The Vampire of Mons
Mass Market Paperback, Avon Books, 1977
*** As always, spoilers ahead ***
The Vampire of Mons is ill-served by its title and packaging, which appear to have been designed to capitalize on the “gothic suspense” boom of the late sixties and early seventies. The bloody skies and the grim visage of the Barnabas-Collinsesque “villain” on the cover are well done but are certain to frustrate many horror fans who read only to discover a vampire-free tale about the dissolution of a British boy’s school at the outset of World War II. It’s difficult to blame misled readers for being disappointed. The real shame here, though, is that disappointment will cause some readers to overlook the fact that The Vampire of Mons, while most assuredly not a story about a blood-thirsty monster, is an effectively chilling book about the power of fear.
There’s no doubt from the very beginning that Clive Swinburne, the book’s narrator-turned-killer, is afraid. Having been expelled from one school, he now faces the daunting challenge of fitting in, mid-year, at a new one. He is convinced that his failure to cultivate proper friendships at his previous school was largely to blame for his expulsion and is determined not to make the same mistake at his new school, Malthus. It seems quite natural he should be drawn most to the two other boys—Darwin and Struges—who also arrive in Malthus mid-year and are assigned, like him, to live in Mons house. What does not seem as natural is the way Swinburne becomes focused on the figure of music teacher Heinrich Vitaly. It’s true that Vitaly sets in motion events that drive a wedge between Swinburne and his two classmates, but in reality the fateful decisions are made by Swinburne, not Vitaly. This hardly seems to matter, however, as Swinburne becomes fixated on the idea that Vitaly is a dark, malignant force that needs to be stopped.
The fact is that Vitaly is different—a free-thinking stranger from the continent with and even stranger, “exotic” wife. He is the “other” upon whom Swinburne, in his fear and frustration, projects his darkest fears and uncertainties. Indeed, Vitaly is dangerous: he encourages kids like Darwin and Sturges to think for themselves, and self-directed thought always has the potential to disrupt the social order. As the text illustrates, it can seem especially perilous on the eve of war, when the pressures of nationalism and conformity are greatest. As dangerous other, Vitaly must perish. The real horror of the book has, of course, nothing to do with the dangers of marauding vampires or illicit pedophiles. The terror lies in the ease with which a schoolboy’s fears can turn deadly and in the fate of Vitaly, who fled to England to escape fascism only to die at the hands of a callous, dangerously-conformist proto-fascist in Swinburne.
Catching Hell (2010)
Greg F. Gifune
*** As always: here there be spoilers. ***
Toward the end of Greg F. Gifune’s excellent novella Catching Hell (2010), Alex and Stefan think, momentarily, that they have escaped the damned who have been hunting them through the night. They look to the sky, knowing that if they make it to sunrise then they are free. What happens next is worth quoting at length:
The treetops were just visible against the sparse beginnings of daylight.
“They’re above us,” [Alex] heard herself say.
They’re human, but the deeper into the ritual they go . . .
The forest exploded into deafening cracks as tree branches split and snapped in one sudden wave, sounding as if the woods themselves were collapsing, coming down around them.
. . . the more powerful they get . . . the less human they become . . .
And from the trees came blurs—dark forms in period clothing—dropping from the sky, smashing tree limbs as they went, groans and growls mixed the thudding impact as they hit the ground, falling all about them.
With a horrific scream, Alex was gone, snatched away and dragged back through the woods.
As the others crept closer, Stefan bowed his head and began to weep.
I find this passage eerie and disturbing, and I think it helps illustrate Gifune’s way of writing about the uncanny. Fundamental to the passage’s power is that he does not attempt to wall his readers up in words. Language is by its nature suggestive and incomplete (no matter how much we might sometimes wish it to be otherwise). This remains true no matter how much of it we use. Rather than piling up words and details to try to show us the full horror of the damned, Gifune is sparing with language here. He chooses to work with its suggestive and incomplete nature rather than battle against it. We see nothing more specific here than “blurs—dark forms,” and our own imaginations are free to fill in the verbal blanks. It’s the kind of stuff that leaves me staring into the shadows behind the words trying to make out what’s there and has me peeking around the corners of sentences. Or maybe I should say straining my ears for low whispers, since most of the details Gifune presents here are aural rather than visual--which helps capture the disorienting and awful experience of an unexpected attack from above in the faint pre-dawn light. The description of the events is punctuated with fragments of earlier conversation (italicized in the original) that function like a cinematic voice-over, guiding us through without straight-jacketing our imaginations.
Having read a good bit of Gifune’s work over the years, I’d say that all this is a matter of conscious craft on his part. He’s a careful, deliberate writer. There is, furthermore, a rough logic to all this: because language shapes and is shaped by our experience of the world, it stands to reason that one of the qualities of the otherworldly is that language struggles—and, perhaps necessarily, fails—to capture it. One of the key attributes of the supernatural is that it is that of which we do not know how to speak. In this passage (among many others), Gifune finds ways to sketch the murky fears that stand beyond. He has long been, and remains, one of the most effectively suggestive writers in dark fiction on the contemporary scene.
I was just about to make some sweeping generalization about how this suggestive use of language is essential to evoking fear on the page, but I was stopped short of such grand abstractions by the ghost of Jack Ketchum chuckling in my ear. Sometimes he comes in the night and whispers the most horrible things to me. A little Off Season goes a long way to reminding readers that the explicit and detailed ravaging of flesh can be pretty damned frightening. The best authors, Gifune among them, understand the terrifying power of blood just as they understand the power of suggestion, and they use both to construct their nightmares.
The Victorian Chaise Longue
1973. Trippy-covered mass-market paperback reprint. Originally published in 1953.
This is another one of those paperbacks from my great-aunt Cat’s closet.
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
I’ve always found something fundamentally frightening about the idea of being changed into something other than yourself. The “Other,” we’re told, is alien and threatening. To become someone or something other than yourself is especially horrifying, an invasion at the most intimate kind: think about Gregor Samsa becoming a giant bug or the ordeal or poor little Regan MacNeil. Think about body snatchers or the horrible things the Count does to poor Renfield. The disruption and displacement of the self is a terrifying thing to contemplate.
In The Victorian Chaise Longue, Margharita Laski takes this idea and works it into a cold and disturbing novella. If consciousness is understood as a dialogue between situation and subject, Laski successfully constructs for readers the bewildered experience of a woman who has had an unexplained change in situation that brings into question the very nature of her own subjectivity.
Her protagonist, Melanie, awakens from a nap not only in someone else’s room, but in someone else’s body. Laski has an almost Jamesian focus on the workings of the individual consciousness as Melanie attempts to understand what has happened to her and, more to the point, how to undo it. Laski most effectively conveys Melanie’s divided subjectivity when the character speaks about facts or ideas that clearly come from her Victorian-era “host” Milly, and have not become conscious to Melanie before she speaks. Milly’s uncanny utterances show that there is more here than a simple transplanting of Melanie’s mind into Milly’s body—there is an uneasy and inexplicable union.
The story is claustrophobic and unnerving. At first, it seems that the only thread that binds Melanie to Milly is the chair on which they both recline. As Melanie’s experience as Milly unfurls, however, we begin to see more points of contact: both women suffer from tuberculosis and both of them have recently given birth to children. The tension mounts. At first, the greatest danger facing Melanie seems to be the uncanny gap separating her from her own life, or perhaps Milly’s precarious health. As the story proceeds, however, it becomes clear that there is an even greater hazard: while Melanie is happily married to the father of her child, Milly is an unmarried invalid who has not revealed the identity of her lover. This is, of course, a serious breach of Victorian sexual mores, and Melanie’s failure to understand Milly’s precarious situation ultimately has fatal consequences.
The horror here is just as politically charged as in Levin’s Stepford Wives. In both stories, the female protagonist meets her doom because she runs afoul of patriarchy’s prescribed notion of proper womanly behavior. Curiously, in both instances the fatal blow is struck by a woman (Joanna Eberhart is presumably knifed—off screen, as it were—by Bobbie; Milly is beaten to death by her enraged sister, Adelade). It’s obvious, however, that neither of these killers are the true authors of these fates. Bobbie is an automaton controlled by those insidious Stepford husbands, and Adelade’s rage is engendered by a Victorian social order that she is complicit in but did not create. Read alongside The Stepford Wives, Laski’s book reinforces the sense that for women, horror is often a function of home and family. And like Rosemary’s Baby, it reminds us how much female sexuality and reproduction are subject to manipulation, violence, and body-terror.
Paul G. Tremblay
Harper Collins, 2020
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
Survivor Song is a novel about a viral outbreak that had the fate to be published during this, our pandemic summer. It should go without saying that the novel is not about the COVID-19 virus. It’s not even about a pandemic, dealing as it does with a localized and contained outbreak. While the story certainly presents some interesting similarities to current events, they are largely coincidental and tangential.
Compared to some of the works I’ve been reading lately, Survivor Song could be pigeon-holed as conservative, insofar as the family and the home are presented as the locus of safety and security. (Queue that “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Stepford anymore” sound bite.) Such a response would, however, be too simplistic. It sidesteps the point by ignoring the book’s real focus: when the crap hits the fan and the fragility of that allegedly-stable center of your life is shattered, what will you do? The novel launches precisely from that moment of destabilization: the destruction of domestic tranquility created by the bloody (and brilliantly crafted) home-invasion of the infected that sets Natalie on her way across town.
Homes disintegrate all the time, of course, usually from more prosaic causes—poverty, ignorance, layoffs, neglect, infidelity, boredom, et . al. Tremblay’s novel resonates not only because a killer virus seems especially timely, but because shattered homes are an unmistakable feature of our contemporary American landscape. Asking yourself what the fuck you’re going to do next is woven into the fabric of a lot of twenty-first century lives.
What you can do--power--depends on circumstance. As time tightens like a noose, Natalie’s options narrow due to the strained resources of the healthcare system. The narrative presents a kaleidoscope of responses to the characters’ growing sense of powerlessness. We get doctors—Ramola included—trying to plot a humane, sane course through a landscape of desperately-ill people, bad options, and shifting directives. We get an incompetent squad of self-appointed guardians out to eliminate “vectors” and raining havoc as they go. And we get Josh and Luis, roaring through their zombie-movie-fantasy landscape and finding, almost despite themselves, an opportunity for real heroism.
Through all these intersecting lives, the novel lays bare the terrifying fact that violence and terror are often just a step or two off the beaten path, embarrassingly close to the cozy world we've tried to construct for ourselves. I suppose that’s hardly news, but it seems to bear repeating these days. And it's welcome when the telling is as compelling as this. Overall, Survivor Song acts as a fierce cautionary tale for thinkers of the when the cities burn down we’ll be warm school of social criticism.
Survivor Song is a grim mix, but not unremittingly so. Luis, for instance, finds a final grace by exercising what power he has left to die on his own terms. The real victory, however, belongs to Ramola. As most readers will discern early on, Nats is screwed from the outset, and the real game is to see if Rams can manage, somehow, to deliver her dying friend’s child in the midst of the maelstrom. That she pulls it off is impressive, though not a tremendous surprise. What is more surprising is the ending, where Tremblay reminds us of the importance of storytelling to maintaining our humanity. There is a restoration of domestic tranquility here. It’s telling, however, that the family we are introduced to in the end is neither a traditional nuclear family nor one planted in an American landscape. It’s as though Tremblay has had to look elsewhere for a renewed sense of stability in the aftermath of so much pain.
