Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lewis (ed.), Horror Without Victims (2013)

D.F. Lewis (ed.), Horror Without Victims. Megazanthus Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-291-45143-6. $14.64.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

Can you truly have horror without there being a victim?

It’s an interesting question, and one that comes down to the very definition of horror as a genre. As my husband put it, does horror naturally have to consist of bad things happening to people? I couldn’t think of a single example of horror that did not consist of bad things happening to people, even if they were not physically harmed. Surely even if someone’s wounds are purely emotional/psychological, they still count as a victim? Or, for that matter, what if the horror happens to others, only vaguely affecting our characters? At what point does a character become important or developed enough for their suffering to qualify them to be victims?

In his introduction to the anthology, ‘Embrace the Fall of Night’, John Howard made an excellent example of just this issue when he mentioned that his idea of horror without victims is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And, yes, I can see where he’s going with this; Kurtz and Marlow are unharmed by their experiences (Kurtz dies, yes, but of disease, rather than of any kind of evil-doings), and the horror that they feel is due to their realization of existential powerlessness in the face of the savagery of the natural world. And, yes, fine, but what about the characters besides Kurtz and Marlow?

Perhaps Kurtz and Marlow are the main characters, but what about the Africans? What about the helmsman who died during the expedition? What about the tribespeople left bereft after Kurtz’s death? What about the effects of colonialism? Just because the main characters don’t necessarily suffer doesn’t mean that there was no suffering at all in the story, and doesn’t that suffering mean that there were victims? In fact, if we look at Heart of Darkness’ film adaptation, Apocalypse Now, the theme is very much about the horrors of war, and their effect on both the combatants and the civilians. Can we really not find a victim anywhere in that battleground?

I don’t have the answer to these questions, and I honestly wasn’t expecting this anthology to provide one. What I was hoping, however, was that the anthology would at least address those questions, and to a certain degree, at least, I was disappointed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The promise of the title was only fulfilled to a very limited degree, with many of the stories seeming to avoid the issue altogether. Still, there were some very fine stories here. In order to be fair, I’m going to analyze each story in the same order they’re printed in the book.

‘The Horror’ by Gary McMahon – McMahon is one of the few names I recognized in among the list of authors, so I was eagerly anticipating this story. And, as I anticipated, it was well-written and engaging, but in the end I felt it a bit of a cop-out. The main character has suffered, and she does indeed die, but it appears she can’t be counted as a victim because she chose her own end and appeared to meet it voluntarily.

On the one hand, I can understand the angle McMahon is tackling. On the other hand, does that mean someone who commits suicide is not a victim? That’s a problematic idea. And even if we do accept that, the main character has lived through a failed marriage, seems to have a drinking problem, and is in such a dark place in her life that she considers visions of war and atrocities comforting. Does that not suggest a certain level of victimhood?

Still, this is a solid, interesting story, well-written and creative. I have few complaints.

‘Clouds’ by Eric Ian Steele – I like the idea behind this story very much; it brings to mind Richard Matheson’s ‘And When the Sky Was Opened’, and indeed, what could be more frightening than the unknown, and being swallowed by it?

The big problem with this story is the execution. First of all, while the main character does seem to accept his fate in the end, I have a hard time not thinking of him as a victim. By the story’s logic, no one would remember that he ever existed, so if a man dies in the forest and nobody remembers him, does that make him a victim? That’s a level of existentialism that I’m not sure I’m qualified to get into.

But the character that really bothers me is that of the main character’s wife. Throughout the story, his treatment of her really made me dislike him. He’s one of those, “Oh, ho-hum, there must be more to all of this, I thought my life was going to MEAN SOMETHING,” types, which would be fine...except he has a wife, a wife who very obviously loves him. She cooks his favourite meals, is concerned about his unhappiness, and her reply when he asks whether she suffers the same existential angst is, “We have a home, we have jobs, and we have each other. What more could we want?” Which he seems to take as a failing on her part. Well excuse her, Mr. Nietzsche, for actually finding satisfaction in her life and marriage.

