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.
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.
I have read some of Lovecraft’s work – ‘The Shunned House’ and ‘The Rats in the Walls’ are examples of stories I liked – but I have overall been less convinced by his alien gods and tentacles. At the Mountains of Madness may therefore not be the best choice for me, but as it is considered a classic, I thought I would give it a go.
Summary: The story is written from the point of view of Dyer, a geologist, retrospectively describing an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in the hopes that it may dissuade another, imminent research endeavour in the same region. The purpose of the Dyer expedition was to bore into ancient strata of rock, but this plan was quickly derailed as the biologist on the team, Lake, discovered odd triangular tracks in the rocks. After setting off on their own to explore these tracks further inland, Lake and his small team radioed the main group to report of the discovery of a massive mountain range and the desiccated bodies of ancient alien beings buried in a vast cave, just as a storm was about to hit. After the storm, there was radio silence. When Dyer and the rest of the group caught up to Lake, they made a series of horrific discoveries…
First of all, I love the concept, like the premise, and have no problem with the (now) historical setting. The vast landscape, the hostile cold weather and the madness that can spring from being so dwarfed and isolated – it all appeals to me in a story. I had hoped that this would be enough to keep me excited, and was therefore disappointed to discover that I did not like the book. Even with so many set pieces being spot on, I was a bit bored with the entire exercise. It was neither particularly entertaining, nor was it frightening.
After an encouraging, relatively tense, beginning, the story stalls when we get to the meat of the events. At this point, dry descriptions of murals, references aplenty to the Necronomicon and Poe, and long lists of technical details, distract from the events. Given that the tale is written as a personal account from a scientist’s perspective, it is not unexpected that the prose strays somewhat into drier territories. However, while a bit of technical realism goes a long way to induce horror, this felt excessive. As Dyer and Danforth (a graduate student, not particularly well fleshed out as a character) investigate the fate of Lake’s team, the details of their scientific pursuits become repetitive. After the umpteenth lamentation that they ran out of film for their camera, there was very little tension left in the tale. I am happy to accept curiosity in the face of fear, but the attention to technical detail here just made the plot seem a trifle banal.
In spite of this, there were elements that I enjoyed. Lovecraft’s prose, although its merit is often debated, works well within his universe of horror in my opinion. It is as archaic as the monsters that he describes. In this book, I particularly liked his attention to the setting, easily evoking a sense of being dwarfed by the landscape.
“Only the incredible, unhuman massiveness of these vast stone towers and ramparts had saved the frightful things from utter annihilation in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of years it had brooded there […]”
For a story set in such a vast expanse, this ability to convey age and size is definitely a strength. However, there are places where the prose falls flat. For example, “indescribably awful” as a description of a creature does not work for me. It comes across as lazy rather than too horrendous for words. The vagueness doesn’t fit with the retrospective aspect of the story, in that the main character should have been expected to at least attempt a more precise recollection in the years that he has supposedly had to mull over events. It also jars with the plethora of technical detail that is painstakingly inserted everywhere else in the story. Again, if the tale had been tense, I could have overlooked this, but given that it was already bogged down, the ‘indescribably awful’ sights became just that: not described.
In short, I found the book interesting from the point of view of it being a classic and I had no problems with the alien antagonists per se. I am glad I read it, but I would not pick it up again, nor am I in a particular hurry to recommend it to anyone not already a fan of Lovecraft (who probably would have read it already). As a caveat, I am not (and have never been) a die-hard Lovecraft aficionado. Rather, I am a dilettante and a dabbler in matters Lovecraft, preferring other styles of horror whilst recognising his contribution to the genre. It is quite possible that those who are more invested in his works would enjoy At the Mountain of Madness. It simply was not my cup of tea.
