Book review: The Hunger

I recently devoured (pun intended) Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, which is a fictional account of the Donner wagon party trying to reach California from Illinois in 1846. For those unfamiliar with the story, the non-fictional party of settlers ran into bad relations, bad decisions and bad weather, which resulted in the unlucky stranded group eventually resorting to cannibalism. A relatively unpleasant piece of history, yet Alma Katsu manages to put an even more horrific spin on the tale.

(Some spoilers ahead).

This is a type of horror novel that I particularly enjoy. First of all, it is slow burn, with increasing levels of tension. It starts small, with a few incidences highlighting the upcoming strife, the unpleasantness of some of the characters, the loneliness of the landscape. There are hints of what is to come, suggesting that the best course of action is to turn back, but these are ignored and dismissed. By the time the party, dogged by urgency at the approaching winter, takes the fateful shortcut that will leave them stranded, the tension is high and there are too many personal stakes in place preventing better decisions to be made. It is utterly believable, with each little step towards the end resting on established human faults much more than bad luck. For me, horror works best if it is slow to start: like the frog in the tepid water, being brought to the boil (although the fable, if useful, has been debunked). Too much pressure too soon, and I will not believe it if the characters do not turn and flee. The gradual, sinister change, however…

This is especially believable when paired with Katsu’s eye for character. Each member of the party carry not only their (more or less) meagre belongings but also the weight of the past. All have a reason to be on the wagon train, and these reasons are optimistic and opportunistic only on the surface. Underneath, there is tragedy, fear, scandal and hate. All of this pulls together to create a stifling, unnerving atmosphere, and leads to mistakes that will cost the group. As a reader you can see it coming – observe the moments where less strained minds might have made a better call – yet the errors seem unavoidable given the history and shortcomings of the characters. Consequently, as the story unfolds, the eventual fate of the wagon train seems almost predetermined. This is a story that is as much about human mistakes, poor leadership and relationships collapsing under increasing pressure as it is about external monsters.

Speaking of monsters: they are cheap. It is easy to have a monster come in from the dark and wreak havoc. It can rise from its Black Lagoon or the Pacific, be a remnant from an ancient civilisation or a bog-standard curse, and it can be perfectly entertaining as-is. However, to me it can never be fully engaging on its own. I like the interaction between the monstrous outside and the monstrous inside – how humanity mirrors the scary things out there. In short, I want my horror stories to be about humans. And Katsu does this terribly well in The Hunger. Every peril on the page echoes with character flaws introduced in detail from the beginning. It is stellar writing. A nod should also be given to Katsu’s eye for historical detail. The facts of the tale are there, as are the facts of the time.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that there is a fair element of gore in the novel. Gruesome though it is, it never seems overdone, and the language is precise and almost clinical at times:

“Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.
A scattering of teeth.
What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.”

“…but by the time they caught up to her, the teenage girl had already killed the baby and was devouring her liver.”

It is highly effective, and it’s there from page one. I’m ambivalent about prologues – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – but in The Hunger, it feels right. The prologue sets the stakes, and within a few paragraphs of chapter 1, we have been shown the vastness of the land as well as a first whiff of things to come. Again, it’s excellent writing and the reader can almost smell the disaster looming, long before things even begin to look bad. This is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend it enough.

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My top 5 horror novels

Horror novels are a mixed bunch, and while I tend to enjoy the majority of the ones I read, sometimes you come across that one book that makes you sleep with the lights on. That book that forces you to cast nervous glances over your shoulder even as you tell yourself that you are an adult and this is only fiction. The book that makes you 10 years old again and afraid of the dark. These are those books for me (in no particular order).

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Dark Matter (Michelle Paver). A tour de force of suspense, Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the arctic in the 1930s. Solitude and darkness ramp up the fright factor, and Paver does a great job of adding unease even in the earlier stages of the book, before we ever get close to our arctic destination. Her descriptions of the horror lurking in the unyielding night are terrifyingly efficient, with just enough detail for the terror to creep under your skin. She also does a wonderful job of painting a plausible post-horror epilogue.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty). Adapted into perhaps the best horror film of all time, the book is nevertheless a different beast than the upside-down crawl of Linda Blair. The thing that hit me when reading The Exorcist (which I didn’t get from the film) was the existential angst that seeps through the pages. This is a novel that stares into the abyss and finds nothing reassuring there. When I turned the final page, I felt grimy with bleakness and shaken to the core.

