Aurora-winning poet Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and self-proclaimed bibliophile.
Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was released from ChiZine Publications in 2012.
Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts. Unwisely. When you look into a book, who knows what might be looking back.
I recently asked Helen to write about where horror is headed as a genre, she kindly obliged. Please welcome her to the blog!
What Does Magic Realism Have to Offer Horror?
-By Helen Marshall
When originally tapped to write a blog post on new directions in horror, I felt a little bit underqualified. The horror I read, I absolutely adore: but if horror is, to borrow from Kim Newman, the art of going too far, then there’s such a swath of great horror writing that sits just outside my threshold. I was a big scaredy cat as a kid. I’m still a big scaredy cat. But I also like how horror writing gives us the license to go too far. To push at the boundaries. And so, in some ways, this is me trying to work out what my writing has to do with horror, and in other ways, this is me trying to work out how horror works…
But there’s been a recent movement—more a ripple than a movement, really—in the horror genre that’s got me excited. I noticed it first when editing Robert Shearman’s collection, Remember Why You Fear Me—well, first I say in a loose sense: I think people who read Shearman’s work know that he’s doing something a little bit different than everyone else, something blackly funny and scary at the same time. The story that comes to mind is his very twisted “Granny’s Grinning” about a kid who gets a zombie suit for Christmas. But the feeling struck again when I opened Karen Tidbeck’s very excellent collection Jagannath to find a story about a man who falls in love with a zeppelin. There’s something strange going on in these stories. There’s something strange going on and it’s working.
What’s interesting about these stories is neither one of them quite follows the rules for horror but still manage to achieve a similar effect.
So how does horror work? As Douglas Winter says—and has been echoed as a rallying cry for modern horror writers—horror isn’t a genre so much as it is an emotion. But I would argue there is a kind of underlying mechanic to the way that emotion works in fiction, and realism is in some way the key to it. Horror works most profoundly at the moment in which the reader identifies with the character in jeopardy, when the jeopardy becomes a shared experience and when the jeopardy transfers—for just a second—to the reader. To get that emotional punch, that psychic linking, the world has to feel real. Chuck Palahniuk tells a story about how medieval craftsmen making stained glass had to pay extra attention to the simple things in their work—the fold of robes, the curl of hair, the kinds of flowers at the feet. Why? Because if they could get those right—those basic, ordinary, quotidian details—then the saints and monsters would come alive for the peasants in the church. The fantastic would be drawn into the world of the real.
But in both Shearman and Tidbeck’s story, something else is happening. And that something is drawn from absurdist or magic realist fiction: here, they both present the “strange”—their rupture from reality—upfront: they normalize it. They don’t explain it. It simply…is.
“Sarah didn’t want the zombie, and she didn’t know anyone else who did. Apart from Graham, of course, but he was only four, he wanted everything; his Christmas list to Santa had run to so many sheets of paper that Daddy had said that Santa would need to take out a second mortgage on his igloo to get that lot, and everyone had laughed, even though Graham didn’t know what an igloo was, and Sarah was pretty sure that Santa didn’t live in an igloo anyway.”
The prose immediately disarms the reader. It subverts expectations. “Yeah,” it seems to say, “you thought this was going to be scary? You thought this was horror, hey? It’s not.”
So you drop your guard. You give in to the gimmicky, jokey tone of the piece. You accept the logic of a world that allows little girls to put on zombie suits and transform themselves utterly.
But “Granny’s Grinning” (spoiler alert!) is playing a game. What promises to be a story about zombies shifts to a family drama. It’s about Christmas! It’s about preparing the house to be just right for Granny (Granny whose husband just died, Granny who holds the purse strings in her withered, little hands). You come to forget the zombies, because everyone else has forgotten them…but then Sarah puts on the suit. And it’s not a normal zombie suit. There’s a glint of recognition in Granny’s eye. It is just any old zombie. It’s Grandpa. And then that glint of recognition becomes something more. Something terrible.
The story delivers its chilling and very sinister conclusion at the moment when the central oddness—the zombie suit; the funny little gimmick that the reader has come to ignore—gets twisted around on itself. The reader who, thus far, has been encouraged to laugh at Sarah struggling with her clumsy, decomposing body at the dinner table, suddenly has to confront how they have been made to be complicit, how they too have tacitly agreed to serve Sarah’s zombie body up to Granny…
And that’s where the horror lies. Not just in what happens to Sarah, but in what the reader has allowed to happen to Sarah. Just by laughing. Just by accepting the rules of the world that author has created.
Karin Tidbeck plays a similar sort of game in her short story “Beatrice”—here, the physician Franz Hiller falls desperately in love with a display zeppelin at a fair in Berlin, but when he finds his darling Beatrice cannot be purchased, he makes do with a replacement. He houses “Beatrice II” in a warehouse he shares with Anna (Anna too has suffered a similar misfortune in falling in love with a steam engine). The story is delightfully charming in its absurdity. And you come to care for Franz Hiller. You come to love him as he struggles to woo his new, surprisingly taciturn bride. Because he knows, deep down, that this second zeppelin isn’t Beatrice, but he can pretend she’s Beatrice, he can call her Beatrice, and he can hope, oh, he can hope that maybe the one will be so very like the other…
And that’s where Tidbeck gets you. Because suddenly you’re willing to give Franz Hiller the licence to play out his little self-deception. And it’s only when Tidbeck turns the tables, when Beatrice II comes to speak for herself and rail against the slavery—the false marriage—that she’s been forced into, that we see the dark flipside of the world we’ve allowed ourselves to be lulled into accepting. And while Tidbeck doesn’t linger long in the horror of the moment, it carries a heck of a wallop. Because suddenly the position of the reader has shifted. It isn’t a love story. It’s a story about captivity and subjugation.
One of the interesting things Tzvetan Todorov said in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre was that in fantasy (and horror by extension) the fantastic element can never be reduced entirely to metaphor or allegory. Certainly, the fantastic often shares elements with allegory—writers as diverse as C. S. Lewis come to mind, and Tolkien, and even Stephen King—but it’s always doing something else as well. The encounter with the fantastic takes place at the level of the literal.
Magic realism, on the other hand, moves much closer to the symbolic. It plays with metafiction. It disorients. It offers a kind of reticence in which the author deliberately withholds explanations about the mechanics of the fantastic in order to open up a space where the reader is never quite sure of the rules of the game. The literal can become the metaphorical. The literal can breakdown without the story breaking down.
I love that. That’s the kind of chicanery I love pulling in my own writing.
In my collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, I wrote a story called “Blessed” (which you can read here) in which a seven-year-old girl is given the body of St. Lucia of Syracuse by her dad, only to discover that her mum now feels the need to up the ante, so to speak, by dredging the Seine for the ashes of Joan of Arc. It’s a story that plays the same game as “Granny’s Grinning” and “Beatrice”. It works because if the story can get you to laugh at Joan of Arc lighting herself on fire in order to reprimand a little girl for misbehaving in the second act, then when the little girl suddenly starts behaving like a saint—a genuine saint, the kind willing to mutilate herself to show her devotion—it turns the tables on you.
All writing is a kind of magic trick, really: you show the reader a handkerchief, and then you set-up a distraction while you transform it into a bouquet of flowers. But the intersection of horror and magic realism heightens that effect precisely because it allows the author to go too far—to explode the world they’ve created, to break the rules it seems to run by. Magic realism delights in tricking you. In shifting the ground beneath your feet. And horror, well, horror is the thing that happens once you realize you’ve been tricked, that you wanted to be tricked all along. And that’s what I love in good fiction—that play with the illusion of realism that still manages to snag a piece of you and twist.