All right then. A week late due to server stuff, but now we’re set to go.
And, a clarification: In choosing to title this “Modest History of Horror“, I really mean a modest account of MY explorations into its history. Basically, a chronicling of my attempts to move past my very narrow diet of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (a good diet, to be sure. But still a narrow one). So, once a week, I’ll feature writers as I’ve discovered them. Many of them craftsmen, some of them good at telling stories. And all writers I’ve been so happy to discover, I’ve had a hard time reading new horror.
For my first post, I’ll look at the first new horror writer I “discovered”, T. M. Wright. A brief bio below:
T.M. WRIGHT is in his 43rd year as a writer. Author of twenty-three novels (in and out of print) in various languages, a few short stories (he finds the novel easier to write), and lots of poetry, Wright is convinced that the quest for exactly the right word or phrase can hobble any writer. A father, grandfather, woodworker, and artist, Wright loves Boston terriers, Maine coon cats, and vegetarian cuisine.
According to Ramsey Campbell, TM Wright is a “one-man definition of the term ‘quiet horror.” Since 1978, he’s published 22 novels in fourteen languages, some of which have become classics in the field of horror and dark fantasy. Former literary editor of Writer Online, and now in charge of generating contests, some reviewers have called him “the best ghost story writer alive.”
T. M. Wright was officially the first quiet horror author I ever encountered. Not long after, I read Invisible Fences by Norman Prentiss, (whom you all should read, also) and because I really liked his writing and someone compared him to Charles Grant, I eventually sought out – THANK GOD – the work of the late Charles L. Grant. But it was T. M. Wright I picked up first, and his novel The Place.
The thing that struck me most about The Place was how human the story was. It possessed genre trappings, to be sure. But what captivated me was the human experience at its core. At the time, I’d started reviewing horror full time for Shroud Magazine. Was getting lots of Leisure Fiction titles, especially (back BEFORE they tanked).
With the exception of a few authors (Robert Dunbar, Gary Braunbeck, Nate Kenyon, Mary Sangiovanni, Ron Malfi), most of the writing didn’t seem to have much substance. So I wasn’t sure that “horror author” was a title fit for me. So many of those stories revolved around demons, serial killers, serial killers who liked to have graphic sex in the middle of their victims’ remains, killer clowns (yes), and women raping monsters – and endless variations on those themes. The genre trappings seemed the center of those stories, not the human experience.
But The Place stood in stark and thankful contrast. Greta is a special needs child – probably with Aspberger’s, though it’s never named – trying to understand a world she doesn’t quite fit in to. She has a “place” she goes to, a place that’s made real through her thoughts. There’s a somewhat weak father who knows he’s weak and hates it, and a mother desperate to save her son. And yeah, there’s a psycho killer in this novel, also…but the story didn’t exist to glorify his exploits.
Also, The Place was subtly written. Building its suspense very slowly. And – even though I’d rather have a character swear naturally than be unnaturally written – The Place was written with restraint. With respect to the reader, if that makes any sense. And it was finely written. With a sense of rhythm and balance I often find lacking in most contemporary horror fiction.
It was the very first time I thought to myself: Hey. I think this is the type of stuff I’d like to write.
The next T. M. Wright novel I read was The Island. About a winter resort lodge in the Adirondacks, read, appropriately enough, on one of the biggest snow days we had last year, when we got blasted. Everything covered with snow, iced over, which only made reading The Island that much more powerful. In any case, like The Place, The Island was more about a grouping of humans and their insecurities, petty jealousies, hopes, dreams, and nightmares. And yeah, there’s these… things…out there, under the ice, just waiting. For the right moment. But it was the people that mattered, which generated the fear and tension – because we really didn’t want anything bad to happen to these folks.
Now this novel worked on me even more than The Place. Wright ratcheted up the tension and managed to carry it through the whole novel, to the point where EVERYTHING became fodder for shivers. And you honestly felt so much for many of the characters. His characterization, spot on. Very acute. And, like The Island, the prose flowed in a smooth, unobtrusive way that just makes me envious beyond all reason.
One thing that also struck me early on about T. M. Wright and other quiet horror authors – and this is just my opinion and observation, I’m no authority – is that they seem to view the resolution of their stories differently than a lot of mainstream horror. Let’s see if I can articulate what I mean:
We all want happy endings. We want to see the monster beaten, the good guys win, see someone survive. And, in my own way, I think that’s very important. If we’re going to show the dark aspects of the human experience, we should show the light, also. And sometimes happy endings or at least positive endings come naturally. But sometimes they can be forced. Because a happy or positive ending doesn’t necessarily resolve the conflict developed by the plot. Just from my short reading this last year and a half, it seems a lot of quiet horror authors resolve the conflicts…but their resolutions DON’T necessarily make everything happy.
Anyway, on to A Manhattan Ghost Story. Probably one of the most surreal, psychologically disturbing ghost stories I’ve ever read, because it seems lots of horror novels paint ghosts as either one or two ways (and I’m totally generalizing, here): menacing and evil, or disembodied spirits pleading to be “put to rest”, so they can have peace.
The ghosts in A Manhattan Ghost Story exist in their own layer of reality that overlaps ours, a listless, stumbling existence that could very well be described as hell on earth. There’s no peace for these ghosts – at least, not that anyone knows – but they also have no agenda. No vengeance to carry out. They simply are. With no purpose or direction. That’s what makes them so frightening, existentially speaking. And Wright’s most unsettling treatment of ghosts in this is that they don’t haunt empty houses or crypts or grave sites. They exist, in a way, alongside us. As that strange person on the subway who doesn’t look quite “right”. People who don’t fit in with their surroundings, or behave in slightly odd ways.
And they still suffer. Not necessarily physical pain, but a deep spiritual pain, from their sense of loss and dislocation. They belong nowhere, and they know it.
My final T. M. Wright (I’ve got many more on my shelf), is Little Boy Lost, recently reprinted by Uninvited Books. Again, another story in which the horror lies in loss. Not only loss in the disappearance of Miles Gales’ son, but his loss of self, his inability to save not only one son, but protect the other. The loss of his first wife, and the “loss” of his second wife to the horror that she becomes.
Also, Little Boy Lost is structurally superior to most of the horror novels I’ve read. Not to be snide, but when I’m checking out a horror novel – especially from the last ten or twenty years – and I see a reviewer bash it with something like this:
this was the stupidiest novel it made no sense OMG it jumped all over the place and he repeats himself, this guy can’t write worth sh-t *
…then I know most likely the author tried something on a structural level just a BIT too complex for that reader’s poor little brain to grasp, and that I’ll probably like it, myself. And this was the case with Little Boy Lost. Non-linear, with several different threads moving through the past, present, and future…and if you just PAID ATTENTION, it all completed itself in a really nice, circular fashion. Also something I find with Charles Grant’s work that I find lacking in a lot of horror today: the story and the prose itself demands I pay attention.
And quite frankly, I like that. A lot.
Next week, I’ll look at the second “quiet horror” author I discovered, Charles L. Grant.
Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.
*that review was totally made up, and doesn’t reflect any real review of any of these books, that I know of.