Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker

I dislike giving the impression I'm a literary snob, so let me set the record straight, immediately: I love horror, and I love good writing, and I'm as likely to read Stephen King as a I am to read Shirley Jackson. Nevertheless, there are some who question if modern horror can ever transcend its genre ghetto, and having just finished Jacqueline Baker's The Broken Hours, I'm optimistic it not only can, but already has. Google literary horror, and you'll get lists pointing you toward Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Joyce Carol Oates. With rare exceptions, these lists don't contain anything written in the past 30 years, as though literary status is denied to horror until it's aged sufficiently to have lost much of its potency. However, like SF and Fantasy, literary writers are turning their attentions towards horror. And with Halloween just a few days hence, here is my recommendation for those who not only appreciate good storytelling, but careful wordsmithing and poetic prose.

Baker's writing has always been haunted. From her short stories in A Hard Witching to her stark vision of Canada's western prairies in The Horseman's Graves, there's always a sense of the uncanny stalking at the edges of the page. In those works, her ghosts are more subtle. In The Broken Hours, they take center stage in a tale about a man who comes to work as a personal assistant for H.P. Lovecraft. In Baker's hands, the setting of Providence, Rhode Island during the Great Depression is haunted enough, and so the first 96 pages read much like her previous work, albeit in a more compelling, concise fashion. It wasn't until that 96th page, when I read the words "It was in my room," that I felt the chills crawl up my spine. But don't expect that The Broken Hours suddenly becomes a Cthulhu-inspired horror-fest at that point. There are no Elder Gods in these pages, no physical portals to worlds of madness, though Baker's creation of Lovecraft's voice feels terribly authentic. Instead, Baker slowly doles out the remaining moments of atmospheric horror in small doses, slowly revealing the presences behind closed doors, in the darkness on the landing, in the garden out the window, or in the blinking lights of the castle-like structure across the city.

One of my favourite passages in The Broken Hours speaks to the desire for horror, but also demonstrates what sets reading Baker's horror from writers like Dean Koontz.
What is it about the darkness which draws us? At once inward and outward. I had always been too easily drawn, too easily, Jane would have said, too easily enveloped. I, who feared once, as a child, not the witching autumn, but spring, that clear-lighted season of ghosts when Jesus rose from the tomb, bloodless and terrible, rolling away the stone in the sunlight with his own deathless hands. I imagined Jane's shock at hearing such a confession.
Oh yes, the darkness drew me. Had drawn me always.
There was something in me, I knew, something perhaps in us all which, no matter our rational selves, was haunted. 
It is this beautiful prose, this beautiful terror, which makes The Broken Hours my top recommendation for this Halloween season. While the chills of The Broken Hours are admittedly slow in coming compared to King or Koontz, once they arrive, they are the kind that creep up to leech the warmth and light from a bright autumn afternoon, an experience I was shocked to have on my way to pick my children up from school. Scaring a reader in the night watches is relatively easy - scaring a reader in broad daylight, especially one who cut his horror teeth on King's Pet Semetary is another. And yet there I was, reading while walking, the hair on my arms standing on end, the sun shining down on me. And unlike recent King or almost all Koontz, Baker knows how to end a book, leaving me lingering over the last page, reading it over several times, to let it sink in, beneath the skin.

1 comment:

  1. *The Broken Hours* reminded me of Dan Simmons' masterful rendition of Dickens' *Drood.* Poor Wilkie Collins.