Monday, January 5, 2009

The Country of Terror

Someone pointed this out to me, and I thought I'd post the column. Somehow THE HOLY TERROR was compared with Southern gothic in his nice essay. Though I wouldn't consider it SG, I can say that two of my favorite writers are Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Conner. Back in the day, when I turned my first writing assignment in to James Sloan at UIC, he mentioned to the class my germ of a story sounding like a Welty riff, which to him was a good thing, saying that writers find their voices in comfortables surroundings. My few lines submitted involved the death of a neighbor and the funeral home viewing...

The Country of Terror
The Agony Column for October 17, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Anthony Hopkins got an Oscar nomination as Hannibal Lecter, serial killer. We love our terror. He also got an Oscar nomination as President Richard Nixon. We've always loved our terror.

With the words "terror" and "fear" on the tip of every tongue, one would think that we'd take time to understand what exactly we mean when we say these words. The government now forecasts the potential for mass-murders as if this were a weather condition. We have a color-oriented sliding scale to illustrate the potential for terror. We're being told to fear the acts of strangers and being promised that if we give up some of our freedoms, we won't have to live in fear. But terror is a not a weather condition. Fear is not the result of excess freedom. They're both emotional states, inspired in individuals by external circumstances or internal emotions. Before we surrender our freedoms, before we accept the potential to experience terror as a daily event beyond our control, we need to take some time to think about the base causes of these often-dangerous emotional states. By seeking to understand our experience of terror and fear, we can exercise control of them and use the emotions to serve our best interests, instead of using our lives to avoid the potential for either while experiencing both on a continual basis. I can't help but recall the villain who purred to Doctor Who, "In the end, we all want the same thing -- freedom from fear, freedom from pain --"

"Freedom from freedom!" the Doctor interrupts.


We've been purposely terrorizing one another for millennia. In the correct conditions, the experiences of terror and fear are actually pleasurable. When they are pleasant, when they occur in the safety of the home surrounded by the family and the reassurances of everyday life, fear and terror can help us learn what happens to our emotions when we confront that which we cannot control, the other, the outside. In one sense, horror fiction is the oldest and most durable fiction that we'll ever have. The Bogeyman is perhaps the most constant character.

Sing around the campfire -- join the millions who don't find life itself terrifying enough, and require help from the professionals. H. P. Lovecraft left the terror to our imaginations.

Much of the fiction today that's identified as horror fiction has trivialized fear and terror. The threats are helpfully specific and the response is obvious and direct. If there's a monster or a madman out there, we have but to slay the monster or the madman to end the feelings of fear and terror. We simply shutter up, step down into the storm cellar and let the weather pass us above, until we emerge into a world that has been cleansed by evil and is now ready to be populated by good. But trivialized terror only goes so far. H. P. Lovecraft knew that the less his readers saw of his sources of terror, the more frightened they would be. In experiencing terror in its most nebulous state, they would be scared by their own imaginations. And, having scared themselves, his readers might have a better clue as to what the experiences and emotions of fear and terror actually were -- personal.

Mary Flannery O'Connor was one of the premier writers of the 20th century. She was also a writer of horror fiction. They won't advertise that fact when they make you read her stories in Lit class.

Other writers took up this theme with a true vengeance, carefully wringing the supernatural specifics out of their fiction until all that was left was the raw terror of life. To my mind the best and purest writer of fear and terror we have may well be Flannery O'Connor. Her short stories and novels are written in the style known as Southern Gothic, defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as "a style of writing practiced by many writers of the American South whose stories set in that region are characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents." Yes, H. P. Lovecraft qualifies. But O'Connor distills the terror in a purer form. Her writing is the grain alcohol of horror.

This faded paperback of 'Wise Blood' is one of the few books that's always easy for me to find in the stacks.

Born Mary Flannery O'Connor in Savannah Georgia in 1925, she was the only child in a Catholic family. When she was 12, her family moved to her mother's birthplace, Milledgeville. She attended high school then enrolled in the Georgia State College for Women and graduated in 1945. She sold her first short story, 'The Geranium' in 1946, then embarked on a career that would make her one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. Her first novel, 'Wise Blood', was published in 1952. 'Wise Blood' tells the story of Hazel Motes, who returns from war to fall in with then against, Asa Hawks, a fake blind street preacher. Motes starts "The Church Without Christ", "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way." It's dark, edgy, filled with surreal moments of spiritual insight and destruction. It falls from the page utterly real into the reader's mind.

As far as I can tell, this movie exists only on VHS and there are no plans to port it over to DVD. That says a lot about the movies.

