Grim, Ghastly and Gruesome: New Horror Fiction

Grim, Ghastly and Gruesome: New Horror Fiction

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Mannequins, like statues and haunted dolls, terrify not because of their monstrous features, but the opposite: They are scarily perfect. With a placid, vacuous expression and an icy indifference to the suffering of the living, a mannequin demonstrates that human feeling is in itself irrelevant. Theirs is the horror of chill perfection, and in their presence one experiences the unsettling sensation of being undone by a simulation.

In NIGHT OF THE MANNEQUINS (Tordotcom, 135 pp., paper, $13.99), Stephen Graham Jones taps into these elements to explore the disruptions of growing up. A group of high school friends discover Manny, “a naked white mannequin” like a “giant Ken doll,” their sophomore year near a creek. All that year, Manny is passed around among them and then forgotten. When their senior year arrives, the narrator decides to “bring him back for this perfect prank” as a way of “honoring the kids we’d been.” The result is not what he expected, and makes for a horror novella that is both weird and uncanny by turns. Suffused with questions about the nature of change and friendship, “Night of the Mannequins” is a fairy tale of impermanence showcasing Graham Jones’s signature style of smart, irreverent horror.

A darker look at mannequins is found in Junji Ito’s graphic adaptation of Edogawa Ranpo’s story “An Unearthly Love.” A wife overhears her husband making love to his mistress in an attic and, returning later, she discovers “a cold, lifeless doll. The sheer verisimilitude of it was such that it made me gasp and shudder.” Her revenge on the mannequin is absolute, as is everything in this insanely scary collection of graphic stories, VENUS IN THE BLIND SPOT (Viz Media, 272 pp., $22.99). The book showcases some of Ito’s most loved shorter pieces, such as the visually arresting “Billions Alone,” in which the discovery of two corpses “firmly sewn together” with fishing line opens into a national mystery as more and more bodies are discovered tethered together. I particularly liked another Ranpo adaptation, “The Human Chair,” about “an ugly furniture maker who was carried away by a violent passion” and “hid himself inside of a chair he had built and gave himself over to the pleasures of his perversion.” “Edogawa Ranpo” is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe, and the pen name of Taro Hirai (1894-1965).

The 1964 French novel THE TENANT (Valancourt, 176 pp., $15.99), by Roland Topor, was adapted into a horror film by Roman Polanski in 1976 — eight years after his iconic “Rosemary’s Baby” — and then largely forgotten; it’s just been reissued with a new introduction by R. B. Russell. Translated by Francis Price, the novel follows the disenfranchised and arguably sociopathic Monsieur Trelkovsky as he moves into an apartment in Paris, and is quickly ostracized by his neighbors. The central dilemma Trelkovsky faces is one of erasure: He desperately wants to find a home, but he can’t find his place. He was forced from his former apartment, and thinks: “Others would come into it … and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next he would have vanished.”

Menacing neighbors is a subject Topor knew intimately. During World War II, his father was imprisoned in a camp in Pithiviers, and escaped before he could be sent to Auschwitz. Topor’s French landlady turned on the family, took their possessions and tried to inform the government of his father’s whereabouts. After the war, they sued her for their possessions and returned to their former apartment, where they remained, paying rent to the woman who had betrayed them.

In his introduction, Russell writes that “The Tenant” is “not so much a book about becoming an outsider. … It is about the absurdity of that society we all crave to be a part of.” While Topor, who was also a visual artist, is most often thought of as a surrealist, “The Tenant” is naturalistic, its portrait of predatory neighbors plausible in a way that demands one consider the banality of our tormentors: Even that mundane guy down the hall with bad breath and a comb-over is capable of evil.

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