The way things currently stand, I don't know if horror is generally considered to be a niche, or a cult thing (speaking of horror fiction here, because clearly everybody likes horror movies, except for pussies), or a fringe, or what. From a business standpoint, that certainly seems to be the case at the moment -- horror publishers are being roped off into tighter and tighter groups -- but as the genre is perceived in a general sense, I don't know. One of the reasons I'm thinking about this is because horror is the only genre I can think of in which there is ever a debate about whether or not a given work actually counts as horror. You never hear people ask "Well, but is Star Wars really science fiction?" (It's not, it's fantasy, but whatever.) And actually this does apply to films as well -- within the last few months I've seen people claim that neither Let the Right One In and The Blair Witch Project are "really" horror movies. Personally, I think they are, because one has a vampire in it and the other has a witch, and they are scary. But what I'm getting at is, the question is asked. Frequently it's a dumb question, but it's asked.
The other reason I'm thinking about this, apart from the fact that I gotta start these posts somehow, is that writers who might not have ever set out to write a horror story might sometimes find themselves being pulled into that world by a crafty horror anthology editor. I don't know if these writers mind or not. If the writer is dead, then I guess they don't. I used to wonder this about Joyce Carol Oates, but since she edited that book of American Gothic fiction, and stood up for Stephen King, and as her books have focused more and more on particularly grim subjects, and as she seems determined to complete her physical transformation into an Edward Gorey drawing, I've decided that she probably doesn't. But what of, oh, I don't know, just to pick two names at random from the ether, William Gay or Dan Chaon? Now of course, William Gay died this past February (a fact I discovered when searching for his name on the internet, to find out what he was up to...), so as I've noted he could probably give a shit that his story "The Paperhanger" wound up in a new horror anthology put together by John Skipp entitled Psychos. And Dan Chaon, his story "The Bees" was picked by Peter Straub for his anthology Poe's Children. Straub has been a vocal champion of Chaon's work in general, and I think the two of them might be pals or something. But the books that these guys publish, or published, do not appear to be intended to draw in the curious horror fan. Here's the cover for Dan Chaon's collection Stay Awake, in which "The Bees" can be found:
Boy, I could do a much better job with this argument if I'd come into this with more than one story by Chaon or Gay under my belt, but there it is. Perhaps the best way to move past these ramblings is to talk about the stories themselves. I'll start with Chaon's "The Bees," a story I was not entirely sold on for much of its length, and I suppose I'm still not, but it has a damn strong ending. It's about Gene, a UPS driver who is married to Karen, with whom he has a son named Frankie. As the story begins, Frankie has been experiencing sporadic bouts of night terrors. When questioned by his parents, he claims that he hasn't had any nightmares, and he seems generally happy and healthy. The healthy part is at least confirmed, more than once, by their pediatrician.
Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, [Gene] thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
And how. My problem with "The Bees" is that, as a horror story, which I pretty much have to think it is, whether Chaon thought of it that way or not (and I have basically no doubt that he thought of it that way), it's rather diffuse. He seems to not want to land on what the horror actually is, which I don't complain about because I think he should commit to some sort of traditional subgenre, or because I kept shouting "Well is this about giant killer bees or isn't it!?" But he seems to try out and then abandon different horror ideas after just lightly touching on them. That's how it felt, but eventually the thing does come together. I can't now think of a single horror idea -- the bees, what happened to Mandy and DJ, Gene's bizarre dreams about DJ -- some of which are little more than insinuated, that isn't in some way, not paid off, or tied into a bow (certainly not that) but dealt with. I'm defining "dealt with" quite broadly here, but there's nothing that you can't on some level relate to the ending. Which is the story's true horror, by the way, and which completes a descriptive motif that, until the story's final line, I wasn't sure was actually a thing, or an accidental repetition that Chaon never noticed. But he noticed.
But the girl is not found. No evidence pointing to anyone or anywhere turns up. Gay writes:
That was all. There was no ransom note, no child that turned up two counties over with amnesia. She was a page turned, a door closed, a lost ball in the high weeds. She was a child no larger than a doll, but the void she left behind was unreckonable. Yet there was no end to it. No finality. There was no moment when someone could say, turning from a mounded grave, Well, this was unbearable, but you've got to go on with your life. Life did not go on.
That passage is a pretty excellent example, I think, of Gay’s talent, and honestly I could, and almost did, structure my write-up of “The Paperhanger” as simply a series of quotes like this, with some thin connective tissue. It would have been lazy on my part, but it would have gotten the point across. The story is not simply about a girl who vanished and what happened to her, but what happened to her parents, and Gay’s chronicle of the wealthy doctor’s slide into disaster is gut-wrenching and precise as a scalpel. The doctor’s wife, meanwhile, a woman of some arrogance – perhaps, anyway, though this is certainly the way the paperhanger reads her – has been, I guess you’d say “humbled” by the experience. And this humbling would further seem to be the point. Not Gay’s point, mind you, but the paperhanger’s. Because he is, indeed, a sick puppy. We learn something of his hobbies and habits, which include the drinking of San Miguel beer and robbing graves. We don’t know what, if any, connection he has to the missing girl until the very end, and what we learn then is horrifying, and the cap that is set on that tragedy is perhaps even worse. It is, in fact, one of the cruelest acts I can imagine, and Gay describes it in prose as elegant and haunting as the passage quoted above. Occasionally, Gay’s writing can veer a bit too far into a certain brand of country sentiment, but this works more often than it doesn’t, and besides, Gay’s prose is of the kind of smooth toughness that easily and immediately places you in the middle of his story, and all its horror.