How does the Extra-Literary Alter our Appreciation of Literature?
In an interview ahead of her release of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis (2016), the second in her reboot of her cult-status Vampire Chronicles after her shelving of the series following the writing of Blood Canticle (2003), Anne Rice detailed the very literary and academic influences of her vampire fiction. Rice cites her reading across the humanities, in mathematics and in modern literature as the kinds of grist she feeds into her creative mill. Elsewhere she would reveal her debt to Victorian literature and specifically to Dickens. Reading this material triggered memories for me of articles I’d read years ago on the extra-literary sources which shaped and informed Rice’s approach to writing. Mariana Zapata’s interview itself touches on the impact of Rice’s daughter Michele’s death from myeloid leukemia in 1972, an event which the author has long acknowledged as central to her fictional vampiric universe which was, from its first manifestations in Rice’s short horror stories of 1973, “all about [her] daughter, the loss of her and the need to go on living when faith is shattered.” The deeply human dimensions of any writer’s life— elements which we surely must consider somehow beyond artistic expression, somehow unspeakable— will invariably bubble up, usually in some distorted form, in the finished products which we are invited to read. Is Stephen King’s doubt in his own creative ability present in Carrie (1974), a novel he struggled to write and at least initially had considered sub-par? Are H.P. Lovecraft’s extreme social phobias fully embodied or only repressed by his representations of extreme alien otherness? Can we really read M.R. James’ sexuality into his ghost stories? Something in us as readers surely wants to answer yes to all of the above.
I think what we search for most in the written word is a sense that something true and human is being imparted, a vital experience deeper than language which we can somehow relay through it. In what might be a slightly oblique way, I’d like to suggest that Anne Rice offers us an interesting window into the ways in which horror fiction is one form of literature which can lead us into an appreciation of the extra-literary, and even extra-linguistic, as it plays out within the literary.
I think what we search for most in the written word is a sense that something true and human is being imparted, a vital experience deeper than language which we can somehow relay through it.
When we think of Rice’s daughter, Michele, we remember that authors are people and that horror writing, whatever else it may be, is a human response to the unacceptable, the catastrophic, to unassimilable trauma. But a consideration of Rice’s influences, I would suggest, tells us a little bit more about the ways in which the extra-literary infiltrates the literary and not only through the inexpressibly personal. The everyday experience, after all, which we might attempt to transcribe in our fiction is dovetailed everywhere with modern medias which increasingly fill our days far more thoroughly than print, from film to TV to popular music; from Youtube to Facebook to Tumblr to Pinterest to Instagram to Twitter. As Linda Badley noted long ago in her Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic, the Ann Rice vampires of the 1970s already owed their stylistic origins far more to black and white film than to Bram Stoker and later the aristocrat-cum-rockstar Lestat would demonstrate the interplay between horror and heavy metal music during the 1980s.
As writers attempt to account for experience in print it is an experience invariably inflected by the medias which surround us and as horror writers attempt to map our nightmares we shouldn’t be surprised to find— as, of course, we do— that those visions are populated more and more by the stuff of our cyber-realities. With this in mind, we can now look forward in anticipation not only to the fresh horrors which may be listed on Netflix in the coming years but also the fresh horrors which Netflix itself may inspire in our voraciously appropriative print medias.
What follows is a personal list of those horror novels which I encountered from extra-literary sources long before I ever picked up the book. It’s an interesting exercise to try out, especially as a writer, when considering just where our dominant influences may come from. I encourage you to think about it yourself. In what form did you first encounter the best horror stories you’ve ever read?
1) Interview with the Vampire (1976)— Anne Rice
First reading: Having more than one member of the goth subculture as a friend who I see from time to time, I attended about a dozen parties through my twenties in which the subject of the Vampire Chronicles was a boozy focus. These impromptu literary salons inspired me to read more and I had read a power of articles, reviews and fan fiction on Interview with the Vampire for years before I ever cracked the spine. Around the age of twenty-nine I succumbed to peer pressure.
First encounter: I was eight years old when the Neil Jordan film came out and so, needless to say, that was my first exposure to the vampiric worlds of Anne Rice. When I was growing up there was a Blockbuster at the end of my street which I patronized avidly. I remember when I was very very young I asked the woman at the desk where the horror section was specifically because I wanted to avoid it. She didn’t believe my reason for asking but it was 100-per-cent true. Some of the VHS covers terrified me as a child, and few more so than the one depicting the face of the vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) next to his strange, long-nailed and curved hand which, when tiny, I thought of as being something like the fin of a weird aquatic mammal. It just goes to show: a picture on a VHS cover and a child’s imagination is sometimes scarier than the film or the book itself.
