Old Reviews From Seton Hill

COLD HAND IN MINE

Monday, May 22, 2006, 2:22:01 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
Robert Aickman’s COLD HAND IN MINE is touted as collected stories of the “strange.” Strange they are, to be sure, but having also read WINEDARK SEA, I found these stories to be less ambiguous and more directly chilling. Dark sexuality, unease, and Aickman’s own humor pervade the work. His are ghost stories, but not in the traditional sense of the phrase. The characters are clearly haunted by forces outside their perception of normal life, but like WINEDARK SEA, the ghosts are more abstract. The characters’ fears lie not so much in the outside “strange,” but the internal implications. In other words, and as is a common theme, it seems, with quality horror literature, the horror is not in the monster, but in the very real, very human reaction to the monster. What frightens is not the strange, surreal, unsettling surroundings, but what the characters perceive as their meaning, and what that does, internally, to those characters. The horror, then, has always been with them. The ghosts are simply mirrors, holding up reflections the characters weren’t ready to see.

I think what is to be learned about writing from this book in particular and from Aickman in general is the art of unease. I think Aickman is a master of the vague unease. In many of the stories in this book – “The Hospice” being a prime example — there are simply a number of unsettling occurrences that, built strangeness by strangeness, create cause for alarm. I also think we can consider Aickman’s work a challenge to look for new things that can go bump in the night. Atmosphere can be used as a living, breathing, palpable thing. Horror, I think, is carried on atmosphere and atmosphere clearly defines Aickman’s work. Atmosphere is the monster. I think many of these stories also speak of a loss of self – a loss of innocence, a loss of human understanding, a loss of one’s own perception of self. An argument could loosely be made, then, that the monster is really us, and our own capacity – our own easy susceptibility – to change.

I’m not great with plots. I’m far more into characters and atmosphere. I think that Aickman’s stories appealed to something in me in that the plots are not particularly complicated, and often leave many open-ended questions unanswered. It’s possible that Aickman preferred to leave the explanations of the strange to the reader’s imagination. Rather than beat the reader over the head with his point, Aickman did to his readers what he did to his characters – unsettled them with the power of suggestion, and let them draw their own conclusions, based heavily on the character’s or reader’s sense of self. In essence, the reader’s sense of the “horror” or the “monster” in the story is actually the reader’s own perception of loss and threat.

Aickman’s COLD HAND IN MINE was a good read, and one worth recommending to other writers, and readers of the strange and unsettling. I found it more accessible, in some ways, than WINEDARK SEA.

WINEDARK SEA

Friday, May 19, 2006, 1:54:51 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
To be honest, I’m not really sure what to say about Robert Aickman’s WINEDARK SEA. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly liked the book. I think it might be smarter than me, though. I thought that Aickman infused a sense of the foreboding into his writing, along with a dry British sense of humor, but his stories are subtle, and perhaps a little beyond my experience. I was particularly excited to read this book because I understand that Aickman was an influence on Peter Straub (who is a brilliant Mr. God of horror lit in his own right), and I can definitely see where Aickman’s work influenced some of the work that appeared in, say, HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS.

My experience with recent British Horror is mostly limited to Ramsey Campbell and Tim Lebbon and Robert Aickman, but my impression is that their style is not necessarily quiet horror, but most definitely of a sort that relies on growing dread, and building associations occasionally referenced throughout the story for effect. While Aickman doesn’t shy away from sexual themes, there is little real violence in the book at all. The horrors are always a frayed edge of reality and sanity, threatening to unravel the fabric that keeps these proper folks’ ways of life complete and in check. The introduction of the Other is often a source of distress more because the Other means that maybe, juuuuust maybe, life isn’t as happy and safe and perfect as the characters would like to believe.

In Peter Straub’s intro to the book, he mentions that most if not all of these stories are, in one way or another, ghost stories. It would be a stretch to say that they follow any real traditional spirt-of-the-departed structure (with one or two notable exceptions), but he does make a valid point. These are the ghosts of things that once were that the characters would rather not remember. They are the ghosts of things that could be if the characters would only let go of a revenant life of loneliness. They’re the ghosts of what might be if the strange and unusual were allowed to become a commonplace part of the characters’ lives.

The thing to be learned from this book, in my opinion, is the nature of the life beneath life, of the world humming just below our radar. These stories capture a sense that one’s tenuous hold on life is about to shaken at any moment, and in horror, we often fear loss more than anything – loss of life, loss of comfort, loss of loved ones, loss of sanity or faculty, and yes, loss of control. And horror taps into that life beneath life, that world parallel beneath us where the very stuff of its nature threatens all those things and more. However, I think the element to take away from WINEDARK SEA is that there is a whole universe of potential loss out there, but also potential gain. Now, whether we want any part of what might come through from the other side is another story, and a possibly ominous one at that….

I did in fact enjoy this book, and would recommend it to others, particularly if they are fans of more subdued, ominous types of horror.

Self-Evaluation

Friday, May 19, 2006, 1:38:25 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
This has been a remarkable five months for me as a writer. I feel that through working with my critique partners and advisors, I’ve learned more creative ways around tired old scenes, I’ve improved my ability to write for a deadline, and I’ve also learned a thing or two about what makes a work scary. What it comes down to for me, are the subtle undercurrents, the careful words and phrases that achieve certain effects. People are made of flesh and blood and bone. Characters are made of specific descriptions, particular dialogue, and subtle phrases. And atmosphere is built on the molecules of connotation and association. Colors, tastes, smells, and sounds, the feeling of burlap and the feeling of silk all have meaning that pre-dates us. As people, we experience the world with our senses, but as writers, we pick up all the tiny currents of meaning inherent in it with special senses. I think the more I read and the more I write, the better and sharper those extra senses become. A common theme of the books I’ve read this semester is one of atmosphere. I’m a big character and atmosphere person, and I’ve learned that there is a subtle art to making it work in ways that aren’t tired and predicatable to the reader. My feeling that characters are the base, the drive, and the pay-off of horror seems to have been confirmed, whether in quiet unsettling tales like those in WINEDARK SEA, or in more diretly disturbing prose like that in PEACEABLE KINGDOM. A suspenseful atmosphere is to horror what love scenes are to romance; it’s a trick of the trade that horror writers need to learn early on, I think.

