Friday, November 07, 2003

Top Thirteen Horror Films, Novels and Short Stories, part IV

Joe Pettit, Jr. is an enigma among men. He walks a dark road, and he walks it alone. At various times "Walkout" Joe has been a stevedore, a male escort, a Mexican wrestler, a bug wrangler, a laboratory guinea pig for clandestine hallucinogenic experiments, and most recently, a politician. When not working "undercover" within the bowels of a used bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, Joe eases his troubled conscience performing music and writing.

13 Horror Novels That Should Be on Your Nightstand

By no means is this to be construed as an ultimate best of list. These are 13 great horror novels that I have read or re-read over the past five years, whose images or ideas have stuck in my head. Because of the constraints of the list (13 choices only), I immediately eliminated the unholy triumvirate of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, mainly because I assumed that hardcore fans of the genre would have already encountered their dark pleasures. If you haven’t read them yet, get to work. (Go on, what are you waiting for!) I also cut Stephen King and Peter Straub, again because even casual readers of the genre have encountered these two giants (but if you’re wondering, I would have chosen The Regulators and Desperation as one entry for King, and the underrated Shadowland for Straub). When I finally decided to keep the list focused on lesser-known novels, I had to remove one of my all-time favorite novels from the final pick - Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Now, without further ado, the list.

1. The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis – Over two hundred years ago, a nineteen-year-old youth steamrolled over the boundaries of the genteel gothic tale, represented by novelists such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, with this outrageous tale of a saintly monk seduced into a life of corruption. Even in this jaded age the character of Ambrosia still shocks. You would be hard pressed to find a contemporary villain, outside of Hannibal Lechter, who so gleefully and wholeheartedly embraces the dark path to perdition.

2. Uncle Silas (1864) by J. Sheridan LeFanu – Although remembered mainly for masterly short stories and novellas like Green Tea and Carmilla, LeFanu was quite adept at novel length shockers. Uncle Silas stands as one of his best efforts. Maud Ruthyn suspects that her Uncle, scorned by polite society for some indiscretions in his youth, might be after her father’s estate. Austin Ruthyn believes that Silas isn’t evil, but suffers from the stigma of his past sins. When Austin unexpectedly dies, Maud becomes the ward of Silas and we get to find out what evil truly lurks within his soul. LeFanu’s descriptions of landscapes and storm tossed skies shimmer with an almost hallucinogenic intensity. The dark forces directing the action palpably rise off the page. Laden with an “atmosphere of mystery and the crescendo of impending doom” (as M. R. James, another horror master, noted), Uncle Silas is a perfect novel to read by candlelight on a long winter’s night.

3. Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) by Bram Stoker – After creating the world’s most famous bloodsucker, Stoker set his sights on mummies, inspired by the Egyptology craze sweeping London. The police investigations into the attack on the scholar Trelawny at the beginning of the book are unintentionally hilarious: the Inspector’s insipid deference to his “social betters” reads like a Monty Python send up on the English class structure. All laughter chokes off when Queen Tera begins to extend her seven fingered reach from beyond the tomb into the drawing room. Stoker’s publishers tinkered with the book’s ending after the initial printing, giving the tale a happy ending that rang false (speculation abounds as to whether Stoker actually wrote the revised ending). Make sure you track down the TOR edition which reproduces the text of the first printing, retaining the book’s original incredibly sad and shocking ending.

4. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) by H. P. Lovecraft – This short novel, from the man many consider to be the father of the modern Horror story, has all the elements we’ve come to expect from Lovecraft - sensitive and eccentric scholars meddling with forces beyond their comprehension and control; unspeakable horrors from other spheres; strange rituals and incantations; and ancient beings with long, unpronounceable names. The first half of the novel fills in the historical background of Ward’s evil ancestor Joseph Curwen, but reads more like a dusty, historical tome than a dramatic narrative. Lovecraft delivers the goods in the second half though. If the scene where Dr. Willett discovers a room full of yelping, indescribable creatures kept in deep wells doesn’t chill you, check your pulse my friend. You’re already dead.

