The playing field for serious practitioners of literary horror is vast and inclusive—and, really, it always has been. Poe has long been canonized; the ghost story is one of the preeminent forms of modern literature, as evidenced by brilliant works by writers such as Dickens, Wharton, Joyce, James, and more; Stephen King has been the recipient of a Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation; and the Library of America has recently issued an edition of all of Shirley Jackson's published works. Why, then, the perception of a genre ghetto? Has the line between pulp and "serious literature" not been drawn firmly enough in the world of horror fiction? Should it be, even? In an essay at The Millions entitled "What About Genre, What About Horror?", Peter Straub—perhaps the most notable (or at least he should be) writer of "literary horror" still working these days—notes his frustration with the genre ghetto by claiming, instead, that horror is one of literature's universals:
That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the "horror" part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone, from literary fiction. That crucial element could be called point of view, or angle of vision. It is whatever dictates the way in which everything is seen.
And into this conversation step the Shirley Jackson Awards, billed as having been "established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic"—all of which are represented by the Award's diverse and inclusive shortlist for the Best Novel category for work published last year. Certain preoccupations abound, however; as in most of the best of horror literature, the past comes to affect the present in mysterious and often dreadful ways for these protagonists. Ghost stories, by nature, are all about the past, something coming back and literally haunting the present, and in this way, most horror stories are also ghost stories, even if a literal ghost never shows its face. The ghost can be a traumatic event, a repressed memory, a forgotten shame, or a thwarted desire; and it can be something or someone who has literally been lost, either dead or forgotten. But there is little nostalgia here, and even less sentimentality. The past in horror fiction is a minefield, not a postcard—and not everyone survives its excavation.
Brian Evenson's Last Days begins with a man named Kline in his apartment, morbidly depressed after losing his hand in a situation involving a cleaver and a mysterious intruder who wanted to kill him, who Kline, after cauterizing his wound on an electric stove, subsequently shot in the face. Mysteries proliferate: Kline receives phone calls about an opportunity that awaits him, and on waking up one morning, he is visited by two men who have apparently come to save him—and who arguably hold to this claim, even as their more complicated motivations become abruptly clear. The presence of the men in the apartment upon Kline's waking evokes Franz Kafka's The Trial, a novel which mirrors Last Days in numerous ways, the most important of which is that it establishes a mood of mystery that may not ever be truly explained. Why has Kline been chosen? What awaits him? (Josef K in The Trial, of course, died before ever finding out what crime he had committed.)
The novel's fascination with repetition and circularity is established early on by dialogue, with characters often repeating the same lines and phrases. Everyone skirts the truth about what is actually going on in favor of more obfuscation, more mystery. When Kline's new caretakers finally arrive with him at their destination, Kline discovers the Brotherhood of Mutilation—and their belief that amputation can bring them closer to some strange version of God—as well as his role in their project. He has been brought, it seems, to solve a crime, one which no one really seems to understand or even, in many cases, know anything about. When Kline's point of contact is revealed to have reconstructed the original crime scene, Kline grows exasperated, wondering how he can possibly solve a crime without dealing with any actual evidence. Borchert, one of the Brotherhood's elders, responds: "Mr. Kline, surely you're enough of an armchair philosopher to realize that everything is a reconstruction of something else? Reality is a desperate and evasive creature" (p. 59)—a point which is proven, over and over again, by the novel's circular examination of itself, the various elements and situations repeating themselves almost as an exercise in finding the truth by simply altering one's perspective.
In this intellectual—or, rather, philosophical—context, the novel reveals its true beauty and power, which could otherwise have been obscured by an almost procedural narrative, sometimes devoid of reflection, always hard and brutal. "You'd be better off if you were willing to take some things on faith" (p. 86), Borchert says to Kline, but his observation also serves as a message to the reader, who has been aligned with Kline as he flounders in a fog through this strange world—until, of course, he doesn't. The last quarter of Last Days is an extended episode of wrenching violence as we witness not only the physical deaths of dozens of men but also, more poignantly and horrifically, one man's loss of humanity.
