Granta can be daunting. A quarterly literary magazine that more closely resembles a book, it can be tempting to not even get involved. As is the case with The New Yorker, seeing it lying around the house, unread, can prompt feelings of guilt, similar to those brought on by unfinished homework or missed deadlines.
It’s important to remember, however, that Granta (like The New Yorker) almost always delivers, providing something rewarding for readers with all types of interests. Granta’s “Horror” issue is no different, and thankfully for readers who aren’t fans of the genre, only rarely does it conform to the conventional definition of “horror” as it relates to ghost stories or slasher movies.
In the instances it does deal with traditional horror, the results are satisfying. There’s a humorous retelling by Roberto Bolaño of a B-movie—or a C-movie, if such a thing exists—about zombies that he didn’t even see the beginning of and was “full of clichés and tired devices, prejudices and stereotypes”. It was, Bolaño writes, “as if you were watching Jurassic Park, except the dinosaurs never showed.” And a story by Stephen King about deaths foretold conforms to the tried and true Stephen King formula, but is nonetheless irresistible.
Chill: The volume is satisfying in traditional horror. Photo: Thinkstock
That’s about it for conventional horror. The rest of the stories deal with supremely scarier topics, such as the passage of time, the ravages of age and the decline and death of loved ones and strangers alike. Julie Otsuka’s story Diem Perdidi is a meticulous account of what her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, does and does not remember. It is difficult to read, yet more difficult to look away from. “When you ask her your name, she does not remember what it is,” Osaka writes. What could possibly be more horrifying than that? Paul Auster’s profile of his mother, who died in 2002 after a disappointing life, is similarly raw and compelling, and spooky illustrations by Kanitta Meechubot address her grandmother’s affliction with cancer.
In The Mission, Tom Bamforth describes a landscape characterized by “deserted hut after deserted hut: the remains of villages left gradually to collapse”, in which he “saw the black, charred outline of houses burned indelibly to the ground”. This could be the post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (or Mad Max), but Bamforth is an international aid worker and the landscape is that of Darfur in genocide-afflicted Sudan. Bamforth’s piece is about a mission to document the “displacement and dislocation” caused by the war. In a similar vein, Santiago Roncagliolo’s reportage on life under the yoke of revolution in Peru is also chilling.
Roberto Bolaño. Photo: Mathieu Bourgois/FSG/Bloomberg
The most harrowing piece in the issue could be Brass by the novelist Joy Williams, which seems at first to be a sad-funny piece about an Arizona father who belittles his dead-ender of a son, whom he refers to only as “the boy”. The old man is long since convinced that the boy will never make a name for himself; when his son does so in the worst possible way.
Particularly enjoyable is The Infamous Bengal Ming, a parable from a forthcoming short story collection by Rajesh Parameswaran. In it, the narrator is “Ming the merciless”, a seemingly docile tiger bred in captivity and looking for companionship. When Ming accidentally kills his handler Kitch, who he has just realized is the love of his life, a chain of events unfolds in which Ming escapes from the zoo and becomes a full-fledged maneater. “I felt sick to my stomach,” he says, after he accidentally kills a “human cub” early in his evolution. “How did I keep doing this—time after time—killing people unintentionally? What was wrong with me? Was I evil?” he asks. Ming discovers, after more killing, that his long-suppressed animal instincts have been governing his actions. Once he accepts that he chose to kill, Ming says, “I…never felt so much love in all my life.”
Granta 117: Granta, 256 pages, Rs699.
Curiously, a story by Don DeLillo, from the author’s forthcoming collection, is the one that disappoints. It’s typically esoteric, never really arrives at its destination, and what it has to do with the theme of the issue, even tangentially, is unclear. But DeLillo’s story is the only dud here. Granta’s Horror issue is remarkably strong. And as previous issues illustrate, Granta’s themed volumes shouldn’t be thought of as alienating. Even potentially polarizing issues on a theme such as horror—which is really quite broad, when you think about it—shouldn’t be left to languish.