it has an immediate grasp of the little details that make a story pop out, whether it’s the procedure of closing a midlist Italian restaurant or the medicinal smell of a burn unit, but that solidity is even more remarkable given the metaphysical issues at play. Too often, it’s easy for writers to buy profundity by selling the reality of their story too cheaply–as we learned from Yellow Submarine, “it’s all in the mind.” But Ryker does better, and excels at the clash between the intense physicality of a recovering burn victim and the hallucinogenic philosophical exploring he’s starting to do when his eyes are closed. It’s only by providing the first that he can persuade us of the need for the second. If you were Cody, you’d find your musings about the place where the rubber band of the world might snap very compelling, too.

At the beginning of the novel, Cody is bright, affable, handsome, and definitely going places–he’s engaged to the girl of his dreams who happens (actually and genuinely by coincidence) to also be providing him with the father-in-law of his dreams, a man who can offer him (you guessed it!) the job of his dreams. He’s working as a waiter to fill in he gaps in his income as he transitions from lower-middle class to upper-, and he’s eager to close up and get to a party with Madison, his girlfriend. She calls. He’s distracted. And so, as he’s scraping the fryer, a spark ignites the oil and sets Cody and the restaurant ablaze.

He’s severely burned and disfigured, and the novel spends about forty percent of its length exploring, in painful detail, his physical recovery and his lack of emotional recovery. He knows too well that he’s lost his life. Because Madison blames herself for distracting him, he’s lost her, too–a loss he’s complicit in by refusing, for opaque but understandable reasons, to relieve her of her guilt and assure her of his love. Cody has dreams of another life, a life that would have happened if he’d remembered to turn the fryer off, but each time, he wakes up confined to a slumped, scar-tissue-tightened body with a face so terrifying to him that he covers it with a silicon mask.

Meanwhile, Madison is falling down the rabbit hole. She tells him a word: Ouroboros.

I don’t want to give away the entirety of the novel–instead, I want to focus on that crucial first forty percent. So many horror stories give way immediately to non-stop action-adventure, with their writers forgetting that all action is action, and all action is the key to character. The scenes of Cody’s treatment are pivotal because they establish Madison’s motivation for her action–we know that she would do anything to take away her guilt for Cody’s fate–and Cody’s intense and intensely warranted fear of that turning point in his life, and of fire. These scenes also remind us that horror can be found in places beyond the obvious. Pockets of infection, skin turned into a chrysalis, an eye removed and covered with a flap–medicine is brutal. Ryker has the eye–and the time–to convince us that for Cody, the horror of the novel is present long before Madison tells him of the worm that eats its own tail.

In “Best New Horror,” by Joe Hill, a horror editor talks about how horror too often ignores the “bread of everyday life” to focus on the “rare bleeding meat.” Ryker avoids that stumbling block neatly. It isn’t enough just to have more than blood in your horror—you have to have bread.

Dream of the Serpent is about bread the slowly becomes suffused with strangeness. It isn’t about blood at all. It’s about pain, guilt, responsibility, fear, and sacrifice, about deaths that can be undone and deaths that can’t. And if it weren’t so grounded in what it’s like to see your childhood height chart and realize scarring has bent you two inches shorter than you were at eighteen, and how yelling could split open your barely-healed cheek, it wouldn’t be about anything at all. Instead, it’s almost everything. Which means you should read it.

The Ax, by Donald Westlake

Of all the books I’ve ever read, Donald Westlake’s The Ax is the one that begs most for a movie adaptation, and it’s the one most inexplicably lacking one.  The story is that of Burke Devore, a laid-off paper plant middle-manager who finds himself looking for work in a dwindling industry stocked with overqualified applicants.  Devore is a problem-solver, and after a few months, his unemployment is a serious problem.  His solution is as ingenious as it is terrifying.  After finding his dream position already occupied by a long-term employee, Devore invents a fake company, posts an ad designed to lure out his competition, and endeavors to kill all the applicants more qualified then he is.  Then, he thinks, he’ll kill the employee who has the job he wants, interview for the newly vacant position, and restart his life on his terms.

The black comedy is obvious, especially in a down-economy.  Burke Devore’s endless self-justification–that it isn’t his fault but the fault of the higher-ups who create the situation, that he’s only trying to provide for his family–actually rings true, even if readers (hopefully) wouldn’t go to the same lengths.  And Westlake has an eye for pricking every little bit of ridiculousness involved in the job search: I especially liked the criticism Burke offers of his victims’ résumés.  But while Westlake is indisputably good at following this dark, satirical thread throughout the story, as events progress, he also isn’t content to let the situation be merely funny.  And, in a particularly wonderful move, and one that I feel justifies the novel as a type of bleakly comedic horror as well as crime, he begins to reveal a side of Burke Devore that is actually more discomfiting than his decision to commit repeated murders.

Spoilers beneath the cut.

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Catching Up

I hang my head in shame as I admit the obvious–it’s been an exceptionally long time without a post.  I started a new job and blogging got lost in the shuffle.  I’m hoping to resume with at least a post a week, and upcoming things include a piece on horror that treads the ambiguous line between supernatural and mundane, a review of Alan Ryker’s new book, and some talk about Donald Westlake’s The Ax.

In the meantime, I’m very pleased to have The Side Effects of the Medication show up on Literary Darkness’s annual Darkness Readable list, even though when I look at the names of the people also on the list, I can only conclude that this has been a mistake, but as long as no one lets that slip to Robert Dunbar, it will probably stay on there.  I’m very honored.

James Everington also has a terrific interview here, where he’s kind enough to mention me, and not for the first time, which is something else I’m very honored by.  Also, he puts my name in the same sentence with Iain Rowan’s, which leads to the same effect as mentioned above.