5. Fear (1940) by L. Ron Hubbard – Rational man of science, Professor James Lowry, an ethnologist, calls down the wrath of demons on his head by publicly professing his lack of belief in their existence. First he loses his hat, along with four hours of time. Then, he loses his grip on reality as sinister voices and menacing figures taunt him, and an ominous stone staircase that leads down into a nether realm mysteriously appears. All the while Lowry tries to unravel the riddle of his missing time despite warnings that when he solves the mystery, he will die. Sure, sixty plus years later after its initial publication, the premise of Hubbard’s early novel has been done to death, and the twist ending isn’t all that surprising. What truly unsettles me as a reader are the surreal episodes where the walls of rationality dissolve and the dark visions claw their way into Lowry’s tenuous hold on reality. Fear demonstrates that even before engaging in the Babylon magickal workings with Jack Parsons or starting his own religion, L. Ron Hubbard was fascinated with the nature of consciousness and the oncoming collision between ancient and modern ways of believing.

6. Witch House (1945) by Evangeline Walton – Although known for fantasy novels, particularly the Mabinogian tetralogy, Walton wrote one horror novel worthy of the masters. Don’t let the two silly covers from the Collier reprints (malignant bunnies with glowing eyes or a ghost escaping from a portrait over the mantelpiece) or the protagonist with the ultra taboo name (Gaylord) scare you off. Walton weaves a tight tale of psychological horror about a family whose ancient ancestors continue their dysfunctional reign from beyond the grave with the help of magic, always with the help of magic.

7. Land of Laughs (1980) by Jonathan Carroll – I realize that the novels of Jonathan Carroll are an acquired taste, but I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t like this first novel. Some might argue that Land of Laughs is not really a horror novel at all. To counter that, I’ll provide a long quote from Arthur Machen’s The White People:

What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?
Some of these things happen in Land of Laughs, along with a few other horrific events. Case closed. And hey, even the dead come back to life.

8. The Ceremonies (1984) by T. E. D. Klein – Cosmic horror rears its head on a small farm in New Jersey. Because Arthur Machen was an undeniable influence on this suspenseful book, I was expecting something, well, grimmer. What surprised me most was the sense of humor running deep in the novel’s veins. Klein takes a typically Lovecraftian theme - the rational man or woman (in this case, Jeremy Freirs, literary scholar of the horror tale and his girlfriend, Carol Conklin, an aspiring dancer) who cannot see the obvious occult danger before their eyes because it is so far removed from their daily life – and mines it for all its comedic potential. But make no mistake; The Ceremonies is a horror novel through and through, one you won’t forget long after the sound of the dragon dies down amidst the tumult of city sounds at the novel’s end.

9. Next, After Lucifer (1987) by Daniel Rhodes – When some readers think of books about expatriates relocating to the south of France, A Year in Provence or Toujours Provence invariably comes to mind. Not for this reader. Sure, Next, After Lucifer has an American professor retiring to the south of France to search out magic and adventure, but the resemblance ends there. Instead of finding good food, strong drink, quaint conversation and inexpensive lodgings among the country folk, Professor McTell stumbles upon black magic, an ancient cursed well, the sinister ruins of a citadel rumored to have housed the Knights Templar, and the spirit of a malignant sorcerer plotting to regain corporeal form. Rhodes crafted his first novel as homage to M. R. James. Judging from the results, it’s obvious he absorbed one of the most important qualities from the master scribe of the ghost story - the ability to sustain an atmosphere of dread and unease until the tale hurtles to its inevitable dark ending.

