I read just the damnedest story the other day. It’s one many of you might well have read, but it slipped by me for years. It’s a story by Conrad Aiken. All I know about Aiken is that he was American, primarily (this might be arguable) a poet, but also a prolific writer of prose. On the back of my copy of The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken is a very nice quote from Malcolm Cowley that reads in part:
Mr. Aiken…has never played the literary game – has never read his verse over the radio, has never been the guest of honor at a literary dinner or gossiped with critics at a literary tea, has never autographed his books in department stores, has never scratched backs, rolled logs, or mended his fences. For thirty years he has stuck to his job of writing, while living very modestly…working hard and never talking in public about himself…He is one of the few American poets whose work has continually developed in technical skill, in richness, and individuality…”
Pretty flattering, I’d say. The extent to which his prose, meanwhile, has crossed over into the horror genre I don’t really know, nor do I know if the stories that do cross over were specifically intended to do so by Aiken. Whatever the case, he did write at least one story which the genre has embraced, or stolen. Anyway, it’s called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and it’s about a young boy who, one morning, starts to believe that it’s snowing outside. It isn’t, and he knows it isn’t, at least it isn’t for anyone but him. He does believe that it’s snowing for him, and this creates for him a world of comfort, mystery, and a satisfaction that this is true but only he knows it.
As far as plot, that’s pretty much it. The story escalates when the reader begins to realize that this young boy, Paul Hasleman, is insane. The story’s about twenty pages long, so I shouldn’t say more, but this is one major source of the story’s horror – that a child has irrevocably lost his mind. Overcome by dreams of snow and an obsessive focus on the sound of a mailman’s footsteps (muffled, he believes, by a blanket of snow), Paul closes himself off from his teachers, his friends, his parents, his doctor, the rest of the world. I’ll say that this isn’t a violent story, but ends on a note of terrible pain. It’s horror of a different sort.
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Another writer I recently partially got around to is William Sansom, a British writer who in his day was admired by Elizabeth Bowen and compared to Graham Greene. Like Aiken, there is a back and forth crossing over between genre and “literary” fiction (as there was with Bowen), and in her introduction to my copy of The Stories of William Sansom, Bowen makes a point of highlighting three stories in which the “[p]ortrayal of terror…reaches three of three of its highest levels…” These are “The Vertical Ladder,” “Among the Dahlias,” and “How Claeys Died.” In my view, only “The Vertical Ladder” (which is about a teenager who is pressured by his friends and the girl he likes to climb the tall rusted ladder of an old gasometer, and subsequently charts his terror) is really horror, or anyway fits any of the very many molds and many, many, many varieties of types of stories that have somehow crowded together in a massive jumble of styles, plots, moods, themes, and bottomless subgenres, that spills out over into every other genre, style, and level of ambition, to create what some people have decided is the horror “formula” (the influence of “The Vertical Ladder” can be found in a fucking Adam Green movie, for cryin’ out loud). “Among the Dahlias” is just a “crisis of the self” story, if that’s a literary term (it’s certainly stupid enough to be one), and not a good one – the last line is just the theme, stated. “How Claeys Died,” meanwhile, is excellent. It’s a war-haunted story about the ruins of Europe after WWII, and how a good, well-meaning man dies at the hands of men merely reacting in a way that makes sense because of a way of thinking that years of senseless cruelty had instilled in them by an enemy that wasn’t even close by.
But I didn’t find an actual horror story by Sansom until “A Woman Seldom Found,” which is just a few pages long, and which is about a young man who has traveled to Italy, and finds it lonesome and unfulfilling until he meets a beautiful woman who is interested in him. I felt pretty sure I knew where this was going, and in a sense I was right, but in a more important sense I was not. The ending of “A Woman Seldom Found” is simply one of the best horror endings I’ve ever encountered, wonderfully creepy, so unsettling an image that I almost smiled.
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I watched The Ghost of Yotsuya, a horror film from 1959 by director Nobuo Nakagawa. Like so many great Japanese horror films of that general era, it’s set in feudal times, and is about a pair of women whose lives are taken over by two men. These men have murdered their way into the lives of these poor women, and they treat their wives cruelly. A ghost eventually exacts revenge, as they do. I wouldn’t belabor this, but I found The Ghost of Yotsuya to be pretty terrific, atmospheric and satisfying.
