The first part of a feature on horror in translation that originally appeared in Black Static #61:-
SHOCKING ALL OVER THE WORLD
Back in the Case Notes section of #58 I wanted to do an “in-translation” special, but though we covered some titles by authors for whom English isn’t a first language, for various reasons it wasn’t quite on the scale I’d hoped. This issue we’ll review some of the titles that missed out on that occasion.
Mikel Santiago is a Spanish writer but his first novel, THE LAST NIGHT AT TREMORE BEACH (Simon & Schuster hc, 320pp, £12.99), is set in Ireland. Amsterdam based composer Peter Harper finds his life and career in freefall after the break-up of his marriage. He rents an isolated house in Donegal, one of only two on a two mile stretch of coastline known as Tremore Beach, and goes there to lick his wounds and try to get back in touch with his muse. Harper is befriended by neighbours Leo and Marie Kogan, and starts a friends with benefits thing with local girl Judie, who runs a shop and hostel in nearby Clenhburran, but there are ominous signs not all is well. The Kogans seem to be keeping something from him and Judie suffers from terrible nightmares related to a past event she refuses to talk about. After being struck by lightning, Peter starts to suffer from nightmarish visions of his own, all related to the arrival of killers in a van and the slaughter of his children. Is he suffering from a form of mental illness, or has he developed the premonitory ability possessed by his deceased mother? With the arrival of fifteen year old Beatrice and eight year old Jip for a summer vacation, the need for answers to his problems becomes all the more pressing.
Santiago lived in Ireland for over a decade, and so he knows the setting for his novel well, and part of the appeal of the book is the way in which he brings the wild Donegal coastline to life on the page. His descriptions of rocky outcrops and wind blasted beaches, of the eternal battle between land and sea, with dark clouds glowering overhead, are vivid enough to make the reader want to book a flight straight away. Added to that he gets the feel of small town life pinned down with an almost surgical precision, the idea of living in a place where everybody knows everybody else and their business, where the people aren’t so much inhabitants of the place as characters in its story. Each has their own individual characteristics and charm, so that we can believe in and feel an attraction to such as busybody Laura, while not wanting to be trapped for any length of time in her company. Santiago is equally adept at the characterisation of his main protagonist and his close circle. Peter Harper is a tormented genius, blocked in his work, fearful of turning into his lachrymose and misanthropic father, fearful of losing his children, and, towards the end of the book, fearful of losing his sanity as hellish visions invade his life. Similarly engaging are the precocious Beatrice and Jip, who grasp much more than their father is willing to concede, and his lover Judie who, with her own heavy emotional baggage and back story, is an ideal companion for our hero. Similarly the Kogans make ideal neighbours, bluff Leo who used to be in hotel security and the seemingly ageless Maria with her artistic talent, but just like Judie they have secrets in their past, something that Peter senses but never manages to pin them down on. Even the bad guys are well drawn, with the four assassins who come to town each given their own characteristics and distinguishing traits, as with the vicious Manon, fat Tom, misogynistic Randy, and the borderline competent Frank. They have depth enough to feel credible and yet at the same time enough of the monstrous to make them dangerous.
At bottom this is a crime thriller book, with paranormal trappings courtesy of Peter’s visions, rather similar in method and intent to films like The Eyes of Laura Mars and Solace. Santiago goes to great lengths to make those visions credible, with Peter consulting a specialist in sleep and dreaming, and the unloading of detail about lucid dreaming and the like, so that like Peter we are inevitably drawn to the conclusion that he is either insane or actually having visions. The nature of those visions introduce the most unsettling elements of the novel, with horrific images of death and torment, and for Peter accompanying feelings of despair and hopelessness, but at the same time the realisation that he has been given a chance to change the course of events. The visions do however bring on the one contradiction in the text, with some that seem to literally reflect events that are going to occur and others that appear metaphorical in nature, and while I guess that isn’t something that’s impossible it struck me as strange that Peter himself doesn’t comment on the discrepancy. No matter, as this was first and above all else, a thriller, written with a genuine feel for the characters and setting, fast paced and never less than entertaining, with echoes of John Connolly’s Parker in the tormented figure of Peter Harper.
Gustav Meyrink (1868 – 1932) was an Austrian writer, but the work for which he is probably best known today, 1914 novel THE GOLEM (Dedalus pb, 280pp, £8.99), is set in Prague where the writer lived for twenty years. Its central character is the jeweller and art restorer Athanius Pernath, who lives in the Jewish ghetto and who, in his efforts to help the beautiful Angelina, is drawn into the feud between embittered student Innocence Charousek and the junk dealer Wassertrum. At the same time, Pernath falls under the influence of the saintly Hillel and is attracted to his idealistic daughter Miriam. And lurking in the background is the myth of the golem, a creature brought to life by a rabbi to protect the ghetto’s inhabitants from their enemies according to some, and a manifestation of their collective psyche according to others.
This is a strange and elliptical book, with a convoluted plot in which nothing is what it at first seems, combining themes of mysticism and gutter crime, horror and personal identity. Pernath is a far from reliable narrator – early on we learn that he may have suffered some form of psychotic break, so that his memories of the past are blocked, while a further framing device reveals that he is not at all who he claims to be and the whole story could simply be an act of memory on the part of another. And though it gives the book its title, the golem is a bit player in this production, a monstrous figure that stalks the city streets every thirty years, causing fear wherever it is seen, and between visitations stands alone in an upstairs room to which there is no entrance. To this quasi-metaphysical backdrop Meyrink adds a wealth of detail, primarily to do with the city of Prague itself, which is recreated on the page in real depth – its ghetto, home to the poor; the houses of the elite and the gaols where the innocent and guilty alike linger; the clubs and bars in which decadence and desperation vie for elbow room; the ruins from which we get blurry impressions of past grandeur; the city’s dramatis personae of plotters and adulterers, convicts and lovers, wise men and fools. Guided by others, including his larger than life friends with their stories of forgotten glories, Pernath wanders through it all like a character in a dream, seemingly indifferent to whether he resides in a mansion or a gaol, and ultimately all that he experiences may turn out to be a dream, which is part of Meyrink’s genius. Not everyone will enjoy this book, if I’m allowed a banal observation, but it is an important work of speculative fiction, one that addresses themes and uses methods that still enthral us today. To appreciate where we are going, you need to look back at where we have been, and should you look over your shoulder, Meyrink is one of the figures who dominate the skyline.
(TO BE CONTINUED)