Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Round Midnight Part Two: "The Figure in the Shadows" by John Bellairs

In honor of Halloween, all this month I'm going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call "'Round Midnight".

John Bellairs, I guess you could say, was the thinking man's R.L. Stine. He, like Stine, made a career churning out a panoply of childrens' horror books, but while Stine's work (which isn't without its merit, mind you) is full of grotesque images, and often aspires to be kiddie Stephen King, ends up being blackly comic self-parody often reminiscent of the Evil Dead series. Meanwhile, John Bellairs' books took their inspiration from classic American ghosts and ghouls writers like Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe, and often relied more on atmosphere, and suggestion to create fear, than whatever screwed up thing came into the author's head. The Figure in the Shadows, was one of my first forays into the horror genre at large, and as such, this article will be more of a nostalgic retrospective/recommendation than a  review.

 Even though it's not as well known as his (quite delightful) gothic mystery, The House with a Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows was one of the first books to truly terrify me. Sure, certain scenes in Harry Potter books (the first appearance of the Dementors, for example) and the dread-filled Series of Unfortunate Events spooked me, but it wasn't until this book, that I ever trembled with fear while reading. It tells the story of Lewis Barnavelt, a kid who has the unfortunate habit of getting into trouble with the invisible world, finding a coin with magical powers, that unfortunately is also connected to a malevolent spirit. He's appeared in other books of Bellairs', including The House with a Clock in its Walls, and is different other kids' fantasy protagonists, because of how roundly average he is: he has an above average intellect, but isn't a genius, he's kind of overweight, and has no special powers to speak of, making him the quintessential everyman. This helps the reader to sympathize with how truly out of his depth he is, when he's thrown into situations beyond his comprehension.

Even though he does go on to many other adventures after this one, Bellairs does a good job making you disregard this, and fear for Lewis' life during particularly tense moments. The supporting characters are also pretty well developed, and are far more competent than Lewis at dealing with his ghost problems. But where Bellairs really excels is taking the sublime spookiness of the best ghost stories, and combining them with a propulsive overarching plot. He knows how to create tension and atmosphere, emphasizing the almost existential loneliness of Lewis' hometown of New Zebedee, Michigan to great effect, especially during the scene when the ghost approaches Lewis' home.

The famed illustrator Edward Gorey slummed it drawing for Bellairs' books, and added to the creepy mood with his subdued, starkly beautiful depictions of the events of the aforementioned scene. This specific passage, was the one that made my heart pound with dread and horror, and nearly put me off Bellairs' work forever, until I realized how much fun it was being that terrified. And that thrill of controlled fear is what's been bringing me back to horror fiction ever since.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

'Round Midnight Part One: "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H.P. Lovecraft

In honor of Halloween, all this month I'm going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call "'Round Midnight". 

For a notorious shut-in and misanthrope, H.P. Lovecraft sure knew how to scare a person. His "Cthulhu Mythos" stories are known for their quaint New England settings, their unique cosmology, and overwhelming sense of cosmic dread. He was one of the first horror authors to stray away from your typical witches-ghosts-undead triumvirate, and was met with middling success during his life, but after his death was revered as one of the greatest writers in the genre, and highly influential on authors from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. He was also a racist in the "grouchy old man" mode, but we'll get to that later.

His 1927 novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is strange among the works in his oeuvre, in that it grafts his "mind-breaking abominations from beyond the void are slowly taking over the universe" ideas onto a traditional English-style detective thriller. This actually works surprisingly well. It concerns a young man named (you guessed it) Charles Dexter Ward. He's a pretty normal WASP-y New Englander who develops a strange obsession with his long dead ancestor Joseph Curwen, who was known for his eccentric habits. Not to ruin much, but things go pear shaped, and his doctor, Marinus Willett, is sent in to investigate.

The beginning of the book is a little slow. Lovecraft enjoys building atmosphere gradually over time, but all that eventually culminates to some of the scariest horror writing ever. I was reading this on the train, one of the least immersive places to read, and I was afraid. This is made even more impressive when you see that Lovecraft doesn't rely on cheap shocks, or overly gruesome/sick description to make you jump. The mystery elements ground it, so it doesn't float too far off into Lovecraft's twisted, whimsical head, like some of his other novellas (e.g. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), and provide a welcome relief and comfort from the stark horror taking place elsewhere. There even is a little comedy at one point, although it's easy to miss.

I have two main issues with it, though. It takes a long time for Charles Dexter Ward to get going, and it often spends pages digressing into the villainous Curwen's backstory, which drags a bit. The aforementioned racism is also at play here, but only in the occasional descriptive passage. Lovecraft didn't get out much (and kind of hated all people), so he ended up with a skewed perception of humankind, that most often manifested in prejudice. This doesn't forgive his racist biases by a long stretch, but doesn't diminish the mostly great writing here, and Lovecraft's impact on the genre of horror. In total, this is a flawed, but singularly frightening work from one of America's premier masters of spooky.