Books that go bump in the night

For one reason and another (mostly another) I’ve been reading and researching ‘horror’ fiction for the last year or so.  In my travels I’ve encountered the absurd (James Herbert), the despicable (Dennis Wheatley), the noble-but-not-quite-frightening (Peter Straub) and one author who, in my view, got the closest to bringing a sense of dread into a fiction that I was actually willing to suspend my disbelief for, as well as writing as well, if not better, than most of the lit-fic I’ve read over the last few years.

But none of these have truly frightened me. In the past I’ve found disturbing prose in unexpected places – there’s a passage in a Louis de Bernieres book that still comes back on dark nights. But most of the supernatural horror fiction I read – good and bad – seems to lose the power to shock or frighten as soon as the spooks shiver into view.

Have we fundamentally shifted to an age where – in literature, at least – the supernatural/paranormal/weird has no power over us? Is the novel, with its demand for a neatly plotted tale, logical progression and character arcs, simply not capable of sustaining the ambient menace found in, say, the work of MR James, or am I just reading the wrong books?

Have you ever read a novel that left you too afraid to cross the room, jumping when the catflap flapped? If so, please let me know. I’m dying to be scared.



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25 responses to “Books that go bump in the night

  1. mishari

    You raise some interesting points. I read a couple of Straub’s books and they weren’t bad. But as for making my flesh creep, for creating a real sense of horror…jeez, I dunno.

    Cormac McCarthy did it for me with Outer Dark and especially Child of God. He created this febrile atmosphere of unknowing and illimitable darkness that was genuinely frightening. I’ll give this some more of what passes for thought chez al-adwani…

  2. mishari

    BTW, if you’re interested, I can pass along Outer Dark, which I think you’ll like. I wish I had Child of God as well. Say the word…

  3. mishari

    Oh, and I just remembered a book I read long ago that was very creepy and discomforting…The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart (I think that’s right). It’s been 20 years or so, but I remember it, so it must have made an impression.

  4. I had the same feeling with Straub. He can write very well, although he’s noted that some of his early books are very self-conscious attempts to be ‘literary’; no doubt a defensive reflex, anticipating criticism for writing in a pulp genre. I can relate to that. But he always comes across as essentially good company and his spooks are traditional and heavily signposted.

    Mishari, would love to read Outer Dark, if it’s not to much bother. Many thanks.

    Will investigate Mephisto Waltz.

    I wonder if the sense of chaos – of the unknown, required to instill fear, is tamed by the novel’s narrative requirements. Like caging a shoggoth.

  5. mishari

    That’s an interesting point. Do the conventions of narative structure de-fang, so to speak, the monster? I really don’t know…McCarthy (judge for yourself. It’ll be in tomorrow’s post) doesn’t abandon narrative structure so much as make it opaque…if that makes any sense. One is constantly aware of the unameable, the unspeakable, the unpredictable…as one reads, one is always aware of the potential horrific depths that can be plunged into at any moment…one false step…

    Thing is, what is horror without some kind of narrative structure? I mean, there has to be (or does there?) a building of tension, a kind of roller coaster ride. I dunno. You raise an interesting question. I’m going to have to think about it and get back to you.

  6. Hi Exit,

    Don’t know if I’m qualified to comment as I haven’t read any supernatural horror for a while. But I have in real life experienced episodes that have had no bearing or logic on the predictable sensibilities of the human mind and sometime later, you dwell on them and realise certain things or you relate scenes to a friend and see the expression change, the friend having realised something that you yourself may have missed, and I think my real life experiences; not once but several times over and especially in strange places throughout the years, do it for me so much better. In this aspect, I will add that the time on the clock seldom makes a difference, neither do climatic changes or a specific season but a place… or rather, a venue, does. And this doesn’t matter the country or a region.
    I think too, that I do tend to measure the fiction I read along these lines which, unless the author himself/herself have experienced certain things, may not prove otherwise, convincing but more or less a fake.
    I’m sure there must be excellent horror around. How about Susan Hill’s ghost stories? How challenging to be able to manage one without the usual blood and gore.

    I do think also that many of the newer novelists and short story writers depend too much on the imagination or what they have already seen in the way of the usual ghostly episodes that their own stories appear brow-beaten.

    Actually, I’ve just remembered…if you don’t mind transferring to film for the moment….and this could just as well meet your needs in fiction…
    if you go to a London record shop and look up any Korean ghost story under World Cinema (and please do ask Wordy who is such an expert), their tales are truly chilling. Korean ghost stories use silences and muted expressions to create the kind of enduring horror that could rob you of sleep for a good few days.

    Japanese ghost stories are also very frightening. They use female characters effectively. For example, hair falling off the face and you see nothing but the movement of the hair taking its time to trail you…or a woman who does the most ordinary things in real life and you remember her for all the heartwarming scenes and suddenly she switches form. It’s not like she dies and people recollect her name or personality…but that she suddenly switches form when you least expect it and this is terribly eerie. The psychology works because the viewer has already settled and accepted the sweetness of an occasion only to become shocked at a sudden unexpected fright.

