The strongest emotion we feel is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. I am paraphrasing H. P. Lovecraft, a founding father of American horror, who died in 1937, but this sentiment is very much relevant today. Fear. The gasp as your plane hits turbulence and drops; the creeping sensation as the front door squeaks open in the middle of the night; the shudder when you hear the dentist’s drill buzz — we all know fear in some form or another. Fear drives us to do things we might never have considered doing, or to become someone we didn’t plan to be. Fear forces us to choose between safety and risk. And this, of course, is the stuff of great fiction.
There is much to fear and lots of the unknown in Sarah Perry’s superb literary Gothic novels. “The Essex Serpent,” published last year, revolved around the existence of a monstrous water snake off the coast of East Anglia. It was a moody and mysterious book, one that felt like a cross between Wilkie Collins and the sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, with a little cryptozoology — the study of undocumented life-forms such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster — thrown in.
Perry’s new novel, MELMOTH (Custom House, $27.99), is another Gothic stunner, this time set in contemporary Prague. Perry has taken the Irish writer Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 horror novel “Melmoth the Wanderer” as a jumping-off point. The original Melmoth was a man who sold his soul for 150 years of additional life, and Maturin’s novel is often seen as 19th-century social and political commentary on the hardships the Irish experienced under English rule. Perry’s “Melmoth” is different in many respects, but achieves a similar effect: It is a scary novel that chills to the bone even as it points the way to a warmer, more humane, place.
Melmoth walks the earth, a lonely and cursed woman, bearing witness to human suffering. In her long black robes, she appears and disappears throughout history, offering solace at moments of agony: to the heretic about to burn on a pyre of greenwood, to the boy who betrayed a Jewish family to the Nazis, to a woman during a mercy killing in Manila. Melmoth sees all, and wants nothing more than to take the guilty in hand, so that they might wander at her side.
Bearing witness, watching, remembering — it is incredible how terrifying the simple act of seeing a crime can be. And, like a Brontë sister in a box at the opera, Perry observes the drama from an omniscient perch, examining her characters as if through a lorgnette. They are tortured and bereft, these suffering people, but seeing them matters. If Perry wants to say one thing it is: Look!
“Look! It is winter in Prague: Night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust swept there by a broom; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St. John of Nepomuk. Look!”
There is much to see. Perry has created a Prague that envelops the reader in a bath of sensation. There are hot meals in cafes, good wine poured, music in the air, the thrill of a secret manuscript in the fingers, jackdaws watching from fences. Plot moves concentrically, the stories like rings radiating from a drop of rain. There is no terrible secret or single horrifying deed. We know Melmoth and her intent from the beginning. Terror is not the point, nor is menace, exactly, although the novel offers both. The real horror of this novel is not the ghostly Melmoth at all, but the cruelty we human beings enact upon one another. How we betray and torture. How the innocent are persecuted without mercy. Melmoth, with her piercing gaze, is never far away, and that is scary enough.
While reading “Melmoth,” I was reminded of something Jordan Peele, who won an Oscar for his horror screenplay “Get Out,” said about storytelling: “When you entertain first, you can get at something socially profound or intellectual much easier.” By the end of “Melmoth,” you are left with a feeling that you have experienced something wholly entertaining, and that you have found humanity and compassion in the process.
I am a longtime admirer of Edward Carey’s fiction. I read his first novel, “Observatory Mansions,” when it was published in 2001 and liked it so much I tracked down his phone number and called him in England to tell him I was a fan. Facebook and Twitter have made such elaborate (and expensive) gestures obsolete, but I remain as impressed by his work now as I was then.
