Read This! Volume 16
New Horror Fiction You Should Know
In horror fiction, science is often as much the problem as it is the solution. A growing distrust of science has only increased in the last four years. The distribution of Covid vaccine has been slowed by those unwilling to take it because of paranoid theories straight out of Utopia, a 2013 BBC sci-fi/horror series recently remade for America by Amazon Prime.
Popular stories, novels, movies, and TV shows all warn us of the dangers of intelligent technology in entertaining nightmares all the way from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. to the seemingly endless release of Terminator movies; of medical abominations from 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to this year’s Project Power. Science has created a digital world of possibilities for us almost beyond imagining, extended our lifespans, cured diseases, replaced limbs and internal organs, and still we’re suspicious.
Scientists in horror fiction tend to be motivated either by evil or misguided hubris. Those who save the day often have little good to say about those who are held responsible. Right and wrong are never as complex as they are in real life and don’t need to be. This landscape is where we express the extremities of our doubts and fears, the potential worst case scenarios to our advances. We only fantasize about the wonderful effects of technology if it goes horribly wrong. It’s why there are more stories written about dystopias than utopias. Conflict is the essence of good drama and transgressing the boundaries between man and God with machines or medicine tends to be filled with it.
This issue’s selections explore the outer limits of where our deepest fears of science can take us, from the roots of classic Hollywood horror to the growing real world abuse of inmates in the prison system.
Bela Lugosi’s Dead
Macabre Ink, April 6, 2021, 264 pages
The Frankensteins are the highest royalty of mad science, multiple generations of the family depicted in endless versions and expansions of Mary Shelley’s tale of her new Prometheus. Like that mythic deity, her protagonist—one hesitates to call him a hero—Victor Frankenstein brings a forbidden gift of artificial life to mankind, and is punished every bit as harshly.
Just as Dracula is the epitome of supernatural terror, Dr. Frankenstein sums up the essence of our fear of science, that it will bring new life into being that will kill us and all we love. The idea of a deadly creation is as old as the Golem, an artificial man made by Rabbi Loew of clay from the banks of the Vltava River to defend the Jews of Prague. He used Kabbalist knowledge to animate the Golem by inscribing the Hebrew word “emet,” meaning truth, on its forehead.
Like all well-intentioned if ill-advised creations the Golem eventually goes on a bloody uncontrolled rampage until its maker uses clay to change “emet” into “met,” the Hebrew word for death. This ends its existence, but not its legend or legacy. The Golem’s spiritual descendants follow the same path of unnatural birth leading to murder, ended only by their destruction.
Universal Studios has profited for decades with spin-offs from their early adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. Robert Guffey’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead begins in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, at the actor’s grave. Mike stands over it, looking at offerings left by fans. He’s there to say goodbye to Bela and his dream of writing a screenplay about him. Mike’s leaving Los Angeles, and is on his way to the airport to fly home with just enough cash to get him there. He meets Lucy, a young actress he finds out is playing Sharon Tate in a no budget indie directed by a friend. They hit it off as he rattles off old Hollywood trivia and talks about his Bela script.
By the time they leave the cemetery Mike has cancelled his plans to depart, enchanted. He goes back to his apartment, with only five days before he has to pay the next month’s rent. Mike plunges into producing a rough draft of the screenplay he told Lucy was nearly complete. He succeeds well enough that after she reads it, when he admits his precarious situation, she lets him move into her place until he completes the script for her to star in.
Though it’s set in 1986, the novel still captures the Los Angeles I knew in the nineties, a seductive city with a sun-drenched surface that blinds visitors to the corruption beneath. It is a suitable setting for horror. Those who heed its siren call are often very much like Mike, with enough talent to justify moving there, but not enough drive, connections, or material to make it. You see them at Golden Apple Comics, or hunched over laptops in cafes, trying to finish that magical screenplay that will change everything.
I remember a story that a news team went on the street with a camera crew and asked random passersby how their screenplay was going, and no one they stopped wasn’t writing one. Someone once told me they’d decided that Hollywood was the only place where you could die of hope.
Mike’s story is intercut with a period narrative that features old Universal classic characters, their movies used as backstory. When Lugosi’s Ygor had his brain transplanted to the monster by Victor Frankenstin’s younger son in The Ghost of Frankenstein, we now learn that the monster’s brain was put into Ygor’s broken body. They have gone their separate ways, but as their paths slowly converge, we follow them to London where Dracula is restored to life, and the original Mummy is using the resources of a wealthy secret society to unleash an ancient demon. By the time we meet Lawrence Gill, the real life inspiration for Lon Chaney Jr.’s werewolf, it is clear we are well beyond the traditional canon of the movie series.
