I watched the season finale of American Gods, and they did something brave: they portrayed Jesus as just another member of the motley horde of gods. Usually the Christian faith is excluded from these kinds of god-stories — you can’t reduce the One True God to another myth, like Anansi or Czernobog! — but the show did just that. Furthermore, they featured dozens of Jesii, because there so many different versions of him, all different and often incompatible with one another. They chickened out a little bit, though; there was a throw-away line about Jesus being the nicest of the gods, and they failed to include one prominent American god, Supply-Side Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, armed with an AK-47 while crushing the necks of the undeserving poor under his sandals.
But it’s still an interesting point. If you’re going to personify deities, which rendition are you going to use? There are at least hundreds of gods in the Bible alone, although the devout seem to think giving one name to all of those entities, malignant and benign, is enough to unify them. Likewise that got me thinking of other mythical beings. Is there one true vampire nature, for instance? The media versions are all over the map. There’s the Stoker version, which wed Victorian disgust for sex with disgust for contagion. There’s the Ann Rice version, all sex and Catholic guilt. There’s the del Toro/Hogan version, which got rid of the sex and wallowed in repulsive infection stories. Or the Stephen King version, which is a little less gorey but is still all about dread of infection and decay and death. I shall not dwell on the sparkley angsty emo vampires, but they’re also part of the range.
One of the problems with the proliferation of supernatural variants, though, is that interest attenuates. Which Jesus are we talking about? Which vampire? I’d also add, which zombie? Pretty soon these kinds of stock genre boogey men degenerate into an unimaginative gluing together of standard tropes and the mechanics begin to show. Oh, this is a standard Stoker vampire plus tolerance for sunlight plus a functioning penis. Oh, this is a God-is-Love Jesus plus non-white xenophobia minus pacifism. It’s paint-by-numbers supernaturalism. Genre fiction (note: I include Christianity in the genre fiction category) tends to get overwhelmed with this kind of rote assembly line crap. A few original and creative stories launch an idea into popularity, and then the hacks take over. The zombie genre is in the terminal stages of the process right now. Seriously, authors, don’t bother doing zombie anything anymore, unless it’s genuinely original, and no, “fast zombies whose weak spot is the heart rather than the brain” are not original.
I love the creepy-crawly kind of horror story, the ones that make you go “eww, ick” now and then and wonder which character is going to die horribly next. But I’m tired of vampires and zombies and Christian evangelists — those monsters have been sucked dry and reduced to gristle and slime and all the thrill is gone. I am overjoyed when I stumble across a story that is new and different.
Which brings me to the point of this overlong introduction. My airplane reading this past weekend! I found something cool and fun and creepy!
I’m a fan of Lovecraftian atmosphere — but not so much of most of the stories themselves. Usually there is just some detached narrator recounting the mounting horror growing in the breasts of the victims, who will meet their demise in some climax of hyperbolic madness. There are lots of Lovecraftian pastiches out there that are little more than collections of increasingly florid adjectives and adverbs. But have you noticed that most Lovecraftian heroes are dull men with little imagination who are usually shattered by some unearthly revelation? Fine, once or twice. Boring when every Lovecraft imitator does exactly the same thing.
But Cherie Priest doesn’t. Her novel, Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, first focuses on the characters, but it’s still Lovecraftian. It’s set in Massachusetts in the 1890s; Miskatonic University has a featured role; there are horrors that emerge from the sea. The story revolves around the Borden sisters — that’s right, Lizzie Borden, after her acquittal from a famous pair of axe murders, and yes, her axe, and her skill with it, is very important in the story. We learn the true secret reason why her parents were killed. There is a blend of science — Lizzie has a basement lab where she tries to understand what is happening, and one aspect of the nightmare overtaking them is an unusual specimen of Physalus — and mysticism. There is a supernatural aspect to the weird absorption of the townspeople in a voice from the sea, and the fate of the individuals who touch the thing from the ocean. There’s definitely horror here: the monsters are vivid and disgusting, and portrayed with the Lovecraft Adjective Generator turned down enough to endow them with a revolting degree of plausibility. Lizzie has her axe, and also a convenient installation in her basement called “the cooker” which allows her to render monstrosities down to digested slime. It’s all very well thought out and grisly.
Most importantly, though, you know enough about the characters that you actually care about them as they are driven towards terror and the inevitable descent into madness.
Recommended, if you’re a fan of horror and Lovecraft and good writing. I’ve also read her book Boneshaker, which has got zombies in it, which are usually a turn-off for me, but it hasn’t got very many zombies in it, and they’re kind of a generic mass threat on the side, so you can mostly ignore them and read it for the story and characters.