John Huston turned it into an amazingly great film in 1978. To my mind, it's one of the best adaptations of a literary source I've ever had the pleasure to see. Huston expertly captures the subtle spiritual nuances of O'Connor's grotesquerie. He also found a top rate set of actors, who worked practically for nothing including Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty. But as with many great movies, it disappeared and has not yet resurfaced as a DVD. In fact, so far as I can see, there are no plans to make a DVD, and return this movie the worldwide attention it deserves. So much for the movies.

This book has seen some hard use through the years. It's fitting.

Meanwhile, back in the library or the used bookstore, you can find O'Connor's best collection, 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. Here you'll find the title story, with it's incredible early serial killer plot, 'A Late Encounter with the Enemy', one of the finer portraits of death you're likely to encounter, and 'Good Country People', which sets the standard for depraved characters. These are golden moments in your reading career. Treasure them -- and buy the complete collection of her stories to ensure you get every last word.

In all her fiction, O'Connor forced her characters to confront some inner core of being, with the usual results of terror, then madness. But this was not the simple externally induced terror the media is entertaining us with today. This is the deep down mirror induced variant that happens when we gaze into the abyss, it gazes back at us, and we realize that we are looking at ourselves. She defined the essences of Southern Gothic. Her characters were grotesque, mad in ways that seem both surreal and perfectly realistic. She subjected them to external torments random yet spiritually significant, things that forced them to look back into themselves.

This book popped up in Ziesing's catalogue a couple of years ago. I only barely made myself read it. I could have missed out on this author -- I actually thought I would never get around to reading the book.

In the many years since her death, horror in the form of the Southern Gothic largely withered. But as usual, a careful look outside the strict edges of the horror genre will find some powerfully horrific and effective writing. In 1999, at the age of 56, William Gay published his first novel, 'The Long Home'. Set in rural Tennessee in the 1940's, it tells the story of an almost satanic presence in the backwoods. The earth cracks open and spits brimstone. Soon after, Dallas Hardin shows up and soon after that the Hovington ranch is his. Eventually, after his power and influence have spread, young Nathan Winer and William Tell Oliver confront Hardin. It is a battle with profound and often bleakly funny overtones.

You can pretty much forget about everything else -- William Gay is fantastic prose writer. His words have the handcrafted feel of fine furniture -- solid, reassuring. Even on the simplest terms, his story is purely pleasurable to read. But his language evokes a dark and troubling world beneath the words, within the characters. He's often compared with Cormac McCarthy. The emotions are raw and powerful. There is ample humor in his mix. When I first bought this novel, I frankly didn't know why. I found it in the Ziesing catalogue, but it was one of those that when it came, I thought to myself, "Well, that's a nice experiment".

Gay's second novel includes a hex-casting momma's boy and a family curse.

Not by a long shot. Gay is simply one of the best writers out there, period. 'The Long Home' is an impressive debut -- but it's only his debut novel. He followed it up in 2000 with 'Provinces of Night'. 'Provinces of Night' sees a refining of his writing. Like Ruth Rendell's 'A Fatal Inversion', 'Provinces of Night' starts with the discovery of a skeleton. In Gay's novel, it's found in a valley about to be flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority. From there, it's a short step into Gay's world of murder, magic, madness and revenge. The story is more complex and the humor is more extensive.

Gay verges on the supernatural in both novels. But it's there naturally, a basic part of the landscape. As a writer of supernatural horror, Gay hones in on the extremity of the emotions in his characters, and finds beyond them a darkness. Sometimes it can be tamed, and sometimes it consumes those who contain it. Gay contains the whole shebang in faultless, powerful prose. These novels will open up cracks in your soul.

David Searcy's 'Ordinary Horror' is no ordinary horror novel. It's a Southern Gothic set in suburbia.

Two months after the debut of William Gay's 'Provinces of Night', one of the most unlikely novels recently published was released to accolades and vitriol. David Searcy's January 2001 novel 'Ordinary Horror' is pure Southern Gothic with the minor adjustment of a completely suburban setting and cast. In it, widower Frank Delabano buys a natural Amazonian plant to rid his yard of gophers. Afterwards, he watches his world crumble around him.