I have always enjoyed a good turn of phrase, but I think what I learned most about writing this semester was how important word choice is to affecting atmosphere. (This is, in fact, the topic I’m considering teaching at the final residency, for that requirement). I think I’ve come so far since I first started at Seton Hill; I think the writing has become more refined, more honed specifically to say what I want it to say. And that has a lot to do with placement of words, phrases, ideas and images. And it has a lot to do with sending forth from the pages living, breathing, feeling, thinking characters into the world of reader imagination. I am on the road, I think, to building worlds that creep into the reader’s imagination and settle into the cracks of it, damp and cold and dark and much less empty than at first iamgined.

I think I still need to work on plotting. Concepts, I’m okay with, particularly when they help me define characters or monsters, but endings are still my nemeses. I think I’d like to work on understanding the twist, and the non-linear plot, and I also think I need to work on weaving in subplots. These things continue to elude me, just a little out of my reach. But I’m going to keep trying.

THE MONK

Friday, May 19, 2006, 1:17:56 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
I just finished reading William H. Hallahan’s THE MONK. For one thing, it’s a very quick read. He handles themes of Heaven and Hell, demons and angels with a deftness that avoids cheesy theatrics or overwrought ideas. I enjoyed the story, and he does some great suspense-building throughout. He makes some odd cuts to scenes for the sake of pacing, and we lose one of the main characters for a long while, but he captures struggle like no writer I’ve seen. Father Joseph’s trek across NY to get to Brooklyn is incredible.

I have always enjoyed demon and angel stories, particularly because I think that from a fiction standpoint, we’ve got fascinating creatures with immense powers, immense restraint, and the potential for monumental faults and flaws. In THE MONK, Satan is actually cast as a relatively sympathetic character, shamed, demoted, defeated, beaten, burned, and driven mad by what he feels is a betrayal on the part of God, the other angels, and his friend, Timothy. God, on the other hand, is given a very small part in the novel, and is not particularly cast as the benevolent and holy being of scripture. Timothy is an angel caught in the middle. His momentary unfaithfulness cursed him to walk the earth, but his faltering spared him an eternity cast down to Hell as a demon.

Some aspects of the book didn’t work for me, the first being that among the languages that preceded even language itself, that one of the angels would be given such a fine Irish Catholic name as Timothy. I also found it odd that the balance between good and evil would be so hinged on one single half-fallen angel, and not, say, the whole legion that he had at his command. I also thought at times the characters accepted too easily the supernatural happenings without question. At other times, they asked no logical questions at all. The angels and demons alike (as it is very much their story) were given very human attributes, and human minds at times governed their behavior and dialogue. My own personal delight would be to see more alien ways of thinking, more uniquely Angel or Demon codes of honor, culture, and behaviors. But that’s just me. I think a lot of these things are mere personal preference, in that I would have handled the subject matter a different way.

I did love the concept of the auras, though, and found the Chimere absolutely terrifying and brilliant creatures. Their laugh, their appearance, the random acts of madness and brutality, their introduction to the world were an ominous and at times, terrifying addition to the mythos Hallahan has created.

I also found the love story achingly emotional between Brendan and Anne (and even between Anne and Trevor). I think Hallahan captured their childhood love well, and the intensity of their feelings for each other.
This was a fast and anjoyable read, and I think an interesting look at and old story with a new twist. And I thought the ending was perfectly appropriate, because in the grand scheme of things, nothing would have been more fitting.

PEACEABLE KINGDOM

Friday, May 19, 2006, 1:17:34 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
Jack Ketchum’s PEACEABLE KINGDOM is a study in monsters. But not my kind of monsters – not the supernatural kind – but the human kind. It’s also a study in human emotion. And it’s proof that in horror, the lines that separate human from monster, emotion from detachment, and love from hate, often blur beyond recognition.

I’ve said before that Ketchum’s strength lies in creating engaging characters. Whether sympathetic, sexy, or relentlessly hateful and despicable, his characters breathe off the pages, living, dying, killing, loving, mating, and scaring the hell out of those around them. This collection of short stories presents human emotion, human weaknesses and strengths, and the horror, as is so often the case, lies only to an extent with the horrible acts they perpetrate on one another, or the tragedies that befall them. The horror of PEACEABLE KINGDOM is in the very real, very human reactions to those acts and those tragedies.

Throughout the stories in this book, we as readers are both aroused, and disgusted by our arousal. We are sympathetic, understanding — even, I daresay, able to relate, and we shiver that we can come so close to accepting the madness he presents. Ketchum achieves this by first establishing human characters. Once we see them for people we know and sometimes, people we are, the short bridge to the dark secrets that people bury in highrise apartments and underground cellars can be crossed, and we find ourselves on the other side with those characters.

I think what is to be learned as a writer from this book is that horror starts with the people it happens to. It starts with establishing characters that readers will care about, so that they lock the readers into a sympathetic relationship. I think one can also learn that alienness is relative; monsters terrify most effectively, it seems to me, when there is a juxtaposition of the utterly alien, and the identifiably human.

Ketchum doesn’t shy away from graphic horror. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to label him “splatter,” many of his sotires are intensely disquieting, and often make the reader VERY uncomfortable. Again, I think that this lies only in part with the steady, unflinching descriptions of torture, mutilation, torment, and murder. It relies heavily on dread of what’s to come, the fear of an unknown saturated with sadistic possibilities. Vengeance is slow and painful. But the discomfort comes from helplessness – from sympathy toward the victims, but also from some understanding of the motivations of the killers. Few blindly and savagely glee-kill. These are murderers with reasons, with appetites and warped concepts of love. These are people we see every day. Again, it comes back to the characters.