The Woman in Black (Susan Hill). I’ve read the book, seen the film and seen the play, and this story has terrified me each time. This is a book that lurks in between scares, letting your nerves fray with each page of waiting for the inevitable fright. And it doesn’t let up. The great marvel of this story is how it continues to bring on the terror right up until the final page. I love this story, even though it made me jump at even the tiniest creak after bedtime.

Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). Manderley is a place to go mad in this psychological thriller classic. I didn’t know what I was going to when I read that ominous opening “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” for the first time, but for a novel that is arguably as much literary fiction as horror, it certainly left me deeply unsettled. Rebecca is a good example of how some of the best fears are rooted in our own psyche.

The Drugs Don’t Work (Sally Davies). Not a horror novel, but horrific even so. There are dystopian novels out there that highlight what a world without antibiotics looks like, but this is a short non-fiction book by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and it is more frightening than any piece of fiction I have come across in recent years.

On the worst of villains

There is an interesting post up at ejfrostuk‘s blog, on the implacable villain. If you are interested in the workings of villains and how to write them, I recommend you go read it, as there are some interesting ideas on what makes a villain truly scary. But I also thought I’d add my own thoughts on the matter here.

The question raised on the blog is whether it is realistic with an opponent that simply won’t stop. My answer is, that depends.

For villains such as the Terminator or the vampires from 30 Days of Night, it is absolutely reasonable to go about their business (in these cases, killing the protagonist(s)) with relentless persistence. The Terminators are machines that act as such, and the vampires are predators that behave in their natural way as well. Both operate under rules that do not afford humans a special place, and so there should be no reason for them to hesitate or turn back as long as there is a war to be won or food to be eaten. This, logically, means continuing until the humans in their way are dead or devoured.

But what about a human villain? Is it realistic for a human to be relentless? My gut feeling is that it would take special circumstances. Villains without empathy could be one such circumstance. The psychopath would have no reason to stop. But we don’t always want to write psychopathic villains. What about villains that are empathetic in some ways, maybe even most ways, just not when it comes to the protagonist? That is a harder sell, in my opinion. Still, it is not impossible.

One way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have utterly dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? We find this in real-life crime, where the victim is not afforded human status by the perpetrator. We find this in assaults, in murders, and in war. The victim is not addressed, is not even talked to, and when the victim is discussed by the perpetrator(s), he or she may be referred to as animals, lesser-than, even an ‘it’. This allows the perpetrator to act without hesitation, relentlessly and without apology. This is the villain that won’t stop, that won’t negotiate, that might not even talk to their victim. Is it realistic? Yes, unfortunately. Is it going to work in a story? Yes, in some stories. Is it scary? I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening.

Go read the post over at ejfrostuk. It’s good.

This is Halloween

Happy Halloween, everybody!

All Hallows’ Eve, the night of all saints, martyrs and deceased believers, a mishmash of religious and pagan tradition, placed at the end of the harvest season when gods, both old and new, wanted their due. The beginning of winter. No wonder this night is teeming with ghouls and ghosts. It is about endings, about death, and about the dark months to come.

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Essays could easily be written about the Celts and their Samhain, harvest themes, beliefs and myths – the origins of Halloween – but Halloween is relatively far removed from its historical roots. Today, it is mostly about sugar and delightful, lightweight scares.

So why does it thrill so much? Why are creepy costumes donned with excited giggles, why does every channel cheerfully put on horror films, why is every store decorated with skulls, slime and spider webs? A possible explanation is that Halloween offers an opportunity to explore disgust and fear in a safe context. Halloween allows us to process the gruesome elements of life, including death itself, without actually having to face it straight on. Dress like a ghoul? That’s exciting, because it is pretend. Actually becoming a ghoul? Not at all amusing. Dress like a monster? Fun with friends. Be a monster? That’s also being a social pariah, an outcast. For social creatures aware of their own demise, these are terrifying prospects but coated in sugar and glitter.

Halloween lets us dance on the edge without having to stare into the abyss. It is a small thrill, exciting because it reminds us of the fears behind and because it is wrapped in the opposite of death: party, community, fun. Coated in layers of safety. There is no real dread and terror in Halloween, just an opportunity to glance at horrors from the corner of your eye, whilst having both feet firmly planted in the joyous now. It’s like watching a horror film: the monster may be scary, but you can be pretty certain it will stay on the silver screen. It gives us the feeling of being alive in the face of threat, but without risking more than a sugar rush.

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Halloween also lets us be someone else for a night. Want to be a witch? Cackle away. Want to be a mummy? This is the night to stagger about. Play a role, enjoy the make-believe. It is playacting on a grand scale. Children love it, and so, apparently, do a lot of adults. I enjoy putting on my goblin costume for the day for this simple reason: being a goblin is fun. Goblins know of dark places and swords and old secrets, and they do not concern themselves with long laboratory meetings, statistics problems or annual performance reviews. One night a year, it is nice being the other.

