Overly domesticated in these unhorrifying tales
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