The idea that we live in the golden age of horror, a notion once perfunctorily questioned by pop culture critics, is now generally accepted as fact. Maybe the discussion lives on for those of us who care enough about the issue to discuss it – an admittedly narrow segment of nerds like me, who, to the dismay of every adult chaperone, dressed up as Ted Bundy for Halloween in the seventh grade – but the “debate” itself was never as interesting as why it was debated in the first place. Have people just become better at telling stories? Do we develop a higher tolerance for the macabre? Or is there simply more to be afraid of?
Probably it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t think the world is any wickeder now than it was centuries ago. In antiquity, rape and enslavement were just the cost of doing business. In the late 1800s, H.H. Holmes built a literal murder castle, complete with custom crematoriums to dispose of his victims. And, if the rumors are true, recently disappeared Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed, dismembered and spirited out of a consulate just last week. Human depravity isn’t new. Genocide still happens. Torture is tacitly accepted. The real difference today is that we know more about what we’re capable of. It’s that knowledge, more than the fear of the unknown, that lies at the heart of good horror.
But classics are classics for a reason, and since Halloween will soon be upon us, I wanted to dust off “August Heat,” by W.F. Harvey, a short story that impressed upon me a special kind of fear – not the overt fear of the unknown but the subtle terror of the acceptance of death. More than that, it’s a good story, well told besides, that packs a wallop in spite of its brevity. “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway is the only other short story I can think of that says so much with so few words.
The story is told from the point of view of its narrator, James Clarence Withencroft, who is recording the events of what he calls the “most remarkable” day of an otherwise unremarkable life. He’s an artist by trade – “not a very successful one” – in fine health but without any family to speak of. It’s hot outside, so hot that he ventures to the community pool, where something, an unnamed compulsion, overcomes him. He begins to sketch, thoughtlessly, uncontrollably, and when the fever dream passes he realizes he’s drawn the best picture he’s ever drawn. It’s a courtroom scene. The judge has just passed sentence on a grotesquely obese man whose face conveys a sense “not so much of horror but of utter, absolute collapse.” Withencroft leaves the pool and wanders aimlessly about town until – again – something inexplicably compels him to enter a lot, which, as it happens, belongs to a stonemason.
You can probably guess what happens from here. The stonemason is the man from the drawing. Withencroft’s name, birthday and potential death-day are engraved on the tombstone the mason had been working on when Withencroft found him. Both are concerned by the coincidence. By all accounts, the mason is a decent man, a law-abiding citizen who, like Withencroft, seems to have been possessed as he made the stone. They talk amicably about how it is they came to meet. They eat dinner. The hours pass. The story ends at about 11 p.m., with Withencroft writing the essay the reader has just read, the mason sharpening his chisel, both men sitting around a rickety table, waiting for the inevitable. Withencroft writes:
I shall be gone in less than an hour.
But the heat is stifling.
It is enough to send a man mad.
Harvey doesn’t bother to explain what happened or why it happened. He just shows the reader that it happened, and the story is all the better for it. The construction is simple, the execution nearly flawless. It puts the reader on a string from the opening line, releasing the tension only at the very end. It’s lean and mean, an object lesson in story-crafting. It’s no wonder that Stephen King, a more contemporary master of horror, often used “August Heat” as a reference when he taught high school English.
It’s a shame that horror literature, like science fiction, is derided as a lesser form of art. Maybe that’s because it’s inherently inferior. Or maybe it’s because horror, like all art, mimics life, and in this case we just don’t like what we see.
Cole Altom, managing editor
I’ve been told many times that anyone who lives in Russia has to read the poem “Moscow to the End of the Line,” or “Moscow-Petushki” as it’s called in Russian, by writer Venedikt Erofeev. Written between 1969 and 1970, it originally circulated through samizdat, a grassroots system for passing around censored publications during the Soviet era. It was officially published only in 1989. The poem, translated into several languages, is one of the most prominent works of Russian postmodernism. It is the story that many believe best describes Russian and Soviet society. (Eduard Vlasov’s commentary on the work is also useful, particularly for those unfamiliar with Russian culture.)
The main character, Venichka Erofeev, travels from Moscow to Petushki, an urban settlement in the Vladimir region, by train. On the journey, he delivers monologues on a range of topics, including culture, literature, philosophy and politics, often as he shares a drink or two (or more) with his fellow passengers. He’s a flawed character, unable to adapt to Soviet society and prone to self-destruction and overdrinking.
Truth be told, the poem doesn’t represent the best of Soviet culture during the years known as the “Era of Stagnation,” or of Russian culture today. But it does portray the struggles of intellectuals, including Venichka, during the 1960s and 1970s. Russia today has different state structures and a different social organization, and it’s interesting to explore how the country, its culture and its people have changed over this time.
It seems to me they haven’t changed much. There are still many people who don’t want to take an active role in society or in creating positive change and instead prefer to merely talk about the problems they see. They, like Venichka, feel trapped and are trying to find a way to escape their own realities.
Personally, I’m still on the fence about whether I liked the poem. Some readers may find its social commentary silly or even sad at times. But if you like experimental literature, you’ll like “Moscow to the End of the Line.”
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst