31 Days of Dread

Unsettling Chapters: A Dirty Job

OK, we’ve featured some dark selections these first couple weeks of Unsettling Chapters, and even darker territory remains. 

For a breath of fresh air, today we’ll discuss a comedic piece, Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job. As much a humor writer as a horror writer, Moore (perhaps best known for Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal) penned this 2006 tome in response to the passing of his parents.

The light-hearted result is the tale of Beta Male Charlie Asher, who wakes up one day to find himself a Grim Reaper (we learn that Death relies on independent contractors to keep up with demand).

Hijinks ensue when he must protect his daughter Sophie (who has two hellhounds for pets) from the forces of evil. This is a rib-tickling romp playing off of traditional horror themes, and another fine effort from Moore, whom one might consider the Tom Robbins of the horror realm.

He has a long history of blending horror tropes with hilarity, dating back to his 1992 debut, Practical Demonkeeping. For those who prefer vampires with wit as well as bite, try his trilogy of Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me: A Love Story.

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: Invisible Monsters

A close cousin of horror is transgressive fiction. These are novels, often dark or dystopian, that break cultural taboos for the sake of social commentary and satire. Considered to be a working-class style of literature, classical examples of transgressive literature include the Marquis de Sade, George Bataille, some work by Dostoyevsky and the Beat writers. Contemporary examples include Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh. Currently, the definitive author of transgressive fiction is Chuck Palahniuk.

I have long admired Palahniuk’s writing, both for its satire and transgressive nature, and Invisible Monsters, one of his earliest works, is considered to be among his most disturbing and poignant. It’s an endless buffet of sexual disorientation, body modification, gender dysphoria, self-mutilation, fame-mongering, familial dysfunction, violence and manufactured reality.

But at its core, Invisible Monsters is about identity. Who determines one’s identity? Who defines who or what one is or is not? This can be sexual, biological, superficial. Identity is a personal, subjective thing. It’s also one that manifests physically. For these characters, mutilation is the method of self-expression, either by accident (Brandy), by gender reconstruction surgery (Evie) and by their own hand (the narrator, Shannon).

Palahniuk exaggerates these tropes to the degree that they become fabulistic, and because of that, he had difficulty getting the book published. At the time, Palahniuk was a bit of a mystery. Here’s a book that begins with a spinning shotgun and a room on fire, and it ends with… Well, time is a relative component of Invisible Monsters, so who the hell knows where it ends!

What we’ve learned of Palahniuk in the ensuing years is that his over-the-top approach is a monstrous distortion of our culture. In this way, he teaches us the value of the grotesque in satire. Shannon is a fashion model who intentionally disfigures herself, Brandy a homosexual who uses an accident as pretense for gender reassignment surgery. These are people who tear themselves apart, and the pieces don’t quite fit when put back together again.

In life, the deepest wounds are the ones that are self-inflicted, and it is the characters’ own hand that pours in the salt.

As if the novel wasn’t surreal enough already, this summer Palahniuk released an updated version of Invisible Monsters featuring new and rearranged chapters.

And if that’s not enough to help you reach your disturbance quota, check out his collection of loosely connected stories, Haunted, one of my favorites. Full of splatterpunk thrills, it’s a bloodbath worthy of the Grand Guignol.

His 2008 novel, Snuff, is another ick-inducing read, this time taking on the world of pornography. You can read my review of it here.

Unsettling Chapters: Piercing

Ryu Murakami is on the cutting edge of Japanese literary fiction and horror fiction (and the Japanese have a knack for producing quality horror). Murakami (not to be confused with Haruki Murakami, a dark author in his own right) might be best known to American audiences for the disturbing film adaptation of his novel Audition.

What I like about his fiction is both its incredibly dark, disturbing qualities, but also his exploration of psychological distress. The finest example of this is the short novel, Piercing.

Piercing begins with Kawashima Masayuki, a new father, suffering from insomnia and staring down into the crib of his sleeping daughter. He is sweating and holding an ice pick. Yes, an ice pick. Every night he repeats this ritual, fighting the urge to stab his child with the weapon.

He doesn’t say it by name, but Murakami is writing about a very common, yet misunderstood condition: obsessive-compulsive disorder.

People unfamiliar with OCD often recognize it or ridicule it by its popular caricatures (comically repetitive actions), while in truth, these outward manifestations (or compulsions) are symptoms rather than the disease.

The true horror of OCD lies in the obsessions, which are more difficult to portray in books and cinema. Here, the sufferer visualizes upsetting fantasies: committing acts of violence against loved ones; performing self-mutilation; throwing oneself off a high structure.

Or holding an ice pick to the throat of a sleeping child.

It’s easy to see why the truth about OCD is seldom discussed and not really understood. The obsessions are irrational and disparaging (who would want to hurt themselves or their loved ones?) and therefore difficult (and shameful) to explain or discuss. And even once you get over those hang-ups, are you any closer to understanding why the brain would act as its own worst enemy?

