Writers of great horror don’t hold back when it comes to subject matter: nothing is off limits. Their stories go places that make readers shudder, sweat, squirm. Settings may be familiar, but somehow they are also warped. ‘Natural’ elements are inevitably of the ‘un’ or ‘super’ variety. Plots are designed to unnerve. In horror, the depths of the human psyche are dredged; dark secrets, dark fears, dark realities are unearthed, then strewn in black ink across paper. And when the tale is told, the last page turned, the best authors will leave us hoping never to meet anyone, in real life, as disturbed as the characters they’ve created. We like to pretend that such people live out there, somewhere else – that they’ll always be anonymous strangers.
But then we read horror stories in which authors are also characters, and we are forced to drop such comfortable pretences.
There’s a long history of authors writing themselves into their narratives in genre fiction. To name but a few: Philip K. Dick does it in his time-travel SF novel VALIS (1981) and in a tricky postmodern way PKD also makes an appearance in his short story ‘Orpheus with Clay Feet’ (1964). Charles Yu is the protagonist in his award-winning How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2011) and Paul Auster appears in various ways (as Paul Auster) in his literary crime series The New York Trilogy (1987). Bringing it back to horror, all flavours of self-reflexivity, self-consciousness, and self-insertion are features of the film Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Tobe Hooper’s novel Midnight Movie (2011).* In Stephen King’s metatextual Dark Tower series, the author makes a pivotal appearance in the narrative that allows the main characters to get on with their quest – and King also appears in Song of Susannah (2004). In these cases, the concept of author-as-character might be playful but it isn’t pastiche. We don’t read these texts the way we do, say, the Scary Movie series of films; these books aren’t presented as spoofs of their given genres.
The works I’m going to focus on here – Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis (2005) and a few short stories by Paul Haines – feature authors as protagonists in complex and interesting ways. Their respective works are set in real places – Australia for Haines, Los Angeles, New York and New England for Ellis – and even a quick scan of Wikipedia is enough to situate the authors within these settings in ‘real’ life. As characters, Ellis and Haines are quintessential unreliable narrators; instead of reassuring readers, the use of their ‘real’ names in these ‘unreal’ scenarios instantly unsettles. Lines between fact and fiction are blurred: the blurb on the back of Lunar Park, for instance, describes the book as ‘part autobiography, part fantasy’ and it isn’t always easy to figure out where one ends and the other begins.
In Lunar Park, Ellis begins by presenting a potted history of his rise to literary stardom. There’s money, drugs, hedonism – it’s the heyday of late 20th century capitalism in American publishing circles. Peppered with references to Ellis’s other novels and characters, the book is overtly, self-consciously meta-to-the-max right from the start. As the story progresses, gesturing at his other works becomes a kind of full-armed pointing that is impossible to miss. Take, for example, this conversation between Ellis-the-character and Aimee Light, a graduate student with whom he is cheating on his wife:
“It’s weird you said Patrick Bateman,” she said.
“Because I thought he looked a little like Christian Bale.”
We were both silent for a long time, because Christian Bale was the actor who had played Patrick Bateman in the film version of American Psycho.
“But he also looked like you,” Aimee said. “Give or take twenty years.”
(Lunar Park, p.109)
For the most part, these meta- sections are the least interesting aspects of the novel – but, having said that, they are crucial to building the complex picture of a character (and an author?) haunted by his past. And although American Psycho is at the forefront of what ‘haunts’ Ellis-the-character, Patrick Bateman is only a cipher for Ellis-the-author’s exploration of other ghosts that need exorcising in the book: his family tensions and regrets.
Despite the author’s use of many clichéd horror tropes in this novel (the haunted house with flickering lights, the possessed doll, the dog barking at things humans can’t see, the moving furniture, the mysterious phone calls, the spectres, the ghostbusters) what makes Lunar Park intriguing is its Gothic subtleties – the family secrets, the painfully awkward conversations, the things left unsaid, the protagonist’s complicated unravelling. Ellis-the-author becomes Ellis-the-character and eventually splits into Ellis-the-character and ‘the writer’ (who is, possibly, Ellis-the-author overtly commenting on the fiction he’s created, but equally possibly it is not). Over the course of the story, Ellis-the-character devolves from arrogant self-confident arse to emotionally-wrecked introspective mess. Is his split personality and degeneration a sign of madness? Hallucinations resulting from years of drug abuse? “You were simply the go-between” (p.276) the writer says to Bret at one stage – which is key for interpreting the ‘I’ in this horror. All manifestations of Ellis are intermediaries between author and reader, author and idea, reader and idea, ‘truth’ and ‘lies’, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, the past that can’t be ignored and the present that wants to ignore it. In other words, all versions of Ellis seem to be using literature to Figure Important Things Out.
“I want you to realize some things about yourself,” [says the ‘murderer’ on the phone to ‘Bret’]. “I want you to reflect on your life. I want you to be aware of all the terrible things you have done. I want you to face the disaster that is Bret Easton Ellis.”
It’s moments like this – of clarity, humanity, vulnerability – that ultimately makes the layering of so many Ellises as poignant as it is horrific.
The same can be said of Paul Haines’ use of the ‘I’ in his short fiction. In ‘Slice of Life’, ‘Haines’ is a disgruntled office-jerk who hates his boss, his job, and almost everything… except for his distasteful pastime. Like Ellis, Haines-the-author splits his protagonist into separate entities: there’s Haines-the-character and ‘Vogon’, an invisible shape-shifting alien being who adopts Haines’s appearance, suggesting in more than one way that he is another manifestation of this character’s already dark side.
“You’re out of your warped little mind, buddy.” [says Haines-the-character to Vogon.]
“And you’re not?”
Vogon isn’t here to excuse the protagonist’s aberrant behaviour, but to underline his rational-and-insane thinking. Haines-the-character seems to be as aware as the reader that Vogon isn’t real:
Sometimes he embodies everything I fucking hate about the face I present to the world during the daylight hours. The gloating, conservative cunt knows this—he’s imitated me for years now—and I wish I had the mental strength to kill him.
For a moment, we can almost ask ourselves: who is Haines talking about here? Which version is the original, which the imitation? Whatever the answer, Haines-the-character needs mental strength to get rid of Vogon – to oust the creature from his mind. The protagonist’s struggle is internal, in this and in the other Haines-as-character stories: “His voice echoes inside my head. ‘Do it.’” In this case, Vogon is the whisperer, but given the circumstances it is tempting to imagine the author himself as the devil perched on Haines’s shoulder.
There are similarities in characterisation between the protagonist of ‘Slice of Life’ and the one in ‘Burning from the Inside’. All of the fictional Haineses are restless, dissatisfied with their day jobs, frequently prowling or on the move (whether walking at night, driving across bridges or travelling interstate for work) but, like Haines in ‘Slice’ the narrator of ‘Burning’ seems to be controlled by some other part of himself:
Instead I smile—or at least something dwelling within moves my lips for me…” Later, when speaking to a real estate agent, we see a similar thing: “‘Tell the Family they’ve found the right tenant,’ says the creature with my voice
But is this narrator ‘Paul Haines’? The afterword to ‘Burning from the Inside’ circumstantially locates the author within the text, but the story itself doesn’t name him; the narrator uses nothing but ‘I’. The afterword to this piece describes how Haines-the-author travelled to Adelaide for work as an I.T. consultant – a job Haines-the-character also has in ‘The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt’. Author-Haines describes walking around the city of Adelaide after dark, “watching the doors close, the streets empty, and feel any vibrancy or life left in the CBD literally boarding the buses and making their escape” – a scenario that echoes the one played out in ‘Slice of Life’ in which ‘Haines’ uses late-night walks and after-work bus rides to stalk his prey.
Likewise, the afterword for ‘Father, Father’ gives readers a glimpse of the ‘I’ that was excised from the piece – and later, in the story’s republication in The Last Days of Kali Yuga, the ‘I’ that was partially reinstated. Haines tells us how this narrative – a confronting piece told from the perspective of a paedophile – originally featured characters named after Haines and his wife, a technique the author also uses in ‘The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt’. However, he explains, the names were removed from ‘Father Father’:
My wife was struggling to reconcile the fictional world with our reality. I refused to bury the story, however. If I started such self-censorship now, what was the point in writing horror with regard to the monster that is man?
Two phrases in this passage immediately jump out as being crucial when approaching Haines’s brilliant, chilling, and most perceptibly autobiographical work of horror, ‘The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt’: attempting to reconcile fictional worlds with reality, and writing that delves into “the monster that is man”.
This story begins with a now-familiar fictional Haines: tired, on edge, observing the everyday through dark lenses. We also know the tale to come will be twisted, as Haines’s stories generally are, but we are comfortable in the knowledge that it is fiction… And then we’re confronted with this:
I’m Paul Haines. Born thirty-six years ago in New Zealand. Now living in Melbourne, Australia, married to Jules, and have a five-month old daughter we named Isla
This ‘factual’ introduction to author and protagonist irrevocably changes the way we read the rest of the story. It feels more real, more dangerous, more raw because it is presented as truth. Haines-the-author describes his/Haines-the-character’s dissatisfaction with their lot at work. It plainly states their income and struggle with bills. It outlines their success as writers of SF. Then, dropped in casually, as unequivocal as the facts about mortgage costs and publication history, Haines tells us:
Did I mention there is blood in my stool? No? Maybe I’m just not thinking clearly anymore. Are you?
Let’s test that. You think this is part of the story? That this is a story? Wrong. Not this time.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, thirty percent of all suicides in the last recorded year were males aged between 30 and 34 years old.
I love my daughter more than anything else in the world.
This story is built on implications, blurred lines and the unsaid. In this short passage, we jump from fact to ‘fact’ to fact to a father’s love for his daughter, another fact that ties all of the others together, making them as sad as they are horrifying.
I’m not going to analyse any other passages from this incredible story – I’m not going to break it by taking it apart. Like Lunar Park, prose and plot are strengthened by what isn’t said, what is left to the imagination. However, compared to ‘The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt’, Lunar Park reads like an intellectual exercise. The insertion of ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ into the story seems calculated, contrived: the author seems to be featured in the book in order to achieve certain literary effects. By contrast, when Paul Haines appears in this particular story it seems unaffected. There’s literary flair galore, but no cheap acrobatics, no gimmickry. This piece is nakedly honest; it confronts the horror of life without flinching. And it is impossible not to be affected by its direct and touching use of ‘I’.
This is not a cry for help. I’m fine.
I just need to tell someone.
LISA L HANNETT
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*Many thanks to Dr Ben Kooyman for sharing his insights on Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Hooper’s Midnight Movie.