Today: A return to the wonderful scares of old, in a new novel equal parts Stephen King, George Romero, and Richard Matheson.
by David Moody
"If I find I cannot terrify the reader, I will try to horrify, and if I can't horrify, I'll go for the gross-out.” – Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Terror is arguably the hardest emotion to evoke from the page. As the maestro of modern horro says above, horror is easier to instill in a reader than terror, and gore easier than horror. Horror makes you think, “Wow, there’s an image I’ll never forget.” Terror makes you afraid to dangle your feet over the edge of the bed at night while you sleep, lest the shoggoths who inhabit the nether realm under your lower mattress get hungry. Horror makes you wince. Terror makes you wet yourself rather than go into the cellar without a flashlight. Horror is visceral and immediate. Terror infects your soul.
As such, true terror in printed fiction is relatively rare, an occurrence that only gets rarer as one ages and becomes hardened and cynical. There’s a reason they’re classified as ‘horror’ novels rather than ‘terror’ novels, after all. But a few tales out there still instill dread in my soul. Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game got to me early, and still makes me question how important my soul is to me. King’s masterpiece ‘Salem’s Lot, with its destruction of a small town by vampires, always gets me, and I find myself hesitant to leave the safety of the bed at night. Richard Matheson’s I am Legend left me chilled and spooked for days.
But as I grow increasingly older, I find such visceral responses become scarcer, the maturation of my medulla resulting in a soggy dampening of my reactions. Most recently, I anxiously anticipated the delicious terrors of Guillermo del Toro’s vampire epic The Strain, only to be rewarded with an enjoyable mix of gore and some effective scenes that, while definitely horrific, did not last much beyond the page. Only a few times of late have objects of the artistic bent triggered my dread receptors, and usually only in cinematic form. The sputtering panic that effortlessly ramps into an inferno in The Blair Witch Project. That lovely scene in the diner in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (or, for that matter, that slow camera pan down a dark hallway in Lost Highway or the lingering framing of a painting in Fire Walk With Me, cinematic shots so laden with dread that they somehow bleed fear). The finale to Frank Darabont’s The Mist, and tough for all you naysayers, that ending blew me away. And almost the entirety of a re-watching of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the low-budget zombie horror opus of the 1060s that, despite poor acting and weak camerawork, evokes a sense of dread better than almost any film out there. The hopelessness, the paranoia, the insanity; NOTLD is nothing less than pure cinematic dread.
So consider me delighted, tickled pink in fact, when I discovered that David Moody’s novel Hater made me clutch my pillow as I slept oh so much tighter than usual. It has been a great bloody while since I felt the creeping tendrils of dread envelope me as I read, and Hater brings forth the forgotten emotion in great heaping shovelfuls.
The premise is simplicity itself; average citizens are suddenly embarking on murderous rampages, physically attacking and (gruesomely) killing people who moments previous were friends, co-workers, lovers, spouses. There’s no reason for the attacks (none provided, anyway), but as more and more people display symptoms – become ‘haters’, in other words – the world quickly begins to wind itself down. People stay inside lest they be attacked, or worse, ‘infected’. Paranoia quickly becomes the norm for society, freaked out over a villain with no face, no cause, and no remorse.
Moody presents his horrific little ditty from the point of view of Danny McCoyne, an average man who reacts as all do, with barely-restrained panic. Despite his dislike of his family – Danny’s life is an almost stereotypical example of the unhappy family man, stressed over work and more stressed over family - he knows that he must do whatever it takes to protect them from…what, exactly? Danny doesn’t know, and while the comforting platitudes from government officials play over the televisions and radio (shades of NOTLD), he begins to distrust everyone and everything around him. “Who is it going to happen to next?” he asks himself. “Me? Lizzie? Harry or one of the kids? Someone at work? It could be anyone.”
Moody lays out the basis of his story will spartan precision, documenting the quick fall of ‘civilized’ society with clarity and, yes, dollops of dread. His characters are flawed, relatable beings, reminding us that true terror only arises when you care about the personalities involved. There is an aura of uneasiness to the early scenes that grab you, an uneasiness that only increases as the paranoia and confusion sets in. Moody taps into the random, unfocused fear that appears to have infected western society, with its overarching fear of the ‘other’. Who is this other? What do they want? Yesterday’s fear of the communist agenda was been replaced with terrorism, but the effect is the same; we are all deathly afraid of each other, because we simply do not know each other’s thoughts or motives. Much as in the great zombie films of Romero and Fulci, Moody uses the infected in Hater as a metaphor for everything out there on the streets that we fear, including the worst fear of all, that we will somehow become that which we fear. In many ways, Hater is a superior example of the zombie novel, even more effective than Max Brooks’ scattershot yet undeniably effective World War Z.
But zombies, a versatile monster that easily functions as allegory for whatever the author seems fit, are often hamstrung by the limitations of their fearsomeness. Zombies are great as monsters but are boring as personalities, a design flaw that hinders attempts by Brian Keene and David Wellington to craft entire novels around their rampages. Moody sidesteps this by using the trappings of a zombie tale yet not using zombies, allowing us insight into the mind of the infected. In a third-act development I will not spoil here, Moody abruptly shifts the ground out from underneath the reader, proving that he understands how to present both sides of the issue.
Hater is not perfect, and it’s not for everyone. It’s a little shallow at points, and somewhat repetitive (although this repetition may be intentional to lure the reader in). It’s also markedly disturbing, vicious, and, yes, terrifying, with few answers and little in the way of a happy conclusion. This is a return to real scares, an event worthy of praise. On the last page, Moody declares that this is part one of the ‘Hater Trilogy.’ I can’t wait.
VERDICT: MONKEY REALLY, REALLY LIKES, IF THAT'S THE BEST WORD FOR IT