Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 9: Human Marrow and Boiled Bones

In his new anthology A Book of Horrors, editor Stephen Jones, who has edited a very large number of horror anthologies and who, also, I'm given to understand, can be a mite prickly at times when it comes to his work and the state of his genre and so on, and why shouldn't he be, opens his introduction by asking "What the hell happened to the horror genre?" And I thought, okay, here we go, tear some shit up, Stephen Jones. Some years ago, as I've mentioned before, Peter Straub got a lot of angry glares cast his way when during a speech at the World Horror Convention he said that "horror was a house that horror had already moved out of," and then also explained what he meant by that. I sort of wish I'd been there for that speech, because if any genre needs a good swift kick in the nuts, it's horror, and Straub's point, of course, was that in his lifetime he'd been witness to this great genre's denegration by its very practitioners. Straub cares about good writing, and more importantly he knows what good writing is, and if I had to guess I'd say that it was this unspoken fact that drew the ire of Straub's, let us say, somewhat less talented colleagues-only-by-definition. So back to Stephen Jones, I was hoping that this guy, who's been a major part of the genre, and something of a tastemaker as well, was, in his introduction to A Book of Horrors, winding himself up to pull a Straub on everybody. But no, it turns out that the sole focus of Jones's disillusion is...is Twilight, basically. And True Blood too, I guess, but Twilight is I guess the modern day prototype of "horror-lite," which Jones points out is actually a publisher-created genre designation, which the knee-jerk side of me does recoil from, but at the same time Jones acknowledges that this stuff isn't really horror to begin with. So my question is, with everything that is wrong with what we all agree is actually horror, why zero in on the stuff that isn't?

The idea behind A Book of Horrors, then, is the same idea behind so many other horror anthologies, which is to say that the idea is essentially "You guys like horror well here's some real horror motherfuckers!" Not a compelling theme, and slightly more frustrating when you consider that, since this book is made up entirely of new stories by a host of writers from Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Lisa Tuttle, and several more, no theme is needed, nor is there a need to pretend a theme exists. Jones was going to publish this anthology anyway, so why manufacture a justification for it? But whatever. I fear I've wandered into nit-picking at this point. I just wish more horror elder statesmen would go around kicking nuts, is all.

A nice segue would be if I could say that John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish author of the first story I read for today from A Book of Horrors, was a fair representation of what was wrong with modern horror, but I can't, because he's not. This however does not mean that he's very much good. Lindqvist is kind of a hot name these days, having written the original novel Let the Right One In on which two very good (yes, I like them both) films have been based. Tomas Alfredson's original film did more for Lindqvist's name than anything Lindqvist actually wrote, although this is no crime -- the same could be said of Brian De Palma's film version of Stephen King's Carrie back in the old days. But I have a sense that Lindqvist, who has now published a few novels in the US since that first film, with more novels pending, is maybe struggling to maintain his status as one of the big new names in horror. His zombie novel Handling the Dead, at least in its premise, bears a striking resemblence to the French film They Came Back, a fact that I don't believe went entirely unnoticed at the time, and when recommending his more recent novel Harbor in the introduction to her 2012 edition of The Best Horror of the Year anthology, Ellen Datlow was still unable to refrain from pointing out that Lindqvist lets what had been in her view a very fine novel almost completely fall apart by the end. I myself have not read those two books, but I did read Let the Right One In, and I frankly don't think it holds a candle to either of the film adaptations. The gender ambiguity of one of the central characters, the importance of which is scaled way back in Alfredson's film and obliterated outright in Matt Reeves' American remake Let Me In, can stand for all my problems in that book. It's a meaningless detail, one that effects no one at any time, its ambiguity signalling possibilities that branch off into no particular direction, but is included because I guess raising questions of gender seems like a pretty interesting thing to do, maybe, who can say?
And his story in Jones's book, "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer," is in some ways the damndest thing. It's fairly long at forty pages, and tells the story of a widower who bribes his eleven-year-old son Robin to start playing the piano. The father has recently become concerned about how much time the boy has been spending playing video games, and that as a result he won't experience any actual real-world life. On top of that, they own a piano, which had belonged to the boy's mother, Annelie, who recently died in a car accident. Robin agrees to take up the instrument only because his father raises his allowance, but soon enough he does appear to make some progress. But sometimes the father hears the boy playing some very strange notes while practicing, producing something which can't be called a melody but which he finds himself helplessly replaying in his head like it was something by ABBA. One night he also hears voices other than Robin's coming from the boy's room, voices that can't be coming from a TV or computer or anything else like that because the house has just lost power. Eventually the boy informs his father that their house, which they've only recently move into following Annelie's death, was once owned by a child-murderer named Benke Karlsson ("Benke," not "Bengt," but don't ask me) and that in fact Karlsson's bed was in the same place as Robin's own bed is now. Karlsson was a musician who, the father subsequently learns, took his wife's death badly, which I guess is one way of putting it, and the reveal of the mystery behind the source of the strange notes Robin has been heard playing on his piano is one of the truly effective moments in the story.

