The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

By M.R. James

I’m sorry to tell you, but the title of this post is misleading: I am not going to talk about ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the introduction to the 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of the ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’, written by one Darryl Jones.

M.R. James

Remembered best as a horror writer, Montague Rhodes James was also an accomplished medieval scholar and antiquarian. Accordingly, he was a master of what is sometimes called “antiquarian horror”, namely horror that centers around items or students of antiquity (think cursed artifacts, ancient manuscripts with terrible secrets, stuff like that).  Importantly, he seems to have led a largely hermetic and unisex existence: in 1905, he became the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and he served until 1918, when he left to become the provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death in 1936.

Despite being backwards-looking, the creepiness of James’ stories holds up beautifully, and it’s difficult to overstate the influence he has had on the genre. Take, as one example, ‘A School Story’, in which two men compare the ghost stories of their school days.  Here is an image that should be familiar to anyone who saw ‘The Blair Witch Project’:

“First there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, ‘I’ve seen it,’ and died.”

Like Lovecraft (writing around the same time), James is at his creepiest at moments like this, when he leaves things unsaid.  The most grisly action, the terrible spectre, always appears offscreen, and is more unsettling because you have to imagine it yourself. James is very deft in this space, in the gesturing to horror, in inviting the reader to participate in designing the frightening thing.

Of course, the danger with leaving too much to your readers’ imagination is that some readers will bring their own, strange baggage to the encounter.  Enter Darryl Jones, Professor of Modern British Literature and Culture at Trinity College Dublin, who wrote the (otherwise) very good introduction to the 2011 ‘Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James’.

My complaint with Jones is a small, but important, one. At one point in his (really very good and helpful) introduction, Jones spends a while dissecting James’ resistance to marriage and preference for male relationships before turning to this passage, from ‘Casting the Runes’:

“…he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”

Jones then calmly makes the following statement: “…this image of the hairy, fanged mouth…is a powerful symbol of sexual terror, a vagina dentata.”

Is it, Darryl? Is it really?

Jones didn’t invent the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth; it appears in Jungian literature, and in several South American, Ainu, and Hindu folk tales (as well as in the memorably bad horror movie ‘Teeth’).  It’s hardly a common trope, though, and while most of Jones’ analysis seems straightforward and sound, this abrupt veer into genitalia seems more his problem than James’.  Surely, other perfectly normal and astute readers might have read and reread James’ passage without thinking, ‘Oh, yes, that’s clearly a toothed vagina”.

Indeed, Jones finds vaginas all over the place.  In ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, the antiquarian Somerton is exploring a ‘dark cavity’ inside a well when he meets “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”.  He is “conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” This story, explains Jones, “is ultimately a tale of uncontrollable sexual terror, a quest which leads Mr. Somerton to this nightmare vagina, and an encounter which he barely survives.”

Jones’ argument, namely that James’ cloistered and all-male life might have indicated a fear of female company, is not unreasonable on its face. Nor is it unreasonable to ask whether that fear may have found its way into James’ writing as, to quote Jones, “a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine”.

However, I’m not persuaded by the examples Jones gives. I’ll put it more plainly: it’s not obvious to me that every menacing crevice must necessarily be a vagina.

James may well have eschewed female company, and it may be the case that “the lifelong appeal of institutions for James was that they provided the security of all-male environments”.  He may have been a homosexual, but does that really mean that there lurked in every dark corner of his expansive imagination…a vagina? 

I don’t want to make this all about me, but, as a person with a vagina, it’s difficult not to take this a tiny bit personally. I would certainly have hoped that nothing on my body could be described as eliciting “the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind”. The trouble is that Jones seems to assume that every dank environment, every toothed oriface, every bad smell, must be a vagina. Worse, that he assumes it’s obvious. Reading his introduction, one starts to wonder whether, for a certain class of man, all monsters are really just vaginas. Some of Jones’ examples are real stretches, too – I don’t want to speak for other women, but I’ve never heard of a vagina with tentacles.

