Seven Horror Stories Masquerading In Other Genres

We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. Hence: Seven horror novels masquerading in other genres:

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Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

In my review (link above), I called Blood Meridian “a blood-soaked, bloodthirsty bastard of a book.” The story of the Glanton gang’s insane rampage across Mexico and the American Southwest in the 1850s is pure horror. Rape, scalping, dead mules, etc. And Judge Holden. . . [shivers].

Rushing to Paradise — J.G. Ballard

On the surface, Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise seems to be a parable about the hubris of ecological extremism that would eliminate humanity from any natural equation. Dr. Barbara and her band of misfit environmentalists try to “save” the island of St. Esprit from France’s nuclear tests. The group eventually begin living in a cult-like society with Dr. Barbara as its psycho-shaman center. As Dr. Barbara’s anti-humanism comes to outweigh any other value, the island devolves into Lord of the Flies insanity. Wait, should Lord of the Flies be on this list? 

2666 — Roberto Bolaño

Okay. I know. This book ends up on every list I write. What can I do?

While there’s humor and pathos and love and redemption in Bolaño’s masterwork, the longest section of the book, “The Part about the Crimes,” is an unrelenting catalog of vile rapes, murders, and mutilations that remain unresolved. The sinister foreboding of 2666‘s narrative heart overlaps into all of its sections (as well as other Bolaño books); part of the tension in the book–and what makes Bolaño such a gifted writer–is the visceral tension we experience when reading even the simplest  incidents. In the world of 2666, a banal episode like checking into a motel or checking the answering machine becomes loaded with Lynchian dread. Great horrific stuff.

King Lear — William Shakespeare

Macbeth gets all the propers as Shakespeare’s great work of terror (and surely it deserves them). But Lear doesn’t need to dip into the stock and store of the supernatural to achieve its horror. Instead, Shakespeare crafts his terror at the familial level. What would you do if your ungrateful kids humiliated you and left you homeless on the heath? Go a little crazy, perhaps? And while Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan are pure mean evil, few characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are as crafty and conniving as Edmund, the bastard son of Glouscester. And, lest I forget to mention, Lear features shit-eating, self-mutilation, a grisly tableaux of corpses, and an eye-gouging accompanied by one of the Bard’s most enduring lines: “Out vile jelly!Peter Brook chooses to elide the gore in his staging of that infamous scene:

The Trial — Franz Kafka

Kafka captured the essential alienation of the modern world so well that we not only awarded him his own adjective, we also tend to forget how scary his stories are, perhaps because of their absurd familiarity. None surpasses his unfinished novel The Trial, the story of hapless Josef K., a bank clerk arrested by unknown agents for an unspecified crime. While much of K.’s attempt to figure out just who is charging him for what is hilarious in its absurdity, its also deeply dark and really creepy. K. attempts to find some measure of agency in his life, but is ultimately thwarted by forces he can’t comprehend–or even see for that matter. Nowhere is this best expressed than in the famous “Before the Law” episode. If you’re too lazy to read it, check out his animation with narration by the incomparable Orson Welles:

Sanctuary — William Faulkner

In my original review of Sanctuary (link above), I noted that “if you’re into elliptical and confusing depictions of violence, drunken debauchery, creepy voyeurism, and post-lynching sodomy, Sanctuary just might be the book for you.” There’s also a corn-cob rape scene. The novel is about the kidnapping and debauching of Southern belle Temple Drake by the creepy gangster Popeye–and her (maybe) loving every minute of it. The book is totally gross. I got off to a slow start with Faulkner. If you take the time to read the full review above (in which I make some unkind claims) please check out my retraction. In retrospect, Sanctuary is a proto-Lynchian creepfest, and one of the few books I’ve read that has conveyed a total (and nihilistic) sense of ickiness.

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Great Apes — Will Self

Speaking of ickiness…Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes made me totally sick. Nothing repulses me more than images of chimpanzees dressed as humans and Great Apes is the literary equivalent (just look at that cover). After a night of binging on coke and ecstasy, artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find himself in a world where humans and apes have switched roles. Psychoanalysis ensues. While the novel is in part a lovely satire of emerging 21st-century mores, its humor doesn’t outweigh its nightmare grotesquerie. Great Apes so deeply affected us that I haven’t read any of Self’s work since.

[Ed. note: This post is a few years old. We run it again for Halloween and will run a follow up post later today].

Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns — Paul Green

ww2

In the preface to his Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, Paul Green gives us the following definition:

Weird Western

A Western story incorporating horror, supernatural or fantasy elements and themes and usually including one or more of the following subjects: vampires, werewolves, mummies, man-made monsters, mythological beings, mutants, zombies, ghosts, haunted buildings, demons, witchcraft, Satanism, possession, demonic or possessed animals, mentalists, shamans, visions, restless or wandering spirits, damned souls, enchantment, shape-shifters, angels, goblins, faeries, sirens, flying horses, psychopathic killers, psychological terror, dismembered moving body parts, spirit guides, the occult, hexes and curses, rising from the dead, talking animals, superhuman abilities, and magical potions.

This fun, hyperbolic list would seem to be enough to cover all possible entries in Green’s almanac of Western weirdness, yet his preface goes on to catalog and define the Weird Menace Western genre (popular in the 1930s), Science Fiction Westerns, Space Westerns, Steampunk Westerns, and even Weird Western Romance. Over the course of about 250 pages, Green attempts to catalog 0ver a 100 years of Weird Western stories, novels, pulps, radio shows, films, TV shows, RPGs and video games. And comic books. Lots and lots of comic books.

You probably know more Weird Westerns than might immediately come to mind. Green hits on examples that have had great mainstream success like Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, the old Kung Fu TV series, and Westworld. He also extends his entries to cover the many forays TV shows and comic books take into the Western Genre, from Star Trek: The Next Generation to MacGyver. Green even contends that Star Wars is a Space Western.

There’s mention of some of our favorite Westerns, like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, as well as the salient recognition that William Burroughs is a writer of Westerns. But for every comic or film or movie or TV show we’ve heard of, like Jonah Hex or The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., there seem to be at least a dozen bizarre counterparts. How did we not know of the late-nineteenth century steampunk dime novels featuring hero Frank Reade (and either his Steam Man or Steam Horse)? Reade is such an oddity because it’s steampunk contemporaneous with its own setting–which sorta kinda makes it not steampunk but maybe kinda imaginative fiction. Or something. In any case, it’s intriguing.

frankreade

If we hadn’t read Green’s Encyclopedia, we also wouldn’t have any knowledge of Gene Autry’s 1935 space opera film serial, The Phantom Empire. The twelve-parter apparently features Autry as a singing cowboy who has to save his Radio Ranch when speculators want to buy up the supply of Muranian radium under his property. Did we forget to add that the ancient civilization of Mu lives under Radio Ranch?

We also, somehow, were previously unaware of the Djustine comics before Green sought to correct this oversight by including two whole pages of images of the buxom lass. His description: “The sexually graphic adventures of the large-breasted female gunslinger Djustine and her fight with the supernatural, including zombies, vampires, and Diabla, daughter of Satan.” You had us at sexually graphic.

djustine-ill

Okay, so we’re probably not going to go stock up on back issues of Djustine (it’s in Italian anyway . . . we swear we’re only interested in the tight-plotting!) . . . But most of the fun of Encyclopedia of Weird Western is simply in all the bizarre descriptions and images, of which there are plenty. I’m not an aficionado, so I can’t testify to the depth or analytic penetration of Green’s catalog, but I do know that I enjoy browsing through the book’s welcome weirdness. It’s a great entry point to any number of strange Google searches. And it’s also got me hunting for a torrent of the 1977 film, Welcome to Blood City.

You probably know by now whether or not any of this is up your alley. We’re digging it. Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns is now available from McFarland.

Seven Horror Novels Masquerading In Other Genres

We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. We offer seven horror novels masquerading in other genres:

cormac5.jpg_jpeg_300x1000_q85

Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

In our review (link above) we called Blood Meridian “a blood-soaked, bloodthirsty bastard of a book.” The story of the Glanton gang’s insane rampage across Mexico and the American Southwest in the 1850s is pure horror. Rape, scalping, dead mules, etc. And Judge Holden. . . [shivers].

Rushing to Paradise — J.G. Ballard

On the surface, Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise seems to be a parable about the hubris of ecological extremism that would eliminate humanity from any natural equation. Dr. Barbara and her band of misfit environmentalists try to “save” the island of St. Esprit from France’s nuclear tests. The group eventually begin living in a cult-like society with Dr. Barbara as its psycho-shaman center. As Dr. Barbara’s anti-humanism comes to outweigh any other value, the island devolves into Lord of the Flies insanity. Wait, should Lord of the Flies be on this list? 

2666 — Roberto Bolaño

Okay. We know. This book ends up on every list we write. What can we do?

While there’s humor and pathos and love and redemption in Bolaño’s masterwork, the longest section of the book, “The Part about the Crimes,” is an unrelenting catalog of vile rapes, murders, and mutilations that remain unresolved. The sinister foreboding of 2666‘s narrative heart overlaps into all of its sections (as well as other Bolaño books); part of the tension in the book–and what makes Bolaño such a gifted writer–is the visceral tension we experience when reading even the simplest  incidents. In the world of 2666, a banal episode like checking into a motel or checking the answering machine becomes loaded with Lynchian dread. Great horrific stuff.

King Lear — William Shakespeare

Macbeth gets all the propers as Shakespeare’s great work of terror (and surely it deserves them). But Lear doesn’t need to dip into the stock and store of the supernatural to achieve its horror. Instead, Shakespeare crafts his terror at the familial level. What would you do if your ungrateful kids humiliated you and left you homeless on the heath? Go a little crazy, perhaps? And while Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan are pure mean evil, few characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are as crafty and conniving as Edmund, the bastard son of Glouscester. And, lest we forget to mention, Lear features shit-eating, self-mutilation, a grisly tableaux of corpses, and an eye-gouging accompanied by one of the Bard’s most enduring lines: “Out vile jelly!Peter Brook chooses to elide the gore in his staging of that infamous scene:

The Trial — Franz Kafka

Kafka captured the essential alienation of the modern world so well that we not only awarded him his own adjective, we also tend to forget how scary his stories are in light, perhaps, of their absurd familiarity. For our money, none surpasses his unfinished novel The Trial, the story of hapless Josef K., a bank clerk arrested by unknown agents for an unspecified crime. While much of K.’s attempt to figure out just who is charging him for what is hilarious in its absurdity, its also deeply dark and really creepy. K. attempts to find some measure of agency in his life, but is ultimately thwarted by forces he can’t comprehend–or even see for that matter. Nowhere is this best expressed than in the famous “Before the Law” episode. If you’re too lazy to read it, check out his animation with narration by the incomparable Orson Welles:

Sanctuary — William Faulkner

In our original review of Sanctuary (link above), we noted that “if you’re into elliptical and confusing depictions of violence, drunken debauchery, creepy voyeurism, and post-lynching sodomy, Sanctuary just might be the book for you.” There’s also a corn-cob rape scene. The novel is about the kidnapping and debauching of Southern belle Temple Drake by the creepy gangster Popeye–and her (maybe) loving every minute of it. The book is totally gross. We got off to a slow start with Faulkner. If you take the time to read our full review above (in which we make some unkind claims) please check out our retraction. In retrospect, Sanctuary is a proto-Lynchian creepfest, and one of the few books we’ve read that has conveyed a total (and nihilistic) sense of ickyness.

n14559

Great Apes — Will Self

Speaking of ickiness…Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes made me totally sick. Nothing repulses me more than images of chimpanzees dressed as humans and Great Apes is the literary equivalent (just look at that cover). After a night of binging on coke and ecstasy, artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find himself in a world where humans and apes have switched roles. Psychoanalysis ensues. While the novel is in part a lovely satire of emerging 21st-century mores, its humor doesn’t outweigh its nightmare grotesquerie. Great Apes so deeply affected us that we haven’t read any of Self’s work since.

October Reading List

October is here–time to read (or reread) favorite scary stories, watch our favorite horror films, and carve up Jack O’ Lanterns. We have a couple of spooky reviews coming up (vampires!) but in the meantime, those searching for a good horror read can troll through a few older posts. Biblioklept: Lazy blogging at its best since 2006.

Two of our favorite posts ever are analyses of the scary stories our students wrote for extra-credit in’06 and ’07. Not sure what happened in ’08, but the ’09 contest is in full effect, yo.

For good horrific fun, check out Quirk Book’s recent Jane Austen mash-ups Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Eddie Campbell Alan Moore From Hell psychogeography

One of our favorite books ever is From Hell, by Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore. If you haven’t read it yet, that should be your sacred Halloween mission in ’09.

Snapshot 2009-10-04 19-58-53

My glorious alma mater, the University of Florida, had a lovely zombie preparedness plan at their official website–up until a day or two ago. When university officials were alerted to the pdf (written in full academic language, complete with citations!) they quickly removed it. Too bad. It was really fun and funny. Don’t worry though, you can still download the official document here.

As non-scary (or at least not overtly-scary) reading goes, we’ve got a pretty big stack of books we vow to get through in October, including W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Julio Cortázar’s Blow-up and Other Stories, and the newest issue of McSweeney’s. There’s also a ton of promos of upcoming releases to wade through.

