Well, that was a bit bleaker than I had anticipated, but the winner is, ironically, “You Can’t Win”, so that is next on the list. While I was waiting, I started Nick Cutter’s “The Deep”. I read “The Troop” and “Little Heaven” a bit ago; and I remember the gross killer tapeworms of “The Troop” I have to confess “Little Heaven” didn’t stick with me very well. I didn’t even know “Nick Cutter” was a penname until I did some basic googling. It never even occurred to me that there might not be a ‘real’ Nicholas Cutter who wrote horror books. Instead, I learned of the Craig Davidson, who’s work I am entirely unfamiliar with, who writes horror books as Nick Cutter.
It’s a strange thing; is the rest of the world out there all “gee, no shit, genius” or is everyone “huh, interesting”. I fall into the latter camp, obviously. Since I like his horror novels, I may at some point check out his other work and see what it’s like.
I’ve ended up writing a fair bit about horror novels; I think thus far I am 50/50 on it here, and if you stretch the definition a bit, it’s probably a majority. I’ve written a bit about the need for ‘boot camp for the psyche‘. But honestly, most horror does not frighten me; I consider it a kind of light break between reading more ‘literary’ things. It’s a kind of comfort food, a way of giving myself a mental break before delving into something more abstract. Very few horror writers experiment with form or structure. Some authors, like Stephen King, occasionally add experimental touches to their stories. “Cujo” contains brief flashes from the dog’s perspective; for example. But for the most part, when you crack a horror novel, you know what you’re going to get, and you’re more expecting vacations on a theme than a radical piece of new music.
What do I actually find scary? It’s both difficult and very easy to pin down. I’m about halfway through “The Deep”— but it contains some moments that really rang my bell. The inciting incident of the novel is a disease named “The ‘Gets” (a name which I think is fairly terrible, but I couldn’t cough up a better one, so…) which causes people to forget things— it’s a kind of rapid onset horrible dementia, with people forgetting small things, like how to tie their shoes, then progressing to them forgetting to eats, and eventually forgetting to breathe. They die covered in scabs (a convenient outward sign that they have “The ‘Gets”) not aware of anything. But that’s not particularly scary.
What is frightening is that society itself has started to break down; we’re only given little hints— and the narrator downplays it with some irony. “It’s not the apocalypse, it’s just something bad happening”. It sounds like a bit of a mantra that the people stuck in this world would repeat to themselves as store shelves empty, power becomes sporadic, and the calvary does not come, because the calvary is stuck in the same world. This notion, that you’re witnessing things break, and that the new world has yet to shape itself is something I don’t see explored a whole lot. There’s a lot of *post* apocalyptic fiction— where you either knuckle under and survive or become zombie chow, die of radiation poisoning, etc. But fiction that occurs right on that line is often limited to a prologue or an opening— the first 10-15 minutes of the film Dawn of the Dead (and it’s remake, albeit in a very different fashion), show the moment that society becomes ungovernable/collapses very effectively.
After spending a couple of short chapters in this pre-apocalyptic world, “The Deep” narrows it’s focus. I don’t blame it for doing so, and at the halfway point I am enjoying the read. Cutter does an excellent job describing a claustrophobic hell, there are some cosmic horror elements, and his grasp of science is good enough so that the unbelievable nature of the science is believable. I’m not going to describe anything further in great detail, as I haven’t finished yet, but it’s nicely paced, and is doing what it said it would do on the tin.
During the earliest part of the pandemic, I could not focus. Reading became impossible, except for the news, which I read over and over and over. We were in the middle of moving when the ‘lockdowns’ began, and I was stuck in a strange town, not really knowing anyone, staying in a motel as the house was not quite ready. It was incredibly stressful; as I’m sure it was for most folks. There was a lot of doomscrolling, trudging through days at work, and playing video games. A slow, boring set of days. Not the apocalypse, just something bad happening.
It’s the same reason we fear dying; it’s not the after that frightens us, it’s the moment of transition. Once we’re there, we will be where we are. Leaving behind what we know, that change is what we fear the most. It’s not the end, it’s just something happening.
And perhaps the reason that there’s not a lot of fiction occurring in that space is because it’s largely static; waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for an indeterminate amount of time. You’d end up with more of a memoir than a novel; a thing frozen in a horrible moment of uncertainty, waiting for the gunshot that tells us it it’s time to leave the starting block. Maybe that book is out there and I haven’t read it. If you have, let me know, I’d like to give it a shot.