We are wrapping up Women in Horror Recognition month with a book that exemplifies what women bring to the genre. Mama’s Boy and Other Dark Tales by Fran Friel is a collection that in one light is very diverse, is also tied together by recurring themes and ideas you don’t see much in horror.
“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?
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