Horrors from the Mainstream - The Boom: The Blockbusters - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Horrors from the Mainstream
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Several mainstream writers—or, at any rate, writers who approached horror from mainstream or other genre perspectives—produced some notable (or at least popular) works during this period. American writer William Hjortsberg (b. 1941) wrote several novels (including a science fiction/crime hybrid, Gray Matters [1971]) before publishing Falling Angel (1978), powerfully filmed as Angel Heart (1987). A complex supernatural novel masquerading as a detective story, the tale focuses on a private detective, Harry Angel, who becomes involved with a shadowy figure named Louis Cyphre—who, to no one’s surprise, turns out to be Lucifer. Although the novel proves to be one more reprise of the selling-one’s-soul-to-the-Devil motif (in this case the seller is a 1940s crooner, Johnny Favorite), the structural complexity of the tale, its stylish prose, and its vivid realisation of setting (both New York City and New Orleans) render it far superior to the average run of bestseller fare. Hjortsberg’s next supernatural novel, Nevermore (1994), is a considerable step downward, treating of the relationship between spiritualist convert Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and debunker Harry Houdini.

The case of Thomas Harris (b. 1940) is a perplexing one. After writing a dreadful potboiler, Black Sunday (1975), about terrorists wishing to blow up the Super Bowl from a blimp, he produced—at surprisingly long intervals, for a bestselling writer—two notable novels, Red Dragon (1981) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988). The celebrity of these works—as well as of their film versions (the first, filmed as Manhunter, appeared in 1986, the second in 1990)—has caused Harris to be a figure of much renown and his works to be hailed as significant contributions to weird literature. But, while there is no question that nothing supernatural occurs in these works, there is a vexing question as to whether they fall even into the category of psychological horror. In my opinion they do not, although that judgment has no relevance to my relatively high regard for the novels as literary works.

Both are presented as mystery or detective stories. In Red Dragon, Will Graham, a semi-retired FBI agent, seeks to hunt down a serial killer by adopting the mindset of the criminal. Harris makes elaborate claims that he has devised a new method of detection, but in fact the novel proceeds using fairly orthodox forensic techniques. That, however, is beside the point; the question is whether this tale can be classified as a psychological horror tale. To be sure, the killer—Francis Dolarhyde, an orphan raised by a hideous and tyrannical granadmother—is a loathsome figure, although he engenders some minimal sympathy on the basis of his unfortunate upbringing; but the novel is a work of detection, and there is to my mind an unsufficiency of terror engendered by Harris’s occasional attempts to probe his killer’s diseased mentality.

In The Silence of the Lambs the focus is on Clarice Starling, a trainee in the FBI Academy who has been chosen to interrogate Dr. Hannibal Lecter—a cannibalistic murderer captured by Graham, and who played a bit part in Red Dragon—to gain insights into another serial killer, labelled Buffalo Bill, ultimately identified as one Jame Gumb. Gumb is also a diseased mentality—he kills in order to make an entire suit out of women’s skin, as this will be, in his mind, the closest he will ever come to being a woman—but the gripping mental battle between Starling and Lecter ends up relegating the Gumb case to the background, so that once again no sense of terror is engendered by a portrayal of his psychological aberrations.

Lecter escaped at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, and he becomes the focal point of Harris’s two subsequent novels, Hannibal (1999) and Hannibal Rising (2006); but these works had best be forgotten. Hannibal was apparently written in some haste in order to forestall an independent film sequel to The Silence of the Lambs; the film version of Hannibal duly appeared in 2001. To say that the novel is a disappointment is a monumental understatement; the second half in particular plummets into realms of dreadfulness not seen since the heyday of Harold Robbins and Richard Bach. It concludes preposterously with Lecter hypnotising Starling so that she becomes his companion and presumable lover. This contrived and implausible ending is a fitting capstone to a novel that descends into cheap bloodletting but has none of the elegance and restraint of its predecessors. Hannibal Rising is not quite as offensively bad, dealing not incompetently with Hannibal’s upbringing in Lithuania, but it too is generally unsuccessful.

A brief note should be given to American Psycho (1991) by American novelist Bret Easton Ellis (b. 1964), who had previously gained notoriety with the mainstream novels Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987). American Psycho, by its very title, suggests a link with Robert Bloch’s Psycho, as does the name of its protagonist, the yuppie Patrick Bateman. This novel is probably not to be classified as psychological horror either, but it is actually rather closer to it than Harris’s are. If American Psycho provided any penetrating examination of the psyche of Bateman—who progresses from hanging out with his yuppie friends and lovers to cold-blooded murder, twisted sex, and cannibalism—it could perhaps be considered a work of psychological horror; but it is exactly to Ellis’s purpose not to engage in such a thing. Bateman and all his cronies are psychologically empty: there simply are no depths of character to fathom. He himself states at the end, “Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in” (375). The real horror of the novel is the utter vacancy of Bateman’s personality.