Thursday, June 20, 2013

91. Horror fiction notes (4/7) } ”A work of art must breathe life.”

When Carl Taske, the narrator in David J. Schow’s “Not From Around Here,” finds a monster curled up in bed beside his young daughter Jilly, and is then unable to stop the monster from slowly eating her, I realized Jilly was a totally undeveloped character, so in spite of my own fatherhood, and the worry I daily experience for my own daughters, I wasn’t horrified at all.

To a lesser extent, a similar problem occurs when Taske’s wife Suzanne is eaten. Though Schow provides Suzanne a little backstory, she is mainly a middle-aged wet-dream:
After bearing Jilly and dropping the surplus weight of pregnancy, her ass and pelvis had resolved into a lascivious fullness that I could not keep my hands away from for long….
Furthermore, she “Recently shed all self-consciousness about sex…” and is nearly always naked or throwing on a robe as she rushes around her new house.

The inability to write realized characters is an oft-cited weakness of horror fiction authors. Schow, however, is able. Carl Taske is likeable in spite of a host of flaws because he is fully self-aware. He knows he’s a yuppy and he feels the attendant class guilt, he’s desperate to please his wife and child, his temper gets the best of him, he’s afraid but willing to do for his family, he accepts blame, he’s insecure, and he’s unsure what to do with his success—it’s this uncertainty, he determines, that imperiled his family. Taske’s neighbor, Dunwoody, who serves as a glimpse of what Taske might become, is another sympathetic character. Maybe Schow just doesn’t write women well.

When Dunwoody first meets Taske, Dunwoody asks a series of very specific questions. Dunwoody wants to tell Taske something, but is prevented—we understand later what prevents him. The second time they meet, however, Dunwoody is free to speak, but rather than clearly explain to Taske that he and his family is in danger, he’s cryptic and rude.

And that’s a cliché. The old man, addled by the horrors he’s experienced, offers warnings no one would ever take seriously. What if the old man simply told Taske everything, the instant the two had a moment free? An interesting way to start a story—a real challenge to the protagonist. Sir, I know you just bought this house, but there is a monster here that mutilated my son and keeps me enslaved with its addictive venom. Here’s proof.

The addictive venom is the reason Dunwoody doesn’t warn Taske: Dunwoody is an addict. Addiction is the real horror in this story. It explains—justifies—everything. Even the cliché.

“Not From Around Here” starts strong, then drags to the end. Too much resolution for my taste.  Schow’s macho persona interferes, too—Taske’s page-long anecdote about losing it in middle school and beating up a bully is completely unnecessary.

While reading for my Video Lies series, I came across a 1993 review of X, Y that begins, “Michael Blumlein is best known in the horror community for The Brains of Rats, widely acclaimed as one of the most disturbing short story collections of the last few years “(Fangoria #130, Don Kaye). Who is Michael Blumlein?

“Bestseller,” ultimately collected in The Brains of Rats, is in the 1991 Year’s Best, and I admit I couldn’t finish it in one sitting because it disturbed me so. Specifically, the narrator is an author struggling to write in the face of his family’s growing economic desperation. His wife is losing confidence in his work and so is he. Then—and this is when I took my break—his son Nick is diagnosed with cancer and the doctors want to amputate his leg. This is not maudlin—Blumlein is better than that. The suffering of his characters is felt.

The weird of the tale is the arrangement the narrator makes with a private organ farm, a deal he enters into wide-eyed, and benefits from. The horror does not stem from forced harvesting, as it could, but rather from how the narrator responds to the progressively aggressive procedures. What the narrator becomes.

Briefly, “Bestseller” falls into a pattern that slows the tale down, but I’m not sure this should be considered a problem. A little lull is to be appreciated.

Susan Cooper’s essay “Fantasy in the Real World”—one of Terri Windling’s selections for the Year’s Best—proposes that the United States lacks the ritual that myth provides, and that this is the reason the United States “falls into destructive violence” (Cooper is paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, by way of Bill Moyers). Fantasy literature, she suggests, could provide the myth the States lack, presumably creating order in our society and putting an end to gun violence.

Cooper writes,
Great Britain is a fortunate country; there is a great deal to be said for constitutional monarchy. The actual governing is all done by a democratically elected Parliament; the monarch has no power at all, but leads a benevolent and very public life as a figurehead, a focus for ritual and emotion—a hero. Popularity is less important for a British prime minister than for an American president, since in Britain the public can focus all its adoration, all its hero-worship, upon the Queen—not to mention Prince Charles, Princess Di, and the rest.
She explains that, “We are short of such figures in the United States.” I don’t consider being without a preposterously entitled figurehead a lack, but a virtue. “Who are our heroes?” she asks, and then dismisses our heroes as either mere celebrities, or dead (she names John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), or possessed only of great talent, intelligence, and great beauty—none of royalty.

