31 Days of Dread

Unsettling Chapters: In the Black Mill

Sadly, there is a great divide in the literature world, one which I don’t really understand. Having completed an MFA program, I can speak to the snootiness of the literati establishment and its delineation between literary and genre fiction.

Personally, I believe it’s all simply fiction, and if there is any division, it’s between well-written fiction and not-so-well-written fiction.

But rather than rehash this tired debate, I’d like to talk about a writer who obliterates this divide, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. He has explored genre and pulp fiction in his novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Final Solution and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and as editor of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Perhaps his most daring genre work is the short story “In the Black Mill,” an homage to Lovecraft that first appeared in Playboy and later in his collection Werewolves in Their Youth.

For my money, “In the Black Mill” is the greatest Lovecraft-inspired work ever written. However, in full disclosure: I grew up in a rusting steel town outside of Pittsburgh, which is the setting for “In the Black Mill.” Lovecraftian horror set in the Rust Belt of my youth? A forbidden ritual centered on an old steel mill?

Sign me up.

I don’t want to get into specifics, or give away too much, other than to say the pleasure of reading “In the Black Mill” comes from its balance of originality and familiarity. A lot of Lovecraft-inspired fiction comes across as overly referential or derivative. Chabon infuses the old legends with a post-industrial setting, a brilliant ending and a healthy dose of meta-fiction.

But for all the new wrinkles, Chabon links up with Lovecraft via three avenues: thematic connections, stylistic connections and familiar places and names.

First, the thematic connections:

There is a narrator called away from home, in this case an archeologist (Lovecraft was fond of having scholars or heirs travel to strange locales). Upon arrival, he encounters numerous grotesqueries among the local folk: physical deformities, impurity (particularly of food and drink) and increasingly odd and suspicious behavior. All classic Lovecraft devices, particularly his penchant for displacement.

Stylistic connections:

Here, Chabon deviates from his typical style and writes with Lovecraftian grandiosity. See un-Chabon-like phrases such as “…the immemorial accursedness of his drab Pennsylvania hometown” and “…the eldritch moment.” The narrator also pays close attention to setting and description, much like HPL. We come to know the topography of this Rust Belt village as well as we know Arkham, Dunwich and Innsmouth, “that ill-rumoured and evilly shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality.”

Likewise, Chabon draws a third connection to Lovecraft by utilizing similar places and names. There is the Miskahannock river and valley (what I imagine to be an amalgamation of Lovecraft’s Miskatonic river and valley and “hannock,” a variation of the Delaware Indian word for “stream,” which is a commonly used suffix in Western Pennsylvania, as in Neshannock Township). There are the Yuggogheny Hills (Yog-Sothoth meets the Allegheny) and then characters named Philippa Howard Murrough and August Van Zorn.

Perhaps the greatest commonality between this story and HPL is philosophical. Lovecraft exceled at presenting what appeared to be insurmountable terror, only to reveal at the end that the evil is even greater than at first imagined. It’s not the personal torment that is so horrifying, but scope. The implication that the nightmare has only just begun, and eventually, we will all suffer the narrator’s fate.

This is post-industrial Rust Belt horror at its finest.

Unsettling Chapters: The Church of Dead Girls

Frequent readers have probably noticed a pattern among the entries of Unsettling Chapters. That is, the overt theme of a story is more often a sleight of hand. Put another way: The thing is not really about the thing.

Lovecraft’s Old Ones are a manifestation of his insecurities. McEwan’s transgressions are a front for the anxiety of individuality in the face of rigid and arbitrary social mores. Murakami’s gore portrays mental disturbances rather than literal scenes.

And so it goes with Stephen Dobyns’ 1997 mystery, The Church of Dead Girls.

As with Birdman, Mo Hayder’s debut discussed on Oct. 5, the ghoul in this novel uses human corpses as an artistic medium. But while The Church of Dead Girls offers terror and thrills, it also has high-minded literary aspirations.

The thing is not really about the thing.

This is less a whodunit and more a sociological work. What are the fears and biases of small-town folk? What prejudices are lurking in the shadows? A rash of murders and missing teenagers brings them all to the surface. Things get ugly.

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” ugly.

Once threatened, the townsfolk begin pointing fingers in every possible direction. This compelling arc makes for a fascinating read. And gruesomely detailed horrors make this a must-read for Halloween.

Speaking of fingers, whatever happened to those missing left hands?

Read the book and you’ll understand.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: H.P. Lovecraft

Now, to one of my all-time favorites, H.P. Lovecraft.

The Wizard of Weird is one of the most puzzling figures in literature (no small feat) and a most peculiar phenomenon. Hardly read in his lifetime, his stories have since inspired movies, music, video and board games and countless writers.

The reclusive author of the Cthulhu Mythos is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life Lovecraft Mythos distilled from his letters, essays and fan speculation.

From this end of the millennium, he appears as a man out of time, which perhaps accounts for the skilled depictions of isolation and despair in his work. A troubled life, an early death—these are the makings of a horror legend.

For the HPL initiate, the place to start is The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. This collection of 16 of his best-known stories proves his staying power. My favorite is “The Outsider,” a dark epic of self-discovery. This story speaks to me as few stories can, and I believe this is Lovecraft at his most earnest.

“Pickman’s Model” and “The Picture in the House” explore the intersection of art and madness. For HPL, this crossroad manifests in the form of weird fiction, but I can’t help but wonder at his deeper intentions in these stories.

Likewise, “The Music of Erich Zann,” one of the finest pieces of horror fiction I’ve ever read. In a forgotten section of, presumably, Paris, a young student rents a room beneath a master violist. The man performs strange melodies at all hours of the night, and when the narrator learns of their origin… well, the story takes a classic Lovecraftian turn, but with more subtlety and greater effect. From a craft perspective, this is one of his best works.

From a reader’s perspective as well.

And I’ve got to touch on “The Rats in the Walls,” as great a depiction of psychosis and inherited guilt ever written. Be warned: It’s usually easy enough to overlook some of Lovecraft’s subtle racism, but it sits front and center in this story, which makes it tougher to swallow. If you can stomach that, you’ll enjoy this thoroughly gut-churning tale.

Then, of course, there are the mega-hits: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” There’s not much I can really add to the discussion of these classics, other than to chuckle (and sometimes cringe) at Lovecraft’s story titles. He had a penchant for the noun-prepositional phrase structure favored by the pulps (“The Colour Out of Space,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Thing on the Doorstep”) or a variation thereof (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”).

The greatest thing to happen to Lovecraft fans in recent years is the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, a thoughtful and well-produced audio chronology of his work. They started in 2009, discussing one story at a time (one episode for shorter works, multiple episodes for longer ones), and came to the end of his oeuvre earlier this year. They offer all kinds of goodies for Miskatonic alumni, including professional readings, old episodes and original works.

Best of all, though Lovecraft has been gone 75 years, his mythos live on. There are numerous collections of Lovecraft-inspired fiction, such as Future Lovecraft and Shadows Over Baker Street (an HPL/Sherlock Holmes mash-up). Writers such as Michael Chabon, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have all contributed to the ongoing mythos.

And there is a new crop of writers adding to the legacy all the time. I highly recommend checking out the Lovecraft eZine, which publishes great artwork, weird fiction and weekly Web updates and video chats.

As a wise man once said, “That is not dead which can eternal lie.”

Unsettling Chapters: Maynard

There are many ways to unsettle the reader. There is shock, revulsion, introspect, subversion. But don’t forget subtlety. After all, I would imagine the slow constriction of the noose is the more terrifying than the drop.

Toward that end, three key elements of great horror are atmosphere, dissonance and distress. All three are manipulated to great effect in Mary Stewart Atwell’s short story, “Maynard,” which ran in the Alaska Quarterly Review and was honored in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

There is elusiveness in this piece that sets the reader on edge. The story is presented in a segmented style, and the core mysteries at the beginning remain mysteries at the end. There is such a tangle of loose threads that the story is unsettling to the reader long after the final words have been read.

Specifically, it is the narrator’s murky backstory that fuels the tension. She is on the run from someone who, as far as we can tell, was holding her against her will. He will find her, though, she is certain, but will we ever learn the full nature of her distress?

This is the foundation on which Atwell builds a dark, disturbing portrait of a troubled woman on the run. One of the building blocks she uses to great effect is atmosphere. Set in the rural south, Atwell colors her world with the imagery of backwoods America, a working-class dystopia of failure where methamphetamine and lawlessness run rampant. Into this world enters the narrator—whose name may or may not be Ashley.

She has three secrets she must keep hidden: her history, her whereabouts, the child to which she is about to give birth. The latter tweaks the reader’s anxiety like a shot of bathtub meth. The narrator is unequipped to care for the child, but what is she to do? She would reveal too much of herself if she put it up for adoption, so she disposes of the baby, which sets in motion the events that lead to her final confrontation.

Finally, there is the dissonance that makes the story so unsettling. The reader is unable to connect all the loose threads, and there are missing links in the chain of events that we are compelled to reconcile.

