Spring is not a good time to read horror, and Ann Radcliffe (1764 – 1823) knew it. She was an advocate of dark and stormy nights, shrouds of mist and unearthly beings; feeling obscurity was required to put the mind and “poetic spirit” in the right place to feel true terror. “Obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate,” but things seen and understood as of this earth “loses … power over the imagination; the illusion vanishes.” The sun is now shining, snow is melting and birds are chirping – how can we hope to be scared by anything?
“Don’t show the monster” has become pretty standard advice, but horror writers have other tools at their disposal beyond obscurity. Stories drawing from the Lovecraftian mythos in particular often flaunt this wisdom entirely, giving as detailed a description as possible to every wriggling, tentacle-laden thing that seeps from a dark corner. Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R. Stiles have assembled a solid collection of these in their new anthology, Sword & Mythos (Innsmouth Free Press, 2014). Crossing the Cthulhu mythos with the pulp adventure aesthetic of Edgar Rice Burroughs requires showing the monster so that it can be hit with a sword, with mixed results.
Edward M. Erdelac’s “The Wood of Ephraim” is one of the anthology’s most accessible stories for readers who may be unfamiliar with the Cthulhu mythos. Drawing instead from the 2nd Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, Erdelac imagines a supernatural explanation for the death of Absalom, son of King David. “The forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword,” says 2 Samuel: 18, a creepy statement Erdelac takes literally.
“The forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword,” says 2 Samuel: 18, a creepy statement Erdelac takes literally.
Despite hinting at the monster with the introductory Biblical quote, Erdelac still manages the tension very nicely. The Wood of Ephraim is an ominous place where trees “sprouted from nothingness” and “then fell away behind them into a dreamy material soon forgotten.” Under a black, starless sky the Gibborim – heroes of King David – celebrate the rout of their enemy surrounded by a shroud of silence. Eliam, the son of a wizard, spooks them all with a fireside story of older, stranger Gods from before their God brought light. The blasphemous, nameless enemy evokes tingles.
Erdelac maintains our fear of the unknown even as the enemy is revealed. The alien nature of the monster makes it unfathomable. Finding Absalom tangled in a tree, they fail to recognize the immediate danger he’s in until it is too late. The creature’s attack is described in terms of the unknowable. It sucks from its victims “something dark that was not blood.” What could be worse than blood? We can only imagine.
Yet in the end, Erdelac releases us from the horror story. The survivors escape and return only to destroy the enemy. This flies in the face of the Lovecraftian tradition, where the horror ultimately lies in the inevitable defeat of humanity – if not immediately, then eventually. Erdelac follows the tradition of the sword rather than the mythos, allowing a heroic ending which feels a little like a pulled punch.
Radcliffe suggests the experience of terror “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,” but that horror is the lingering disgust that’s left behind after the moment of excitement has passed. By that definition, “The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin (Strange Horizons, April 14th, 2014), is surly horrifying, beginning where the terror has ended. The monster does not appear in the story. The horror lies in the revelation that the cost of the sublime experience we seek when we partake of terror is paid for by a victim. The audience surrogate for these stories is the Final Girl; a particular type of girl custom-terrorized for the voyeur’s benefit.
The stark truth laid down in Lipkin’s narrative is oppressive. The mind is not excited by the possibilities of the unknown, but depressed by the hopeless conclusion. “The falling girl never stops dying,” Lipkin tells us. “The point of the falling girl is that she never stops falling.” Lipkin anticipates and subverts our attempts to find a comfortable conclusion for the Final Girl over and over. No well-intentioned writer can take away her trauma by laying her story out in the bright light. She doesn’t find comfort in support groups or in the flesh of other Final Girls. She never feels as if she has escaped and she takes no comfort in having fought back – or not
The stark truth laid down in Lipkin’s narrative is oppressive. The mind is not excited by the possibilities of the unknown, but depressed by the hopeless conclusion.
The story is deeply upsetting, and it should be. The reader is left feeling guilty and complicit in the continued suffering of a narrator who isn’t even just one poor girl, but an infinite number of girls who have all been sacrificed to the same search for the sublime. Lipkin gives us horror via empathy, drawing us in to an inescapable space that the reader will not enjoy occupying. Hers is a powerful entry into a growing canon of similar narratives that include Damien Angelica Walters’ recent “Grey in the Gauge of His Storm” (Apex Magazine #53) and “Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine #50). The point is not to enjoy the story, but to listen to a voice which is necessarily hard to listen to in our search for answers to difficult questions.
“Anyway: Angie” by Daniel José Older (Tor.com, March 26th, 2014) comes up the middle, offering shocks, creeps and lingering discomfort too. Set in the same world as his other works, Salsa Nocturna and the upcoming Bone Street Rumba series, “Anyway: Angie” starts as a skin-crawling story of insectoid cultists and dead prostitutes but ends on a bittersweet note of personal loss and trauma.
Reza, the protagonist, comes pre-horrified by what she calls “The Bad Years” followed by the disappearance of her lover, Angie. She’s emotionally numb from the latter and coldly competent because of the former, but she remains a singularly likeable character. In the noir tradition, she is hardened by a dark past, but still just vulnerable enough that you really root for her. So when Reza tells us that the things she hates “more than death itself” are these skittering, unmentionable bug-things, we trust her assessment. These bugs are bad. She skips the “heavy guns” in favour of the bug spray. They must be the worst.
In the noir tradition, she is hardened by a dark past, but still just vulnerable enough that you really root for her. So when Reza tells us that the things she hates “more than death itself” are these skittering, unmentionable bug-things, we trust her assessment.
The danger is still obscure half way through the story as the heavily-armed Reza descends into the lair of the monster. Before we have been given a glimpse of anything, Reza, the hardened body-for-hire, is “sweating. And my breathing’s not quite right.” A freshly-remodelled basement punctuated with kid’s toys, given the circumstances, fills us with dread. As her surroundings become more conventionally horrifying, it is still through her lens that they horrify – it is her fear, her struggle to remain calm, and her dismay that are so affecting. The first layer of the scary story, the one with bugs and bad guys and bodies, hits just when we’ve been worked into that state of heightened expectations. Older takes full advantage of our open minds. We imagine and receive the worst.
“Anyway: Angie” subverts to some degree the women in refrigerators trope by being conscious of it – the women in his story are literally killed and found behind the refrigerator – and by offering a female protagonist, but in all other ways it plays out according to that script. Reza avenges the dead women and comes to her decision to re-dedicate her life to “justice” in the light of these killings. Countless women – literally mixed and mashed together to create a soup of dead womanhood – have died in order to bring about Reza’s change in career. In this light, the lingering horror is that the world is still plagued with a non-specific evil that uses the bodies of women to birth the next generation. Maybe Reza will beat it, or maybe she’s just one who got away by assuming a traditionally masculine role. The piece ends with Reza facing the light, but the darkness is still very much there.