Back to the scaries–check out the Brothers Quay illustrating His Name Is Alive’s “Are We Still Married?”:

Scary Stories–Halloween Edition, 2007

…in which I take a critical look at some of my 11th grader’s scary stories.

(Check out last year’s batch, if you like).

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Rotting Jack O’ Lanterns w/ Flies (2007)

Felici@ Noll*y’s “Eyes of a Baby” makes stunning use of what I like to call “the fetal voice.” Noll*y’s narrative begins in a “bubble […] so safe and warm with extra soft walls.” However, her hapless narrator is soon confronted with “monsters” who “torture” the poor kid, ripping it out of its safe haven, depriving it of its immediate source of food. The poor dear ends up in a “jail cell with big bars,” contemplating a strange new existence in a world populated by demons. Noll*y’s narrative captures the jarring dissonance of new beginnings contrasted with the ever-present ideal of a perfect, unattainable “safe haven.”

L@ur@ Cunningh@m submitted a trio of vignettes, each as unfinished as a fetus, each showing some serious promise as contenders in an Anne Rice parody contest–only I think Cunningh@m’s serious about her work. In “Implied Consent,” she dips into her idea of an adult vampire world, one reminiscent of the early nineties goth scene. She also uses the phrase “nary a word.” Yes, “nary.” Ugh. In “Duality,” she takes a stab at a postmodern trope–the characters in the story are being written into existence by other characters in the story (somebody get Charlie Kaufman on the phone). In the blandly-titled “Something,” Cunningh@m demonstrates public high school’s complete failure to teach human anatomy with this clunker: “Hot bile rose to the back of her throat.” Bile is produced by the liver, sweetheart. Maybe it’s just a very, very complicated metaphor.

Sh@t@vi@ E@dy’s “Down in the Crowd,” written as a screenplay, finds rumors to be the root of all evil. I’m not sure exactly what happened in E@dy’s tale, but I do know that gossip and misinformation are sites of extreme horror for her. Also, there’s a predominate preoccupation with “the cool kids” and the “not cool kids”–social scientists are now clamoring to adopt these specialized terms as their own.

M@tik@ Bl@l@rk’s “Taken” begins in media res, a bold step that none of the other young writers attempted. Good for her! Unfortunately, Bl@l@rk’s cluttered imagery and frantic pace leave no room for the reader to have any sense of what’s going on. In the end, she pulls what is to be a recurring motif in many of these stories: “It was all just a dream” (alternately: “It was all just a nightmare”). So says I: “It was all just a cop out.” People didn’t like that shit on Dallas back in the 1980s, and I don’t like it now.

Far more ambitious is Ch@ntel R**d*r’s “Fight of the Gods,” written entirely in a marvelous backwoods dialect (at one point, her narrator points out that the “man war havin’ a Caesar,”–he means “seizure”–a line compounded in semiotic resonance when one considers the fact that Caesar suffered from epileptic fits. I applaud R**d*r’s Joycean wordplay!) After thirty-five pages, it became clear that R**d*r had submitted not a self-contained story, but the initial chapter of a book about demonic possession over the ages of man. She says she has more, and I’d love to read it.

Mel@nie River@’s “Breathe,” like a number of the stories this year, seems to take several of its cues from the recent Saw franchise: torture chambers as puzzles, ambitious killers, that sort of thing. River@’s story stands out on several counts, beginning with her adventurous use of verbs: in “Breathe,” we find that bones can be “emasculated” (these are not metaphorical bones; she is referring to ulnas and tibias and metatarsils and shit like that). There is a fascinating episode where a bus driver bites a hapless victim, who astoundingly replies: “Who are you to put your hands on someone else’s child, huh?!” I was astounded because that’s just what I say when a weirdo stranger bites me unprovoked out of nowhere. It turns out that the bus driver is a killer, and not just “a normal killer, he was an advanced killer.” Coming soon to a theater near you: Advanced Killers 4: The Matriculation.

As its title suggests, D@nchelle Jon*s’s “Scary Story” is a self-reflexive postmodern comment that seeks to pull at the very roots of just what can qualify as a “scary story,” or for that matter, as a story at all! Who says you have to have mood, tone, or setting? What traditionalists (patriarchalists, no doubt!) decree that a story should have a beginning, middle and end? Jon*s attacks our notions of just what the narrative arts can do, leaving us scratching our heads as we applaud her audacity.