I’m very excited as well by the premiere of the second season of Hannibal tonight: it’s a gorgeously-shot and extremely well-acted show (that could easily have been ridiculous and suspense-free) that takes violence, and the consequences of violence, seriously, and pulls more abject horror out of a badly drawn clock than most people could get out of, well, people with their backs flayed up into angels’ wings, which the show also has, so, you know, whatever horror you’re interested in, gory or psychological, it offers, and with strong feeling and moral probity.

And so the blog belatedly staggers into 2014.  Temporarily down, but certainly not out, and with plenty of horrors left to explore.

Wednesday Recommendations: Sympathy

This week’s recommendations are all about books I have shelved under “sympathy” because of their nuanced appreciation for the essential humanity of all their characters, good and bad; there are other virtues books can have, but this is one of my favorites, and it’s a difficult one to properly achieve.  It’s hard to honestly depict the magnitude of damage people can do to one another and still evoke sympathy for everyone involved.  I’m leaving out, therefore, any books that gain sympathy for bad behavior at the expense of its victims (so no Talented Mr. Ripley, no matter how much I love it, because it wins readers over to identifying with Ripley by casting Dickie, for example, in a rather boorish light); these books are simply those that understand that the worst of us are as human as the best of us (and sometimes the worst and best are inseparable).

Horror/Dark Fantasy. North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud.  Ballingrud deals almost exclusively in broken characters engaged in broken, desperate actions: these are characters who run when they should stay, who get involved in things they shouldn’t, and who make decisions that leave you open-mouthed in horror.  But Ballingrud makes you understand cowardice, hatred, desertion, and betrayal from the inside-out, and while you may detest the actions, you come away with a shaken understanding of yourself and a fuller understanding of the people involved.  Also, it has an actually interesting vampire story in it: “Sunbleached.”

Realism.  The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer.  If Ballingrud is concerned with overt, violent betrayals and breaches in the social contract, Packer is concerned with smaller, intimate, and more “feminine” ones.  Carrie Bell is a girl whose long-time relationship with her boyfriend, Mike, has been wavering; when Mike’s impulsive dive into shallow water leaves him paralyzed, she’s trapped by regret, guilt, and a lingering if uncertain love–which she then abandons by leaving him for a new life and a new boyfriend, much to her town’s disapproval.  Carrie’s actions are hurtful, but they’re also a natural outgrowth of a young woman feeling suffocated by her life and responsibilities, and we come away from the novel feeling bad for her and Mike both.

Realism/Science Fiction.  A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  This novel-in-stories (I read a few of them for the first time, before the novel’s publication, in Best American Short Stories) is almost centered around perhaps the main principle of sympathy: the more we know about people, the harder it is to despise them.  Egan’s novel begins with a certain set of characters but progressively widens and deepens outward and inward, until almost everyone in the story, however minor, has a distinctive voice and narrative section of their own.  Perhaps the main reason, in fiction, to care about everyone is this: everyone has a story.  And as readers, stories are what we’re interested in.

Wednesday Recommendations: Good Beginnings

Sometimes it’s hard to allow yourself the freedom of not finishing a book that isn’t working for you, but an intense, intriguing start can smooth the way through an only middling middle, or prefigure a tightly-constructed, continuously interesting whole.  Excellent first sentences have their own places in our hearts, but to go a little bit beyond that, here are a handful of books where the first few pages are guaranteed to reel you in:

Thriller/Horror.  Stalking You Now, by Jeff Strand.  This entire novella is a suspenseful, twisty delight, and Strand’s black humor and highly readable prose pair well together.  (Highly readable prose is an underrated asset to fiction: both beautiful style and minimalism are sometimes easier to achieve than smooth, seemingly effortless propulsion of what Jo Walton calls the “I-Want-to-Read-It” quality.)  Our tale begins with an overheard conversation in a restaurant–a man complaining about his girlfriend’s overcooked steak–and hits character marks quickly, only to lead out seamlessly to our listener and narrator, who, we soon realize, has been stalking this overbearing diner for reasons unknown.  From those few pages, you already understand Strand’s sense of humor, light noir sensibility, and devotion to the plot twist: you know exactly what you’re getting, and you want to read more.

Mystery/Crime.  Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane.  Mystic River is one of my favorite crime novels: a deep, gritty, and detailed examination of working class Boston, masculinity, and the darkness of the human heart.  Its beginning is the perfect evocation of the whole.  We meet three boys–Jimmy, Sean, and Dave–and are thrown into intense details of place and circumstance, from Sean’s family’s upward mobility to the way the tight-knit and claustrophobic neighborhood holds its residents for life.  Within the space of the prologue, the boys have set patterns that will carry over into adulthood, and Dave’s kidnapping has been a trauma not especially mitigated by his return.  Mystic River is about home and history: in the prologue, we come to understand both.  It’s also only $2.99 on Kindle right now, so if you haven’t read it, now would be an excellent time to pick it up.

Young Adult/Suspense.  The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney.  The rapid beginning of a quality thriller coupled with the sly YA observation of teenagers.  The Face on the Milk Carton begins with a perfectly ordinary teenaged girl, Janie Johnson, agonizing over typical teenaged details: her upcoming driver’s license, her hair, her terribly boring name, her inconvenient and recently diagnosed lactose intolerance.  She steals a milk carton from her friend, because milk is the only acceptable counterpoint to a peanut butter sandwich, and she finds herself–a recognizably younger version of herself, wearing a dress she can (with a sudden lump in her throat) remember–gazing back from the fuzzy black-and-white photo on the side.  Normalcy shatters, but the importance of that boring name remains.  Is she really Janie Johnson?  Or is she, as the photo suggests, Jennie Spring, abducted as a child?  How can she reconcile that with her adoring parents?  All of this tension is inherent within the first chapter and all of it continues, sublimely, throughout the book.