Jacqueline Baker’s The Broken Hours is Esi Edugyan’s choice for the latest Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books will look at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers. This week, author Andrew Pyper looks at what spectres lie at the true heart of literary horror. What are your favourite horror novels, and why? Let us know in the comments below. And to get tickets for our subscriber-exclusive Book Club event on Nov. 28 in Vancouver, register here.
Most of the time, when we talk about horror in fiction, we talk about what frightens us.
Hairy spiders. A demon in your head. The undead clawing at the door. A clown in need of serious dental work. What’s the most terrifying of all? It’s like trying to debate the merits of strawberry ice cream over rocky road. That is, you can’t.
That’s not scary! This is scary!
So what lies at the true heart of literary fright? It’s not the unsettling details that gives birth to our nightmares, but the essential inhumanity of the bogey-thingy. You can’t reason with it, you can’t hug it out. Horror fiction presents us with threats notable not so much for their dripping, tentacled or snarling features, but their relentlessness. Where we can change (the tapped brakes of conscience, the shifts of will), the source of horror – no matter the mask it might choose to wear – is fixed in its ways. Monsters can’t stop dismembering. Ghosts can’t stop remembering.
For a writer, ghosts in particular are a tricky business. First off, as antagonists they leave something to be desired. While they may frighten by their mere appearance – Boo! – their immateriality prevents them from afflicting much direct harm on the living. (Sure, they can put us off our lunch, hide the car keys, provoke insomnia, drive one to self-harm of one kind or another, but the farther one goes along that road the closer one approaches Clichéville). There’s also the predicament of how to vanquish the phantom. You can’t arrest a spirit (the handcuffs just drop to the floor), a shotgun slug will only leave a nasty hole in the wall behind it and spritzing it with holy water would be as effective as using Windex.
Yet, as readers and writers we remain fatally attracted to the ghost-as-problem. Even the most lastingly influential literary masters such as James, Wharton, Dickens and Woolf (in her own fashion), all with “serious” reputations to protect, were irresistibly drawn to the phantasmal.
Jump to the present day and the siren song of the dead in fiction is even louder. Writers with the intelligence and writerly chops to explore any genre have chosen horror as their turf. (I would recommend Paul Tremblay, Zoje Stage and Josh Malerman from among many other recent American offerings, and north of the 49 there’s Nick Cutter, Gemma Files and Iain Reid, to pick only a few).
What has drawn these talents and so many others to the boneyard? I have a theory.
But first let’s look at fellow Canadian Jacqueline Baker’s excellent ghost story, The Broken Hours.
A desperate man (it is 1936, a time of ample desperation) named Crandle accepts the position of secretary and housekeeper to a writer “of some small reputation” we will come to learn is none other than H.P. Lovecraft. Crandle comes to the story alone but is haunted by a life before, one that included a wife and daughter. Soon after arriving in the spooky house just off Brown University’s campus, he notices some peculiar details. The invisible malevolence on the second-floor landing. The writer-employer who never shows himself and instead gives instructions through letters. A piece of gravestone found under his pillow. A little girl in the garden.
The Broken Hours is a psychological mystery in that the questions the novel poses, while addressed to external puzzles, seem always to loop back to Crandle, the one puzzling through them. Why does the writer seem to never leave his room? Are the ghosts Crandle encounters real or imagined? What, according to the rules of the story, will be required of him to leave this place?
The real Lovecraft wrote stories in which the fear resides in a metaphysical concept made manifest. The extraterrestrial. The sublime. The unspeakable. It’s no accident that Baker has her fictional Lovecraft decide to hire Crandle when, in their initial phone conversation, the latter mentions studying astronomy at university. But, Crandle notes, it was an academic pursuit he eventually abandoned. Why?
“Too much, I said, of the infinite.”
An excess of infinity. It’s a paradox of the most Lovecraftian sort. It’s also a notion that pushes us past the borderlands of objectivity and into imagined alternatives. What might live in the space beyond endless darkness?
Baker co-mingles the enormity of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the intimately scaled disruptions of the Victorian-toned (if Depression-era set) ghost story, and the result is a fictional study of the different ways we externalize what makes us afraid. In fact, if measured in comparative weights of intent, The Broken Hours is less a horror novel than a novel about horror. It subtly pinches back the curtain of the form’s mechanics to reveal, in glimpses, some of the working parts behind it.
All of this makes The Broken Hours a great book-club pick, among other merits. It’s a novel populated by mysteries that pose various text-level questions (ones that collective discussion can help tease out or debate). But for me, the ambiguities of The Broken Hours also lead us to something bigger, its queries yielding a single, underlying observation.
All horror is projection. It comes from us in equal force as it comes for us.
And if I’m right about that, I’m right about this: If we want to know why the Frightening Thing has chosen to inhabit a particular story, look not to the attention-hungry beast or lurching corpse or apparition, but to the characters who encounter it. Unlike real life, the Frightening Thing of literature tends not to be arbitrary in whom it selects to visit, but rather comes to those who, in one subconscious way or another, have summoned it, deserve it or dread it most.
This is where the attraction of ghosts lie for the fiction writer: They reveal aspects of a character that would otherwise remain hidden to herself, or to us reading her. But to get there, the story must somehow shift our focus from the spectre to the point-of-view of the one who witnesses it. When supernatural stories remain ghost-centric and only provide the narrative of people trying to figure out what buried mystery of the phantom’s past has left it loitering among the still breathing crowd, it can only lead us into some historical cul-de-sac or morality classroom. Logical, sure, and with a clear takeaway. But the thrill is gone.
So why are the best ghost stories not really about the ghosts? Ghosts are dead. They exist on the other side, unreachable, remote. As with the “real life” of movie stars or the pics of a glamorous Instagram feed, we aren’t really interested in ghosts themselves as much as we think. What interests us is how we respond to their appearance.
It seems too simple a thing to say that ghosts function as mirrors in fiction. But then mirrors, like ghosts, can be more complicated than we assume. Warped, cracked, flattering, cruel. The image of ourselves they return may be unwanted and brief, but we escape the encounter a different being nonetheless, a step closer to our true selves.
Now that’s scary.
Andrew Pyper is the author of nine novels, including The Demonologist, The Damned and, most recently, The Homecoming.
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