Michael C. Keith is the author of over 20 books on electronic media, among them Talking Radio, Voices in the Purple Haze, Radio Cultures, Signals in the Air, and the classic textbook The Radio Station. The recipient of numerous awards in his academic field, he is also the author of dozens of journal articles and short stories and has served in a variety of editorial positions. In addition, he is the author of an acclaimed memoir—The Next Better Place, a young adult novel—Life is Falling Sideways, and three story anthologies—Of Night and Light, And Through the Trembling Air, and Hoag’s Object. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Pen/O.Henry Award, and was a 2012 National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist. For more information, visit him at www..michaelckeith.com.
The Gothic novel, or horror story, properly begins with Hugh Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765. Walpole, and his more skillful successors in the genre—especially Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, took advantage of a larger reading public, mostly of women, who enjoyed a good scare as a way of jarring them from their middle-class, English lives. Walpole is barely readable today; Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is frequently taught in “introduction to the novel” courses in college, and Lewis, the best of the lot, with his mad monk whose perversions appear rather modern, still seems quaint and dated. The Romantics loved medieval stories, nature, and horror—lots of bodies in castles, lots of cataracts and dark forests, and, if not knights, at least struggles between good and evil. The genre has been surprisingly resilient: many bestselling authors from Stephan King to Stephanie Meyer to Joyce Carol Oates have used the Gothic formula to shape stories set in contemporary times.
Horror, after all, is still with us. Castles and knights and even vampires and zombies aren’t required to create the sense of danger and the titillation of evil that make these stories so popular. Everyone has nightmares; making nightmares the dark dreams of daily life satisfies one of the most basic functions of fiction, one described by Aristotle in his Poetics—the purging of pity and fear. We feel better when we observe someone else’s woes; we are relieved that we aren’t the dull-witted teenagers in the house with the guy in the hockey mask or the suggestible young lady who falls in love with Nosferatu.
Michael Keith has explored the various dimensions of the horror story both extensively and with great skill. The world according to Keith is replete with absurdities that recognize both the tragedy and comedy of life, sometimes simultaneously. His most recent collection, Sad Boy—his best to date—features stories of young men bent on mayhem, or young men, like Craig Newell, the “hero” of “The Smoking Olympics,” who are unhinged in various ways. “The End in Their Eyes” is an especially effective reworking of the conventions of the classic horror narrative.
One device Keith deploys to consistently good effect is to create characters who have no moral sensibility at all, like the boy who contemplates murdering his parents as a punishment for his misshapen head (“Cranial Deformation”) or a husband who confesses his adultery in the mistaken belief that he is about to die (“Grounded”).
Keith’s stories sometimes bend the genre of horror by focusing on forces over which his protagonists have no control, where fate, and not an evil individual, is the cause of one’s someone’s suffering (“Parajo Diablo”); or he will spin a tale that appears to present a slice of normal life, only to reveal at story’s end some diabolical twist—like all good stories Keith’s often disappoint or demonstrate the inadequacies of our expectations (“The Saddest Eyes”).
The stories in Sad Boy take place all over the world—literally—and in many eras, proving to the reader that the terrifying, the macabre, and the downright creepy are universal human phenomenon and not solely the province of the American heartland or the castles of old England; in fact, there are no castles in Keith’s collection, though there are a few creepy houses (“The Polio House”).
My favorite story in the collection is “Smoke Dreams,” evocative of Keith’s award-winning memoir The Next Better Place, and I admit I also prefer the stories where the subtle fear out-weighs sheer terror, as with “Memories Kept” and “I Never Saw My Mother Sleep.” In any case, Keith has mastered both the Gothic and what I might call the moral tale of fear and terror, and allows us a look into the darker side of everyone’s waking life, the part of us that recognizes the tenuous hold reason has on passion and that life has over death.
~ George Ovitt, Splitting the Difference
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