The more I read of this story, the more I started thinking of her as a victim, a victim of her husband’s indifference and dissatisfaction, and a victim of fear, in the end, as he seems to grow increasingly unstable and (as far as she’s concerned) yelling about people and places that never existed.

‘The Carpet-Seller’s Recommendation’ by Alistair Rennie – And this is where the “ugly” part starts to come in. In this story, the main character is a well-to-do British man doing business in Istanbul. Searching for entertainment, he takes a carpet-seller’s advice and goes on a river cruise.

Now, I don’t like this story on a simple principle; nothing happens. This is an issue I noted in a number of the stories in this collection; the only way the author could interpret horror without victims is for nothing to happen to anyone. I think there’s a question as to whether this makes a legitimate horror story or not. Take, for example, this story; the main character is locked in the ship’s hold and is made to believe that the crew is going to kill him. Of course, they don’t, and in fact the whole thing was an elaborate ruse to make the main character appreciate life all the more. To me, that’s really quite dull.

But what makes all of this worse is the soupcon of racism that threads through the entire story. The main character is obviously contemptuous of the local culture, and sneers at the dirty savagery of the locals. I suppose that this is meant to show that the main character needs to learn to appreciate his surroundings, but it just comes off as the main character being an elitist racist.

‘Waiting Room’ by Aliya Whitely – Another well-written story that I feel avoided the overall question. It’s another tale in which there seems to be no victims only in that the characters chose what was to happen to them, although admittedly in a more creative way than McMahon’s ‘The Horror’. The setting is that of the titular waiting room, where the characters sit and wait until one of them decides to go through a mysterious red door. The people are called there for their own reasons, the main character because of a dream, for example, and are free to leave at any time. In fact, many do after witnessing one of their fellows entering the red door. Most of the story is built around the burgeoning relationship between the main character and a fellow waiter, but he leaves shortly after she rebuffs his sexual advances, leaving her to enter the red door alone.

It’s not a bad story, but it really did leave me unsatisfied. What it needed was more of a feeling of why these people were here, and what could drive them to enter that most frightening of things, the unknown. But there’s nothing, no reason given beyond curiosity and the main character’s dream. And honestly, that comes off as a little bit silly. No, more than a little bit. The writing almost saves it, but in the end, the experience left me wanting more, and not in the good way.

‘For Ages and Ever’ by Patricia Russo – This story was one of the good ones. One of the very good ones, in fact, and probably my favourite in the collection. It tells the story of a town where there are very specific rules, rules about touching, rules about crying, rules about hospitality, about how to move and when to do so. But the rule that everyone holds most sacred is this: never, ever go in the red house.

The protagonist (okay, one issue with this story; I find second person viewpoint almost unbearably pretentious, but that’s me) is a young person who has grow up in this town, knows all of the rules, and becomes obsessed with the mystery of the red house, and is determined to somehow destroy it. He (judging from the language of the story, the protagonist is meant to be male which, as a female reader, I find very irritating) visits Aunt Far Away, a near-mythical character also surrounded by rules (bring her a gift, preferably tea or cookies, and never mock her).

I love this kind of fairytale-esque setup, with mysterious rules and natural laws no one really understands and yet must follow. Aunt Far Away in particular is a wonderful character, established as once the character in a series of children’s books, and now retired to share her stories to all those who will listen, and bring new tales to her. She is a character who deals only in stories, and it is for stories that the protagonist goes to her. And she knows stories about the red house, but stories are all they are.

When the protagonist does eventually enter the red house, he finds those who came before, now desiccated skeletons. And though the protagonist immediately assumes that these are the house’s victims, it turns out that we’ve reached what is rapidly becoming a cliche in this book, they chose their own fate.

