The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master is a selection of six haunting stories rooted in the horror of the subconscious as much as the supernatural.

At the core of them all these stories, though each very different from the next, is the sense that fear and tension come from the unknown inside of us, and that it is this which gives rise to the kinds of terrible things which might are sometimes associated supernatural terror.

Oakes uses some of the tropes of weird fiction but reverses the twist, so that events seem supernatural but turn out to have plain every day causes. The Doll Master is about a young man screwed up by the death of his sister who turns into a murderer, and Mystery, Inc is written in the style of classic Poe but is just straight up greed that motivates the killing of the bookshop owner.

What amplifies this theme of the horror residing within is the realist style of writing for which Oakes is known. The characters and settings are very much in the descriptive real-life style that we know her for in books like We were the Mulvaneys and Carthage, and so when we learn about the boy collecting dolls or the woman who fears her husband will murder her while they are on a trip to the Galapagos Isles, the story throws the reader between malevolent spirits and people just being people.

Even Big Momma, a story about someone who is befriended by a family who own a room-sized human-eating snake, is built around the sad reality of a child whose parent is so pre-occupied with her own life that she doesn’t see the danger her child is on.

What’s great, then, about these really readable stories is how much they tell us about subconscious drives that cause odd and apparently supernatural events.

Revival – Stephen King

A readable story of one man’s life, a gradual piece of horror and a psychoanalytic revelation, this book shows why Stephen King is such a popular author.

It begins when Jamie Morton is a young boy in small town America and the Reverend Charlie Jacobs is the new and well-loved minister in town. He experiments with electricity and manages to heal Jamie’s brother’s muteness through some weird science channeling ‘secret electricity’. But after a fatal accident involving his family, brilliantly described by King, Jacobs turns from God, blasting out a blasphemous sermon in the pulpit before leaving town.

Flash forward twenty or so years and Jamie, a musician now, is in a bad way, hooked on heroin. He meets Jacobs randomly who, using his alternative methods, cures him of his addiction. From there Jamie’s ambivalent relationship with Jacobs begins; he tracks him, now a healer preaching with a ‘carny’ show, bring in lots of money through incredible acts of electric healing that have cured hundreds maybe thousands of people. But Jamie discovers that there are often psychological aftereffects to a healing by Jacobs, sometimes lethal, often disturbing.

It comes to a head when Jamie joins Jacobs at a final experiment to discover what lies beyond the living, which they do in an page-turning scene on top of Goat Mountain, where flashes of lightening power Jacobs and he connects with a dark world beyond ours, one that haunts Jamie for the years he las left.

It’s a fantastic allegory for the kind of tumult and horror that resides just beneath the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and is almost psychoanalytic in its revelations, though whether King would see it like that I don’t know. The contrast between the realism of much of the novel – which reads at times like something by Richard Ford or someone – and the supernatural horror of the culminating scenes has an odd effect, though it’s this which ultimately makes it so readable and so disturbing.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

“I am an offspring of the dead. I am descended from the deceased. I am the progeny of phantoms. My ancestors are the illustrious multitudes of the defunct, grand and innumerable. My lineage is longer than time. My name is written in embalming fluid in the book of death. A noble race is mine.”

Thomas Ligotti, The Lost Art of Twilight

The Frolic – Thomas Ligotti

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve re-read one of the most chilling of Ligotti’s stories, The Frolic. It packs a deceptively large amount of peril into its few pages.

David is a psychiatrist who has recently moved his wife, Leslie, and young daughter, Norleen, to a small town where he has become the psychiatrist to what appears to be a prison for the criminally insane. The whole story is set over one evening, when he returns from work and begins to explain to Leslie that he thinks they (or he) made the wrong choice in moving because, he says, the inmates are so terrifying and beyond the help he idealistically thought he could give them.

One inmate with whom he has a long therapy session has him particularly worked up – known only as John Doe, because he refuses to give a single name, he has a long long history of abducting children and doing who-knows-what with them, which he calls frolicking.

As David conveys his worries about the frolicker he admits his fear is that, despite being behind prison walls, The frolicker will somehow do something to Norleen. And as they talk a sense of concern gradually builds. David goes to check on Norleen, finds her asleep with some kind of comforter. They talk some more and agree they should move quickly. David mentions the comforter Norleen was cuddling. Leslie says she’s never heard of it and didn’t have it when she went to bed. David runs upstairs to find Norleen gone and a sinister note from the frolicker.

There is something quite conventional about this story, compared to others of Ligotti’s, but I think he does three things brilliantly in it.

First, he builds tension, claustrophobia and fear all the way through – from the stilted dialogue to the small town where Leslie feels trapped. He gradually reveals the sinister ending, surprising us despite it being the only way the story could end in retrospect.

Second, he paints an excellent picture of a conventional and difficult family scenario – the traditional family roles, the husband moving his wife and child for a job, the wife supporting his career and moral aspirations, the wife’s unspoken sense that they shouldn’t have moved, the evidence (that he didn’t put Norleen to bed, that he didn’t know what she takes to bed) that he is at work more than home, his gradual realisation he’s put his family in danger….

And third, what makes this story – as with all of Ligotti’s writing – so much more than one about a nuclear family threatened by an external threat, is that he puts ambiguity everywhere. 

