Sunday, March 17, 2019

Not Five of My Favorite Horror Books

A few weeks ago in a post entitled simply "Horror," Howard Andrew Jones asked what's the pleasure derived from the genre. Here's part of what I wrote in response:

   Pleasure might not be the right word, but I do enjoy the chills I get from a good horror tale. Some of us just like being scared, though perhaps only because we know it’s not real. I don’t want to experience real fear, but I do like a good fright or extended moment of haunting spookiness. Even the best horror isn’t fundamentally different from a jump scare. The trick someone like M.R. James or Laird Barron pulls off is fooling you long and well enough in to believing it’s something more than just a man in a mask screaming “Boo!”
   I’m also pulled in (and impressed) by the ability of good horror to make me feel uneasy and, if only for the length of a book, to believe in something I don’t – i.e. spooks and monsters.

We, at least I, want the frisson we get from being alone in the dark thinking something's lurking behind us. There's probably a neurochemical basis for enjoying the sensation of being scared. Jumping in my seat when Michael Myers emerged from the shadows or when Jack Torrance started swinging the roque mallet released something in me that was practically addictive. Call it chills or shivers, whatever you want, great horror produces a tangible effect on me that is oddly enjoyable.

What I don't want is the stomach-churn from torture porn like Cannibal Ferox or The Bighead. They're sadism marketed as entertainment and I don't have a taste for it. It's one thing to get some momentary thrill from non-existent ghosts, it's another to find thrills from humans torturing and murdering other humans, a thing that happens all the time in real life. Disagree if you must, but this sort of horror's not a hell of a lot better than the old car crash version of the National Enquirer. 

But enough pontificating, let's get to the books.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The Haunting of Hill House's opening paragraph is one of the most memorable and disturbing. We are presented with a house that looks normal, its walls plumb and doors hanging properly, but in its soul it's mad. The story that unfolds revolves around a question of sanity: is it the house or poor Eleanor Vance that is insane.

Without a doubt, this is my favorite haunted house book. Eleanor Vance joins an expedition to the infamous Hill House led by parapsychic researcher Dr. Montague. Inspired by the Society for Psychical Research's investigation of the Borley Rectory and other such studies, Jackson's story brings a disparate group of characters together to investigate the supposedly haunted mansion under scientific guidelines. It's something other books and movies have done since, but none with as much beautiful darkness and atmosphere. 

The first film of the book, The Haunting (1963) is the best haunted house movie, while the second, also called The Haunting (1999), is one of the worst. The first captures the unsettling atmosphere of the Jackson's novel while the second is overblown and features misplaced and extravagant special effects. The recent Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House (2018) is inspired by the book but is not really based on it. It is, however, close to being very good.

The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

And in the bug, which moved upward more surely on the gentler grade, he kept looking out between them as the road unwound, affording occasional glimpses of the Overlook Hotel, its massive bank of westward-looking windows reflecting back the sun. It was the place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and booming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted with jungle. The place Tony had warned him against. It was here. It was here. Whatever Redrum was, it was here.

The first of the Overlook Hotel, the dark heart of The Shining is from the perspective of five-year old Danny Torrance. For those unaware of the book's basic setup, Jack Torrance, a recovered alcoholic with rage issue, is hired to be the winter caretaker for the hotel, a giant edifice located up in the Colorado Rockies. The place has a bad history (a previous caretaker took an axe to his family before killing himself most notably), but Jack needs the job and is hoping to use the isolation to help him get his novel done.

There's a lot less of the subtle atmospherics of Jackson's book, with King going for more in-your-face violence. Still, it works well at making you believe the Overlook is infested with haunts and foul secrets. I like a lot of King's books, but few still affect me as well as this one, It can still give me shivers reading it late at night with the lights turned low. Jack's fall into madness is also a lot more moving to me past middle-age then when I was a teenager.

I've read a lot of Stephen King's books and this one still strikes me as the most successful and the closest he's come to perfection. Right after the success of this book it's as if he never got edited again. The Stand and It are beloved by millions, but I see them as bloated and soggy. There isn't a wasted or extra word in The Shining. As good as many of his later novels are, very few of them are as tightly plotted and written as this one.

If you've seen Stanley Kubrick's 1980 movie, the book might come as a bit of a shock to you. The novel's Torrance senior isn't Jack Nicholson's twitchy, mad-from-the-get-go dry drunk. He's a man who has crawled up from a pit of rage and booze and is fighting hard to stay sober but he's sane, not nuts from the start like Nicholson's portrayal. I don't like the movie, first, as a fan of the book I disliked its lack of textual fidelity, and, secondly, I find Nicholson's performance overwrought and ultimately boring. There's no suspense, just a lunatic waiting for his moment to cut loose.

As much as I dislike Kubrick's movie, King seems to have disliked it even more. In 1997, he personally oversaw the production of a mini-series starring Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. It's as bad as it is faithful to the book, which a whole lot.

Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub

What was the worst thing you've ever done? 
I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me ... the most dreadful thing ...

Decades ago, four old men did something awful. Now that sin has come calling for them. While it reads closer to the modern horror of his friend, Stephen King, Straub drew on the classic ghost stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and M.R. James - to the point he gave two of his main characters their last names. Before starting the novel, he reread much of the classic supernatural tales, from Poe through Lovecraft.

