Nearly sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, a concerted effort has been made to re-discover and re-claim the legacy of the first ever science fiction author to receive a MacArthur fellowship.
It is not hard to see why this would happen… Though widely-respected and a winner of various awards during her lifetime, Butler’s name has started to fade from view for the simple reason that she was never one of the four or five (predominantly white and male) authors whose continued sales keep the lights on for genre publishing. The institutions of SFF publishing are barely interested in live mid-list authors, so why would they give a shit about dead ones? Especially when the dead mid-list authors in question write books as difficult, problematic and profoundly unfashionable as Fledgling.
Given that I didn’t think that much of The Twisted Ones, I was surprised to find myself reading T. Kingfisher’s second horror novel The Hollow Places.
Perhaps I am growing generous in my old age but I did quite enjoy some of that book’s characterisation and while I felt that Kingfisher lacked the stomach to engage the book’s darker themes and images, I was at least impressed by her ability to locate these themes in the first place. Sadly, The Hollow Places is not an improvement on The Twisted Ones as while the worse bits of that novel are (thankfully) not replicated in this one, this relative easing of the reader’s burdens comes at the expense of much of what made The Twisted Ones interesting. Like islands on the Danube, my interest in this author’s output has now slipped beneath the waves.
Much of what passes for social justice is actually nothing more than the effects of the market. This is quite evident in the realm of representation where calls for greater inclusivity inevitably come with unspoken caveats about the kinds of stories and the kinds of sensibilities that people want to see represented.
Indeed, people will get worked-up about gay kisses and non-white faces in Marvel movies but they would never take it upon themselves to seek out the work of non-white LGBT writers and directors. People will spend years obsessing over sexually ambiguous glances between characters played by straight male actors but they would rather shit themselves in public than sit through a film by someone like Lino Brocka.
I say this not to ‘gate-keep’ concerns over queer representation but to stress that while people may be interested in stories about gay characters, they are only interested in certain kinds of stories told about certain kinds of gay characters in certain kinds of ways. Indeed, stories about gay men told by straight men and women are going to be very different to stories about gay men told by gay men. The ideas that straight women have about gay men are likely to be far more palatable to straight women than the ideas of gay men about themselves. This is why straight men watch girl-on-girl porn but might not watch the films of Lisa Cholodenko. This is why straight women will spend hours reading Yaoi and BL comics but will not necessarily think to seek out the novels of Christopher Isherwood.
While we all like what we like and there’s no accounting for taste, it is interesting to think about the differences between the representation of people and events and the different sensibilities that can inform that representation. Where do those sensibilities come from?
Jose Luis Zarate’s The Route of Ice and Salt is a Mexican novella set aboard the ship that transported Dracula to Whitby in Bram Stoker’s original novel. It is about yearning, loss, and the predatory nature of the male gaze.
While it is interesting that people feel the need to explain the continued popularity of horror, my favourite account is that people choose to subject themselves to scary things as a form of vaccination. The idea being that you watch a horror film or read a horror story because that way you experience a little bit of negative emotion in what are otherwise perfectly controlled conditions. That way, when you encounter things that are legitimately scary, your brain is less likely to get overwhelmed.
The neat thing about this theory is that it also accounts for the different levels of abstraction found in horror-based media. Scary monsters might make you jump, but at the end of the day they do not exist and even if they did exist they would not really change that much about the world. Under the above theory, scary monsters are ontologically distant from the real world and so much easier to process than something like a serial killer and a serial killer is a lot easier to process than a character like the next-door neighbour in Jack Ketchum’s The Woman Next Door. The closer we get to the real, the harder the horrors are to process and the scarier they become. This also goes some way towards explaining the continued popularity of cosmic horror as even if big rubbery monsters like Cthulhu don’t actually exist, you still have to deal with the possibility that the universe is an inscrutable well of pitch-black suffering that is utterly indifferent to our existence.
Originally published in Dutch but re-published in English in 2016, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex is one kind of horror novel masquerading as another: The title and cover suggest that this is a novel about a witch but maybe that’s not what should be scaring us.
A little while ago, someone who knows of the disdain in which I hold Fantasy novels recommended that I check out The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman. The book, I must say, did not convert me to reading Fantasy but I did finish it because while I found the plot under-cooked and the characters somewhat generic, I loved the writing and the imagery. A couple of months later, I happened upon an amiable haircut with a YouTube channel who spoke in glowing terms of Those Across the River and while I didn’t necessarily trust the recommendation, the plot synopsis combined with my respect for Buehlman’s sentence-by-sentence writing were enough for me to give him another chance, and I am very glad that I did.