THE STEPFORD WIVES
Old mass-market paperback, 1972
***As always, here there be spoilers***
Like many of my vintage paperbacks from the 60s and 70s, my copy of The Stepford Wives came from a collection of thousands of books and magazines taken from the ancestral family home in Sciotoville, Ohio. Most of them belonged to my Great-Aunt Catherine, who passed away in 1978. I come from a long line of readers, and Aunt Cat’s tastes ranged wider than most. I have long been in her debt.
Once upon a time, feminism raised scary questions and made people uneasy. Women were energized by the prospect of wider vistas. Truth be told, some were probably a bit nervous as they stepped forth and took on larger, more demanding roles in public life. Some, it can be assumed, suffered pangs of guilt as they left behind roles that had been dutifully performed by their mothers and grandmothers. And the men? The best of them caught on quickly, many of them struggled to understand the changing world, and the worst . . . well, the worst fumed and raged.
And some of them, it seems, built robots.
Ira Levin’s by-now classic novel, The Stepford Wives, was of course written in the midst of such an uneasy time: a time when women—even, it seems, a sizeable group of nice, suburban housewives—might get together to attend and applaud a lecture by Betty Friedan. Levin’s imaginative conceit was that a (former Disney!) animatronics expert could create passible wife-bots programmed with a hankering for housework. The idea was always a bit of a stretch, but its very improbability is part of what makes the story work: the real reason why these women act so strangely never dawns on Joanna Eberhart until it’s too late. What we get is a story of growing dread as the “normal” world around her seems increasing alien and sinister. Slowly revealing the weird and dangerous within the shell of the superficially normal is, of course, one of Levin’s strengths: remember Rosemary the expectant mother and that nice, older couple next door?
Of course, the real horror in Stepford isn’t the mechanized doppelgangers that Dale Coba builds in his workshop. His shoppelgangers are simply acting as they’re programmed to—just as, one supposes, Satan is meeting expectations when he impregnates Rosemary. The real evil in the worlds Levin constructs is betrayal, and the real horror is the moral bankruptcy of husbands who allow their wives to be used for brood mares by the neighborhood cultists or to be quietly removed so they can be replaced by subservient replicas. How do you explain the facile evil of men like Guy Woodhouse and Walter Eberhart? Are these portraits of selfish narcissism plausible, or is this where Levin overplays his hand?
On the whole, I think Guy is more convincing than Walter, if only because we see more of him and we have more of a sense of his motives. Still, The Stepford Wives and the domestic evil it presents remains convincing enough in a world where The President of the United States gives daily demonstrations on the powers of narcissism and where most murder victims know their killers.
I’ve long been interested in fear. How and why artists construct it. How and why we consume it. The challenges of mastery (and, of course, the pleasures of escape) in the face of fear draw many of us into a complicated psychological and cultural dance.
It’s not like we have a choice, really. We dance regardless. Fear is one of the most fundamental of experiences, something that everyone must confront and process. (Be wary of types who strut around with “No Fear” emblazoned on their bumpers or shirtfronts. They are either pathetic liars or deluded fools.) If we choose to read Greg F. Gifune’s novels or watch John Carpernter's movies, these are just ways of channeling feelings we already know.
The decision to engage with the dark arts may seem curious given our historical moment. We might well ask why we need dark mirrors for the realities of an era characterized by pandemic fear-mongering ushered in by a commander-in-chief who seems to lack command of even his own most basic—and brutish—impulses. To me, the answer to this is that the perspective provided by such mirrors may help us better see and deal with the often-monstrous facts of the contemporary world: Perseus was able, after all, to defeat Medusa because he could see her reflection.
With that in mind, this notebook will present my of encounters with the fearful in books. These notes will undoubtedly be rather disjointed ones, coming as they do as reflections on specific texts read in no particular order. The goal is that despite this that they will take on a reasonable semblance of focus in that they all deal, more or less, with the ways and means of fear, the hows and whys of its production and consumption.
Readers should be forewarned that these reflections are written for readers who are already familiar with the texts in question: in other words, here there be spoilers.