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Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you’d rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost.
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It’s after Halloween, but still time for one last good chilling read…

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior is an odd little novella, about culture, about family, about love, and about the lengths one will go to for those we care about. Jones’ story is about a family of Native Americans who left the reservation after the death of the father of the household, moving to a poverty-stricken exurb; their physical environment is as much a source of horror as the supernatural elements that appear in the story.

Jones brings this environment into the stark foreground incredibly powerfully; Mapping the Interior is as much concerned with mapping the prefab house the family lives in, in all its different parts, as anything more interior to the family, and indeed, the unfolding mapping of the house plays a major role in the unfolding strangeness and horror of the plot. Jones describes the house in detail, through the eyes of a child; it’s a very effective approach, as we build a complete picture up only in snapshots, and somewhat impressionistic ones, as much emotional as physical.

The main horror of Mapping the Interior is built up slowly; Jones starts the novella off looking like one kind of ghost story, and then turns around and writes a rather different, darker, more horrifying kind. The way this is achieved is through the dawning realisation of a child of the reality of his dead father’s return; at first, he thinks of it as a blessing, his father come back to him, but the cost of this return becomes increasingly clear as the novella goes on, even as the benefits are shown. It’s a dark story, and Jones doesn’t shy away from its darkest elements; the gut physicality of violence is painfully clear, as is the familiarity with it of our twelve year old protagonist and narrator, Junior.

There are also banal horrors around; Jones doesn’t overlook the effects of racism, or of ableism directed at a developmentally delayed child, Dino, on a Native American family. Indeed, one of the biggest horrors of Mapping the Interior comes from a violent pack of dogs kept by one of the neighbours, who seem more like coyotes than domestic canines; their desire to eat the children of the family is powerful and brutal, and Jones really brings the fear of them home, with a visceral reality. These horrors are the backdrop to the supernatural horrors, and indeed almost an alternative to them; they make the supernatural seem more benevolent at the start, before its true nature becomes clear.

This isn’t a perfect novella; Mapping the Interior has a tendency to treat developmental delay as a comic relief motif or as the effect of supernatural agency, although Jones is fundamentally writing about Dino with sympathy. Some of the key plot points turn on his unspecified condition, and the way it is treated is at times deeply frustrating. Furthermore, Jones’ tendency to cut away at key moments, for various somewhat contrived reasons, cuts the tension a bit, and makes the novella more convoluted than it has to be.

In the end, though, despite these problems, Mapping the Interior is a powerful, dark, and moving novella, with a real chill at its heart.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
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Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

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In 1917 the world was rocked by claims that two young girls – Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths – had photographed fairies in the sleepy village of Cottingley. In 2017, a century later, we finally discover the true nature of these fey creatures. Correspondence has come to light that contains a harrowing account, written by village resident Lawrence Fairclough, laying bare the fairies’ sinister malevolence and spiteful intent.
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Cottingley is a historical engagement with Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous folly, The Coming of the Fairies, published in 1922; whereas Doyle’s work was supposedly nonfictional, and about the glory of the fairies, based on the since-admitted fakes of Wright and Griffiths, Littlewood’s takes a somewhat different tack…

This is a horror novel, pure and simple, and takes part in many of the standard conventions of such. Cottingley is one of those books that very directly aims to chill the heart with rendering the familiar and cosy, strange and dark; in this case, Littlewood takes on the comfort of the woods, the idea of the fairy at the bottom of the garden, and makes it increasingly sinister and destructive as the novel goes on. The creeping horror is mountingly effective as the narrator is willing to believe in the fairies from the beginning, but becomes increasingly disconcerted by their natures; these are not the gentle fairies of Conan Doyle but a rather more sinister, bloody group of beings, more linked to earlier folklore. Littlewood builds up the atmosphere in stages, with minor malice and fascination growing by degrees across the course of the novella, with the hints of the evil right in the very first encounter but unwilling to be believed, before Cottingley changes entirely.

The entire novella is epistolary, correspondence from Lawrence Fairclough to Edward Gardner, who helped Conan Doyle investigate the real Cottingley Fairy photographs. Cottingley suggests Lawrence is an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle’s fiction, and drawn into the great writer’s obsession with fairies, seeks to investigate himself; the relationship between Edward and Lawrence changes and alters over the course of the book, although Littlewood only gives us Lawrence’s side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to try to fill in the gaps oneself, and attempting to work out what the other side has said to prompt certain parts of the letters.

