Before I started publishing my work, two bookstores captured my imagination and became backdrops for book-signing fantasies. One of them, Oxford Books in Atlanta, no longer exists. The other, Dark Delicacies in Burbank, right outside Los Angeles, is about to make that particular (dark) fantasy come true…
Tag Archive for horror
For background on Hellscapes and an interview with Stephen Zimmer, see my author spotlight.
To launch the collection of Stygian narratives in Hellscapes, Volume 1, Stephen Zimmer cites three primary inspirations, maybe even masters: Dante Alighieri, John Milton, and Clive Barker. Zimmer is an accomplished writer with a voice all his own, so these citations are less acknowledgments of imitation than a map for readers who want to place where Hellscapes falls in the geography of literature: in one region, Dante and Milton, acknowledged world masters whom many remember hating in excerpts assigned during school, and in another, Barker, whose Books of Blood will (in this professor’s opinion) eventually get its due of immortality, but Barker ain’t in the mountains of Dante yet.
What does this first of several mapping devices in Hellscapes tell us about what the five interwoven tales have in store? Luckily, a little bit of everything. Zimmer delivers classical visions of punishment and despair ringed with silver-tongued demons, but he wraps them up in fast-moving, 21st-century-accessible prose and adorns them with legions of monsters (giant rats, spider-wolf hybrids, even some rotting ex-people that are particularly popular at present, and more), most of grotesque proportions I can imagine bringing a smile to Master Barker’s lips.
One of the things I like most about Hellscapes might turn off readers who expect short stories to follow the market formulae that still require narrative conflict-resolution arcs of the sort prescribed by Aristotle millennia ago. In other words, if a short story only makes you happy if the central character experiences some life-altering change that leads toward a satisfying conclusion, you might not be happy with this book. After all, most (not all–Zimmer’s got some surprises for you) characters are spiraling toward similar eternal destinies, even though the destinies outwardly take different and creative forms. However, if your happy comes not from rushing to endings but from vivid descriptions–moments that yield opportunities for felicities such as “sepulchral cacophony” and “surreal beast”–as well as thoughtful pepperings of metaphysics to spice up the plentiful eviscerations, then, my friends, Hellscapes is for you.
Perhaps the stories in Hellscapes manage this feat, they break the tried-and-true formula for dynamic characterization and conventionally satisfying closure yet still remain compelling, because they work together more like a Winesburg, Ohio or a Joy Luck Club. They gather meaning and intensity as they accumulate, and while the closure of most individual tales might lack traditional resolutions, “twisty” or otherwise, the closure of the collection feels like a larger canvas (or, perhaps more accurately, a medieval triptych… did they have quintychs?) coming together.
And for that reason, as readers go along, some might encounter a difficulty that I did. The stories mostly focus on the plights of the wealthy and powerful who have abused their positions and life, a fairly non-partisan political point that gives the book cohesion and moral force. However, the first three stories center on (in order) a woman, a man attracted to other men, and a man with a Hispanic name–all minorities in the halls of (American) money and power. Having minorities make up 3/5 of the damned who star in these tales made me… uncomfortable… but the decision makes more sense when the book as a whole comes together, and so does Zimmer’s discussion of those particular choices in our interview.
In my imagination, several types of people might be reading this review. If you’re the type of reader who shares my love of the gruesome imagery in the movie Martyrs (2008) but could fast forward through all the rest of the stuff, Hellscapes might not be for you. But if you like the gruesome imagery and also share my conviction that horror and grotesque imagery stand out among the oldest and most venerable artistic traditions for good reasons–involving philosophy, politics, and all the rest–as well as the coolness of nasty beasties, then give Hellscapes a try.
For background on The Wide Game and an interview with Michael West, see my author spotlight.
The Wide Game is a tense, well-structured page-turner that draws on regional flavor–the fictional town of Harmony in an atmospherically real Indiana–that earns it a place in American horror alongside other regionalists like Stephen King and Bentley Little, not to mention Poe and Lovecraft. In other words, West’s supernatural worlds, like the best we have, flow from the world he knows, not from some new twist on the latest trendy monsters. As a result, the casual reader who wants fast-paced scares as well as the horror fan who wants substance will find much of value in this reissue of the beginning of West’s Harmony cycle.
This paragraph is for the part of me who likes the frosted side. While far from qualifying as extreme horror, The Wide Game delivers some startling (narratively justified) gore that engaged my love of extreme aesthetics, i.e., the side of horror that pushes the boundaries of where art can and should take the imagination. Despite my general efforts as a reader not to anticipate plotlines, I did see the major twists coming–that said, West is courteous enough to deliver twisted plotting with tickle-torturing efficacy, something too often lacking in today’s straightforward subgenre ruts, and his attention to detail is careful enough to merit serious rethinking and rereading in order to admire the narrative elaboration as a product of true craftsmanship rather than cheap trickery.
My description so far might suggest labored prose, but West’s reads like the opposite. The regional flavor only appears in spare description and characters’ attitudes, and that craftsmanship is so admirable in part because the buttresses are all but invisible behind lean, easy prose. What’s interesting about the writing is that, mostly embedded within characters’ perspectives, it depends heavily on allusions, many of which are especially poignant given the book’s pervasive nostalgia, which begins with the dedication “For the Class of 1988.” Indeed, readers who didn’t either live through the 80s or see a lot of John Hughes movies will miss a great deal of the culture that West captures both through his narrator’s voice and in the dialogue of his characters, both in a 1988 timeline and in a class reunion timeline ten years later.