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I’m back to reading Karl Edward Wagner, who I’ve praised here in the past, and who looms large over 80s horror. I read “Beyond Any Measure,” which is almost long enough to be a novella, and may in fact be one. This story has a bit of a prurient reputation, or once did. It’s pretty mild now, but it’s about a woman, Lisette Seyrig, and American in London, who lives with another woman, Danielle, with whom she’s having a somewhat casual affair (Lisette fully intends to return to America in about a year’s time). Lisette is happy, except for a series of nightmares she’s been experiencing, which seem to place her in the Victorian era, in a bedroom, with traces of blood around and something horribly about to be revealed. These affect her sleep, so she visits Dr. Magnus, an acquaintance of Danielle’s with ties to the occult, who believes in past lives. So “Beyond Any Measure” (a title that, common phrase though it is, in this instance comes from, it is eventually revealed, The Rocky Horror Picture Show; can’t say I was thrilled to learn that) is about Lisette trying to learn the source of these dreams, all while being carried into a high-living whirlwind of debauchery in 1980s London.
And I’m afraid to say that it’s not very good. Wagner was not an especially distinguished prose stylist, but his genuine power as a writer came from his wild imagination, which could be viscerally extreme, or just fascinatingly different – the stories collected in Why Not You and I? illustrate what Wagner could do beautifully. But “Beyond Any Measure” is too conventional to overcome his weaknesses. I think he must have known it was conventional – in addition to The Rocky Horror Picture Show there are references to Hammer films, to let the reader know that we all, Wagner and his audience, know what’s going on here. Wagner could often turn horror into a snake eating its tale with tremendous results (see “Sign of the Salamander by Curtiss Stryker, with an Introduction by Kent Allard” in Why Not You and I? for example), but here it’s all just references, amounting to not much. I plan on continuing to plug along with this collection, In a Lonely Place (which includes his classic story “Sticks,” the only story from this book I’ve read) and just hope things improve.
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Kenneth Cook was an Australian writer who is now best known, certainly in America but I’ve gathered in Australia as well, for writing the novel Wake in Fright, which was turned into the terribly harrowing film by Ted Kotcheff, and featuring one of the finest performances ever given by Donald Pleasance (and a real on-screen kangaroo massacre that I could not endure). He died in 1987, leaving behind a manuscript for a horror novel called Fear is the Rider. For some reason, this wasn’t published anywhere until 2016.
Fear is the Rider, which began its life as a film script, is very short, and propulsive: it’s about a man who is driving through the outback when he meets, at a bar in one of the towns, Cook explains, made up of a handful of buildings that provide travelers with occasional respite, a woman. They chat over a beer and she leaves. Both of them are outsiders to this part of Australia, and he likes the look of her, so he decides to follow the route she told him she’d be travelling, hoping to meet her again at the next town. Along the way, though, she is attacked by what appears to be some kind of feral man. She escapes, the man finds her, and soon the two of them are being stalked by a crazed man-animal with an axe, who has stolen the woman’s Land Rover, leaving the heroes to traverse the unforgiving land in a Honda.
It sounds a lot like Duel, and it is a lot like Duel. The biggest difference is you see the driver of the other car. Or maybe the biggest difference is that it’s nowhere near as good as Duel. Cook’s prose, at least in this book, is nothing more than functional. It does function, but since the story provides little space some of the other traditional satisfactions novels can provide, a strong ear for language would have been more than welcome. And Fear is the Rider was never going to be able to rise too high in my estimation after the bit where the man, our primary point of view, finally has the drop on their attacker, who knows this land and how to survive it much better than they, can actually easily kill him, but thinks instead that he can’t kill someone who isn’t at that exact second attacking him. Never mind that this maniac has been literally attacking them for hours at this point, and is, in fact, at that moment carrying out a plan to trap and kill them; our hero is unable to act unless this monster has already opened fire on him with a machine gun.
What purpose can this have served for Cook? It can’t be a case of simple awkward plotting that led him to think “Well if he kills the bad guy here, the book’s over!” because to avoid it all Cook would have needed to do was not give our hero the drop on the maniac in the first place. So it’s “character development” I guess, but if so it’s a small drop in a book that almost by design doesn’t have much. So why bother?
Fear is the Rider isn’t bad, though. It certainly gets the job done, which is all, I imagine, that Cook hoped it would do. It does make me wonder what the novel Wake in Fright is like, though.