The solipsistic nature of this approach has its drawbacks. While Lawrence’s daughter in law, Charlotte, and granddaughter, Harriet, are fleshed out somewhat, they remain relatively elusive and idealised in the letters themselves; Cottingley really only has one complete character, and even he is very limited as we only see him in retrospect of times of crisis. Littlewood distills the plot down to its utmost drama, but at the sacrifice of individuality; Harriet is a good, dutiful, bookish girl, while Charlotte is the model of a good wife grieving a husband lost in the First World War now looking after her father in law. Even Lawrence is little more than a caricature, a man looking for something to cling to after losing his son, and finding the fairies; Littlewood makes him somewhat sympathetic but largely this is by the forces raised against him, not on his own account.

In the end, Cottingley is a good piece of literary horror, and an excellent engagement with one of Conan Doyle’s weirder obsessions, but as fiction goes, Littlewood has sadly forgotten the importance of character.

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The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

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For as long as Molly Southbourne can remember, she’s been watching herself die. Whenever she bleeds, another molly is born, identical to her in every way and intent on her destruction.

Molly knows every way to kill herself, but she also knows that as long as she survives she’ll be hunted. No matter how well she follows the rules, eventually the mollys will find her. Can Molly find a way to stop the tide of blood, or will she meet her end at the hand of a girl who looks just like her?
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Tade Thompson’s previous novels have been an African noir, Making Wolf, and an African first-contact novel, Rosewater. This novella marks a double-departure, into yet another new genre, and also into a new setting: America.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne opens rather like it’s going to be a Saw-alike; a nameless character with no memory wakes up, bound, and in captivity. She is tattooed with a number and cared for, albeit somewhat haphazardly, by a captor. Then, the talking begins; only it’s not the captive expected to talk, but to listen, as Thompson turns the expectations his first chapter sets up on their head. The majority of The Murders of Molly Southbourne is recounted in one long piece of narration to the captive woman, by Molly Southbourne herself; it’s a device that works very well, because we are never quite allowed to forget the implications and set up at the start of the novella.

The plot is minimalistic and open-ended; The Murders of Molly Southbourne is really an exploration of a concept, rather than a plot-driven story. The episodes recounted by our narrator-within-a-story tell her life from her earliest memory to, practically, the present moment; Thompson immerses himself in the aging and maturing voice throughout the book, and the narration ages with its narrator, becomes more sophisticated, and more self-aware. The Murders of Molly Southbourne sees Molly grow from a child trained by her parents, both of whom seem to have exciting, concealed backstories, to kill; because when she bleeds, new iterations of her appear, and try to kill her. The plot sees her learn how to manage this, including when she starts menstruating – Thompson does not avoid the difficulty in having a blood-based problem for a woman, instead dealing with it in a very matter of fact way – before investigating the situation that gave rise to it.

Fundamentally, there are only four characters in the whole novella; Molly herself, her two parents, and a later love interest and academic helper. The Murders of Molly Southbourne feels like it has a larger cast because each of these characters so clearly has their own story; Molly’s mother’s past is unclear and clearly involved espionage of some sort, her father’s past is if anything even more mysterious, and they have a life that does not wholly revolve around Molly. It is the moments of domesticity that constrast the ultraviolence that really make this novella work: the characters are more than just machines for hurting others, they’re real people who also have to hurt others, and who suffer for it. Thompson’s sympathetic rendition of the psychological consequences of this are powerful and fascinating, and really leap off the page.

The Murders of Molly Southbourne is essentially a psychological horror, and the close focus on Molly’s psyche accomplishes that very effectively; there are moments when it is lifted, and those tend to have a little less impact. As a whole, the narration is very dispassionate, but in a very careful way; it isn’t emotionless, but it feels like there is a lot of suppressed and relayed emotion, as if Molly, in telling her story to her captive, is clamping down on her own reactions ot it. This is less true of the action sequences; those are fast-paced and powerful, Thompson writing with incredible immediacy about the adrenalised nature of them.

All in all, The Murders of Molly Southbourne is a dark, thrilling, moving novella, and I’m excited to see where Tade Thompson takes this next… as well as being curious about how it could be adapted for film.

Disclaimer: Tade Thompson is a friend. This review was based on an a final copy sent, at the author’s request, by the publisher, Tor.com.

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You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann, trans Ross Benjamin

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On retreat in the wintry Alps with his family, a writer is optimistic about completing the sequel to his breakthrough film. Nothing to disturb him except the wind whispering around their glassy house. The perfect place to focus.

Intruding on that peace of mind, the demands of his four-year-old daughter splinter open long-simmering arguments with his wife. I love her, he writes in the notebook intended for his script. Why do we fight all the time?

