Why read horror?

I’ve been reading a lot of horror this year. More than I usually do, which was already a large amount. I’ve been feeling the need for extreme escapism. And despite the truism that good horror reflects current societal fears, I still find it very escapist.

Recently, I shared this article from Tor about women characters in horror: “The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror and the Intuition of Women.” It struck a chord with a lot of women, who proclaimed that this is why they didn’t read or watch horror. And I could see their point. But even though I think this particular trope is tired and should be retired, I still love horror, and I wanted to figure out why.

I should clarify that the kind of horror I most enjoy has some element of the uncanny, weird, or supernatural. I do not enjoy slasher-type horror, which just glorifies in violence, often directed at women. That kind of horror is not escapist, not when shooting rampages seem to happen every week. I also don’t like child-in-jeopardy in horror; that’s too close to my deepest fear.

But monsters, ghosts, and zombies are thrilling to me, no matter how violent the stories get. So are those stories where a group of characters are isolated with the scary thing and seem to have little recourse for escape. The reason I love these stories, paradoxically, is because I do not believe in them. Therefore, I’m able to fully immerse in them.

Nope, I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, psychic powers, or the supernatural. My disbelief gives me a buffer from what’s happening in the story. I never accept deep down that the events could be real, that they could happen to me or to someone I love. So the story becomes safely fun for me. The scares are enjoyable in the same way that some people enjoy roller coasters.

Some people find their escape in unrealistic romance or in fantasy worlds very far removed from the realm of possibility. Some people find it in virtually having experiences they’ll never get in real life, such as exploring space or plumbing the ocean depths. For me, the perfect escape is grounded in the real world but with a story element that could never happen in my real world.

I used to love dystopias, but these days, they all seem a bit too close for comfort. And post-apocalyptic fiction, especially related to climate change, smacks of prophecy more than fiction. For the time being, I’ll take the unreal over the could-possibly-be-real.

If you’re also a horror fan, might I suggest you check out the Nocturnal Reader’s Box? I recently subscribed, and I am loving it so far.

Recommended Reading: When We Were Animals

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In a small town somewhere in America, when the children reach adolescence, they breach. On the nights of the full moon, they give in fully to instinct and run wild and naked in the streets. Everyone else stays indoors. There is sex, there is violence; anything can happen, and almost everything is allowed. Lumen Fowler, who narrates the story looking back on her teenagehood as a suburban housewife, is a good girl who does not believe she will breach like the others. Is she wrong?

Clearly, When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a literalization of coming of age, of the wild, out-of-control feeling that most of us experience in adolescence. It is also a meditation on whether we are right to suppress our instinctive animal natures as we do. The teenage Lumen is a compelling character, who reads and reasons and struggles with herself. However, the scenes featuring the adult Lumen were the ones I found truly chilling, and those elevated this book for me above yet another coming-of-age story.

Recommended Reading: Three creepy reads for October

October always gets me in the mood to give myself the creeps. I’ve been behind in posting book recommendations lately, so here are three recs for the price of one, all guaranteed to make you shiver.

First up is The Three by South African writer Sarah Lotz. Four planes crash simultaneously in different parts of the world, three children survive and behave strangely afterward, and conspiracy theories run rampant, including a cult of Christians who believe this event signals the End Times. This book has an interesting structure: a nonfiction book-within-a-book made up of interviews, newspaper articles, chat logs, and the like that gradually unfolds the aftermath of Black Thursday, as it quickly comes to be called. This story is rife with ambiguity: Is there really something off about the surviving children, or are folks just going nuts and trying to make sense of a senseless coincidence? A very readable thriller, and different enough from the norm to keep my attention.

Next we have Broken Monsters by another South African writer, Lauren Beukes, but appropriately set in Detroit. A young boy is found murdered with the top half of his body attached to the legs of a fawn, kicking off a hunt for a serial killer-avantgarde artist who is definitely operating outside of the mainstream. Beukes tells the story from several points of view and takes her time showing the connections between  the characters, so it may take a while to get immersed, but stick with it. This is not just a police procedural about an investigation into a string of bizarre murders; it’s also an examination of urban decay and, I think, literal decay between the edges of our reality and other places. Broken Monsters is the written equivalent of all those now-famous haunting photographs of the abandoned, decaying city.

Finally, there is Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, set near Detroit in suburban Michigan. (See how I made all those neat connections between the books–fun, right?) Suddenly, people who see mysterious creatures inexplicably turn violent and attack one another or themselves, so everyone who survives must barricade themselves indoors and not open their eyes outside. First of all, the premise for this book is ridiculous, but when reading horror, we must accept the ridiculous. Malerman handles this by not making the story at all about the “creatures” but instead about the effects of having to avoid seeing them. Since this is a horror story, not a survival story, Malerman glosses over the niceties of staying alive in such an environment. As a result, he keeps the tension high and the pace quick, offering several genuinely creepy moments, and the story works on that level as long as the reader doesn’t get overly concerned about the details.

If you have any creepy books to recommend, please tell me about them. Enjoy fall!

Recommended Reading: Geek Love

I was saddened to hear of the death of Katherine Dunn. I only recently read her “underground” novel, Geek Love. While it may not be what is conventionally considered horror, it is still a horrifying book–in only the best way.

In Geek Love, the owner of a struggling carnival and his wife decide to “create” their own sideshow attractions by experimenting with drugs, radiation, and the like during pregnancy. With that outlandish premise, Dunn leads us through the tent flap and, gradually, deeper and deeper into the bizarre and isolated world of the traveling carnival that incubates the Binewski children. The five children are Arty, born with flippers for arms and legs; the conjoined twins Elly and Iphy; the narrator, an albino hunchback dwarf named Olympia; and baby Chick, with the most special powers of all. As they grow up, separated from the world, never really sure where the carnival actually is at any particular time, and constantly reinforced with how special they are when compared to the “norms,” a certain warping is bound to occur. We are fully ensnared by this time as Dunn gradually ratchets up the horror, introducing more demented characters and increasingly grotesque elements, but we’ve paid our money and we’re going to look. Even as we silently think that she can’t go there, that is indeed where Dunn chooses to go. A finalist for the National Book Award, Geek Love is not at all a safe book. I highly recommend it.

Here is a profile of the novel and the author from Wired.

Recommended Reading: A Head Full of Ghosts

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Finally, I have a new book to recommend, and it’s a really good one: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. When she was eight years old, Merry’s big sister Marjorie developed severe schizophrenia–or perhaps, as their dad came to believe, she was possessed by a demon. Desperate for both money and a cure, Marjorie’s parents agreed to let a reality TV show film her exorcism, with disastrous results. If you love anything to do with horror, you will love this book.

Reading Journal: Beginning of April

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted a reading journal update. Most of my reading has lately not-so-inspiring–although I did enjoy reading Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor so much that I wrote a rather long response to it.

far_north_therouxAnother post-apocalyptic book I enjoyed was Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is set in post-climate change Siberia and is also about a woman’s journey. Also recommended is John Scalzi’s Lock Inwhich is a near future thriller with a lot of intriguing ideas.

Newer fiction was a bit of a letdown. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is buzz-worthy dark fantasy, and the style reminds me quite a lot of Neil Gaiman, but it seemed too heavy on the horror with not enough emotional connectivity to fully engage me. Ditto for the post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy–strong shades of The Stand and Swan Song, but not nearly the emotional punch of those classics.

Some horror by women: A romance-heavy ghost story by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen (which is set very near where I lived in Durham, NC), came across as muddled. The Cipher by Kathe Koja is much better written horror, but somewhat overlong for the premise. It’s about a hole (a “Funhole”) that’s a portal of sorts, and it changes things … and people. This is a concept that’s hard to summarize. However, I did think it should have been closer to novella length.

26883558Victor LaValle’s new novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, is very well written, and interesting in that it is both an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and a refutation of his racism. It is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously xenophobic stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” (amusing summary here). LaValle very cleverly turns Lovecraft in on itself to offer a different version of events, one that underscores the racism of the time as it really existed and in the writing and reading of Lovecraft and others. However, it is still Lovecraftian, and I have never been a fan of anything Lovecraft. If you are, it is worth a read.

Both The Cipher and The Ballad of Black Tom have a cipher; a portal into nothingness; a figure inside that you do not want to see. It was interesting reading them back-to-back.

An homage of a different sort is James Maxey’s Bad Wizarda return to Oz. This self-published book is a lightweight adventure that takes place after Dorothy is all grown up. Like the LaValle, it’s a cheap buy for Kindle.

Currently, I’m back to horror, reading the enthralling A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I hope to be reading more new fiction over the next few months and posting reviews more regularly. I hope you find something in this roundup that catches your fancy!

Six identities, six stories

As I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,  it hit me that the six identities of the writer she explores can also be interpreted as six story archetypes. Almost every story I could think of fit at least one of the archetypes, and many took elements from several of them.Clearly, these are stories that resonate deeply with us.

It’s no accident that Atwood gives many examples from horror fiction to support the archetypes she identifies in her book. Horror, which confronts both our fear of and fascination with death, is the most primal of literary genres. It is also most closely tied to our oldest kinds of stories: myths, legends, and fairy tales. Following Atwood’s lead, I have chosen horror novels to illustrate each of the six archetypes. I have found at least one famous classic work of horror literature that perfectly exemplifies each category.

Categorizing is fun, as well as a human compulsion. These archetypes provide an interesting and, I think, useful way of thinking about stories. (But of course, it is not the only way.)

(1) Realization story: The protagonist realizes something critical about his/her own nature and undergoes fundamental change. Best known as the coming-of-age story.

Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a perfect example of a coming-of-age and self-realization story.

(2) Duplicity story: Dual natures, whether internal or external, are placed in opposition to one another. Includes stories of good versus evil, rivalry, tricksters, doppelgangers, and shapeshifters.

Example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is the prototypical split personality story, exploring the warring dark and light sides of human nature.

(3) Devotion story: The protagonist is dedicated to something higher than him/herself and pursues it, no matter what the human cost. Includes stories of playing God, pursuing art for art’s sake, giving oneself over to the gods or the muse, and self-sacrifice.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is the story of a scientist who pursues his quest to create life and winds up creating a monster with horrific consequences for him and everyone he loves.

(4) Temptation story: The protagonist is tempted to violate what is ethical or right in exchange for personal gain. Includes stories of deals with the devil, falls from grace, black magic, and forbidden love.

Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man who gives into a life of hedonism and eternal youth, the effects of which show only on his portrait, but ends up losing his soul in the process (also Doctor Faustus and all its variants).

(5) Outsider story: The storyteller is a stranger or stands apart from the world in some way and reports what s/he witnesses or discovers something that must be told. Dystopias often fall into this category.

Examples: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is about a scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes a hated and feared exile from society as a result.

(6) Descent story: The protagonist journeys to a strange land outside of normal human experience or encounters the supernatural on a quest to bring back something of value or to save or avenge someone. Includes stories of the hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, and many ghost stories.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker begins with a journey to a foreign land, where Jonathan Harker encounters the supernatural vampire, and ends with a quest by a band of heroes to destroy Dracula and save Mina Harker (also The Odyssey  and Beowulf).