In “REVENGE OF THE EX!!!!!”, M@h@ Mi@n also pushes the limits of traditional writing, this time challenging those awful standards of typography and punctuation: why can’t a story be typed in italicized, 18-point font? Isn’t it obvious that some questions deserve multiple question marks???? And who’s to say that multiple exclamation marks are redundant?!!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

Sh@net@ Oliv*r’s “Black Outs” examines the mood swings typical of teenagers, pushing those mood swings into the fascinating trope of split personalities. Also, the first half of Oliv*r’s story consists of rhymed couplets, a rhetorical strategy that mirrors the tension between conflict and harmony inherent in every person afflicted with multiple personality disorder.

Finally, M@j@ C@v@r makes a bold move by naming her story “Extra Credit.” Again, I can only assume this is a kind of postmodern tongue-in-cheek gesture on C@v@r’s part, a reference to the fact that I offered the “Scary Story” assignment as a way to earn–you guessed it–extra credit. Nothing slips by these kids. C@v@r is an innovator in what I like to call the “I-filled-up-all-the-lines-on-the-paper-so-now-the-story’s-over-regardless-of-the fact-that-so-much-still-remains-unresolved” style of writing. Courageously sacrificing any sense of closure, C@v@r instead opts for this stunning closer, shifting jarringly from third-person omniscient to first-person singular: “I only need a point from only a B and I really need a B, okay?” Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t think that’ll quite do it.

Scary Stories–Halloween Edition

In the final edition of the 2006 Scary Books series, I take a critical look at some of my 11th graders’ scary stories.

First up is Niki H*nry’s “The Book of the Dead.” This tale is indicative of most of the students’ stories: unwitting protagonists stumble into inexplicable situations that are not of their making. After some confusion, the writer runs out of ideas and the protagonist is killed, usually with a knife. Readers of “The Book of the Dead” will be left wondering just what the book of the dead is–although it does have the power to turn a reader into a zombie.

Freud M*ltinord captures the terror and confusion of change in “Home Alone,” wherein a ten year old boy is left home alone in a strange new house. The real horror though is Freud’s inscrutable handwriting.

I truly enjoyed Chris Tutwil*r’s “Donna’s Reward,” featuring an infanticidal psychopath named “Doom” who carves up his victims–disrespectful teens–with a knife. Again with the knives.

Brittany H*rndon’s “On a Midnight Train to Georgia” illustrates the fear and confusion of a teen on the run from…? Who knows? Brittany didn’t quite finish the assignment. Still, this story expresses the same teenage fears that Roy Orbison immortalized in his classic “Running Scared.”

Anakar*n Diaz’s aptly-titled “Scary Story” (aside: I wonder if Anakar*n is making a postmodern gesture with the title here, perhaps alluding to some of John Barth’s work) features an evil scarecrow who transforms bad boys into scarecrows. Diaz turns a striking phrase: “the scarecrow spirit felt the pain of his life of being an outsider.”

In “The Gods,” Pam*l*rin Ajani recasts the origin stories of her native tribe, the Yoruba. This was very interesting for me, because her story intersected with my own current reading, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales.

Seymone Rams*y’s untitled piece is a highly sexualized vampire story (again, I suspect the refusal to title her work, to give a name to horror, is some type of fancy postmodern thing on Seymone’s part). Best line: “Baby, you know you’re my dark chocolate don’t you? So you don’t mind if I take a bite?”

Hannah F^jardo’s “Be Careful Before Wishing” is a reframing of the classic cautionary tale that people should be careful before wishing. Because wishes can come out, y’know, bad and stuff.

Rayna Sm!th’s “The Deaths” I thoroughly enjoyed. Rayna casts herself as the reluctant Sherlock Holmes (she even has a pipe with bubbles) in a murder mystery plot set in the family home. It’s just like I always tell these kids: familial spaces are always haunted spaces!

Similarly, Carolann* Dona explores murder in familial spaces in the excellent tale “The Cloaked Murderer,” in which a princess works out her rage by killing her parents. Her plot to rule the kingdom is foiled by a younger sister who reluctantly saves the day.

Lizbeth Martin*z tackles the revenge story in an animist motif in “The Bear’s Revenge,” in which a jilted teddy bear murders a young girl. I especially like Lizbeth’s use of present tense–it creates a mood of immediacy and suspense.

I regret that I have not the time to expound further upon the works of these young scholars; suffice to say that this random sampling should serve to illustrate the general plots, motifs, and tropes at work in the seething, horrific crucible-minds of teens.