Emera first shared Emily Carroll’s horror webcomic “His Face All Red” with me several years ago. It’s an unsettling, inconclusive tale of two brothers who set out to kill a wolf that has been terrorizing their village, but nothing is what it seems. The story is a swirl of fearful trips to the forest, sloshing cheers in taverns, village gossip, paranoid insomnia, feral intentions, and inexplicably spilt blood. I wanted to create a confection that would evoke the comic’s vivid color palette and capture the flavors of bravado, fear, and death.
You are currently browsing articles tagged psychological horror.
Date read: 6.14.2017
Book from: Gift from K. – THANK YOU!
So fucking dark and anguished. Julia Gfrörer’s Laid Waste is a desperate song about human love amid plague-stricken Europe – like a graphic novel cousin of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Grasping, bony fingers and limp corpses.
Gfrörer intercuts long passages of the deepest existential despair with wisps of dark humor – two children flatly discussing how best to avoid breathing in the smoke from a bonfire, for example – and with the fragile suggestion of divine grace. Better, though, than the questionable blessing of unlooked-for survival, is the desperate strength of human connection: “Everything outside of this is darkness.” “Yes.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so deeply, with both mind and body, the vast loneliness and despair of one of history’s darkest periods – and humanity’s baffling, tragicomically stubborn resilience in the face of unrelenting loss.
Like her storytelling, Gfrörer’s art feels both delicate and terrifyingly honest. It establishes a territory somewhere between Dürer and Egon Schiele. Meticulous hatching contrasts with wavering, slightly uncomfortably organic shapes. That wavering quality creates a strange sense of movement even when she’s working through one of a series of mostly stationary panels, which compel us to wait and watch and feel with her characters. With most other artists, the inconsistency of shape and anatomy would register as a technical shortcoming; with Gfrörer, it’s another means of expression.
I feel very, very lucky to have been introduced to Gfrörer’s work through a generous gift from friend K.; I plan to write about the two other comics he gifted me, Black is the Color and Flesh and Bone, over the next few weeks, and hope to buy the rest of her comics soon.
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!
Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.
The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”
The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.
I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.
The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion, with Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, providing fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” The grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral. Described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown a drapery of lichen due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”
All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline:
“In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…”
This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.
Haunted Legends is a 2010 anthology of supernatural horror stories/weird tales/whatever, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas. I picked it up when Kakaner and I went to Readercon in 2010, and have read it 2+ times since. The table of contents is stacked with major names: Catherynne Valente, Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Ramsey Campbell, et al.
The anthology is themed around local legends, and the presiding tone is chilly, regretful, and uneasy – there are only a few stories that read as more straightforward horror, like Joe R. Lansdale’s lurid creature feature, “The Folding Man,” which closes the volume with a punch and a leer (and won the 2010 Stoker Award for short fiction).
Since most of the authors are North American, most of the stories draw from those legends. Of those that are set abroad, several are objectionably maudlin and touristy, like Kit Reed’s “Akbar” (India) and Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona” (Mexico). Others engage sharply with tourism or imperialism (Catherynne Valente’s tremendous “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” [Japan], Kaaron Warren’s “That Girl” [India]), and/or draw upon authors’ immigrant backgrounds (Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans” [Russia], Lily Hoang’s vicious “The Foxes” [Vietnam]).
There are also three hitchhiking/roadside phantoms total.
For me, the standouts are Richard Bowes’ “Knickerbocker Holiday” (which I’ll talk about below), and the stories by Caitlin Kiernan, Carrie Laben (a new name for me), Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, and M. K. Hobson (all of which hopefully I’ll write about later). Those hit my sweet spot so far as emotional complexity, prose, freshness of concept/execution, and pervasive unease are concerned. Laird Barron and Jeffrey Ford’s stories, which I think share a kind of darkly musing/amusing quality, also made me go “hmm” in a pleasant way.
