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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 8

I'm varying the format a bit here. 

BORING EXPLANATION QUARANTINE: The next horror story is The Mist by Stephen King, which is easily the longest of all the tales I'm considering in the Horror Vs. Europe project. Also, the roster of horror stories in the 2 anthologies has one story more than The Best European Fiction 2010, so I've pulled in a ringer to pair with The Mist: Boy In Darkness by Mervyn Peake, who's best known as the author of the Gormenghast novels.

YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE QUARANTINE ZONE

The Mist by Stephen King. I'm not a Kingologist, so I can't situate this tale in reference to his oeuvre, but I see why he's so popular. He caught something of contemporary 80s urban life, with its distinctive blend of products, messages, and attitudes. His characters are often one-note caricatures, but they sound their single notes with emphasis, and they tote their narrative water efficiently. King is more thoughtful than his critics give him credit for, and one gets the feeling he'd be a delightful person to hang out with. He peppers his campfire tales with observations and ruminations that add heft to the incidents and provide thematic gravity. But perhaps most importantly, at least for his popular appeal, he handles the carpentry of suspense with a craftsman's pride. The value of this really jumped out at me because I recently read Dagon by local (to me) literary legend Fred Chappell. 

Dagon is the story of a young preacher who becomes completely subjugated by a cult of degenerate hillbilly lunatics. Very timely reading, since our country is in much the same fix. Also, there are references to Lovecraftian mythos lightly sprinkled throughout the story, although Lovecraft might have blanched at the explicit carnality of this novel (and most Lovecraft fans will be disappointed by the walk-on role assigned to Cthulhu et al) . It's fun to peruse various blogposts by more dedicated horror fiction bloggers and watch them wrestle with Dagon; many of them lament the lack of suspense. They ain't wrong. It plays out more like intense masochistic erotica than a suspense thriller; reading it is like pawing through a plague victim's soiled bedsheets. It's artfully repetitive, like drone music. King doesn't drone; he rawks. When King gets to the monsters and the battles, he gives you your money's worth and then some. (I loved Dagon. After Rump took the oath, I needed some harsh homeopathic treatment to prep me for the New World Odor. Dagon was just the thing.)

Mist, though, is kin to Day of the Triffids, the classic post-Blitz novel in which the sun sets on the British Empire because everybody's blind and huge monster plants are slaughtering everybody. Also, of course, Romero's zombie movies, in which the zombies are a problem but, as in Triffids, it's contentious fellow humans who make the real trouble.

Boy in Darkness is another tale of horror that doesn't bother with suspense particularly. Peake is famous for being a dense, difficult read, although his ornate prose style usually takes the blame. His indifference to keeping the pace taut (compared to King, anyway) is another reason his work doesn't move a lot of popcorn. 

In Boy in Darkness, a boy (basically Titus Groan, from the Gormenghast novels) wanders into the wilderness, only to be captured by Hyena and Goat, two animal-human hybrids who serve The Lamb, a sorcerous Dr. Moreau (or Circe) who yearns to transform Titus into a critter. Don't get too excited, Furry fans; The Lamb doesn't do cute and lovable. It turns people into twisted, spiteful beasts, or else unstable creatures that cannot live long (we learn about the late, lamented Lion, in one of Peake's characteristically melancholy and fragmentary digressions). Peake's gift for grotesques and cruel awe are much in evidence, although his famously rich prose is occasionally marred by cliches (some things are white as snow, heavy as lead, etc). The Lamb is anything but cliched, though; the mystery of this villain only deepens with its demise. The Lamb is ripe for resurrection by some stealthy fantasist.

Verdict:  I enjoyed The Mist well enough; it's the only 100+ page thrilling adventure tale I need this year. Boy in Darkness has Peake's trademark blend of antic and distressing characters and conundrums, and while Titus Groan and Gormenghast are richer and stranger, BiD is a worthy pendant.

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