Recommendation: “Gyo” by Junji Ito

Something is wrong. A stench that drove Tadashi and Kaori from their holiday at the sea has followed them to their apartment in the city. A stench that is driving Kaori mad. But as terrible as that stench is, what is about to follow it out of the sea may be more than mankind can handle.

Gyo. A novel you read when you’re fine never to want to look at a fish ever again.

Junji Ito’s work is something that grabs your mind and doesn’t let go. Grotesque and beautiful. He has a masterful grasp of the very essence of horror; taking something normal and twisting it slightly until it becomes unsettlingly unfamiliar.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoy Uzumaki, the first of Ito’s books I read. But being compared to a masterpiece is never fair, and doesn’t mean Gyo isn’t good. It just didn’t quite have the same overall feel of a completed story. There didn’t seem to be as much character, and the ending came out of nowhere and didn’t really feel satisfying. But that didn’t detract from the experience I had reading.

And that’s what Ito’s work is; an experience. Whatever other opinion you may have of his work, you don’t finish this book the same as you went in.

Recommending… Locke & Key

If I’ve not read something, its new to me. And if I’ve not even heard of it before and can experience it completely devoid of expectations? Well, that happens very rarely.

Everyone has a list of things they intend to read/watch in the future. Things we’ve been recommended or have heard talked about so much we know it’s got to at least be worth a go but haven’t quite yet had the chance to get around to. This is why I love Humble Bundle. It gives me the opportunity to pick up a bunch of books or graphic novels to load onto my Kindle for when I need something to read.

This allows me to try out writers I’ve had on my “must try” list. Recently I finally got around to trying Cory Doctrow’s work, for example. But it also gives me the opportunity to occasionally try out something completely new. Work I’ve never even heard of before. And this creates the opportunity for me to experience something both rare and magical: the once in a lifetime chance to read something brilliant without any expectations or preconceptions.

Such as happened when I downloaded Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s six volume graphic novel, Locke & Key.

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Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family who, after losing their father in a horrific home invasion, move across country to their old family home; The Keyhouse. There they discover a collection of fantastical keys that, used with the correct doors, unlock extraordinary powers in themselves and the world around them. But soon they learn that behind one of those doors is a spirit both ancient and evil, and they discover the history of the keys, the story of their creation and the horrific events that caused their father to work so hard to hide them.

I think the best endorsement of this series is this; I gave up the writing time I get on my lunch breaks to keep reading. I needed to know what happened next. I’m incredibly lucky that all six volumes were included in the Humble Bundle so I could read them all in essentially one sitting. And when I finished, I went out and bought the slipcase collection (which is so pretty). Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 12.57.47This is one of those books that you need to reread straight away, to give yourself the chance to see just how well the story has been plotted out and foreshadowed. Lines and images that seem incidental on your first read are revealed to have so much more meaning the second time around. Hill is a writer who knows exactly where he is going and where he is leading you.

Locke & Key is a Lovecraftian story, but I want to qualify that statement slightly. The word “Lovecraftian” has become a little watered down in many people’s minds. Forgetting the mountains of – let’s be charitable and call it “fanfiction”[1] – out there, there are professional, published, well respected writers out there who don’t quite get what Lovecraftian should mean. But Joe Hill gets it. He understands both the nature of the mythos, and that it comes second to character and plot.

Be warned, horrible things happen to people in this story. It opens with the Locke family suffering a home invasion involving murder and sexual assault, and the story largely focuses on the ways that the characters deal with this. It’s never forgotten or glossed over. A major theme is how our mistakes and bad decisions will haunt us and echo through the rest of our lives. Don’t expect everyone you meet to have a happy ending here.

Lovecraftian stories – and horror in general – are about fear of the unknown. And while a lot of that is embodied by “the monster” or “the powers we can’t comprehend”, there is also plenty of that in real life. Two stories run in parallel here; one about magic keys with a link to an ancient evil from the Plains of Leng, and the other about a family trying to deal with trauma and loss. About children trying to work out their place in the world without their father. About a mother coping with addiction and trying to keep herself together for her children. About that feeling of having no one there to lead us through.

I can’t really critique art in graphic novels. I’m afraid I’m stuck in the “I know what I like” category. But Rodriguez’s art fits in perfectly brilliantly with the writing, filled with character and background detail. Nothing throws me out of story like art that doesn’t fit the work. This one does. He works well with the writer, matching the style of the story and working bring the words to life. That seems good enough for me.

