by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of horror is when it becomes mundane—when we stop noticing its presence at all. Morgues overflow. Emergency attire becomes de rigeur. Governments argue, waffle, and neglect, while helpless lives, lonely and suffering, end. In the pauses that occur while responsible investigators do their work, profiteering, swaggering conspiracy theorists spew contagious lies. News of violence passes quickly, as routine as the weather. This issue, Booked and Printed examines works of fiction that will horrify readers with their terrible familiarity. Here, authors build worlds that mirror our own.
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In the near future, London, like the rest of the world, is beset by a mysterious pandemic. It has an oft-repeated code name, a trio of letters and numbers: J5X. Its fatality rate is terribly high, with statistics of contagion and deaths always rising. Rachel is a middle-aged mother struggling to support her three children at home during an uncertain, overwhelming time of shutdowns. While losing income, she wonders how she and her kind second husband, a social worker, will keep their precarious housing. Encampments of unsheltered people, neglected by governmental indifference during a plunging economy, fill London’s streets. But worst of all, Rachel’s middle child, six-year-old Billy, is dying at home from J5X. She can do little but watch.
Evie Green’s We Hear Voices is the author’s horror debut, completed before the real-life pandemic the world knows now. Yet the echoes are chilling: masks are required on public transportation, and Rachel must dodge the boorish hostility of those who take them off with no enforcement. Rapacious corporations see their coffers swell during the crisis. This United States-based reviewer felt a pang of jealousy at one measure Green’s fictitious British government takes to care for its citizens: once a case is made known, a bureaucratic agency sends a care package of plastic sheeting, cleaning supplies, nonperishable food goods, and personal protective equipment, via drone.
The second chapter sees Billy’s miraculous recovery from J5X. Rachel is overjoyed and relieved. But the fatal disease is replaced by a rising complication: Delfy, Billy’s new imaginary friend. At first an innocuous companion, Billy’s exchanges with Delfy grow more troubling, with his behavior eventually spiraling into new dimensions of force and terror. At the same time, Graham Watson, a professor who lost his own wife to the pandemic, oversees a secret ward filled with children. They’re all afflicted by similar voices: imaginary companions who joined them after near-fatal bouts with J5X, possessed them, and forced them to commit unspeakable crimes.
In the meantime, Rachel’s teenaged daughter, Nina, discovers her charming boyfriend is the heir of Ben Alford, a greedy tycoon buying up affordable housing to keep his vast number of working-class employees in servitude. When Nina decides to snoop around the Alfords’ mansion, she makes disturbing discoveries about the origins of the disease ravaging the world.
Green’s worldbuilding brings us the amped up traces of phenomena already present, pandemic or no: the crisis of affordable housing, stark, dangerous imbalances of wealth, the promise of space travel, and the struggles of working families attempting to survive leaders who are indifferent at best, malicious at worst. Readers will be immersed in the parallel environment her plot builds up.
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In Sabrina, the graphic novel by Nick Drnaso, most of the scenes take place in mundane apartments, houses, diners, and offices: unremarkable American spaces. And yet in those confines, readers are gradually drawn in to contemporary terrors.
The book’s approach is seemingly innocuous. The first chapter brings readers into a conversation between two sisters. One, Sabrina, will be staying in for the night; the other, Sandra, plans to go to a party. Sandra remembers her close call with predatory men while she tried to go on vacation alone, hinting at the violence ever-present for women who wish for solitary freedoms. Eventually, she leaves for her party. Sabrina remains home. She sleeps peacefully, drinks a coffee, feeds the cat, writes a note, and walks out of the house wearing a backpack. With the wordless, cheerful end to the chapter, nothing much, it seems, happens.
The subsequent section brings us Teddy, a young man with long blonde hair, at a train station. He speaks in monosyllables, if he speaks at all, as an old friend from high school, Calvin, greets him in military fatigues. Calvin has an office job on a nearby base, and he’s agreed to house Teddy for a while. Calvin’s generosity is sincere but awkward; his wife recently left him along with their daughter, and the bedrooms of his drab apartment are nearly bare. Teddy’s behavior is disturbing and intense: he brought no luggage, only the clothes on his back. He screams with night terrors. None of Calvin’s attempts at nostalgia break through. Teddy refuses to eat. We discover the source of Teddy’s suffering soon enough: Sabrina, the homebody sister of the first chapter, has gone missing, and Teddy is her traumatized boyfriend, rendered helpless by her disappearance.
From these elements of story, as we gradually come to know the truth of Sabrina’s whereabouts—a situation worse than readers can imagine, all the more so for what the book holds back—Drnaso builds a chilling portrait of the contemporary violence some American men perpetuate, with the full-throated accompaniment of conspiracy theorists, metastasizing Internet comment threads, homemade videos, and unmoderated message boards. By giving us the everyday moments that precede notorious acts of violence, Drnaso draws the deep repulsiveness of lie-peddling propagandists who torture survivors. The conspiracy theories ordinary citizens take up as crusaders, thinking themselves heroic and at the forefront of a vanguard, actually make up a chilling indifference and unique torment for those trying to survive the truths of their own suffering.
Drnaso also draws intriguing portraits of the loneliness that can precede the worst behavior of some American men. Teddy, unable to connect to his old friend or give words to his grief, drowns himself in the pernicious monologues of a right-wing radio host, eventually showing more and more troubling behavior while home alone during Calvin’s work hours. Calvin shows Teddy the locked duffel bag of arms he keeps as self-defense—a gesture the comic panels render sad, considering the departure of the family Calvin sought to protect and the quiet nature of the American suburb in which he lives. With the graphic novel medium, readers are forced to do what the rumor-mongering Internet does not: look patiently and carefully, from panel to panel, for the clarity of the next moment. The quiet, everyday scenes Drnaso draws show how easily horrors nest and spread, through our screens, into our homes, and then into our psyches.
all points bulletin: How to Write a Mystery, Lee Child’s upcoming handbook from Mystery Writers of America (Simon & Schuster, 2021), will include writing tips from Stephen Ross, Jeffery Deaver, and Charlaine Harris. • Hilary Davidson’s debut novel The Damage Done and its
follow-up The Next One to Fall have both been reissued in paperback (Ingram) and e-book (Beast Books). • Hidden Treasure, the thirteenth book in Jane K. Cleland’s Josie Prescott series, is available from Minotaur.