Let’s start with a frightening tale: Year after year, in a grand ballroom, the literati came together to celebrate the best writing of the day. Here — amid the whimsy of feted storytellers and the intoxicating sizzle of champagne — they believed culture was made. Yet they were deceived in their merriment, for the abominable fiends and howling phantoms they thought were confined to the dark streets and cold woods beyond the gilded walls were, in fact, wandering among them freely. Lost in the dazzle of their gala, the partygoers simply failed to see or hear the ghosts.
At first, this invisibility caused the revenants an aching sadness. Over time, however, as more and more ghastly shades came wailing into the sparkling room, only to go unseen and unheard, an idea woke among them. Perhaps, they thought, if enough of them came at once, the liminal scales might begin to tilt in their favour, away from grandeur and pomp and glitter. Perhaps the grime and shadow of the dark streets and cold woods might seep its way under the doors and windows, clouding the bright room with a sepulchral dusk. Perhaps, rather than haunting the fringes of a well-defined world of increasingly arbitrary values, the apparitions might surround themselves in their own sort of abundance.
Perhaps, they said to one another, it is not sadness we are feeling after all. Perhaps it is hunger.
If you like ghost stories and other tales of frightful delight that are categorized as horror, you need not look far to find your fix. Our various screens are filled with them, from such “elevated” films as Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out to Netflix’s massive South Korean social commentary Squid Game. Indeed, screen-based horror is having a moment — enjoying the kind of surging market share that makes PR teams and studio heads gush.
Meanwhile, in bookstores, the genre remains relegated to its nook, near the back of the much bigger fiction or literature section. In retail stores both physical and virtual, the selection of titles leans heavily toward the most famous author that the genre has produced. As of October 2021, nearly fifty years after the publication of his first novel, Carrie, five of Amazon’s top twenty-five horror bestsellers were by Stephen King. While accolades for exceptional works of horror exist — the Bram Stoker Awards, the Shirley Jackson Awards, the Sunburst Awards — they inhabit their own sub-industry and cater to a community rather than to the pretense of mainstream opinion that hovers around prizes like the Booker and the Giller. On the short lists of those illustrious and lucrative honours, you will find very little that qualifies as the scary stuff. That’s because, as a type of prose fiction, horror is still seen as something unrefined, dangerous, maybe a little forbidden.
Certainly, some books are guilty of some of these things. Yet to ignore the genre in what many claim to be our most important discussions of literature is to dismiss the hulking monster that has climbed out of the closet over the last few years of global tumult. Impolite and vaguely threatening though it may be, one can no longer credibly omit horror fiction from a world that has turned, gradually and then suddenly, into a horror story writ large.
Two recent books, denizens of the shadowy realm between beauty and fear, illustrate with insight and grace the ways in which horror is an indispensable mode of understanding for many outside the ballroom. David Demchuk’s second novel, Red X, is a searing, personal tour through the terrors experienced, both figuratively and fatally, by the LGBTQ community in Toronto. And while A. C. Wise’s debut collection, The Ghost Sequences, is less incendiary, it is no less affecting, as it burrows deep into the gaps and absences in which hauntings are born.
Both of these titles look the wraiths of fear and grief in their grim faces — and find horror seeping from the marrow of human existence. In their technical complexity, ambition, creative scope, and sense of urgency, they are as significant as any other contemporary literary work, if not more so.
Operating in the wings, horror writers often feel free to take the chances that other authors will not. Demchuk’s Red X, published by Strange Light, the experimental imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, is a perfect example of what can happen when they do. (For what it’s worth, Demchuk’s debut, The Bone Mother, from 2017, is the only work of horror to have been longlisted for the Giller Prize.) The book combines realist fiction, queer history, memoir, and potent social horror. It also lacks a clearly identifiable protagonist. Instead, Demchuk employs a collective approach that presents a network of men, connected through time and community, who are stalked and killed by a malevolent entity that’s haunting Toronto’s Gay Village. Sometimes it is viral. Sometimes human. Sometimes neither.
Masterfully using the titular symbol as a marker that maps the history of homophobia across two centuries, Demchuk creates a vivid, harrowing exhibition of fiends and threats driven by bigotry: “There are frightening things in the world, things that hunt by instinct, that watch and stalk and corner and seize and shake us to death, fling our remains where they may never be found.” It would be insufficient to say that the spectre of the serial killer who murdered at least eight men in Toronto, between 2010 and 2017, hangs over Demchuk’s novel; he references the case early on and discloses, in a heartbreaking passage, that one of the victims, Andrew Kinsman, was someone he knew. The killer is not named in the text — to do so would profane it — but he is within these pages, a fresh wound, a threat that has not disappeared, not really. It is notable that the author’s acknowledgements end with a list of the dead. The names put a sombre, condemnatory punctuation mark on a statement Demchuk makes earlier: “We all know this man’s name, we all know his sunny, smiling face,” he writes of the murderer. “But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could name even three of the men he’s accused of killing.” (I, for one, couldn’t.)
With Red X, Demchuk flexes many of the skills he honed throughout his career as a playwright and scriptwriter. As he pieces the men’s stories together with his own experiences, he gradually spins a long thread of history that, finally and consciously, situates things in the realm of the supernatural. Yet much of the novel’s effectiveness lies beyond plot, in mood and structure and tone, and especially in place: outside of Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, there may be no work more deeply rooted in the psychogeography of Toronto. That Demchuk sees the city as a monster is a testament to both his perspective and the place’s habit of disguising itself as polite and proper.
