Monday, 30 November 2009

It's incredible how much variety the contemporary horror genre contains. Here are recent single-author collections I've been reading, all as different from each other as can be:

Twentieth-Century Ghosts by Joe Hill: Matheson/Bradbury style tales of unease, boyhood and sentiment, with one notable exception. The sort of horror that is humanist, psychologically-driven rather than alienated and driven by visions of darkness and fits well into a subset of a largely mainstream literary diet.

Mr. Gaunt and other uneasy encounters by John Langan: Strong character studies, a collection that ranges from nods to antiquarian and pulp horror to strongly contemporary and original ideas.

The Imago Sequence
by Laird Barron: Dense, sometimes overwhelming prose achieves strategic vagueness through a rich patina of detail. Visions of cosmic horror overwhelming quotidian reality and residing within it at the same time; tough, capable protagonists who wind up falling prey.

Sesqua Valley and other haunts by WH Pugmire: Lovecraftian fiction written from the inside; as from the perspective of those weird Whateleys or the fishy folk at Innsmouth or rather their equivalents in Pugmire's own creation, Sesqua Valley. Poetic, sensual, somewhat decadent, stresses the aesthetics of the weird.

It's an intriguing study in variety, and while I'm more drawn to the Barron and Pugmire collections, they all have their points of merit.

Of course the horror shelves in Indian bookstores are still dominated by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, which may go some way to explaining why there isn't much of a home-grown English-language horror genre.

notes from a hack

I've revised the prison/spider story and the Bangalore ghost story and am rather happy with the new versions. My friend Ravi says that the new version of the latter may be the most effective thing I've done yet and I'm inclined to agree.

The interesting thing I find is that most of the excisions tend to be in the opening passages of a story; much of what is removed seem to be notes to myself about character, setting and theme; well-written enough that I tend to want to keep them in, but damaging to the story in many ways. I'm coming to terms with the notion of being something of a minimalist to be a better storyteller; keeping my cards close to my chest and not divulging all I know to the reader.

I've further revised the zombie story, and most of the things I removed were encapsulated exposition and worldbuilding. That story, my poor red-headed stepchild, the one with the cleft palate and the clubfoot and the incredible talent that no one has recognised yet...I still haven't found the key to making it what it should be. It's all there, the lines that don't quite converge, the thing that waits, humming, on the other side of shadow. But there's some magical ingredient that I haven't found yet.

The problem I'm having with another story I'm working on is that the protagonist, as I have portrayed him so far, fails to come into focus. He has his sorrows, but by making him the narrator, I've had to downplay all this - he's not the sort to expound on his feelings. Either I find a way to make this work, or I rewrite from third person so that his alienation is clearer.

Monday, 23 November 2009


I read Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet yesterday. R-G, like several people in the previous century, decided that a particular art form had reached a dead-end of endless refinement of a limited pool of techniques, and attempted to find a new approach.

The art form in this case was the novel. A sort of anti-Zola, R-G's approach seems to have been to eschew all pretense at psychological verisimilitude, focusing instead on the surface of things. In the case of the novel at hand, it results in a narrative that is largely given over to the obsessive detailing of appearances - famously counting the number of banana trees in each row in a plantation, several times over. Great importance is given to appearances, and the same set of incidents are returned to time and again, without the transitions being clearly marked. There are only two significant on-stage characters, although various hints make it clear that there is a third person participating in most of these scenes, a character who is carefully elided from the narrative.

The elision is a way of drawing our attention to that character - it increasingly seems as if the narrative may be his own train of thought, obsessively running over the events of a few days and the evidence they may hold that the elided character's wife is having an affair. The constant enumeration of minute details of the surroundings might be an obsessed man's way of proving to himself that he is still capable of objective thought, or a nervous tic to prevent himself from dwelling on his wild surmises.

It's an interesting technique, one with fascinating possibilities, but put to the service of a rather prosaic plot, one that would not have been out of place in a Zola novel. Philip K. Dick did similar things while weaving together plots that had something genuinely new and interesting in them. In the end 'Jealousy' simply posits a different, somewhat indirect and diffused way of portraying the psyche of characters in a fictional narrative. However, this novel is not convincing proof that such a brute-force technique, amassing surface detail on the basis that some of these details will tell their own story, can convey the complexities of a genuinely engaging plot.

Also completed over the weekend:

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club: Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are a rare treat - a sort of mix of the wit of Wodehouse and the crafty plotting of Christie.

