Overly do­mes­ti­cated in these un­hor­ri­fy­ing tales

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

writ­ing hor­ror (mon­sters on the streets of Brook­lyn?) or Will Self (vam­pires in the laneways of London?).

Mark Doty’s study of Bram Stoker’s re­la­tion­ship with Walt Whit­man helps us to see anew the true strange­ness of the poet’s vi­sion, but is oth­er­wise un­hor­ri­fy­ing, un­less you are likely to be hor­ri­fied by anec­dotes from Doty’s own life of rough sex ad­dic­tion. Auster of­fers a strangely pas­sion­less, sec­ond­per­son ac­count of his mother’s life and death, while Self writes about his trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence as the vic­tim of a rare blood dis­ease. Aw­ful, yes; but many of these pieces lack the un­canny, su­per­nat­u­ral, night­mar­ish qual­i­ties that would seem to dis­tin­guish hor­ror. With a cou­ple of ex­cep­tions, this is a highly do­mes­ti­cated ver­sion of a po­ten­tially wild and beastly theme.

Closer to a truly hor­ri­fy­ing sense of es­trange­ment are Tom Bam­forth’s ac­count of the hu­man im­pact of war in the Su­dan, and San­ti­ago Roncagli­olo’s piece on the po­lit­i­cal in­san­ity of Peru un­der the Shin­ing Path, all the more un­set­tling for their sta­tus as re­portage. Sarah Hall and Ra­jesh Parameswaran both ex­plore the un­canny po­ten­tial of cross­over be­tween an­i­mal and hu­man sub­jec­tiv­ity in their short sto­ries. Parameswaran’s The In­fa­mous Ben­gal Ming is the stand­out piece in the vol­ume, writ­ten in the voice of a naive and hap­less tiger who makes the ter­ri­ble mis­take of fall­ing in love with one of his keep­ers.

Roberto Bolano’s fan­tas­tic mash of mon­ster schlock and po­etic style of­fers the most in­ter­est­ing en­gage­ment with aes­thetic and po­lit­i­cal ques­tions around genre and the sig­nif­i­cance of hor­ror. His story The Colonel’s Son com­prises a scene-by-scene de­scrip­tion of a ‘‘ pure B-grade schlock’’ late-night TV movie with a strangely ‘‘ rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­mos­phere’’ — although the nar­ra­tor misses the be­gin­ning of the film, so we have a sense of be­ing al­ways un­able to prop­erly com­pre­hend its nar­ra­tive logic.

It’s a zom­bie film with plenty of flesh eat­ing and scream­ing, but with a some­what un­usual love story at its heart: the hero falls in love with a girl who is one of the first to be­come zomb­i­fied, and his love only in­ten­si­fies as her con­di­tion wors­ens, as she kills and eats and in­fects oth­ers, first wolf­ing down raw ham­burger meat in a late night su­per­mar­ket, then bit­ing the hor­ri­fied store owner, and so on.

The nar­ra­tor re­stricts him­self to de­scrib­ing the ac­tion, omit­ting any in­ter­pre­ta­tion, al­low­ing the ‘‘ rev­o­lu­tion­ary at­mos­phere’’ to seep through; is it a para­ble of con­tem­po­rary alien­ation; a twisted/time­less love story; a con­dem­na­tion of con­sumer cul­ture? Its pre­cise mean­ing is sus­pended, dream­like, leav­ing a residue of dis­turb­ing frag­ments.

This very lit­er­ary story ex­ists at one re­move from the B-movie genre on which it de­pends, yet it opens up an ur­gent ques­tion: what if we read or viewed schlock, that is, genre film and fic­tion, as hav­ing this rev­e­la­tory, po­etic po­ten­tial — in other words, as a genre with artis­tic value?

The ed­i­tors give us a chance to en­gage with that ques­tion with the in­clu­sion of a story by Stephen King, undis­puted mod­ern mas­ter of hor­ror. An im­age from his story The Dunes per­fectly evokes the creepi­ness, the sense of hav­ing per­ceived the skull be­neath the skin of the world, that ac­com­pa­nies the best hor­ror writ­ing: ‘‘ there on that is­land’’, the main char­ac­ter ex­plains, re­fer­ring to the dunes of the ti­tle, ‘‘ there’s a hatch come ajar. On this side is what we’re pleased to call ‘ the real world.’ On the other is all the ma­chin­ery of the uni­verse, run­ning at top speed.’’

What the char­ac­ter en­coun­ters on that sandy is­land is writ­ing, of the most im­pos­si­bly hor­ri­fy­ing kind; writ­ing that fore­tells death. King’s story re­minds us the best writ­ing has the power to do this: to open our minds to the pres­ence of other worlds, and in this lies its un­canny won­der. Kirsten Tran­ter’s new novel, A Com­mon Loss, is pub­lished by Fourth Es­tate.

Zom­bies make an ap­pear­ance in one story

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