My ultimate impression of the book is that Ketchum’s writing is intense, emotional, and very, very human. He knows where the heartstrings are and how to tug them. Although some stories made me uncomfortable, I can appreciate that PEACEABLE KINGDOM is, indeed, a model of horror fiction, and one to be learned from and soaked up.

HOW TO WRITE HORROR FICTION

Friday, May 19, 2006, 1:17:05 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
William Nolan’s HOW TO WRITE HORROR FICTION was a Godsend. It is perhaps as crucial to basic horror writing as Mort Castle’s WRITING HORROR. Nolan, who has not only written a number of books, articles, short stories, and scripts for film and TV, but he’s also written in a variety of genres. The language throughout the book was simple and straightforward and possessed of a sense of humor about writing and about horror. It was also organized into logical sections that broke down all the most obvious and basic elements of successful horror fiction. I happily breezed through this book. A Writer’s Digest offering in the Genre Writing Series, it discusses characters, believability, dialogue, realistic monsters and plots, timing, atmosphere, the hook, and endings. Nolan also spends a chapter discussing his specific opinions (politely) regarding splatter horror vs. quiet horror (he’s far more a fan of quiet horror, and questions the place of excessive gore in horror fiction).

I found especially interesting his chapter on characters, in which he discusses knowing them as people, choosing appropriate names, making them real and believable but also active. That characters change over the course of the story, he says, is crucial. And he also points out that all these things are equally as important for villains.

I also enjoyed the chapter on suspense. It’s important, especially in horror, to know how to build suspense in, say, working up to opening a door. It’s also important to know when to open it. Revealing the monster too soon can be a let-down that lets off too much of the head of suspense-steam you’ve worked up. Likewise, if the revelation doesn’t live up to the threat you’ve created, this, too, is a let-down. The monster should be an even match to the hero, so that at all times, it’s a tug of war, a continual battle that is both believable and exciting. Timing has a lot to do with making this work, as does laying a solid foundation in your world-building for these events to take place.

Nolan also describes using personal experience and childhood fears to draw inspiration from. The old adage, “write what you know,” is as applicable in speculative (generally) and horror (specifically) genres as it is in any other kind of fiction. Do you have to know what it feels like to stab someone to death? No, but you can draw on what it feels like to be incredibly angry, or to be incredibly scared, and apply the emotion and sensation and memory behind it to make believable fiction.

The big bonus to the book, of course, is the story break-down. Nolan takes one of his own published short stories, “The Pool,” and essentially goes line by line through it, deconstructing it to show the readers how to build a suspenseful story. Interspersed within the text of the short story, he explains his reasoning for word choice and description, and what he was looking to accomplish with each sentence along the way.

To explain what I, as a writer, could take away from this book would be almost redundant. It’s a definite recommended read for anyone who writes horror.

Self-Evaluation

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 9:58:50 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
This semester, my advisor and I agreed that I would continue to work on learning to tighten plot and to avoid easy plot device crutches. I think having this in my head, I am more aware of when I slip into easy horror tropes, and I try to catch them and go back and do something totally different with them. I think I have also improved upon using specific words to get a connotation as well as a denotation across in my writing. I’ve been more careful not to mix metaphors. I still believe I need to work on plotting in a more layered sense. My plots are fairly linear and I’d like to learn to weave in sub-plots and complexities of the main plot thread. I like the stories whose plots have a lot of interconnecting details that let the readers know in subtle ways that the pixels of disquiet are forming a picture of dread.

I’ve realized that I’m developing a taste for the surreal in horror. Not Naked Lunch-surreal, but that vague and often weird feeling of disquiet to dread to putright terror that characterizes so much of the fiction and cinema that I have been enjoying lately. I think Peter Straub’s work in particular had a profound effect on my writing, and on what I hope to accomplish not only in the external presentation of the prose, but in the underlying meaning of the words.

I’ve learned a lot this semester. Reviewing the books I’ve read, many of them seem to have a common theme of subtlety. A character development, a point I’m trying to make, the building of suspension doesn’t need to be loud, gaudy, or in your face except when the occasion warrants it. Fiction is kind of like cooking. Know when to use heavy sauces and when to season lightly. Know to mix growing dread in slowly to the mix. Use fully ripened characters. Stir the words into nicely turned phrases.

I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I think that how you say something is often as important as what you’re saying. With such a wide variety of styles in the reading material this term, I was exposed to and got a feel for stylistic aspects I liked and those that I didn’t. I learned what would work for me and what I could incorpporate into my own style or use to enhance it.

Ultimately, I guess I learned how to refine and develop my own style. And for fiction writers to be remembered, I think this is crucial.

I hope that in the terms to follow, I can work on cultivating ideas from the fertile soil of the world around me, and find the courage to take leaps with fiction. After all, the genres of speculative fiction are meant to explore and unsettle.

THE LOST

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 9:34:54 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
The strength of Jack Ketchum’s THE LOST lies, in my opinion, in his characterization. I’m a character person – I can deal with nearly any kind of plot if the characters are good. And Ketchum’s are absolutely engaging. Luckily, so is the plot.

Set in 1965 in a rural area of New Jersey, Ray brutally shoots two women he believes to be lesbians, although the police can’t prove it. Ray is a brilliantly rendered bad guy with multiple layers to his cruelty, his belief that the world owes him something, his utter lack of empathy or sympathy, and his intolerance.

Meanwhile, he surrounds himself with weak and easily manipulated teenagers Tim and Jennifer. That summer their youth is shattered as they are drawn further and further into Ray’s developing deviance. I think the book captures both the innocence of the time and the turmoil that was about to shatter innocence and simple quiet life on a larger scale.

