Necon E-Books, the publisher of my 2012 collection Still Life: Nine Stories — as well as many other fine e-books by Charles Grant, Ramsey Campbell, Christopher Golden, and more — has given its website a snazzy new look! Check it out!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fans of Cronenberg’s films will find many of his signature traits on display in his debut novel: a fetishistic obsession with technology (every electronic device mentioned in the novel is given its full model name and a rundown of its capabilities), a fascination with insects, a coldly dispassionate demeanor, and plenty of psychosexual kink. Unfortunately, where a dispassionate demeanor can set the tone of a film perfectly, it doesn’t work as well in a novel, making it very difficult to engage with the characters. It is to Cronenberg’s credit that the characters remain interesting even from a distance, but while the cannibalistic murder-mystery at the heart of the novel is compelling, when your story is this twisty and opaque you really need to nail the ending. Alas, in my opinion Cronenberg doesn’t. The novel ends too abruptly, which left this reader wondering what was happening. Perhaps that was Cronenberg’s intent, but as intriguing as the plot’s labyrinthine turns were, I was hoping for at least a moment of revelation to bring it all together. Still, I’m giving this one four stars because it held my undivided attention all the way through and even a lesser Cronenberg project is still something worth experiencing.
Welcome to a special new installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, please review the guidelines here.)
This is quite a distinguished week for The Scariest Part, because this time we’re spotlighting not one but two authors! (Click here to see F. Paul Wilson’s Scariest Part from yesterday.) I’m very excited to have John Goodrich as my guest today. He’s been a friend of mine for several years now, and I couldn’t be prouder to feature his long-awaited debut novel, Hag, which includes an introduction by esteemed, multiaward-winning horror author Laird Barron. Hag goes on sale today as part of Thunderstorm Books’ Maelstrom V three-book collector’s series, along with two new books by World Horror Convention Grandmaster Brian Keene. Here is the publisher’s description:
All David wanted was to rest and get better. He moved from Vermont to Boston to beat his cancer. Even before the boxes are unpacked, he and his best friend Sam notice an eerie presence in his new apartment building. The emaciated haunt is a roiling storm of fury with black iron claws and jagged metal teeth. She attacks David without reason or pity, and just when he thinks he knows her limits, she tears through them. Hag is a dark, brooding novel set in a blighted personal landscape. A story of deathless rage and enduring hatred.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for John Goodrich:
I want to tell you a little secret. Although my debut novel is a ghost story, I don’t really like ghost stories.
Before I started Hag, the novel that’s about to be published, I wrote a fantasy novel that I loved to pieces. I couldn’t get agents or publishers interested in it. That hurt. I loved my book. Still do. Someday someone will buy it. But it’s insanity to write a sequel to a book that hasn’t sold, so I decided to write something different, something I wouldn’t love quite so much. After some thought, I decided to write a ghost story.
The ghost story is the prototypical horror story, and humans have been telling them for thousands of years. Thanks to cultural saturation, ghosts are no longer automatically scary. Casper is a friendly ghost. A ghost mascot flogs breakfast cereal. So I knew I would have to add my own spice to make the story effective horror. Given how often the ground has been trod and retrod, I would also have to come up with something unconventional to make it stand out.
Looking for that new something, I read up on the classics: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Matheson’s Hell House, Elizabeth Massie’s Homeplace (there’s a reason Hag begins with an H). I fell in love with these stories. They’re complex and brilliant, transcending the cliched sheeted phantom clanking its chains. These ghosts had agendas, personalities, and needs.
I decided to load my ghost with some unfinished business. This would give her depth of character, and provide the protagonists with a mystery to solve, rather then just standing around being terrified. So what kind of unfinished business make a story horror, rather than a mystery?
Some recent stories have altered their emotional hook from an existential fear of death to a naked fear of dying in pain. We read about people who die every day. Murders, accidents, and cancer all claim lives. But every now and then, we hear whispers of someone who did not pass away peacefully, surrounded by their family. The elderly woman who breaks her hip after falling on the kitchen floor, lying in helpless, blinding pain for three days before dying of dehydration. The child manacled to a brick wall, slowly dying of thirst and loneliness. The infected patient, fighting with all their strength, losing a little bit each day, organs failing one by one, painfully dragged toward the inevitable end. The terror of such cruel deaths is both heartbreaking and horrifying. Thus, the perfect thing to make my ghost violent and at the same time, understandable.
How far should I go? How far could I go? It had to be good. The ghost’s story was going to be the emotional center of the novel. If I made the character’s suffering weak, the story loses its driving force and credibility. On the flip side, did I really have the nerve to write the excruciating death of Chibuike, a character I had invented and cared about?
This was the scariest part. Most of my short stories have been Lovecraftian, cosmic horror, rather than anything about pain or physical suffering. I didn’t know if I could write a long, torturous death. I was afraid, and the fear of writing that chapter haunted me until I had to write it. To prepare I read Jack Ketchum’s merciless Off Season and The Girl Next Door. Ketchum is merciless but dispassionate in his description of atrocities. I would have to not tell the reader how to feel about awful things happening to Chibuike, even as I described them. I wrote an entire chapter describing the agonizing demise, imagining the horror consuming her as she clawed at her chains, groped for a light in the darkness, watched all light and hope be slowly, cruelly extinguished. It was an exhausting two weeks.
