Charnel Chats is a new feature that invites horror fans to a fun, literature-themed survey that is sure to tickle the bones and singe the flesh. Want to have a go at it? Just email your answers to grimreaders [at] yahoo [dot] com. Get in on the scares!
Today's guest is Bill Ryan, film blogger from The Kind of Face You Hate.
What was your first experience with horror literature, the time you realized you were bitten by the reading bug?
I would have a hard time pinning it down, honestly. My interest in the genre, or where it all began for me, is kind of a soup now. I honestly think probably everything started with Stephen King, but even then I couldn’t tell you when or why. My first real genre interest, of any kind, was Sherlock Holmes, who I first discovered in a short collection of a three stories – dumbed down, I believe, for young readers – that I bought at an elementary school book fair. It could well be that it started with that book, because excluding “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” a kind of tossed off little thing that my dad, who was a bit of a Holmes fan, said he thought Doyle had probably written on his lunch break, the other two, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” and “The Sign of Four,” are actually kind of creepy at times.
And then King, for one reason or another. As all young boys are, I was drawn to the violence, but for all his flaws King is good enough to ping the reader’s antennae in other ways. So once you, meaning me, become obsessed with King, you become obsessed for all sorts of reasons. Then add on top of that the fact that King is notoriously generous about sharing his love for other writers, and you start to pick up lots of stuff (Donald E. Westlake even made a joke about that tendency of King’s in his comic novel A Likely Story). Through him I learned about Harlan Ellison and Richard Matheson, and on and on and on.
Are you ever terrified by horror literature? What elements make you shiver?
Probably not now, no. I remember getting really freaked out by a scene in F. Paul Wilson’s Reborn when one character, a devout Catholic, is singing in her church choir and suddenly finds herself singing, against her wishes and against the lyrics of the hymn everyone else is singing, the words “Satan is here.” That got to me. If I read it for the first time now, though, I doubt it would have the same effect (even so, writing it out, it still sounds pretty creepy).
But terrified is a strong word. I can certainly get the shivers. The Ramsey Campbell story “The Companion” is an excellent example of a story that made the hairs on my arm stand up. The elements that do it for me tend to be pretty quiet, and insinuating more than explicit about what we’re dealing with. The Campbell story ends on an image that basically signals the beginning of the horror facing the protagonist, and I’d hate to give it away to anyone who doesn’t know it. But implication can be a very powerful tool.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Why are you drawn to them?
Hell…how much time have you got? Robert Aickman, who probably exemplifies better than anyone else what I described in my previous answer, really opened up the genre for me, and the possibilities of horror. I have to confess to a bias in favor of British authors, and not just in horror (though interestingly not British crime writers, crime being my other favorite genre), and there’s something about the very precise, almost casually educated quality of Aickman’s prose mixed with some of the weirdest imagery and ideas.
The end of his story “The Inner Room” is a masterpiece all by itself, and at no point are you ever really clear what exactly is happening, or why the Christ it’s happening. But it is brilliantly eerie. Reggie Oliver, too, is another favorite, of the Aickman mold (more or less, though that’s kind of a simplification). I tend to parse out the stories by writers whose books are not that easy to come by, so I haven’t read a lot of Oliver yet, but, for instance, his story “The Collected Symphonies of Adolf Hitler”…I mean, do I really have to go on after that title? And that’s really what the story is about!
I love strangeness. I love classic horror, too, modern and otherwise, and while I prefer short fiction when the novel is, sadly, king (it would take too long to get into why I think that’s sad), there’s great short fiction by Joe R. Lansdale, Chet Williamson, Thomas Tessier, and so on, I’ve spent most of my life reading that kind of thing. The strangeness of Aickman and Oliver and the other big name in my trinity, Thomas Ligotti, is relatively new to me, and it’s endlessly exciting.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Poe. I started Poe around the time I started King, and because of that I left him behind and didn’t read him for a long time. But a couple of years ago I went back to him, and I’m here to tell you – that Edgar Allan Poe dude is no joke.
Do you have any guilty pleasures or horror-ble reading experiences to spill your guts about?
No. Or rather, yes. Sort of. I don’t know. I’ve read two novels by Richard Laymon, who is so bad as to be indefensible. Reading him was a shameful exercise for me. However, he was so committed to pitching his work at the lowest, cheapest level, and that’s a level I can’t completely shun no matter how much I wish I could, I know I’ll read him again someday, and others like him. It will be a while, though. There’s too much great stuff to get to for me to make that a habit of any kind.
What would you say is your favorite “type” of horror story (ex: “dark force invades a small New England town”)? Why?
I’ve kind of already answered this. The “weird” story, or just the “strange” story is my favorite. “Why” is harder to answer. “Why” is a tough question for horror in general. “Why do you read that stuff?” I don’t know, man, because I want to?
But weird stories are often the most creative, the most original, the most unsettling, and the best written. It could be as simple as that.
If you were the head of a major film studio, what work of horror literature would you adapt to the screen?
I’ve always thought a brilliant film could be made from Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali. Given how that book ends, though, I don’t imagine anyone’s going to be heaving money at that idea anytime soon.
On that same note, what would your choices be for the best and worst existing examples of film adaptations of genre works?
Hm. Well, The Exorcist is my favorite horror movie, so I guess that one. Followed closely by Rosemary’s Baby, which is frankly a pretty amazing piece of work. I’m always blown away by the little things in that film. Not original choices, I suppose, but there you go.
