Make Fiction Scare Again: and now for something completely different

“It was a dark and stormy night….” OK, stop us if you’ve read this book before. As exciting as a good scary story should be, too often horror fiction becomes predictable and formulaic. Horror is a genre rooted in folktales and archetypes, and chains itself to hidebound guidelines. We know that vampires always hate mirrors and zombies are supposed to shuffle. Horror fiction breaks these rules too rarely, but when it happens it can be spectacular.

After the jump, not the same old story.

Tom Chick: “The Crevasse” from North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Crevasse” is from Nathan Ballingrud’s collection of short stories, North American Lake Monsters. It’s not the most discomfiting story in the collection (that would be the titular “North American Lake Monsters”). It’s not the weirdest story in the collection (that would be “The Monsters of Heaven”). It’s not even the best story in the collection (that would be “S.S.”). But it is my favorite expression of what makes Ballingrud unique.

On the surface, “The Crevasse” is Ballingrud’s contribution to Arctic horror. It’s his take on the stuff of the TV show Fortitude, H.P. Lovecraft’s short story At the Mountains of Madness, Dan Simmons’ bloated novel The Terror, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. A handful of men against the inhumanity of the cruel climate, and then something worse. But beneath the surface, it is the purest expression of Nathan Ballingrud’s message: you do not matter.

This isn’t anything new. This concept is to cosmic horror what jump scares are to slasher movies. Our deepest primal fear isn’t darkness, predators, or even death; it is irrelevance. Ballingrud pokes that part of the lizard brain. But his approach is unique for how it expresses this as a genre, and not just a concept. Most of his stories are about ordinary people brushing up against extraordinary horror, and either being oblivious to it, or having to move on from it. The focus is on the protagonists, but the horror is lurking somewhere else. It’s like that scene in a movie when the camera shows the monster lurking behind a character. The character spins around and the camera POV reveals that there’s nothing there. But we, the audience, saw it. That’s Ballingrud in a nutshell. And because the approach is unique, his stories are uniquely horrifying.

You can buy North American Lake Monsters in all formats from Amazon.

Chris Hornbostel: A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay
Merry Barrett may be just 23 years old, but she’s had one hell of a life. Her idyllic childhood in a well-to-do suburb was turned upside down when her beloved older sister Marjorie began a slide into…something. Madness, maybe. Maybe something more diabolical. The expenses to treat Marjorie left her family facing bankruptcy until somehow the Barretts found themselves starring in a reality TV series called “The Possession” that culminated with an attempted exorcism. That was 15 years ago. Now Merry Barrett is telling her story as the insider/younger sister to a nonfiction author, providing insight on what truly happened. Was Marjorie possessed? Or, was she a girl entering adolescence and suffering from real mental health issues? What if the whole thing was a hoax?

A Head Full Of Ghosts weaves its story through multiple layers. It’s a first person narrator (Merry), telling her insider’s tale and background on a (fictionally) infamous 6-episode reality TV series to a prospective author working on a book about the case. On top of all that, the narrative is interrupted throughout with blog posts from “The Last Final Girl”, who writes a pop culture blog on all things horror for some Buzzfeed-like publication. The blogger, Karen Brissette, is doing a detailed deconstruction of “The Possession” as a 15-year anniversary look back, and she is less than a true believer that anything demonic was going on.

That’s the setup, and if it seems like Tremblay is simply going to give us the umpteenth incarnation of an Exorcist-alike at first, that impression quickly dissolves. For starters, Merry, our protagonist and narrator, is incredibly likeable. She’s clever, funny, and full of an almost crackling, ebullient energy, even as she describes in great detail some immensely frightening scenes about Marjorie’s descent into a possible demonic possession. Then there’s the blog. Karen Brissette clearly has an attitude and maybe even an agenda, but beyond that it provides both perspective and fantastic comic levity. The insouciant, gum-smacking blog piece sections of the book are written with consummate skill and awareness of the form. Karen points out how Marjorie’s behavior is totally stolen from exorcism movies, while dropping references that range from the Shining documentary (Room 237) to supernatural metafiction (Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves). In other words Karen (and, obviously Paul Tremblay) have seen every movie you’ve seen and read every book you’ve read. And then some.

So, okay. What we’ve got here is a refreshingly modern take on a familiar subject, the demonic possession story. We get to see it from an family’s perspective, with Merry filling in the details on the conflict created by her religious father’s insistence that Marjorie’s problems were caused by devils versus her grounded mother’s worries that the daughter was merely suffering from deepening mental illness. Merry isn’t sure whether Marjorie was sick, possessed, or faking it. As readers, we come to wonder if it isn’t the father, John Barrett, who’s become possessed himself by a terrifying descent into religious zealotry.

The fictional device of Karen Brissette’s blog (Tremblay based her on an actual GoodReads blogger) is all about debunking the events depicted on the reality show, and provides a voice of pure skepticism. As readers, were not sure what the truth is, but the blog sections make it something we can consider as interested outsiders without really having a dog in that fight. With all this set up for us then, Paul Tremblay does something amazing with how he wraps up his tale with a fantastic bit of plotting and storytelling. His ending pulls us readers in off the sidelines on the academic question of the nature of Marjorie’s affliction. Is it better for our feelings towards a character we’ve come to love if Marjorie was possessed? Is it better if she wasn’t?

The different layers of story and sometimes Rashomon-like takes on what happened when the Barretts became the potential victims of a demonic possession are put together with consummate skill by Tremblay. It wasn’t until I went to write this recommendation that I even realized how confusing some of the story-within-a-story elements of the book sound when they’re described. Paul Tremblay seems like a freakishly talented new author, one who has immediately become one of my favorites in any genre. I cant wait to see where his career goes next.

You can buy A Head Full of Ghosts in all formats from Amazon.

Tomorrow: gotta catch ’em all!
What’s all this Make Such-and-Such Scare Again?