“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” -Palmer, The Thing.
It’s the stated policy of this blog to spoil things. It’s part of the process. I’m re-stating it here. Everything mentioned in the title will have the fuck spoiled out of it, so if you want surprises, I quote Lord Humungus: “just walk away”.
Horror has to walk a fine line. It frequently posits things that, if true, would change our understanding of the universe so greatly that we would be scratching our heads in disbelief even as it destroyed the hell out of us.
When he wasn’t being a horrific racist, H.P. Lovecraft returned to this notion often; a thing occurs which is so far beyond our own comprehension that witnessing it drives us mad. And the thing which is driving us mad doesn’t understand us, either. We’re so outside of its understanding that at best we’re insects to be ignored, at worst we’re insects to be crushed underfoot. “At the Mountains of Madness” is his level best work— people encounter aliens, aliens encounter people, both of whom regard each other as things to be dissected and studied, but any understanding they come to is fleeting and muddled.
The idea that there would be a hidden city in Antarctica wasn’t implausible at the time it was written, and Lovecraft sells it really well. The protagonists are scientists, who behave like scientists: collecting samples, drilling, surveying. Even when they come across the unbelievable, they behave as if it’s another thing to be studied and catalogued. The amount of danger they are actually in and may accidentally unleash becomes apparent to them slowly. By the time we get to the Shuggoths, you’re so invested in the world that the idea of massive shapeless things created by aliens which perform tasks for them is just a part of the landscape.
Easier suspension of disbelief is one of the reasons I find the idea of Jason from Friday the 13th a lot more frightening than I ever did Freddy from a Nightmare on Elm St. A remorseless, faceless thing that pursues you relentlessly and resists all attempts to stop it until you are dead is a lot scarier than someone who visits you in your dreams, calls you a bitch, and turns you into a footstool or something. Jason is basically a shark, swimming forward, devouring, vanishing.
Jason is something I can imagine happening, even if the thought of a corpse being resurrected by electricity (something that happens to him in two separate films) is silly. The characters in the Friday the 13th films rarely have time to contemplate the world-altering consequences of a killer that cannot be killed (unless he can be killed; the series has absolutely no sense of canon), as they are in immediate danger, or they’re just fodder for a gory shock. It’s when the movies attempt to explain Jason (especially in the amazingly craptacular “Jason Goes to Hell”) that things break down. You can’t believe in a faceless, remorseless killer when said killer has an incredibly dumb and convoluted backstory and is ripping off 1987’s “The Hidden” suddenly.
Sometimes, though, a kind of manic energy or over the top nature of a work also creates a kind of suspension of disbelief. “Stage Fright”, which I briefly wrote about before, does exactly that. The plot is so absolutely flat out insane that it almost can’t be described without effectively recounting the entire book, but it moves forward so quickly that you’re just sort of swept along by it. Plot point after plot point combines with over the top gore in a kind of delightful pile up until it runs out of steam. This is a very difficult thing to create, and and even more difficult thing to sustain; eventually the reader will become immune to the shock. It’s also an incredibly individualistic thing; I was raised on a diet of shitty 80s horror (as if the preceding paragraphs don’t give that away), so this kind of lunacy is something that appeals to me.
When the author isn’t careful, or manic, things can fall apart quickly. “Winterset Hollow” begins with the premise that people in their late 20s and early 30s maintain a fandom around a children’s book, which was written long before they were born. The children’s book is about a group of animals who live in harmony until one of them (a rabbit) goes outside of the hollow they live in to see what’s out there, and encounter a group of wild buffalo. It ends with everyone gathering together for a feast known as ‘Barley Day’.
On Barley Day, the fans of the book travel to an island where the author lived. They do this, knowing that they won’t be able to see his house or the grounds he lived on— which is already a bit off. If this person was such a beloved author, who is remembered fondly by so many people that there’s an industry around his work (there’s an animated movie! fanzines! Etc.) wouldn’t someone have tried to cash in on his house? Weird, but it doesn’t lose me here. It’s possible. The author is given a slight backstory: rich, eccentric, and so on which helps make the idea a little easier to swallow.
