Since I spent so much time judging the various authors I read this month I figured I should give some awards. These awards are based solely on my first impressions of the book I read, although some perspective on the author from other sources necessarily shows up uninvited. I’ve decided to exempt Edgar Allan Poe, since (1) it was by far the largest body of material that I read, and (2) his writing is so imminent to all writing in the horror genre it really wouldn’t be fair or possible to compare him with the others. I have allowed authors to win multiple awards because, hey, if you’re the best you’re the best.
Now, without further ado, the awards:
CREEPIEST: The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
Another name for this category might be ‘Most Unheimlich‘. Ligotti undoubtedly captures that alien otherness of dreams, that unsettling sensation that gets under your skin and inside your skull and grows there like some unbidden mold. I’m pretty inured to the effects of horror after years of exposure, but the night after I read this book I had nightmares about it. Particularly notable was “The Red Tower”…
SCARIEST: Collected Stories, by M.R. James
The scary is the opposite of the creepy; it’s the face that jumps out at you from the dark. I chose James on the basis of the fact that more than any other author, his writing had me looking up at darkened windows while I was reading. Honorable mentions here are Daphne du Maurier and Clark Ashton Smith, particularly Smith’s story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”…
MOST HORRIFYING: By Bizarre Hands, by Joe R. Lansdale
Sometimes horror isn’t out to focus on fear or dread; sometimes it wants disgust and revulsion. An off-maligned element of the genre, it’s also vitally important. Lansdale makes us aware of the truly disgusting, both in our culture and in our own selves. Honorable mentions here are Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker; it’s clear that this is the domain of the ‘splatterpunk’ subgenre. Also worth checking out are King and, in particular, Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Martyrdom”…
MOST WELL-WRITTEN: The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
There was a wide range of writing skills on display this month, but it was pretty clear that a few authors were a cut above the rest. Elizabeth Gaskell, Joyce Carol Oates, Ambrose Bierce, Italo Calvino, and Daphne du Maurier were all a great pleasure to read, but Ligotti pulls ahead by writing in a manner that is both incredibly talented and perfectly fused to the concept of horror. That said, in this genre there’s also a place for purple prose, and there are some fantastic examples from Clark Ashton Smith and Poppy Z. Brite, particularly Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves”…
FUNNIEST: Beasts and Super-Beasts, by Saki
This was a surprise for me. I hadn’t planned this category, but after all the readings it seemed clear to me that it was needed. There is a place in horror for a special kind of comedy, comedy that makes us aware of our mortality and bestiality, and Saki does this with a subtle touch. Also notable here are Ambrose Bierce and Italo Calvino, particularly his titular “Numbers in the Dark”…
WORST: Scared Stiff, by Ramsey Campbell
I enjoyed a lot of the readings this month, but there were a few that horrified me in the wrong way, and among these the worst was Campbell’s clumsy efforts to combine eroticism and horror. Cardboard characters, tired, sexist clichés, and uninspired writing made this collection a pain to slog through. Although Chambers’ The King in Yellow was in some ways more poorly written, it at least captured my interest, as did other pulpy authors like Robert E. Howard, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. A runner-up here is Neil Gaiman, since about half the stories in the collection are atrociously bad; but on the flip side, half are acceptable or even quite good.
MOST UNEXPECTED: Gothic Tales, by Elizabeth Gaskell
I hadn’t read many of these authors before, but for many of them I had expectations, which were generally fulfilled. Sure, Ligotti was amazing, but I had suspicion that he would be, which was why I put him at the end of the month. Gaskell, though, was nothing more than a name that had popped up on a number of lists and therefore a book I had bought, and I was honestly expecting a sort of lesser Dickens or Henry James, a writer perhaps of competent but bland ghost stories. And while I must admit that the actual horror elements of her writing are none too impressive, the writing itself shocked me with its quality. This book has singlehandedly ignited in me an interest in social realist fiction, which I had always before thought tedious. To talk about the honorable mentions here would take a while since each was unexpected for different reasons, but Poppy Z. Brite, Ambrose Bierce, and Daphne du Maurier stand out, particularly her story “Monte Verité”…
Well, this was a lot of reading for one month, that’s for sure. It’s always difficult to gauge how long it will take to read something, as it depends on number of pages, typography, book size, font size, and, most of all, the writer’s style. Still, I did manage to get all the reading done by the assigned days, and to put up a review on every weekday, so that’s something.
This was really my first time doing a concerted reading of short stories, since I tend to prefer reading novels. It was an interesting experience. The short story is maybe not the best format for speed reading; often after finishing one I have to take a little break before starting the next in order to clear out all the impressions in my head. These stories also vary incredibly widely in terms of length, from a single page to well over a hundred; a few of these could have been published as independent novellas. One thing I noticed is that variation in style didn’t seem to be so much a product of size as of authorial decision, which to me seems to put the lie to the whole idea of distinguishing cleanly between, say, flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels. There were a lot of first-person narratives, and these were more likely to lapse into ruminations on the state of existence, or particularly on the nature of fear. I have read a tremendous number of ruminations on the experience of fear and I’m not sure they would have taught me anything had I not already experienced it plenty in life; as such, what I mainly learned about was the effort to write about fear, and the way that people try to talk about trauma.
One thing that surprised me is that I did not get sick of horror stories. I was fairly certain, going into the month, that by the end of it I would be begging to not read another horror story for a long time, but actually I’m just excited, and looking forward to in the future reading more of certain authors, especially Ligotti, and to reading some of the new authors I’ve heard about but haven’t had a chance to read yet.
I don’t know how much my understanding of horror as a genre has grown; it’s hard to gauge something like that. Still, I am definitely more aware of what’s going on in horror literature, and how it makes itself distinct from horror film. There are definite trends and traditions apart from what happens in film, and hopefully these will continue to grow, with authors like Thomas Ligotti opening up the possibilities of the literary medium.
And that’s it, the end of Shocktober! It’s been a long and difficult trip, but I suppose I’ll do something reasonable now, like not trying to read a book a day for a whole month, right?
Well, that might be hard, since the reading I’ve got lined up for November looks like this:
Still, I won’t be writing a nightly review, thank God. This was an experiment in blogging, and I think I should consider it a pseudo-success, since I didn’t get to spend as much time with each analysis as I wanted to. At some point in the future, I’m probably going to take a day to go back and read through / edit all of these posts, because I know some typos, errors, and stupid statements crept in there. On the other hand, I learned a lot about horror, got to read a lot of great stories (and a few bad ones), and hopefully helped people to discover some new authors for themselves.
Starting next week, I’m planning on having an article out every week, usually on Friday nights. They might be reviews like you’ve seen so far, or opinion pieces, or writing experiments, or just about anything. I guarantee that they’ll be better thought-out and better edited than this month has been.
Copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.