Guilt and expectation strain at his concentration, and strain, too, at the walls of the house. They warp under his watch; at night, looking through the window, he sees impossible reflections on the snow outside.

Then the words start to appear in his notebook; the words he didn’t write.

Familiar and forbidding by turns, this is an electrifying experiment in form by one of Europe’s boldest writers. The ordinary struggles of a marriage transform, in Kehlmann’s hands, into a twisted fable that stays darkly in the mind.
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Literary turns at horror are an interesting beast; some people, like Michelle Paver, get it absolutely right, whereas others end up writing subpar horror and subpar literature at the same time. So with the imprimatur of authors like Jonathan Franzen behind it, and a brilliantly simple cover, I was curious to see what the German novella You Should Have Left. would be like…

At the start of the book, Kahlmann proceeds as if this were just ordinary literary fiction; a blocked screenwriter and his former actress wife take their four year old daughter to a lodge in the mountains to retreat from the distractions of life while he writes a new screenplay. The book itself is the notes, a mixture of diary and screenplay, the nameless husband is making. The domestic tensions are all there, from the disinterest of the wife and the little squabbles between the spouses to the frustration of trying to care for a child; You Should Have Left starts in a very mundane way, leavened more than anything else by the snatches of screenplay we see, which look like a fascinating what-next romcom sequel about growing up and domestic dissatisfaction.

However, Kahlmann slowly builds up the weirder elements; from the odd warnings villagers the nameless narrator encounters, to the dreamlike nightmares and visions of the narrator, You Should Have Left leaves the realm of the mimetic and enters a slightly sidewards realm, with the cliches of horror the signposts to what is to come. What raises the book above those cliches at this stage is the way the writing breaks up, at moments; things like “Get away” are interspersed in ordinary narrative, and the writer of the book keeps breaking off the narrative only to return and explain the odd event that caused him to stop writing mid-sentence. It’s very artistically done, and does create a kind of mingling of reality and unreality; none of the events at this stage are necessarily external to the narrator’s own mind, after all.

When it ramps up the horror is when Kahlmann is perhaps weakest, although also most innovative. You Should Have Left bends and plays with reality, and the way the characters are trapped in the rented lodge is dark and powerful; however, the constant seeking for a cosmic metaphor, or one based in quantum physics, for the entrapment feels forced and unnatural from the narrator. Furthermore, Kahlmann can’t quite seem to decide if the ennui of the fear or actual terror at the impossibilities going on are the emotion he wants to convey and make readers feel; at times it seems almost like he thinks one leads to the other, and thus neither really lands.

You Should Have Left. is an interesting little book, and a good approach to melding literary and horror fictions, but in the end, Kahlmann is far better at the literary than the horror, and leans too much on the latter for the former to really shine.

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The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion by Margaret Killjoy

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Searching for clues about her best friend’s mysterious suicide, Danielle ventures to the squatter, utopian town of Freedom, Iowa, and witnesses a protector spirit — in the form of a blood-red, three-antlered deer — begin to turn on its summoners. She and her new friends have to act fast if they’re going to save the town — or get out alive.
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Margaret Killjoy, transfeminine anarchist queer, has written in the past about anarchist utopias – A Country of Ghosts is explicitly about one. It’s therefore not a surprise that her new novella, coming with praise from people like Nick Mamatas and Alan Moore, is another engagement with anarchism and utopian ideals.

The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a book very much about power, the wielding of power, and the idea of power. Structured around a kind of death investigation (suicide, rather than murder), Killjoy sends her protagonist, Danielle Cain, into Freedom, Iowa, an anarchist-socialist squatter commune in an abandoned town in flyover state America, to find out what drove her old friend Clay to take his own life. Arriving into the town, Danielle is confronted rapidly with some dark supernatural goings on, and some very rapid problems of how an anarchist commune can self-organise and self-sustain…

Danielle Cain is a brilliant character, a perpetual drifter who runs on curiosity and idealism; she is a queer punk anarchist in one of the purest modes possible, a vocal and outspoken woman who will defend herself against male aggression or protectiveness while also being unafraid to ask for what she wants. The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is full of characters like her; driven by their idealism to try to build an impossible world, knowing their own flaws and limitations, and with an utter commitment to something outside themselves. They’re also a diverse cast; Killjoy presents us with a trans man (revealed to be trans to the reader in the most casual way), ace characters, characters with various allosexualities, all without their various queernesses being in any way really plot-relevant; and she includes characters of various different ethnicities, often an overlooked issue in anarchist circles.