Kline asks himself early on, "How important was it to know? And once he knew, what then?" (p. 89). A sub-sect of the Brotherhood tries to win Kline over, which proves difficult since he has learned that trusting no one is the best plan for survival. But he ends up losing much more than a hand, and when a minor character reflects on the experience of a limb's sudden absence, Evenson's word choice is very telling. "It's not easy to lose such a large part of you" (p. 102), Kline is told, leading us to consider what, beyond the obvious, is now gone. Evenson provides wonderful images to elaborate on this question; for example, when Kline, lying on a hospital bed, looks toward the door of his room to see a man sitting with his back to the doorway, mostly obscured by the wall so that all Kline can see is exactly the part of himself that he has lost. Only together do they make the whole.
The novel is fueled by the desire for knowledge, but it remains unclear what the use value of that knowledge might be. The future, no matter how much we know, remains forever uncertain, just as the past is vague and unclear, too far away to properly grasp. Kline asks himself how much weirder he thinks his life could possibly get, but then is "afraid of what the answer might be" (p. 158). Evenson writes with remarkably utilitarian prose, slicing (as if with a cleaver) to the heart of story itself, and none of the novel's questions have easy answers. In the end, this airtight and relatively short novel is best read as an adventure in form rather than a traditional narrative, exemplified by a remarkable passage in which Kline examines artwork that demonstrates the novel's project of looking past the shock of violence to the form of art itself, finding comfort in patterns:
Over the course of the day, the paintings started to feel familiar, no longer so strange. True, they were grotesque, but it became harder and harder to keep that in mind. The screaming or singing man started to seem more and more incidental to the composition of the picture as a whole, and he found himself thinking about the pattern of ochres and blacks and clammy whites, about the cast of light and shadow, in a way he almost found soothing. (p. 134)
Stylistically, Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree could not be more different to Last Days. Kiernan's novel is composed of a series of journal entries in conversational parlance, and is often prone to tangents and ellipses which the narrator, a novelist named Sarah Crowe, admits is a fault in her own published fiction. Several states of remove are quickly established: we are reading a novel composed of journal entries written by a fictional novelist who is also, throughout the novel, reading a haunting manuscript written by a former resident of her house and which was subsequently abandoned, naturally, in the house's basement.
The relationship between art and life preoccupies and informs The Red Tree. Sarah Crowe has holed herself away in a rented house in Rhode Island, fleeing New York City after her lover's suicide. As she investigates her own writing process and, by extension, the way she has lived her life so far and the way she must grieve the loss of her lover, she becomes increasingly obsessed with New England lore—the novel is rife with literal references (shout-outs?) to Lovecraft, Poe, and Shirley Jackson herself, all cited as "influences" on Sarah Crowe's writing and, probably, on Kiernan's. Beyond providing an extensive reading list, though, the novel explores artists' relationships to themselves, their work, and the world around them: the idea that just as we can edit a book, we can edit our own lives: "I sat there with my pages and my red pen, listening, wishing I knew some magical incantation that might yet undo the whole mess" (p. 368).
There is, of course, a scary red tree on the property that Sarah is renting, a red tree with a mysterious past—and also a mysterious relationship with time itself. But that's only the beginning. What follows is a general accumulation of puzzle pieces that only end up cohering if we actually need them to cohere. "This story, it has a lot going for it, as long as you can live with the questions it raises and never answers, and with a certain lingering inexplicability" (p. 379)—exactly. Much attention is paid in The Red Tree to the power of dreams and what they say about how we live our lives always cloaked in metaphor and association, perpetually adding fictional bits to our actual memories in an effort to always be writing the story of our own lives, making everything somehow better through a relationship with narrative. "A necessary fiction," Sarah Crowe writes in her journal, "and if the facts are compromised by my lousy memory, I don't think the truth is any worse for it" (p. 57).
Excavating The Red Tree in too much detail here would do the novel a great disservice, but its layers, as they build upon one another, become incredibly haunting, frightening more for what they reveal than what they hide—although that, certainly, is also scary. The story-within-a-story technique perfectly illustrates this thematic, especially when one of Sarah Crowe's own short stories—in addition to her actual journal entries—is included as a part of the novel, thus providing the reader (and Sarah herself) with more fodder for analysis. "Has it [the red tree] become my own obsession?" Sarah asks herself (p. 265) as she becomes more and more mired in the history of the tree (through the manuscript that she found in the basement of the house) and its increasingly personal relationship to her present circumstances.