Richard Bowes‘ “Knickerbocker Holiday” opens the collection, and immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t read Bowes before, and where I could find more of him.
Last Sunday night the Dutchman flew, the Headless Horseman rolled in from Sleepy Hollow. It happened when I paid a visit that was in part nostalgia, but in larger part morbid curiosity, to a corner of my degenerate youth. I even kissed the fingertips of a very bad old habit of mine and told myself it was for memory’s sake.
Fanning myself! The rest of the story sustains this singular, dreamy, morbid flippancy; I couldn’t get enough of it. The narrator is one of a coterie of aging, not terribly glamorous fashion writers who gather to remember dead colleagues, from their youth working together in New York’s old Garment District. Unlikely connections to Sleepy Hollow emerge, laced with bad deaths and sexual unease.
I love the story in large part for its fragmentary yet rich evocation of ’70’s New York. That richness of sense of time and place seems especially appropriate given how lovingly Washington Irving worked to record his Dutch New York in all of his stories. Not much love here, though – instead of autumnal lushness, there’s only an autumnal falling-away, a sense of twist and rot.
Then there’s the painterly way in which Bowes handles the nightmare-like elements of this story. Painterly is the best word I can think of to describe it, and I find the effect utterly arresting – the few, silent, almost stately visions of the supernatural that he presents, simple scenes touched with an inexplicable threat. Like a Magritte painting, is what I’m thinking: simple shapes, arranged wrongly; a few lighted windows invested with unknown meaning.
I very much look forward to investigating more of Bowes’ short fiction.
Date read: 1.12.14
“When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.
I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.”
Caitlín Kiernan’s novelette “Houses Under the Sea” (2003) introduces the Lovecraftian deep-sea mythology that later figures largely in the 2012 novel The Drowning Girl. My favorite section of the story is actually the very first, where Kiernan sets glinting shards of memory tumbling in the liquid medium of her protagonist’s memory. It’s painful, frightening, smoky, sensuous (just take the fact that the victim-villainess’ name is as outrageously rich as Jacova Angevine), with a noirish swagger later amplified by the narrator’s hard-drinking pathos, and, rather playfully, by included excerpts from the works of Angevine’s mystery-novelist father.
Technically, the story is beautifully crafted, with Kiernan’s trademark circular movement (which echoes the final image that ends up haunting the narrator – “She has drawn a circle around me”) of thought and memory carrying the reader to successive climaxes of dread. An empty warehouse with a recently painted-over floor. Undersea things – coldly, sinuously, invasively sensuous, both muscular and rotten-soft.
The role that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s deep-sea exploration plays in the story is especial fun for me given the fact that I spent several years in elementary school obsessively drawing viperfish and anglerfish, and that my dream job for a much longer time was to work at said aquarium… (It did just occur to me that a thread of my anglerfish affinity persists, in that I now study the family of bacteria that includes Photobacterium, those responsible for the luminescence of anglerfishes’ and flashlight fishes’ light organs. Shine on, you creepy diamonds.)
I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.
Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children
Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.
In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.
Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.
Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,
“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”
Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329
This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapes. When the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.
* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.
Date read: 8.3.2013
Book from: Personal collection
“Stories do not serve me. Even my own stories.”
Caitlín Kiernan‘s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl form a diptych: red and blue, burial and drowning, the chthonic and the oceanic. They’re mirror-image confessionals struggling with grief, mental illness, suicide, inexplicable loss, inexplicable hauntings. Present-day hauntings as crucibles for pain, and art, folded in with the matter of folklore and urban legends – that is, hauntings passed down through time, what Imp in The Drowning Girl terms, with a kind of vehement sociological exactitude, “pernicious memes.” (As if naming the thing will better pin it down, fix its dimensions. I suspect the vehemence is partly ironic.)
The Red Tree has a ferocious heat to it, a molten core exerting terrible gravity – the boiler in the basement of the Overlook. There’s only one way in to Sarah Crowe’s story, and it’s down. Catabasis without anabasis.
