Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Reads

Off Season by Jack Ketchum
Flesh Gothic by Edward Lee
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Light at the End by John Skipp and Craig Spector
Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite
They Thirst by Robert McCammon

Though I had previously only read Straub's Ghost Story, I hold the author in high esteem; from his deceptively sophisticated prose to his baroque structure, Straub was probably dealt a bad hand in being thrown together with King and his ilk. Though, I wonder if the horror boom of the 80s provided Straub with both a blessing and a curse: blessed to be published so widely, cursed to stay in the horror genre for all time. Floating Dragon feels more like an over-the-top Stephen King 80s horror paperback, more in line with the 80s boom than the quiet unease of the superior Ghost Story. Likewise, Floating Dragon suffers from the bloat wrought by King. What should have been 400 pages balloons up to 600, even if it never drags, the novel should have been cut judiciously. The joy of reading this novel comes from the classic "small town figures (sometimes comical) meet their doom in gruesome and horrifying ways" which figures into many novels of this era (Salem's Lot being the best example). Straub devises uniquely devious methods for dispatching his cast, using a cornucopia of descriptors. One of my favourite moments of authorial murder comes at the hand of an obsequious old lady who literally screams herself to death (at the sight of the antagonist and something it's carrying). In other words, the death scenes, like the best horror media, are exquisite.

However, Straub's novel isn't simply a sequence of chiaroscuro Grande Guignol scenes of violence and murder. Using an unreliable narrator and a shifting timeframe, Floating Dragon mines historiographical themes. Like many works of horror in the classic mode, the past is mobilized against the present, with history being literalized as a ghost. What is history but a spectre that haunts us? Straub, thankfully, is more ambitious than the rest of the pack. Straub remembers sagely that the past isn't some objective concrete constant, but instead, like a game of Pick-Up Sticks, a jumble of lines piled on the ground, some purposefully placed while others more haphazardly. These lines stretching backwards intersect, run parallel, but all have power in their direction. Controlling the narrative of the past means controlling the narrative of the present. Straub plays in this space using the aforementioned unreliable narrator and some self-reflexivity in the narration. In other words, the seeds of his play with metafiction that began in Ghost Story continue here (reaching apotheosis in The Blue Rose Trilogy, I'm informed). At no point was I distracted or irritated by the metafiction as it was threaded through the novel's thematics. What is history but the self-reflection of those in power?

Floating Dragon, allegedly a send-off to the genre of horror, was extremely entertaining and a rare 80s horror boom paperback that aged with dignity.

Flesh Gothic was absurd. Imagine if the Clive Barker of the 80s maintained his juvenile interests, abandoned his poetic prose, his interests in the social fabric, and had nothing to say but lurid descriptions of the female form: thus born was Edward Lee's grim but readable novel Flesh Gothic. I certainly didn't hate this book; I read it in two or three sittings; but I certainly didn't like the novel—I tolerated it. The structure was similar to Jackson's impeccable The Haunting of Hill House but there the favourable comparisons end. I never really had a grasp on what Lee was trying to say or even do with the classic haunted house trappings. My suspicions are that Lee had ideas of shocking with transgression, but as a jaded consumer of horror and transgression, his attempts never raised my hackles. Still, he has a talent for imagery, even if that imagery is trite and borrowed from greater minds (eg Barker); many times the protagonists dream or astral-project into a room made entirely of breathing, sweating, gasping flesh—one wall features a mouth lasciviously whispering to anybody who will listen. 

Off Season intrigued me as fare such as The Hateful Eight and Green Room do: how, as a writer, do you maintain the single setting and how do you work your characters through the fire without boring the audience or resorting to cheap tricks. I knew going in that Ketchum wouldn't bother with the classic structure of slowly building tension. He introduces the clash between the two groups of protagonists and antagonists (respectively) at the halfway point and then follows through in minute and gory detail. I've read and seen some hardcore shit in my time as a reader of horror and Ketchum might be in the upper echelons of hardcore. It's not so much the clichéd threat of sexual violence (though I hear that's the bulk of his other lauded novel The Girl Next Door) but the sheer savagery of the physical violence he wreaks on his tiny cast. I was reminded a lot of (the superior) Green Room which wrought much violence upon its meagre troupe. The major difference is Green Room attempts characterization. Off Season has no interest in understanding its cannibals; the novel wants to revel in the nihilism of the situation, as the author himself gushes in the victory lap afterword. I was impressed by the ferocity of the novel, but Off Season doesn't have much to say other than "the universe is a cold bitch." I can get brutality anywhere. I want the brutality to at least mean something.

I really struggled with Heuvelt's much celebrated English début Hex. Boasting a spectacular premise, the novel at least distinguishes itself from the rest of 2010s horror by sheer uniqueness. The set-up: this small almost rural town has been cursed by a witch who still haunts them, but their ancestors have managed to chain the witch and sew her eyes and mouth shut, limiting her to wandering the town hoping somebody will free her. The town erects a sophisticated panopticon of surveillance using apps and cameras to track her movements to hide her presence from the outside world. Some teens begin messing with the witch, and then the novel starts its inexorable descent into the chaos and terror which characterize horror literature. Hex is working with some complex themes: the town's citizens must voluntarily submit to indoctrination into the rules and limits of this witch's power.  To disregard the power of the town (the State) is to submit to further indoctrination (imprisonment and conditioning) or in the case of a more dangerous violation, public flogging and/or execution. Similarly, the State empowers the citizens to watch each other on the pretence of surveilling the witch (the State furnishes free iPhones, all of which are programmed with key loggers). A cursory glance at the surface of the novel will reveal an interest in the much-trod territory of "we were the real monsters after all!", the kind well explored by Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and Stephen King's Needful Things among others. I'm not spoiling anything by revealing the town descends into self-inflicted chaos at the barest hint of the witch's true power. 

Where the novel loses me is in the aesthetics. I don't read horror fiction for superior prose, but it's always pleasant to stumble across a writer who can actually construct a pleasant assemblage of sounds and syllables. Heuvelt, or his translator, has the dullest ear for prose. Perhaps not as clunky as Dan Brown, Hex waddles corpulently with dull meandering sentences, none of which ever linger in the memory after the next sentence. This might sound harsh, but the prose and dialogue—oh god the dialogue—truly distract from Hex's very purposeful and intriguing project. On the same tack, the last third of the novel is tedious as all hell; the ending slots itself into place, forcing the reader to trudge through sub-Barker descriptions of horror and destruction before getting to where the reader has already divined the plot will go. Hex should have been 250 pages—maximum. In its current state, it's average in execution but superior in the abstract. If only the author's mechanical skills could have matched his brilliance in devising such a situation.

Horror critic S.l. Bagley (previously mentioned) posted on Facebook he had completed an interview with John Skipp. Coincidentally, this was posted the same day I had completed The Light at the End. I commented so, mentioned I thought it was supremely entertaining, save for the era's homophobia, and Skipp "liked" my comment. I wish he had responded to my mild rebuke so I could ask more questions: was it really a product of the time (New York in the 80s) or was there something happening Skipp might be more aware of now, with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom? Alas, he did not respond, leaving me to wonder why such a fun novel written in the "splatterpunk" mode was so casually homophobic (something Bagley warned me about before I had started reading it). I still think The Light at the End is entertaining; we can like problematic things after all.

I wrote of their later collaboration Animals: "I hadn't expected the narrative to care so much about its own characters." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of this earlier work. Where Animals was a smaller character piece, The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast, all of whom are sketched in the most amateur of ways. The characters never really ascend from the page into the realm of the living. This could be an effect of either disinterest on the writers' part in their own characters or a mechanical inability to do so, something they would improve on with subsequent works. Still, horror literature still functions with cardboard characters and certainly The Light at the End still fascinates and entertains.

I was reminded a lot of Samuel R. Delany's Times Square Red Times Square Blue while reading Skipp and Spector's vampire novel. In his memoir, Delany posits the decay and filth of New York City helped create a vibrant and complex queer subculture (being out of sight allowed for its development) which was then criminalized and destroyed by gentrification. The Light at the End comes close to the beginning of gentrification: New York City is still an apocalyptic teeming metropolis, hungry and brutal, feeding on the weak (ie the poor and marginalized). Where Delany gestures towards white supremacy and heteronormativity as the culprits and beneficiaries of the demise of Times Square as a queer space, Skipp and Spector leave a glaring hole in their version of NYC's nastiness: the figure of power benefiting from the chaos is physically absent from the space (though psychically linked) and is never really shown to be an integral part of the narrative beyond its position as primum movens. Politically speaking, then, Skipp and Spector create a world in which a rich dude catalyses intra-community violence among the poor and marginalized, though this conclusion isn't forceful or coherent enough to be a pointed political critique.

What The Light at the End lacks in cogent opprobrium, it attempts to make up in pure attitude. Perhaps because I'm so temporally distant from the original splatterpunk, and mired in a cultural logic inspired by those brats, but the "punk" of Skipp and Spector didn't particularly impress me. Over at Too Much Horror Fiction, Will Errickson writes: "This is the kind of novel that wants to impress you with its attitude, casual and swaggering, and it might work if you were a teenager (like me) when you first read it." The novel expresses an interest in less famous folks such as bike messengers, cinephile nerds, and "gothy streetwise ladies" versus the typical patrician protagonist labourers of cops, doctors, lawyers, politicians etc. This might have been novel in 1986, but thirty years later, I wasn't stirred or roused beyond the usual frisson I feel reading horror. This isn't a slight against Skipp and Spector's efforts; instead, my lack of enthusiasm for the attitude speaks to their lasting influence to the point where I can be underwhelmed by the progenitors.

Speaking of marginalized folks, we have Drawing Blood by Poppy Z Brite (now Billy Martin). I wanted to like this, thought the prologue was stupendous, but the writing, the characters, even the mode of horror (a cyberspace chase? really???) were all so painfully earnest and 90s. Horror really struggled in the 90s and here's the perfect example of why: everything feels too blunted and forced in its attempt at disengaging with the popular mode that characterized the boom of the 80s. There's also the uncomfortable fact that while Brite may not have been aping Rice, Drawing Blood slots in perfectly into the "fetishizing gay white men for female consumption" that permeated the 90s and persists in fanfiction today. The two lead protagonists, while well drawn, felt like somebody's memory of what the 90s were like: painfully thin, pale, tight low rise pants, quirky affectations, and a boringly casual relationship to drugs. I loathe reading scenes of characters doing hallucinogenics and this novel had the most boring "tripping" scene I've read in a long time.

There's so much to like about the novel though: Brite's insatiable interest in the margins of society, both the characters and the literal limits of society; his eye for detail is exquisite, especially place (his New Orleans felt more real to me than any other depiction I'd ever read); the sheer inclusivity of the novel (nobody in the circle bats an eye; an old man thought to be homophobic and mean turns out to be wistful for when he had a queer romance). Plus, the prose was always a delight to read. I wouldn't mind reading more of his later work, but the subjects of those novels fail to spark my interest.

Like Errickson over at Too Much Horror Fiction, this blog has a strained relationship with Robert McCammon. I read Speaks the Nightbird (please don't read those reviews; my writing was awful) and his paean to the apocalypse Swan Song both eons ago. McCammon's horror has a severe problem: he's too much indebted to Stephen King. This could either be a product of the constraints of the 80s horror market or it could be the limits of McCammon's talents. I never bothered reviewing Swan Song but I remember it being pretty average and while I enjoyed Speaks the Nightbird, it's in a vein decidedly different than his earlier, career-defining work. Neither of them filled me with the unstoppable urge to continue reading his work. But that's not to say I didn't enjoy my time with McCammon.

I gobbled They Thirst over a few days, all the while, wondering what I would read next. I found myself in this zone of both enjoyment and impatience. On a sentence by sentence level, McCammon is satisfactory, finding elegant turns of phrase and gripping description. His characters have a semblance of life to them. Overall, the mechanics are there. They Thirst boasts some of my favourite tropes in horror fiction: the town disparately organizing themselves against an evil, Los Angeles, foreboding castles looming over urban locales, people dying in gruesome and interesting ways. There's even a fantastic long setpiece using a brutal supernatural sandstorm that shears skin off those unlucky enough to find themselves without shelter. On the other hand, McCammon does too much, stretching a 350-400 page novel to 565 pages: there are too many characters, too much setup, too much annoying doubt on the part of the cast. Though an admirable attempt at verisimilitude, having characters refuse to believe in the existence of vampires for so long is exhausting and distracting.

Likewise, as with Swan Song, the presence of King looms far greater than any castle could in this novel. They Thirst is a long mash-up of the vastly superior 'Salem's Lot and The Stand. Characters pulled from either book are thrown together to a changed setting of California, but without any sense of place. Part of what makes Los Angeles such an intriguing setting for fiction is the city's character; LA is unlike any other city on the planet. But They Thirst opts to plunk down these purloined characters in the city of angels without finding that sense of place. At least with King, his fictional towns of Castle Rock and Derry felt damn compelling because of his commitment to understanding the character of the place.

Yet, for all my complaints, I still read the book in a few days. It's entertaining, gory in the ways I like, and hums like a machine. Though McCammon may not set himself apart from the pack enough, he understands how narrative works. There's not a hair out of place in this maintained coif of fiction.

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