Between pinpointing who came from which film, and Mike’s references to other obscure bits of movie trivia, I spent a lot of enjoyable time searching online for movies like Mark of the Vampire and Return of the Vampire, Lugosi classics I’d nearly forgotten.
Mike meets more of Lucy’s friends, including Eric Heidecker, who owns a movie memorabilia shop kept going by his rich wife’s money. They start up a Lugosi fanzine, with Lucy on the cover of the first issue dressed as Luna from Mark of the Vampire. It becomes more popular with each issue, and Mike begins to achieve a level of cultish literary success with his interviews and articles. Together, Mike and Eric start an obsessive search for the holy grail of horror cinema, a lost test reel of Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster, shot before Karloff was cast, then discarded.
Halfway through the book, as entertained as I was by the Universal monsters storyline and where Mike’s was going, there had been no chills greater than the old movies the period story was based on. Just as I began to relax into an easy ride to the end, Guffey ripped reality out from underneath me like a rug.
The connection between the two storylines suddenly becomes clear, and as it does walks us off the plank into a deeper, less stable situation where nothing is certain. The two worlds become entwined and as both stories race to a climax the inevitable collision is truly horrifying.
The sensation is like being led deep underground while your flashlight grows dimmer and dimmer, until you’re left in total darkness. That’s when the lights of a subterranean crypt flash on to reveal that you’re not where you expected to be, and where you are is far worse than you could have imagined. The result is an ending that left me chilled and took me a few days to fully process. As shocking as it was, everything was set up from the beginning. I know, I went back and checked, and have to give Guffey credit for pulling off a literary sleight of hand that caught me by surprise. I won’t spoil it with more, except to say that like the frog in water that’s warmed so slowly it doesn’t realize it’s coming to a lethal boil, Guffey’s readers face an equally stunning conclusion.
Alfred Hitchcock defined shock as a bomb exploding in a room, sudden and surprising. Suspense is knowing that there’s a bomb, and when it will detonate. Every second that ticks by becomes more fraught with dread in anticipation of the eventual explosion. I may have done you a disservice by even telling you there’s such a bomb in the book, as it only adds suspense to your journey, making it all the more excruciating.
by Justin C. Key
Ebook / Audiobook
Realm, Jan 15, 2021
I have yet to watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, her documentary on American prisons, because I know that no matter how bad I may think the penal system is, the truth will be far worse. Justin C. Key’s four part novella combines the reality of a largely minority population with echoes of Tuskegee Institute, Henrietta Lacks, and other shady science by opening with a Black prison inmate, punished for a crime he didn’t commit, as he is offered an unconventional opportunity for early release.
Darnell Lee takes advantage of what seems like a chance to get back to his wife and daughter sooner than the end of his two-year sentence, and to the life he lost when he took the drug rap for a friend. All he has to do is receive a simple injection, take some pills, and tell no one that he’s involved in a study conducted by a covert organization with multiple identities. It seems plausible in today’s world of privatized prisons that have been known to bribe judges to lengthen sentences. As the profits grow, penitentiaries are fast becoming a cheap and plentiful supply of warm bodies for the commercial market. Why not the biotech industry, too?
Darnell soon discovers the results of the injection, if not the reasons for it. At home with his family a sore spot on his wrist becomes a boil that releases a spider from his skin. As it explores his environment Darnell realizes that he can see through its eyes, and gradually gains connection to all its senses. When done, it returns to the hole in his skin, closing a flap of flesh to conceal its location. This begins a story that isn’t so much a medical thriller as a meditation on transformation.
Full disclosure: until he moved to California, Justin Key was a member of Tabula Rasa, a writing critique group I’ve been in for some years now. I’ve watched his work develop over the last decade and when this crossed my virtual desk couldn’t resist seeing what he’s been up to since his departure.
He’s used his medical background in his work before, but this story relies more on his psychiatric studies. It would have been all too easy to turn this premise into a standard procedural. There are questions he leaves unanswered about the source of the study or its intent that would have been the main thrust in another’s hands. Instead, Key’s kept his story intimate, personal, tracking Darnell’s growing awareness of the slow subtle changes in his body, his fears building as his lesions increase.
Key’s use of language is smoother and more natural than ever, and Darnell’s voice is clear and individual enough to make you care about him and his family. It will be worthwhile watching to see what Key does with a longer format in the future.
We’ll see how much there really is to fear from science in the future. There’s no reason to reject it, but it’s also wise to advance with caution. Accepting the marvels of science should come with an understanding of our own limits in comprehending or controlling it. Where it takes us tomorrow only time, and horror writers, can tell.
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