I’ve been terrible at blogging again recently, but I’ve been reading absolutely loads—including a fabulously enjoyable first half of the R.I.P. challenge! Below, I sum up my thoughts on the part of September’s reading that took place in the realms of horror, thriller, suspense, dark fantasy, supernatural, etc.
Misery, by Stephen King (1987): Grossly misogynistic and fatphobic, and with some truly grisly scenes of amputation, this is nevertheless also one of the best fictional engagements with creativity I’ve ever read. It’s hard not to think of author-protagonist Paul Sheldon as a stand-in for King in a lot of ways, and I imagine Misery would pair well with On Writing. The game Paul remembers playing at camp as a boy—”Can You?”, in which campers take turns telling a story, and in which the challenge is to rescue a character from a seemingly impossible situation in a way that, however implausible it might be, is considered “fair” by the other campers—is a brilliant distillation of this preoccupation. As Paul discovers, it’s not just about writing a book for his crazed captor Annie Wilkes; it’s about writing a book in a way that she—and, by extension, other readers—will accept as legitimate, even if it’s not what they expect. The physical horror and psychological trauma is in many ways less important and interesting than this self-reflexive narrative about narratives. Not my favourite King (of what I’ve read so far) by a long way (that would still be IT, I think), but probably the most thought-provoking.
Lost Boy Lost Girl, by Peter Straub (2003): I wasn’t aware of Straub as a novelist until his sad death earlier in September. I only knew of his daughter Emma, who’s a novelist in her own right (not horror, at all). Lost Boy Lost Girl was available through my library, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a fantastically creepy novel about a teenage boy—Mark—who discovers, after the suicide of his mother, that he lives behind an abandoned house once owned by a serial rapist, killer and family abuser—who was also his mother’s first cousin. Mark becomes fascinated by the property, and eventually, he disappears. The story is told alternately in the past (as he becomes more and more intrigued by the house) and the present (as his uncle Tim, our POV protagonist and a writer, comes back to the town to help investigate). There’s also a present-day serial killer of adolescent boys and young men, and catching him becomes part of the story. If this all sounds confusing, Straub manages with incredible deftness to keep his strands clear and his characters profoundly human. It’s not a scary novel so much as it is a sad one; the horrors of the past are resurrected for us as Mark explores the abandoned house, but the heart of the novel lies in what might be the possibility of recovery and consolation, or what might simply be more waste and loss. The Internet plays an interesting role in the novel; it was written in 2003, and there are flashes of the exhilarating, New-World/edge-of-the-map-type oddness that seems to have defined Internet 1.0, from the illegal hacking done by a friend of Tim’s to the haunting peculiarities—literally—of email, secret websites, anonymous user names, and early video files. It feels like vintage Stephen King in its interest in human emotion and behaviour, but minus the sociopolitically dodgy stuff that occasionally makes a contemporary reader flinch from King’s ’80s and ’90s output. I liked it so much I’ve borrowed another of Straub’s novels, Ghost Story.
In a Glass Darkly, by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872): Great little collection of five Victorian ghost stories (well, three and two novellas, I suppose). I read M.R. James back in 2019 and these feel a bit like him, which is perhaps unsurprising since James considered Le Fanu an influence. “Green Tea”, though not my favourite, is about a man haunted by a demonic monkey (yep!) “The Familiar”, a story about vengeance from beyond the grave, is terrifically atmospheric, with its protagonist taking misty walks through late-night Dublin, dogged by the sound of footsteps behind him which belong to no visible person. “Mr. Justice Harbottle” is a kind of dream vision of horror, its judge protagonist punished for his cruelty by the decree of a supernatural Higher Court against which there is no appeal. “The Room in the Dragon Volant” actually has no ghosts; it’s more of a thriller, as a young, moneyed and horny Englishman on the Continent is slowly long-conned out of his fortune and his life (well, almost; he’s saved in the end). It feels like a longer story than it needs to be, but there’s something deliciously unsettling about trying to figure out who’s a true friend and who’s leading our young man down the garden path. The volume ends with “Carmilla”, the famous lesbian vampire story. What can I say? It is indeed pretty unambiguously gay, and super atmospheric, and I loved it.
The Hunger, by Alma Katsu (2018) [some spoilers ahead]: Underwhelming. I’d wanted to like it a lot more, but I’d listened to the You’re Wrong About episode on the Donner Party not long before, and that meant that every time Katsu tried to sway my feelings one way or the other on a character, I couldn’t help but remember the episode and think: most of these people are reasonably decent and this story is a human tragedy. Which somewhat diminished my ability to take satisfaction in the grisly deaths, the un-human creatures in the woods, and the explanation of Lewis Keseberg as suffering from an inherited condition (also experienced by his uncle, whose stint in an isolated mining camp is apparently responsible for introducing the condition to the American West) that gives the sufferer a craving for human flesh. There’s some stuff about indigenous beliefs that I’m not knowledgeable enough to assess with confidence, but such material always makes me wary: how representative is it and how much does it play to white stereotypes and the demands of white-centered and white-authored narratives? In general, too, the writing felt competent but not particularly interesting. When I turned to the Acknowledgments page and noticed some curious phrasing around The Hunger‘s impending adaptation into film, it suddenly made more sense: it feels more like a movie than a book, and not in a sweepingly-cinematic way.
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado (2017): Sadly, also underwhelming. Some stories were great: the justly praised “The Husband Stitch”, and also “Inventory”, in which civilizational collapse is narrated through the protagonist’s series of lovers. “Eight Bites” is painful on self-hatred and societal fatphobia, and “Real Women Have Bodies” is tender and weird in a way that worked well for me. I bounced hard off “Especially Heinous”, a novelette which rewrites Law and Order: SVU; possibly someone more familiar with the show would enjoy it more, but to me it felt repetitive, obvious, and overlong. And some stories I’ve forgotten: “The Resident”, I know, takes place in an artist’s colony and involves posed photography and a storm, but the rest of it has left my head, while “Difficult at Parties” is totally gone. In a lot of ways this feels like a veiled dry run for In the Dream House, which synthesizes Machado’s fascinations with sex, trauma, gender, archetype, and narrative to incredible effect, and has the added bonus of feeling more honest and raw. Perhaps she needed to play with the ideas through these stories before she could crystallize them in the memoir. I’ll still read whatever she writes next.
Armadale, by Wilkie Collins (1864-66): My third Collins novel, and definitely a reading highlight of the season, if not of the year. Secret identities lurk on every other page; disinheritance and the power of a name are strong thematic interests. The scheming, red-haired femme fatale of the piece is Lydia Gwilt, who is a fascinating character: shelve her with Becky Sharp as a woman on the make whose sexuality, femininity, and wit serve as her primary weapons, but she’s also a complicated, even tragic figure in ways that the novel’s other characters (and maybe even Collins himself, to an extent) fail to recognize. There’s laudanum addiction, poison gas, a dodgy doctor, marriage certificates and legal shenanigans, supernatural dreams of forboding and convenient, mysterious deaths. It’s an absolute cracker.
How have you been getting on with the first month of RIP XVII? Have you enjoyed any old favourites or new discoveries?