Friday, 28 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: The Birth of the Modern Vampire: Lord Byron, John Polidori, and The Vampyre

John Polidori.
Everyone knows the scene. On a stormy Transylvanian night lit by a full moon and serenaded by the howling of a wolf, a mysterious coach pulls up to a dilapidated castle. Timidly, the coach’s passenger makes his way to the castle door. As the door slowly creaks open, we finally see the lord of the manor—a formally dressed nobleman with regal bearing—a creepy and ironic image of a proper European aristocrat.

At which point, Count Dracula bids us welcome.

Dracula is not like other traditional monsters. His elegance and sophistication set him apart. Much like a Bond villain, Dracula could almost pass as a head of state or a captain of industry. The horror comes from our knowledge that underneath that polished exterior lurks a creature ripped out of nightmares and campfire stories. And that contrast between the outer and inner character provides the complexity that separates not only Dracula, but most modern vampires from all those more interchangeable creatures that go bump in the night.

Horror Week 2016: “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe

You don’t have to look any further than kids’ campfire stories to realize that the best scary stories are timeless. Good horror can seize you by the throat no matter how much time has passed since its inscription. Perhaps that’s why, autumn after autumn, year after year, readers return to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a 19th century master of the macabre.

When Mario asked me to be part of this project, I knew I wanted to revisit “The Masque of the Red Death.” Even though this story was written in 1842, it continues to be hauntingly timeless, touching on the same horror themes that scare readers still today. Better yet, enough time has passed that it’s now in the public domain, and anybody can read it for free.

In 2016, it may often feel like the world is ending, and that’s a theme we visit often in contemporary fiction. I can think of at least two modern bestsellers that explore the idea of a plague that eradicates society, prompting an apocalypse: The Stand by Stephen King, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Poe’s “Masque,” however, is one of the earliest. In this story, the Red Death’s excruciating pain is matched in terror only by its guarantee of death.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Turn of the Screw is a novella penned by nineteenth century British author Henry James. Considered to be part of the literary ghost story genre, the novella was originally published serially between January and April of 1898 in Collier’s Weekly Magazine, being later compiled into a single volume the following October.

The novella provides a ghost story that is unlike many of the ghost stories being produced during the nineteenth century, which is what makes it so fascinating to me. Rather than having a purely supernatural gothic story, James’ tale creates a sense of anxiety through eerie realities. Its unnamed narrator is a young woman who is hired as governess to two children at Bly, a remote English country house belonging to the children’s family. What begins as a pleasant summer in the country soon turns  distressing and traumatic as the governess becomes convinced that the children are consorting with a pair of malevolent ghosts. The ghosts you see are of two former employees of Bly: a valet, one Peter Quint, and a previous governess, Miss Jessel. In life the two of them had been scandalously discharged for their forbidden sexual transgressions with one another, and their spectral visitations with the children hint at Satanism and possible sexual abuse. Clearly, as the governess sees it, ten-year-old Miles and eight-year-old Flora must be protected. But her attempts to protect the children from hazards that are possibly immaterial, she instead winds up traumatizing the little girl and killing the little boy. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “The Boogeyman” by Stephen King

While I'm not a huge horror or scary-movie fan, as in a fanatic, I did love watching the Nightmare in Elm Street series, American Werewolf in London, and a number of other movies back in the 80s and 90s. The scariest movie I've experienced was 1979's Alien. I watched that movie, ill-advisedly in hindsight, with my younger siblings back in 1985 in my basement bedroom. That night, after my siblings went upstairs to go to bed, I found myself alone in my room. I then realized what a stupid thing I had just done. Needless to say, I didn't sleep the whole night because of the sheer terror I experienced watching Alien. To this day I remember that night and how terrified I was and how impossible it was for me to sleep in the basement, alone, with the darkness in the room and just beyond my bedroom door. The slightest sound would jolt me from the bed so I ended up cowering in a corner of my room just praying for the sun to come up.

I haven't watched a proper horror movie in many, many years. As I've gotten older the genre just doesn't appeal to me anymore. The most recent "horror" movie I saw was Tucker & Dale vs Evil. It was just enough to remind me of the experiences I was missing out on -- watching horror movies -- but not too much to keep me awake at night. These days I need only to look at my bank account statements or bills, but I digress. Tucker & Dale vs Evil was a beautifully well-executed movie that is a perfect example of its genre, i.e., horror-comedy.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “Children of the Kingdom” by T.E.D. Klein

T.E.D. Klein
T.E.D. Klein is one of the great could-have-beens. He wrote some of the best and most memorable horror stories of the seventies and early eighties. Derived from his first published story, “The Events at Poroth Farm”, he wrote the masterful, if lengthy, novel, The Ceremonies (1984). His 1985 novella, “Nadelman's God” won the 1986 World Fantasy Award for best novella. It, along with three other novellas, was published in the 1985 collection, Dark Gods. And then he started to fall silent.

According to his entry at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, he only published a few more stories. Wikipedia credits him with co-writing the screenplay for Dario Argento's 1993 Trauma. A second collection of stories, Reassuring Tales, finally appeared in 2006 to little fanfare. Over the years, it was reported he was working on a second novel, but writer's block kept it from ever materializing. Despite considerable acclaim over the years from writers like S.T. Joshi and Thomas Monteleone, he's just faded away, someone known to horror connoisseurs but little beyond their circle.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: Exorcising the Shame and Guilt – How I Learned to Love Horror

Regular readers of the blog (if there is such a thing here at SUR) will know that I’m not a huge horror fan. It’s something I’ve actively avoided in my fiction for years. There are a few reasons for this. I’m generally not too keen on the esthetics of the genre. Slasher films as a whole and specific film series of the “torture porn” variety like Saw and Hostel where the examples of the genre that popped up in my head when I thought of horror. The biggest reason for my dismissal of the whole thing is that I came to it with preconceived notions of what any given book or movie would be when it’s labelled as horror. I watched those movies and attempted to read those books with the intent of finding those things I didn’t like as a way to prove that yes, indeed, horror as a genre is a piece of shit and it is best avoided.

I’ve reconciled with a lot of that thanks to Stephen King, particularly thanks to one of his most famous books Salem’s Lot. I mentioned some of that in my review of the book and there was certainly something cathartic bout the whole admission of guilt and wrongdoing towards the genre. It’s still occasionally difficult to admit that I was so dismissive. I dismissed it all, regardless of when or where a piece of horror fiction came from, it all ended up in the same space in my brain: the trash bin.