Worst…? Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is pretty appalling, but I’m convinced there must be something worse than that somewhere. Or maybe not worse, but less obvious. But Frankenstein, the novel I mean, is a particular favorite of mine, and when you consider the potential for that movie, a true, faithful adaptation backed by a real budget, what Branagh delivered becomes more and more depressing the more you think about it.
What’s the most horrifying non-horror book you’ve ever read? (As in a book that is not usually recognized as being part of the genre but that fits your bill for terror?)
I read a book earlier this year called The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, which was pretty amazing, and pretty horrifying, and pretty clearly, I thought, horror, but the catch is I wonder if Hedayat would have thought of it that way himself. What is the intention? Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark and Child of God are other examples. All three of these are great books with very explicit horror elements.
But going further from the genre, there’s a lot of moral horror to be found in the best crime fiction. My go to in this regard is Charles Willeford, in particular his last novel, The Shark-Infested Custard. I mention that book too often (with good reason, but still) so maybe instead I’ll mention David Goodis’ Black Friday, which I don’t remember too much about at this point, but early on it includes a bit of violence, and its aftermath, that I would have a hard time describing any way other than as non-supernatural absurdist horror.
Cornell Woolrich flirts with this sort of thing too, sometimes. His Night Has a Thousand Eyes is an utterly loony toons piece of work, whose message finally seems to be nothing more than “We’re all going to die.”
What’s a scene from a horror story that you’ve never forgotten about?
I’ve mentioned two big ones already – the endings of Campbell’s “The Companion” and Aickman’s “The Inner Room” – but I’ll add two more, also endings: the conclusions of two Roald Dahl stories, “The Last Act” and “Pig.” Good luck shaking off that shit, pal.
Is there a horror classic that you either think is overrated or just feel no need to get around to?
There isn’t one I don’t feel the need to get around to. I feel the need to get around to all of them, whether I’ll manage it or not.
As for disappointing, yes, there have been a few. I just read one, in fact, but I’d rather hold off on talking about that one until October, when I’ll be writing it up. But a couple years back, I finally got around to Oliver Onion’s “The Beckoning Fair One,” and that one left me pretty cold. It seems remembered more for its influence than its specific staying power, and I remember being put off by the tired, even when Onions wrote it, need to make ambiguous the idea that anything at all supernatural is even happening. Not my favorite trope. Ambiguity in horror is fine by me, but the “is that a ghost, or is it in his mind” jazz is almost exhausting to me at this point.
Have you ever dabbled in writing horror fiction yourself?
Who, in your estimation, is an underrated author who deserves much more attention and claim in the horror community? Got any books to refer us to?
Jesus, what have I been doing for the last hundred questions? I don’t know about the underrated thing anyway – horror fans tend to overrate more than they underrate. I’m always baffled by the fans who can apply the word “brilliant” as easily to a waste like Jack Ketchum as to a true master like Thomas Ligotti. But it takes all kinds, I guess.
There’s a new, or newish, guy, though, named Quentin S. Crisp I’m really interested in. More on this guy from me later, I imagine, but for now I read his endlessly strange novel Remember You’re a One-Ball!, and I’d like you guys to read it and then answer for me this question: “The fuck…?”
Speaking of reference, what are some great nonfiction horror books that get your recommendation?
Kim Newman and Stephen Jones’ two books Horror: 100 Best Books and Horror: Another 100 Best Books are indispensable. If you’re interested in the genre but don’t know much about it, or where to begin, you will not find a better introductory guide than those two books.
What was the last horror book you read?
The one I don’t want to talk about right now. Before that I think it was The Hour of the Oxrun Dead by Charles L. Grant.
If you were stranded on a cliché, what would be the one horror book you would take with you?
Probably a recent, and massive, anthology called The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I haven’t even cracked the thing, other than to read the contents and some story notes, but it’s something like 1,100 pages of the kind of horror that I cherish over all others, full of classics and obscurities. So yeah, that one.
In the spirit of Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies, what would be a horror literature mash-up you would pay to see?
I wouldn’t pay to see anything like that. I loathe that stuff, and would torch the lot of it if I thought I could get away clean.
If you could assume the role of a character from horror literature, who (or what) would it be?
What was your favorite ending to a horror story?
You’re forcing me to repeat myself: “The Inner Room” by Robert Aickman.
Which horror literature villain or monster would you definitely not want to meet in an abandoned abbey?
…A mummy? I don’t even know what mummies do to you. But also, what about Dracula? That guy’ll suck the blood right out of your neck.
Since we’re enthusiasts for anthologies and collections, what’s a short horror story that you think has all the goods?
Clearly, I should have read these questions ahead of time. Oh, but I just thought of another great one: “The Hunger” by Charles Beaumont. The ending of that one is exquisite.
Although, also, in terms of having “all of the goods,” I might have to say Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan.” That’s both fascinating and creepy and interesting and also kind of pulpy. It’s kind of a blast.
Less of a blast, but in a way one of the purest horror stories I can think of, also by Machen, is “The White People.” It’s kind of weirdly what horror is. See also Poe’s “Premature Burial.”
And finally, if your life was a best-selling horror novel, what would the title and tagline be?
The novel would be called This and the tagline would be “He Will Kill You…With His Antlers!” I think that sums up my life pretty well.
--Thanks to Bill for stopping over and be sure you creepy cats check out his excellent critiques at The Kind of Face You Hate. Remember to send your answers for a session of Charnel Chats to grimreaders [at] yahoo [dot] com. We're dying to hear from you!