While I never took to Faulkner as I took to O'Connor, Searcy's work clearly harkens to him as well as O'Connor. Searcy can write a three page paragraph like nobody's business, he can write a half-page sentence in heartbeat, and he can capture every eternity between heartbeats with his words. Searcy's intriguing plot brought a lot of readers to the table who were expecting something snappier, and they often reacted violently. 'Ordinary Horror' is practically all ellipsis, all evasion, glimpses from the corner of the eye of something that may be the result of damaged brainwork. His introspective prose also calls to mind that of the much more modern Kathe Koja. His characters are lost in thought. This isn't pleasant distraction. It might be a stroke. It might be madness. It might be that there is something trying to break through into our perception that is so vast, so awful, our minds cannot contain it. Of course, people who follow that last line of logic often end up in the madhouse. Reading 'Ordinary Horror' conveys a lot of that feeling. It finds terror in small inconsistencies, the behavior of a neighbor's child, a small dead animal's corpse on the road. Searcy deliberately makes the reader uncomfortable. If you're reading horror to find yourself re-assured and re-affirmed, don't read Searcy.

Wayne Allen Sallee's 'The Holy Terror' is an underappreciated novel of Southern Gothic terror. Who can not love a novel with a superhero who dons a heating pad and a utility belt filled with cough medicines and announces, "Crippled and insane, I am the American Dream!"

Of course, Gay and Searcy aren't the only one to write recent and decent Southern Gothics. One of my personal favorites is the practically unknown novel by Wayne Allen Sallee, 'The Holy Terror'. It is Flannery O'Connor style grotesquerie of the highest order. Sallee hits on all the cylinders that O'Connor, Gay and Searcy hit -- a natural evocation of the supernatural, weird, complex characters who seem just odd enough to be real and a very bleak but funny sense of humor. 'The Holy Terror' tells the story of street people Vic Tremulis and Evan Shustak, searching for killer Francis Haid. With a heating pad and a utility belt full of over-the-counter drugs, Shustak transforms himself into a superhero -- "Crippled and insane, I am the American Dream!". Tremulis is a masochist who spends a lot of time doing things that bring him pleasure but make the reader squirm. Together, they set out across a blighted landscape to stop the strangely sympathetic Haid. Like Huston's film of 'Wise Blood' -- a novel 'The Holy Terror' bears a significant resemblance to -- 'The Holy Terror' was released and utterly disappeared, as, alas did its writer. There were a few more chapbooks and poems, but my last sighting of Sallee was in Tracey Knight's PS Publishing novella 'The Astonished Eye', where he's mentioned as a character. If you enjoy O'Connor, Gay or Searcy, you owe it to yourself to find (it's going to be difficult) and check out Sallee's fantastic work of horror.

I finally got around to reading this slim volume of Fortean essays. It's lovely, light and spiritual. It's also dark, weird and rather twisted.

While Southern Gothic is usually thought of as being exclusively fictional, my recent reading unearthed a work that struck me as a very viable non-fictional variant. John P. O'Grady's 2001 collection 'Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature' has the feel of a series of conversations with the professor of a southern university, a raconteur who lays out a story that's part truth, part myth and part object lesson. He covers subjects ranging from misled psychics to graveyard shift guards at the graveyard, from lost bees to Virginia Dare. His easygoing style belies a concern with the spiritual matters concealed by events on the edge of society, things we don't quite believe or disbelieve. He gently debunks some claims of the supernatural -- without succumbing to brick-headed skepticism, while working hard to create and preserve the mystery of others. Like writers of Southern Gothic, he's talky, chatty and witty. He's concerned with the otherworld as well as our world. Reading O'Grady's eloquent little essays is like gulping a glass of fresh water.

Caitlin Kiernan's 'Threshold' has a throbbing vein of Southern Gothic running through a slab of Lovecraftian terror.

This year sees a virtual bloom in Southern Gothic Horror fiction, with the publication of Caitlin Kiernan's 'Threshold', David Searcy's 'Last Things' and William Gay's incredible collection of stories 'I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down'. As I read Searcy's latest, it struck me that it bore more than a little similarity to Kiernan's work of tortured souls and a vague but terrorizing threat from beyond. Her tormented characters, particularly Deacon, have the feel O'Connor's holy fools. Kiernan is most assuredly writing much more supernatural fiction than the other writers here, however. There is definitely something from beyond to deal with. Still, her prose style -- she can meander with the best of the madman-imitators -- her locale and her inclination to shy away from the specific will delight the same readers who were delighted with 'Ordinary Horror' and infuriate the same readers who wanted to toss that book across the room.

Searcy's second novel bears a definite resemblance to 'Wise Blood'.

