(Clash Books, 2022)
(Dalkey Archive, 2022)
“Literary horror” makes a rather ragged net, when it comes to catching prose narrative. The genre can claim a legacy, like Stoker’s Dracula, and there’s no denying that its bloody, supernatural tropes add to the impact of contemporaries like Victor LaValle. Nevertheless, to define just what counts as horror⎯ good luck with that. A recent list in Lit Hub went so far as to include Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which after all features the ghost of a murdered child. But Morrison’s ghost may be human, it’s one of the author’s niftiest ambiguities, and a similar cloud hangs over any new novel its publisher touts as both a horror story and a work of art. Two new cases in point are Michael J. Seidlinger’s Anybody Home? and Dashiel Carrera’s The Deer (deemed a “thriller” in promotional materials). Both texts deliver the goods, I’m happy to say; they prickle the back-hairs deliciously. What’s more, the dreadful material is matched by unsettling craft.
Seidlinger has been busy, and he’s now produced a dozen off-kilter novels in a decade. The longest, 2014’s The Face of Any Other, featured a freak, a faceless creature who can turn others freaky. This alone suggests the author’s penchant for a menacing destabilization, especially regarding the shadowy business of identity. The same unease pervades Anybody Home?. The novel takes us through an elaborate home invasion, Funny Games on steroids, yet its prolonged creepy setup and sequence of bloody climaxes never reveal the names of anyone involved⎯ neither those in harm’s way nor those inflicting it.
The break-in isn’t about the take-home, but rather the pain and humiliation, and Seidlinger’s central conceit is that such outages have become a black-market “performance,” with every move on “camera” (no two words are repeated so often, in this text). The results are followed by “cults,” and, in lucky cases, picked up for adaptation by a “studio.” In short, we’re in a brutal alt-America, where mercy or concern is brushed aside in favor of a good cruel show. Thus Anybody Home? spends most of its first half in preparation, surreptitiously setting up cameras and traps with Invader #1, Invader #2, and so on.
As for Victim #1, Victim #2, and so on, we see them on video. And if that didn’t create enough emotional distance, Seidlinger works through a second-person narrator who isn’t directly involved, an old hand at performance, offering advice. This OG feels oogly himself, opening the book with recollections of his own atrocities, gasp-inducing. Soon he outlines the whole sociopathic enterprise:
It wouldn’t have been successful if I failed to understand how it felt for the victims⎯ the husband, wife, sons and daughters. I needed to know what it must feel like to be them….
Indeed, while the preparations can feel draggy, the latest victims prove an enjoyably awful bunch. The family’s so troubled, it sets the narrator doubting the whole “blissful, boring illusion of suburbia.” The insight is hardly original, nor the language either⎯ this is horror without either Lovecraft’s flourishes or Stephen King’s mania for detail⎯ but that’s the point. Seidlinger wants his grim vision unvarnished, before he starts painting the walls with blood.
That carnage erupts in the second half, and when I call it the better half of Anybody Home?, I don’t mean simply that it works as a gore-fest. On that scale, Seidlinger’s numbers are good, with one nightmare topping another. More surprising and satisfying, however, is his embrace of subtle humanity. Family members prove resourceful, caring, even courageous, while the invaders reveal misgivings and disrupt the viciousness. One raises a kind of cry from the heart. For much of the novel, the answer to its title question is a diminishing echo, NO-No-no, but by the end we know better: It’s alive!
Dashiel Carrera presents a sharply different profile from Seidlinger. A debut novelist, he’s currently going for a computer-science doctorate, and he’s active in music and other arts. The Deer, fittingly, strikes a reader as both ghastly and very strange: its structure is binary, like a computer processor, while also referencing vintage LPs. The two halves are labeled “Side A” and “Side B,” and the first calls each chapter a “Track,” but in each, very different things happen to entirely different characters.
Of course, I may be missing something. Carrera’s style casts shadows difficult to penetrate, though quite lovely. Consider this oak, in the whirl of police lights at night: “The leaves hang… like a swarm of sleeping bats, noses sharpening to the curve of the rain.” Or this disturbed desert moment, shared by sisters: “We are as scared as before. Something in this late hour⎯ a spirit hanging in the brush.” Such finely-turned sentences leave a lot hanging, to fascinating effect, if undeniably bewildering. The way things morph, whichever side is on the turntable, feels practically Ovidian.
The supernatural fluidity yields a few fixed points. The first half features roadkill, a deer of course, and the accident draws out, in a blur of memory and dream, the news of a father’s death and the abuse he inflicted. Then things get really bad on side B, in a drought-stricken farmstead⎯indeed, is the whole world dying?⎯where two sisters minister to a mother who seems herself done for. Neither tragedy achieves resolution, really, though both clarify and tighten emotional bonds. What matters more seems to be the binary quality. In one men dominate, in the other women. One’s a long hellish day, the other a dark and stormy night. Not for nothing do both narratives reference Schrödinger’s cat, that classic either/or, and also jazz, so much about playing the changes. Speaking of which⎯together, this novel and Seidlinger’s offer beguiling new improvisations on horror’s expanding soundtrack.