A Short Journey to Horror Fiction

I rarely plunge into this genre, but I read and reviewed Priscilla Bettis’s debut work, “The Hay Bale”.

First, my review: “The best way to describe this short horror story is that I took a deep breath in on page 1 and let it out on page 42! What a great contemporary Gothic read, with constantly rising tension and a disturbing, yet oddly satisfying resolution. Very atmospheric, with great characters and an unsettling (and intelligent) plot. Five stars from me, and I even don’t like (and almost never read) horror fiction!”

Now about my uneasy relationship with horror fiction. Gothic novels à la Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are alluring and i love them, but I draw the line there–I can’t take much more than that. This is the reason why I never read any of Stephen King’s horror novels, or any of the other big names of the genre.

In other words, my experience with horror is limited. When I was in my early twenties, I did read a couple of books and watched a few movies outside my gothic/spooky comfort zone. One story and one movie in particular had so long and disturbing an impact on me that it might be the reason why I’ve been more or less ignoring this category.

Back then, one of the staples of the leading daily newspaper of my former country was the serialized novel. My father read that newspaper every day; he would end his ritual by doing the crossword puzzle. After that, the neatly folded issue was ready for the rest of the family to use, which mostly meant me. I would go through a couple of articles–they had an exceptional team of journalists and columnists–the customary recipes written by readers and the rest of the entertainment section, including the next instalment of the novel the newspaper was currently running.

Not that I read every novel they published, although, overall, the selection wasn’t bad. The one that I still can’t forget sucked me in from the beginning. I don’t know who wrote it, but I remember that the characters’ names were English. It could’ve been an obscure translation or the writer could’ve been a well known future horror novelist, whose name didn’t mean anything to me, who knows. It was also possible that a local author, needing some quick cash, wrote it under a pseudonym. I remember the title, which won’t mean anything to you if I translate it back to English: “Exceptional Glow” or “Extraordinary Glow”, something like that. The story was set in NYC, if I recollect it correctly. It was a horror-suspense-thriller-SF novel, the kind of stuff that Dean Koontz is known for.

In short, a young couple rents a flat for peanuts in a fabulous building, in return helping with the maintenance or something along that line. It was a deal anyone would be crazy to turn down, in any case. It doesn’t take them long to realize that the rest of the tenants are supposed to be much older than they appear to be. They all have that “extraordinary glow”. The friendly residents take the young couple under their wing, promising to share their secrets with them. It’s nothing more than a balanced diet, they say, so they coach the couple how to eat heathy, how to exercise, they give them some supplements, etc. In short, they interfere with the couple’s life until they almost completely control it. Still, the husband trusts them blindly; the wife begins to recognize the strong cult-like elements in the behaviour of the older neighbours. She becomes suspicious, figures out their true age and the fact that some earlier young renters had disappeared… I guess you don’t need a spoiler alert here, since it’s unlikely that you’re going to find this book and read it. Anyhow, by the time the smart wife puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, she and her husband have already achieved the “extraordinary glow”, their blood becoming the source of food supplement necessary for their co-residents’ prolonged youth and longevity.

Well, I still have chills and goosebumps whenever I think about that story.

I’m not going to summarize the movie. I watched it and I was horrified. When, decades later, a copy ended up on my desk to be catalogued, I took it, unaware what it was, and dropped it the moment I recognized the title. I did catalogue it, but I was sick in my stomach with the awakened terror. It’s a French movie, Eyes Without a Face (1960). I sincerely wish I had never watched it. Why exactly it had such a powerful effect on me I don’t fully understand, but it’s probably because it felt too close to real life. What happened in the film could easily happen in reality.

There are a few horror movies I love, among them a sensual horror-romance Cat People (1982), with David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Nastassja Kinski. Since I adore Coppola’s Dracula as well, it seems that if horror is diluted with romance, I can enjoy it. The romantic component isn’t always necessary, though. I’m a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock’s opus, and I’ve watched all his movies more than once. Psycho, although disturbing, never made me feel terrified; Birds, despite my severe avian phobia, even less (and the love story in the background is lukewarm.) They both have a cathartic effect – it feels good to be a little bit scared, knowing all the time that we are, in fact, safe and sound.

Movies like Carrie, Friday 13th, or Halloween are just too frightening for me, although I could deal with this type of fear. Eyes Without a Face, on the other hand, left me scared and scarred for life.

Like every other genre, horror comes in all shapes and sizes, and while some are appealing to me, some others are not. Generally, I avoid it. That’s why I’m glad that my first encounter with horror after a long time was Priscilla Bettis’s story. It has reminded me that horror can be a good and satisfying read.

What are your favourite, or most scary, horror/Gothic/spooky books and movies?

About jfkaufmann

Not unlike my characters, I lead a double life: by day I'm a mother, a friend, a colleague, and the queen of my kitchen. When the moon rises, however, I shift into my other self and, as Queen of the Night, I reign the magical world of my imagination.
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10 Responses to A Short Journey to Horror Fiction

  1. I used to have more tolerance for blood & gore type horror. Now I avoid it. I prefer more subtle, creepy horror. My favourite story of that type is “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. A book that just came to mind is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. I think I prefer horrors with point of view characters that are relatable, rather than deviant types. Creepy things happening to relatively nice people can be engaging, whereas being drawn into the mind of someone who enjoys doing awful things is repellent.
    And I agree, Priscilla’s story is unsettling, in a good way!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JP McLean says:

    I too was traumatized by horror stories when I was young – in my case movies. I still remember a few choice scenes I’d rather forget. To this day, if I watch a horror movie, I need to have a pillow handy to hide behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jfkaufmann says:

      Such early experiences could leave everlasting impressions. If I read and watched them now for the first time, I believe they wouldn’t traumatize me that much. Or I would simply stop reading/watching when they became too uncomfortable. Why I didn’t do that back then, I have no idea.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m tickled pink that you read and reviewed my story and that you liked it as a typically non-horror reader.:-) I like extreme horror, but I like quiet horror, too. Wuthering Heights and Cat People are both fabulous! Last year I read It Will Just Be Us by Jo Kaplan which is a contemporary Gothic, quiet horror story that I loved. You might enjoy that one.

    Liked by 1 person

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