Locke & Key is definitely worth picking up if you’ve not yet discovered it. It ran between 2008 and 2013, so I’m assuming quite a few of you out there are scoffing at me right now for being so late to the party. But better late than never, and if I can direct any other poor souls who, like me, were living in ignorance, then I’ll be happy.

Enjoy.

 

[1] Please note I’m not trying to belittle Fan Fiction here, or the communities that surround it. I’m just trying to find the correct word for writing that enthusiastic but not quite up to – let’s say – a professional standard.

Why I love Lovecraftian horror

or how I learned to stop worrying and Love-craft.

First things first, just let me apologise for that terrible pun. I tried to fight it. I really did. But that line has been echoing around my brain since I came up with the idea for this post and the only way to get it out of my head is to commit it to the page. Now it’s here and I’m afraid we just have to live with it.

So moving on…

http://abigaillarson.deviantart.com/art/H-P-Lovecraft-135038700

HP Lovecraft by Abigail Larson

My preferred style of horror – as revealed in my opening pun – is the style known as Lovecraftian. Named for the author H.P. Lovecraft, it is the horror of atmosphere, texture and hopelessness. Rather than gore or slasher stories, where the fear comes from an immediate danger, Lovecraftian horror is rather the terror that comes from the detachment and hopelessness of the unknown and the unknowable.

What Lovecraftian horror avoids, to a greater or lesser extent, is the idea of a enemy that can be defeated. I’m not saying these stories never involve some kind of monster – they often do – but the difference is that whatever victories might be won there will always be the overt or implied knowledge that the victory is temporary at best.

One of the aspects of the mythos H.P. Lovecraft created is the idea of a protagonist who is somehow detached from the world. Outside of the everyday. This detachment gives them the ability to recognise – or be noticed by – those parts of the universe that are beyond our understanding. This in turn ends with them being forced to accept not only that there are things in the world that have been in existence for eons longer than humanity, but that it is impossible for the human mind to even begin to understand them. That as much as we can struggle and fight, any victory will be temporary. We can never truly win. That there is something else in the world, something cosmic, otherworldly or ungodly that we know, deep down, will always return.

I don’t want to disparage other styles of horror. There’s nothing wrong with slashers, or monster stories, or splatter gore. If that’s your thing, that’s fine. I just personally believe that these are more immediate styles of writing, and therefore – again, I’m trying not to sound disparaging where I don’t mean to be – the easy route to scare someone. It is far easier to make someone afraid or uneasy with gore or cheap scares. Even the worst horror film can make you flinch with a well placed sound cue and jump cut. This is the opposite end of the scales of scares.* The immediate danger. The fear of the moment.

Lovecraftian horror taps into something greater. A more primal, ongoing fear that grows from the part of humanity that sees an unknown that we cannot comprehend. By their detachment from society the protagonist is cut off from the structures and beliefs that mankind has developed to protect itself from facing the age old fears of a universe that we cannot hope to comprehend. That the best we can do is struggle day to day for survival. That our time in finite and our fates are beyond our own management.

In the end, these are stories about the loss of hope. This is what causes true fear. All horror has this to a degree, but Lovecraftian horror sits at its heart. 

This is especially vital in books, where cheap jumps scares are not available to ramp up the audiences fear. The reader need to be brought into a sense of disquiet. They need to feel that despite the plot being resolved there is still something more lingering in place. Something that gives them the unnerving feeling that that could not understand. They need to be left with the feeling that they could investigate further, but the instinct that doing so would only lead to greater and more terrible things.

The nagging feeling that the things we thought of of certain may not, in fact, be as concrete as we desperately need to believe.

Not everyone agrees with me on there. I have had notes back from editors on some of my short stories telling me the writing was fine but I should add a monster or physical antagonist for the main character to be able to fight. But while somethings that is an important part of the story – in one instance I had to agree that the editor was correct and I added something in – that is not always the atmosphere I am trying to get across.

I think sometimes, if the writer can do it well, fear itself is the monster.

Because sometimes, all we have to fear is fear itself.

* “Scale of Scares” is a 1950s B-Movie title if ever there was one.

Find more of Abigail Larson’s art at http://abigaillarson.deviantart.com/