The aim of this column is to spotlight authors who have been instrumental in my development as a writer. Some of the writers I’ve covered have been legends in the field who are no longer with us; others more contemporary writers who are still very active and influential. I’m revealing them along a semi-chronological path of when I discovered them, not necessarily their publication dates. Today’s installment features a contemporary writer whose first novel had a huge impact on me, as does her continuing work: Mary SanGiovanni.
As I’ve related in previous columns, it took me awhile to accept the title “horror writer.” There are few reasons for this. One, I admittedly grew up with a narrow perception of horror. For the most part, as a child of the ’80s, I believed horror was Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and other slasher fare. That really didn’t interest me, so I never really thought of myself as a “horror” fan.
Of course, it never occurred to me that creepy ghost stories, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and movies like The Watcher in the Woods represented a sub-genre of horror. Even my beloved, mysterious Hardy Boys adventures touched on the horror genre, and one of my favorite cartoons, Scooby-Doo, was basically a kids’ show full of natural gothic tropes.
In my mid-twenties, I left behind my first love of science fiction when I discovered Stephen King’s novel Desperation, which served as a revelation. Here was a novel that was horrific on many levels, featuring blood, gore, and violence, but it was also a profound rumination on death, the afterlife, good and evil, religion, and God. This wasn’t just a “horror” story, it was a tale grappling with huge existential questions.
However, even though I fell head-over-heels in love with King’s work and wanted to write what he did, I didn’t think that made me a “horror” writer, and it didn’t lead me to believe I could write “horror.” King wrote about so many things, I didn’t think that my desire to copy him meant I wanted to be a horror writer. In fact, believe it or not, I initially thought I would be a “Christian Supernatural Suspense” author — not necessarily because I wanted to be one, but because I thought I was obligated to be one because of my faith. (This is another story for another column.)
Throughout 2006-2007, my thoughts about what genre I wanted to write in evolved. After a year and half of reading and reviewing (and trying to write) almost exclusively Christian Supernatural Suspense fiction, I was realizing that I not only didn’t fit into that genre, I most emphatically did not want to. In no way do I want to demean that genre or its market, nor do I want to go into the particulars about the power and pitfalls of faith in supernatural fiction (which I’ve written about in length elsewhere). Suffice to say, I accepted the fact that Christian Supernatural Suspense just wasn’t the genre or market for me.
But could I write horror fiction? At the time, I’d started receiving ARCs from Leisure Fiction for review, as I slowly, between 2007-2009, shifted away from Christian Supernatural Suspense to….what?
Was I a horror writer?
Could I be one?
Many of the novels I received from Leisure — by Ray Garton, Simon Clark, John Everson, Gord Rollo, W. D. Gagliani, Brian Keene, Graham Masterton, and many others — were certainly entertaining and well-written, but I couldn’t see myself writing that kind of fiction. Again, I hold these writers in the highest esteem, but I knew this kind of horror wasn’t for me.
Then, in 2008, I read The Hollower by Mary SanGiovanni. A finely-crafted tale of cosmic horror, The Hollower boasted a taut atmosphere, characters of depth struggling against their own demons, and the Hollower itself, a malevolent cosmic entity which used humans’ worst fears against them. The Hollower also featured a narrative restraint I hadn’t yet seen in the Leisure novels I’d read at that time. Sure, there’d been violence, death and bloodshed…but it all meant something. At the end of the day, The Hollower wasn’t about monsters, demons, and Satanic, blood-soaked sex-rituals. It was about fear. The fear all humans feel inside, and how we either rise to face that fear and overcome it…or, as happens all too often, how we succumb in the face of it.
(It should be noted that Mary’s novel wasn’t alone in this turnkey moment. Right around the time I read The Hollower, I also encountered The Reach by Nate Kenyon, The Pines by Robert Dunbar, and Coffin County by Gary Braunbeck, all of which helped me decide that the horror genre was for me).
I closed The Hollower, and for the first time with any degree of confidence, I thought to myself: I think I can do this. If this is considered to be horror…I think I can write this. And of course, I didn’t mean I thought I could write something as well as Mary had, or write it exactly like she had. What I meant was this: if a wonderfully suspenseful, frightening story like The Hollower, a story full of substance, was not only considered to be horror, but was also published by (at the time) the leading paperback publisher of horror…then maybe horror was the genre for me.
Mary’s work has had a profound impact on me since I read The Hollower. Her continually fresh take on cosmic horror keeps the sub-genre relevant and gives it the staying power it needs to continue to be relevant (she and Ramsey Campbell especially; Ramsey being the focus of a future edition of “Revelations”). I once commented that Mary doesn’t really write Lovecraftian fiction, but SanGiovannian fiction, in that the mythos she creates is solely hers, embodying all of Lovecraft’s cosmic dread, without any of the implicit racism, and also with its own gods and cosmic forces.
The mythos in The Hollower, I Found You, and The Triumvirate is a cosmic structure which belongs to Mary alone, with only the slightest nod to Lovecraft’s mythos. Thrall stands as perhaps one of the most original works of cosmic horror I’ve ever read, in which the small New Jersey town of Thrall is besieged by unimaginable cosmic forces, and the very fabric of this town has become infected with cosmic malevolence. To say anything more about this wonderful novel would reveal too much; suffice to say, you need to go out and read that, now.
Also, I’d say Mary’s work serves as an excellent model of the difference between true cosmic horror and Lovecraftian Mythos Fiction. For example, Brett Talley’s two novels, That Which Should Not Be and He Who Walks in Shadow are excellent (very well written, suspenseful, and entertaining) examples of what I’d call Lovecraftian Mythos Fiction. In those novels, Talley has directly appropriated important elements of Lovecraft’s mythos — the Necromonicon, Miskatonic University, Nylarathotep, to name a few — and has crafted two cracking, highly enjoyable reads.
However, Mary’s work — while still being just as suspenseful and entertaining — hinges far more heavily on cosmic dread, a fear in the face of something so incomprehensible and so much bigger than us, we are but ants to be stepped on. In Chaos and Savage Woods especially, human beings are merely bloody fodder for the cosmic forces which seethe just beyond our world. BUT, Mary uses these unimaginable cosmic forces to, very often, show the power of the human spirit, and its resiliency. This sets her work apart from other writers of cosmic horror. For example, I definitely can appreciate Thomas Ligotti’s prose and his wielding of cosmic dread, but to be honest, it was hard for me to get through Tales of the Grimscribe, simply because of its deadening sense of nihilism, and an almost casual narrative disregard for the fate of its protagonists.
Mary, however, uses these terrifying, mind-numbing cosmic forces to display the ultimate triumph of humanity in the face of unimaginable evil (and oftentimes, not even evil, but a simple yet horrifying cosmic disregard for us as playthings and nothing more). Never fear, there’s lots of collateral damage, and humans pay the price for their folly and succumb to their demons, or, sometimes, are offered up as sacrifices to the cosmic meat-grinder (especially in Chaos and Savage Woods). But in her longer works, especially, Mary’s cosmic horror is the backdrop on which she’s going to often paint a tapestry of humanity rising above suffering, tragedy, and madness, above its own weaknesses and fear, to survive.
Not always, though. For Emmy is perhaps one of the most soul-crushing, emotional novellas I’ve ever read, but it also asks important questions, (this time about missing children), using the trappings of cosmic horror and unseen worlds to frame those questions. For Emmy, especially, had a profound impact on me as a writer, because it wasn’t so much the cosmic elements which made the story so frightening. It was the emotional trauma — an emotional trauma the protagonist is ultimately unable to surmount, this time — which gave substance to this story.
Mary has also mixed cosmic horror and quiet horror to create her own unique brand of fiction. Though Chaos and Savage Woods aren’t “quiet” at all, her work is very reminiscent of the late late Charles L. Grant’s and Ramsey Campbell’s, especially the work in her short fiction collection A Darkling Plain, which is filled with quiet stories of substance and meaning. Her novel Chills crackles with a tense, wintry atmosphere, reminding me very much of Alan Peter Ryan’s frostbitten Dead White, though with a far more satisfying conclusion.
Mary’s career was momentarily sidetracked by the unfortunate implosion of Dorchester Publishing and Leisure Fiction. With her two most recent works, Chills and Savage Woods, and her next work, Behind the Door, through Kennsington imprint Lyrical Underground, Mary is once more at the forefront of the horror genre. She should be read by every horror writer aspiring to utilize the forces of cosmic dread in their work.
Works of Mary SanGiovanni
- The Hollower
- I Found You
- The Triumvirate
- A Darkling Plain
- The Fading Place
- For Emmy
- Savage Woods
- Night Moves
- Behind the Door
- Inside the Asylum
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.