Wednesday, January 13, 2010

High-brow horror novels

When it comes to books and movies I'm something of a horror buff, but I'm rather finicky about what precisely, to me, constitutes good horror. Over the past year I've had the good fortune to stumble across some amazing horror fiction - the kind of stuff that is rightly considered world class literature first, horror fiction second. What follows is a brief summary of the top two highlights.

1. Yukio Mishima, "The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea"
(Vintage, 1994, 192 pages)

Mishima's stands out as one of the most beautifully crafted, as well as profundly frightening and disturbing tales I've ever read. The story centres on a 13 year old boy, Norobu, whose widowed mother begins a relationship with an idiosyncratic, sympathetic sailor. Influenced by "the chief", another boy his age who commands a group of like-minded boys with his eerie charisma, Norobu develops a nihilistic, creepily detached attitude which increasingly colours how he deals with his mother's new love. This leads to a shocking climax which is, in my opinion, among the best in fiction. What makes the novel so profoundly good is the convincing way in which Mishima crafts the boy and the sailor; those familiar with Mishima's other works, especially the more autobiographical "Confessions of a Mask", will recognize something of the author's own idiosyncrasies in both. Mishima's abiding obsessions with death and sex - one might say, with the real - turn an otherwise prosaic blend of coming of age story and mid-life crisis story into a vision of hell.

2. Cormac McCarthy, "Child of God" (Vintage, 1993, 208 pages)

Those who know McCarthy through the popular film "No Country for Old Men" will probably expect his fiction to be violent and terse. What they probably won't expect is the sheer extremity of the violence, and the fact that he delivers his tales in a lyrical, Faulknerian language that is practically unmatched. Moreover, the actual novel version of "No Country for Old Men" is arguably the least challenging of his works, and in this sense it is not representative. One should look elsewhere in his corpus to get a true measure of his aesthetic abilities; "Child of God", beautifully written and far less imposing than his masterpiece "Blood Meridian", is a good place to start. "Child of God" tells the story of Lester Ballard, a strange, dispossessed Tennessee man who slowly goes insane and resorts to murder and necrophelia. The tale is all the more chilling for the extent to which Ballard's descent is rendered plausible by his loneliness and material deprivation. McCarthy paints squallor and degradation with a loving attention to detail that makes his worlds as real as they are horrifying.

No comments: