Black Candies: See Through: A Journal of Literary Horror
Edited by Ryan Bradford and Jay Wertzler
SSWA Press, 2013
141 pages / $13 Buy from So Say We All
The 1978 John Carpenter film Halloween opens with the camera serving as the viewpoint of a child. The audience watches the boy spy on his sister from an outside window, then put on a clown mask, pick up a meat cleaver, and climb the stairs. We, as the audience, then see from (who we learn later to be) a young Michael Meyers’s perspective as he surveys his topless sister and then proceeds to stab her.
There is little to no blood in this iconic murder scene. In fact, the only real blood is a relatively small dab on the knife as Myers stands in his clown costume on the front lawn awaiting his parents in the following shot. And yet, this is one of the tensest scenes in the movie as it blends a creepy synthesized score, eerie lighting, and that mask over the camera effect to create an unnerving sequence. What’s particularly intriguing about Halloween is that this scene of the film has so little outright gore more because of a shoe string budget and restrictions with child actors than for any consideration of taste or propriety.
Those who are familiar with the rest of the Halloween franchise know that only Carpenter’s original pulls off the lack of blood effectively. In fact the rest of the series, especially the Rob Zombie reboot of 2007, amps up the blood by the gallon—mainly because they lack Carpenter’s subtle, directorial hand.
There is a proliferation of gore in horror film franchises. Compare, for example, the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which does begin the film with disinterred corpses and uses a shot of the actress Marilyn Burns really being cut by Gunnar Hansen, but never explicitly shows anything much worse to later iterations. Rather, in the 1974 film, Tobe Hooper only suggests girls being impaled by meat hooks with close up shots of dangling feet and a squishing sound effect or being chopped up with the eponymous piece of hardware. However, later iterations of the film, especially the 2013 3D extravaganza that features the same hook scene with the hook pointing out the other side of hapless Kenny’s gut followed by a slow grinding in half via chainsaw thanks to Leatherface added, add far more gore, but at the cost of the plot and ambience of the films.
Wes Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes is one of my favorite of the late 70s New Horror films because it depicts a stranded family beset upon by inbred hill people. There is little to no suggestion that these folk eat baby flesh for any other reason than because they are crazy, and the final scene in which the father takes his revenge on the clan leader with a knife repeatedly to his chest is par excellence, but this was all undone with the 2006 remake which replaced Michael Berryman with giant radioactive horrors with oozing tumescence.
In many ways, horror fiction is subject to these same issues. Zombie novels and backwoods killers are all depicted with such heavy-handedness. Black Candies, on the other hand, is a journal of literary horror which strives to feature horror fiction that features a little more panache. It’s a relief to see a journal trying to push for quality horror writing, especially writing from women (who are woefully underrepresented in the genre at large). As a result of these efforts, the very best selections in the most recent issue (with all selections reacting to the theme “See Through” ) operate under the same principle as the best horror films of the seventies—that less is more.
In “I’m Pogo,” Lindsay Hunter uses the reader’s previous knowledge of John Wayne Gacy and the touchstones of pedophile clowns spawned by his crimes to build dread. There’s no outright violence in her story, rather repeated phrases like “tourniquet, tourniquet …” and sentences like “You know, tremblefleshed wifebound line cooks jailed for sodomy learn quick how not to be jailed the next time. The word is pederast.” In many ways, this is more terrifying for her readers than a direct description of pedophiliac rape.
Jac Jemc’s story “Angles” also builds upon haunted house tropes, but uses the affectless phrasing, “maybe it was the neighbor children who rang the doorbell that night or maybe it was just some faulty wiring or maybe the faint ring we heard was something else entirely: a thing we would only recognize later,” which increases in intensity as the story progresses as the narrator later says, “maybe I find a body and it’s hard as diamonds or maybe I find the body and it’s just a pile of soft bones and teeth or maybe it’s a body whose nails have screamed themselves free of absent fingers. What will a rat eat first?” The story becomes scary more because of the narrator’s refusal to acknowledge the strange goings on rather than because of actual ghosts or guts.
In other stories Aaron Burch uses the familiar frustrations of hotel life to depict a man driven too far by a dog, and Ken Bauman’s “Lathe” meditates on the real-life horror that is surviving the death of loved ones to make something chilling and beautiful.
Not all mainstream horror is heavy-handed. Ti West’s contribution to the film V/H/S is one of my favorite recent horror movies and Joe Hill and Benjamin Percy are frequently producing quality horror novels and short fiction, but the best of the best of the genre remains see through to the general public. Maybe this is because, on a base level, audiences don’t actually want to be scared. They just need something to watch on a date which encourages squeezing hands and not much further thought. Mainstream horror is populated by zombies, maniacs, and sharktopi which require little headspace—they’re spooky, but they don’t affect people in the real world, whereas literary horror inhabits the subtle, everyday terror that pervades people’s lives. After all, the scariest horror is that which we cannot see. In “This is a Ghost Story,” a ghost asks the narrator of Juliet Escoria’s story “What are you so afraid of?” She responds “Everything, … it’s everything in this world that scares me…”
Quincy Rhoads teaches English composition at Austin Peay State University. He lives in Clarksville, TN with his wife and their son. His writing has been featured online in Everyday Genius, The Fiddleback, and Unicorn Knife Fight.