Now I get to the whole wheat side. The 80s nostalgia is part of what makes the book fun, but it also makes the book itself, particularly the 2013 reissue, a compelling commentary on “Gen X” as it ages and begins to assess where the attitudes that characterized its “cool” in the 80s had led the world by the late 90s (and now, by the early 2010s). Much as critics have interpreted the surge of horror in the 1970s as a reaction to a generation’s earlier idealism gone horribly awry, The Wide Game provides a confrontation between present and past and finds horror in the difference between what the present is and what characters thought it would be.
This historical perspective is especially keen in one exchange of allusions between characters in the 80s timeline. Skip, a bully, makes fun of some other boys for liking the band Duran Duran, whom he labels a “Bunch o’ queers.” To prove his own masculinity, Skip brags, “I listen to Judas Priest.” Historical perspective, of course, allows this little detail to join a few others that suggest that Skip himself might have some latent tendencies: the lead of Judas Priest eventually came out as gay. Other allusions are similarly layered with meaning, particularly an allusion to Stephen King’s The Stand, which West and I discuss in our interview–but like many of the other allusions, that one changes with the added (and perhaps subtracted) perspectives of time and memory as the narrative unfolds.
What might be even more fascinating than any given allusion is West’s systematic use of film language and film-derived imagery, which reflects his educational background. Some examples: “Her head might just do a Scanners.” “Some Fangoria-loving dweeboid is out here trying be Jason.” “You can drop the sledge hammer, Oliver Stone. I get the message.” Kevin-Williamson-like lines like these have a Kevin-Williamson-like justification, a central character who wants to make movies. At one point he thinks of a situation, “If it had been one of his movies, he would have used a slow fade to black. It was the language of film. Everything got fuzzy and the screen slowly grew dark. The reality of it had been closer to a jump cut.” Moments like this one suggest that the character’s memory and consciousness are themselves structured according to “the language of film,” and with such a suggestion, The Wide Game opens up a critique that even Oliver Stone has made a time or two.
The bottom line is that The Wide Game is a fun read even if you don’t care to think about issues of generational identity, history, memory, and the influence of art over the structure of thought. But if you care to think, the book has all that, too.
About Michael West: Michael West is the critically-acclaimed author of The Wide Game, Cinema of Shadows, Spook House, Skull Full of Kisses, and the Legacy of the Gods series. A graduate of Indiana University, with a degree in Telecommunications and Film Theory, West has written a multitude of short stories, articles, and reviews for various on-line and print publications. He lives and works in the Indianapolis area with his wife, their two children, their bird, Rodan, their turtle, Gamera, and their dog, King Seesar.
His children are convinced that spirits move through the woods near their home.
Hopefully in time for Halloween, my novel Descending Lines is coming soon from Blackwyrm Publishing.
Megan and Carter Anderson’s 6-year-old daughter Caitlin is dying a slow, horrible death from bone cancer. Unlike most people in their tragic situation, they are cursed with knowing how to save her. Carter has a copy of The Alchemy of Will, a book by Dr. Allen Fincher, a book familiar to readers of Burning the Middle Ground. Dr. Fincher shows how to tap into the power of “disembodied wills” using very particular sacrifices to bring about very particular effects. To save the life of a first-born, to cure any disease imaginable, you have to sacrifice the life of a second-born. The trouble is, Megan and Carter don’t have a second child. Yet.
I learned a lot about pregnancy in order to write this book. I guess that’s the bright side. But if you’ve just read the premise and thought, “You know, that could get really dark…,” yeah, it does. I should probably get a prize for Worst Pitch Ever, as I approached my publisher and led with reasons why a decision not to go with this manuscript would be perfectly understandable. Hmm. In what directions might such a premise point? Stem cell research and organ harvesting? Something to think about. Abortion? Characters do bring it up more than once. Historical and present-day devaluation and murder of baby girls in societies that practice primogeniture and population control (please don’t let that sentence scare you away from buying the book–nothing in it is that hard to read, honest!)? You betcha.
But more than that, I took the supernatural story–and trust me, even though it’s pretty unrelentingly dark, it gets twisty and goes way beyond the basic premise–from very real emotions I felt and observed living in New Jersey and often visiting New York City in the early 2000s. Even before 9/11, I always found the city stifling and Gothic, nothing more isolating than being amidst millions of strangers, nothing more imprisoning than a city so high it blocks out the sun, but of course after 9/11, even after the stench and the dust went away (which took such a long time), the city carried this horrible symbolic burden forced on it by warmongers mostly from other regions, and it added weight to the air. I tried to express all of that through Megan’s sense of her own entrapment within an inevitable course, however flawed it may be, because that’s how I felt, and I think that’s how the whole country felt.
And did I mention that the story is really nasty? It builds from tense domestic drama to moments that I think any hardcore horror fan will appreciate. So if that’s your thing, skip all the aforementioned emotional and political BS and just know that you’re in for a wild and truly disturbing experience.