Halloween is nigh! You have no idea what to read to get in a spooky mood? The Otherland Bookshop Berlin has some last-minute recommendations for you.
Matthew Holness | Garth Marenghi's TerrorTome
If anyone has ever watched Matthew Holness’ crazy spoof Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place then you already know what is in store for you. Marenghi (penname for Holness) is a hapless, self-deluded dinosaur of a horror author – his works a parody of the kind of tacky, misogynist horror writing and filmmaking which blossomed in the late-twentieth century and inexplicably continues to this day.
Finding the pulse of this strain and stamping on it, TerrorTome has an offbeat, often delirious humor to it (think the comedy work of Matt Berry, Chris Morris, or Julian Barrett…), a knowing send-off of the genre bugbears mixed with nonsensical asides.
The plot in a nutshell: following an illicit and laboriously described love affair with a cursed typewriter, acclaimed horror author Nick Steen comes face to face with the terrifying entity Typeface, Dark Lord of the Prolix. Through their monumental battle, Typeface unleashes the terrors of Steen’s twisted imagination onto the real-world town of Stalkford. Now Steen must defend the town from the denizens of his own best-selling and not-so-best-selling novels, including serial killer and world expert in avascular necrosis Dr Nelson Strain, as well as a series of throppelgangers (think about it) under the banner of the Dark Third. With only the help of Roz Bloom, his “frequently incorrect female editor” (who he often seems to oppose more than the escaped nightmares), Steen has to stop a wave of terror that threatens to destroy Stalkford, outer Stalkford, and possibly slightly further…
Brutally knowing in its targets and frequently laugh-out-loud cringe worthy. This is a very silly parody of bad horror writing and bad horror writers everywhere. And I mean that as a compliment. [Tom]
Zara-Louise Stubbs | The Uncanny Gastronomic
British library: €13
Almost every genre is “haunted by food”, whether it is the lack of it (dystopia), extremes of quality and quantity (fairy tale), dark displays of luxury (gothic), or of the surreal (magic realism). Horror, and particularly the uncanny, uses food even more so – go into your memory-bank for a minute and try to think of all the classic horror scenes which involve eating (or being eaten).
With this in mind, Zara-Louise Stubbs brings together a gruesome menu of literary delights, some old, some new, some familiar, and others obscure. A veritable feast.
Some great highlights in here: I really enjoyed Shirley Jackson’s Like Mother Used to Make, a tale which might be the very definition of uncanny. I don’t want to give too much away, but it starts as a lovely domestic evening between neighbours, and then on a single sentence it turns into something absolutely nightmarish with a very dark streak of humour. And what about Roald Dahl’s Pig. (Did you know he wrote eighteen collections of short stories for adults?) It is the best possible combination of fairytale craziness and that dark, macabre devilry that runs through his children’s stories. This one starts with a couple going to a nightclub the night their son is born, and it goes wickedly downhill from there.
Stubbs has a great time playing with genre expectations. There are your classic short stories here but there are also poems (Robert Browning’s The Laboratory is super), autobiographical essays, and extracts. You might expect to meet Angela Carter, Algernon Blackwood, and Edgar Allan Poe in such a collection, but what about Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, Italo Calvino, or Saki? Suitably dark fare for a dusky, autumnal Berlin evening. [Tom]
Paul Tremblay | The Beast You Are: Stories
Titan Books: €12
The recent movie adaption of The Cabin at the End of the World has hopefully converted a few horror fans to team Tremblay and fingers crossed got them to read the original novel.
Better still would be digging up A Head Full of Ghosts, the writer’s love letter to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which might be THE horror novel of our time. His collection Growing Things is also not to be sniffed at, though there are fewer scares to be found there. Tremblay’s last offering, The Pallbearers Club, met with decidedly mixed reviews so I was curious to see how this collection would play out.
Good news first. The Beast You Are is just as inventive at times as Tremblay’s earlier work, though for all the inventiveness, ironically it is the more realistic tales which hit home. “I Know You’re There” is a post-Covid tragedy in which widower Silas loses his husband David but is followed by something more active than a regular corpse. It is both touching and unsettling. Similarly, “The Blog at the End of the World” marries humour and dread in a Memento-style reverse plot that very cleverly uses the stage of online discussion boards (the fact that you read everything backwards chronologically) to address a spate of disappearances, again mirroring those lost over lockdown. “The Last Conversation” meanwhile depicts a man trapped in a strange room and recovering from some unknown affliction. He must piece together his identity through talking to a strange and mysterious woman. It is an intelligent back-and-forth exercise in trust and withheld information, a clever variation on Plato’s cave metaphor.
There are also nods to other horror authors here: a King-style small town America childhood horror (“Haunted House Tour: 1 per Person”), a Jackson-esque social dilemma (“The Party”). The strangest thing about the collection, though, is how few genuine scares there are. Looking down at the adjectives in my notes there is a lot of “humorous”, “odd”, “fun”, and even “sweet” but very little to draw up the levels of fear and unease conjured by Tremblay’s best offerings. And there is a lot of navel-gazing here, with the writer re-hashing old material or stabbing out at critics and reviewers. You have to have read the back catalogue in order to get the gist of “Red Eyes” or “The Postal Zone”. There are also a lot of long sentences, overly-stretched concepts, purposefully obscure word choices, and ambiguity - so much ambiguity. A little of that I can stomach, but 470 pages…
Hardcore Tremblay fans: go for it. Horror nerds will enjoy finding the copious genre references and in-jokes. Fans of weird fiction should grab a copy too, for the originality of some of the tales. Just don’t expect too many sleepless nights. [Tom]