Friday 8 April 2011

The Power of Three - 21st Installment

Yes, it's THAT time of the week again. It's Friday morning and it's coffee time, but don't settle down. With luck you'll soon be writhing uncomfortably as this latest trio of offerings resurrects memories you'd thought thankfully buried.

Again, this threesome was chosen entirely at random. There are no conscious connections between these choices - please don't try to tell me that there's some kind of 'girl power' thing going on here, because there honestly isn't. Not deliberately, anyway. The only real link between these three is that they are all very fine horror stories indeed and occupy prominent positions among my personal list of 'the best ever'.

Madelein by Roger Johnson

An author’s secretary makes a research trip to the Eastern Europe on a quest for the truth about ‘Bloody Countess’ Elizabeth Bathory. Friends at home only learn about her progress through regular letters, though these become increasingly bizarre and scary.

You wouldn’t have thought it difficult to weave an atmosphere of menace around the true tale of Elizabeth Bathory, who tortured and murdered over 600 young women and bathed in their blood. Yet numerous authors have tried with mixed results. However, Roger Johnson here uses the grim reality of ‘Countess Dracula’ as the backdrop for a very special story indeed. The trick is that, rather than making it purely an essay in gore, he delves deeply into the mysterious. His ill-fated heroine, Valerie, is a dreamer from the start, an idealistic lesbian who has never found true love in England. However, once she’s left the orderly, buttoned up society of pre-war London, the real world quickly seems to fall away from her. Her letters, the device through which Johnson allows us to monitor her progress, are a touch of genius, keeping us guessing every inch of the way, but constantly hinting that Valerie – increasingly starry-eyed, we imagine – is falling in with the wrong crowd and getting ever deeper into truly terrible danger. The final turn of this supernatural screw is as ghastly as they come.

First published in THE GIANT BOOK OF GHOST STORIES, 1991.

Spring-Fingered Jack by Susan Casper

A businessman makes nightly visits to a tawdry arcade, where he plays the ‘Jack the Ripper’ game but constantly fails to kill enough prostitutes or mutilate them in the correct fashion within the time allowed. Frustrated, he decides that only practise will make perfect.

You have a bad feeling where this one is going to lead right from the start, but that doesn’t make it any the less a horribly perceptive comment on the low forms of entertainment that folk will sometimes seek – maybe even folk like us, who read gruesome stories – and the potential this has for creating even more mindless carnage in our society. The interesting thing is that this story was written way back in 1983, long before almost every teenage boy in the western world had developed an unhealthy obsession with the screen in the corner of his bedroom, where fantasy lifestyles filled with limitless amounts of violence and profanity, and of course lacking any consequences, moral or otherwise, could be lived out as if they were actually real. In that respect, Ripper expert Susan Casper was making a very eerie prediction. The worrying irony is, she thought that she was writing a horror story about an improbable game that no-one would ever be irresponsible enough to invent, let alone play – she probably had no idea that all of this, and worse, would soon come true.

First published in FEARS (pictured), 1983.

Grauer Hans by Helen Grant

In a rural town in western Germany, a little girl is troubled by the regular appearance of a mythical night-goblin at her bedroom window. Is he real or is he a dream? The terror only ends when she moves to Britain. However, in later life, when she has her own daughter to look after, she moves back to the same old house.

This is a simple tale, but it is nonetheless evocative and chilling. In essence it concerns the relationship between an innocent child and a character from fairy tale, who, as the child grows older and more angst-written, slowly transforms into something malevolent. There is a masterly progression of thought in this piece. When we’re very young, we feel perfectly safe in the bosom of our family. The horrors of the real world, even though they may only just be outside our bedroom window, are no threat to us. But when we become parents ourselves it’s a different ballgame. We try to keep unpleasant reality from our young, but it often takes everything we’ve got, and if we fail the cost may be catastrophic. But there are other potent forces at work here: hints of vampires, not to mention the Brothers Grimm and their fables, which deep down were also grim metaphors for real life. Further proof, if it were needed, that dark truths and even darker fears live on in the guise of fairy tales.

First published in SHADES OF DARKNESS, 2008

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