My work paid off. In his introduction to Hag, Laird Barron writes, “Chibuike’s anguish is most acutely felt for she reflects the very savagery and malice that tore her from hearth and home, peeled away her humanity, and snuffed her life. She cries the loudest and repays hurt with hurt.”
That’s what horror is about. Facing fear and seeing if it kills me.
John Goodrich lives in the haunted Green Mountains of Vermont, the last refuge of true Lovecraft country. His stories have been included in Steampunk Cthulhu, Dark Rites of Cthulhu, Undead and Unbound, and the Lovecraft E-Zine. Hag is his first published novel. He has spent the last year and a half writing about kaiju films on his blog. His other unhealthy obsessions include biplanes, Icelandic sagas, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, and semiotics.
Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, please review the guidelines here.)
I’m especially happy to have New York Times bestselling author F. Paul Wilson as my guest because I’ve known Paul for nearly fifteen years now and am delighted to call him a friend. He also happens to be one of those most talented, prolific, and accomplished authors I know. His latest novel, Fear City, features one of his most popular and enduring characters, Repairman Jack, in the final novel of the Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy. Here is the publisher’s description:
Rage, terror, and redemption: these are the stones upon which F. Paul Wilson builds the concluding chapter of Repairman Jack: The Early Years, the prequel trilogy focusing on the formative years of Wilson’s globally popular supernatural troubleshooter.
The strands of Jack’s life, established in the first two books, Cold City and Dark City, are now woven into a complete pattern.
Centered around an obscure group of malcontents intent on creating a terrible explosion in New York City in 1993, Fear City shows the final stages of young Jack becoming Repairman Jack. It is a dark and terrible story, full of plots and needless mayhem, with secret agents, a freelance torturer, a secret society as old as human history, love, death, and a very bleak triumph. Jack threads his way through this intricate maze, as people he loves are stripped away from him in a way that presages the later epic series of novels.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for F. Paul Wilson:
When the copyedited manuscript of Fear City arrived from the publisher six moths ago, I set about fine-combing the text. My copyeditor for the last dozen-plus years, Rebecca Maines, had done her usual excellent job of flagging inconsistencies and typos and the occasional verbless sentence. I always take extra time at this stage because it’s my last chance to sharpen dialog, hone descriptions, and make cuts before the book is typeset.
Things went smoothly until I came to Dr. Moreau.
Yeah, Dr. Moreau. I couldn’t resist naming a torturer known to all the clandestine services and organizations as La Chirurgienne after H.G. Wells’s vivisectionist. It seemed…right.
You have to realize it had been months since I’d sent off the manuscript and she’d kind of faded from my consciousness. But as I reread her passages, I kept thinking, What dark corner of my hindbrain did I plumb to find this woman?
The clichéd template of the torturer is Szell from Marathon Man. Adèle Moreau, on the other hand, is a cultured, rather brittle French woman with a thick accent. She was trained as a surgeon but developed a sideline of hiring out to extract information from people who don’t wish to part with it. She doesn’t think of herself as a torturer or a sadist, but rather a pain researcher — a “nociresearcher,” to use her term — and sees her interrogations as opportunities for scientific research.
She maintains a certain decorum about her work — e.g., she likes her subjects fully clothed.
“I find proximity to a naked human, how shall we say, distasteful. I can cut away to expose whatever area I wish to explore.”
That “explore” got me — and it came from me. Her specialty is the delicate, minimally invasive procedure.
“I abhor brutality—the fists, the truncheons, the waterboarding. And the mutilation of genitalia — dégoûtant! So crude. So unnecessary.”
Charlot, her pet Yorkie, stays in her procedure room when she operates and she occasionally feed him scraps.
What I found most disquieting on the reread was that I had no memory of sitting down and designing this lady from hell. Perhaps I’ve been turning stereotypes on their heads so long it simply came naturally. If the cliché is an ex-Nazi or an Albanian thug, I’ll use a genteel professional — a female instead of a male — and give her a French accent, evoking the culture that gave us the Impressionists. Think Monet’s lilies…floating on blood.
Maybe that’s all it was…unconscious habit. I took comfort in that.
But then I came to her specialty, known as “IV,” and all comfort vanished. “IV” stands for “Infernum Viventes,” Latin for “Living Hell.” It is, I would say, the nastiest, most diabolically evil thing you can do to a human being. I have no idea where IV came from. Perhaps it exists somewhere in fiction or real life, but I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it. So I’ve got nothing to blame for it except my own id. And that’s scary.
The key word is “Living.” Because in our society, we would not let someone die after they have suffered this procedure. We will keep them alive for as long as modern medical science allows. Prolonging life…it’s what we do.
But if you’re the victim, the only thing you’d request — plead for if you could communicate — is death.
What is IV? Well, that would be a spoiler. And I don’t want to spoil one of Fear City’s centerpieces for you.
F. Paul Wilson, the New York Times bestselling author of the Repairman Jack novels, lives in Wall, New Jersey. In 2008, he won the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.