Category: horror fiction

Halloween Greetings! (and some spooky books for scary times)

How do you like this rather macabre scene? It’s the work of Frederic W. Glasier, whose extraordinary photos of early 20th century circus performers have recently undergone something of a re-discovery.

Are you, dear reader, a fan of Halloween?  It’s a holiday I remember very fondly from my childhood.  Decked out in a cardboard witch’s hat (costumes were much less elaborate back in the day), I’d join one of the packs of neighborhood kids and spend a few glorious hours going door to door, free of adult supervision, with a candy bag getting heavier at each stop.  The nighttime wandering was followed by the wonderful, if competitive, ritual of examining and comparing our somewhat grubby spoils and making trades.  Did the kid next door get more chocolate than I did?  Could I persuade one of my little buddies to swap his M&Ms for my green jelly beans (generally the answer was “no”)?  Ah, the memories!  A lifetime away from the candy haul, I retain a vestigial fondness for this holiday. So, on Halloween night my lights are always on, the candy bowl by the door filled with primo goodies (no green jelly beans at my house) and the bell is always answered, even when the little goblins and space invaders interrupt a chapter in whatever exciting new book I happen to be reading.  In short, Janakay has always honored the season!

This year, however, I am totally not into it.  Partly it’s my personal circumstances, which have included a long distance move from this:

Can’t you just imagine a forest witch stepping out from those trees at twilight, on this very witchy night of the year?

to this:

Despite the menacing angle of Mr. Janakay’s photo, I can’t quite see a hobgoblin emerging from behind one of these palm trees unless it’s wearing a big smile and offering a mimosa! Halloween just doesn’t seem to fit this climate . . .

Primarily, however, the sparkle and playfulness I’ve always associated with Halloween are totally overshadowed this year by the horrors of an ugly and divisive election, civil unrest created by social injustice and a pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands. Who can attend to imaginary terrors, when the real things are so frighteningly close at hand?

A news photo of demonstrators; the masks are visible symbols of the terrible disease that’s claimed so many lives (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
One of many polling places near my new residence, thankfully minus the motorcades decorated with banners and flags that seem omnipresent these days (the unfamiliar names you see on some of the signs belong to candidates for such entities as county commission and the mosquito control board, which also appear to be rather hotly contested this election cycle)

But in the midst of chaos and civic unrest, we readers always have our books, don’t we? As I noted last year, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we humans love to scare ourselves, as well as by our individual differences in what we each find personally terrifying. I’ve always tended, for example, to favor tales of the occult and supernatural rather than the thriller/slasher brand of horror; more Shirley Jackson and less Freddy Krueger, if that makes sense. And, while I don’t read huge quantities of horror fiction, I have accumulated over the years a clutch of “weird tales,” to use a 1930s term. Although most of my books are still packed and awaiting a home on their new shelves, a quick rummage through what’s available disclosed:

A small but fairly representative sample of my horror fiction, which demonstrates just how versatile the horror genre can be. It includes classics (Sheridan Le Fanu’s Best Ghost Stories and M.R. James); fantasy/sci-fi (Tanith Lee’s Dreams of Dark and Light); conventional mystery with an edge of the occult (Douglas Browne’s What Beckoning Ghost); popular mass market (the great and relatively unknown T.E.D. Klein) and the literary (Margo Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture & Hillary Mantel’s wonderful but under-appreciated Beyond Black).