In an opening section, a brief urban profile veers toward an image of the apocalypse: “Public services have eroded. The infrastructure is crumbling. Violence and hate are on the rise.” This is a measure too purple, but it makes a fundamental point about how Toronto is changing and how those changes mirror the larger culture: “What was once buried, pushed underground, is now erupting, bursting up and through.” Red X removes a colourful hockey mask of diversity, propriety, and conformity to reveal a most horrifying truth: even before the recent eruptions, queer people were living through plagues of violence and disease. For them, outside of those few spaces where they can safely create their own joy, this town has always been a horror story. In the novel’s most affecting moment, Demchuk makes a direct appeal to the reader, bringing us into the heart of his dread: “These fears, these horrors, may not be the ones you thought you’d face as you began to turn these pages. For that I apologize, though I hope you’ll stay with me. You see, a friend of mine is gone, and I’m afraid, and I’m not sure what else I can do.”
A. C. Wise has not already haunted the Canadian literary mainstream as Demchuk has, and her latest collection, The Ghost Sequences, comes not from a Big Five publisher or one of its many tentacles but from Undertow Publications, an indie press in Pickering, Ontario, that specializes in horror, weird fiction, and related styles descended from the work of Robert Aickman, Angela Carter, Thomas Ligotti, and other masters of using beautiful language to create a sense of delicious, suffocating foreboding.
Wise’s stories are concerned with vanishings and traces, and many of them creep along the seams between different media. There is everything from a set of artistic statements for an exhibition haunted by ghosts to a brief catalogue of scrimshaw pieces that illustrate a whaling ship’s weird fate: “In the midst of the becalmed sea, the Henry Charles Morgan lies still, yet motion is suggested in a singular figure, scaling the ship’s hull. The figure is shown from the waist up only, legs swallowed by the invisible water.” There’s even a riff on Scooby-Doo’s “if not for you meddling kids” formula. The tonal and formal variety speaks to the book’s composition over many years — the earliest story dates to 2013 — but the thematic concerns and a poetic oddity in some of Wise’s sentences make the work feel cohesive.
Standout selections include the magic-tinged opener, “How the Trick Is Done,” and “The Nag Bride,” a novelette, while the collection’s final piece, “The Ghost Sequences,” typifies Wise’s experimentalism and ability to evoke elegant yet disturbing worlds in the assembly of layers that are by turns sinister and sorrowful. It also contains what might as well be the book’s thesis: “A haunting is a moment of trauma infinitely repeated. It extends forward and backward in time. It is the hole grief makes. It is a house built by memory in-between your skin and bones.” These lines could easily be from Red X ; they speak to the same permanence of horror.
The garish era in which serious subjects had to be covered in stage blood and monster masks to get horror audiences interested has been superseded by something less distinct yet far more threatening. For years, what we call the news has been driven by an appetite for horror —“If it bleeds, it leads,” as the cliché goes — and social media has only made suffering around the world more visible. The 2020s have thus far been defined by a pandemic that is among the biggest horror stories in recorded history. An even bigger one, where the earth itself becomes uninhabitable for humans, is scheduled to premiere within the next ten to twenty years, give or take. Trauma is everywhere.
The current artists of horror fiction may have the best view of the grotesqueries that underlie so much of how we operate in the world. From atop Mount Blood, in the light of a gibbous moon, they see the terror in full; they are attentive to the ways it can change shape and mutate into new monsters heretofore unimagined — or known only by some. This perspective is shared, in particular, by historically marginalized communities. In the United States, for example, the Blackfeet author Stephen Graham Jones, among the most popular and acclaimed new horror writers, recently received the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award for his novel The Only Good Indians, which tells the story of four men pursued through time by a vengeful elk spirit.
Recognition elsewhere underscores that mainstream literary conversations here rarely celebrate Canada’s accomplishments in the genre, which include Barbara Gowdy’s classic necrophilia story, “We So Seldom Look on Love,” from 1992, and Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything, from 1995, later turned into a film by Bruce McDonald. Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild, the tale of a rougarou or werewolf, was an instant bestseller when it was published in 2019 and praised by the New York Times and NPR. But it was ignored by the major awards here. Even someone like Andrew Pyper, who has a string of bestsellers and can craft a beautiful sentence as well as any writer today, rarely gets mentioned among our greats. His latest novel, The Residence, has just been adapted into a documentary for Discovery Plus. But the idea that it might have been nominated for, say, the Giller is absurd: it simply wouldn’t do (the juries might mutter, twiddling their monocles) to declare this fun, thrilling fiction among the best we’ve got.
Our system of literary segregation has worked while the edifices of polite literary society have remained standing. The biases of the industry and pretentions to an aesthetic advantage for “serious literature” have served some very well. As the bleak spectacles of global politics, climate change, and mass illness are right before our eyes, however, horror is scratching at the door with more insistence than ever. We may think of it as a genre or a style or an implicit assignment of value. But ultimately horror is a feeling — of helplessness, of being under attack, of sickness over the atrocities we’re capable of because they run so deep in our blood.
One of the sphere’s most familiar tropes is the final girl, the one who survives whatever ghoulishness has brought her to the end of the story. When the literati gather next, she’ll be outside the grand ballroom — and she’ll be rattling the gates. Will those inside offer her shelter from whatever pursues her? Will they stop celebrating long enough to hear her warning them that the monsters are already inside?