It’s a minor complaint, in the grand scheme of things, but I would like make this small point: the world is a large place, full of terrible things, and not all of them have to be vaginas. We can imagine other monsters, can we not? Sometimes, a cave is just a cave.

The Final Girl Support Group

By Grady Hendrix

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

At this point, everyone here knows that I am a sucker for a good premise. I’m too attached to them, I know – I can’t resist them, and I am often drawn into books which are clearly going to disappoint me simply because I am charmed by their premise.

My attachment also causes me to be disproportionately enraged when I feel a good premise has been wasted in poor execution. I am much angrier at a mediocre book with a great premise than I am at an all-out bad book with a bad premise, which is completely irrational.

The Final Girl Support Group‘ has a great premise. Lynette, Dani, Marilyn, Julia, Heather, and Adrienne are all Final Girls: the only survivors of deranged serial killers, the terrorized young girls who finally brought them down. They meet once a month in a support group, although over the decades since their victimization, they have become tired of each other. The need for the group has diminished and some of the members are hoping to disband until one of them, Adrienne, is murdered in exactly the kind of psychotic rampage that she avoided decades earlier. When Lynette is attacked next, it becomes clear that someone is hunting down Final Girls.

OK, yeah, it’s not High Art. But bear with me here:

At this point, I think it’s time for us all to admit that horror movies are a mature genre. And as a mature genre, they can be meta-analyzed: they can be understood as metaphors, they can be explicated, meaning can be distilled from them.

Not many people want to do this work, because horror movies are considered Low Art (if they’re lucky – many people just consider them trash). But, I would argue, people should do that work, because horror movies are important. They tell us something about ourselves, and our culture: they are instructive. There is always, always information in what scares us, and there is always, always information in whom we choose to inflict violence upon, whether it is real or imagined. Horror movies reveal something about us, and it’s worth looking at what that is.

Women (especially young, beautiful women) have a special role in horror movies, and that role is what ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘ is about. Women are the victims we save for the most imaginative and sadistic violence. That is what this novel wants, I think, to explicate: the pleasure we take in watching psychos brutalize young girls.

The problem is, there are two ways to for a novel to be “about” something. Novels can explicate things, problematize them, show them to us in a new light or from a different perspective. Or they can simply reiterate the problem, sometimes while exclaiming: Look at this problem!

This latter is what ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ does. I really do think that it was intended to be a problematization of the violence against women that is a mainstay of horror stories, but it basically just ends being a horror story featuring violence against women. The violence is specific, creative, brutal: all the things which characterize the very horror movies that Hendrix intends to lampoon.

And here, I’m afraid, we need to get a little into the nature of satire. Satire is deliberate exaggeration in order to expose something. By its very nature, it requires the thing to be shown: it is ridiculing through the showing of the thing.

Therefore, it necessarily runs the risk of being the thing itself – if the exaggeration isn’t clear, if the ridicule is not expressed, then it definitionally fails at satire. And, yes, satire can “fail” because the reader is simply stupid: misses the ridicule. That happens all the time, especially when we ourselves are the targets of the satire, and it must be maddening for authors, to watch their works be un-ironically embraced by the very people they are attempting to mock.

Grady Hendrix

I don’t think that I am missing the fact that ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘ is satire. I see that it is meant to be mocking – Hendrix isn’t applauding the brutalization of young women, that is clear. But I feel somehow that the satire is incomplete. Hendrix shows, clearly and excessively, the absurdity of the violence we imaginatively subject women to – he explicates the trope – but there are no conclusions. ‘Look,’ he seems to be saying, ‘This is kind of fucked up, no?’

And, yeah, it is fucked up. And maybe it’s enough to say so.

But I am experiencing the grief and frustration I always feel when a good premise has been misspent. When I first finished this book, I was pretty pissed. I had been really excited to read it – had been saving it for an un-virtuous little reading treat for myself – and I wanted better from it. I felt ready to love this book, and I was thwarted.