Like Sarah, Imp circles around and around the places of greatest hurt, making darting rushes towards them, then leaping back again just as quickly; being slowly, slowly drawn on and in. But as Imp makes her way through the waterscape of her memories, slipping from current to current, tidal pool to tidal pull, we gradually become aware that for her, there might be a return. Her story is not entirely about consumption, about the claiming of a sacrificial victim; it is also about bearing witness, about choosing or being chosen to bear witness, and it is as a witness that she will survive. (Her survival of Albert Perrault’s art exhibit in particular, and her movement in memory around it, reminded me of another of Kiernan’s haunted witness-narrators, in the science-fiction short “A Season of Broken Dolls.”)
Because one thing The Drowning Girl does that The Red Tree doesn’t, is show us, make us bear witness to, the bodies of the dead. Bodies, and unfamiliar or outright violent transformations of them, mutability and violation, are one of its principle preoccupations (again as in “Broken Dolls,” and countless other pieces of Kiernan’s fiction). The Little Mermaid, werewolves, Imp’s transsexual girlfriend Abalyn, all are considered as superimpositions of multiple identities, and multiple physical beings. (Though Abalyn resists Imp’s initial attempts at narrativizing her experience as a transsexual woman – telling her that she was “brave” for undergoing surgery, for example.)
In The Red Tree, the dead are disappeared, beneath the roots of the oak tree, or simply into a black obscurity, like the endless void of the basement spreading under Sarah Crowe’s house. But in The Drowning Girl, the literal bodies of the dead are tossed back out again, out of the deeps, for Imp, for her fellow witnesses in fiction and in history, and for us to contemplate from shore. We see that they’ve been worked on, but not, of course, what’s been working on them. The recurring image of a beautiful girl, drowned and bisected – gone from ribcage down, like half-rotted Hel of Norse mythology – becomes a macabre sister to the image of the mermaid. The blame is put on scavenging sharks, but who’s to say what was really responsible for the dissolution of body, life, memory, out there in the blue. For those victims of the deep, the physical violation seems besides the point.
Still, it’s enough to wound their witnesses in turn. Imp assembles snippets of song, poetry, fiction, art, history, and legend around herself like talismans, weaves them densely, as if glancing from juncture to juncture of the resulting web, assessing its intersections and symmetries, will render her own experience of being haunted, twice, by a siren or a werewolf named Eva Canning, more comprehensible, more forgivable.
It doesn’t, of course; it just makes it deeper, more terrible. “Lost paintings, daughters of mystery, mysteries and the pieces aren’t ever going to stop falling into place. Or falling, anyway. One Eva, but two paintings.” I found myself thinking about the all the twinnings, the uncanny reflections and resonances and multiplications, as two kinds (more twins) of sounding: echoes sent up the wellshaft by Imp’s investigations, her attempts to sound the depths.*
But the denseness of the weaving, and the mind of the weaver, are beautiful, too. Sarah Crowe is furious in her hurt; Imp is just as much a wounded animal, but a gentler one, with a quietly mordant wit. The essential elegance of her thoughts, as they flow from tale to tale, image to image, is not diminished by their desperation – rather, that intentness and need invests them with elemental power, the ability to peel back the surface of fairy tale and urban legend, expose the bone. Not as a violation (“stories do not serve me”), but as a revelation of potency and meaning, of one possible essential shape among many. I think Angela Carter would have approved.
* I just realized that I gravitated towards this pun because I’ve used it once before on this blog, in this post about a Jack Gilbert poem.
