Robert Dunbar is the brilliant and rather unsung author of several novels that fall squarely within the modern literary horror genre. Sadly, "unsung" is a word that can be used for many authors and many excellent books within this sizeable part of the horror world... and that lack of recognition really aggravates me. While various hack horror authors are able to churn out paperback after paperback filled with uninteresting ideas, shameless displays of negligible writing ability, and plots that can be described in a short sentence or less, writers like Dunbar and Tim Lebbon and Mark Samuels and Greg Gifune and Thomas Ligotti (and my personal favorite, the late Brian McNaughton) deliver less well-known works full of intelligent and often elegant prose, ambiguous narratives, and themes that require contemplation and genuine engagement with the often multi-leveled stories being told. They are not content to merely disgust you with frequent displays of gore or titillate you with grindingly adolescent sexuality; their novels and short stories exist to challenge you, on many levels - intellectually, emotionally, even spiritually. And who doesn't want to be challenged? If you don't want to ever be challenged, stop reading this now. You don't deserve to read this.
If you are interested in literary horror and dark fiction, check out Robert's excellent Goodreads group devoted to that topic: Literary Darkness.
Dunbar takes the slow route to get to his horror and i appreciate it! the writing is bleak, cold-eyed yet haunting, evocative - a kind of southern gothic set in the new jersey pine barrens. most characters are portrayed as human insects of three varieties - predatory, on a sad downward spiral, or both. when positive human emotions and interactions come to the forefront, it is almost as if a great battle has been won to allow those rays of humanity their brief moments... the smallest positive gestures become almost profound when set against a backdrop of such unrelenting darkness. the supernatural element is handled with a very careful touch. some great, scary set pieces, particularly the trailer attack and the climax. of course the real horrors in this novel are the living conditions portrayed and the basic (and nauseating) callowness of most of the characters. overall this is an excellent and well-written horror novel with none of the cheesiness of other Leisure titles and i'm surprised it's not better known. perhaps this is due to the slowly unwinding narrative; although i found it to be quite gripping, the reader interested in a visceral rollercoaster will no doubt grow impatient. for me, the slow unwinding is part of what sets this novel firmly in the literary horror tradition - the richness of the language and murkiness of what is exactly occurring makes the experience a pleasantly challenging one. Dunbar clearly knows how to write traditional, "modern" horror (as presented during the opening sequence and, most effectively, in the disturbing bits involving a a doomed camping trip)... and just as clearly he has set his sights higher.
Dunbar's follow-up to The Pines is a satisfying experience. it seems as if the many years between novels has served to intensify rather than decrease his disinterest in presenting traditional horror thrills, and this novel is if anything even more challenging to the reader expecting a simple, scary narrative. straightforward suspense is still available: during the prologue (The Pines contains a similarly suspense-filled teaser) and in particular during a very entertaining sequence in which a classic sociopath toys with an equally classic foe - a haughty psychoanalyst. but that's pretty much it - the rest of the novel is for fully engaged readers only. thoughts from characters are presented in an almost stream-of-conscious style, disallowing easy identification and instead creating an overwhelming mood of weak, despairing humans grasping ineffectively at basic reasons for their existence. horrible murders occur, but the focus is placed almost entirely on those too-weak humans, the complete inability of any of the characters to truly understand each other's motives, the slow decay of a seaside town, the atmosphere of wintry isolation and a cold, dead, encroaching sea. at one point a character theorizes the horrors may be a sign of sinister changes facing the human world, evolution as something to be feared. i saw something quite different: de-evolution, of a sort: the chthonic past coming back to haunt the present, forcing the regression of civilization back into the primal. the rather magnificent final set piece felt like a metaphor for this backwards movement. as the various characters chase and are chased around the town, in and out of abandoned buildings, a police station, an amusement park... nature itself smashes the landscape, wind and rain and floods quickly dismantling the built-up world, the sea itself rushing in to destroy all in its path, as the characters struggle to understand each other, themselves, and the horrors that threaten to submerge them.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT DUNBAR
mm: What inspired you to write about The Jersey Devil?
RD: We dated in high school.
mm: Nature and elemental forces are important parts of THE PINES and THE SHORE, often as sources of destruction and transformation. Can you talk a little bit about that?
RD: Very astute. Destruction and transformation, yes. What could be more primal? Throughout THE PINES, the forest is described as this “ocean of darkness,” just as the actual sea – rather than a metaphorical one – is a tremendous presence in THE SHORE. And, of course, both novels employ other elemental forces: storms, sex, fire, flood. I’m working on the final part of the trilogy now, but THE STREETS takes place in an urban environment… in many ways a far darker landscape. And the ultimate cataclysm pours straight out of the souls of the characters.
mm: What books or authors have inspired you as a writer?
RD: You realize I’m not going to say Lovecraft or King, right? (Please be nodding.) I’m more of a Blackwood, Aickman, Elizabeth Bowen kind of guy. But there are so many authors I revere. Can other writers really answer this question blithely? Okay, deep breath. Here goes. Henry Roth and William Faulkner, James Purdy and Virginia Woolf, Proust and Genet and – dear gods – Samuel R. Delany. Plus Conrad and Baldwin and Maugham and Greene, Mishima and Pessoa, Fitzgerald (Penelope, not F. Scott), Camus and Kafka, and, yes, it can all turn pretty dark. William Burroughs and Dennis Cooper and Donna Tartt and…
Just tell me when you want me to stop or we could be here a while.
mm: Any new or recently completed projects?
RD: I’m having great fun with a new anthology I’m putting together for Uninvited Books called DARK FOREST. It’s a mixture of old and new tales about dangerous terrain – the sort of sylvan glens where the trees devour people – annotated by modern masters like Ramsey Campbell, Greg Gifune, Ronald Malfi and Gary Braunbeck. Also, VORTEX should be out this spring: my nonfiction book about the folkloric (and historic) influences that inspired the classics of the horror genre.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to VORTEX:
No one dreamed them up.
No one needed to.
The vampire clawing at the window, the werewolf prowling the moor, the hags at the crossroads – they lurked here already.
Some nightmares are ancient, as old as civilization.
Some are older still.
Perhaps some anomaly in the very hardwiring of the human mind gives rise to these shades. But there are other theories, even darker, more modern. Could race memory, lingering below the conscious level, account for fears of monsters, of things that leap and crawl from the shadows?
They say a basis in fact underlies most legends. They say it all the time, all those Wise Elders in all those old horror films. The high priests, the scientists, the gypsy fortune tellers, on this single issue they agree unanimously. More to the point (certainly to the point of this book) deep currents of tradition and superstition swirl through most classic works of horror fiction.
They spring from deep within us, these nightmares, these folktales. They speak of our deepest needs, the ones we have all been taught since childhood never to put into words, because dreams reveal our other face, the one we keep hidden, the Hyde to mankind’s collective Jekyll.
Our most primitive ancestors never died, the ones who killed with rocks and clubs and clawing hands. No, they remain within us still. And when we sleep, they speak.