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The cover of the new Granta has the word “Horror” in a vaguely Gothic font beneath a drawing of a fibrous blob with gooey things peering from its depths — it looks like something H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might have birthed on a chilly day. This might lead a reader to expect a collection of supernatural tales in the classic horror tradition, but what emerges is something more subtle and wide-ranging — perhaps too wide-ranging at times.
When the word makes its first appearance inside the book – in Will Self’s “False Blood” – the reference is to the author’s long-time drug addiction (“that horror has cast a long shadow over my lives and the lives of my family, and infiltrated my fictive inscape, poisoning its field margins, salting its earth”). This sets a theme: these pieces aren’t just about malevolent spirits that might assail us from without — they are also about inner betrayals of mind and body.
Thus, “horror” can mean looking down at the dead body of the woman who gave birth to you. (From Paul Auster’s “Your Birthday Has Come and Gone”, an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir: “You have seen several corpses in the past, and you are familiar with the inertness of the dead ... but none of those corpses belonged to your mother, no other dead body was the body in which your own life began.”) It can also mean answering a phone call to be verbally assailed by a sanctimonious cousin who disapproved of the dead woman’s character and has no compunctions about expressing her feelings.
Nearly as intense as Auster’s account is Julie Otsuka’s poetic “Diem Perdidi”, about another mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, while Kanitta Meechubott’s “A Garden of Illuminating Existence” is a series of hypnotic illustrations that tell the story – in nine intricate colour plates – of her grandmother’s bout with cancer of the womb. Here, the place that nurtured life becomes a sort of hell where “the pain spreads like a great forest fire”. What greater horror could be imagined?
I thought the most intriguing pieces were the ones that mixed tones, weaving genre tropes into real-world narratives. Self’s essay, for instance, is a reminder that blood can be mundane, mystical or terrifying depending on the context — it’s a life force but also a merciless traitor, and an enduring prop in the horror and gore genres. The piece includes a morbid anecdote about a man who used his own iron-rich blood as a fertiliser for pumpkins — a detail that is tantalisingly close to all those pulp stories about carnivorous plants.
“Is vampirism a matter of the overly self-conscious being awakened to life by the vitality of those who are barely self-conscious at all?” wonders Mark Doty in “Insatiable”. But mark the context: this is from Doty’s book about the poet Walt Whitman, and it builds on the possibility that Bram Stoker based Dracula on Whitman. How could “the embodiment of lunar pallor” emerge from “the quintessential poet of affirmation”, Doty asks, and attempts to answer his own question in a piece that touches on the bloodsucking implicit in art, and on the hints of vampirism in the relationship between a poet and his readers.
Some of the fictional pieces dwell on horrors of the mind: in Don DeLillo’s “The Starveling”, an obsessive movie-watcher follows a woman who could be a kindred spirit, a doppelganger or perhaps just a creature of his imagination; and Sarah Hall’s atmospheric “She Murdered Mortal He” leaves us wondering if a woman’s inner turmoil might have had bloody consequences. Meanwhile, horror buffs with a sense of humour should enjoy Roberto Bolano’s “The Colonel’s Son”, which is essentially a plot description of a B-grade zombie movie so bad it’s brilliant. (“...there’s only the sound of biting and chewing until the door opens and Julie appears again with her lips [the whole of her face, actually] smeared with blood, holding the Mexican’s head in one hand.”)
Among the genuine spine-chillers –but also unexpectedly moving in its way – is Stephen King’s “The Dune”, about a nonagenarian judge who has been obsessed since age 10 with an island a short distance from his Florida estate. What draws the judge back to this place is something we learn as the story proceeds – and it builds to a conclusion that should satisfy any genre fan – but as in all of King’s best work, there is a deeper undercurrent. The story – which begins with a reflection about how human bodies deteriorate with age – touches on our foreknowledge of mortality and the attempt to beat it off; it’s also a reminder of how fleeting our lifetimes are when measured against larger forces.
There’s little to fault in this book if you consider just the quality of the writing, but I had a minor reservation about the two reportage-driven pieces — Tom Bamforth’s chronicle of a UN mission in Sudan and Santiago Roncagliolo’s personal account of terrorism and its repercussions in Peru. These are good long-form journalistic essays, but do they belong here? A thematic collection that accommodates such a wide spectrum of fiction, personal memoir and reportage is a little too diffused for my liking. Besides, the book’s back-cover quotes Arthur Conan Doyle as saying “Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” But the Sudan and Peru essays, matter-of-factly listing real-world monstrosities, don’t require quite the same level of imaginative participation from the reader as the other pieces do.
Double Day; 256 pages; Rs 699