Since this is a horror novel, everyone snoops around and finds their way onto the grounds, thanks to a conveniently downed tree which has crashed through the fence. And at this point, they run into giant, speaking anthropomorphic animals, who invite them into the house for a feast. They act as if this is somehow normal : a talking rabbit, fox, frog, and a silent but human-acting bear are just things that are accepted. It’s the strangest reaction I can think of— even if it was my fondest desire to be swept into the world of my favorite children’s book, actually having it happen would be a mind warping nightmare from the start.
Take a moment and image what it would actually be like if you were eating a casual dinner, and a giant rabbit knocked on your door and asked you for some of it. I can’t imagine you would blithely just put some of it in Tupperware and hand it off to him. You’d freak the fuck out. Maybe, over time, if they stuck around and introduced themselves, humanity would collectively get used to our new rabbit friends; but the immediate reaction would be some combination of terror and awe. Everything we know about evolution, and a lot of what we know about biology would have to be scrapped. Did this rabbit magically evolve in some fashion? Is it an alien that just so happens to look like a rabbit and has been studying us and our language?
In this book, however, everyone seems to sort of shrug it off, and joins these animals for a meal. People do get around to asking the animals questions about where they come from, etc; but that initial shock isn’t represented in a way I could believe, and the entire picture then just falls out of the frame.
Making things even more difficult is the fact that it’s a well written novel. The characters, both animal and human, have well established motivations (even the bear, who’s role is mostly just to be huge and terrifying and smash things with a sledgehammer, has a background), and the prose is intelligent. The author even actually includes the ‘book within a book’, which is something that gets left out of a lot of similar tales. But it can’t convince me that meeting giant talking rabbits, frogs, or foxes wouldn’t immediately be so life-altering that it wouldn’t just dominate the rest of the story. And while being chased by a giant, sledgehammer wielding bear would be terrifying beyond measure, the book lacks the kind of crazy forward charge that makes you forget the premise is absolutely nuts, nor does it have the sort of precision that Lovecraft shows off in “At The Mountains of Madness”. It’s not trashy enough for its own good, and its main characters are “just people” who happen to be fans of a specific book. The whole thing ends up missing the mark in a way that’s frustrating, because you can imagine it somehow working, but there’s no immediate answer as to how it can be fixed.
Horror as a genre gets a lot of shit; and maybe some of that is well deserved, there’s lots of ridiculous horror out there. But one thing feeds into another: horror was (and still can be) a kind of training wheels for filmmakers, cheaply produced, shoveled out to fill in gaps between major releases. And horror novels were, for a long time, treated in a similar way— thrown onto bookstore shelves in cheap paperbacks, with lurid covers designed to get you to part with your $5 without thinking a lot about what the book might actually contain (see Grady Hendrix’s “Paperbacks from Hell” for a history of this era). There are various terms for horror which somehow ‘transcends’ this (for lack of a better term) cheapness, and I hate all of them. Writing an excellent, literate horror novel or making a horror movie that appeals to critics and ‘wider audiences’ does not mean it’s not horror.
Horror is actually hard to pull off successfully; the wheels can come off the cart for a million tiny reasons. These little things are fascinating to me, and one of the reasons I decided to start writing about what I read.
So is “Winterset Hollow” a failure? I finished it, in spite of my problems with it, and it’s stuck in my head enough to cough up over 1,700 words about it and post about it; more of a failure would be something that I threw aside and refused to finish, or one of the books I look at on Goodreads and don’t remember reading at all. So in that sense, it’s not a failure. But it crosses that fine line and becomes unbelievable in a way I could not get past. I’m genuinely curious to see what the author follows up with, and if he can keep the wheels on the cart this time around.