LITTLE (Riverhead, $27), Carey’s latest, is an eerie fictional memoir narrated by Marie Grosholtz, the girl who grew up to be Madame Tussaud of waxwork renown. Marie is short and odd looking, “a little exclamation. A little protest. A little insult. In any case, a little something.” Marie’s journey from an orphaned child in 18th-century Alsace, to the art tutor of Madame Élisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, and then on to becoming Madame Tussaud, the founder of the famous wax museum in London, is a fascinating story in itself. But Carey’s talent makes her journey a thing of wonder. Marie’s is a morbid tale, one that belongs — like James’s “The Turn of the Screw” — in the uncanny aisle of the horror supermarket. Carey has an eye for the ominous. Although I knew perfectly well that Madame Tussaud survives, I always felt sure that something awful would happen to Marie, that she would be dissected by the bizarre Dr. Curtius, who had body parts lying around his atelier, or beheaded during the French Revolution. That is Carey’s talent: Each page leaves you off kilter. Each chapter a little breathless.
For some readers of scary novels, “Little” may be a tad too whimsical. It is decidedly PG-rated. Although there is not a whole lot of white-knuckle terror happening, Marie’s life is nonetheless a grueling fight against adversity. And while it may leave die-hard horror fans wanting more frightening fare, the soft scare may be a good thing for those readers who prefer to read before bed and sleep without nightmares.
That cannot be said for the anthology THE BEST OF THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR: 10 Years of Essential Short Horror Fiction (Night Shade, paper, $17.99), edited by the venerable queen of horror anthologies Ellen Datlow. Here, we have all the expected perpetrators of terror — sinister psychopaths, killer plagues and malevolent birds — but without any of the dark and stormy clichés. The stories in this collection feel both classic and innovative, while never losing the primary ingredient of great horror writing: fear.
Datlow writes in her introduction that there are “zombies and vampires and serial killers and ghost stories and Lovecraftian horror herein,” but that these conventions of horror writing “are not worn out … as long as writers take a fresh look at them.”
And they do, bringing readers to very scary places in ways I haven’t experienced before. From escaping the Red Sweat in the south of France in Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea” to the surreal “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” by Brian Evenson, a two-page tale that raises goose bumps like an ice cube on skin, they are little machines of fright that pack a lot of emotion in a few pages.
There are excellent stories by old guard terror-ists like Neil Gaiman, Dan Chaon and Peter Straub, but my favorites are by women, a group underrepresented in the traditional horror arena. “Black and White Sky,” by the masterly Tanith Lee, is a brilliant story of an island-wide attack of magpies that cuts off England, Scotland and Wales from the rest of the world. As in Daphne du Maurier’s novella “The Birds” (later adapted by Hitchcock into the film of the same title), vicious magpies become so dense that water and crops and sunlight are reduced to nothing. “Feathers drop from the air as well, a thin drizzle of feathers, an autumn of feathers, always falling. Black as ink, white as snow, often sheened mysteriously, mystically blue.” Lee, who wrote over 90 novels and 300 short stories before her death in 2015, could not have foreseen Brexit. And yet, this story speaks more powerfully of the danger of isolationism than any political poll or newspaper I’ve read.
Another of my favorites was “Better You Believe,” by Carole Johnstone, a tightly written story of mountain climbers struggling to descend the south face of Annapurna. A blizzard hits and nature becomes the ruthless slayer that she is, picking off climbers one by one and sending them down into “the horror of all that silent blue dark.” While the story is about survival, it is also about female rivalry, the sacrifices we make for love and what it really means to come out on top. We know we are in big trouble when Sarah, the narrator, thinks: “Bad things are about to happen.” Bad things do happen. I won’t say what. You should read it and find out.
Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown is at the center of I AM BEHIND YOU (St. Martin’s, $28.99), the latest by the Swedish novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist. In this masterwork of speculative fiction, four families in a Swedish campground wake to find their caravans and cars have been relocated to an unknown location comprising a “vast expanse of grass, each blade just over three centimeters long.” There is no sun, no moon, no stars. The air is thick and heavy. There is no way to discern the direction they walk or their location on a GPS. Are they still in Sweden? Have they been taken by aliens to another planet? Fallen into another dimension? Nobody knows for sure why they have come there, or why they must hang around. They exist in an infinite field of unknowing.