In the end, that reconciliation must come from the reader’s own mind. I discussed this story with a fellow reader long after reading, and have thought about it often since then. There are hints at great horror in this story, which is more powerful than if we knew every gruesome detail of our narrator’s story.

It lends a haunting quality that resonates through amazing lines like: “‘Ashley,’ he said. ‘Please. Don’t do this.’ But Ashley is not my name.”

Stories like this earned Atwell a deal for a full-length. Her debut novel, Wild Girls, was published on Oct. 16.

Unsettling Chapters: The Wasp Factory

Welcome to The Wasp Factory, where by the age of 16 Frank Cauldhame has already killed three children, including his younger brother. These days the teenager passes his time killing animals on the tiny British island he shares with his father.

Other favorite activities? Long walks on the beach, going to punk-rock shows with his drunken dwarf buddy, Jamie, and gathering wasps in his elaborately engineered torture chamber.

This 1984 debut from Scottish writer Iain Banks stirred up a mess of controversy when it was initially released, and remains a dark and twisted read nearly a quarter century later.

Another great example of effective first-person POV, the narrator’s tale disorients and disturbs. No doubt, this is one of the greatest works of transgressive fiction I’ve ever read.

Like most works of suspense, the terror comes from what may happen rather than what actually happens. In this case, the novel’s tension — and greatest literary device — is Frank’s sadistic older brother, Eric.

Throughout the book, Eric, who has just escaped from a mental hospital, calls his younger brother from pay phones, each time closer to home, each time more psychotic, threatening to kill Frank upon his return. It’s a classic example of the shadow figure. We have a serial killer narrator, and he’s not even the craziest member of the cast!

Or is he…? The tension builds to a violent climax with a shocking twist that reframes the entire story. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: Night Shift

Of course, no list of Halloween reads would be complete without an entry from the master of horror, Stephen King. In recent years, he has produced more fantastic literature than true horror. He has also plumbed a deeper emotional depth in recent works, such as Lisey’s Story and Duma Key.

As great as these novels are, for pure chills, there’s no beating King’s early work. To get maximum bang for your October buck, revisit King’s first short-story collection, 1978’s Night Shift.

This is King at his most ruthless, featuring some of his darkest material, such as one of his forgotten treasures, “One for the Road.” Set amid the backdrop of a blizzard, a wife and daughter are stranded in a snow bank. With connections to Jerusalem’s Lot, they learn that the elements are the least of their fears.

“I Am the Doorway” is the creepy account of a retired astronaut who learned he was not alone in deep space — and he brought back a souvenir that just might drive him mad.

Some of King’s best-known works are in this collection as well: “Children of the Corn,” “Trucks” (which became the film “Maximum Overdrive”) and “The Lawnmower Man.”

My favorite fright is “Sometimes They Come Back,” an epic homage to childhood trauma and a reminder that, no matter how many years may pass, our demons are never far behind.

Of course, this is only King’s first entry in Unsettling Chapters. We will certainly see more of the master in future installments.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: Darkness Peering

Alice Blanchard‘s 1999 crime novel, Darkness Peering, is one of the most promising debuts ever — a mind-bending psychological thriller set in rural Maine (classic Stephen King country).

Detective Rachel Storrow is still haunted by an 18-year-old unsolved murder that happened when she was a child, and a recent disappearance has brought that case back to the forefront. For Storrow, the killer might be closer than she thinks.

Featuring a gripping and poetic opening chapter, Blanchard takes hold of the reader’s throat and never lets go.

It’s also a surprisingly literary work. Underlying the horror is a tale of family drama, small-town suspicion and the secrets we bury with the dead.

Blanchard takes on similar themes in later books, like The Breathtaker and Life Sentences. Her short-story collection, The Stuntman’s Daughter, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in 1996.

But of all her works, my favorite remains Darkness Peering. This book is a perfect match for a stormy October night.

Unsettling Chapters: Lolita

When I think of what was controversial in the 1950s, I think of Elvis being filmed from the waist up. So, I went into Lolita thinking it couldn’t possibly be as scandalous as advertised nearly six decades later.

Wrong. Lolita makes To Catch a Predator seem like child’s play (so to speak). As oddly hilarious as it is disturbing, Nabakov’s classic is one of the most insightful accounts of pathology (what many refer to as Humbert’s unreliability) I’ve ever encountered, and still has the power to make the most hardened reader (i.e. me) queasy.

Reading this through the lens of a literary representation of mental illness, it’s easy to see Humbert’s source for pedophilia — his stunted sexuality from an age-appropriate childhood romance left unconsummated and forever associated with death and loss (and run-on sentences).