But my anger has cooled. In my thinking, I have been unable to pinpoint what I would change about ‘The Final Girl Support Group‘, and that has given me more respect for the difficulty of the task that Hendrix set out for himself. I feel ambivalent about this novel, but I am also absolutely certain that I couldn’t do any better. I feel, as I think Hendrix does, that there is a lesson that we should all be drawing from this particular horror trope, but I can’t explain what I think that lesson is any better than he does.

Perhaps I could not have done better with this set-up, but I think someone could have. I can’t recommend ‘The Final Girl Support Group’ – I think it was a pretty pointless read, in the end – but I’m not angry anymore.

Just disappointed.

Mexican Gothic

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve been excited to read ‘Mexican Gothic‘ for months now. I first heard about it from an agglomeration of New York Times reviews of horror novels:

“While the book draws inspiration from Gothic classics like “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” — there is a spunky female protagonist and an ancient house filled with disturbing secrets — its archly intelligent tone and insightful writing make “Mexican Gothic” an original escape to an eerie world.

In 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, is sent by her father to help her cousin, Catalina Doyle, whose impetuous marriage has landed her in High Place, a moldering mansion perched in the “steep and abrupt landscape” of El Triunfo.

Noemí, who prefers parties and fashionable dresses to the staid Anglophile Doyle family, finds her cousin much changed. While the family doctor claims Catalina suffers from tuberculosis, she doesn’t have any of the usual symptoms. Indeed, she claims that the walls tell her secrets, a dreamy delusion Noemí soon comes to experience firsthand. In her attempts to help Catalina, Noemí is pulled into a frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart.”

Doesn’t that sound great? I bought the book basically immediately after reading that and have been saving it for a treat.

I would have been a lot less keen if I had known it was about mushrooms.

Literally: mushrooms. The “frightening ancestral legacy that has ripped the Doyle family apart” is that, generations ago, their patriarch Howard allowed himself to be infested with a fungus that gives him an unnaturally long lifespan and the ability to control people’s minds – you know, one of those cannibalistic immortality hive-mind fungi – and he’s been terrorizing the locals ever since.

And, look, we’ve talked a lot about premises here, but mostly we’ve talked about bad executions of great premises, wasted premises (which really frost me). We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about shitty premises, for the simple reason that I try to avoid reading books with shitty premises because they are almost impossible to pull off.

When I was in high school, my best friend and I loved horror movies. However, in our opinion, most horror movies fall apart at the end – all the energy and suspense that has been built up during the course of the movie sort of fizzles out when it comes time to look at the monster head-on. My friend, who was sort of a genius about stuff like this, framed the problem of the monster-reveal perfectly. She said, “Look, you basically have two choices if you want your movie to be scary. You either devote a lot of time and effort into making your monster really scary to look at, a la ‘Alien’. Or you never show your monster, and it just drags people into sewers off-camera or whatever. But you can’t show a monster and have it be disappointing – if you do that, you lose everyone.”

I’ve applied that rule ever since, and what has become clear over my many years of consuming horror is this: the skills required to build suspense and the skills required to imagine something genuinely terrifying are totally different skills. It’s amazing how many horror plots (movies and books) fall flat when the monster is revealed – the authors of those stories spend a lot of time and effort building up suspense, only to then unveil a monster that wasn’t worth all the fuss they made about it. It’s also probably why many of the really convincing horror stories reveal a human monster at the end – we are already genuinely terrifying.

So, if I routinely find aliens and vampires and zombies disappointing, you can imagine how I feel about a fungus. And it’s not that I hated ‘Mexican Gothic‘, or thought it was a bad book – it’s just that there is something anticlimactic about finding out that the creepy voice coming from the walls is a mushroom!