Searcy's newest novel is 'Last Things'. He takes a couple of certain steps towards Flannery O'Connor in 'Last Things', and the results are rewarding to the reader. In a nod to O'Connor's Hazel Motes, his holy fool is named Luther Hazlitt. Luther is among the first to find one of a series of sinister scarecrows in the Texan town of Gilmer. As events progress, he becomes compelled to trap the creature he thinks may be creating them -- or maybe it's just something roaming his fields. It may be a trap for the Holy Spirit, especially if said Spirit frequents the newly created apocalyptic Last Days Covenant Church, which meets in a burger joint in town. Searcy's second novel brings out some welcome humor from this talented writer, and hones in on the same sort of space between moments that constantly threatened to become a vast sucking void in 'Ordinary Horror'. As with 'Ordinary Horror', Searcy writes this novel in his own unique prose style. It's loquacious, meandering, maddening and visionary. The presence of the supernatural, of practically everything in this novel is suggested. Searcy knows that the best bet is to leave the horror to the reader's imagination. As a writer, it's his job to trap the beast within the confines of his words. He does a pretty damn spectacular job, both at trapping the beast and at letting the reader's imagination do the work.

Is this the best collection of speculative fiction stories this year? I expect that I'm pretty much alone in thinking along those lines.

I however, am going to leave nothing to your imagination. Get out your phone book, pick up your phone. Open up a new browser window, and go to the URL of your favorite online independent bookseller. Call or select or order, any way you can, two copies of William Gay's latest release, a collection of short stories 'I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down'. Look at it this way. These days, a first edition of 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' is fetching $5500. You buy one copy of Gay's collection to read, you seal the other in a plastic bag and throw it on the closet shelf. Your heirs will thank you. And you, I hope, will thank me for pointing out on the best reading experiences you're going to have this year. I'll confess that I'm only halfway through this collection as of writing this part of this column. But damn. Damn.

Readers of this column might have noticed that I'm not much of a short story reader. So I fully expected to get this collection and set it aside for a rainy day that might never come. Still, I thought I'd give the first page a look. That was all it took. Furniture comes to mind again. I think that's because Gay's writing has a solid, sturdy feel. Yet beneath the simple shapes, there is the infinite intricate beauty of the wood itself. And the knowledge that you could whack someone upside the head with that chair. Gay's stories in this collection are macabre, sinister, funny and heartbreaking. There's a lot of death here as well as a lot of life. Gay is capable of amazing feats. In 'The Man Who Knew Dylan', there's a scene where the main character, Crosswaithe steps up to the stage to play guitar in a seedy bar. Both Gay and his character perform amazingly. Gay's descriptions of playing music are faultless and powerful. He packs about a novel's worth of emotions into each story.

But don't let that power and emotive ability scare you away. Gay is also funny and easy to read. He's writing a very contemporary Southern Gothic, so his characters are moonshiners and dope growers. They sell big-screen televisions and have small-time dreams. In 'The Paperhanger' (another reason to buy the O. Henry Prize collections, if you're not now), you'll meet the most menacing human since Bob first peeked out from behind the furniture in 'Twin Peaks'. Is this collection as good as Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'? Well, it certainly took almost fifty years for someone to come up with a collection that's close. That's pretty hard to find, isn't it?

One thing about both Searcy and Gay that I find rather surprising is that they both have been embraced by the big-time publishers. Now, Gay's first novel was from a small, southern press, MacMurray & Beck Fiction. Isn't it great that a small southern press can release a novel like that? I think so. But Searcy has from the get-go been with Viking. And to my mind, he's a harder author to like. So, while I tend to go about thinking that big publishers are in search only of pabulum, this clearly is not the case.

Of course, these are not the only Southern Gothic writers out there. Poppy Z. Brite probably fits into the niche, and I've been told that I should buy some Harry Crews immediately. It's advice I'm certainly going to take -- 'A Feast of Snakes' is now on my to-buy list. Literate prose, personal concerns, absurd humor and surreal surprise make this small sub-genre intrinsically appealing to me, especially now that terror is everywhere.

We walk in a world saturated with fear. While we're talking out of one side of our mouths about mass murderers, atomic war, urban firefights, lone gunmen and smallpox vaccinations, each of us has a host of unspoken everyday fears that are frankly much more relevant. Sometimes, I'd welcome a goddamn atomic war if I didn't have to worry about money slowly draining away from the family. On that fateful day, I was practicing for a concert in front of a big television screen filled to bursting with images of collapsing skyscrapers. I was hoping the economy didn't tank so badly that our sources of income would dry up. My terrors are all intensely personal. When I read literature about the ingrown fears that plague the thoughts of low-life characters before they fall asleep, I find a path through my own drowsy fears. On the other side, when I wake up, I have something to look forward to. As I read about those tiny terrors, as I collect and pay the bills and hope that no automobile accidents or serious, costly illnesses befall myself or my family, I know that I'm not alone. Those fears can be confronted. They can be met, experienced and left behind. Having done that, I'm ready for the news.


Rick Kleffel