10. Ancient Images (1989) by Ramsey Campbell / Flicker (1991) by Theodore Roszak – I’m a sucker for stories about lost films, especially those purported to exert an evil influence. In Ancient Images, the film in question is Tower of Fear, a lost final collaboration between Boris Karloff and Bela Legosi, which disappeared before it premiered. Clues to the mystery behind why the film went missing film lie in the town where most of its footage was shot, Redfield, known for producing uncannily delicious wheat. Flicker deals with a missing director and his suppressed films. Max Castle, a German who began his career during the Expressionist period, emigrated to Hollywood in the ‘30s where he was confined to making B-movies or to helping more commercially successful directors, such as Orson Welles, craft their opuses. In 1942, he was lost at sea, a passenger on a boat torpedoed by the Nazis. Jonathan Gates becomes obsessed with Castle’s disturbing films, especially when he finds they contain hidden images detailing secret rituals in honor of the Gnostic god Abraxis. Each novel is flawed in it’s own way: Campbell’s ends too abruptly, and Roszak can be overly discursive and pedantic. What lingers in my mind is the characters’ infectious love of film in both novels, and both authors’ descriptions of the sickening thrill and exaltation of uncovering secret and forbidden knowledge housed within a work of art.

11. Bone Music (1995) by Alan Rodgers – On his deathbed, legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, writhing in agony from the poison in his gut, sings Judgment Day in an act of vengeance towards the meanness of this old world. Now Judgment Day isn’t any old song. It’s a song of uncanny beauty. All living bluesmen know it, but only in bits and pieces. Only the Hoodoo Doctors - the great bluesmen who have died in the eyes of the world, but remain alive in another level of reality - know it in its entirety, and they dare not sing it. For Judgment Day, performed in its entirety, will destroy the Eye of the World, a lens that acts as a barrier between hell and earth. Robert Johnson’s foolish and prideful act didn’t destroy the Eye, only damaged it. But fifty years later, a little girl who died of cancer is brought back to life, setting off a chain of events leading to the re-weakening of the Eye and an apocalyptic showdown in New Orleans. Alan Rodgers pulls off the amazing feat of constructing a homegrown Hoodoo Blues mythology which reads like it was birthed whole into the world the first time a black man laid hold of a six string guitar and crooned the blues. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

12. The Between (1995) by Tananarive Due – Hilton James cheated death when he was a boy. Thirty years later, he’s a successful social worker, married to Dade County’s only African American judge and has two beautiful children. Only his world is starting to unravel as a racist man (who his wife prosecuted in an earlier trial) stalks his family, and the boundaries between his dreaming life and his waking life start to dissolve. Suddenly Hilton has to confront the possibility that his borrowed time might be up. This astonishing first novel by African American writer Tananarive Due deftly negotiates the surreal territory that lies between life and death, dreaming and waking, and the spirit and the material. What chills me the most is the sense of demons, spirits and elementals at play in the very air around the James family. Due provides a firm grounding in reality with the detailed scenes involving Hilton’s professional and home life, which only makes the slip into the Between all the more unsettling. This is the kind of book Toni Morrison would write if she were to focus solely on the horror genre.

13. Santa Steps Out (1998) by Robert Devereaux – There’s a million ways this twisted little book could have gone wrong. But after the hilarious opening scene where God returns from vacation to find that the Archangel Michael and a few other trusted members of the angelic choir have not only reverted to their former pagan selves, but have allowed the unthinkable to happen (namely allowed Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy to cross paths), you know you’re in the hands of a demented genius. Santa has a reputation for being a generous man. Santa Steps Out demonstrates, very graphically, how generous the jolly old fat man really is. When you finally get past the shock value of seeing beloved childhood icons such as Santa, The Tooth Fairy, Mrs. Claus and the Easter Bunny acting out in shameful ways, you’ll find that Devereaux has crafted a beautiful and, at times horrifying, ode to the life-force that flames within us all. You’ll never look at a Christmas Coca-Cola ad or that mall imposter in the same way again. Not for the easily offended or the faint of heart. Really.

No comments: