Regular attendees of these lectures may recall our conversation a couple of months ago regarding the horror collection Gathering The Bones, in which I enthused over the understated and careful manipulation of the readers reactions, the care taken over the writing, and the skill and craft of the writers involved.
Welcome to the other end of the spectrum.
Exit The Light is a collection of stories self-published by Walt Hicks and a fellow who would like you to call him ‘Horns’, (or to give him the name his Mum did, Terry Erwin). The guys are to be commended for the way they’ve gone about their business: this is a tome of almost 500 pages in an age where horror doesn’t sell well, and self published books average something like 88 sales, and its production values are quite high.
The reader is left in no doubt as to what they’re getting into here: the book has two sections, titled ‘Invocation of Terror’ and ‘Ceremony of Terror’, and starts with a Benediction (Not Introduction, Benediction) which quotes HP Lovecraft and invites us to “walk a mile in their hooves and be chilled, changed, and delighted”. Hey, one of these guys calls himself HORNS, fer chrissakes! Subtlety is not likely to be the point here.
Sure enough, it isn’t. Whilst Gathering The Bones was an exhibition of craft, highlighting writers who attempt to challenge the boundaries of the horror reflex, Exit The Light shows two writers concentrating on art with all the glee of small boys jumping in puddles. The stories display all the delicate cunning of a sledgehammer manicure.
The collection begins with “Showdown At the One Way Café” in which Dr Stiletto arrives at a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere entirely populated with serial killers (A Clown, a guy in camouflage gear, etc etc, which I’m guessing are meant to be John Wayne Gacy, Denis Neilsen and friends, although it’s never made exactly clear) and proceeds to brutally murder them for no apparent reason other than it seems to be the sort of thing he does. The payoff? The good Doctor Stiletto was once known as Doctor Josef Mengele. Why? Damned if I know, other than the writer thought it would be cool to have Mengele knifing bad guys to death. By the time we plough through 32 more stories to reach “Last Exit”, the last tale in the volume, in which a trucker and his dog help a young girl escape from a roadside café full of undead, the reader is so woozy, so battered around the head by a ceaseless barrage of adjectives and nonsensical images of bloodiness, that the only respite is a lie down and a cold handkerchief across the forehead.
Don’t get me wrong, visceral horror has its place, and the truly good exponents of it can raise a gorge like it’s supposed to be raised. Go read Barker’s The Books Of Blood, or Straub’s Koko and you’ll see what I mean. But those writers did not sacrifice their craft simply in order to present a series of ugly images. Horror, especially horror that relies on the readers’ repugnance to certain tropes and images, can only be effective when there is a reason for the reader to subject themselves to that kind of brutality. Generally the reason lies in the characters, or in the facility of the writer to draw us into a believable world before turning that world against us. Erwin and Hicks don’t do this. In film terms we are not watching a Lewton movie here, or Whale, or Browning, or even the kind of gore that Argento or Bava created, with the kind of thematic and spiritual underpinning that made the gross blood-letting seem a natural extension of the philosophical core of the movie. What we get are the lowest moments of a Halloween movie, when it’s obvious to all but the most dedicated hockey mask-wearing teenage popcorn-muncher that the script has run its course and the director has run out of ideas to fill the extra hour of running time left.
Exit The Light is a grossly overwritten book in dire need of a damn good editor. The stories within are amateurish, and while the authors have an extensive range of credits in the non- and semi-professional horror markets this collection is difficult to recommend to the Ideomancer audience.