    PS: Have emailed the 2 titles

  7. @Mishari

    ‘there has to be (or does there?) a building of tension, a kind of roller coaster ride.’

    Absolutely. But the building of tension is only the first part of the narrative; it’s the final acts, leading to a (structurally) necessary resolution, where many of these stories come unstuck, I feel. Hence why the short story can work. Introduce your conceit, build it up, outline the concept or mood – which are often scarier the less detail there is – then get out before the reader’s become familiarity makes the alien feel commonplace.

    Stephen King (whatever Harold Bloom thinks of him) reveals this, in that he is a master of the ‘what if?’ but terrible at resolutions. His stories generally fizzle out into a ‘is that it?’ climax.

    Thanks for sending the book. I await terror.

  8. @Suzan,

    Wow, many things to think about – you’ve sparked off several thought trains in my head already. No time to reply this minute but will be back with thoughts on horror (or weird, the word HP Lovecraft preferred) cinema and Japanese short stories, which I’ve been investigating recently…

  9. mishari

    Don’t expect too much terror…it’s more a beautifully crafted air of unease and ‘potential’ terror with bits of actual terror. Anyway, I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it. I agree with you about King, who is, I think, a gifted writer. He just doesn’t seem to have a ‘less is more’ switch. But his earlier stuff, .eg. The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand, etc, had passages that were, I thought, genuinely frightening…

  10. @Suzan,

    ‘ the author himself/herself have experienced certain things, may not prove otherwise, convincing but more or less a fake’

    Interesting point, this. Whilst I’m a lapsed believer in the supernatural – not to denigrate others’ experiences, I’ve had my share – I think you’re right in what I might call emotional terms. Above, where I mention Peter Straub as being too good-natured to frighten, I feel there is something healthy and solid about him. Whereas with, say, Poe or Lovecraft – both of whose mental weirdness is well-documented – there is an authentic sense of disturbance woven into their observations and language. As with the paintings of Richard Dadd or Louis Wain. As I’ve said somewhere here, my story Powder was written – before I’d read Poe or Lovecraft – as an attempt to shake off a particularly bleak mood and, reading back, I do feel it infuses the story.

    On Japanese tales; I’ve been reading Izumi Kyoka and Ueda Akinari for inspiration. Kyoka, in some ways, comes closes to the atmosphere of…of a kind of sensual dread rising from all organic material (people included). He, like Poe and Lovecraft, suffered his own particular mental afflictions.

    And many thanks for your email; very illuminating.

    More later…..

  11. @Mishari

    Yes, King can conjure fear. His focus on the domestic, on mundane details, anchors his best work very well. One of his short stories has one of the most frightening sci-fi concepts i’ve ever read.

  12. mishari

    Exactly. King is very good at setting the scene-domesticity, normality, etc-and then ratcheting up the tension in small but very effective increments. He’s not nearly as good at resolutions.

  13. @Suzan

    I’ve heard Susan Hill is interesting. Also, interesting what you say about the woman in the Korean story suddenly changing shape. In my new project I’m looking into something similar, although with tone of voice, taste in biscuits, small things, altering. As if a person becomes someone new and doesn’t know it’s happened. Related to a childhood nightmare about my mother.

    Many thanks for you mail. Very entertaining; weirdly, the conceit of one book you mention is similar (although obviously infinitely inferior!) to the thinking behind my story Perfect Count of Deaths.

  14. @Mishari

    Having read King’s book On Writing, it seems his process is to come up with his ‘what if?’ then start writing. Great of you can do it and, once published, he became so successful so fast that I doubt anyone would challenge him on the flabby resolutions that such an appraoch produces.

    I read his son’s book, Heart Shaped Box. Again, some good character detail but the supernatural stuff was out of control. How can a ghost appear in someone’s television or as an invisible force one minute and then, at a crucial moment, get stuck climbing out of a corpse’s mouth? It’s pedantic of me, but if you’re going to employ hokum in fiction, at least make it consistent.

    I picked up Roland Topor’s the Tenant a while back. Certainly creepy, and he leaves the reader wondering as to the truth. Lovely shiny silver cover as well (the main reason I bought it).

  15. Is the Topor book illustrated by him? His books of illustrations are well worth a deke if you’re not familiar with them. Some familiar drawn concepts but also many that leave a disturbing taste in the mouth. Hard to find in the UK but there were loads of his books in print when I worked in Holland and Germany. He was the giggling Renfield in Herzog’s version of Nosferatu.

    Sorry if you know all this already!

  16. Hi Al!

    There were no illustrations in the book but I did see some of his work via Google image search when trying to find out who he was and what the hell a Fluxus artist was doing in the horror section of Waterstones. A pleasing (?) mix of the sordid, surreal and grotesque. Looks like I’m going to be spending May-Aug in Berlin so maybe I’ll try and search out one of his books.

    The novel itself balances the grim with the absurd pretty well (like my beloved Tin Drum). I think a writer can rest easy knowing they’ve birthed something authentically vile when Roman Polanski decides to make a film if it.

  17. Topor also made a filmed puppet version of the De Sade story which I saw about 20 years ago. Can’t remember too much about it ( I think there was a talking penis but may have made that up and having made that up may need to seek help ) but I think it would repay a second viewing. Or a first.

    Didn’t connect the Polanski film when I read the book’s title but it makes total sense. I saw Chinatown again recently – a film that gets better each time I see it.

  18. That De Sade film sounds like something I need to see (although I still haven’t quite summoned the nerves to see Salo).

    Chinatown is indeed a splendid movie. Many, many screenwriters hold it up as the model of what a screenplay should be.

  19. Guy

    One book that left me profoundly unnerved was THE HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielowski. Despite my skepticism about any writer who chooses to fount a Z in the middle of his name, I found myself unable to sleep after having read the first chapter. I wouldn’t exactly call it horror – there is no gore that I recall, no deep dark evil. I’m not sure it even quite classifies as a ghost story, although it does share that qualities of restraint and uncertainty displayed by the best of that genre. But it does tell of a supernatural location in such a way that draws you in and is utterly chilling for it’s sheer impossibility.

  20. @Guy

    Great tip, thanks. “Sheer impossibility” is a mighty cause of fear, I agree. I was just reading a Susan Hill story (thanks, @Suzan) where a child watches a man with too-long legs and an elephant’s head entertain children. turns out he’s a clown on stilts and wearing a mask but, when the story first brought him out from behind a curtain I did feel a thrill of dread.

  21. Just a theory of mine, @exitbarnadine, that occurred to me as I was reading this most enjoyable entry: horror stories of every kind are mostly for children and teenagers, to prepare them for the trials of real, adult life. . . Once we’re adults, no tale of the supernatural is as frightening as the awfulness we have to face ourselves, from time to time — or the things that happen to our friends, and anyone else we care about.

    I’m pleased to see a non-fiction post since I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get past an inability to get absorbed in _any_one’s fiction, a condition that has lasted for at least a year . . . Works by some of the greatest writers of the past or present have been just as impenetrable as the rest. I’m hoping that it’s a phase that passes soon.

  22. Captain Ned

    Have you seen a Japanese film called ‘Kwaidan’ or ‘Kaidan’, eb? It’s an anthology of four ghost stories adapted from tales written by the American Lafcadio Heard, who lived in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century. The Eureka! Masters of Cinema label recently released a lavish DVD edition, complete with a booklet containing the original stories. Hearn’s prose, alas, is somewhat flat, but the movie is something else – not exactly frightening, but incredibly eerie and strange, particularly the third tale, ‘Hoichi the Earless’, with its macabre ending. It’s long (the 1960s Western print omitted the fourth section altogether), but worth it.

  23. @Ned,

    Many thanks. The Eureka! is a good series; I’ve already found that Japanese ‘gothic’ tales offer a way into these realms that can sidestep some of the mouldier western convetions. I will investigate upon my return from Berlin. How are things progressing with your novel, btw?


    I’m not sure I’m with you on the idea that we shed our fears of the supernatural as we enter adulthood; the popularity of Stephen King, the Psychic Network and the Catholic Church would suggest otherwise. I do, however, agree that these fears can be – should be? – superceded by more tangible fears for our family, friends, pets, etc. Indeed, it is these elements that King, for example, most often focusses on. There is often a very carefully mapped out domestic unit at the centre of his supernatural tales.

    I appreciate your fiction-numbness. i have phases where I find it impossible to pick up a novel – these are usually followed by periods of devouring everything in sight, like a camel reaching a water hole and, ah, filling its hump with Penguin Classics.

  24. Captain Ned

    @ exitbarnardine – On a month-long break at the moment. I’ve recently completed my second draft; when I return to put the finishing touches to it, I want my eyes to be relatively fresh.

    @acacciatura – without wishing to get too Freudian, there are always things from childhood that get carried over into one’s adult years, aren’t there? Why shouldn’t that include some of the terrors of the childish imagination? This why. for me, the best horror stories are those that play on the themes or motifs familiar from fairy stories and folk tales. Maybe it’s when the child within us is re-awakened as we watch a horror film or read a horror story that we feel that pleasurable/disturbing frisson – especially when, later, we can’t safely consign those fears back into childhood, but find them bleeding into our adult lives. Which is why films about knife-wielding maniacs running around slaughtering teenagers rarely achieve anything more than the most mechanical, forgettable shocks. Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ is an exception partly because it taps into the queasy nightmares of youth.

  25. @Ned

    Very wise. I always find it extraordinary,the things that jump out from one’s own work after a break, good and bad. As if it was written by someone else whilst you were making tea. I often find – maybe by 3rd draft – that a break also helps divide the chaotic creative stage (it’s chaotic for me, anyhow) from the more detached editing stage. Best of luck with it; your poster poems forecast something splendid.

    And thanks for your thoughts on childhood. It’s my felling that childhood dominates us, particularly post-conscious memories. I’ve found in my own work that zoning in on these issues – even if not directly using them as narrative – allows all sorts of language, sudden details and tensions to scatter acrosss the screen.

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