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed
“So Runs the World Away,” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2001): review by Emera
Alabaster, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2006): review by Emera
The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2009): review by Emera
I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Date read: 1.10.11
Book from: University library
Snow White meets haunted-house melodrama meets quasi-vampire story with a decided hint of “Carmilla,” by the author of The Icarus Girl? Count me in. White is for Witching is the story of a family, and a house, distorted by the loss of a mother and a hidden history of trauma, xenophobia, and insanity. Miranda Silver blames herself for her mother’s death, and struggles with pica, a disorder that compels her to eat chalk and plastic. (I thought it might well be a pun on the “consumptive” heroine, in addition to hinting at Miri’s eventual realization of even worse appetites, and reflecting the novel’s motifs of misdirected desire and destruction from the inside out.) Her twin brother Eliot and bottled-up father Luc are too paralyzed by their own obsessions and griefs to do more than watch Miri on her slow course to destruction. In short, every character is an emotional closed circuit, furiously retracing the same neuroses without outlet or resolution. This includes, of course, the possessive and apparently sentient house, which has born witness to several generations of tortured Silver women.
For the first half of the book, I read with mostly detached fascination. Everyone is so icily clever and dysfunctional that I couldn’t really care about them, and as in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s prose sometimes verges on mannered. Paragraphs drift into prose-poetic fragments, and overlapping phrases signal transitions between narrating characters; I found the latter a particularly heavy-handed stylistic device. Similarly, many of the haunted-house tableaux – Miri’s waking dreams of streets lined with “pale people,” for example – are presented with an arranged, glassy nightmarishness, an alienating hyper-aestheticization. What saved the book for me from feeling (if you’ll forgive the pun) too lifeless was Oyeyemi’s dense layering of Gothic and folkloric tropes.
Date read: 1.24.11
Book from: University library
Shirley Jackson is the queen of opening lines:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the capstone in my mini Jackson-marathon of January; for some reason I’ve decided to review it first. It was her last novel, and contains almost all the Jackson trademarks: persecutory villagers, a haunted (not literally, in this case) house, thinly veiled wickedness and brutality, a split psyche, embodied here in sisters light and dark. Jonathan Lethem’s excellent introduction in the Penguin Ink edition situates these usefully in Jackson’s own life as the formerly shy wife of a university professor isolated in small-town New England, and in her sad decline as she succumbed to agoraphobia in her later years.
Merricat Blackwood. Oh, Merricat. She’s a typical Jackson heroine in that she’s determinedly childish and presexual; it’s hard not to read her relationship with the Blackwood house (like that other great Jackson house, Hill House) as an attempt to return to the womb. I also had a hard time remembering that she’s supposed to be 18, and not 12 or 13. A capricious, spiteful witch-child, she delights in hiding, in secrecy, in burying and nailing charms around the family estate, repeatedly drawing lines of protection around her and Constance and the house. (When interloping cousin Charles appears, Merricat hates him almost more for resembling her and Constance’s father than for his obvious mercenary aims; she strenuously rejects any masculine influence from their domain.) Her black cat Jonas follows her everywhere, and they “talk” to each other fluently. She loves thinking about the deaths of others: of her family, scandalously and mysteriously poisoned six years ago; of the villagers who hate them and blame fearful, fragile Constance for the murder. Above all, she’s monstrously selfish, a sort of funnel constantly drawing off Constance’s maternal attentions and lovingly described cooking.
Like any good trickster character, she’s both hateful and seductive. I couldn’t not identify with her flighty witchery – a good chunk of my childhood in a nutshell – all the while that I was increasingly repulsed by her emotional stranglehold on Constance. The violence in the book crescendoes shortly before the end, but the ugliness goes on from there, quietly, as Merricat proceeds to get exactly what she wants; it left me feeling more disturbed by a book than I have for a long while. At the same time, I couldn’t help remembering how much fun Merricat was, her wicked humor and her mocking embrace of dysfunction. Lethem’s introduction highlights Jackson’s talent for slyly “instill[ing] a sense of collusion in her readers,” reflecting “the strange fluidity of guilt as it passes from one person to another.” You can’t get much better at that than Merricat Blackwood.