Since I’ve been too enervated and apathetic this year to observe my little ritual of including something creepy and dark in my October reading, I thought I’d share some “horrible” reading from earlier in the year. These are three very different works, read at widely spaced intervals; while I enjoyed all three, I did so in varying degrees. In ascending order of appreciation, I’ll begin with:

Have you ever, dear reader, moved approximately four thousand books, seven rooms of furniture, a significant other and three very unhappy cats in the middle of a pandemic? Having (barely) survived the experience, being “swallow[ed] . . . whole” by a horror novel was a piece of cake. I spent a week in May soothing myself in Thomas’ debut novel, which follows the adventures of alienated teen Ines Murillo as she navigates her way through the elite corridors of Catherine House, not a college, exactly, although accredited as such; more (2-3)

a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences. A postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League, and so terrifically endowed that tuition was free to any student lucky enough to be accepted. A tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds; prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States. A school and an estate: a complex confection of architecture and design, a house — a magnificent house — miles off the highway, in black woods, behind a long iron gate.

In exchange for all this beneficence, students surrender their cell phones, forgo contact with the outside world (including their families) and spend three years secluded on Catherine’s grounds. Does it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that dark deeds are afoot and that Ines, who spends most of her days drinking and — well, engaged in intimate encounters — may be destined for a dark fate? Unfortunately these things were pretty obvious less than halfway through the novel, but Thomas can write and has a real gift for creating an imaginative and disturbing world that’s inhabited by fairly interesting characters (although Ines was admittedly a little tedious at times). If you forget the over the top comparisons to Donna Tart’s Secret History or Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (some reviewers never know when to stop, do they?), love novels heavy on atmosphere and don’t mind if you can guess the plot twists, Catherine House is a very enjoyable way to spend a day or two (it clocks in at around 300 pages) and would make a great Halloween read.

A step up from Catherine House, in terms of originality and impact, is

I became interested in Schweblin after reading several very enthusiastic reviews of Little Eyes, her latest novel translated from Spanish into English; I wanted to try Schweblin’s work but didn’t feel up to tackling a full-length novel (her short story collection Mouthful of Birds was off limits because I can’t handle anything involving graphic violence to animals). More a novella than a novel proper (it has 150 pages of very, very large type), Fever Dreams seemed the most accessible introduction to Schweblin’s work. (I actually read this in August, for Spanish Literature month, but never got around to writing a review).

It’s fortunate that Fever Dreams is so brief, because it’s almost impossible to put down once you begin reading it, with its combination of doom, horror and mystery. It’s a tightly structured work, told mostly in conversational questions and answers between Amanda, a young woman who lies dying in a remote, rural hospital, and David, the mysterious child who is not Amanda’s son and whose questions, editings and probings create an almost unbearable level of suspense for both Amanda and the reader. David, you see, is interested in nothing beyond the “worms” or “something very much like worms, and the exact moment” when they first “touch your body.” When Amanda’s account deviates into non-essentials, David reminds her that “there is very little time;” when Amanda doubts the accuracy and reality of her memories, David assures her that her nightmare is indeed real. For all its brevity, Fever Dreams is technically quite complex, as it explains the Amanda and David story arc, set in the present, by means of a dialogue between Amanda and Carla, David’s mother, set in the past. Part environmental disaster, part folk horror and all nightmare, Fever Dreams is an incredible accomplishment. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Granta had recently named Schweblin as one of its top young Spanish language writers or that her subsequent novel was long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker International Prize.

The third (and scariest) of my three scary reads is “The Fly Paper,” a short story by Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, that Elizabeth Taylor, the nice British lady whose reputation has undergone something of a Renaissance in recent times. In the years since I’ve first encountered Taylor (I’ve read almost all of her novels and have begun working on her short stories) my own opinion of her work has shifted significantly, from condescension to true admiration. The surface of Taylor’s deceptively cozy, middle class world can conceal some pretty dark stuff, which is nowhere more evident than in “Fly Paper.” The story concerns Sylvia, a plain and sullen child of eleven with “greasy hair fastened back by a pink plastic slide.” The unmusical Sylvia lives with her grandmother, who won’t let her eat sweets and insists on a weekly music lesson, a torment for the child who’s bullied by her exasperated teacher. Sylvia has received all the usual warnings against speaking to strangers, so she’s duly alarmed when, on her weekly bus ride to her music lesson, a strange man strikes up a conversation and tries to buy her an ice. Her fears are assuaged, however, by a motherly woman who intervenes and invites her to tea. About midway through the story, my flash of where Taylor might be taking me almost literally made me ill and I had to stop reading for a bit. Perhaps I was over reacting, perhaps I was having a bad day, perhaps Taylor was simply a brilliant writer who knew, instinctively or otherwise, that horror is heightened when it’s combined, oh so simply, with the perfectly observed quotidian details of an ordinary day.

