Literary Horror Writing, With A Conscience
“A great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and . . . there are many more means of creating
—ects in fiction than there are in real life.”
Authors whose work falls within a particular genre- like horror, sci-fi, or fantasy- may thrill audiences with ingenious plots, but they often skimp on characterization, style, and theme. Literary writers, on the other hand, may excel in craft, but they rarely venture beyond the narrow confines of realism. Consequently, a divide exists, between low and high art: genre novelists sell books while literary writers thrill critics. It is rare for an author to successfully straddle both worlds.
That’s why John Biguenet is such an anomaly. He’s a literary horror writer with a conscience. Even though horror writers do not often get taken seriously in critical circles, critics adore him, comparing him to Faulkner, Flaubert, and Chekhov. But he’s also become a favorite of horror fans, and his writing could just as easily be likened to H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, or Edgar Allan Poe. Blurring the line between realism and surrealism, Biguenet constructs fictional landscapes that are as unnerving as any that Stephen King ever created. Yet his work surpasses that of King in every other respect: Biguenet writes seamless, pithy prose; he has an acute understanding of human nature, realistic characters, and moving scenarios; and he asks difficult ethical and philosophical questions.
It’s hard to believe that The Torturer’s Apprentice, a brilliant collection of short stories, is Biguenet’s first published work of fiction. Nevertheless, his myriad talents are plentifully on display in this slim volume.
In terms of plot, the fourteen tales that comprise The Torturer’s Apprentice could not be more varied. The book opens with an absurdly fanciful story about an atheistic businessman who develops Christ’s stigmata, but it closes with an entirely realistic, albeit unsettling, tale about a father and son whose lives are endangered when their motorboat stalls. In between, we find a Degas sculpture that destroys a man’s life, a town evacuated due to an influx of toads, a salesman whose life becomes disturbingly unfamiliar after he spies his family through the kitchen window, and a phantom child that haunts the nursery of a couple that recently suffered a miscarriage, among others. Whether realistic or fanciful, however, each tale in this collection is an engrossing, entertaining read.
Yet Biguenet’s stories are more than mere entertainment, they are also thought-provoking and moving. This is because he places his characters in uncommon or unrealistic situations in order to do one of two things: get at the heart of their emotions or put their ethical beliefs to the test. He uses the story about the phantom child in the nursery, for example, to convey the loss felt after a miscarriage. Similarly, the tale about the salesman whose life suddenly seems unfamiliar depicts the boredom that sets in after many years of the same daily routine.
In terms of ethical themes, the story “I Am Not a Jew” is a prime example. In it, an American saves his own life during a confrontation with neo-Nazis at a Jewish cemetery in Germany by uttering the—true—words, “I am not a Jew,” but must subsequently justify his actions. Similarly, “Do Me,” a twisted love story, features a protagonist who is forced to determine whether or not it is acceptable to beat a masochist. Biguenet’s ethical and emotional themes are common and universal; but, in the context of his fanciful and exaggerated plots, they come across in fresh, startlingly moving ways.
Although Biguenet’s subtle style takes a backseat to his stunning plots and intriguing themes, he deserves the highest of praise in this department: his prose is concise, poised, and lyrical. He is also equally skilled at depicting images and conveying characters’ thoughts. In the following extremely visual passage from “A Plague of Toads,” for example, Biguenet describes a man observing his lover:
She would stand shimmering in the green light of the stormy afternoon, her dark flesh against the white curtains, modestly covering her nakedness from any poor drenched pedestrian who might be splashing back to work and, as well, from the unemployed machinist in the apartment across the street, who spent his afternoons drinking tea and staring out his window into my room.
An example from “The Open Curtain,” on the other hand- the story about the salesman whose life becomes unfamiliar- best displays the author’s ability to convey characters’ thoughts:
Pierce wandered through the house like a thief, lifting this ornament or that, considering its value, listening for its heartbeat, returning it to the shelf. Every piece was as familiar as it was foreign to him, and he felt as if he were lost in his own house, or perhaps, as if he had been away for a very long time and finally come home.
Yes, that was it, he decided. He had returned home after years of detainment, though he was nagged by the knowledge that he had been detained, all those years, in this very house.
Effective as horror but impressive as literature, Biguenet’s writing renders such distinctions meaningless. Hopefully literature aficionados and horror fans will be willing to see beyond these false dichotomies and appreciate his work on its own terms.