The Horror of Women Writers

Sunday’s NY Times Book Review section has a great essay by Terrence Rafferty called Shelley’s Daughters. Rafferty remarks on the irony that the “mother” of the horror novel gave birth to more sons than daughters, e.g., Poe, King, Lovecraft. And the few daughters she may claim did not always write prolifically in the genre of horror (Rafferty mentions Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to support this observation). The best part of his essay, of course, is the brief reviews he gives of contemporary women writers of horror. Don’t, however, expect to find reviews of the popular vampire novels by Laurell K. Hamilton and Stephenie Meyer: Rafferty notes that their novels “don’t appear to be concerned, as true horror, should be, with actually frightening the reader.” Rather, he comments on novels by Sara Gran, Alexandra Sokoloff, Sarah Langan, and Elizabeth Hand; writers new to me, but whose work I look forward to reading (especially, Langan whose novel The Keeper I just ordered).

Frankly, I would love to write ** good ** horror. I tried my hand at it in last year’s National Novel Writing Month and, most recently, in a short story that has been revised multiple times. But writing horror is much more difficult than I thought it would be. Anyone can write gory scenes of zombies eating humans or ghosts wielding axes and chopping off body parts; but to instill cold prickly fear in the reader requires skill and precision. I grew up addicted to horror films, mostly from Great Britain but pre-Hammer Film Productions, and the ones that always scared me the most were those that were heavy on suspense: What’s behind the door? Is the monster there? Should our hero open it? What’s behind the door?

Writing horror down is not for the feint of heart.

Max the Manx

If I had known that I would never see Max again, I would have taken his picture so I could share him with all of you. I’d want you all to see his tiny green eyes staring up at me from the folds of the cloth bag that he nestled in. I gazed down at his eyes every time I stopped for a red light as I drove us from J. Lewis Hall Park in Woodville to the Northwood Animal Hospital in Tallahassee. 

I had first met Max only 15 minutes earlier: a small ball of gray fur that fit easily into my husband’s hand. My husband had been biking when he saw the frightened kitten on the St. Marks Trail. When he saw that the kitten had a wound, we decided to take him to Northwood.

At the hospital we were told that the kitten was a Manx—he was born without a tail—but there was a wound on his bottom, a wound that was infested with maggots. My husband and I agreed to take full financial responsibility for the kitten so he would have a chance at survival.

We went to dinner and talked excitedly about making a home for … Max. Within minutes of leaving him at the hospital, we had named him. Max the Manx. We talked about how we could safely and slowly introduce him to our three geriatric cats. All of them had been strays at one time; Max would be in good company. We ignored the obvious—the maggots and the “septic tank” smell that had emanated from Max.

So we weren’t prepared for the call from the Northwood Animal Hospital. We weren’t prepared to hear that Max had been euthanized because his condition was too far gone. Max had not only been born without a tail, but also without a rectum, a condition called “Manx Syndrome.” His bladder was hard as a rock, and his feces were backed up into his abdomen. He was in pain, and there was nothing else the veterinarians could have done for him.

Worse than my sense of loss was the realization that someone had purposely left Max to suffer and die. His death might have been inevitable, but his suffering wasn’t. He could have been dropped off at any emergency animal hospital. 

Our only comfort now, when we think of Max, is that at least for the last few hours of his life, he was in the hands of people who cared about him. I only wish he had started life that way.

The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian

So, how many of you have read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga?  Mr. Adiga’s novel is a headspinner for those who have always thought of India as a sacred, spiritual mecca, blessedly innocent of the worst of human kind.  For the White Tiger (aka Balram, the main character), there are two Indias:  one of light, and one of darkness, and the Mother Ganga flows through the India of darkness.  The novel is the story of Balram’s journey from the poor abused son of a rickshaw puller to a wealthy man of tomorrow, an entrepreneur in Bangalore.  The political corruption and mafia-style business dealings that Balram observes along the way are nothing new to any American who stays abreast of US news, except that this is all taking place in India, the land of Ghandi.  And the corruption is so blatant, so “business as usual,” that one cannot be too surprised at the lengths to which Balram goes to secure his freedom.

Balram tells his story through letters to a Chinese dignitary, who he heard is planning to visit Bangalore.  A novel of letters is not a new technique, but it takes considerable skill to pull off well.  And Adiga does pull it off.  He has created a story so riveting that I could barely stop reading long enough to sleep or to drive myself to work.  And he created a character in Balram that I couldn’t help but want only the best for, even while he was commiting the worst of crimes.  He is undereducated but astute enough to take the insult of being called “half-baked” and turn into a lofty title, thus his “autobiography of a half-baked Indian,” thus his story.

I hope Adiga wins the Booker Prize.  The White Tiger is one of the most exciting stories I’ve read in a long, long time.

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