As one might expect, throwing a group of people together under such conditions brings out the worst in them. They beat, shoot at, steal from and cheat one another. All the jealousy and anger pushed below the surface of their lives begins — when the pressure of their situation is applied — to ooze out over the landscape. It is a sad microcosm of society, you might say, one with all the predictable results.
But nothing is quite as predictable as it seems. We soon discover that there is a supernatural mechanism at work, a metaphysical machine that customizes life-changing visions for each person. A black tiger appears to Carina; a chalk-white creature with a “pure gaze” fills Isabelle with sorrow and longing; the Bloodman appears to Donald, driving him mad; an old man appears to Stefan and his son. These characters have all experienced crisis-inducing visions earlier in their lives. But now, these apparitions push them to understand something essential and life-altering about themselves. Such epiphanies render these unsavory characters much more interesting than they were at first glance. It is fun to watch them squirm. Their tendency toward violence, and their deplorable behavior, let me be vicariously violent and deplorable.
“I Am Behind You” is pre-eminently readable. The pacing and structure kept me turning the pages. And while I was intrigued by the premise, it was the sheer weirdness of the book, its insistence on subverting expectations at every turn, that made it so good. “I Am Behind You” is my favorite kind of novel — utterly unclassifiable. It resists genre. While it might be called horror, it is also a suspense novel, a fantasy novel and a character-driven exploration of the state of humanity in our time.
Lindqvist has been called the Stephen King of Sweden. I haven’t read his other books, and so I cannot make general claims, but this novel, with its descent into an alternate universe and its insistence that reality can shift onto a weird and metaphysical track, has more in common with Haruki Murakami. And like Murakami, Lindqvist has defined his own style and genre. It’s not horror. It’s Lindqvist.
In Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel DEVIL’S DAY (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), fear is generated not from being lost, but from going home. John Pentecost returns to the Endlands when his grandfather dies, bringing his pregnant wife, Kat. Unfortunately, the place is cursed. According to legend, the Devil arrived 100 years ago, disguised himself in a ewe’s fleece and infiltrated the land as “the maggot in the eye of the good dog, the cancer that rotted the ram’s gonads, the blood in the baby’s milk.” One feels the Devil everywhere, in the “blackness that unfolded in all directions.” The inhabitants of the Endlands dread the Devil’s return, and have instituted a yearly ritual called Devil’s Day to keep him at bay. But he is never far away. We feel him there, lurking, even as we discover that human treachery can keep pace with the Devil’s evil ways.
Hurley is a writer’s writer, his descriptions of landscape and character precise and evocative. “The moors … appear suddenly, too vast and wide to take in all at once, uncoupling from each ridge the eye comes to and drifting away. The land up there doesn’t roll so much as swell, like a sea frozen in its wildest uproar, full of deep troughs and dooming walls.” The Endlands are a character themselves, one with a gloomy disposition and a tendency to self-medicate.
The novel is narrated from John’s perspective. His voice is infused with the cadences of the local dialect, a style that is vibrant and melodic, yet just strange enough to throw me off balance from time to time. Such disorientation served a narrative purpose: I never felt fully comfortable in the novel. I was always left a little on edge, which is a good thing in a scary story.
Hurley’s ability to create unease, combined with his unquestionable talent, make “Devil’s Day” a standout horror novel as well as a piece of literary art. There were times, however, when I struggled to keep reading. The pacing was lackadaisical, and I found that Hurley relies too heavily on ambience and dialogue to move his story forward. I wanted more to happen. Scenes in which friends and family talk about events that occurred long ago abound, leaving the reader to reconstruct past drama rather than experience it. Hurley is a fine writer line by line, but I wanted more story. I wanted more Devil. I wanted him to have his day.
That said, “Devil’s Day” is as spooky as it gets. When you’ve finished, you will feel that the Devil is out there, waiting for the inhabitants of the Endlands. Maybe even for you.<