The plot to The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is reminiscent of books like The Dispossessed, Iron Council, and Killjoy’s own A Country of Ghosts; it isn’t concerned with everyday life in an anarchist commune, although it does convey what that’s like across its course, but more with the struggles when community tensions appear. Killjoy shows us the community in normal times by including elements of continuity and having characters note the changes; if Freedom, Iowa is a blueprint for an anarchist commune, it’s a pretty comprehensive one. Where Killjoy’s blueprint falls short is, of course, where her novella steps up: what happens when someone tries to take power or abuse the community? The fractures in the community are what really drives The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion; the magic in it serves only to emphasise and reify those fractures, and to bring them rapidly to a crisis.

That aspect is really well handled; Killjoy threads a strain of creepy strangeness throughout The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion with her use of the supernatural and magic, never making it follow any kind of systematised rules but rather more emotional than that. It’s a beautiful approach to magic in a modern-world setting that really does raise magic as that numinous other, as a strange and powerful thing that meddling with can be incredibly destructive; here, it reifies a number of different elements, but centrally it reifies the idea of a community’s power to self-police, and the way that can be turned on the community itself or harnesed to do ill within the community.

The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a politically charged utopian novel; but it never becomes a manifesto. Killjoy’s writing will carry you along through the book; this isn’t literary fiction, it’s much closer to pulp in terms of prose style, simply letting the words get out of the way of the story whilst also serving it. There’s an almost punk simplicity to the prose, of the kind where the reader can see there’s a lot of skill involved, but Killjoy never feels the need to show off; The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is written as a sparsely beautiful, rather than a lush, novella.

I can tell that this powerful, brilliant little book is going to be one of the best things I read this year; The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a thought-provoking and intelligent novella, and I look forward to Killjoy’s sequel!

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A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

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Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

The mad ravings chase Deacon to his next gig. His saxophone doesn’t call up his audience from their seats, it calls up monstrosities from across dimensions. As Deacon flees, chased by horrors and cultists, he stumbles upon a runaway girl, who is trying to escape the destiny awaiting her. Like Deacon, she carries something deep inside her, something twisted and dangerous. Together, they seek to leave Arkham, only to find the Thousand Young lurking in the woods.

The song in Deacon’s head is growing stronger, and soon he won’t be able to ignore it any more.
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Khaw has written, over the last year or so, weird noir, in the first Persons Non Grata novella Hammers on Bone; culinary horror in the form of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; and supernatural romance, in Bearly A Lady. So coming to the second Persons Non Grata novella, one might expect to get another slice of weird noir… one would have to think again, though.

Instead, A Song For Quiet is much closer in kind to Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated A Ballad For Black Tom; historically set, Khaw engages with the racial background against which much of the early weird fiction was written, and takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. Much of the narrative is driven by the way oppression and violence have manifested in the life of Deacon James, and Khaw doesn’t pull punches there. Not only is segregation in full effect in the South, subtler racisms in the North also affect Deacon, and the fear he had to live in in the South isn’t easy to escape.

Khaw uses that to drive the plot; like LaValle in A Ballad for Black Tom, she is concerned with why oppressed and marginalised people might be driven to think the destruction of the world might not be so bad. A Song For Quiet combines the alienness of a Lovecraft story with the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man to make the reader, as much as the characters, rethink what would otherwise seem obvious; saving the world is a less easy choice when that world is determined to break you and destroy you. Khaw balances different perspectives and attitudes on this brilliantly, and the final resolution of A Song For Quiet is brilliant, sad, and lyrical all at once.

This is a very intense and personal story, and as such, would not work without strong characters to really make the reader feel the complexity. A Song For Quiet once again demonstrates that Khaw’s greatest strength is very quickly creating a character, and then making them complex and whole; Deacon is brilliantly realised as a black man with the tragedy of grief in his immediate past and permanently confronted by racism, while Ana’s scarred past of abuse and horror at distinctly human hands shows us a different view of hell. The relationship between the two is brilliantly realised and burns slowly into a mutual respect and understanding that Khaw writes with an excellently delicate touch.

Finally, we need to talk about plot. Khaw’s weakness in the past has been carrying a single plot through a whole work of this length, rather than making it feel bitty. In the case of A Song For Quiet, much like Hammers on Bone, though, this weakness is something she has wholeheartedly overcome. Different elements of the plot at first can look a little disparate but she draws them together with an amazing confidence and skill, to come to a very sharp point at the conclusion of the story, one aimed right at the heart with perfect skill.

I hope we continue to see this level of plotting from Khaw moving forward, just as we continue to see excellent characterisation from her; A Song For Quiet is yet another level up from one of this generation’s great new writers.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com. Cassandra Khaw is a friend.

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