Women in Horror Month: The Haunting of Hill House

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin

“The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside.”

-Laura Miller (from the introduction to The Haunting of Hill House)

To be perfectly honest, Laura Miller’s introduction will say everything about this book I wish to say and in a more elegant way. Though, unless you don’t mind spoilers, I wouldn’t read it until you read The Haunting of Hill House.

So where should I start? Madness? Ghosts?

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Women in Horror Month: Spellbent

Title: Spellbent
Author: Lucy A. Snyder
Publisher: Del Rey

When any book is nominated for the Stoker Award, it automatically has a quality that others won’t. Spellbent by Lucy Snyder is a urban fantasy about a novice witch, Jessie Shimmer, caught in the middle of a horrible accident that will change not only her, but the world she is a part of. Her boyfriend, Cooper Marron, is pulled into a hellish dimension while they were trying to call rain to end a drought. The damage caused by the rip in dimensions causes a cover-up of supernatural proportions with Jessie now considered a fugitive for things she never knew about or took part in.

Continue reading “Women in Horror Month: Spellbent”

Year of King: Carrie

Here is the book that started it all. Carrie will always have a place in the history of the horror genre as a turning point akin to Stoker, Poe, and Lovecraft. The debate will go on, I’m sure of if it was a good thing or a bad thing. But that is more about taste, no matter how academic the reasoning. The fact is, with Carrie, King starts to add ideas not only into the horror genre, but about how to write it.

Carrie is one of the first horror novels that doesn’t rely as heavily on the traditions of Gothic literature. Yes, there are elements, but many stories up to this point use them to the point where they seem otherworldly because of the settings, themes, and characters. Carrie really brings everything into modern setting and re-imagining or re-inventing what the Gothic would be today. Carrie White’s telekinetic ability is the supernatural element, but through out the story is developed in a scientific outlook. The monster is more anti-hero than villain. Instead of a dilapidated castle, we have a rundown house. It shed the mysticism and occult that helped defined the horror genre up to this point and sought to build a foundation in the current reality the reader lived in.

With these changes, it also allowed King to heavily focus on the characters of the book. Characterization is King’s strength, and it is the characters that invoke the terror then the supernatural elements that is common in Gothic literature. From the locker room scene where the the girls attack Carrie to the encounters Carrie has with her mother, it is the interpersonal situations that build the tension of the upcoming terror of Prom Night. In fact, the story would be just as strong and just as horrific if the telekinesis was taken out and Carrie did everything by normal means.

Today, it brings up an interesting discussion: Who is this aimed toward? Back in the mid 70’s, when it was published, most likely it would be considered an adult book. Especially with the Chicago Tribune calling it “Gory and horrify,” I can’t see too many kids getting a hold of it. The truth is, it is not that gory except for the the procurement of the pig’s blood. Also, most of the characters are teenagers. So is it still an adult book? I would say it one of those books that walks the line of YA and adult. I would even say that because of the themes of bullying and social outsiders King explores, this is more of YA read, albeit towards the older range, than it is a adult read. Not only that, but it is as much a book for young women as much as, if not more so, a young men.

By no means a perfect book, Carrie does so much in just a short amount of time that will be expanded upon through out King’s career, that this “big bang” in modern horror is an essential read.

Horror Reader Level: Beginner

American Gothic

Title: American Gothic
Author: Robert Bloch
Publisher: Tor Horror

American Gothic is great example of where modern horror literature started in relation to where it is today. Published in 1974, before horns could be heard signaling the oncoming horror boom of the 80’s, it is a story that, if published today, would most likely be consider a mystery than horror.

What some may not know is that Mystery and Horror have a strong bond between them. Edgar Allan Poe basically created the modern idea of the genre in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was then solidified and codified by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the multitudes of mystery writers since. Both genres thrive on creating suspense, though in horror, the aim is to make it a more fearful suspense. With-holding information from the reader is also key, mostly to help with the suspenseful nature of the story. Investigation is essential too. While a crime is not necessarily needed in a horror story, there is always something that has to be figured out. There is an unknown that must be faced, and that is where the real fear stems from in a horror story.

In this story, based on the true event of H. H. Holmes, it is surprising how much is given to the reader through out the book. The start of the book sets up the character of G. Gordon Gregg to be a serial killer. But you never know how most of them are done. Instead, there is just a constant chain of disappearances. Because of that, it is also important that this is a third-person omniscient narrative. If Bloch were to go any deeper in point of view, he would have to let us on too much of G. Gordon Gregg’s thinking and ruin the suspense that builds over the course of the book. And it his metal capabilities that are so frightening. In a sense, G. Gordon Gregg is a charlatan version of Hannibal Lecter.

And in that, we also see how contemporary horror has changed in the 37 years since American Gothic came out. There was a time where there were two distinct kinds of horror: supernatural and psychological. These days, you don’t see many horror stories that don’t have some ounce of supernatural elements. If there are maniac killers, they are no longer people for the most part. If they are, they are not so much serial killers as spree killers thanks to the popularity of the slasher films. A pure, psychological horror story is rarely considered horror anymore, unless it deals with something like Lovecraft’s use of insanity in his Cthulhu Mythos. I would not be surprised that along with this, many classic horror stories would no longer be considered horror these days. They are foundation that has been pushed, slowly, deeper into the ground so we only see the most recent additions to the genre’s architecture.

Horror Reader Level: Beginner

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Title: The Trial
Author: Franz Kafka
Publisher: Various

I’m sure that those not haven’t read much horror are surprised by this Spotlight. Kafka has influenced much of the literary world. But to say that a story of his is a horror story, I’m sure there are few trying to hold back the “blasphemous.” And I’m not that surprised. I bet there are even those that would say “The Metamorphosis” is more horror than The Trial. And then I would remind those people that for a very long time, horror was as much about psychological horror as it was supernatural, which seems to have more of a dominating stance these days.

Atmospheric horror is a tradition that has been around for a long time, but it could be said it got a boost from H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos. Even now, writers look to him to figure out how to create a world that permeates the fears they want to invoke. Doing this forms a setting for a story where you never know what is around the next corner, or in the shadows, or behind the closed door. It is the most effective methods of Horror, which is why The Trial has found its way here. Kafka, a decade or so before Lovecraft, created a tale that was quintessential atmospheric horror.

Through out this story, Josef K. is haunted by the mysterious Court and Law. First thought of as actual entities, Court and Law soon become ever present forces in K.’s life. Their minions show up where ever they want. They can completely alter the life of those they wish. And fighting them seems to be a Sisyphean task. In some ways, it is more effective than most uses of atmospheric horror. As many draw from Lovecraft, his atmospheric horror is more of a cosmic horror (i.e. The malevolence is so grande and beyond comprehension that it more about the unknown that is terrifying) where Kafka’s horror is completely within our understanding. The idea that the you can be accused of crime, never being told what that crime is, not seeing the evidence of that crime to defend yourself, is one that has happened through out history. You can’t read this book and not feel the same suffocation K. Feels as the power of the Court bear down on him, because we have all had moment or will have a moment just like that.

The Trial is just the first example of how horror exists outside the Horror genre. Proof that even if you don’t read Horror book, you most likely have read Horror stories.

Horror Reading Level: Beginner