Ghost Story is part of the mass market horror explosion of the seventies and early eighties. In the wake of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), Thomas Tryon's The Other (1971), William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971), horror became a mainstream, marketable genre. Stephen King was the author who made it a monster. With Ghost Story, his third horror novel, it looked as if Straub would join King at the top of the world. Though he did become very successful, he never entered the public consciousness with anything like the ferocity and implacability of King.

Straub never scaled the same popular heights as King. His work is more consciously literary and he kept his production down to human limits. I'm not saying he's better than King, just different and less obviously commercial. I've only read six of Straub's novels versus over twenty of King's.

A lot of King's success is attributable to his deep affection for and engagement with pop culture. His stories are incredibly accessible - that's explicitly not an insult - whereas Straub's a less so. King doesn't occupy the same cultural space he did thirty years ago, but there was a time when everybody I knew had read at two or three books by King.

It's been a decade or more since I've read Ghost Story but it remains a potent part of my mental gallery of horror. Largely a story about telling stories, this is a significant work that seems more forgotten than it should be.

Presumably based on the success of Kubrick's The Shining, Hollywood threw a ton of money and talent at John Irvin's film, Ghost Story (1981). Starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, I was pretty jazzed to see it when it came out. Unfortunately, it's not good. Aside from ditching much of the book, it looks like a tv-movie. I may not like Kubrick's movie, but it's still important and worth a view, Irvin's isn't.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (2013) by Laird Barron

That buffalo charges across the eternal prairie, mad black eye rolling at the photographer. The photographer is Old Scratch's left hand man. Every few seconds the buffalo rumbles past the same tussock, the same tumbleweed, the same bleached skull of its brother or sister. That poor buffalo is Sisyphus without the stone, without the hill, without a larger sense of futility. The beast's hooves are worn to bone. Blood foams at its muzzle. The dumb brute doesn't understand where we are.

But I do.
-CP, Nov. 1925
from "Hand of Glory"

I bought this book, Barron's third collection of stories, for a $1.99 from Amazon. I only learned of it and Laird Barron at all from a post on Black Gate. I will be forever grateful for that post. Rooted in Algernon Blackwood, HPL, and other forebears of the genre, Barron is not only one of the best horror writers today, but he might be one of the best ever.

It's almost insulting to call the stories in this collection Lovecraftian. Yes, there's an original mythos that serves as connective tissue to stories that take place from the early twentieth century to its end. Yes, these are tales of cosmic horror where people learn the things they weren't meant to know. And yes, set largely in the Pacific Northwest, they have the same deep sense of place and history as the old gentleman from Providence's (his portrayal of Washington state's forests left me so unsettled, I found myself getting spooked hiking through Staten Island's paltry woods one dusk). Don't let any of that fool you or discourage you. Barron's stories may not be sui generis, but he writes in his own voice, giving a face to horrors in a new and potent way.

As much as Barron's concerned with the sort of existential dread that HPL was, he's got an equally deep concern for character. Men and women, straight and gay, old and young, Barron subjects all sorts of victims to the horrors of the void and plunges us into their psyches with a surgeon's precision. Character, especially the flaws and fault lines in there souls, are almost as much the focus of his work as the horrors.

I couldn't find the exact line, but there's one in the story "Hallucigenia" in his earlier collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, which made me despair of ever trying to write fiction. In addition to be a superlative spinner of dark tales, he's writer of tremendous gifts (though, I'm finding myself a little disappointed with his newest collection, Swift to Chase (2016)). I don't love every story in A Beautiful Thing, but there's not one that isn't masterfully written and that will not leave dark designs carved in your brain.

The Dunwich Horror and Others by HP Lovecraft (1963)

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
from "The Call of Cthulhu"

After Poe, Lovecraft is the first named horror writer I read. By which I mean, though I'd read some children's spooky stories collections, it was Poe, followed by Lovecraft, whom I knew by name and deliberately sought out.
The first HPL story I read was "The Festival." I was ten, almost eleven, and read it out loud to for me and my friend who staying over. It was the night of the great black out of 1977. While it isn't particularly scary, it managed to creep the two of us out. It was spooky enough that I quickly set out tracking down the rest of his stories. I've been a fan ever since.

It's a minor story of Lovecraft's, but it's a good introduction to the thick, almost dreamlike style of much of his work and his fictional universe, where strange, ancient goings-on transpire behind the scenes of legend-haunted New England towns.

This book contains the most essential of HPL's catalogue. Culled from almost twenty years of his writing, they span from his early pulp tales to the great cosmic horror tales his reputation rests on. If this is all you ever read by him, it'll be enough. 

In the Vault • (1925)
Pickman's Model • (1927)
The Rats in the Walls • (1924)
The Outsider • (1926)
The Colour Out of Space • (1927)
The Music of Erich Zann • (1922) 
The Haunter of the Dark • (1936) 
The Picture in the House • (1919)
The Call of Cthulhu • (1928) 
The Dunwich Horror • (1929) 
Cool Air • (1928) 
The Whisperer in Darkness • (1931) 
The Terrible Old Man • (1921) 
The Thing on the Doorstep • (1937) 
The Shadow Over Innsmouth • (1936) 
The Shadow Out of Time • (1936) 

Any self-respecting horror reader owes it to him or herself to have all four original Arkham House HPL collections on the shelf - The Dunwich Horror and Others, At the Mountains of Madness, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions. While I'm glad I have the revised editions done by ST Joshi, I sure wish I had the ones with the original covers by Lee Brown Coye and Gahan Wilson. Whatever, I have a full, hardcover set that I actually bought in Providence, so who am I to complain?