But what could have been another boring cliche becomes something quite a bit more interesting, because unlike in the previous stories, we get solid reasons why they chose the fate that they did. They all suffer from severe mental illness, and in some cases were afraid they would harm those that they loved the most. And in the end, the house gives them the choice to leave, or to stay, giving them more time to deal with their inner demons. Some of them decide to stay, and some of them decide to go.

Now, this is very interesting, and in some ways does present an intriguing question. Are these people victims? Without question they are suffering, as someone who has suffered (and does suffer) from a mental illness can attest to. Can we not call them the victims of mental illness? And does this story suggest that the only refuge from mental illness is a kind of death?

These are very hard questions, and so far this story is the first one to really address them. Combine that with a beautiful writing style and a very intriguing plot, and we have the best story in this book so far.

‘Night in the Pink House’ by Charles Wilkinson – This story...honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. It seemed simple enough at first, a master of torture is hired by a crippled wealthy man to....’s where the confusion starts. Now, it’s made clear that the main character, Topcliffe, was hired because he is descended from an Elizabethan “interrogator”. It’s also made clear that the wealthy man enjoys watching Topcliffe kill animals. Topcliffe is also being paid to provide the wealthy man with recordings of a young woman screaming in fear and pain. So, automatically one assumes that the wealthy man believes Topcliffe is actually torturing and/or murdering women. He is not, however; rather, he is hiring a local girl named Rose to scream into a recorder for him. Often he buys her ice cream.

Okay, so, this is where the conflict comes in, right? The old man will find out Topcliffe is faking the recordings, and be enraged, right? turns out the old man knows about Rose and is quite satisfied with the recordings.

It was at this point that I became really confused, and didn’t see where this story was going. And I’m still not sure that I do. There is some build up of the house being composed of flesh and blood, but aside from a brief scene near the end where Topcliffe is almost absorbed (I think?), all there seems to be to this is build-up. And I suppose this story qualifies for the anthology because neither Rose nor Topcliffe are harmed...except that we find out in the end that Topcliffe is now working as a torturer for a totalitarian government. I suppose the Africans he leaves to torture at the very end of the story don’t count.

‘Point and Stick’ by Mark Patrick Lynch – This is another very odd story, though it’s far better written than ‘Night in the Pink House’, and at least has a logical progression. A young man moves rents a room in a poor neighbourhood, and finds that his downstairs neighbour has a secret. She’s fat.

That’s it.

I have the same problem here that I did with ‘The Carpet-Seller’s Recommendation’; nothing happens, and much of the atmosphere focuses on making other people horrifying. Here it is fat-phobia rather than racism, but I feel that the root is the same. I was not impressed.

‘The Blue Umbrella: A Reverie’ by Mark Valentine – And in this one, nothing happens at all. I am not joking, the entire story consists of a man looking at some books. He has a somewhat uneasy feeling that certain books might have a sense of self, and therefore be calling him, but nothing at all comes of it. I honestly found myself wondering whether or not the editor got desperate and simply published any story that did not openly have someone dying, regardless of quality.

‘Lambeth North’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz – This story is honestly more sweet than anything else. Three childhood friends now middle-aged women, are wandering through their neighbourhood in London, pausing at a children’s playground before going home for drinks. One of the women discovers that she is gaining quick, momentary glimpses into the past as the trio pauses to have a playful romp on the swingset. I’d put this story in the “nothing happens” category if it wasn’t for the women themselves; they’re all very well-developed characters, and you get a real sense of how much they treasure their friendship and each other. It is a gentle well-written tale about friendship and the passage of time, perhaps not very frightening, but still a fine tale.

‘The Cure’ by John Travis – From a story I’m not sure I could classify as horror to probably the most naked horror yarn in the entire anthology. This one is likely one of my favourites, a well-written and gory harkening back to the old “Tales From the Crypt” stories of karmic plot twists, it tells the tale of a rich man dying of cancer who flies out to an isolated tropical island seeking a cure. I can’t say anything more without spoiling the ending. The one problem I have with this story is that there most certainly is a victim, but again, a la “Tales From the Crypt”, he appears to have deserved his unfortunate end. Is a victim still a victim if he happens to be a horrible person?

‘We Do Things Differently Here’ by David Murphy – In some respects, I like this story a great deal. It’s definitely one of the better-written tales in the anthology’s pages, and it’s most certainly creative. The idea is that there is a country on this planet where everything runs backwards, including the lives of the inhabitants. Literally; people are not “born”, they are “disinterred”. Funerals are celebrations of new life, senior citizens are the youth, adolescents and children the elderly. In essence, it’s where the crew of Red Dwarf crash-landed that one episode.

So, well-written and creative, and a lot of potential for horror once you get past the shiny novelty and comic potential. What’s the problem?

I don’t want to get too much into spoilers here, but my issues with this story number two. And number one, in some ways is the most egregious of the pair: it makes no sense. Particularly in the direction the story takes. Especially since this country seems to exist within our universe, on our planet Earth, and yet somehow on this few square miles of land the natural laws are completely different. I will give the author some credit in that the main character does try to ask some of the same questions I had, but to my dismay, they were never answered.

The other issue I have is that there most certainly is a victim here, and it’s the main character. The only way I can interpret her not being a victim is a very offensive one. A major part of the horror, you see, comes about when the main character becomes pregnant. Pregnant through a consensual sexual encounter. And I have heard far too many anti-choice “She should have kept her legs closed,” arguments bandied about for this fact to pass unnoticed. And if the author is genuinely trying to say that the main character is not a victim because she had consensual sex and therefore has to deal with the consequences, especially in light of the emotional manipulation she endures throughout the story, I am going to repeal every kind thing I had to say about this story.

‘Lord of Pigs’ by DeAnna Knippling – This is another story that I like very much on some levels, but not on others. I think it’s most like ‘Lambeth North’; beautifully written, in some ways even better than its predecessor, and with real insight, this time into the nature of childhood. Some of the imagery is incredibly vivid and striking, as well. I actually wonder if it’s not autobiographical, given that the main character is named Deanna.

The issue that I have with this story is also the same one that I had with “Lambeth North” in that I didn’t find it terribly frightening.. There is more horrific imagery than there is in “Lambeth North”, but I still did not find it really horrifying. But don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent story, beautifully written and well-told.

‘Like Nothing Else’ by Christopher Morris – This story is another that falls in the “ugly” category. So much so, in fact, that had this story opened the anthology, I quite possibly would have closed the book and sent my apologies to TFF, saying that I was unable to continue with my review. I find it just that personally offensive.

The basic premise is that there exists in the story’s universe a species of humanoid reptiles, rare, almost extinct. The main character, James, is a sixteen-year-old boy who lives on a farm. One day he is approached by Arliss, a man squatting in a nearby ruined barn. Arliss is excited. He’s caught one of these reptiles. A female. You see, “there are uses for the females.”

We are then treated to a delightful few pages in which we meet this poor creature, chained and muzzled in an old horse stall, she is burned with a cigarette (to illustrate that she’s “just an animal”), are told that several neighbourhood boys have already “had a little go-round”. Then we enjoy a loving, explicit description of our main character raping this being. But that’s okay, because she starts making a clicking noise. And apparently, in this story’s universe, this means that “She said, in her way, Don’t stop.”

This would be bad enough. I am very hard-pressed to not call this poor creature a victim of abuse in every way, shape, and form. But apparently, once James has had his turn, she no longer matters, because we never find out what happens to her. Instead, we skip forward a few years to James in college, being taken to bed by a girl named Candy. And after his adventures in bestiality, James finds a girl that can talk and participate and consent just doesn’t do it for him. He has to mentally turn Candy into the creature, and in doing so, pins her underneath him, traps her arms, ignores her voice (it’s not made clear whether she is protesting or encouraging), and orgasms to the image of “chains, manacles. He thought of the burning cigarette.”