The frolicker is in the prison, but he denies his past and any names, and appears to be ageless, timeless, supernatural, such that the prison walls ultimately mean nothing. What the frolicker does with the children is never said, leaving that knowledge unknown, tantalisingly unresolved. David has the feeling that the frolicker knows his daughter’s name but this is always dressed up in riddles and it’s quite unclear as to whether he does or how he could. And, indeed, there is ambiguity about where culpability lies – with the frolicker or with David who brought the situation upon them. 

Horror works well when it plants seeds of fear in the most normal of situations – what Ligotti does brilliantly here is take a traditional family set up and inject the fear of a sinister, unknowable and supernatural threat that is both inside and outside the family. 

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti

Classic Ligotti, this short story is an eerie and macabre comment on contemporary society, told through a supernatural town and terrifying clowns.

The plot is relatively simple. The narrator, an academic fascinated with traditional clown festivals visits the town of Mirocaw to experience its annual festival. On arrival the place is unnatural and the festival, far from a celebration, seems to be an opportunity for the established part of the town to attack an underclass who are forced to dress up as clowns and endure jeering, abuse and violence.

Nothing in the story is clear, not the festival, not even the motives of the protagonist.
There’s a striking moment when he gets swept up by the festival’s atmosphere and pushes a clown to the ground, but his actions are ignored and he instantly feels he has violated a code he didn’t know existed. And we never find out. 

Equally there’s a moment when the protagonist is told that the clowns are chosen for the festival from across the town’s population so it could be anyone next. But this again isn’t clarified and elsewhere the clowns are described as picked from the underclass.

It ends with a mysterious and underground ritual, in which the protagonist is spared, and he drives away leaving the terrifying figures behind.

Apart from the sense of dread the story conjures up – like a cross between Stephen King and Kafka – what is striking about this story is the comment on the symbiotic relationship between a group and its other,  where one can only exist because of the suppression of the second:

Towards the end of the story the protagonist reflects in his journal on what he’s seeing, where this is made clear: 

“One thing that seems certain, however, is the division of Mirocaw into two very distinctive types of citizenry, resulting in two festivals and the appearance of similar clowns – a term now used in an extremely loose sense. But there is a connection, and I believe I have some idea of what it is. I said before that the normal residents of the town regard those from the ghetto, and especially the clown figures, with superstition. Yet it’s more than that: there is fear, perhaps hatred – the particular kind of hatred resulting from some powerful and irrational memory.”

“As I wobbled from street to street tonight, watching those oval-mouthed clowns, I could not help feeling that all the merrymaking in Mirocaw was somehow allowed by their sufferance.”

The Colonel’s Son – Roberto Bolano

A characteristically fun, tantalising and slightly odd short story from Roberto Bolano – just fourteen pages – that describes the plot of a B movie zombie film from the perspective of an excited narrator.

The narrator begins with a page of caveats to explain that the movie is terrible yet he loves it, see it as a mirror to his life, before the rest of the story’s pages describes the plot of the film. In the film the son of a colonel falls in love with a girl who shortly after becomes a flesh eating zombie. They are pursued by gangsters, police and the army, and the girl kills most of them quite disgustingly, but despite this he maintains his love for her. The colonel himself, at the end, deserts his mission to kill the zombies in order to protect his son, who is in turn trying to protect the zombie girl.

It’s an unusual story that simply describes the film, a film which may or may not exist. It’s classic Bolano in its ‘and this happened, then that happened’, where the meaning comes from what is included in the descriptions as opposed to deeper introspection or reflection in the story itself. And it’s perhaps a strong allegory about the powerful pull of love, it’s ability to lead us to do things we would not necessarily choose – even kissing and protecting flesh eating zombies.

And, of course, it’s brilliantly written: page turning, visceral, amusing – the kind of writing that makes you want to watch this film even though we don’t even know whether it exists!

Oh, and how’s this for an opener?

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about 4am, I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell of my chair.

Teatro Grottesco – Thomas Ligotti

I don’t read a lot of horror which may or may not explain why I was captivated by Ligotti’s book of short stories.

There are around twenty stories, each telling an eerie and disconcerting tale of strange occurrences in a world devoid of hope. It is horror (or perhaps what seems to be referred to as speculative or weird fiction) with a focus on creating an atmosphere or creeping terror rather than any recourse to violence or gore. Each story is written in a flowing but formal matter of fact tone, which adds to the distance the reader feels.

Take The Town Manager, which tells the odd story of a town which has a manager who runs it. There has been a succession of managers, each bringing in new and stranger decisions, with the latest boosting tourism by forcing all the shopkeepers to turn their stores into bizarre carnival-like attractions. As always the town manager eventually disappears. The protagonist leaves the town, only to be approached and asked to be the next town manager.

Our Temporary Supervisor is perhaps the most powerful in the collection. Written in the first person it describes a factory where the supervisor is replaced by a dark phantom like presence and, more strangely still, where a new worker appears who is faster and works harder than everyone else. Not to be seen to be lazy or inefficient, everyone else starts to work longer and longer hours until their lives are spent working in the factory, rarely leaving or stopping.

Many of the stories are driven by themes of determinism, of dark forces – both supernatural and the very material power of capital – driving everyone’s behaviour, of our lives being the plaything of others. The books are full of despair and almost entirely lacking in warmth or character. Yet they are absolutely compelling reading, as if you are being forced to read on by powers beyond your control ….