Make Fiction Scare Again: no genre for old men

Horror is a young man’s game. Because as you get older, you have grandkids and you get all sentimental like Steven Spielberg or you lose your touch like John Carpenter or you just decide you’d rather chill out and do something else like Stephen King. Youth is the time to get all wound up about anxiety, fear, and dread. Later years are for just relaxing. Right?

After the jump, wrong.

Tom Chick: Outer Dark, by Cormac McCarthy
If we agree that the movie Bone Tomahawk is horror — and anyone who’s seen it will readily agree — then I would submit to you that Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, is horror. Most of Bone Tomahawk saunters along like a Western. It’s basically The Searchers with Kurt Russell instead of John Wayne. But among the sauntering are about fifteen minutes of unmitigated horror. These minutes largely define Bone Tomahawk.

I’d argue it’s the same with Outer Dark. Outer Dark has a lot in common with Faulkner’s Light in August, but replace miscegeny with incest. It’s mostly a picaresque journey through an unspecified patch of the Deep South during an unspecified time in history. A couple of rubes variously encounter a rogue’s gallery of Cormac McCarthy characters. Cormac McCarthy’s Candides. Plural. There’s two of them.

But within its two hundred pages, scattered through odd places that pay off near the end, there are about ten pages of unmitigated horror. And not just horror in the sense that “oooh, something terrible is happening”, Faulkner-style. But horror in the old fashioned sense of ghosts, vampires, slashers, demons. Monsters. Outer Dark is the supernatural birth of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m looking for an excuse to read Cormac McCarthy for Halloween. He’s such a painfully good writer for even the most mundane details. When someone walks into town, “a horsefly followed behind his head as if towed there on a string”. A river flows “with a dull hiss like poured sand”. The width of a hallway filled with stacked firewood is described as “a cat’s passage”. McCarthy’s prosaic dialogue, the cant of ignorance and insight, is brimming with inadvertent wisdom. In response to the protagonist having no idea where to find the object of her hopeless search, a decrepit old woman notes, “It’s a goodly sizeable world to set out huntin somebody in”. The novel’s other protagonist meets as irascible old man on the porch of his home, with a shotgun in his lap and two dogs sleeping in the dirt.

“You live here by yourself?” the protagonist asks.

“Not exactly,” says the ill-fated old man, “I got two hounds and a ten-gauge double-barrel that keeps me company. They’s lots of meanness in these parts and I ain’t the least of it.”

He has no idea. These shreds of dialogue are McCarthy’s world view. The descriptions are his poetry. A big empty world, apocalyptic with listlessness and cruelty, where evil roams freely. Outer Dark has the quality of a fable or a fairy tale, minus an edifying lesson for children. Horror? In my book.

Get Outer Dark on Amazon.

Chris Hornbostel: Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
Floating Dragon
Stephen King sells a lot of books. Lots, as in 300 million of them. He is at this point pretty much a brand more than an actual author. It seems crazy to think about now, but for a brief flicker in time at the end of the 1970s, a guy named Peter Straub was every bit as big as King in the realm of horror fiction. Straub wrote a book called Ghost Story which was both a critical and popular sensation. Horror fiction was then still a genre ghetto, either despite or because of (depending on your view) Stephen King’s first handful of novels. In Ghost Story, Straub brought a literary stylishness and flair to a milieu that was often the subject of critical derision.

When Straub was unable to sustain his popularity after Ghost Story, he found himself at a career crossroads. He owed his current publisher one last book, and then wanted to explore new directions in fiction with a different company. There was going to be a definite line of before and after when he changed over (the seven year gap between Floating Dragon and Straub’s next book is testament to this), and the author wanted to get all of his older style of horror out of his system. And so, in Straub’s own words, he went for it and poured into this book what he intended to be as scary a story as he could muster.

The plot of Floating Dragon begins when a toxic cloud called DRG is accidentally vented from a top secret weapons contractor plant. Sound familiar? It’s an obvious lift from King, although Straub makes DRG different enough. The gas here doesn’t contain any super-virulent plague, instead producing non-contagious, varying effects on the people it contacts. The “thinking cloud”, as it’s known to those who created it, causes no harm to some who breathe it in. Others it drives mad. Still others die from it; the lucky ones in that group simply drop dead, while the not-so-lucky rot away, their bodies and tissues horrifically consumed by white lesions.

DRG does not become a global menace in the way of Captain Trips, either. Instead, the cloud settles over a single wealthy New York exurb in Connecticut. In this town of Hampstead, Straub unleashes a second horror in the form of a serial killer possessed by the demonic presence of an evil that has lurked within the land itself since before the town’s colonial founding. These are the twin story threads of Floating Dragon and Straub braids them carefully together, taking us deep inside the ordinary lives and deepest secrets of Hampstead’s residents.

This setup could be pedestrian in the hands of almost any other horror writer, but Straub makes it dazzle with a non-obvious story construction. He plays with his own narration, casually revealing that the omniscient narrator of the book might be one of Hampstead’s residents. He invents an old sitcom and turns one character’s memories of it into a key plot device. Most skillfully, he jumps the timeline around while taking a deep dive on the darker hidden history of Hampstead. In fact, if Straub borrowed the biological weapon device from The Stand, Stephen King would return the favor a few years later by imitating Straub’s detailed but focused town history in his 1986 novel It.

There’s more here than just interesting story construction, though. In the 30-plus years since Floating Dragon was released, at times Peter Straub has struggled with occasionally inconsistent character motivations or ex machina plotting and poor resolutions. Through all that, however, he’s always been a guy who writes sentences to weep over, a writer possessing an innate gift of evocative and descriptive word sketches. In Floating Dragon he writes with consummate craftsmanship, painting and dabbing his delicate little word filigrees in the service of describing some pretty horrible stuff.

I think that stylistic skill helps Straub wring more fright out of his setups than another writer might. You’d expect this prose in a highbrow literary comedy of manners, yet here it is in Floating Dragon nimbly going into graphic description of a possessed killer dismembering both random and chosen victims with a scalpel. It is the same kind of juxtaposition you get with Hannibal Lecter recommending an exquisite chianti to drink while enjoying a fine meal of delicious human. This artist’s touch exists throughout his work, but it is in Floating Dragon that we really get peak Straub. I think it is the finest work of one of the great horror authors of the last half century.

Floating Dragon is available in all formats from Amazon.

Tomorrow: Friday favorites
Making October Scare Again starts here.