More subtle, though, is Humbert’s troubled conscience, which vacillates between self-awareness and self-fulfillment. Through carefully dropped hints, we realize that he is aware of Dolores’ vulnerability and her lack of interest in their adult activities. He knows what he’s doing is damaging the poor girl, but more often than not, his needs hijack his decisions.

The consequences fall squarely on the not-so-frail shoulders of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, who endures his abuse into her teen years. (Side note: Through Lolita, Nabokov paints a clear portrait of borderline personality disorder, which makes her story even more tragic.)

Still, through Humbert’s rationalizations, however twisted or self-serving, he does try to protect his stepdaughter in his own clumsy way. While his selfishness trumps all, his moments of lucid affection make him as close to sympathetic as can be (sympathetic enough that we’re rooting for him in his showdown with creepy Quilty).

What a tremendous book, and perhaps the greatest work of transgressive fiction. Nabakov’s play with language is remarkable (especially considering English was his second tongue), and the pain and desperation sweating through the pages of this novel make it timeless.

Troubling, complicated and a work of genius, this is an unsettling read for the ages.

Unsettling Chapters: The Keep

Most books inspire me to write, either because, “Damn, that book was so good, I want to do that, too,” or “Damn, I could do waaay better than that.”

Then there are books like Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, which make we want to give up writing because nothing I could ever produce would come close to the genius of this book. The Keep has more levels than Scientology, and I was awed by the way Egan manages complex storylines and plot points.

The Keep begins as a gothic horror novel with a literary bent ala Joyce Carol Oates or Edgar Allan Poe. But soon, we learn that it’s a story-within-a-story. The primary storyline is actually the product of an inmate in a prison writing group (or is it more real than that?).

I often find metafiction horribly pretentious, but in Egan’s hands this device achieves a deeper complexity of character. The “fictional” tale is almost a confession, or at least catharthis, and the way the two narratives play off each other creates unbearable tension.

Finally, Egan includes a third narrative that completes the cycle of co-dependency that runs through the novel. Ultimately, this is a story of identity, exploration and imprisonment. What is real or not real doesn’t matter much. The question to answer is: What do we do with the demons that haunt us?

Or rather, Where do we keep them?

The best part is that Egan leaves these questions (and these narratives) half answered. There are no neat, tidy endings. No sunsets, no profound philosophical conclusions. There are only troubled, complex people in turn confronting and running from their ghosts.

For a book with so much surrealism, the lack of resolution at the finish gives it a stunning verisimilitude: Did we really believe we could ever completely outrun our ghosts?

At the end, I wanted the story to go on and on, which is the magic of any great novel. It leaves you imagining the characters as real people and you want to know how they turn out.

I was also left wanting for a map to figure out how Egan navigated the dark, twisting corridors of this complex, yet refreshingly enjoyable novel. Mark this down as a “must-read.”

Interestingly, there is a film version in the works. I’m not sure the narrative will hold up because of the limitations of cinema, but it will be worth a look. Just be sure to read the book first.

Unsettling Chapters: Joyce Carol Oates

Nobody does literary horror better than Joyce Carol Oates, and nowhere is the fear more palpable than in her 1994 collection of psychological terror, Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque.

Among the unrelenting terrors:

The title story, in which a woman recalls a haunted farmhouse from her youth, where she and her friend encounter something much more sinister than a ghost.

“Don’t You Trust Me?” an unsettling account of an illegal and controversial medical procedure — and the exploitation it brings.

And the disturbing “Extenuating Circumstances” is a mother’s confessional that reveals its excruciating conclusion like a mummy unwrapping its bandages (think David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of a Burned Child”).

This collection is also packed with signature Oates violence and revenge, and the tale of a macabre grocery store as discomforting as flakes of glass beneath the skin.

Diehards should also read the sequel, The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque, which has its moments, but doesn’t stand up to the original. The book starts strong, with the Twilight Zone-ish “The Sky Blue Ball,” which I think I devoured in a single breath. Haunting and mysterious, this one’s got a Creep Factor of 10.

She hits this high note again with the title story, a classic bit of Oates’ caught-in-the-spiderweb nightmare. From the start, we can guess the fate of our protagonist. And we ache throughout the piece, hoping it goes the other way.

Some of her other collections include The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, a collection of short stories about female killers, and The Museum of Dr. Moses.

And fear not, fans of Joyce Carol Oates: We’re not through with the author just yet. We have another Oates entry planned closer to Halloween.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.