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Old July 1 2008, 08:58 PM   #140
Brendan Moody
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Re: Let's Talk About Horror Fiction

In the past couple weeks I've finally been reading some horror that I haven't already mentioned in this thread.

I read Stephen King's latest, Duma Key, a couple weeks ago. Here's the review I posted on my LiveJournal:

Stephen King is something of an albatross for certain devotees of horror fiction; his willingness to be crude offends those for whom horror should only be about subtler terrors, and his success stymies those who fetishize the marginality of the genre. But I've always admired King's work. As with most prolific writers, the quality of his output is variable. He has a weakness for bloated prose and excessively colorful characters. But the best of his horror stories are genuinely terrifying masterworks of the form, and over the years he's demonstrated a real capacity for emotional range and insight. His 2006 novel Lisey's Story, perhaps his best book to date, was a meditation on the power of marriage and on the line between genius and madness, showing the dangerous otherworld to which a bestselling writer goes for inspiration. And here now is Duma Key, another novel concerned with art and its power for both good and evil.

Edgar Freemantle was a very successful Minnesota contractor until he lost his right arm in an accident with a crane. Moving to a remote Florida island after the breakup of his marriage, Freemantle begins to experiment with painting as a way of keeping himself from despair. The resulting art is good, in fact astonishingly so. But why does Freemantle's missing arm seem to tingle? Why does the elderly woman who lives nearby think his work might be dangerous? And what long-buried secret is Duma Key hiding?

You will perhaps have gotten the sense from all this that Duma Key is a pretty traditional horror story, and you're right. It's ultimately one of its author's minor works, albeit a well-crafted and frequently one. At over six hundred pages, longtime readers of King may fear his trademark bloat, but if it's present here it's only barely so. It's true that not much happens in the first two hundred pages, but King uses that space to set up his characters and offer the subtle hints of encroaching evil that define any good horror story. Unfortunately, the characters in question are not among King's best. The portrayal of Freemantle's recovery from his accident is effective-- that pernicious master, biographical criticism, suggests that King's own road back from his 1999 car accident-- but there's not much else going on in his life. His neighbor, Elizabeth Eastlake, is battling Alzheimer's, and while her struggle is presented with some degree of pathos she's not well-drawn enough for it to resonate much; instead it feels vaguely manipulative, like a bad movie of the week. Her caretaker, Wireman, is another of King's excessively "clever" characters who overload us with their tedious sayings and homespun wisdom. No one ever quite springs to life.

The horror elements are strong, though. King has never been a great prose stylist, but his eye for disturbing imagery and his control of pace more than make up for this deficit. The malevolent force that's behind it all is explored but never really explained, and that's all to the good: it is more potent as a mysterious evil than it would be if wrapped up in some of King's clunky, quasi-philosophical world-building. (I'm thinking here of books like It, Insomnia, and From a Buick Eight, all of which I do like.) The supernaturalism is generally quite minimal, as it happens; the antagonist tends to act through human agents, which provide a nice counter to its noncorporeal presence. I can't say that Duma Key is a terrifying novel, but it's genuinely unsettling at times, and that's enough for me.

As with Lisey's Story, the novel's metaphorical treatment of the power of art is rather transparent. Unlike with Lisey's Story, however, the insubstantial characters diminish the impact of the metaphor by separating it from human realities. The earlier novel works because Lisey and Scott Landon are well-drawn enough that one believes in their struggle to strike a balance between Scott's talent and the darkness from which it derives. And Duma Key falls flat because it's hard to care about the double-edged sword of Freemantle's art. Another problem is one that often strikes when writing about characters who discover their talent-- there's a sickly-sweet feel that's hard to get past. Whenever Edgar shows his paintings to someone, he expects to be laughed at, but instead the audience thinks that they're awesome, and that he's awesome, and that life in general is awesome. It's all so deathly earnest and nice that I start looking for a basin. (There's a similar problem with the characters of King's novella "The Colorado Kid.") The reader knows that Edgar's paintings are going to be wonderful, so going through the farce of pretending they might not be approved of is tedious.

Duma Key fails as a character story and as a meditation on art, but as low-ambition, traditional horror, it's fairly successful; certainly it's more carefully-crafted than a lot of horror fiction out there. Once you've finished the book it'll probably slip easily out of your mind without making much of an impression, but over the course of the six hundred pages it's a fun ride.
I picked up the omnibus of the first three volumes of Clive Barker's Books of Blood short story collections from the library. So far I've made it through the stories in the first volume, and I'm not sure whether I'll continue. Barker's a great prose stylist with a wild imagination, but his style of horror is one I don't have a whole lot of sympathy. I find myself getting caught in the language and rocketing through a story, only to reach the end and find myself disappointed in the content. I feel sort of guilty about not being motivated to finish something that is so obviously good, but I don't generally force myself to read things either. Anyway, it's obvious from this book alone why Barker is so widely appreciated, and anyone looking for something new in horror should give it a look.

Now I'm reading Peter Straub's Ghost Story. I haven't read much Straub because I've never gotten the impression there was much substance to his work (though I did think The Talisman and Black House, his collaborations with Stephen King, were entertaining), but I heard good things about Ghost Story somewhere, so I'm giving it a whirl. I'm only about fifty pages in, and not much has happened so far. I don't mind a slow, subtle approach to the evocation of horror-- I'm a fan of Ramsey Campbell, after all-- but there isn't even any evocation so far, just an occasional vague hint.

It's not horror by strict definitions, but I also read Shirley Jackson's collection The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris. Jackson's mastery of social unease and the sense of tilting reality makes her stories feel like horror fiction even when they deal with something as mundane as new neighbors or an ill-behaved dog. I plan to read more of her work; it's been years since I read The Haunting of Hill House, so I may also give that another go.
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