My parents were from the country, and as a kid, despite living in Chicago and it's suburbs until I was fourteen, I spent a lot of time in rural regions in the summer. We moved to rural Kansas the summer I turned fifteen, to a small town with a population of less than a thousand, a post office and no home mail delivery, and a blinking red light at the cross roads in the center of town. There has always been a sense in this country that the simpler life, i.e. living in the country, is somehow more pure, more American, than living in the cities; I've never really understood this, frankly. I'm not disparaging rural life, or people who chose that lifestyle; it's simply not my preference.
But there's nothing like the countryside for setting a horror novel, is there? Isn't it interesting how some of my absolute favorite horror is set either in the countryside or in a small town? Hmmmm...I wonder what to make of that.
I awakened that morning to birdsong. It was only the little yellow bird who lives in the locust tree outside our bedroom window, but I could have wrung his neck, for it was not yet six and I had a hangover. That was in late summer, before Harvest Home, before the bird left its nest for the winter. Now it is spring again, alas, and as predicted the yellow bird has returned. The Eternal Return, as they call it here. Thinking back from this day to that one nine monthe ago, I now imagine the bird to have been sounding a warning. But that is nonsense, of course, for who could have thought it was a bird of ill omen, that little creature?
During the first long summer, its cheerful notes seemed to stand both as a mark of fulfillment and as a promise of profound happiness, signifying the achievement of our heart's desire. Happiness, fulfillment--if promised, they came only in the strangest measure.
The house, though new to us when we purchased it in the spring, was almost three hundred years old, an uninhabited wreck we had chanced upon, bought, and spent the summer restoring. In late August, with the greater part of the work behind us, I was enjoying the satisfaction of realizing one's fondest wish. A house in the country. The great back-to-the-land movement. City mouse into country mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Constantine and daughter, landed gentry, late of New York City, permanently residing at 11 Penrose Lane, in the ancient New England village of Cornwall Coombe. We had lived there less than four months.
Despite some things that wouldn't play today--there's a rape scene, for example, which isn't really dealt with or intended to lose sympathy in the reader for the rapist, for one, and Mrs. Theodore Constantine, really? Yet those were signs of the times--Harvest Home still holds up for the most part today. It's hard to imagine, though, in this day and age, a rural hamlet that would be so remote and a community so insular and wrapped up in itself that its secrets would never escape; the Internet and smart phones have pretty much connected everywhere (or so I think, in my smug urban-dweller experience). But it's a chilling book, really, even if there are no supernatural influences going on in the book. Ned and Beth, with their asthmatic daughter Kate, move to the country so Ned can work on his dream of being a serious painter rather than an advertising executive. (For those who were not around in the late 1960's/1970's, there was a big movement, or desire/fantasy, for city dwellers to give up the rat race and chase their dreams by moving back to the simpler, country lifestyle, and interestingly enough--here's a dissertation topic for someone: there was also a literature of the time in which this desire/fantasy, upon achievement, turned into a hideous nightmare; just as The Stepford Wives showed that moving to a suburb to escape the horrors of city life was into the fire from the frying pan--and there's the title! From the Frying Pain. I expect to be in the acknowledgements, whoever does this.)
Harvest Home is more of a mystery novel, I suppose, than a horror novel; Tryon's novels really defied description or categorization, blending elements of different genres together into a dark whole. The book really kicks off when Ned discovers the grave of Gracie Everdeen outside the hallowed ground of the town cemetery, and starts looking into her story and why she was buried out there. Pulling one thread unravels and unspools many others,and the town's secrets--and strange rituals--slowly come to be revealed to Ned, and to his horror...his discoveries not only put himself at risk but his wife and daughter as well.
And at the center of everything is the aged Widow Fortune--is she a force for good, or a force for evil? In either case, she is one of the most compelling and interesting characters in the novel. (The book was made into a Made-for-TV movie, with Bette Davis in the role.)
It's a very creepy novel, and the tension/suspense builds and builds. The ending is satisfying--if not the ending the reader may be hoping for, of course.
I always have entertained the notion of writing a biography of Thomas Tryon. He was gay, he was a movie star, and he was rather a good writer, who has sadly been mostly forgotten (although The Other has been brought back into print by New York Review of Books Classics). He also had a long term relationship with Casey Donovan, one of the more famous gay porn stars of the 1970's.
Because of course I have so much time.
And now back to the spice mines.
I do love witches. What would Halloween be without them? Of course, the caricature of witches that we see at Halloween--green skin, pointed hat, riding a broom, warts, huge crooked nose--was popularized into modern culture by The Wizard of Oz (if not, the Wicked Witch in that film was the personification of the popular culture's conception of a witch); but, alas, my knowledge on the history of the perception of witches is not that terrific. I know that the concept of witchcraft has been around for a long time--witches are mentioned in the Bible--and have been around in the popular culture for quite some time; I watched Bewitched as a child; there's Bell, Book, and Candle, and so much fiction about witches...and of course, I've read up on the Salem witch trials--and hasn't everyone been forced to read Arthur Miller's The Crucible in high school? I am hoping that Lisa Morton, who has already co-authored a graphic novel with the late lamented Rocky Wood and illustrated by Greg Chapman called The Burning Times as well as definitive histories/non-fictions studies on both Halloween and ghosts, will also tackle witches.
But today, I am going to talk about Anne Rice's The Witching Hour.
The doctor woke up afraid. He had been dreaming of the old house in New Orleans again. He had seen the woman in the rocker. He'd seen the man with the brown eyes.
And even now in this quiet hotel room above New York City, he felt the old alarming disorientation. He'd been talking again with the brown-eyes man. Yes, help her. No, this is just a dream. I want to get out of it.
The doctor sat up in bed. No sound but the faint roar of the air conditioner. Why was he thinking about it tonight in a hotel room in the Parker Meridien? For a moment he couldn't shake the feeling of the old house. He saw the woman again--her bent head, her vacant stare. He could almost hear the hum of the insects against the screens of the old porch. And the brown-eyed man was speaking without moving his lips. A waxen dummy infused with life--
No, stop it.
He got out of bed and padded silently across the carpeted floor until he stood in front of the sheer white curtains, peering out at black sooty rooftops and dim neon signs flickering against brick walls. The early morning light showed behind the clouds above the dull concrete facade opposite. No debilitating heat here. No drowsing scent of roses, of gardenias.
Gradually, his head cleared.
I had read Interview with the Vampire when it first came out, back in the 1970's, and honestly didn't care for it. I had just read 'salem's Lot, and the concept of the vampire as hero didn't appeal to me; it was just too foreign for me to wrap my head around (which is ironic, given my love for Dark Shadows, but I didn't make the connection then between Louis and Barnabas). I picked it up again in the mid-1980's, and felt the same way about it. I didn't read anything else Mrs. Rice published, either, simply because I didn't care for Interview; then a friend who was a fan had me read The Mummy, which I greatly enjoyed. I had a hardcover copy of The Witching Hour--I don't know why, to be honest--but after reading The Mummy I wanted to read something else by Mrs. Rice and remembered that I had a copy of this other one...
And could not put it down.
The Witching Hour ostensibly tells the story of Rowan Mayfair and Michael Curry. Rowan is the latest in a long line of witches going back to the seventeenth century (but doesn't know it), and she saves Michael from drowning, bringing him back to life. He comes back to life with a strange power--the ability to see things when he touches them; he starts wearing gloves. He also had a vision while he was dead that is somehow connected to Rowan--so he tracks her down and they begin a relationship that eventually leads them back to New Orleans and the Mayfair house, a decayed, ancient mansion in the Garden District when her mother, Dierdre, dies. Dierdre has been in a vegetative state for years; every day she was placed on a side porch of the mansion with the great Mayfair jewel around her neck that always belongs to The Mayfair; the woman who, in each generation, has the power. The brown-eyed man the doctor sees in the opening is Lasher, a spirit whose relationship to The Mayfair is sometimes in question; is he the source of their power, or is he playing some other type of game that The Mayfair is unaware of? The narrative flashes back and forth in time, telling the history of the Mayfair witches along with the romance of Michael and Rowan as they, with the help of the secret order of the Talamasca, try to determine what the truth about the Mayfair witches--and Lasher--is.
I loved this book so much; I always recommend it to people who want to read books about New Orleans, and always include it on lists of the best books set in New Orleans. It was this book that made me want to come back to New Orleans again; and you can imagine the thrill I got when a friend who lived here drove me to the corner of First and Chestnut and showed me the Mayfair house, which was actually where Mrs. Rice and her family lived. And it was exactly as she described it in the book; Dierdre's porch was even there.
I've read every Anne Rice novel since then, and she also became one of the authors I always buy in hardcover. She is one of those writers you either love or you hate; those who love her work can be very rabid. It was when I was reviewing one of her later Vampire Chronicles (Blood and Gold) that I realized--it's different when you read for review than when you read for pleasure--that so many reviewers/critics actually got what she does in her books wrong. Mrs. Rice writes about supernatural creatures--vampires, witches, werewolves, etc.--but she isn't writing horror; she is writing romances in the classic sense of the word. In modern literature romance has come to mean something greatly different than what it meant classically; a romance novel was not a love story, per se, but a big sweeping epic tackling huge themes like life and death, war, peace, humanity, faith, spirituality; what Mrs. Rice was doing was using supernatural characters to expand and explore those themes, and she was writing in the style of the great romance writers of the nineteenth century, like Dumas and Hugo.
I've always meant to go back and reread all of her work with this in mind--which is how I've read her novels since that realization--but again, time. I am actually several novels behind on her work now--I've not read The Wolves of Winter or Prince Lestat, and she has another coming out this year as well.
I will never catch up.
And now, back to the spice mines.
Lois Duncan was probably,one of the most influential y/a writers of the twentieth century. I know of several women crime writers today who consider her an influence; and there are probably dozens more than I don't know about. I didn't read Duncan when I was a teenager, but discovered her, ironically, when her novel I Know What You Did Last Summer was turned into a film in the 1990's. (I say "ironically" because Duncan hated the film; they turned her mystery novel into a slasher picture, and she was unequivocal in her disdain for the film. One of the things I liked about Duncan was she didn't mince words and was rather salty.) I got to meet her when she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and her on-stage interview by the incomparable Laura Lippman was a highlight of that Edgar Week for me.
I read another one of her books this weekend, for Halloween Horror Month: Gallows Hill.
The first time Sarah Zoltanne saw Eric Garrett, he was standing out by the flagpole in front of the school talking with a group of friends. Backlit as he was by the afternoon sunlight, everything about him seemed painted in gold--his hair, his skin, and, as far as she could tell from where she stood some distance away at the top of the cement steps,it even appeared that he might have golden eyes. In her literature class back in California she had done a unit on mythology, and the image that immediately leaped into her mind was Apollo.
Great opening, right?
Lois Duncan saw herself as more of a suspense writer than a horror writer; and it was only in a few of her novels for young adults that she crossed the line into the supernatural. Gallows Hill, despite it's cover, doesn't have anything to do with witches and/or withcraft in any way other than it's kind of tied to the Salem witch trials, and that makes it a reincarnation novel; a book about karmic retribution and karmic debt than witchcraft; it's kind of like Crowhaven Farm that way. Sarah herself has a bit of psychic ability; to look into a paperweight that had belonged to her grandmother (who may have been eastern European; Sarah is often described as looking like a Gypsy) and see things she shouldn't be able to see. She also has troubling dreams about the past--not her own past, but centuries ago past.
The reincarnation theme tied to Salem and its witch trials has been used before, not only in Crowhaven Farm but in a really terrific novel I read in either the 1980's or 1990's called Salem's Children by Mary Leader (who also wrote a terrific novel called Triad that I read in the 1970's and loved), which was about the descendants of the people involved in the Salem witch trials and reincarnation (great, now I want to read both of those novels again); I remember the main character's name was Submit, which struck me as odd at the time.
I really enjoyed Gallow's Hill, but I wish it would have been longer, and gone into some of the plot points and the characters, as well as the theme of reincarnation, a little more.
Interesting that I am always drawn to reincarnation stories.
Ira Levin was one of my favorite writers. He only wrote seven novels during his lifetime (he died in 2007), and I've read all of them but one; they were each extraordinary. Like James M. Cain, his most famous novels were very short; but each one that I read was exceptional. His books were so ubiquitous that they've entered the vernacular; the references may be lost on younger people, but most people will know what you mean when you reference a Stepford wife or a boy from Brazil.
And everyone knows Rosemary's Baby.
Levin was an amazing writer, truly amazing. Take the opening to Rosemary's Baby:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.
The opening paragraph of The Stepford Wives:
The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, "You're really going to like it here! it's a nice town with nice people! You couldn't have made a better choice!" Her brown leather shoulderbag was enormous, old and scuffed; from it she dealt Joanna packets of powdered breakfast drink and soup mix, a toy-size box of non-polluting detergent, a booklet of discount slips good at twenty-two local shops, two cakes of soap, a folder of deoderant pads--
Both start so innocently; a young couple getting the apartment of their dreams, a wife newly moved to the suburbs being greeted by the Welcome-Wagon Lady (do people still do that, I wonder?). Sunshine, light, and innocence, right? Both books begin with new beginnings; a fresh start in a new home. And yet--both wives, Rosemary and Joanna, wind up in terrifying situations, and even worse, no one believes them, least of all their husbands--particularly since it was their husbands who sold them out in the first place; Guy Woodhouse selling Rosemary out to a cult of Satanists in exchange for career success, Joanna's husband selling his feminist wife out for a realistic, animatronic robot version with a sexier figure who is programmed to be an obedient wife/slave to her husband. The Stepford Wives was the first Levin novel I read, and I read it shortly after it came out in paperback, plucking it off the wire paperback racks at the Zayre's in Bolingbrook shortly after we'd moved to that suburb. And it's really a frightening book to read when you've just moved to the suburbs.
But I can't help but wonder why Levin's work in these two instances isn't considered domestic suspense? Both books are from the point of view of women; about their issues and their place in their marriages; and borrow the most important theme from romantic suspense novelists like Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt: his heroines cannot fully trust their husbands. Of course, both books veer into the supernatural...are they horror novels?
My favorite work of Levin's is his first novel, which also won the Edgar for Best First, A Kiss Before Dying. It's been filmed twice--neither film is worth watching, frankly--and it literally is genius. If you haven't read it, you really need to--it's one of the best suspense novels I've ever read. The problem, of course, with A Kiss Before Dying is you can't really discuss it without spoiling it--and while you can still enjoy the book knowing the big twist, not having it spoiled really makes you appreciate how genius Levin really was.
And now, back to the spice mines.
Saturday! Tonight LSU takes on Ole Miss in yet another crucial game for the Tigers. Heavy sigh. I have a lot to do today--cleaning, errands--around football games, and I am going to start reading another book while editing some short stories and--hopefully--working on the revision of Bourbon Street Blues.
But yesterday, I finally had the time to devote to Bracken MacLeod's amazing Stranded.
The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.
The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship's master tried to quarter--turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn't be defeated before he even got outside.
The key to writing excellent horror, to quote Stephen King yet again, is to write about what scares you. Conversely, I think the most effective horror fiction is written about what scares and unsettles the reader. The opening to this exceptionally fine novel is a perfect example of why I will never board a ship and have absolutely no desire to ever go on a cruise. Is there anything more unsettling than not having solid ground beneath you? Every earthquake I experienced in California was horrific for that reason--when you can't trust the floor beneath your feet not to move....shudder
I'm not necessarily as afraid of cold as I dislike it intensely. I grew up in Chicago, spent my teens in Kansas, and as an adult, one horrible winter in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis; just can't handle the winters; it didn't help that the particular winter I spent there was one of the worst in years). The rest of my life has been spent for the most part in warm-weather climates; I've only visited the cold on trips. I don't like being cold, really. So, of course, books set where it's cold always affect me (Peter Straub's Ghost Story is one example--I still shiver not only from the scares in that book but from the images of the snowbound town; there was one by I think a British writer set in a ski lodge that was also horrifying but I can't remember the name of the writer--he was recommended by a friend; Christopher Golden's Snowblind, which I haven't gotten to yet; and so many others....)
So, Stranded takes place on a freighter, in the winter, in the Arctic Sea, bringing supplies to an oil rig. The main character, Noah Cabot, is kind of the scapegoat on the ship, the Arctic Promise; no one seems to like him very much and the ship's heirarchy really hate him, yet at the same time he is enormously likable to the reader. There's some deep pain inside of him, this son of a family of long-time Maine fisherman, who went away to college in Seattle, but MacLeod plays his cards about Noah's backstory perfectly, like a card shark reeling his victim in, card by card. And before you know it, the ship is beset; frozen in by the ice, trapped, with all of its communications not working. There is a weird fog, and everyone on the ship seems to be coming down with some kind of ailment. Out in the distance they can see the shape of something...maybe it's the oil rig... and Noah, as one of the only men on board not affected by the strange sickness, is selected to help lead a team of men across the ice to whatever that shape is out in the distance.
And then the real fun begins.
The premise of the story is really enough to keep the reader intrigued enough to keep turning the pages--these are some serious stakes here--but MacLeod is a master at pacing, and knowing when to drop in those precious moments of backstory so that the reader becomes even more vested in the characters he is reading about. I kept trying to guess what was going on--I did figure one thing out--but I was almost always wrong, which is gratifying as a reader. The atmosphere is gothic and spooky, and the way MacLeod uses the freezing weather to amp up the tension is spectacular; not to mention his way of making the individual characters unique enough to be distinctive--not an easy task when you have as many minor characters populating a short novel like this.
I had read and deeply enjoyed MacLeod's Mountain Home after I had met him at World Horror Con here in New Orleans whenever that was; I am really looking forward to reading his other novel, White Knight. His transition from noir to horror was seamless and exceptional; a mark of a truly gifted writer.
BUY THIS BOOK.
And more, please.
And now, back to the spice mines.