And I admire Moreno-Garcia for trying (and not in a patronizing, “A for Effort, Silvia” kind of way). It takes courage to say to yourself, “I’m going to write ‘Rebecca’, but with a mind-controlling fungus”. And just because, in my opinion, ‘Mexican Gothic‘ doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean that it’s her fault that it doesn’t. The reason I object to fungus-as-enemy is that I don’t think it could have worked. Moreno-Garcia is a pretty talented novelist, I suspect. But she picked a real lemon of a plot – I honestly can’t think of a novelist I believe could have made this work.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

But that’s not a good reason not to try. It’s easy for me to say, “There’s a reason you can’t think of a single successful horror story where mushrooms are the villains”, but there wouldn’t be, would there, until someone wrote one. All good plots must have a debut, and maybe you don’t know until you try. The next great scary story is waiting somewhere, and someone is going to have to take the risk to tell it.

But it’s not this one. In my opinion, mushrooms don’t make good villains. And my objections aren’t about plausibility – I think people who object to horror stories on the basis of realism ought to be slapped. On the contrary, the plot of ‘Mexican Gothic’ is much more plausible than it is interesting.

And it’s not that mushrooms aren’t interesting – I know that fungi are considered by many to be among the most interesting organisms around. I am in no way disparaging mushrooms, but I think maybe Moreno-Garcia was trying to have two things at once: a villain, and a neat plot mechanic. Fungi are bizarre, and a really creepy story might have been told about a terrible fungal epidemic. But mushrooms aren’t moral – they aren’t wicked. Villains, though, are. And by hybridizing her mushrooms and her villain, Moreno-Garcia squandered her ability to use either to full effect: to have us shudder at the terrible ingenuity of the natural world, or to rally against evil. The mix doesn’t work – it should have been one or the other.

The truth that my friend framed so well all those years ago is that very few things are scary when you can see them clearly. Fear needs darkness – when the bright, clear light of explanation shines on them, when you can take their measure with your own eyes, they usually cease to be frightening.

And this is true of actually scary things, like zombies – fungus didn’t stand a chance, really.

A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.

The Monster of Elendhaven

By Jennifer Giesbrecht

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann’s benefit. “The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette’s Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings.” Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. “See? Hard stone. Unbreakable.”

Johann frowned. “How do you crack one open, then?”

Florian smiled, secretive. “A privilege reserved for Hallandrette’s chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children.:

“A friend for the lonely soul.”

“A companion,” Florian affirmed, “made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother’s baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly.” (p. 52).

Maybe all stories are love stories.

OK, not ALL of them – it’s difficult to describe, oh, ‘Heart of Darkness’ as a love story – but it’s surprisingly hard to come up with a story that isn’t, in some way, a love story.

The trick of it is to understand that love stories sometimes come hidden in unlikely disguises. All sorts of people have love stories who don’t look like they deserve them. Broken people, evil people, sad people, rude people, angry people, all sorts of morally unphotogenic people who nevertheless occasionally find themselves looking for love, feeling love, or acting out of love.

In some ways, those are our favorite love stories. Maybe it’s because they are more suspenseful, since we aren’t sure that the characters in them will find love. Maybe it’s because they are more ambiguous, since we don’t know whether we really want them to find love. Or maybe it’s because they feel truer, since very few of us feel 100% certain that we deserve love.

The inside jacket cover of ‘The Monster of Elendhaven’

When I saw ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ in a bookstore the other day, I didn’t think it was a love story. It doesn’t look like a love story. I’m not sure why I bought it – I’m not in the habit of purchasing books of unknown provenance. But the cover was creepy and the description was even creepier, and I was on a mini-vacation, so I bought it.

Elendhaven is failing industrial city on the northern edge of the map. A hideous accident generations ago has left the ocean poisoned and black. The ancient noble families of Elendhaven have fallen into poverty and the magic that was the source of their power has been outlawed.

Johann does not know who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that he used to be nameless, unloved, born of darkness, until he decided to call himself Johann. He tends to slide off people’s attention, unremarked and unremembered by anyone who meets him. And he can’t be killed, at least not permanently.

