I have been reading a lot more horror recently. Last year the real world felt so horrific that I craved more comforting reads, but with things looking cautiously optimistic now, I feel ready to be spooked again. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few weeks, it’s that horror can just be as hit and miss as any other genre. And I’ve come to understand a lot better what I look for in horror, as well as why some texts simply don’t cut it for me.
I’ve returned to some authors whose work I’ve sampled before, albeit a while ago, such as Dean Koontz and Richard Laymon. I won’t be returning to these specific authors again anytime soon. While the books I read (Koontz’s City of Night and Laymon’s Funland) were occasionally entertaining, they left me feeling as if I’d scoffed a massive McDonalds meal. Not quite satisfied and slightly ashamed. Laymon’s descriptions of women of nothing but lust objects feel zany and outdated whereas Koontz’s repetitive writing and endless exposition annoyed the heck out of me.
In case of Koontz, I’ve even done something I’ve never done before. City of Night is the second instalment in a five-part series, and while I was interested in finding out what would happen next, I could not be bothered to read four more books. So I looked up the summaries online. No spoilers, but it seems the ending was a disappointment for even the most devoted Koontz fans. Of which I am not one. I mean, it’s not as if these books are the worst I’ve ever read. It’s just that there are so many better books out there and I’d rather read one of those instead.
Fortunately I’ve stumbled upon some good stuff as well. Many will know George R. R. Martin from his Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as the TV series adaptation, Game of Thrones). I’ve always been intrigued by the premise of the series, I don’t like watching TV, and I haven’t read any decent fantasy in a very long time. But the books are so damn long and there are so many of them. Would they be worth it?
I decided to try one of GRRM’s (as he’s affectionately known among his fans) lesser-known books. Fevre Dream is a horror novel set in the American South during the nineteenth century. Steamboat captain Abner Marsh finds himself in a bit of a pickle – business is bad, has been for some time, and unlikely to get better anytime soon – when he meets the mysterious Joshua York. York, who happens to be filthy rich, offers to invest in Abner’s ailing shipping company as long as Abner doesn’t ask any tricky questions. Suspicious though he may be, Abner signs the contract. And off we go.
The fact that Joshua only emerges from his cabin at night is a bit of a giveaway: he’s a vampire. But that’s all I’ll say about the story, for it offers some very interesting twists and turns and the less prospective readers know about those, the better. In recent years the vampire story has become a bit of a cliché but Martin, writing well before said recent years, manages to do something truly original with a trope which in this day and age often feels rather bloodless. Sorry.
Fevre Dream is rich and detail and describes a world I know next to nothing about – steamboating on the Mississippi nearly two centuries ago – in a vivid way that really makes me want to seek out some non-fiction about this place and period. Sure, the novel extensively covers the slave trade, and it may therefore be very triggering for some, but it is also very explicit in its condemnation of this part of America’s past. For me, it became clear that I’m in need of more education on a topic I don’t know enough about, and a novel causing that kind of awareness deserves not to be forgotten for that reason alone.
But most importantly, Fevre Dream has helped me realize that I don’t like horror texts that are merely scary or nihilistic. I don’t care for characters who are only driven by hatred, greed, fear and sadistic tendencies, like Victor Helios and his New Race in City of Night. For me horror becomes interesting when it doesn’t just cover what the characters are fighting against – be it a vampire, serial killer, or deadly fungus – but also what they are fighting for. In case of Fevre Dream, Abner is driven by his passion for his ship but also by his unlikely friendship with Joshua York. As a result, the novel becomes so much more multi-layered than Laymon’s pancake-flat prose. I rooted for Abner and even for Joshua, as the story progressed. I wanted to find out what happened to them, I was scared when they were, I felt sorry for them when bad things happened to them. In contrast, I couldn’t care less when yet another member of the New Race met a horrible end in City of Night.
This is a very longwinded way to say that I might give Martin’s magnum opus a go, even if I’m not sure whether I have the stamina to read all seven books (and counting). In any case, I’ve learned what I need to be looking for in a horror novel. Sure, I’d expect to be scared and I’m okay with some gore, but at the end of the day I want a captivating, believable story with characters I can root for, even if they’re not perfect. Abner’s eating habits, for example, are revolting. But I was sad when I finished Fevre Dream and had to say goodbye to him. For a fictional character to achieve that is no mean feat and I’d pick a book by his creator over yet another cynical money-grabbing exercise any day.