“The Fly Paper” was reprinted in this collection of Taylor’s stories published by NYRB Classics, which includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble.

Well, folks, that’s it for this Halloween! It’s time to take a page from Maxi’s book and call it a night.

Maxi says, “A pox on all your electoral factions. Let me sleep.”

Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

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Isn’t this print wonderfully creepy and compelling? I’m a big fan of Gustave Doré; this is one of his illustrators for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year!  Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?

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Janakay is severely arachnophobic and doesn’t like walking past certain houses in her neighborhood during Halloween week! Needless to say, these folks did NOT consult HER about their Halloween decorations . . .

In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common.  They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .

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In dawn’s early light, those giant spiders are rather unpleasantly realistic!

to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .

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The pumpkin face didn’t come out well in this photo — it’s actually pretty sinister, even if the “ghost” hanging on the porch is a bit laid back!

to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!

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A bit blurry (Halloween night here is appropriately rainy and stormy) but you get the idea  . . .

And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!

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To paraphrase that eminent stylist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Halloween here is “a dark and stormy night!”  Great for ghostly atmosphere but lousy for photos! Still, squint hard and you can see the red thing on the right is a dragon!  With movable wings!  What will they think of next?

Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood!  Now we have the adorably traditional:

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Grandma is really rocking this one!

The “traditional with a twist”:

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Jon Snow White!

And — the Topical:

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This company also offers a “Miss Impeachment” costume (includes a tiara, beauty queen sash and a whistle blower necklace) as well as a sexy “Beyond Burger” getup, complete with a headband bearing the label “Plant Based!”

Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it?  Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude?  Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween?  This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!

PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL.  THOUGHTS, ANYONE?

I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you?  Ha!  Tricked you!  With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything!  And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there?  And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety.  In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale.   In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating?  Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying?  I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?  If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!)  Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written.  I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.  Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them.  Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers.  It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k.  Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.  Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be.  This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris.  Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read).  Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good.  Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories:  H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work.  In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful).  I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions.  My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla:  another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously).  My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?”  Then I had nightmares for a week.  A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby:  devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu.  I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?

Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really.  If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post.  They’re all great).  For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Stephen King’s The Shining:  I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice.  Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material.  Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.

William Blatty’s The Exorcist.  I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review.  About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary.  In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!

Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy):  have any of you read this very interesting writer?  She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans!  I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing.  Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.  This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.  The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director.  I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.

My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it.  Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?

PART THIRD:  MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)

My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there.  A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it?  It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark.  What better time than Halloween?  It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death.  I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read!  The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.

Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels?  O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot!  A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times.  I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004.  I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read.  I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for.  Night Country is a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains.  Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck.  The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House type read.  And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.

O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale.  It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop.  Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self.  The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.

As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read.  It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe.  Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really?  The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives.  It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting —  I found the story.  If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.

If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford.  I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here.  It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.”  The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels.  All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves.  I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not.  It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.

PART FOURTH: FUN LINKS

The Guardian’s List of Ten Books About Cemeteries (I may check out a couple of these!)

“I was so scared I took it back to the library: the books that scare horror authors” (amusing note: Anne Rice was too frightened to finish Dracula!)

“I didn’t sleep well for months:” the films that terrified The Guardian’s writers as kids

And, just to prove that I occasionally read something other than The Guardian’s take on books, “Globetrotting:” the New York Times sneak preview of books coming out in 2019 from around the world