(Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 2016)
It’s worth being reminded, from time to time, that monsters don’t really exist. At least not in the way we typically imagine them: hulking, abhorrent beasts that are the walking embodiment of inhuman evil. John Manderino’s new collection of stories, But You Scared Me the Most, functions well in this regard: it pulls away layers of mystery and malice to portray its monstrous characters in a softer, more mundane light. In doing so, Manderino’s work is able to poke fun at the fear that so ably sparks our imaginations, while simultaneously revealing a shared feature of humanity that is both reassuring and haunting in its own right.
But You Scared Me the Most collects more than two dozen short stories that feature classic B movie horror tropes and monsters, reimagined in more domestic and ordinary ways. “The Mummy” concerns itself not with a corpse wrapped in linens, but with a man who wraps himself snugly in a blanket after a stinging heartbreak and gazes drearily out the window as it “snows and snows until everything finally stops, utterly still.” A werewolf in “Wolfman and Janice” is not a terrifying figure who plunders his small town for unsuspecting teenagers, but a sarcastic, smart-assed husband who eats the neighbor’s dog when a particularly brilliant full moon rears its head. In “Bigfoot Tells All,” the titular monster reminisces over a one night stand with a bear, and how he followed it up the next day by eating a human hiker. Sated, the mythic beast then snaps a few selfies on the poor guy’s camera in order to “let you people see what kind of ‘monster’ you’ve been harassing all these years”:
Looking off, pondering the mystery of existence… Click.
Smiling down at a cute little chipmunk…Click.
Staring into the lens with a smoldering sensuality…Click.
Showing outrage at man’s abuse of the environment…Click.
Looking lonely… lonely… Click.
The true villain in most of these stories is not the monster itself, but ordinariness; boredom. Just as the beasts struggle against the domesticity that Manderino has submerged them in, so too do the human characters pine for something other than themselves, something that will mix up their rote daily routines. In “Otto and the Avenging Angel,” Otto is actually excited by the threat that a sword-wielding angel might break into his bedroom and decapitate him, “because that would be interesting, an angel.” The avenging angel does indeed show up that night, but, to Otto’s great disappointment, is himself mercilessly boring, asking Otto grade-school questions about Jesus. Losing all hope, Otto invites the angel to get on with his murder:
He didn’t care. If even an angel from Heaven was boring, there was really no hope in this life or the next. ‘Do it,’ he said, and closed his eyes, hoping it wouldn’t hurt very much.
Manderino’s work succeeds at being more than slight, sarcastic riffs on classic tales, however. There is a grasping at work here: an effort to reach beyond the conventions of both literary short stories and adolescent nostalgic horror, in order to capture how the fears of imagination and the fears of mundanity can converge. Indeed, it is the very absence of absurdity – the effortless way in which the fever dreams of imagination are wrangled and subdued – that makes these stories resonate so strongly.
Stephen King once wrote that the horror story is akin to a fairy-tale in that it “intends to take away the shades of grey.” He goes on:
It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites. It may be that horror [provides] psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely.
It is this functionalism that is so aptly explored and challenged in But You Scared Me the Most. Gone is the black and white struggle against evil; in its place is the listless grey of civilized life, populated by the many sorry souls who want nothing more than for a little irrational madness to transport them, if only for a little while.
That Manderino has denied his characters this privilege – that even a sword-toting angel of death is just some guy who wants to talk about the good word of Christ – is itself a kind of sadistic horror. After all, without Dracula and Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, what is there to relieve our psychic inclinations toward madness?
Stan, the main character of “186,000 Miles per Second,” hints at the answer. Drifting off to sleep one night with his increasingly estranged wife at his side, he glimpses the true monster of the modern age:
Staring up at the dark, Stan pictured them there: in their bed, in their room, in their house, in their town, their country, their planet, the camera receding at 186,000 miles per second, the Earth the size of a basketball, then a softball, then a baseball, then a golf ball, then gone, swallowed up in the dark that just went on and on – endlessly, pointlessly – on and on and on.
For those inclined toward the kind of relief that speculative fiction provides, it is perhaps this insight that will scare them the most: that out of such limitless darkness, nothing unusual will ever emerge.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.
This review also references Stephen King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies” (Playboy, 1982).