Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Personal Journey to Seek One's Identity: A Review of Robin Greene's "The Shelf Life of Fire" (Durham, NC: Light Messages, 2019)

"Raw". "Vivid." "At times disturbing." These descriptions describe Robin Greene's latest novel, The Shelf Life of Fire. It is a personal journey of a woman who receives a phone call notifying her that her brother is dying of cancer. The brother was irresponsible and self-centered, and he hurt his family in deep and far-reaching ways. This call throws the woman into a depression in which she questions her identity and whether there is any point to her life or to life in general. It is an existential journey, but one that is concrete, raw, and emotionally wrenching (at times) to read, for the author writes about excruciatingly painful events. The tension is present within the main character's self from the start of the novel onward, but there is still room for a surprise near the end. The woman is caught between the poles of self-destruction and self-acceptance. The novel explores the journey that ends with one of these options. It is well worth the effort for the reader to take that journey with the main character and see it through to the end.

Friday, June 7, 2019

A Short Review of You Don't Scare Me, by John Farris

A Short Review of You Don't Scare Me, by John Farris (New York: Forge Books, 2007)

John Farris is one of my favorite horror writers, and this book was not a disappointment. True, as some reviewers noted, the characters could have been more realistically developed, but the story is fascinating--Southern horror with a twist. An evil man, a murderer and rapist, haunts a girl from the grave. She gained the "gift" (or curse) of gaining unsolicited communications from the underworld due to a near-drowning. With the help of her boyfriend, she tries to defeat the evil man before he destroys her and her beau. 

One reviewer said this was a Lovecraftean story, and in some ways it is--but I will let the reader determine that for herself to avoid spoilers. I would say that the book did not bring scares in the sense of a jump scare at a horror movie; instead, it presents a sense of unease. This book is not for every horror fan, but for those who enjoy Southern horror, redneck horror, a bit of contemporary physics, a bit of Lovecraft, and a lot of unease, they will probably like this book.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Review of Dragonfly and Other Songs of Mourning by Michelle Scalise

Michelle Scalise's book of poems mourning the death of her husband, horror writer Tom Piccirilli, are every bit as moving as Donald Hall's "Without." I never thought I would find a book of poetry on mourning that matched Hall's in quality and emotional depth, but this book does. When I finished reading it at the airport in Grand Rapids, I was in tears and had to get up and walk around, luggage and all, to process the emotions. I teach philosophy and medical ethics and will be teaching a course on "The Meaning of Death" this fall. I plan to use some of these poems in the class. The title poem, "Dragonfly", expresses the frustration of the grieving with the trite statements well-meaning friends and relatives make: "Plug my ears to no avail / their voices go on and on / 'At least he's not in pain'," as if that makes the loss any easier. I cannot adequate describe the beauty and emotional punch of these poems. I recommend them to anyone who desires to read fine poetry as well as anyone who works with the dying and the mourning or teaches courses in those areas.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Silver Dagger Blog Tour for Obedience this Week

I hope you can check out my blog tour set up by Silver Dagger--there are guest posts, unique summaries of the book, and a sample of the book for you to savor.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Contemporary Ghost Story

Do ghosts haunt your mind? Perhaps they are the ghosts of past mistakes, waiting to rise from unconscious darkness into the horror of full awareness. They may be the ghosts of past relationships, those “It might have been….” “I wish it had been….” Or “What if it had been… questions that are guests of near-photographic memories flooding consciousness at the most unexpected moments. Perhaps you have experienced a classic ghost, the spirit of a person who has died. All these subjects have been treated in the contemporary ghost story.

The classic ghost story of the nineteenth century was about the return of a spirit of a dead person, perhaps vengeful, perhaps not, but the goal is to create in the reader a sense of the uncanny, the mysterious, a fear that brings chills that continue long after someone finishes reading a story. One of the classics is M. R. James’s “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad,” quoting a haunting line from Robert Burns, the Scottish poet. If you have not read the story, I hope you do. I will not give away the plot, but like most James stories, the tension builds slowly and a chill grows until the reader experiences a feeling somewhat like Rudolf Otto’s notion of mysterium tremendum et fascinans, “mysterious, tremendous, yet fascinating.” The feeling is more like a creepy sense of awe, though it is mixed in with a good deal of old-fashioned fear. The traditional story has continued in contemporary fiction; a contemporary master of the traditional ghost story was Russell Kirk (1918-1994) in his fine collection, Ancestral Shadows (ISI, 2004). His stories left me with more of a feeling of awe that James’s, and that says a lot. One must include Peter Straub’s fine 1979 novel, Ghost Story.

