This Post Contains Multiple Links, as Apparently Does My Life

The stories we read colonize us.

I spent the weekend in New Hampshire, at Squam Lake, one of the most purely beautiful places I’ve ever seen. (Cold, though: I was sleeping in a fleece pullover and under at least four blankets at one point.) But it amused me how frequently little bits of reality would pull me back into fiction and how, despite all the times I was reminded of horror, I wasn’t disconcerted but pleased: sometimes it doesn’t matter what kind of significance your mind brings to the forefront, it’s just nice to have the landscape highlighted in bits and pieces. It deepened everything, and made me feel I would carry the vacation home with me, pressed between the pages of various books or in the stills of various movies, and keep rediscovering it later.

We were sharing the camp with a group of artists on retreat, and we kept stumbling across evidence of them through the little pieces of designed wilderness they’d left behind: a spiral of flowers that instantly brought to mind the eldritch Japanese horror comic Uzumaki and a construction of twigs straight out of The Blair Witch Project or True Detective.

The weather, the forest, and the thickets of trees kept reminding me I was in New England, and as I’d never been before, I just kept thinking how fertile the horror imagination had always been in this neck of the woods: King, Lovecraft, and so on.

There was an island in the middle of the lake with a church on it that I was told we could paddle to if the wind ever calmed down, and I immediately thought of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s powerful “The Church on the Island.”

In the airport, I thought how the crowded terminals would be a perfect place for the ghosts of Stephen Graham Jones’s The Elvis Room to lurk about in your peripheral vision.

Even the fireplace had a childlike charm for me, as I kept watching the flames with fascination, and recalled the episode of the much-loved Are You Afraid of the Dark? in which I was taught, at around eight or nine, that staring at the heart of a flame would call forth something terrible.

Now, granted, all fiction has this effect on me to some extent–another part of the weekend was spent in extensive reminiscing about the Little House on the Prairie books, for example, and certainly all the cabin doors, with their latches, reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder–but I do think horror and fantasy have a particular skill at attaching themselves to everyday objects. If they’re grounded in the world of “real things,” if they establish the familiar only to inundate it with emotion and significance, then they have automatic replay value later in life.

Without horror, the woods would just be the woods. I think I owe something to my reader for helping me walk through them not just with a sense of their hushed beauty, but with the exquisite delight of the prickles on the back of my neck, and with a lifetime’s worth of memories and narrative.

(I also, for what it’s worth, had my shoe fall off into the lake; star-gazed on a remarkably clear night and felt a wholly different and admittedly superior, if rarer, sense of meaning and profundity; overate to a massive degree; discovered that S.’s dad’s cousin had a subscription to Ellery Queen and so had already read my story; and borrowed someone else’s pullover for the whole weekend because I’d forgotten to pack anything warm, which is the kind of slipshod planning that indicates writing talent. Or so I’m telling myself.)

Some time ago, I apologized for infrequent blog posts, and now I’m back to apologize for a complete lack of blog posts and a complete lack of Goodreads entries of late–suffice to say, I’ve been going through a decided slump lately and decidedly living up to my introversion. But I do have news, of sorts, which is that I’ve broadened my writing to include crime/mystery, and the story I sold to Ellery Queen (as Zoë Z. Dean, since you may have noticed that my name doesn’t Google very well–then again, we can’t all be “Laird Barron”) is now available in this month’s issue.

While I think posts will be erratic in the future, it’s my hope that they will no longer completely drop off the radar, as I should hopefully have more time now to devote myself to writing (and reading).

In the meantime, I just have to shake my head sadly and admit my apparent unreliability as an e-correspondent.

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.