Thursday, February 21, 2013

STL # 108: Cooked (to Death)

I am reaching that time where I will feel that I don't have time to keep up the blog. Since I do believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that the good is the enemy of the is, I am going to force myself to complete a post in 15 minutes. It won't be good, it won't be long, but it will be.

The two books I want to discuss are Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, and I just decided to through in Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. The device I'm using is that these are all "cooked" horror novels, as opposed to the "raw" material of the writers I discussed last week. Lovecraft certainly has a style, but it wouldn't be called accomplished--it is unruly, heavy on adverbs, purple. Levin, Marasco, and Levin all write with a smooth, schooled style. I say "schooled" though I don't think they are of the age to have been through the creative writing schools, but they all write with a professional veneer of a serious midcentury write. All three of these books are clearly supernatural, but they all seem more interested in the psychological development of the characters and in well-wrought scenes or the finely-observed detail. Again, I don't have these novels on hand, but I will take a few moments to put down what I did admire about each.

Burnt Offerings was one of the biggest discoveries of the summer. It isn't a well-known book and the author was not prolific. I believe I learned of it from Stephen King. It is certainly reminiscent of  The Shining in that it examines the terrors of a family breaking down in a haunted house setting. The scene that stands out to me is not supernatural at all, but certainly horrifying. As the young city couple discuss terms of renting an older couple's house, they send their young son out to play. The old man watches from a distance with complete dispassion as he sees the boy fall from some stones and injure himself badly. He turns away from the window without saying anything. Though the old man is later implicated in some witchery, this early scene is a strong portrait of a more banal, domestic evil.

Similarly, The Green Man has the trappings of a ghost story, but is the analysis of a decaying psyche. A fiftyish innkeeper working on a second marriage and a serious drinking problem sees ghosts while he pursues an adulterous conquest. While it isn't heavily indicative one way or another, I am sure it's possible to read the encounters with the ghost (based on local English countryside history) as an artifact of the protagonist's breakdown. While a good ghost story, the genre is an author's decision to further another purpose.

Finally, Rosemary's Baby. The well-constructed plot of the movie version is found here, which means that there weren't any surprises here. That's the problem of reading a genre novel that inspired a well-made movie--if it matches the movie too closely, then you are denied the pleasures of discovery while if it diverges it may be because the movie was compensating for shoddy construction. That is no problem of the latter kind here; like the others Levin created a well-made book that partakes in the generic conventions of horror, but probably more so in the conventions of the midcentury psychological novel.