One, out of not many. As I've said, this story is the damndest thing, and what I mean is that at forty pages you'd think this would be somewhat dense, or eventful, or maybe, going the other way, bloated and dull. But in fact I raced through the thing, only to think by the end that I had no clue what all those pages had been expended for. "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer" is the literary equivalent of a big budget film where very little of that money can be seen on screen, except in this case instead of money it's pages. It's not a lark, and the goal of the thing is to be fairly nasty and frightening; in the story notes Jones includes at the end of each story, Lindqvist says "...towards the end, I wrote on in a state of mild but constat horror. It was a relief when it was over." That's all well and good I suppose, but what about me? Until checking just now, I couldn't even remember how the story ended, and it turns out the ending is something you'd think I would have remembered, but the whole thing just goes by in a beige flash. It's a fairly standard ghost story in a lot of ways, but that's not something I've ever turned my nose up at, but it has to be a fairly standard ghost story that offers something beyond those standard elements. Lindqvist certainly doesn't provide a compelling style to get lost in. I'd be more willing to chalk this particular fault up to issues of translation, if not for the fact that "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer" and Let the Right One In were translated by two different people, and the effect, or absence of same, of Lindqvist's prose is in each case pretty uniform. I can't think of another time when I've finished reading something only to wonder how did so many pages get filled with this, and to feel sort of rooked in the end. Not literally like I've been swindled, but sort of.
Given the length of Lindqvist's story, it had been my plan to stick with that one for today's post, take 'er easy, come back tomorrow, but then I frankly didn't have much to say about it, so I decided I'd better keep plugging along. Remembering that part of the point of this whole endeavor is to discover new writers, I chose another story pretty much at random. It's called "The Coffin-Maker's Daughter" by Angela Slatter. This is an odd one, much shorter than the Lindqvist story but quite a bit richer, although I was given reason to pause early on. For one thing, the main character, the title character, is named "Hepsibah Ballantyne." When I saw that on page one of the story, I said something like "Oh Jesus, oh Jesus God no." But what can you do? The idea behind the story is that in what I can only assume is some other version of our world, coffin-makers are revered as artists, as well as magicians, or perhaps witches, of some kind. Nothing is made explicit, but the burying of bodies does not merely entail putting someone underground, but keeping them underground. Hepsibah currently heads up the family business, following the death of her vile father, Hector, whose ghost still pays her unpleasant visits. The story is made up entirely of Hepsibah doing a job for the D'Aguillar family, and here Slatter describes her at work:

[Master D'Aguillar's casket] is now the required shape and dimensions, held together with sturdy iron nails and the stinking adhesive made of human marrow and boiled bones I'm carefully applying to the place where one plank meets another to ensure there are no gaps through which something ephemeral might escape. On the furthest bench, far enough away to keep it safe from the stains and paints and tints, lies the pale lilac silk sack that I've stuffed with goose down and lavender flowers. This evening, I will quilt it with tiny, precise stitches then fit it into the casket, this time using a sweet-smelling glue to hold it in place and cover the stink of the marrow sealant.

So the job is part funeral director, part clergy, part carpenter, part witch doctor. What exactly is expected to rise from the grave is never explained, and in fact is not even the thrust of the story. The thrust, curiously and interestingly enough, is Hepsibah's almost stalker-like pursuit of Lucette D'Aguillar, the daughter of the deceased. This also, curiously and interestingly enough, is where the horror comes from.

In the afterword for this story, Slatter does talk about her decision to keep the specifics of this world vague, describing her story as one with "layers of unspoken secrets." The result is that "The Coffin-Maker's Daughter" reads like something that might have been written by someone from, and for people in, the world in which it takes place, the same way a story in our actual world that's about a doctor could leave some details about that job as just understood. It's an interesting effect, even if that wasn't Slatter's conscious idea. Anyway, I'll admit it took me a little bit to get on Slatter's general wavelength here, but ultimately it's a rather good story. Slatter has published a few collections of short stories, and she says in the afterword that she doesn't consider herself a horror writer, though she did intend for this particular story to be of that genre -- she was submitting it to a horror anthology, after all. I find that, at least in films, an artist who isn't generally interested in horror being inspired to try their hand, because of a particular idea or script or novel that somehow ended up in their lap, that outsider view can produce something very interesting, perhaps because they're not aware of the expectations fans place on the genre, or they're not weighed down by the history. See Tomas Alfredson and Let the Right One In, as a matter of fact. I'm curious now to know what Slatter's other stuff is like, what genre she typically works in -- fantasy, I'm assuming, but I'm thinking closer to the Jeff VanderMeer side of things than Tolkien. This interests me. She has an imagination.


Bryce said...

Oh hey it's Mr. Late To The Party.

I just wanted to chime in that though I have mixed feelings on Lindqvist myself (skewing a bit more on the positive end then yours)I think the gender confusion in "Let The Right One In" did have a point given that it underlined the stunted nature of the relationship that Oscar was essentially sacrificing his life for (This is also why I think Let Me In is the superior adaptation because Richard Jenkins... hey nother tangent).

True it would be impossible for any sort of mature sexual relationship to develop between the two anyway, given that one is an immortal child. But having this sealed, as it were, by actual gential mutilation as a total impossiblity underlines the stunded half life the kid is signing himself up for.

Just my late two cents.

Bryce said...

Also not to be pendandic (OK to kind of be pendandic)the gender thing is subtler in Reeves film but hardly obliterated.