Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Subtle Horror – The Wendigo

H.P. Lovecraft is known for his unique brand of horror storytelling. His dark and nihilistic view of the universe inspired some chilling tales. But he had influences on his style and stories. Some of these were contemporaries like Robert E. Howard. Others were older like Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. Lets take a look at Algernon Blackwood.

Blackwood’s influence on Lovecraft is more stylistic than anything else. For one thing Blackwood’s weird fiction does not concern alternate worlds and planes of existence, but deals with an internal spiritual horror. It’s a terror that is difficult to define, something that comes from within, like a creeping doubt that builds and builds until its too much.

In the stories I’ve read by Blackwood, this source of terror comes from the natural world or from within. The Wendigo is one of his most celebrated stories, and along with The Willows may be one of his most effective. In The Wendigo the story starts out as a hunting trip into the Canadian wilderness. Like a typical horror film, everything starts out peachy keen at first. But slowly little things begin to hint at a dark side to the survival story.

Blackwood infuses his stories with description – a lot of description. So you’ve got to be prepared to read some long passages about the wilderness. It’s not too bad, because Blackwood really builds a solid picture, but it does slow the pacing down to a crawl. However this is intentional too. It puts you into a certain mood, slowly moving through the story and allowing the descriptions to build upon each other twisting slightly each time.

When the horror unfolds in the final third of the novella, you’ve been slowly creeped out for so long that it becomes chilling. It takes some patience to read, but it also takes skill to write. Blackwood’s theme of nature as a force unto itself, and one that man cannot hope to tame is strong in his stories. The Wendigo does just that. Sure it skirts the supernatural (and delves right into it at the end), but there is a lot of psychological horror in there too. The corruptions or devolution of the characters spirit is what fascinates him, and creates a unique horror experience.

Lovecraft uses a similar style, but focuses instead on the human intellect. His characters often meander in a world that is beyond their ken, and often become corrupted and insane by the end. This build up usually happens faster then in a Blackwood story, but the same style is present. Its also interesting to note that in The Willows the danger is very present and real, but never identified clearly. It makes it more horrifying. This technique is another one that Lovecraft utilized well in many of his stories.

I highly recommend checking out The Wendigo if you have the opportunity and are in the mood for a horror story that takes its time but is very effective. If it works for you then seek out The Willows for a solid sampling of the unknown.

Have you ever read any of Blackwood’s stories? What did you think of them? Do you think heavy description can be as effective as a tight plot, or do you think a balance needs to be struck?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Detection and Sloth - Fer – De – Lance

Holmes and Watson, Nick and Nora, Simon and Simon: the detective pair has been a staple in fiction for a long time. In many cases you get partners who seem very different in approaches but compliment each other. Why would you need a partner otherwise? But a skilled writer can take a duo and not only use them to compliment each other, but to contrast each other in a way that creates additional tension in the story.

Rex Stout created Nero Wolfe and his partner Archie Goodwin, and they are a great example of this style of detective pairing. This is the first time I’d read a Nero Wolfe mystery and I was pulled right in. The setting is the 1930s, and Archie comes across like your typical hard-boiled type. He’s streetsmart, he cracks wise, and he knows how to question folks to get the info he needs. He’s not afraid of a little danger, and he’s dedicated to catching the bad guy. What more do you need in a detective character?

Well you need someone who can put the pieces together, especially when the pieces are an intricate and diverse as the mystery at the center of Fer-de-lance. That’s where Nero Wolfe comes in. He’s a master of using deduction to find the source of the mystery and revealing who is the heart of the matter, as well as their motives.

There is only one small problem. Wolfe is a jerk. Seriously the guy has a foul attitude, he’s agoraphobic, and his love of the finer things in life has turned him into an obese toddler. His eccentricities make him an interesting character, because Stout allows us to see the genius behind the man. Sure Archie does all the leg work, but in the end the key witnesses come to see Wolfe and he questions them. And while Wolfe may be a complete jerk most of the time, he is also an excellent reader of people. He can tell by a glance and the entire approach of a person just what kind of role he must play to get the information he needs. And he can act. This compiled with his deductive skills makes him formidable.

The combination of the bizarre Wolfe and streetsmart Archie makes for a dynamic read. They have some great dialogue when they are together. Both men respect and understand each other, but at the same time find the other infuriating at times. It works so well, that combined with the interesting mystery at hand, I sought out more Nero Wolfe mysteries. If you haven’t given this character a shot and enjoy 1930’s style fiction, give Fer-de-lance a try.

Have you read a Nero Wolfe mystery before? What did you think of him as a character? Do you have a favorite fictional pairing? What made them work?