Read This! Volume 1
New Horror Fiction You Should Know
When people ask how someone like me who spends so much time laughing and making jokes can spend so much time writing horror, I say that horror is where I work, not where I live. Putting my worst fears on paper and into other heads clears mine. Still, as a child it was my sanctuary, a safe place where nightmares always ended, where no matter what bad things existed there were rules to limit them. Sunlight and crosses for vampires, silver for werewolves, decapitation for zombies, freezing for the Blob . . . There was always a solution for any evil when I was young, an end to fear.
That’s changed in horror fiction and the world.
While I have mixed feelings about walking into a pitch-black room if I’m not sure what’s there, or if I can get out in one piece, I understand the impulse that drives writers to want to leave their readers in darkness. There is power in perdition, the thrill of the new, and humans are novelty addicts—but we also crave the comfort of the familiar. The theaters are filled with sequels and remakes of old movie favorites or new films from other mediums like novels and comics. Publishers prefer to release trilogies or book series, the better to retain buyers by giving them more of what they know and like. Even the new is familiar when examined closely. Logan is mostly Shane and Fury Road, the live action Ghost in the Shell the same premise as the remake of RoboCop. If as they say, there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them, all are inevitably built on literary foundations laid by dead writers who came before us, especially in genre fiction. Whether each generation reveres or reviles that work it is where we start from, consciously or unconsciously. Dead writers shape us, even if only in our rejection of their principles.
Powers of Darkness: The Lost Version of Dracula
Bram Stoker (author)
Valdimar Ásmundsson (author) / Hans Corneel De Roos (translator)
Hardcover / Ebook
The Overlook Press
One of the most enduring and repeated stories in horror is that of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in films, short stories, and novels. The tragedy is that an unfortunate administrative error by Stoker meant that the novel ended up in the public domain in the United States and most of the world. His family, which saw only modest success from the popular novel in Stoker’s lifetime, lost potential millions while countless movie versions of the Count’s story flooded the planet. As film producers rushed to exploit him for free, they turned Dracula into one of the world’s most recognized monsters.
My first encounter with him was in movie marathons I watched as a kid on New York’s Creature Features and Chiller Theater, in trashier B movies like Son of Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, or Billy The Kid Meets Dracula, before I saw the original Tod Browning classic with Bela Lugosi. In time I found Nosferatu, The Fearless Vampire Killers and all the rest, then realized a few years ago that I’d never read the original novel.
I bought Leonard Wolf’s The Annotated Dracula and was delighted to find that it still seemed contemporary in its epistolary format, told in snippets of diary entries, letters, telegrams, newspapers, train schedules . . . It is still one of my favorites. One of Stoker’s most astonishing accomplishments was to create a wholly unforgettable character from a pastiche of descriptions by others. Even in the Scandinavian translation, he’s still seen that way. We’re never inside Dracula’s head the way we inhabit Harker’s. He is always an outsider: remote, inaccessible.
Powers of Darkness is a sidetrack to the original novel, translated and serialized by the highly respected Scandinavian author Valdimar Ásmundsson in his magazine before its book publication there in 1901. The full story of how and why is detailed in the lengthy introductions by Stoker grandson Dacre Stoker and English translator Hans Corneel de Roos. They provide biographical background on the similar lives of the two authors along with the history of each version of Dracula. There are also several pages of diagrams breaking down the layout of Castle Dracula and the rooms where the story takes place, which I thought a bit unnecessary, but for the Dracula scholar or completist, entirely engaging.
The changes to the story are considered to be collaboration between Stoker and Ásmundsson rather than a mistranslation or random re-editing; a mutual exploration of an alternate telling of the same tale with significant shifts in tone and focus. One of the most interesting is seeing Dracula as more than just weakening London’s health with a plague to conceal his vampirism, but as a threat to the body politic of Europe.
The disease metaphor in Dracula gives way to a vaster conspiracy in Powers of Darkness, conducted by post and messenger. The Count’s goal is not merely to establish fresh feeding grounds, but to spread his evil influence across the continent, uniting with like-minded members of the upper classes with enough wealth and influence to realize the Count’s desire to rule. Deep in the cellars of the Transylvanian castle Harker spies on cult meetings with presumably virgin human sacrifices, sees them again in London, where Dracula is always surrounded by seductive women with the literal power to drive men mad, made more powerful by the vampire’s influence. This is a Dracula with plans for world domination that rival those of a Bond villain.
The other biggest change is in the structure of the novel.
Harker’s (now Thomas instead of Jonathan) time in the castle is greatly expanded and introduces an alluring new character, a solitary wife for Dracula instead of the traditional three, nameless, but with a much more interesting history and increased role. When told of Harker’s first meeting with her, Dracula dismisses the beautiful girl as a mad niece who imagines she is one of his ancestors, dressing and grooming to match an ancient portrait in his family gallery. He casually tells a horrific story about that woman’s life and death as if these things occur in all families. It’s clear to us, and soon to Harker, that it all happened to Dracula, not an ancestor, and that the mad niece is really his undead wife who he walled up alive to die with her lover before her revival.
The oddest change is in the massive reduction of the London portion of the original novel, here cut down to almost an outline. We go from Harker’s voice, much like that of the original, to an omniscient narrator who tears through events after Dracula arrives in London to assume the guise of Baron Székely. As in the original, Harker’s wife, now Wilma instead of Mina, loses her friend Lucia/Lucy to the vampire, and while teamed with Van Helsing to find out what really happened in Transylvania, discovers her husband, his mind nearly gone, as in the original.
Wilma, like Mina, is a no-nonsense modern woman who takes matters into her own hands, and I have always loved her rescue of her husband in both versions, as they then team up to beat the devil. Here, he’s cornered in London and the entire chase back to Castle Dracula after him is averted, an improvement to me. What is less so was the rushed, stripped down narrative style it’s told in, with more lyrical passages from the original cited in footnotes sharply reminding you of the contrast. It resembles a movie treatment more than literary prose and suggests that the Scandinavian translator was working from simpler early drafts sent by Stoker, not as entirely thought out or developed as his own edition.
It makes the work no less fascinating a read.
The Night Ocean
Paul La Farge
Hardcover / Ebook
While Powers of Darkness is interesting even if only as additional insight into an enduring work, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is a deeper more measured exploration of human essence and what makes us who we are. It’s a perverse puzzle box of a book that changes form with different speakers, constantly folding reality in on itself to spin a grim tale of a vanished husband thought dead by suicide, kept alive by his wife Marina’s hope that, like Mina, her search for what happened will ultimately lead her to him, or him back to her.
Vladimir Nabakov is cited near the end for his use of the unreliable narrator in novels like Lolita, and it is a sly admission of what’s been done to the reader by then. As The Night Ocean revealed itself, I was reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati trilogy, where each volume negates the complex mythology of the last, as well as August Maupin’s The Night Listener, a fictionalized account of his long term communication with a teenage writer with AIDS who may or may not have existed, and JT LeRoy, published then debunked as a fictitious invention explained away by his creator as performance art, not fraud. A lawsuit verdict disagreed.
Six Degrees of Separation and the TV spin-off of the movie Catfish are more examples of how easily anyone can weave a convincing lie of a life from the thinnest of threads. It is fertile and fearful ground to explore, and speculation into Lovecraft’s enigmatic life provides ample material to build a conspiracy of secrecy with the right tone.
To review the book without giving away its layers of deception is difficult. It is a masterpiece of misdirection, in increasingly insidious ways that make each reveal more shocking than the last, the heart of what the book is about. It’s as much about the nature of reality as the fluidity of truth. We too often trust what we want to, it says, and dig only as deep as we need to prove what we believe, stopping before any real truth can be revealed to tell us we are wrong.
It’s very much in the structural style of H.P. Lovecraft, opening with our narrator, Marina, relating the loss of her husband David, who dug too deeply into the unknown to survive unscathed. Lovecraft’s loftier linguistic trappings are saved for a text supposedly by him, the Erotonomicon, which uses code for homosexual acts drawn from the names of unspeakable beings in his fiction. The author’s rampant racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia are discussed in depth throughout by David, who’s biracial, with an academic black father who had a rise and fall that David virtually replicates in his own end.
We move from first person accounts to transcripts of interviews conducted by him, later by Marina herself, clips from TV shows, pages from the fraudulent journal, in an epistolary form much like Dracula. It all falls well within the Lovecraft canon. The only thing missing is one of the many-tentacled shambling beasties with which Lovecraft concludes most of his stories, monstrous myths always proven to be true—to his hero’s mounting horror . . . !
Instead we’re given a much more terrible human monster, every bit as malevolent and malleable as Dracula. Just as the Count grows younger as he prepares for his journey, seeming to shed his old skin as he drops his name in London to become the Baron Székely, when he’s cornered, Marina’s target discards his initial guise, only to expose another even more duplicitous face.
The implication is that our monsters reinvent themselves to hook us and keep us hooked. Dracula reads up on England to better know his new land, refines his accent with Harker to blend like a native into the fog. L.C. Spinks researches H.P. Lovecraft, the Holocaust, military, Mexico, William S. Burroughs, the science-fiction community, anything and anyone else he needs to create his fictions. Evil does its homework. Its passing grade is our belief.
The novel ends with an ambiguous gasp of pain and recognition as grasping tentacles finally arrive, even if not the kind expected. We’re left with the haunting fear that Marina can’t ever recover David, even if she finds him.
Except that the message seems larger than that.
Both LaFarge and Stoker seem to tell us that we can’t truly know anyone, even those we love; that we are all only who we say we are or what others wish us to be. The dangers of false identity that we’ve begun to realize in the age of social media as people reveal themselves only in tweets and Instagrams is a profound reality that’s always been there, merely heightened by a modern age when our social shorthand makes us easier to fool.
In words attributed to Jean Giraudoux, George Burns, or Groucho Marx, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” Our basic desire is to believe what is in front of us and to look no further, which the monsters of each novel can and do use against us. The lesson of both books may be that we are only affect and opinion, that there is no real self, only the representation of self, what the Buddhists would call “view.” To twist Gertrude Stein’s original meaning, “There is no there there . . .”
And for some, that may be the greatest horror of all.
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