There’s an affinity between horror and the avant-garde. From the visceral dystopian visions found in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, to the gothic-infused surrealism of films like Jane Arden’s The Other Side of Underneath and Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, and even to David Lynch’s projects over multiple mediums, experiments in form frequently amplify the nightmarish aspects of horror (both horror as a genre and horror as an emotion). Adam L.G. Nevill’s recent collection of stories entitled Wyrd and Other Derelictions is part of that avant-garde horror tradition.
Kathe Koja’s 1991 novel The Cipher is considered a classic of contemporary horror fiction. An unusual blend of body horror and cosmic horror, the story examines how a mysterious, physics-morphing hole found in an apartment building – called the Funhole by many of the characters in the novel – alters the lives of everyone that comes into contact with it, and especially the life of the narrator, Nicholas. Filled with sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque physical transformations, and laced through with meditations about nothingness and the unknown, The Cipher is an intense exploration of the outer edges of human experience. A new print edition is forthcoming this September from Meerkat Press. I recently interviewed Koja through email about the novel.
Kathe Koja has been writing in multiple genres since the publication of her first novel, The Cipher, in 1991, but a consistent thread within her work – whether it’s in a dark fantasy vein, veering towards gothic historical fiction, or exploring the more surreal edges of horror – is its focus on characters who are fragmented, driven, and obsessive. In contrast to horror and weird fiction that involves fairly normal individuals being confronted with forms of the unknown, Koja’s characters frequently seem to harbour something strange and unsettling within themselves. The weird, in many of Koja’s tales, works from the inside out, not just the outside in. And her new book, Velocities: Stories (Meerkat Press), continues this theme.
In the past few years, there has been a great deal of focus in the horror community on the explosion of horror literature in the 70s and 80s, an interest partly generated by Grady Hendrix’s excellent book Paperbacks from Hell. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about gothic and horror writing that was being published just prior to those years – the time when writers such as Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson were flourishing. If “mid-century” often conjures up images of cocktails and cigarettes, McCarthyism and the atomic bomb, Freudian theories and existentialism, what horror novels and stories were highly reflective of those times? Below is a list of six books that partially embody the notion of mid-century horror.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary possession story, whether in a book or film, not being somehow influenced by William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Blatty’s novel is one of those books that defines a subgenre and many of the images that readers and film-goers have of possession tales (the troubled priests, the candle-lit Catholic iconography, the other-worldly voices) seemingly originate with Blatty’s 1971 book. But there’s a possession novel, much less well known, that appeared roughly a decade earlier, and which includes many of the possession narrative attributes that would become a staple in books and films involving exorcism.