As someone interested in narratives of psychological distress (and someone with OCD) I find this to be a rich subject matter. What I love about Murakami is that he explores this disorder without naming it in his novel. Rather than explaining away Kawashima’s actions, the reader is left struggling to figure out why he has such twisted fantasies.

Of course, a great novelist will only use this as a launch pad for a deeper story. Murakami sends his protagonist on a journey. The result is a surreal and disturbing trip into one man’s psychosis. In fact, we seldom return to the catalytic event that spurred this journey. Instead, we follow Kawashima’s descent into a nightmare world with numerous twists, trysts and the surreal imagery associated with Japanese horror.

And as the title suggests, Murakami explores various uses of the word “piercing,” from ice picks to body art—but especially the penetrating nature of our darkest insights.

Unsettling Chapters: Institutionalization

A timeless trope of horror media is the mental institution, be it Halloween’s Smith’s Grove, Alice Cooper’s From the Inside, Dr. Seward’s sanitarium in Dracula or any of a thousand basic cable ghost-hunting shows. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

There isn’t any part of a mental institution that can’t be manipulated to induce terror. Of course, there is the fear of the inmates, but also the fear of the doctors or the administration (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). And a rundown asylum serves as an excellent backdrop in any creative work.

But my diagnosis is that the greatest fear we have of institutions is something more primal. It’s not the fear of the inmates or the caretakers or the troubled spirits that haunt the Rubber Room. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the fear of confinement, the horror of institutionalization.

That’s probably not much of a newsflash. Shocker: most people are afraid of being locked up in a tiny cell and treated like they’re criminally insane! But I think what I’m getting at is the universality of mental illness and its close relationship with horror. I bet that more people are afraid of losing control of their faculties than are afraid of death.

I would also guess that a fair number of horror writers and readers can credit their love of the genre to their own struggles with inner demons. (For a great social history of institutionalization, read Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.)

Prior to becoming a journalist, I worked for seven years at an inpatient detox facility in Boulder, Colorado. My experiences there were ineffable, and from the time I started as an addictions counselor to the present, I have tried to write about events there through both fiction and nonfiction.

Every attempt has been a false start.

Turns out, it’s a tough world to describe without becoming sensationalistic, sappy or overly scientific.

However, there are two writers who capture the horror of institutionalization in a magnificent way: Russian heavyweights Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Let’s start with Chekhov’s novella, Ward No. 6, which draws us into this world almost as if the reader were an incoming patient. The first four chapters provide an overview of the institution and introduce its inhabitants. We meet the main character, Dr. Andrey Yefimitch, in chapter five, and here, we gain fresh perspective. We switch from patient to doctor as he becomes our lens through which we view the mentally ill, most strikingly through his interactions with Ivan Dmitritch. Yefimitch evolves through their awkward meetings. We feel his internal struggle with life both inside and outside the ward, and watch him blur the ever-permeable line between the diagnostician and the diagnosed.

It’s not surprising. In the high-stress environment of an institution, it is inevitable that one becomes part of the environment. As Yefimitch says, “‘I am not ill at all, it’s simply that I have got into an enchanted circle which there is no getting out of.’”

This gets at what I believe lies beneath the surface of every creative work featuring an
institution, be it a mental hospital, a prison, a nursing home. We’re not afraid of the inhabitants. We’re afraid of joining them.

On par with Ward No. 6 is Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, which is based on the author’s four years incarcerated in a Siberian work camp. Here, Dostoyevsky gives us one of his darkest and most direct novels.

The first thing that strikes me is that The House of the Dead begins not with the institution, but with the setting around it. We get an idyllic description of Siberia, which is hardly what one would expect with a Russian prison narrative. And like Chekhov, Dostoyevsky provides us with a guide: Alexandr Petrovitch Goryanchikov.

We meet the city on page one, the protagonist on page two, and through the latter we enter the prison itself.

Another daring decision Dostoyevsky makes concerns the narration. Despite being told through the lens of an inmate, the narrator is not telling his own story. Instead, the novel consists of pages retrieved from Alexandr Petrovitch’s notes, as discovered by the narrator and offered along with his comments and perceptions.

There are two advantages to this that I see. The first is that the distance allows for dispassion. By serving as a filter between us and Alexandr Petrovitch, the narrator avoids sentimentality and sensationalism. The second is that by using the found manuscript, we still have the thrill of suspense. If the narrator were telling his own story, we’d at least know that he is alive at the time of the telling. But with a found manuscript, we’re wondering throughout what may or may not happen to its author.

The manuscript also gives us a segmented view of Petrovitch’s life in prison rather than his entire incarceration story. While there is a linear flow to the book (beginning with Petrovitch’s entrance to prison and concluding with his release), the arranging of the book by themes allows Dostoyevsky more freedom when fictionalizing his incredible experiences.

