Horror Business is a novel I that wrote. It’s coming out in February 2015. Horror movies play a huge role in the narrative.
“Horror Business” is a sporadic column where I ask influential/invaluable writers and people of interest the following question: What scene from a movie has scared/troubled/shaken you the most?
There are few writers who know horror as well as Adrian Van Young, which I consider a fantastic quality in a human being. Most of the time. The problem with Young is that he’s got a chameleonic, writerly prowess to match—and that is subtly infuriating and jealousy-inducing.
Take his story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, for example. It’s by far one of the best—yet widely-diverse—story collections I’ve ever read. He can jump from Lovecraftian in “Hard Rain” (a story that left me feeling icky for days) to King/”The Body”-esque nostalgia in “Them Bones.” And yes, they are diverse, but they’re not disparate. It’s a collection of a writer comfortable with stretching his muscles farther than most others.
When he’s not rocking print, he’s saying very smart things about horror franchises for The Believer and explaining Louisiana-as-a-character in True Detective for Slate. Plus, his story “The Skin Thing” is probably the creepiest thing you’ll read online this October.
Every year on Halloween my parents allowed me one R-rated movie. I knew all the boxes: Basket Case, Pumpkinhead, The Serpent & The Rainbow, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Based on the pictures adorning these boxes, I’d cherry-pick the year’s selection. It was Pet Sematary the year I was 12—bloody corpse side-eye, uncanny misspelling—based on the book by Stephen King, co-starring the guy from Munsters (Fred Gwynne). So you’re watching the movie and watching the movie, which is pretty affecting as horror flicks go (there’s a reason that King boxed it up in a drawer to chill out a few years before he unleashed it) and then you get to Zelda’s death. This scene, literally, provoked me to tears. I cowered in between my parents, begging them to turn it off, and when they obliged me I mustered composure, sheepishly asked them to turn it back on. My reaction was visceral, primal, immediate. And even now at 32, having re-watched the movie in varying states no less than a dozen times, I cannot watch the Zelda scene without metastasizing chills. (This most recent viewing I still couldn’t watch it without my partner next to me, herself a horror movie buff. I poked my head into our room. All that I needed to ask her was: “Zelda?”) The scene happens, maybe, a half-an-hour in, an unexpected early scare and well before the bloody woes that batter at the Creed Family, who have the misfortune of buying a house at the edge of an “Indian burial ground” (ah, Stephen King and his racist nostalgia!). In it, we have Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) narrating her husband the death of her sister, claimed by spinal meningitis. The cinematography drops into flashback. Everything looks more self-consciously staged, as though it were being performed in a dollhouse, a credit to the mis-en-scene of unsung director, I think, Mary Lambert. Rachel’s voiceover narrates the scene while Rachel in childhood relives it again: “She was in the back bedroom like some dirty secret.” Zelda, a croke-backed and hideous creature played by male actor Andrew Hubatsek (reportedly, because they couldn’t find a woman skinny enough for the role), writhes in an open-backed nightgown in bed, her hair a straggled ginger mess. Rachel has been charged to feed her. Making gurgling and groaning and strangling sounds in between calling the name of her sister—a creaking-door cackle that smote on my ears (“Raaaaaaachel! Raaaaaaaaachel!”)— she rolls the knuckles of her spine. It sounds like kindling taking up. Her head wrenches sideways, neck bunching and twisting, giving Linda Blair’s Regan a run for her money. The jaundiced and gender-ambiguous face, with its wide knobby jawbone, accuses the viewer: you let me die! Not Rachel, you! And she flops lifelessly on the side of the bed. Granted, this sequence is over-the-top; to spinal-meningitis patients, more than borderline offensive. But Lambert’s not going for stark realism. It’s filtered through Rachel, her view of events, and if she remembers her suffering sister as “some [kind of] monster” that’s what she remembers. Lambert achieves something difficult here, unreliable narration in a cinematic context, a conceit which she furthers as girl-Rachel flees from the house of her trauma while grown-Rachel narrates: “Even now I wake up and I think: is Zelda dead yet?” The terror’s inescapable. For Rachel Creed. For you. For me. That’s why I’ve watched it so many damn times: so I know every link in the narrative chain. That way I’ll see the warning signs before I have to hit fast forward.
2. THE VERY LAST SCENE IN DON’T LOOK NOW (1973): To discuss it at all would be a huge spoiler so all I’ll say is: no. Just, no. A totally unacceptable thing to perpetrate on your viewer. Nicolas Roeg should be ashamed of himself.
The children in Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby are disgusting. They are disfigured, hairy, segmented. They break apart when they exit the womb. They are the harbingers of the apocalypse. The 26 stories in here culminate in a bleak, frightening vision of what happens when the parental structure falls apart.
But for as how post-apocalyptic Bell’s vision is, Cataclysm Baby is about the past. The 26 fathers are to blame, this bleak world they inhabit is the one they’ve built–they are cowards, they abandon. They murder: in “Xarles, Xavier, Xenos,” the father gives his son a 50-yard start before “I will shoot just once”. There is not a sympathetic character in this lot.
Ever since Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin scared the hell out of me, I’ve been a sucker for evil children in movies and literature, which is why I was originally attracted to Cataclysm Baby. I think parental and pregnancy-anxiety horror (and Bell does quite a bit of the latter here) is so effective because combines all these repulsion (body horror, slasher) /attraction (parenting instincts) elements. These contradictions are deeply unsettling, hard to comprehend and, I think, keep the genre taboo while we become desensitized to other horror.
But what I think sets Cataclysm Baby apart from most others I’ve seen/read, is that it indicts masculinity. Most evil children in movies and literature are products of Satan (The Omen), science (It’s Alive), ghosts/sexualization (Turn of the Screw), or general neglect (Ian McEwan’s early stuff) to give some examples. Cronenberg (The Brood) is the first example that comes to mind when talking about an active maternal influence on evil children, but for the most part, transient forces are to blame.
Bell’s work seems to be a reaction to this notion, and in fact, all notions of the father-role in evil children art: Because of a father’s transience/inaction, the child is awful and deformed. The fathers in Cataclysm Baby can’t blame Satan or science for the end of the world; their past (in)actions have given rise to 26 little apocalypses.
Anyway, great book. Read it.