Jennifer just wants his attention. She’s not a stunning beauty, but she’s loyal and devoted and continually accepts Ray’s abuse just to be near him, to share in the power and in the “cool” that he projects to the outside world.

Tim, meanwhile, simply cares for Jennifer. Ray’s best friend, he is terrified of touching her, not because he thinks Ray cares about her (he’s acutely and painfully aware that Ray does not, moreso than Jennifer is herself), but because of Ray’s rage. Ray thinks of his friends as possessions, as toys, really. And he doesn’t like anyone to play with his toys.

Ray is abusive and nasty through and through without appearing a cardboard cutout of evil. He had feelings, and is ruled by his emotions, filtered through the skewed view of the world that he holds. He wants power, and for the four years since the murder and attempted murder of the girls in the woods, his ego had been swollen to bursting with the smug pride of getting away with it, but being able to take or do anything or anyone he wanted, any time he wanted.

He meets his match, though, in two people, both of whom escalate Ray’s pathology to an unspeakably violent climax.

Charlie Shilling, a detective who has been trying to nail Ray for four years, is gathering more and more evidence against Ray. He puts on the pressure, by degrees, and Ray begins to feel less comfortable with his top-of-the-world status. Kathy is a beautiful new girl in town – a little wild herself, she is the only one who can keep Ray on his toes, keep him guessing, and keep him intriqued. But she plays with him the way he plays with everyone else, and when he realizes that he has no control over the one thing he wants to possess, he loses it.

Things come to a head when he discovers that Tim and Jennifer have slept together. He does not consider this a betrayal so much as loss of control, and that he cannot tolerate.

This story works well both on a small scale and a large scale level. The complex personalities and relationships between the characters cause readers to think about them as real people, and reflect on their situations even away from the book.

That, too me, is the strongest testament to Ketchum’s characterization. His work is essential to study for the refined complexities of character development.

LITTLE ORANGE BOOK OF ODD STORIES

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 9:13:56 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
Gary Braunbeck’s LITTLE ORANGE BOOK OF ODD STORIES is a beautiful collection that contains both poetic prose and poetry. Each piece serves as a testament to the power of clear and careful word choices and perfect turns of phrase to subtly get the theme across.

The latter especially delights me, as what I enjoy most about writing is the way something is said. A case in point of Braunbeck’s skill in diction is this one: “… afraid that she’d embrace the comfort of a night’s dreaming only to be ripped awake and faced with the fury of a beast that was once her kind and loving husband, before the sadness came and found him easy to defeat.” Braunbeck also has excellent opening lines that peak the interest right away, as is evidenced in such stories as, say, “The Projectionist, which begins: “It was an old movie theater full of winos and thugs and snoring bums and it stank horribly and was overcrowded and overheated and usually showed lousy movies but the projectionist didn’t mind; ….”

Braunbeck’s themes of loss and loneliness are recurring and powerful without being redundant. He manages to say a lot with very few words. His story, “Sometimes First Thing in the Morning or Very Late at Night,” about a woman who has come to realize that she has traded a busy domestic life of housework for the dreams and desires and talents of her youth, speaks volumes without beating the reader over the head with its meaning. He doesn’t have to say, “she gave up.” Readers feel it more strongly in the subtle details of the story. Likewise, in “Esmeralda; No Fanfare Please,” we see a similar theme of life passing by for the lonely, although that is never explicitly stated. His references to Quasimodo and Esmeralda suggest enough.
“Within a Dark Wood,” meanwhile, is a surreal trip through the horrors and helplessness of domestic abuse. Some of the most disturbing imagery is not the sights or sounds of the woman being beaten, but ideas like his own mother making him hot choclate after she’d cleaned her cuts, and the neighbor’s wedding album, which had been torched.

Braunbeck embraces sadness from every walk of life, humanizing it and at the same time, exploring characters that are not stock Average White Males. “From the Books of Alice Redfearn A Didactic Parable” acknowledges the power of knowledge for women. “Cocteau Prayers” reflects the sadness of a partner, lover and friend lost to death, and how the pain is the same, regardless of orientation.

Braunbeck’s prose is emotional and deeply moving. There is definitely much to be learned from the subtlety of his style.

THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW

Thursday, October 27, 2005, 2:16:41 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
As I mentioned once in another journal post, I’d heard that Laymon’s work tends to be very sexual and also accessible the way, say, King’s work is. I found this to be true. THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW was a fast read, and the teenaged characters, especially Dwight and Slim, were endearing. I think sometimes teenagers are depicted as selfish, self-absorbed angst-buckets, which is fine if a writer wants readers to see them that way. But readers lose that sympathy string binding them to the characters if those characters are shown as creatures so far removed from adult thinking that we can’t even wax nostalgic. I think Laymon’s teens are likeable — realistically confused and horny and goofy and incessantly embarrassed by something, but genuinely good kids.

The novel is sexually charged on all fronts. Two teenaged boys and a teenage girl in summer states of undress throughout the book stir hormones like a kick to a hornet’s nest. What might have become tiresome reiterations about this one’s breasts, that one’s legs, this one’s nipples, and so on was balanced with the main character Dwight’s genuine caring for the women involved, and sincere awe at the way women (and girls) work and look.

Although I think this is a testament to the writing, it was easy to slip 400+ pages into the book before the actual vampire show started. The writing is honest and fluid and fun, with a frank first-person point of view that engages the readers in a conversational tone.

There are a lot of tense moments throughout, built on Dwight’s desire to protect Slim, who he cares about very much, and often in people not being where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. That uneasy feeling of losing someone or being lost pervades the plot. In essense, it reflects the theme – innocence lost, youth lost, loss of friends, loss of security when one crosses the bridge from adolescence to adulthood.