The more I read horror, the less I think of it as genre fiction. Sure, there are things that go bump, there are tentacles and fangs and clowns, but horror to me is not about monsters, it’s about the monstrous. So what is the monstrous, if not some alien beast wanting to devour the terrified protagonist? On the surface, what is and isn’t monstrous will probably differ from person to person, but there appears to be some universal themes. Death, for example, and isolation. Both are inevitable and inescapable, and if we dig deep down, they frighten us. They are part of a bigger pantheon of ‘ultimate concerns’ (according to existential psychotherapy), which also include gems such as meaninglessness and absence of external structure (dubbed ‘freedom’). Horror stories that tap into these anxieties work on an existential level, and may, in addition to terrifying us, help us process these unsettling topics in a safe setting.
Let’s start with death. We have an instinctive fear of death. It may be conscious or unconscious, but most if not all of us possess a smidgen of death anxiety. It may not be something we think about every day, but it is there, ready to raise its ugly head if the situation calls for it. The loss of a loved one, a threatening disease, an accident – anything that reveal how thin the film of life truly is can bring about death anxiety. A few years back, I read Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, which is a tome on the theoretical and practical aspects of the same. It was a surprisingly interesting book given how dry the cover looked. In it, Yalom spends a great amount of time discussing death, fear of death and denial of death. “The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as nothing else does; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness”, Yalom says 1.
Horror deals with death like few other genres, from the (usually) imminent death of the protagonist to the perversion of death in your average zombie, ghost, vampire or undead monster. We get the fear of death as well as the denial of death in one neat package. Typically, we also see the avoidance of death as the story tends to permit the survival of the protagonist. A fascination with horror often emerges in teenage years, which incidentally is when most first experience anxiety about death. Horror may thus be a way to contemplate and familiarise ourselves with death – a ‘safe’ venue to experiment with it and analyse it. Even a place to ridicule it, in some genres of horror. The role of stories in dealing with death is nicely put in the following quote:
“When we are young, we deny death with the help of parental reassurances and secular and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, a monster, a sandman, a demon. After all, if death is some pursuing entity, then one may yet find a way to elude it; besides, frightening as a death-bearing monster may be, it is less frightening than the truth — that one carries within the spores of one’s own death.” 2
Horror may, in short, be a way to process death without having to break down the dissociation between intellectually knowing death is coming and truly being aware of the end. It is a way to deal with death without having to stare into its abyss, with all its associated dread and terror.
Then there is isolation. When referring to isolation, I am not talking about the trope of exploring the scary basement alone, although I am sure there is a relatively blunt metaphor in there. Existential isolation is more than just being temporarily alone. It is the awareness that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between yourself and others, even in their presence. We are born alone, and we die alone.
Horror is very rarely a rousing exercise in team building: the final chapter usually sees the protagonist alone in the face of terror. Isolation and alienation play key parts, sometimes building towards the end, sometimes existing from the first page. In Richard Matheson’s terrific I am Legend, the horror of the protagonist is both being preyed upon and the unbearable knowledge that he is completely alone. Without spoiling the ending of the book, isolation is a thread that runs through the entire novel and becomes almost beautifully poignant in the final chapter. Kafka’s The Trial is a tour de force of isolation (although arguably not horror in the strict, classical sense). Even the tagline of Alien, “In space, no one can hear you scream”, might not have been half as effective if the horror of isolation was not such a familiar one. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live, as we dream, alone” (Heart of Darkness).
While these themes are prominent in horror storytelling, they are of course not restricted to the genre. However, what horror brings to the table, that other genres may not, are elements of fear and disgust. Horror deals in these elements as a rule and not as an exception. Fear/disgust can act as a shortcut, bringing the reader of horror closer to the anxieties of death and isolation than other genres typically do, such as sci-fi and fantasy. It can also provide a buffer or tool for dealing with such anxieties. Fear, unlike anxiety, is something that can be faced and conquered. By putting these ultimate anxieties front and center, surrounding them with fear and disgust to allow the reader to feel a visceral reaction that is close (but yet safely removed) to the edge of the abyss, horror allows us to be just scared enough. We can play with death and isolation, analyse them and inspect them up close (in a safe setting), before we personify them (using whichever monster that strikes our fancy) and kill them off. Horror, to me, is thus not so much niche genre as a natural part of the human condition.
1. Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980) page 27
2. Irvin Yalom, Love’s executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy (1989) page 5
Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) depicted the nature and culture of northern Norway better than any other artist I know. He would typically start with a black surface, then scratch white lines in the pigment, and sometimes overlay this with paint and further lines. The result was dramatic: oddly dark and atmospheric, maybe even a bit eerie, but undeniably strong. The unusual technique sprang from a lifetime of poor eyesight, rendering his world in lights against shadow, rather than shadow against light.
I have visited galleries containing his work on several occasions, and have always come away with a sense of awe. Perhaps unintended, I have also left with the sensation of secrets and undercurrents, of history and stories untold. There is something visceral about the paintings that makes me want to pick up the pen and start writing.
It may be due to superimposing white on black rather than the converse, but these paintings tickle my love for horror. Not in the sense that I think they depict horror – they do not – but from a feeling of seeing things the wrong way around. It is that unusual, almost uncanny, quality that resonates with me. The uncanny is staple fare of horror fiction, and typically linked to representations of the self. Ghosts, twins, dolls, even zombies – they may all inhabit the uncanny valley. With Espolin Johnson, however, it is not the depicted humans or scenes I find uncanny, but the observer. Me. When I look at these paintings, it is my gaze that is the wrong way around. I find that much more interesting.
“Stand Still. Stay Silent” may be best described as a post-apocalyptic Nordic mythology inspired adventure story. The brainchild of Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish artist and writer, it reintroduces mages, myths and folklore against a backdrop of the ruins of the modern world. And it does so beautifully.
The setting is 90 years into the future. Disease has swept across the world but a few remote areas were spared: Iceland, the Finnish lakes, some inaccessible Norwegian fjords and a handful of isolated Swedish settlements. The rest of the world has gone silent, its technology and culture feared or forgotten. The safe settlements are constantly under siege by monstrous beings. No attempts has been made to reclaim any of the knowledge of old, and no expeditions have been sent into the infected zones. Until now. The story follows a small, underfunded and under-qualified team on their daring expedition into troll-ridden Denmark, seeking to harvest as many books of old that they can find for research (and profit, of course, plus possibly also a bit of fame).
“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a rare blend of uplifting and terrifying. On the one hand, it is a story about a thoroughly mismatched group traveling together, which translates into themes of bravery, loyalty and (slowly) emerging friendships,with a rich sprinkling of humour. On the other hand, it is outright horror. The monstrous entities lurking in the silent world are a perpetual presence, growing in menace as the expedition strikes deeper and deeper into the dead cities. Deformed remnants of the long-since deceased, man and beast alike, merged into shapeless hungry creatures, wait in the shadows. This is a story that goes from funny to frightening in the span of a page.
The artwork is astonishing, growing prettier with each chapter. Even the gore is beautifully done (see above). The style includes elements from Nordic art and culture, and the filler pages often contain tidbits of information about mythology and folklore, again beautifully drawn. Maps and schematics are plentiful and gorgeous, and there is enough backstory about the disastrous pathogen to keep my inner scientist quite contented.
If there is one small point to deduct, it may be that the expedition takes a while to get underway. For those interested in plain horror from the get-go, the wait may be on the long side. But it is worth it. Also, the longer backstory serves to introduce the characters thoroughly, which is essential for such a diverse ensemble cast.
The comic updates regularly (four times a week) and the artist is rarely if ever late. For those of us who have followed near-abandoned and sporadic comics, this is an absolute treat. At present (Jan 2017) there’s an archive of more than 650 pages (13 chapters plus change) to enjoy. This is also one of those rare occasions when I can wholeheartedly recommend that you DO read the comments, as the readers are a vocal, friendly and informative group, offering translations of the (odd) segment in Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian/Icelandic as well as comment on the story itself.
“Stand Still. Stay Silent” is a gem – an unusual story, nicely written and beautifully illustrated. Go read!
(All images belongs to Minna Sundberg and can be found on the webcomic here.)
As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.
Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.
Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.
Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.