The United States is not without myths—look to the wild west—nor without heroes—legendary and otherwise. The great benefit of heroes who are entrepreneurs, actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, etc., rather than royalty,  is that it is possible to not only emulate such heroes, but to become one yourself by achievement.

Cooper abandons her central claim (fantasy is really important) to conclude that “parents, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers” must bring together “the right child and the right book.” She explains: 
The biggest truism of our professional lives is that hugely important fact too many civilians still forget: every child should be encouraged to read books, words on a page, for his or her own pleasure, in his own time, dreaming his own—and the author’s—dream.
Originally a speech delivered at the New York Library, I’m sure she delighted her audience, as I’m sure the essay gave certain readers a sense of importance. It is, however, a mess. Condescending, too.

Too bad, because I like very much that a couple of non-fiction pieces made their way into The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series (the other is Douglas Winter’s flawed essay “The Pathos of Genre” from the thirteenth volume, which I criticized in New Genre #4); it suggests that critical writing about fantasy and horror fiction, written by its practitioners, is of value.


  1. Regarding your first point, Adam, maybe the child's death lacks poignancy because it occurs too early in the story, as a sort of plot hook devised to snag the reader's attention, before the characters & their relationships have been given a chance to leave a solid impression on the reader's mind.

    Which is essentially the point you make, maybe, but to me terms like "character development" and "backstory" seem to strive to make something too concrete and formulaic out of something by nature fairly nebulous and abstract: the art of making a fictional character register in the reader's consciousness, to some degree, with some emotional appeal, as a "real" person.

    That is, I don't think there's necessarily a right way to "develop" a character to make it meaningful, or to lend its fate emotional resonance. Sometimes a character that appears for only a single paragraph can evoke as much sympathy as one that has been around for chapter after chapter.

    What tends to fail for me more often in fiction are characters that are introduced and "developed" in a sudden rush of information and dreaded backstory, clearly engineered to force reader sympathy with their predicament right before they succumb to some terrible, and entirely predictable fate.

    Less, sometimes, is A LOT more. Of course, I'm not telling you anything you're not perfectly aware of.

    And that Cooper essay sounds pretty contemptible, not to say bizarrely naive, in more respects than I'd have the patience to enumerate.

  2. I certainly don't disagree with you.

    Blumlein achieves what Schow does not: Blumlein keeps the child in "Bestseller" (Nick) present; Schow pulls the girl (Jilly) into the fore only when it is time for her to be eaten.

    Specifically, if we're examining technique, Nick's parent's react to Nick, he influences their world, and that influence *is* character development. Jilly is a cypher and then she's gone.

    Just before Nick is diagnosed with cancer, but after he's been tested and it's clear something is wrong, Nick's mother (Claire) yells at Nick over something minor. That's the kind of authentic note Schow fails to hit in his story. Claire is worried about her son, she's grieving and angry--at the situation and at her husband--but she directs her anger at the person available and least able to defend himself.

  3. I don't remember the specifics of Schow's story as you relate them here, but I do recall finding the monster particularly unsettling. Schow can be hit or miss, but I generally like his '80s output. I thought in "Pamela's Get" he was actually quite good at depicting women and their friendships.

    Blumlein fascinated me back in the early '90s; I had the hardcover of BRAINS OF RATS and enjoyed X,Y, but then he seemed to fall off the map (as so many horror writers of the era did). I look forward to rereading those cold clinical tales for review...

  4. First of all, your blog is a sucking bog of horror fun--I read one post, then "You also might like" pulls me down further. There is no bottom. Too Much Horror Fiction, is, however, a fine fate. So thank you. I read your post on Seeing Red, and saw that "Not From Around Here" was, in your opinion, the stand-out of the collection. Which leads me to two points:

    1. "Not From Around Here" starts wonderfully--when the husband and wife see the enormous, drooling man lumbering through their backyard at night I was hooked. I agree, too, that the creature is pretty cool.

    2. A story that doesn't stand out in a best of sometimes works better in the author's collection--the benefit of being in sequence, etc. The best ofs can be great introductions, but it is possible for them to do a disservice to certain authors by pulling their work out of context. (The reverse is sometimes true: some authors write the same story over and over, and you really only need to read the best example.)

    I became interested in Alan Ryan when I reread the whole Shadows series--he "vanished" like Blumlein, didn't he? Then died before he could come back. I keep waiting for a small press to do him justice. Didn't Blumlein do another book in 2005?