I would have liked to see further confrontation with the monster at the end (aside from the caged catfight, I mean) and more detailed explanation of the resolution and how it affected the characters. However, I think Laymon’s work has a campy, horror-movie feel to it that effortlessly and easily carries readers throughout the book. Laymon brings out the brutality or gore in full color when warranted, but doesn’t splash it hap-hazardly all over his prose. There is just enough so the threats seem real and serious enough to sustain the tension.
Overall, THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW was a fun book and a remarkably smooth read. I enjoyed it.

 

HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS

Monday, October 24, 2005, 1:25:07 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
One of the most outstanding skills, in my opinion, that Peter Straub possesses as a writer is his ability to make such effective use of subtle repetition in imagery and theme to build a growing sense of dread and disquiet throughout his work. This is particularly evident in his longer works – GHOST STORY from last semester, and in the two longer selections from this semester’s read, HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS. These two novella length pieces, “The Buffalo Hunter” and “Mrs. God,” anchor the middle and end of the collection.

The structure of the collection is such that interspersed between short story-length pieces, there are flash-length vignettes which loosely bridge one story to the next. Many of the shorts are tied to other works (like KOKO), and serve as prequels or offshoots that flesh out the complex histories and networks of dark secrets that run like catacombs beneath his beautiful prose.

These pieces explore the theme of characters being trapped inside themselves with the sins of their pasts and the shortcomings of their present and the darkness of their future. The characters are, in effect, trapped in houses without doors – either of their own making, or because of their simple place in a world larger and indifferent than them. The apartment in
“The Buffalo Hunter” is a representative shell of the manufactured isolation that – chooses to place himself in. His mother’s illness (ostensibly the onset of Alzheimer’s), is a prison in and of itself from which his mother cannot escape. Even the bleak town of Battle Creek, Michigan holds captive dark memories of a verbally and emotionally abusive father and oversensitive mother. His novels are escapist worlds which forsake the physical prison of his body.

In “Mrs. God,” Esswood House itself, as well as other establishments along the way, often feature figures trapped behind windows and locked doors, or beneath mounds of dirt, in a literal sense. But all of the major characters, including Standish, have created walls in their minds to block themselves off from the world. Standish’s staunch refusal to deal with the betrayal issues and anger resulting from his wife’s infidelity and the termination of her pregnancy by other man at his behest resurface often when compared to shocking parallel situations in the quiet hamlets and villages surrounding Esswood House. Pregnancy itself is shown as a kind of imprisonment – Standish, whose wife is now carrying his baby, has to fight with her to leave for Esswood house in the first place, to get away from her. For some, pregnancy is a death sentence. For some, the very act that results in life also results in death. No one who comes to Esswood House ever finds reason to leave.

Straub neither shies away from brutality and blood nor overdoes them. His dread is built up slowly, softly, with similar combinations of words to describe things that have a symbolic as well as literal meaning. Situations often repeat, or play out for some other characters in a similar pattern, or with similar results. His stories have an underlying connectedness that is not immediately evident until the layers are peeled away and the meat of his meaning, of the point he is trying to make, is revealed.

I thought that HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS was absolutely brilliant – I definitely think his techniques for building dread are a worthwhile study for any horror writer.

FACE

Tuesday, July 12, 2005, 3:11:34 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
I just finished reading Tim Lebbon’s FACE, and was struck by the sections from “The Book of Lies”, interspersed between the chapters of the books. In these brilliantly conversational and yet philosophical sections, we see the crests of Lebbon’s theme emerge then sink back to underlie the chapters. Through the Book of Lies, which I believe has something to do with his antagonist’s existence (and is, ostensibly, from his POV), we as readers get an understanding of the nature of truth and lies — the lies we tell ourselves either because we need to believe them as true, or need others to believe them in order to continue to love us. But it isn’t until the members of the Powell family – Dan, Meghan and their daughter, Nikki – recognize the need to tell each other the truth that they can fight the evil invading their lives as a united force.

The antagonist, a stranger known only as Brand, seems at once both supernatural and human, weak enough so that we are attracted to him but strong enough that in the next breath, we are terrified of him and not sure where or how we ever saw any weakness at all. The end leaves some mystery as to who Brand was, where he came from, and to an extent, what his driving motivation is. He essentially tells the family that he’s stalked and terrorized them simply because he can, or as Poe puts it, “to do wrong for wrong’s sake only.” His motivation outwardly, at least as far as Lebbon is willing to spell out, is that sometimes bad things happen to good people – and he’s that bad thing. But the fact that he’d asked for a moment of their time – and left the Book of Lies for them to find – suggests something else to me about what Brand is and where he comes from.

I think that Brand represents something that I guess you could call a Necessary Evil. My impression, when I’d finished reading FACE, was that Brand’s real motivation is to open people’s eyes. An angel or a demon, he uses whatever means are necessary to make people face their weaknesses and their fears and acknowledge them in order to find their strengths. He would have opened their eyes then and there that day in the snow when they’d picked him up, but they refused to hear him. So he gave them a moment of his time. He made them tell themselves their own truths first, because without that, they would not have been able to tell truths to each other. I think the footprints on the roof suggest opening one’s eyes to a new perspective, that maybe there is something potentially to be feared in the innocent, and that there is perhaps a strength in those innocents, those weaker that we may feel a need at times to protect because of our own self-constructed truth about their nature. This seems confirmed in both the character of Nikki, who as a teenager is both innocent and a source of parental worry for her parents, and in the animals that watch Meghan as spies for Brand.

The title is also open to speculation. One could theorize that FACE refers to the family facing their fears, facing the changing nature of their relationships with each other. It could also reference Brand’s face, scarred, a mask of false emotions, of anger that is really amusement, and desire that is really cold and calculating control. It could mean the face of evil, the face of fate and circumstance, the face of fear, or of facing death.

I think it probably has to do with finding the strength to face oneself, face one’s own shortcomings and one’s own insecurities, and see a face in the mirror that one can actually live with.

Which, as we discussed before, is the essential purpose of horror fiction, in my opinion – to provide the means to change one’s world view.