Although traditional ghost stories are still being written, they usually have to have a unique twist to avoid repeating the same plot line and themes of earlier stories too closely. Many contemporary ghost stories focus on psychological forces that haunt us—tragic errors, personality flaws, mental health issues, living people who continue to haunt, sometimes in negative ways. The “ghost” might be memories of abuse or memories of a first kiss full of promise of happiness that led to heartache. A ghost might be a hallucination produced by the mind alone based on nothing that is externally real. It might be the return of a deadly temper suppressed for many years that explodes into murder and mayhem. The psychological sophistication of contemporary ghost stories is significantly greater than those written in the past (except for, perhaps, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw). Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House leaves it an open question whether the ghosts are objectively real or the psychological horrors of the protagonist. The stories in Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts mainly concern psychological ghosts rather than “dead people ghosts.” A masterpiece of stories regarding psychological ghosts is Mort Castle’s Knowing When to Die: Uncollected Stories (Independent Legions Publishing, 2018), which is literary horror of the highest order. Since my bias is toward the supernatural ghost story, I was not a fan of the collections of psychological ghost stories I had read before I read Castle’s book. I am a fan of this collection; it is excellent.

I still prefer the supernatural ghost story (“dead people ghosts”), but I am more open than before to non-supernatural, psychological ghost stories if they result in a similar mysterium tremendum feeling I have when reading good supernatural ghost stories. Reading both kinds is essential for any writer of ghost stories today.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Should Horror End in Hope?

Traditionally, horror stories had hopeful endings. This, in part, was the result of writers, whether they were religious or nonreligious, sharing a generally Christian culture. If Bram Stoker had ended Dracula with the vampire winning, with evil triumphing over good, his book would not have become a best seller in 1897. As Christianity faded from Western Culture, horror grew increasingly pessimistic, especially after the vast societial changes that occurred in Europe and the United States from 1964 on. Two of the best literary horror novels written, Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973) ended with evil triumphing over good. I can remember as a teenager watching the movie based on Harvest Home entitled The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978). Of course Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery” (1948) is a similar story and a precursor to the more pessimistic horror stories to come. The movie upset me as much as “The Lottery” did when I read it in junior high school. It did not seem right that evil would win. Of course H. P. Lovecraft’s stories from the early twentieth century are nihilistic in a way, but they are good at revealing a world without purpose and deity, subject to the arbitrary whims of the mindless god Azathoth and the other “gods.”

Although Stephen King’s work is generally hopeful and optimistic at the end of his books, the change from the ending of King’s story, “The Fog,” into the ending of the recent movie reveals, in part, a change in the culture of horror. Books and movies with hopeful endings are still being written, but some horror, such as the Splatterpunk movement of the 1980s, comes across as nihilistic rebellion against order in general. At least the characters in Lovecraft’s fiction believe in fighting against the chaos they find. The Nightmare on Elm Street series along with the Halloween series, has Freddy and Jason being resurrected time and time again as if they are undefeatable. To me, this is not a good thing—it is not the same as J.R.R. Tolkien’s saying that evil always reappears in other forms over time for Tolkien has ultimate hope that one day evil with be totally conquered.

I do not mind if children read or watch horror per se; children love to get scared. What is hurtful is when a horror story or movie leaves them without hope. However, there is a way that some adults can get something useful from nihilistic horror—they can see the results of a godless universe. Rather than parroting the atheistic existentialist’s manta about finding one’s own meaning in a universe without God, nihilistic horror spits in the face of that view, recognizing it as a cop-out, a denial of reality. Thus religious people can watch and learn from nihilistic horror how a totally matter-energy based universe leads to meaninglessness, violence, and despair. However, when others read such books and watch such movies, they may think that nihilism is the correct view of reality—and behave accordingly.

Nihilistic horror is a logical development from the loss of Christianity among writers and others in the intellectual and artistic classes. It still does not appeal to most Americans who watch movies, as the ending to the movie The Fog killed any chance of it being a financial success in the United States. Japanese horror, such as the Ring series and the Grudge series, is not nihilistic since the bad things that happen have a purpose in the Buddhist karmic system. Neither is the Saw series since the motive for killing is moral desert—the victims deserve what happens to them. Cormac McCarthy’s works sometimes border on nihilism, especially Child of God and perhaps Blood Meridian, but in the end his characters are searching for a truth in their lives that they find elusive. No Country for Old Men reflects the point of view of a sheriff who sees the rise of psychopathic violence that he attributes to the loss of traditional values. However, violence and destruction for no reason at all other than to shock the reader or viewer does reflect a nihilistic world view.

This does not mean that everyone should avoid nihilistic books or movies; not only can educated Christians learn from them, but also writers of all religious backgrounds or none. Thomas Tryon is a master of prose. Clive Barker writes a variety of work, not all nihilistic, and his fiction has a literary flare arising from Barker’s love of the King James Bible and classic literature. The horror elements in some of these books are useful, and the writer should always seek new ways or variations on older ways of creating suspense and a sense of dread.