And he knows that he likes to kill people. Johann is an accomplished killer – a monster, in fact – who stalks the streets of Elendhaven taking whatever he wants and killing whomever had it.

One night, Johann chooses to rob Florian Leickenbloom, the last living member of the once-magnificant Leickenbloom family. Florian is a small, beautiful man who also happens to be, as Johann soon learns, a sorcerer. Orphaned as a child when the rest of his family was killed in a plague, Florian lives in hermitish seclusion, planning his revenge. And instead of killing him, Johann will fall in love with Florian, and help him realize his terrible plan.

I don’t know if it’s more or less beautiful when a monster loves another monster. But something I respect about Giesbrecht: her monsters are really monsters. They are ugly and evil; they hurt people and they enjoy it. They even hurt each other, and because they have lived lives characterized by pain, cruelty, and rejection, this is part of their love.

The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is gory, viscerally and explicitly gory. It’s creepy, and sexy, and kind of funny, and sad. It’s also romantic, I think?

Romance is not my strong suit, so I might be wrong. It’s also not my favorite genre – I actually have to leave the room during proposal scenes in movies, because they make me so uncomfortable. But, as far as I understand it, romances are stories in which two elements complement each other in a way which makes each feel as though things about them which had been wrong or missing are, in fact, purposeful and right.

This is why this they are powerful for us. We’re all missing pieces, or rough along an edge or two, crumpled where we should be smooth, and romances provide a reason for those traits: those are things which make us ourselves, so if someone loves us, then the self that we are is the right self, and therefore those things are right, too. Love justifies our pain, and our mistakes – it is the forgiveness from the world we need to forgive ourselves.

Jennifer Giesbrecht

And that’s why the romances of monsters are the most revealing romances of all: they are the far-out test case, the most extreme example. They are interesting, yes, monsters are always interesting, but it’s more than that: they are the limit on the possible. And you know you fit comfortably within their limit, and so you know that your experience, your romance, your love, will fit comfortably within theirs.

I wonder if I am the only person who read ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ and thought about love the whole time. I’m definitely not the only person who noticed it was a romance, but I might be the only person who thought it was a lovely romance (rather than a horrific one). That there is something beautiful about the idea of an abandoned little boy raging at the world, calling a monster forth from the ocean who will love and avenge him and who cannot die the way his family did. Who can therefore never leave him alone. In the idea that, if we are monsters, the world might provide another monster to love us, to make us whole.

Because maybe only a monster can truly love another monster.

It’s like there’s a whole other world, full of weird, creepy people (which I definitely am), and we get a whole different, creepy literature. But just because we’re weird and dark doesn’t mean that we don’t have feelings – it just means that our feelings are creepier and weirder than other peoples. And ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a romance for us.

Maybe that’s a weird reaction. But such a weird little book deserves a weird little reaction. ‘The Monster of Elendhaven‘ is a book about revenge and hate and gruesome death, and I thought that it was super romantic, but not in the way I hate – in a way I kind of loved. It’s the most romantic murder book I’ve read.

At least this year.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

The House In The Dark Of The Woods

By Laird Hunt

All Posts Contain Spoilers

So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?

I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it.  At all.

Here’s what happened:

Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack.  Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books.  But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field.   The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘.  The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.” 

Ingenious horror? Yes, please.  I bought the book and started reading it right away.

I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately.  ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale.  ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband.  She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.

Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.

But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad.  Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.

But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you.  Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror.  She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration.  I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:

“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come.  I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run.  There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope.  This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one.  I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind.  I shifted my basket from one hand to the other.  I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower.  A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)

And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real.  What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.

That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…).  Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor. 

Laird Hunt

I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there.  There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.

What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play.  I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position.  It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is.  And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born.  That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.

The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions.  They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.

Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness?  Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?

To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know.  ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path.  It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it.  It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well.  It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).

I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is.  This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is.  I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant.  And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.

So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate.  It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate.  Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it.  It was unsettling and difficult to understand.  It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges.  It was eerie.

I suspect that that was exactly the point.