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Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more

12 April 2018

There were only three of us at our literary coffee klatsch this morning, delayed because of Holy Weeks (Western and Eastern), and there hadn’t been much time for reading. But over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit about Horror as a literary genre | Khanya. Click on that link to see my review of Horror by Mark Jancovich, which was not very impressive.

Slightly better was

The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of HorrorThe Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror by David J. Skal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

but it was not better by much.

The main emphasis was on films and rather than books, and potted biographies of the actors in B-grade horror films, with the emphasis on a German film called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The film inspired xenophobic protests in America, as it was foreign, and people thought cinemas should support the native film industry, nevertheless it seems to have inspired a spate of horror films that followed.

And to make up a trilogy, I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre: the anatomy of horror, which I first read 20 years ago. King describes three levels of horror story, where the author aims at

  1. Terror (terrify the reader)
  2. Horror (horrify the reader)
  3. Revulsion (the gross out)

King sees them as a progression, as differences of degree, rather than of kind. As an example of the first, he gives the story of The Monkey’s Paw. I would say it is an example of horror rather than of terror. I encountered it at the age of 8, when our class at Fairmount School in Johannesburg attended a drama evening at the nearby Orange Grove Primary School. I have no recollection of the rest of the programme, but The Monkey’s Paw was vivid in my memory. It did not terrify me, but it did horrify me.

At home we had a collection of short stories edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, Mystery, Horror. I largely ignored the detection and mystery sections, but was hooked on the horror stories, the best of which, to my mind, was The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood.

I don’t count the “gross out” as “horror” at all — and that includes the “slasher” movies like Silence of the Lambs. They differ not merely in degree, but in kind, from true horror stories, like The Monkey’s Paw and The Wendigo.

The Monster Show seems to regard monsters as an important feature of the horror genre, but what is a monster? Reading these books, one would think that monsters are, in the first place, deformed, disfigured or mutilated human beings, the freaks from the circus side shows., the most alarming of which, according to King, and only shown to the select few rather the the general public, is the Geek.

By that definition Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings must be included in the horror genre, as it includes monsters like balrogs, orcs and Shelob. Orcs are deliberately deformed and disfigured elves, and even Gollum is a deformed and mutilated hobbit.

David Levey commented that most of the science fiction he enjoyed was published in the 1970s or earlier, and he had very little in the next 30 years. I had experienced something similar. I thought it was just me — I enjoyed SF most in my teens and early 20s, and perhaps that was the age it most appealed to, though I enjoyed rereading some of the better books I had enjoyed then, but even them, reading them again after several decades, they weren’t as good as I remembered them. Examples of these were Huxley’s Brave new world and George Stewart’s Earth abides (though A canticle for Leibowitz still seemed as good as when I first read it.

David said that this might be because books are now written to a formula. All the books on how to write told would-be writers how they must write their stories — grab your reader in the first paragraph, end your chapter with a cliff hanger and so on. And publisher’s readers probably used the same criteria, which means they sometimes rejected books that were very popular when they eventually were published, like the Harry Potter series.

I recalled challenging a group of Charles Williams fans to write a novel in the style of Charles Williams during NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). In the end I was the only one who took up my challenge, and one person who critiqued it said there was too much backstory in the first chapter — I didn’t start in media res, as all the how-to books prescribed. I don’t think she had read much Charles Williams.

Yes, his War in Heaven does begin with one of the most attention-grabbing opening lines in English novels: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” But his The place of the lion has a much more gradual beginning. Val recalled as another attention-grabbing first line A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood: “When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.”

On the other hand, I recently re-read one of the first Enid Blyton books I ever read (at the age of 9 or 10), The Mountain of Adventure. I loved it. It was 160 pages, and the actual adventure did not begin until halfway through, about page 80 (my review here).

I suspect that one reason for the success of the Harry Potter books is that, like science fiction, kidlit had been in the doldrums for a couple of decades. In the Sixties there were authors like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner and several others. But in the 1980s and 1990s I browsed the children’s books shelves in the book shops and all I could find was Goosebumps. Eventually I bought one, to see what the younger generation was reading and, as I suspected, it was dreck.

After that, Harry Potter was like an oasis in the desert.

And Val and I both recommended to David that he read some early books by Phil Rickman, the ones before Merrily Watkins, the diocesan deliverance consultant, turns into Mother Brown, the clerical supersleuth.

Ones we recommended were Candlenight, Crybbe, and The Chalice.

For more on Phil Rickman, see here.

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