The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight: Vladimir Nabokov. This was Nabokov's first major work in English; his facility with the language is astounding. He was achieving feats of verbal virtuosity only ever equaled by Anthony Burgess, right from the get-go. The story is brilliant and complex, a sort of oblique paean to an exile's sense of loss as a man tries to piece together a definitive biography of his late half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight. Yes, it prefigures Pale Fire, but it's a brilliant novel in its own right.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is the Lon Chaney of literature - the writer of a 1,000 voices. She chilled me with the sociopathic journalising of ZOMBIE, delighted with the purposely pompous, sometimes Gothic narrative of THE MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHUN and in Maddie Wirtz, professional stargazer and former girl-gang member, she has again created a unique voice to tell a powerful and hard-hitting tale. The girls of FOXFIRE are teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks who band together to try and be self-reliant, strong, independent of male support and attention - ambitions that are particularly out of step in the 50s blue-collar community they are trying to escape. Their leader, the idealistic, fierce, uncompromising 'Legs' Sadovsky is an unforgettable character, a naive, knowing, charismatic person trying to set things right and be herself in world that has no patience for either righting or true selves. In the end though, it's Maddie's voice that carries the story, brilliantly captured sideways eloquence of someone who is intelligent, has lived through things that have marked her with a certain wisdom but also with a certain otherness, who has lost the love of her life but lived to tell the tale, is not a practiced writer, but has something to say, which is as important. A remarkable writerly feat, this immersion in a voice so un-writerly, and a remarkable story.

They made it into a movie starring Angelina Jolie. One glance at the film posters burned my eyes out.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Let me get one thing out of the way quickly: yes, I am uncomfortable with the casual racism of Sax Rohmer's original Fu Manchu novels. The constant reference to barbaric peoples, savage hoards and so forth do annoy me every time I take pause from breathlessly following a marvelously convoluted plot thread to reflect that he uses these epithets to refer to folks like me. But I'm not able to take it very seriously.

Even so, I'm glad that William Patrick Maynard's addition to the series, THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU, addresses this issue head-on. Maynard does not concede to post-facto sanitisation by winnowing out terms such as 'Chinaman', which the protagonists would naturally have used to describe their Chinese adversaries. However, he does offer a nuanced picture of the 'yellow peril' represented by the Si-Fan and their most dreaded operative, Fu Manchu, showing it as a larger clash between cultures, one in which the West was certainly not an innocent, virtuous victim. Fair enough. A modern-day addition to a franchise that is rightly or wrongly associated with some of the most derogatory depictions of Asians needs to take a stance in these matters, and Maynard strikes an ideal balance.

His book is also much more sexually frank - not explicit - than Rohmer's ever were. This, again, is a change for the better. There was something a little disturbing in the barely-repressed fascinated revulsion with which Rohmer hinted at the lascivious charms of various Asiatic temptresses. Maynard's frank treatment of the sexual angle is a breath of fresh air. It adds depth to the plot at times, and gives him the chance to weave in some rather kinky moments, which can only be to the good in putting together a pulp fiction adventure.

It's also a more philosophical book than I'm aware of the originals being - there's a certain dialogue between reason and faith (or spirituality) running through the book, and this is the aspect that I'm not completely comfortable with for reasons that I'll get to presently.

Now to the plot - it's a suitably labyrinthine creation, as not just the Si-Fan but also an esoteric order called the Brotherhood of the Magi scheme and counter-scheme to get hold of a precious magical artifact. Our old friends, Petrie and Smith deal with multiple murders, an ever-growing list of enemies and a complex mystery that takes them through the seamier side of London, a detour through Paris (where Gaston Max, another Rohmer creation, is encountered) and back. There's a brief nod to the Cthulhu mythos and all sorts of nice little touches (amongst other things, I think Maynard is hinting that Petrie's father is the noted real-world Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, a concept with immense potential for future Fu Manchu adventures). There's a series of cliffhangers, each more deadly than the previous one, and a positive excess of fiendish villains to grapple with. It's complex, convoluted and gripping.

SPOILERS AHEAD
What I'm less pleased with is the resolution, where Maynard seems to be hinting that the hand of god, to put it bluntly, rescues our heroes. Divine intervention is not a concept I want to debate philosophically; to each their own; but it is a somewhat disappointing way to resolve such an exciting plot. In fact, several things are left unresolved here - a fact acknowledged in the coda - which is fair enough in a sense. This is presented as a suppressed memoir of Petrie's, no doubt because of the various loose ends and secrets discussed within. Still, this resolution is of a piece with the philosophical thread that is occasionally alluded to in the novel and while a diabolical manifestation followed by miraculous deliverance is indeed a rather unequivocal way to resolve 'the churchman's dilemma', I'm not sure it's the best fictional device. In this sense, I always appreciated that, while GK Chesterton's Father Brown stories were, on some level, Catholic polemic (as everything that estimable gentleman ever wrote was), they achieve their ends by stripping away mysteries and the superstitious fears surrounding evil to present a rational solution to each mystery and thereby, no doubt, an assertion of the divinely ordered world of daylight and reason.
SPOILERS OVER

This caveat aside, I found this to be a most gripping and thrilling novel. Maynard is a plot-spinner in the grand pulp tradition and I look forward to reading further installments of fervid action and adventure from him.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Complaints continue to reach us from all parts of the country to the effect that Mr. W. HOPE HODGSON's "Carnacki" stories are producing a widespread epidemic of Nervous Prostration! So far from being able to reassure or calm our nervous readers, we are compelled to warn them that "The Whistling Room", which we publish this month, is worse than ever. Our advertising manager had to go to bed for two days after reading the advance sheets; a proof reader has sent in his resignation; and, worst of all, our smartest office boy --- But this is no place to bewail or seek for sympathy. Yet another of those stories will appear in April!

It's hard for us, accustomed as we are to the far more visceral scares of cinematic horror, to relate to the plight of the nervous readers mentioned by the editor of The Idler in this notice included with that magazine's March 1910 issue.

Reading the story in question, however, might make their complaints easier to commiserate with. A premise that seems far from menacing at first - a room that whistles - is turned into a vector for some very weird and horrific images and one of the more gruesome backstories in these stories.

Other highlights of the series are THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE, a story inspired by Hodgson's own stay, with his mother, in a supposedly haunted house, THE HAUNTED JARVEE, a most chilling tale of horror at sea, and the mini-epic of porcine terror, THE HOG.

Carnacki is a mix of detective and industrial-age shaman, cracking quite a few cases of fake hauntings - sometimes alongside very real hauntings as in THE HORSE OF THE INVISIBLE - and at least one case with no supernatural elements, THE FIND, is given a very clever solution, one that Holmes or Dupin would have been proud of. In most of the other stories, he draws on the ancient lore contained in the 'Sigsand manuscript' to construct such cyberpunkish devices to fight supernatural forces as the electric pentacle and a strange device that uses coloured lights to both draw and repel spirits. His devices, and the fiendishness of the horrors he faces were growing from story to story. Had Hodgson's career not been untimely curtailed (he died in the first world war) one senses that this series that would have grown to greater strengths.

Which is not to say they're easy stories to read; Hodgson's prose is passable at best, frequently dense and hard to follow, marred with intrusive conversational turns of phrase (Carnacki is narrating these stories to a group of friends, a framing device that counts for little purpose, it seems, other than to give Carnacki anudiene to whom he can expound a bit on his supernatural theories in the last few stories). His esoteric nomenclature is risible at times ('Saaitii', for instance) and the cod-archaic quotations from the Sigsand manuscript can grate as well.

Despite all this, Hodgson's imagination is truly original and macabre, and if you take the time to read these stories - as I did after an initial discomfort with Hodgson's prose - they have many dark delights to offer the horror fan. Here as a sample is some very effective imagery from THE SEARCHER OF THE END HOUSE:


"From then, until two o'clock, nothing happened; but a little after two, as I found by holding my watch near to the faint glow of the closed lanterns, I had a time of quite extraordinary nervousness; and I bent towards the landlord, and whispered to him that I had a queer feeling that something was about to happen, and to be ready with his lantern; at the same time I reached out towards mine. In the very instant I made this movement, the darkness which filled the passage seemed to become suddenly of a dull violet colour; not, as if a light had been shone; but as if the natural blackness of the night had changed colour. And then, coming through this violet night, through this violet-coloured gloom, came a little naked Child, running. In an extraordinary way, the Child seemed not to be distinct from the surrounding gloom; but almost as if it were a concentration of that extraordinary atmosphere; as if that gloomy colour which had changed the night, came from the child. It seems impossible to make clear to you; but try to understand it.
"The Child went past me, running, with the natural movement of the legs of a chubby human child, but in an absolute and inconceivable silence. It was a very small Child, and must have passed under the table; but I saw the Child through the table, as if it had been only a slightly darker shadow than the coloured gloom. In the same instant, I saw that a fluctuating shimmer of violet light outlined the metal of the gun-barrels and the blade of the sword-bayonet, making them seem like faint shapes of glimmering light, floating unsupported where the table-top should have shown solid.

This site contains the texts of the stories, with the illustrations that accompanied them in the pages of The Idler.

Friday, 6 November 2009

MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS by John Langan

This is John Langan's first short story collection (by now he also has a debut novel out). It contains 4 short stories of varying lengths and one previously unpublished novella.

Langan has an excellent prose style and a great grasp of atmosphere and character. However, he often stumbles when it comes to introducing the element of the horrific into his stories. The most effective story here, 'On Skua Island' nods to Henry James' 'The Turn Of The Screw' in its structure, and for the most part Langan's tale, strong on atmosphere, pacing and character, is worthy of its model. The horrific element is presented in a manner reminiscent of that other James, Montague Rhodes, with a wealth of archaeological detail. It's the actual eruption of the numinous into the story that broke with all this subtlety and restraint. Stepping swiftly into Robert E. Howard mode (an association that was immediately suggested to me while reading this story and confirmed in the author's Story Notes), the end of the story plays itself out in a rush of mad action, an uncomfortable shift of gears that still holds up because of the strong narrative voice and sense of place.

The next story, 'Mr. Gaunt', manages that shift a lot less smoothly. Henry James is alluded to more explicitly as the point of view character's dead father, a James scholar, narrates a message from beyond the grave, via a tape recording made shortly before his demise. Again, tone of voice, characterisation and atmosphere are rich and satisfying. Mr. Gaunt was the dead father's brother's butler - a very creepy man who apparently did something very terrible. The dead man has framed this family secret in a sort of fable that he used to tell his son as a cautionary tale. Fragments of this tale are told to us through the story, helping to build a wonderful sense of suspense. This time though, I felt incredulous when all this subtly sustained suspense culminates in a scene from a pulp horror tale, almost laughable in its hokey trappings. The author avers that the real climax of the story is a little further along,and there is a scene of subtle, effective unease a page or two later, but the damage has been done. Langan has failed to learn one of the most important lessons a horror writer can learn from the ghostly tales of both Jameses: a little suggestion and a lot of atmosphere can go a longer way than explicit descriptions, especially since your phobia might be someone else's laughable cliche.

The collection goes further downhill with the next tale, the execrable 'Tutorial', which attempts to parlay a fledgling horror writer's frustration at having his choice of genre mocked and his stylistic choices greeted with an injunction to study Strunk & White. It's nothing more than a temper tantrum at not being loved by everyone, and the typical rapid descent from intriguing suggestion to disappointing explicitness doesn't help this tale any.

By now, I was predisposed to dislike 'Episode Seven', a cliched post-apocalyptic chase sequence with its only notable feature seeming to be an interesting if ultimately pointless formal experiment. However, this story did redeem itself by eventually finding the ultimate source of it's horror not in the ravening, wolflike pack that has somehow taken over the world, or the large purple flowers that are sprouting everywhere (I told you Langan had a fatal fondness for hokey plot elements) but in the focus character's companion, who seems to be becoming something other than human in order to survive. What exactly he is becoming, and whether it is something real, symbolic or just imagined by his traumatised companion is never made clear. I think that ambiguity is why this tale succeeds in the end.

The concluding novella, 'Laocoon, or the singularity' is a somewhat brilliant character study of a man who has failed to fulfill his artistic potential and is watching his family and his life spin out of his control. It is overlaid with a bizarre element that serves to focus and bring out his disintegration, but the end is rather predictable. Langan's incorporation of modern pop cultural elements like comic books and science fiction stories in the last couple of stories make an interesting contrast to the antiquarian tendencies of the first two, but I am not particularly impressed by the manner in which they are handled. They seem to reduce the tales to the sort of referential characterisation you get in web comics or tv shows targeted at hipsters.

In conclusion, a collection that shows more promise than brilliance. The quality of Langan's literary style and his grasp of character and atmosphere make me expect more from him than these tawdry horror-theme-park trappings.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


I've been reading the Robert E Howard collection THE HAUNTER OF THE RING AND OTHER TALES, and it's an interesting experience. This is the first time I've read a bunch of his horror stories collected in one place. It is arranged chronologically and I find myself most drawn to the early stories, where REH is toying about with his reincarnation theme and trying on horror archetypes like the vampire tale (transplanted very nicely to America), the werewolf tale, and the purely psychological tale of terror. When he attempts to write a Lovecraftian tale, he is obviously out of his element; he does a game job of it, but REH's mode of plot advancement is very different from HPL's. Some of his best stuff is what people call the Haunted Midwest material, and there are some excellent later stories shorn of Mythos influences, but I feel the damage had been done and the raw energy and wonder (horror is just a darker version of wonder, after all) of the earliest tales is never regained. This collection includes a selection of REH's Steve Harrison tales, which feel out of place being action-mystery stories without supernatural elements. Some of these pile on the violence to an extent that should not be surprising to me, but still feel more like a shortcut to writing a story in a genre REH was not comfortable with than the glorious celebration of barbarianism in the Conan stories (not that I share REH's penchant for primal brutality; but when he wrote in that vein in a Conan or Kull tale it seems of a piece with the character and setting).