2) Dracula (1897)— Bram Stoker
First reading: I spent a fun week or two during summer term at university leisurely reading an edition of Dracula with hundreds of explanatory notes in addendum. I think it takes even horror fans a while to get around to reading this novel because like so many classics we feel we already know the content so well that nothing new could be gained from a return to the original text. Nothing could be less the case. My very favorite section of the novel is Lucy and Mina’s meeting with the old man Swales and his stories about sailors drowned at sea. I have yet to see Swales put in anything more than a momentary appearance in any film or TV adaptation.
First encounter: My parents were never accustomed to setting restrictions when I was young but for reasons unknown the Francis Ford Coppola film was deemed too scary for me for a long time and as a result I never saw it until I was about ten or eleven. My earliest relationship with Dracula is through family connection. My family on my mother’s side come from a town in Yorkshire not far from Whitby where the Russian ship the Demeter ran aground in the novel allowing Dracula to enter England in the form of a large dog. In my childhood we often visited my grandmother’s country and I remember climbing the 199 steps that lead to Whitby Abbey, terrified the whole time that the Count might still be in residence there. Perhaps the most unnerving of these early encounters was the Dracula Experience, a live action and special effects ghost train which I believe still operates in Whitby today. I still remember vividly begging my dad for us to turn back when we were only halfway through the ride. To this moment— and I’m thirty-two— I can remember the horrible voice of Dracula put on by a jobbing actor twenty-five years ago. I can even remember his chilling message: “Foolish mortals! If you run it will suggest the chase is on. If you stop it will suggest the chase is over.”
3) IT (1986)— Stephen King
First reading: When we were teenagers my younger sister and myself took turns at reading IT to each other. She read much more than me, I remember, because I thought back then she had a better voice for it. It had been a long time by then since she was tiny and I did the majority of the reading; in those days our focus being the complete works of R.L. Stine. I still recall that we were both not so much embarrassed as slightly dubious about the inclusion by King of the prepubescent gang bangs between the boys and Beverly Marsh.
First encounter: For me Pennywise the Dancing Clown will always be Tim Curry. Who the hell is Bill Skarsgård?
4) The Hellbound Heart (1986)— Clive Barker
First reading: Published, like Stephen King’s IT, in the year of my birth, this one had to wait for me to come to maturity. When I did read it I did so among a good deal more of Clive Barker’s fiction and as such I found that, to my taste, The Hellbound Heart is the least interesting of his works. I found the novel slightly insipid and like Barker’s Weaveworld— which I believe I abandoned halfway through— I found whole portions of the novel to be just a little puerile. In my opinion to see Barker at his best—and he is a master of the genre— you have to look at his plays and at his short fiction. My favorite Barker short is ‘Haeckel’s Tale’ which I read in what is now a considerably well thumbed copy of The Mammoth Book of The Best of Best New Horror.
First encounter: Clive Barker was the epitome of a certain kind of dread when I was newly a teenager. The last time I remember feeling genuine fear while experiencing something I knew to be unreal was while catching a flash while flicking through channels on Sky of the scene in Hellraiser II (1988) in which the vision appears, in the corner of a hospital room, of a flayed man writing in blood on the wall. The simple urgency of his message (“I AM IN HELL HELP ME”) was maybe the most frightening aspect of the whole image from my perspective. I felt it raised the possibility that dimensions of acute suffering could coexist with our own and that it was possible to fall into them. In my darker moments I’m still unable conclusively to discount that fear.
5) The Haunting of Hill House (1959)— Shirley Jackson
First reading: I was around twenty when I first read The Haunting of Hill House. I admired its lyricism and its repetitive return to obsessive themes of loss and love. I also think to this day that there is no better opening to a novel than the opening to this one, in which the “not sane” Hill House is described in a way which is both chilling and poetic. I am forever looking for dark fiction which is also beautiful. Such a balance can be rare but Jackson is a master of just such a style. I was very happy recently to revisit my reading of this novel via Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series. I was particularly pleased to see the last episode draw from that wonderful poetry from the opening paragraph of the book itself, but to subvert the meaning of the text in a new and uplifting way.
First encounter: Another example of how our encounters with literature are often extra-literary and not always particularly highbrow: One of the first times I came into contact with the plot of Jackson’s novel was in my mid-teens through the plot of Scary Movie 2 (2001) which offers a protracted spoof of that text and the horror and pop culture which was familiar to everyone at the time.
Comment with the horror that terrified you, on and off the page.