Why do we read horror fiction? I don’t think I’ve ever pondered that question as hard and with as dry a throat as I did following my awesome struggle through the opening paragraphs of David Niall Wilson and Brett Alexander Savory’s My Eyes and Nailed, But Still I See. Aside from the dry throat, I found my brows had furrowed, my fingers were numb, and I wanted to put the book down and run away. And then I realized—that’s why I read horror fiction.
It’s all about the rush and Savory and Wilson know it. Only available by pre-order from Delirium until 30 April, My Eyes are Nailed is anything but an easy read. It features a plot so tightly wound around the freaked-out mind of a young boy that what is real and what is crayon-created on his therapist’s desk is never entirely clear. Its imagery, too, is some of the most gruesome this side of Laymon’s The Beast House. What works here, though, is the authors’ dedication not to grossing-out the reader specifically, but to the language used doing it. Immediately appealing is the book’s casual blending of the old-fashioned, evocative stylings of Poe and Lovecraft with a more modern, cutthroat approach. This works to bypass simple frights and create lasting, visceral reactions.
The book opens in a therapist’s office-nothing too sinister. Requisite for any such tale, a dark mood is immediately built, in this case via a spider-like shadow looming on the wall behind the therapist as he interviews Johnson, a young boy with a crayon in his hand and a dead look in his eyes. Something’s going on with this kid; he’s not happy at home, he’s got a problem with certain members of his family and it seems a stuffed pig talks to him. Before we can make any sense of it all, everything takes a gross turn and Johnson is strapped to a table surrounded by jars of human parts, talking spiders and that leathery pig that could be made out of human skin. From here, the story, essentially about a boy journeying through his hate, Wilson and Savory refuse to let up, building Johnson’s world with whimsy, aplomb and balls-out brutality.
Take Johnson’s unfortunate position on that table. This sets the scene in the doctor’s office:
He wishes for another color: Red. It is impossible to draw black blood with any hint of clarity, and Johnson wishes, more than anything, for a quick moment of that. Blood and clarity are synonymous in that instant-one unattainable, the other dependent on that attainment.
...before we’re taken into Johnson’s bent mind to find him strapped down, enduring the torture of his older brother, while receiving communications from his pig companion, who is receiving some severe punishment of his own by way of nails shoved in his eyeballs:
Johnson’s intestines rested in a loose pile on his lap, carefully contained in a large green baggie, packed with Jell-O. Green Jell-O. His abdomen had been carefully cut open, the skin folded back and his large intestines unraveled like a bad tapestry, coiled and tucked away with only cursory care.
Similarly, when Johnson’s hate trail takes him to the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness, the gloomy highlands-at-night are vividly evoked:
The water rippled with bright moonlight. Johnson’s line sliced deep through the silvered waves, taut from the weight of sinker and bait. The wind ruffled his hair, and his collar was pulled up tight to ward off the chill. Nothing moved. Nothing in the water. Nothing behind or above him. Nothing but the wind.
And horribly shattered:
A blanket of shadow fell over the goat; it bleated in pain as it was ripped to shreds, bits and pieces flung this way and that. As muscle separated from bone and blood splashed the nearby trees in wide arcs, Johnson slammed his eyes shut and wished he were back home.
This back and forth continues throughout the story, as Johnson takes us deeper and deeper into his emotional depravity. The mix of styles allows the authors to effectively engage the reader in Johnson’s spaced-out fantasy, while at the same time generating a sense of complete reality through gritty descriptions of his more unpleasant moments. It’s almost as if, while we’re not entirely sure who is doing the torturing—Johnson’s brother or his mother? The pig, the spider, himself, all three? We never doubt it’s indeed taking place. As readers, we believe the reality inside the fantasy, and that’s what counts.
But what does it all mean? Well, the difficulty deciphering the story and the authors’ apparent desire to keep the reader permanently in the dark can be read either as a clever storytelling technique that allows the reader his own interpretation based on his or her own psychoses, or because there is no story to wrap up. Either way, the book manages to grip, twist and scrape along until its dreadful conclusion without feeling overdone. It’s a cool, modern take on classic horror by two strong voices who know the reasons we read horror fiction and exploit them as often as possible.