The writer of horror who prefers hopeful endings should avoid the ending coming across as contrived. That is an easy mistake to make. The ending should flow logically and naturally from the overall story while still having an element of surprise in the climax and denouement. Stephen King’s early work and Dean Koontz’s horror works are good models to follow.

Personally I will not write a horror novel with an unhappy ending unless I am trying to illustrate what a world without God will look like, as I did in my short story, “Earnest Expectations,” about a man who gets an unpleasant surprise about the ultimate nature of the afterlife. H. P. Lovecraft was a model for that story. In my novels, focusing as they do on the battle between good and evil, I cannot in good conscience as a Christian end them by leaving the reader without hope. What Tolkien labeled the “eucatastrophe” (“good catastrophe”) of Christianity and a good story is what I am trying to capture, and I pray that thus far I have done that well and will do so in any future work.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Originality in Traditional Supernatural Horror

Contemporary horror writers emphasize originality--that stories of traditional supernatural horror have become trite and repetitive--and have suggested ways writers can enhance originality. They point out that horror plots become repetitive; with under twenty basic gothic horror plots, it is easy for readers to lose the sense of tension since they already know which plot points to expect. Characters can also become stereotyped; the ghost, vampire, werewolf, Frankenstein-like monster, and other standard monsters have certain expectations surrounding them. Perhaps this is why the "good" "romantic vampire" has become such a popular character type.

Yet those who give writing advice also warn against writing against readers' expectation. If the "rules" of the vampire genre are altered, these writers may criticize the author for throwing the reader out of the story by interfering with the suspension of disbelief. Such a suspension can occur more often if the reader finds him/herself caught in a world both familiar and unfamiliar. Stephen King was a pioneer in placing traditional horror stories with their standard rules into the world of middle class America.

If a writer mixes genres (as Neil Gaiman does, winning awards in science fiction, fantasy, and horror for the same work), each genre maintains some stability of rules while the universe of these forms of speculative fiction is broadened. An example is in American Gods, in which the Norse gods are in the form of familiar human beings any person might pass by in the street. Yet such an attempt, brilliant as it is, my not fully bring out the horror in the old Norse legends.

Although I enjoyed reading American Gods (and as someone reared in Tennessee I found the location of Ragnarok at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee humorous), I would never label it as a horror novel. I never felt a chill or feeling of fear, or even the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that one can feel while reading a book of horror (especially a good ghost story). Is there room in contemporary horror for lovers of traditional supernatural horror using the familiar tropes--as I am? Is there room for writers of such horror--as I am? How can one be a traditionalist in horror writing and still keep the fiction fresh?

Traditional horror is often rooted in myths that reach deeply into human fears. The ghost story probably dates back as far as animistic fears of dead ancestors returning to exact revenge. Vampires stemmed from deep fears about the corpse returning to life, fears stirred by a misunderstanding of the nature of decay in human bodies. I prefer to keep those myths in their traditional form--which I have not done so, I have found the reception of my work harmed.

Thus I suggest some ways to keep traditional horror stories fresh:

1. Keep your characters interesting. Write vivid characters, true to life, people that the reader can imagine meeting and with whom s/he could have a conversation. Write people you "know," including "combinations" of varioius people you know. I grew up around rural Southern people in middle Tennessee--those are the people I "know best," and those are the characters I write. Give your monster some unique traits--for example, given a ghost a twisted sense of humor. Write about a vampire with dull fangs. Little variations can make a big difference.

2. Write a story in the context of a fully developed world with a particular mythology that is dominant. For example, I write about a world in which the Christian mythology is true. If I wrote a Lovecraftean-like story, I can set it in that world. I have tried, though with difficulty, to combine a Lovecraftean mythology with a Christian mythology, in which the Christian God triumphs over the Old Ones. That tends to offend "purer" Lovecrafteans, and it is easier to stick to one mythology per short story or novel.

3. Use suspense to create and maintain tension. Although the reader may know the rules for how an evil vampire behaves, she should not know in advance whether the vampire will feed on its intended victim. Keep the tension up and do not reveal secrets too soon.

4. In some stories, a twisting or elevating of language can help to bring out vividness or set a mood of fear.

5. Keep your plots logical but unpredictable. Those seem like contradictory aims, but this is deceiving. Each plot point should flow from the logic of a previous plot point--but as we know, from the same circumstances the future can take many paths. Choose an unlikely, off the wall path that at the same time comes across as inevitable. This is difficult and requires much practice, but the author--and the reader--will be rewarded in the end.