I highly recommend this book. It was a thrilling read.

YEAR’S BEST FANTASY & HORROR 17

Tuesday, May 10, 2005, 11:11:04 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
What struck me about so many of the stories in this anthology was the subtlety of the horror. These weren’t stories of monsters trashing cities or even crawling out from under solitary beds. The selections in this volume of YEAR’S BEST focused often on human monsters – mothers that leave their children on the side of the road because they never had a chance to really live life alone, terrorists, bombers, child molesters. Some, such as Adam Corbin Fusco’s “N0072-JK1” (which also appears in BORDERLANDS 5), do not even define the monster so much as provide a clinical approach to monstrous things like torture. What the anthology as a whole seems to suggest is that horror can be subtle and surreal and literary without being gory to drive home the idea that we are living with horror in and among and around us.
What I think I learned from YEAR’S BEST, which, by its nature, is a series of changing contemporary content, is a reinforcement that the horror can be driven by the vehicle of timely terrors, but the purpose should speak of timeless ones. Datlow, upon a visit to the Garden State Horror Writers’ monthly meeting in New Jersey, explained that the content of contemporary horror and dark fantasy submissions to YEAR’S BEST changes with the times. It often tries to capture what is going on in the world around us, such as the terrorist threat, with stories like Hodge’s “With Acknowledgments to Sun Tsu.” However, there are also stories like King’s “Harvey’s Dream,” which compare the slowly growing disquiet of middle-aged resignation and the tension between newly empty-nesters with the sudden fear for the one person who still gives each of them meaning – their child.
I think the presence of both horror and fantasy in the anthology suggest the understanding that things beyond our normal concepts of reality may not be what they seem, neither the horror at first supposed nor the fantasy at first perceived. Of course, sometimes, they are a little of both. This unifying theme seems to echo throughout the book in the plots of the stories themselves. This is not to say that these stories are particularly surreal in the slipstream tradition, but rather that they present perception of an unusual occurrence in such a way that the reader’s POV is challenged. And this seems to be at the heart of what the best of fiction, the year’s best or otherwise, tries to do. The reader’s perception of the world is challenged, and maybe that will lead to understanding or sympathy or a richer, more vibrant view of the world around him/her and the people that populate it.
Popular for its consistently great fiction, YEAR’S BEST also boasts a considerable Honorable Mentions list, A Year in Review for both Horror and Fantasy and the multimedia formats which are becoming ever more popular proponents of horror and fantasy.

Self-Evaluation

Tuesday, May 10, 2005, 10:50:31 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
When I met with my advisor last January, we discussed my improvement goals for the semester and for the length of the program. We decided that I need to work on my plotting skills, and on tightening my prose. I believe that these are where my weaknesses lie. I have often had trouble thinking up endings that do the stories justice. I also felt that my unifying plotline usually left something to be desired. My strengths, in my opinion, lay in creating characters that people identify with, characters that grow over time (and this includes the antagonists, which, to an extent, form an important part of a horror plot). However, the development of the situational aspect of the threat or of the characters’ journey to overcome that threat needed work. Further, while I think I handle description pretty well (I’m very visual, and I think my fiction tends to be visual, too), I have a tendency to over-similie and over-metaphor. Too many adjectives, too many step-by-step plays were weighing down the descriptions.

I have learned in my reading this semester that the best plots, regardless of subgenre, stream, or any other categorical differentiation, are often the ones where the vehicle for horror is secondary to the underlying revelation about the human condition. The characters’ reactions to the threat cause their progression or regression. And the threat, be it human or supernatural, should say something about the characters. It should be a catalyst of some new understanding about the world, and the characters should offer the reader, whether they succeed or fail in their own attempts at overcoming the threat, a means to cope with it, understand it better, and/or rise above it. THE DARK DESCENT, BORDERLANDS 2 and YEAR’S BEST FANTASY & HORROR provide some of the best examples of dark genre short stories that horror and fantasy have to offer, and in a format that requires tight plots, succint description and an economy of words. But aside from the technical examples, I think I learned as much that for writing to be great as opposed to just capable, it needs to have some depth, some layer that connects to the soul.
I have learned that, by David Hartwell’s explanations of the category breakdown of horror, that my work falls most often into the moral allegorical stream of supernatural horror in which the presence of evil in all its horrific glory serves to reawaken the densitized emotional response. This seems to appropriately capture what I feel personally that horror fiction should do, and that is to make the reader feel something (and, as an extension, to be able to process that emotion to better the reader’s intangible quality of life). The very contemporary content of this year’s YEAR’S BEST stories suggest to me that while readers and writers alike respond to the very real, very frightening horrors in the real world around us, that the underlying tragedy of human loss, the underlying fear of the unknown, the fear of sweeping change whose repercussions we have only yet to imagine – these things remain universal and timeless. What scares us, then, is not the face of the monster, which changes over time. It’s what the monster means to us and our continuing survival, and worse – what our actions and our thoughts and feelings in relation to the monster mean about us.

I feel that I will still continue to be primarily character-driven in my work, but I think I also understand better how to plot a story. For me, it’s not just about trotting out the beast anymore. It’s about saying something.

THE DARK DESCENT

Tuesday, May 10, 2005, 10:21:22 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
This book is a veritable Who’s Who of horror fiction. I was delighted to see so many authors I recognized, and so many classics of horror literature – everything from Poe to Lovecraft to King, and so much in between. Here were Puritan tales from Hawthorne, ghost stories from M. R. James and Sheridan LeFanu, tales from Bloch and Wagner and Lieber and the list goes on and on.It is Hartwell’s convincing argument that a study of short stories, which are the single genre precedent to horror fiction of longer lengths, will allow us to understand the begins of the horror novel.
David Hartwell’s introduction discusses at length the state of horror literature today as well as the development of horror from the very first practitioners of the genre. Quoting Edmund Wilson’s A LITERARY CHRONICLE, he says that when the world fails us, we look for evidence of another world. We inoculate ourselves against panic at real horrors by injections of imaginary horror which soothe us with “the momentary illusion that the forces of madness and murder may be tamed.”
This, I think, speaks to the structure of this anthology itself; Hartwell explains that there are three streams in which contemporary horror fiction occurs. The first, the Moral Allegorical, forms the bulk of popular commercial horror fiction. It reminds the reader that evil is a very real part of life, a horror spectacle that intrudes regularly on conventional reality. Generally, these stories are supernatural, and speak to a certain moral code. Examples of this stream are found in part one of the anthology with stories like Stephen King’s “The Reach,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu,” and “Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” In all three cases, we see people that strive for a good life, even if it means uncovering or reliving past sins and evils.
The second stream, Psychological Metaphor, comprises the second part of the anthology. The stories of this stream look at aberrant psychological behavior symbolically manifested through supernatural means (Hartwell cites Dracula as an example of this) or human pathologies as in Robert Bloch’s “Psycho.” Along the same vein as the latter, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” studies unhealthy familial obsessions from the POV of outsiders looking in. In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we see further effects of obsession as a result of overprotective coddling and isolation, this time from deep inside first person POV.
Finally, the third stream is the Fantastical. Hartwell’s definition calls to mind a more recent subgenre known as slipstream. The Fantastical stream builds horror around ambiguous, often surreal occurrences which are not directly defined or explained but rather accepted as unsettling in their mystery. Stephen King’s “Crouch End” was my favorite example of this, a tale where a small suburb of London is home to some very strange things.
I very much enjoyed this book and was glad to have had a chance to read so many classics collected in one volume. It is, in my opinion, and absolute must have for any writer of dark speculative fiction.

GHOST STORY

Tuesday, May 03, 2005, 5:16:47 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
I just finished reading this novel by Peter Straub and I wanted to write down my thoughts right away, while the scenes were still fresh in my mind.

The first word that comes to mind, which I think describes both the story itself and the style in which it is told, is “classy.” There is an old-fashioned M.R James feel (as I believe was Straub’s intention), and a pervading sense of terrible secret things coming to a head. The characters of Hawthorne and James (and the rest of the Chowder Society) keep up refined habits — suits and bowties, moderate brandy drinking and cigar smoking, and the telling of spooky old ghost stories. Outside the warmth of their fire and friendship, both subtle and quite brutal horrors are systematically destroying the inhabitants of Milburn, NY. As the story unfolds, the writing maintains that sense of respectability and class, even as it recounts the wicked things people have done to each other, and have let be done to themselves. In fact, I think that the writing style offers an interesting contrast to the sins of the townspeople of Milburn, cut off both figuratively and socially from the rest of the world and often burying themselves willingly beneath the snows of their own appetites and resulting problems.

There is a rather chilling opening to the book involving one of the main characters, Don Wanderley, and then the story dips and the plot percolates for a couple hundred pages with subtle moments of increasing disquiet. There are so many beautifully woven little details that at first seem trivial but later take on a frightening importance.

I mean this earnestly when I say that the last 200 or so pages of this book contain some of the most enviably deft writing I have ever read. The passages evoke a feeling of walking midway into a trap, both voyeuristically for us as readers and literally for the characters, without seeing it for what it is until it’s too late. This is both the surreal beauty and the terrifying power of the nightwatchers. They are of imagination, of dreams and nightmares, so they can be anything, look any way they choose, and their power is in disorientation. Straub achieves this by working ever-so-slightly jarring elements into a sudden change of scene. These elements at first seem irrelevant, but gentle repetition breeds a slow dawning of their import. And when the reader realizes it — usually not too long before the character does — it creates scenes that, at least for me, were check-under-the-bedworthy.

There are two scenes in particular that wowed me. One involves the character of Lewis Benedikt while he is out hunting in the woods. He finds a door made of tree branches and leaves, and when he opens it, he walks into a rapidly changing dreamscape of slowly-building surreal horror. The other scene involves the local sheriff, Hardesty, who awakens at his desk to find that there is something just a little off about the bodies under sheets, locked up as they are in the jail cells until the “meat wagon” can come collect them. The devil, as they say, is in the details — the rearrangement of the bodies, the feet pointing toward Hardesty, the strands of blond hair suddenly visible from beneath Christina Barnes’ sheet, and the crown of the baby head, as if the child had wiggled up and away from his sheet….

I was delighted with the ending, too, which delivers an answer I had been waiting for since the first scene of the book. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

To give away more would risk ruining the very quality of the book that makes it so great, but these scenes are indicative of what I think true scary writing is.

BORDERLANDS 2

Tuesday, March 15, 2005, 2:06:18 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
The second volume in the Borderlands anthology series delivers exactly what those books have come to be know for – a collection of tales of the outskirts of horror and just over the border into the strange. Many of the tales are surreal, their horror derived from the sheer oddity of the situations in which the characters find themselves. In other tales, the horror is not so much a result of the bizarre happenings, but rather, the impact they have on the characters and the reactions that the characters have. There was a handful of these tales that particularly stick out in my memory, either for their innovation of ideas, development of characters, potent themes, or, in most cases, the deft assembly of the words.

F. Paul Wilson’s “Foet” is a unique and creative nod to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” In Wilson’s tale, the fashion elite are out and about town sporting the latest in expensive accessories – handbags made from the skin of aborted fetuses. The horror is brilliantly woven with social commentary. Its theme is applicable to the debate now surrounding abortion and stem cell research. The argument in the story is that if the tissue is only to be disposed of, why not use it for practical purposes? The story also makes subtle commentary on the power of fashion and trends in society, which can sometimes excuse what would in other situations be unexcusable.

“Love Doll: A Fable” is less heavy but employs its own brand of social commentary. It’s an amusing piece of dark comedy about a man and his blow-up doll that takes to the extreme the changing roles of women in society and the affect the change has on relationships.

Bentley Little’s “The Potato” (which has been reprinted in his aptly named THE COLLECTION), couches its horror in the often frightening power of interpretation in a religious context.

“Androgyny” by Brian Hodge is more surreal. Its horror is not to be derived from the mere presence of fringe culture or even from the unfortunate physical or emotional by-products of body modification, but from the lack of understanding that the inside is what the soul bonds to.

Kim Antieau’s “Sarah, Unbound” was a bitterweet story of what freedom really means, and most importantly, how to find it. While it had horrific elements, I think the point of the story was the beauty derived from overcoming them.

Both “Down the Valley Wild” (Paul F. Olson) and “Taking Care of Michael” J.L. Comeau deal with sibling rivalry in their own ways. Each takes the POV of the child that, in its own opinion, never measured up to the sibling. Both stories revolve around anger towards that sibling – suppressed by guilt and fear over the years in the former, and pulled taut just below the surface in the latter.

“The Atonement” by Richard Rains was one of my favorites. This reminded me very much of the Twilight Zone episode “Death’s Head Revisited.” In this story, a former Nazi soldier is shown the affect of his crimes. A story so heavy in tragedy is handled with grace and reverence, and never sinks to sensationalist thrills.

“Peacemaker” by Charles L. Grant is subtle in its suggestion that people are a little too quick to jump to extreme vindications of minor affronts.

Stanley Wiater’s “Stress Test HR51, Case #041068” was another favorite, expertly playing on uncertainty and the ability to draw a line between the safety of being in control to the very real danger of walking into something unprepared. In an interview situation at an asylum, an interviewee’s ability to handle stress is tested to an extreme.

My very favorite of the anthology was “Slipping,” by David B. Silva. His tale about a man whose world is spinning by too fast, a man who is literally losing chunks of time, is so well done. The abrupt style works perfectly with the plot. But the real horror is not the black-out periods where the character lived life and has absolutely no recollection of whole hours, sometimes days, but of how simple it is to let life slip by.

The only real common element these stories had was that they were richly textured and multi-leveled. They didn’t just tell a simple horror story. They evoked a feeling. That, I think, is something to learn from.

FROM A BUICK 8

Tuesday, February 15, 2005, 2:25:33 PM | noreply@blogger.com (Mary SanGiovanni)Go to full article
I finished FROM A BUICK 8 this weekend and I was impressed. This book makes you want to get out of the car next time you’re pulled over and thank your local state trooper for risking his or her life every day to keep your state safe. Seriously. Why? Because King has created characters that at best are noble heroes and at worst are achingly human. The troopers of the Pennsylvania State Police Troop D have wives and kids and drink and smoke and know they should spend more time with the former and less with the latter. They have losses and divorces and tragedies but also births and grandkids and shining moments of bravery, comeraderie, and friendship. The troopers are more than colleagues. There is a bond in Troop D that is like family.

And that bond, you find when reading FROM A BUICK 8, is as crucial a force in the story as the Buick itself. It counteracts the weird light shows and strange disappearances and hideous trunk births that the impounded car out in Shed B behind the trooper station produces at an irregular but fairly often basis. The book is told from various character viewpoints, alternating between past and present, as Sergeant Sandy Dearborn and his fellow troopers try to help a fallen trooper’s son (Ned) deal with his father’s death. Sandy, Tony, and Curt (Ned’s father), as well as Huddie and Arky and Eddie and Shirley and George and a host of other troopers come and gone over the years, are connected by a common secret – the strange car that shouldn’t work, but yet serves as a portal to another dimension. As the story about finding and dealing with all the oddities presented by the Buick unfolds, Sandy tries to get Ned to understand that sometimes there is no explanation. The Buick, like life and importantly for Ned, like death, presents mysteries that can’t always be solved. Sometimes things just happen, like accidents on the highway that strip boys of their fathers and fathers of their skin. Sometimes the unthinkable happens on the road and troopers at a loss to explain compound the senseless tragedy. Sometimes people go missing to God-knows-where and don’t ever come back. But what I think Sandy discovers is that sometimes there are answers. Maybe there are no accidents. Just because you can’t immediately see an answer, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. What I think both Sandy and Ned both realize is that sometimes you can only find something when you stop looking so hard at it.

This book works on an emotional level most effectively when King shows us COPS unsensored. These men love their job and are loyal to it, but sometimes they are afraid. Sometimes they make mistakes. They know the job will be the end of them someday and a part of that always weighs on them. Sure, they may not die “in the line of duty,” exactly, but there are divorces and infidelities and highway wrecks and alcoholism and suicides and sickness…. In essence, the job sinks into them. One way or another, it determines their ends. They are connected – to it, to each other. Things come full circle, and maybe it isn’t just happenstance that brings them round again. The pull of the work, much like the pull of the Buick, is undeniable. The Buick, like their jobs, becomes a part of them, sometimes dangerous, but usually just a part of everyday life they accept and are used to. But it is always there, and it shapes the course of their lives.

The book seems to revolve a lot around accidents and purposes – what is accidental and coincidental as opposed to purposeful or connected in an inevitable chain of events. The true horror of the book isn’t the occasional monster that comes out of the Buick (although they are wondrously strange). It’s the notion that maybe nothing is really an accident. Since we can’t always see the sinister purpose connecting the seemingly unconnected, there is nothing we can do to prevent or stop it. All we can do is just accept that we can’t explain or change it. I think Sandy and Ned both come to understand (from different ends of the argument) that the most – the best — we can ever do is accept that sometimes the answers we need just come in due time, usually when we aren’t looking so hard to find them. Sometimes they don’t come at all, and in those cases, the best we can do for our own peace of mind (maybe the only active thing we can do) is work on bridging the gaps with the ties that bind us together.

I enjoyed this book — another good one from King. Pick it up, if you get a chance.

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About Mary SanGiovanni

Author of the Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and more.
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