Book Review: Granta 117: Horror

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Will Self's account of his bone marrow disease is brutal and truthful. Photo / Supplied
Will Self's account of his bone marrow disease is brutal and truthful. Photo / Supplied

A trip to your local video shop will confirm that the term "horror" has become synonymous with blood-splattered, chainsaw-infested movies featuring casts of zombies, vampires, werewolves and psychopathic serial killers. But as displayed in this latest issue of Granta, the platform for new writing, true horror can send shivers down the spine without resorting to any gothic apparatus.

There is one such effort here, Robert Bolano's recapitulation of a B-grade shocker, but it is one of the less successful pieces in the collection which shows there are many opportunities for the imaginative writer to exploit fictional and factual terrors. There are big names who live up to their billing and there are very few duds.

There is some merit in the suggestion that it is time to ban any journalist suffering from a grave medical condition from writing about it but Will Self's account of his experiences after being diagnosed with an incurable bone marrow disease is an exception. Self is not a writer I warm to and here again he displays that common tendency of the reformed addict to revel in the heroic quantities of substances that have been ingested.

But there is a brutal truthfulness in his relating of the hard facts of the medical world into which he is plunged and which all of us fear. Julie Otsuka's story of the failing of memory with age is another haunting universal vision.

Most of us, too, have to deal with the death of a parent and Paul Auster's story of the death of his mother is an elegant and touching meditation on age and experience.
Far removed from every day experience is Rajesh Parameshwaram's first person, or first beast, version of how a zoo tiger becomes a man-eater, a tale at once so simple and subtle that I'm not sure I'll be visiting the zoo again in a hurry.

Don DeLillo provides a psychological shocker with his story of an obsessive movie goer and Joy Williams has a clever little piece on the nature of the mentally disturbed.

If your taste is for the more conventional thrills Sarah Hall serves up a powerfully written atmospheric story of horrid doings in darkest Africa and Stephen King's contribution is, as you might expect, a polished effort with a classic twist in the tale.

But, as is not unusual for Granta, the real impact for this reader comes with the reportage. Santiago Roncagliolo's description of life in Peru with the conflicting atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas and the reprisals by the state security forces beggar the imagination of those of us lucky enough to live in more politically stable climates.

But perhaps the most striking single piece of horror comes in Tom Bamforth's despatch from the anarchy of Darfur where, at the end of his trip, he encounters the newly appointed head of the World Food Programme.

"After three arduous weeks in the desert, a passing witness to the imbecility and human cost of war, I stood for a moment in front of one of the most influential humanitarians in the world. 'Where's my yoghurt,' she said ..."

Granta 117: Horror
(Granta $35)
Reviewed by John Gardner

- NZ Herald

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