Both books weigh heavy on the reader, but this does not, I believe, imply despair. At once dreary and hopeful, the texts blur the line between inside and out, and cause the reader to reconsider preconceived notions of institutions. In Ward No. 6, we see the institution as a reflected image, as those on the outside find themselves drawn inward. In The House of the Dead, we get a first-hand account of the lives of the incarcerated. Though describing the outcast, Dostoyevsky startles the reader with a milieu that’s surprisingly familiar.

It leaves one rethinking the nature of institutions and builds on our fear of captivity. What role would we assume in a Dostoyevskian drama? Are we the doctor? The visitor? The inmate?

Sure, the traditional horror memes are nice, but true terror oozes from the pages of Ward No. 6 and The House of the Dead. These are heavier reads, and you might not finish them by Halloween. But for my money, there aren’t many settings more frightening than a 19th century Siberian prison.

Unsettling Chapters: Fears Unnamed

Setting can be a literary minefield. When used correctly, it can create affecting works of art (think The Shining, The House of the Seven Gables or J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island). But sometimes a writer can become so fixated on setting that they produce a literary still life that is beautiful to look at, but what about the characters? If two people are having a conversation on a bridge, do we really need a three-page description of the bridge?

Probably not, but when setting works to complement the narrative, it strengthens the reader’s bond to a location. My favorite book is Stephen King’s The Stand, mostly because of the first-rate character development: Larry’s sadness, Stu and Franny’s determination, the loneliness of Harold and Nadine. But I can still see those bodies crucified to telephone poles along the Nevada highway. When I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I walked along Pearl and Arapahoe Streets, imagining them the way King did in the novel. During a recent trip to New York, I took a drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and could think only of Larry’s gut-wrenching subterranean escape from a New York ravaged by Captain Trips.

Speaking of stellar post-apocalyptic settings, another master is British writer Tim Lebbon.

Lebbon is a highly decorated author of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. He’ll soon be releasing a new novel in the U.K., Coldbrook, and a collection of short fiction, Nothing as it Seems, but for this Halloween, we’re recalling his 2004 collection, Fears Unnamed.

The four novellas that make up this collection all rely heavily on setting, be it a dystopian landscape covered by a strange, unceasing snow; the interior of a plane crashing into the frigid ocean; or the homey English countryside under attack from some bizarre threat.

The story that stands out the most for me in this collection is “Remnants,” in which the narrator, Peter, is summoned by an old friend to join him in some unidentified, far-off desert. The friend, Scott, is an archeologist and has discovered what he believes to be a city of the dead. The story is more fantasy than horror, and in truth is as much an adventure tale in the vein of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Once there, the city becomes a central character:

“Spread across the floor of the depression in the land, seemingly growing from the ground, lay the remains of several large and dozens of smaller buildings. Sand and grit was skirted around bases and against walls, drifted up and through openings that may have been windows, may have been wounds.”

Setting takes on a greater role as we descend into the city’s streets. On the one hand, it’s a psychological riddle, a lost city occupied by ghosts, and is symbolic of Scott, who has gone mad in part due to the death of his son. On the other hand, the city is a physical place, and to navigate its throughways Peter must learn its history and overcome his fear of the spirits residing there.

The city becomes magical yet suspenseful, and through Peter’s efforts it becomes a place of memory and memorial. The buried dead are not forgotten here. This is a place inhabited by all the interred things, and the pain of it is too much for Peter to bear.

He has found the place where all the hurt is buried, and ultimately Peter’s antagonist is not his old friend, but the city itself. “I plunged into the tunnel without a backward glance. If I turned I may have seen something impossible to ignore, a sight so mind-befuddling that it would petrify me, leaving me there to turn slowly to stone or a pillar of salt.”

Lebbon’s achievement is that he not only takes us to this otherworldly place, but makes it somehow familiar.

And for those who’ve had enough of the summer heat, dig into “White,” a fictional freeze-out that delivers chills in more ways than one.

Unsettling Chapters

You’ve likely noticed some changes to the header. Well, it’s October, and we’re in a Halloween state of mind. For this month, we’ve become Unsettling Chapters, and in addition to our regular book blogs, each day we’ll be posting something new in celebration of the season.

Or as we’re calling it: 31 Days of Dread.

The Unsettling Chapters series will feature recommendations and discussions of books and stories guaranteed to keep you up at night. Some of the authors we’ll feature include Joyce Carol Oates, Irvine Welsh, Stephen King, some names you’ve never heard of and others that might surprise you.

The series kicks off tomorrow with, who else, Edgar Allan Poe.

As always, thanks for reading, and hopefully we can help add a bit more darkness to your Halloween festivities.