But the most frightening thing of all, brilliantly captured by Kiernan's masterful novel, and also the aspect of her work which is most reminiscent of Shirley Jackson's, is the breakdown of reality itself. Sarah Crowe is our Eleanor Vance, fumbling through her experiences as she slowly loses her grasp on what is really happening outside of her own mind, her own repressed anxieties. Sarah Crowe writes about an experience with a therapist who wanted her to write down accounts of her dreams, and Sarah "reluctantly acquiesced, but made at least half of it up. She never knew the difference, and reading back over it, later, I discovered that I had a great deal of trouble distinguishing between the real dreams and the counterfeits. That bothered me at the time. What more intimate lie can a person possibly tell herself?" (p. 337) The horror of the past is likened to a dream, something which can be remembered and interpreted without ever necessarily being real.
One of the most interesting things about Karen Maitland's The Owl Killers is the use of multiple first-person viewpoints. A large cast of characters takes turns narrating bits of their own stories, interspersed so as to be chronological. All of them residents of the medieval English town of Ulewic—"crouched with its back to the forest, cornered, a village pushed to the very edge of Christendom" (p. 52)—the characters must navigate their own path through a twisted conflict between competing faiths.
"It was dangerous to be different in Ulewic; everyone knew that" (p. 65)—thus, since everyone in the novel ends up in fact being very different, it's no wonder that the proverbial shit hits the fan in a big way. Many of the novel's most harrowing moments occur when different faiths come into conflict with one another. But the various points of the faith spectrum—Father Ulfrid, the parish priest; the women of the nearby beguinage, a haven of small buildings used by Roman Catholic sisterhoods; and old Gwenith, the local witch who knows the old pagan ways—seem at first to be finding a common ground to defeat a common enemy: the Owl Masters. "The Owl Masters had no faces and no names. They might be anyone in Ulewic. Who was missing from the crowd when the Owl Masters were here? There are some questions no one is allowed to ask" (p. 18). And the Owl Masters have called forth the Owlman, a being who, as legend has it, once took "full grown men, ripped the flesh off them and ate them alive. Devoured their souls, too" (p. 247). Conflicts arise when each faction doubts the other, and thus digs themselves further into trouble as the enemy only grows stronger. Notes Servant Martha, the leader of the beguines: "In those uncertain times we needed to believe that we are protected" (p. 252). Unfortunately, everyone seeks protection from different sources.
The episodic nature of The Owl Killers ultimately ends up running the reader a bit off course, and the one major drawback to the shifting point of view is that we often have to hear narrative information imparted more than once, without particularly notable differences in perspective and tone. Maitland is clearly interested in all aspects of the period she writes about, and this interest manifests itself in diversions that may not be actually doing the novel a service. (Another unfortunate misstep is the use of homosexuality as a symbolic example of one character's corrupted nature. The representation of their affair is severely off-putting.)
That said, Maitland knows her stuff, and the world that manifests itself in her prose is entirely believable, rooted in the trust she has gained by showing her work, so to speak, with regards to research. And over time, while reading this large, ambling novel, I became more and more won over by the fantastic Gothic imagery. Passages like the following occur throughout the novel, punctuating it with the terrible implications of questioning the origins of the world:
"Where did the water in the well come from, surging and rushing unheard and unseen beneath my feet? Did those chill black rivers empty into vast lakes? Or seas with tides and waves crashing in the darkness? Were there plants and fish and birds and animals down there in the bowels of the earth? Who had the power to command them? They said the place of the dead was a desert, but what if the realm of the dead and the damned was blessed with water lighter than angels' song?" (p. 217)
Ghosts, demons, revenants, human sacrifice: this novel has them all, and then some. Blind faith can be terrifying, driving people to do terrible things, and Karen Maitland reveals many of the dark sides of faith—the parts of the world that any singular belief can obscure. It is a novel that teaches the value of questioning what we have always believed to be true, while also cautioning against letting doubt get the better of us. Because even monsters can sometimes be more real than the things we cannot see, and even the leader of the beguines begins to feel a creeping doubt in the face of very real horrors:
I had not believed that such a monster could exist and now—now he was more real to me than God. Each time I tried to pray I saw his face. I heard the crack of his savage beak and smelt the foul stench of this breath. That demon reared up before my face as if the prayers I was offering were made to him. And God was silent; He was nowhere and nothing. (p. 361)
[Read the second half of this shortlist review here.]
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.