Stories about haunted houses tend to fall into two broad approaches:
Firstly, there are the stories that are all about the haunting and which use their characters as viewpoints through which to explore the haunting and victims through whom the haunting’s destructive power can be felt. This style of story is quite popular in horror films but it also forms the backbone of the occult detective and paranormal investigation sub-genres where the tendency is always to show the audience something frightening and then let that horror blossom through a process of rational contextualisation whereby the spooky thing in the old house becomes a horrific truth about the world.
Secondly, there are stories where the focus is on the human characters rather than the haunting itself. In this style of story, the haunting is not required to make sense as the point of the exercise is to show you a human mind imploding under unimaginable pressure. In some ways, having a haunting not make sense only adds to its power because the characters’ inability to see the edges of the haunting only serves to make it harder to endure.
I refer to these groups as approaches because a lot of great works move between the two. For example, Ghostwatch shuffles back and forth between the approaches, hinting at hidden lore before focusing on the little girl and then moving back to the lore as the true nature of the horror is revealed. Similarly, The Exorcist presents itself as a lore-filled possession story but in reality the power of the film owes less to Catholic myth than it does to the film’s interest in the experience of the little girl and the relationship she has with her mother. Naturally, there are great examples from either form and many of the best works do employ elements of both approaches but the hauntings that stay with me tend to be of the more psychological variety. For me, the greatest ghost story of all time remains The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a novel in which the exact shape and source of the horror are a lot more vague than the beautifully-drawn portrait of a vulnerable woman descending into outright madness.
While any comparison to Hill House is going to be unflattering, Cassandra Khaw’s novella Nothing but Blackened Teeth is clearly a story that is more interested in the haunted than the haunting. More’s the pity then that the story’s human elements never quite snap into focus.
This book will come to be seen as a foundational work of 21st Century literary horror.
Past reviews have found me musing somewhat on the economics of genre publishing and how the industry flooded the markets with so much shit that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to put literary horror back on a sustainable artistic footing.
While the genre is in better shape now than it has been for many years, this is not the first time that people have tried to rekindle mainstream interest in scary novels. However, because the publishing industry is full of bowtie-wearing imbeciles, the preferred method for rekindling interest in literary horror has long been to compare people to Stephen King.
I have always viewed this as somewhat unfair as Stephen King’s biggest successes were back in the 1970s and not many people compare well to the dude who wrote The Shining. I mean… The Duma Key is not a bad novel but the guy who wrote it is no Stephen King. Indeed, the last person I saw being compared to Stephen King for publicity purposes was Ian Nevill and while I have read and re-read The Ritual more than almost any book in the last ten years, he’s no Stephen King let alone a Stephen King.
Nowadays, the author who appears to be collecting the most comparisons to Stephen King is Stephen Graham Jones and, for once, those comparisons feels entirely justified. In fact… if horror is due for a return to mainstream success then let this work be the tip of the spear and the yardstick by which all other works are judged because this novel fucks on every conceivable level.
Contrapoints once observed that the alt-right told on themselves when they adopted the term ‘cuck’ as their favoured insult.
What that choice revealed was a deep well-spring of insecurity. A lot has been said and written about the darker corners of the internet and how lonely, isolated men wind up stumbling into some weird, distasteful, and generally misguided ideas about women. For some, women are puzzles to be solved using a variety of techniques. For others, women are sadistic tyrants with standards so astronomically high that most men have no hope of ever finding love. Regardless of which variety of online misogyny you stumble into, they all share an understanding of women as territory that needs to be conquered and held. If this is how you see women then it follows that there is nothing more depraved and debased than a man who would willingly allow another man to have sex with ‘his’ woman.
The decision to place cuckolds in the lowest level of rhetorical hell speaks of sexual insecurity: A fear that your weaknesses (both physical and psychological) might translate into an inability to pleasure and hold onto a female partner and an even deeper fear that you might actually enjoy seeing your lover reach a level of pleasure and fulfilment that you could never hope to provide. The alt-right spit the word ‘cuck’ at each other as a way of warding off their own demons as well as their own hidden desires.
While the dark corners of the internet may encourage and amplify these fears beyond the point where they erupt in violence, fear of sexual inadequacy runs deep through all forms of toxic masculinity. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the package when you start to internalise those values and forms of self-perception. To be a man is to be fearful that one can never be man enough.
While I love a monster story as much as… well… the next man… my preferred forms of horror are more psychological and rooted in the day-to-day. All speculative fiction is born of asking what if a particular thing were true, or false, or more exaggerated but the best horror takes real fears and turns them into something more concrete and threatening. That desire to make unspoken fears real is what drives Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow.