Granta strikes me as an unusual place to find horror fiction; it normally is home to the toniest of literary fiction. But Issue 117 is entitled “Horror,” so I thought I’d see what a literary magazine’s vision of this genre is.
As it turns out, the issue is a lot more about horror in real life than it is about the type of horror that is more safely tucked away in my imagination. Tom Bamforth’s nonfiction essay about war in Sudan, “The Mission,” presents a picture one wishes were only imagined, of children starving, women used as shields, soldiers with orders to shoot on sight. How easily we go about our days without ever thinking of these people: children too ill to even brush the flies away from their eyes, fourteen-year-olds wielding rocket launchers, the complete absence of men from home life, living hours away from the nearest fresh water, elderly family members abandoned at their own request so that there would be enough food — or at least more food — to feed to the children. It will make you feel unspeakably privileged.
At the other end of the non-fiction spectrum is Mark Doty’s “Insatiable,” an essay about sex — sex divorced completed from love, sex that is about the celebration of the body and nothing more (nor less). Doty takes his cues from Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, strangely enough, writing about how Whitman was supposedly the model for Dracula and implying that both Whitman and Stoker were obsessed with sex. Doty relates some of his own sexual experiences in short, bruising sentences, taking enormous joy in stories that seem grotesquely promiscuous, completely shameless, a sort of sex life that can only be lived in a world of cities, wealth and tolerance, a world so remote from Darfur that it might as well be in another galaxy.
The fiction in this issue will break your heart. Stephen King’s short story, “The Dune,” is classic King, putting you so completely in the mind of the protagonist that you forget you are anyone else until you reach the twist. You can easily imagine that it was the receipt of this story that caused Granta to consider a horror issue, as it is easily worthy of having an entire issue built around it.
Julie Otsuka’s story of a beloved mother’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s Disease, “Diem Perdidi,” is heartbreaking. Written entirely as a catalog of what the unnamed “she” of the story remembers and what she no longer can keep inside her head, this story tells the history of a Japanese-American woman in the middle of the 20th century and all that entailed: racism, internment during World War II, the loss of a beloved, the death of a child. Again, this is the horror that one lives in real life. No ghosts, no ancient gods, no serial killers with vivid imaginations; this horror is felt by many in our world, our country, our hometowns every day. It’s the best story in this issue.
In the same vein is Paul Auster’s “Your Birthday Has Come and Gone,” a memoir oddly written in the second person, as if Auster is writing to himself about the death of his mother, attempting to understand this event by distancing himself from it ever so slightly. Following on Will Self’s “False Blood,” an essay about Self’s discovery that he was suffering from polycythaemia vera, it is yet another reminder of how fragile life is, how subject we all are to illnesses both mental and physical.
I didn’t care for Sarah Hall’s “She Murdered Mortal He,” a story of a woman on vacation in an African resort that is still very sparsely populated and rather wild. She has a quarrel with her lover and decides to take a walk on a deserted and somewhat dangerous beach. Each moment of her walk is fraught with tension as she balances on rocks, avoids what initially seem to be wild animals, and winds up in a bar that is no place for a woman alone. Yet the real danger seems to lie elsewhere, for others. It’s an odd little story, a bit too precious in the telling for its own good. Joy Williams’s “Brass” seems not to work entirely either, being dependent on a shocker of a last line for its effect.
Daniel Alarcon’s short essay, “The Ground Floor,” is about the opening of a new “crypto-gothic fight club” in Los Angeles called the Foam Weapon League. It’s hard to see how this piece fits into the horror theme, except that there’s plenty of fake blood in it.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran is a story narrated by a tiger that escapes from the zoo, almost inadvertently. This creature doesn’t seem to understand his own nature, or his own powers, at the beginning of the story; he seems like a careless teenager more than a wild, caged animal. But given freedom, his fundamental nature comes to the fore. The horror here is that of the natural world, red in tooth and claw.
Don DeLillo’s contribution is from his new book, The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories. “The Starveling” is about a man who spends his days watching movies, carefully scheduling his four or five shows a day around Manhattan with sufficient precision to allow for transportation hassles and time for previews. It’s an odd picture of a life oddly lived, a life without purpose or love, told through the eyes of a protagonist who doesn’t even seem to understand that he’s missing anything, or that there’s anything to miss. It’s a strange story.
“Deng’s Dogs” by Santiago Roncagliolo is an autobiographical essay about Peru and its guerrilla movement, the Shining Path. It is another tale of real-life horror, but one that seems less immediate than Bamforth’s discussion of Darfur. Perhaps this is a matter of my own knowledge about the latter situation and my relative ignorance about the former. Both pieces make it clear, though, that humans don’t need anything supernatural in nature to create hell on earth.
Robert Bolano’s story, “The Colonel’s Son,” is an odd, once-removed zombie story, the retelling of a movie the narrator has seen. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a friend after a drink or two, when he starts to believe that his experience of old movies is going to sound fascinating to you. You want to tell him to shut up, but you also want to know what happens next; you find yourself sucked into his narrative, not that you ever want to see this movie, just that you have to know. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, one that I’m not entirely certain is successful.
One can only conclude from this issue that the literary world sees horror a good deal differently than do those of us who like our fiction very dark. Horror is based very much on what already exists in this world, and requires nothing unusually evil to manifest; all it needs is human nature. Granta’s horror issue isn’t frightening, but it is horrifying.