World War Z (the film)

I reviewed the Max Brooks bestselling zombie horror in September last year, and made the following remark about the film:

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) was the zombie book I couldn’t be bothered reading, mostly because the trailer for the film left me a bit underwhelmed. (I have still not seen the film, having had it described to me as ‘Globetrotting Brad Pitt’, so any advice as to whether it is worth my time would be greatly appreciated.)

Having (finally) seen the film, I am disappointed to say that I stand by my earlier ‘meh’ stance, although I think ‘globetrotting Brad Pitt’ is perhaps a bit too harsh. I knew the film would not be faithful to the novel, but this is not even remotely the same story. The theme is not the same, the characters are not the same, and even the zombies are a different type of monster (think 28 days later zombies rather than shambling hordes). The elements I thought were excellent in the book (the social commentary and all-so-human failings including ineptitude, greed and selfishness) were ignored in the film (action, action and more action, plus Brad Pitt being a bit too stoic in the face of flesh-eating monsters). It is a pity, because a more faithful adaptation could have been fantastic. A social satire, District 9 kind of film. As it is, World War Z is a perfectly adequate zombie film feeling like a thoroughly wasted opportunity.

wwz_brad_pitt(Brad Pitt looking mournfully at the world burning)

World War Z is a good reminder not to underestimate your audience. The book does not, and is all the stronger for it. The film does, and I fully expect it to age as quickly as its special effects.

Alexii Muftoll’s In The Tall Grass

I came across Alexii Muftoll’s short horror animation film In The Tall Grass when I was writing the review for Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella of the same name. The animation is an atmospheric and unsettling account of twisted perception, told through the eyes of Joseph, hiding in his own flat from horrors that may only exist in his own head. Watch it for yourself or visit Muftoll’s vimeo page.

Review: In the Tall Grass

In the Tall Grass is a short novella published as a two-parter in Esquire, later released as an ebook. It is a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, both of which know how to spin a scary tale, so my hopes were up for a nice, if short, horror story. I am less familiar with Hill’s work, but have read enough of Stephen King to know that he does not always write flat-out horror. However, in this case, he absolutely does. In the Tall Grass is a simple straight-up horror gore cocktail with a sprinkling of creep on top.

Brief synopsis: The protagonists are Becky and Cal DeMuth, siblings traveling the scenic route through Kansas on their way to arrange for the adoption of Becky’s unborn child. Passing a rest stop by a church, they hear shouts coming from the tall grass by the road: a boy pleading for help and his mother pleading with them to stay out of the grass. They nevertheless enter, only to lose track of one another and the safety of the road within a few, short seconds. [End of synopsis to avoid spoilers]

What comes next is, perhaps predictably, a sequence of escalating horror, moving seamlessly from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ to ‘outright nasty’, and with a liberal amount of gore along the way. It is visceral and unsettling, and (fair warning) it involves cannibalism. I frequently find blood-and-entrails writing dull, too often added as compensation for lack of tension in the story. Bodily fluids are simply not very effective when the reader works in the medical sciences. Here, however, the gore works, and feels like a natural part of the tale rather than a crutch. It is gruesome and unsettling, and it fits nicely with the parallel tale of Becky’s pregnancy. (On that note, it is fascinating how often and how well pregnancy is used in horror. Alien, anyone? Or Rosemary’s Baby?)

The story does not read like a two-author production. The writing is in a single voice, possibly owing to the similar styles of King and Hill (his son). It is well-written and quick-paced. It is also, as other reviewers have pointed out, very short. Whilst I prefer longer to shorter, I am not certain In the Tall Grass would have benefited from added length. It does feel quite contained despite the meagre word count. Whether it is chunky enough to support a full-length film (directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube fame) remains to be seen.

As for the ending, the story grows more and more surreal. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that space (and perhaps time) becomes unreliable once the protagonists enter the field. Once surrounded by the grass, voices drift and distances shift, seemingly without neither rhyme nor reason, but always leaving Cal and Becky ever more lost. I was tickled by this, as it left me pondering the possibilities of King and Hill’s nightmarish world. However, there were aspects of the ending that felt thin, including the lack explanations for the big MacGuffin of the piece (which I will not spoil by any further description). In the end, we are left with more questions than answers. Just for this reason, I want to read the novella over again, to determine whether the head and the tail of this tale truly belong to the same beast. Given its short length and undeniable quality of writing, a second reading is not a great sacrifice.

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