Even if we decide that the creature doesn’t count as a victim because she isn’t human, which is a theory I don’t subscribe to (to make matters worse, her species is never given a name, and so she is referred to as “the female” throughout), the implied rape of Candy certainly qualifies her. The only way you can say that this story does not have victims is to basically say that women do not count, and that makes me feel rather ill.

‘In the Earth’ by Rog Pile – This is another well-written story, with some really beautiful imagery. But I once again find myself wondering if this really counts as a horror story, or more of a fantasy. There is some horrific moments, but they really come to nothing. It’s difficult to pinpoint really where it went wrong. The basic narrative is about a man and his wife who live on a piece of scrubland and realize that they are actually living atop the body of a slumbering giant. And this is a good idea, and makes for an excellent setup. The horror comes in when the husband realizes that the giant is stirring, and that because he and his wife live on this land they are the giant’s guardians. As such, it has a certain power over them, and it is now calling to his wife. This really turns the wife into less of a character and more of a plot point, and I think that’s where the story lost my interest.

‘Scree’ by Caleb Wilson – I really don’t know what to make of this story. There are no victims, to be sure, and its dreamlike setting and imagery are well-described. But in the end, nothing makes sense. The strange, senseless world that the main character inhabits is given no context, and the ending seems to come completely out of nowhere. It’s stories like this that I really find frustrating, because given some more information and context, this could have been an interesting story. What it ends up being is like an abstract, title-less, anonymous painting.

‘The Week of Four Thursdays’ by David V. Griffin – This is another classic story, that of the encounter with a mysterious, enthralling young woman, and the protagonist’s slowly growing obsession. It’s a slow story, but that’s the best way to tell this sort of tale. The main character must be carefully described and then destroyed, his obsession slowly creeping in like sand into a delicate mechanism, causing all of the carefully created gears and clockworks to grind to a halt. And that does happen here, but it seems to halt before everything can come to a head. It just seems to stop. And ultimately, though the story was well-written and well told, I felt unfulfilled.

‘In Dreams, You’re Mine’ by Jeff Holland – Another frustrating story. Once again, we are faced with a situation where the author, confronted with the need to write a horror story without any victims, settled for writing a story where nothing at all happens. In this story, a man approaches a scarecrow that he found frightening as a child. And nothing happens. This isn’t even a story, really, it’s a vignette.

‘Walk On By’ by Katie Jones – Another frustrating story where nothing happens, this one doubly so because the setup is there. A hideous monster just freed from its subterranean tomb encounters a girl riding her horse along a bridle path, and, for some reason, doesn’t attack. The girl and the horse don’t even notice it. And I would be willing to forgive this thrilling tale of monster proximity, except it’s very poorly written. There are several typos, the author seems to have a real love for the word “beneath”, and when one wants to describe a horrific monster, one might want to find a slightly more intimidating metaphor than “like a hibernating skunk”. It’s meant to be a touching story about how the bond between girl and horse repelled evil, but the poor quality of the writing just makes it fall flat.

‘Vent’ by L. R. Bonehill – This is another of my favourite stories. Bonehill does an excellent job building character and developing the narrative, making us feel for the main character and genuinely understand why she does what she does. The story also unfolds slowly and beautifully, a delicately fragrant flower that opens to reveal a spider at its center, a chilling and gory conclusion that I truly and honestly did not see coming. Not much else to say here; this story is one of the gems.

‘The Yellow See-Through Baby’ by Michael Sidman – This story... I honestly don’t know what to say about this story. It’s about a baby that is being toilet trained and is being haunted by the ghost of his own urine.

I am not even kidding.

The story isn’t badly written, though it’s from the baby’s point of view, and is thus written in a rather irritating form of baby-talk, but the subject matter is just so ludicrous that I could not bring myself to like it. I suppose it genuinely has no victims, except maybe Pampers, but honestly, I do not enjoy hearing about toilet training even from those of my friends who are parents. What’s next, a story about a puppy haunted by the ghost of his old training pads? A cat haunted by kitty litter past? Ugh.

‘The Boarding House’ by Kenneth C. Wickson – This is another of those stories that suffers from the rule that there could be no victims, and as such, despite the excellent atmosphere, nothing happens. There is a lot of buildup and the writing is strong, but come the end, nothing at all happens. Like its predecessors, I found this story deeply unsatisfying.

‘The Callers’ by Tony Lovell – Another story that honestly left me puzzled. There is indeed a feeling of horror, but to me, it feels like the horror of dementia, of losing one’s self and one’s memories, and with them one’s friends and family. And this is fine, and good fodder for a horror story, but I have a hard time with the idea that there are no victims here. Even if one accepts the idea that the person suffering from dementia is not a victim because they don’t remember anything better, surely the sufferer’s family counts. And leaving that aside, despite some strong writing, once again very little happens. All in all, I wasn’t terribly impressed with this entry.

‘Still Life’ by Nick Jackson – Now this story is interesting. The story is a simple vignette describing a once-beautiful room in decay. Fruit left in a bowl has gone mouldy and rotten, fungus and insects are rotting the wood of the windows and walls, and a photograph of a lovely young woman that is slowly succumbing to moisture and decay. Now, in many ways this story suffers from the exact same flaws that many of the others do, in that absolutely nothing happens, but I feel that this story goes beyond that. In many ways, it succeeds where the others failed because it is self-aware in a way they are not.

The descriptions of the room and the slow decay of its very being are indeed horrifying, and build up a beautiful atmosphere but again, nothing happens. The narration even makes it clear that nothing evil or horrifying ever occurred here. So then, is this a horror story? Is there truly horror in just the passage of time, in the slow and inevitable decomposition of our material being? There is even beauty to be found in the colour of the fungus, but this is still the beauty of decay, and in particular the decay of the things that we create.

This, I think, is the story that comes closest to the horror described in the book’s introduction, the horror of isolation and inevitability. The horror found in the dark jungles, or the howling vistas of Antarctica. The horror of our own mortality, and our fragility in the face of nature. This is not really a story, it is a vignette, but a very well-written one, and one of the few to ask the questions that this entire anthology is based around.

‘You in Your Small Corner, and I in Mine’ by Bob Lock – This could have been an excellent story. It really could have. The writing is solid, the concept is interesting, and it does a good job upturning one of the major horror tropes. All of this should add up to a truly interesting tale. So what went wrong?

I have two major issues with this story. First of all, there is a victim; it just happens to have the same issue as ‘The Cure’; does a victim still count as a victim if he was a bad person? Second of all, the story relies heavily on Christian mythology. Now, maybe it’s because I was raised Catholic, but I always find this deeply annoying. If it was just a question of invocation the sacred, no matter of what denomination, that would be one thing, but in this story it’s made explicitly clear that Christian mythology and devices are the only right way to deal with evil. Honestly, I find this rather offensive as well as irritating, and it seems a poor choice to close the anthology.

All in all, this is not a bad anthology, but nor is it destined to be one of the classics. The concept in and of itself asked some interesting questions; does horror have to be a victim? Does a character who chooses their own fate count as a victim? Do background characters still count as victims, or does it only count if something happens to the protagonist? I asked all of these questions and more when I opened this anthology, but I found that many of the stories failed in tackling these issues, instead choosing to fall back on having nothing at all happen (‘In Dreams, You’re Mine’), truly offensive tropes (‘Like Nothing Else’), or pure absurdity (‘The Yellow See-Through Baby’). With that said, however, the presence of some really excellent stories (‘Vent’, ‘The Cure’, ‘For Ages and Ever’) and some very intriguing explorations (‘Still Life’, ‘For Ages and Ever’, ‘Lord of Pigs’) still make this anthology worth a look. I’m glad this book is on my shelf, but also sorry that it didn’t delve deeper into the issues it claimed to be addressing.

No comments: