BOOK REVIEW: Experiments in Human Nature
In the past few years there has been a surge of new literature being produced in the horror industry of which its sole purpose appears to be nothing more than to completely shock the reader. The authors of shock-horror, or “shorror” as I like to call it, compete within their demented realm to see who can pull off the most deranged, depraved piece of literature possible while still maintaining a storyline. While it often verges on tipping over into the realm of Bizarro literature with the extreme measures it goes to in order to leave its imprint upon the reader, Shorror’s demeanor does not have the hallucinogenic qualities Bizarro does; concrete storylines are maintained, for the most part, with specifically defined characters to follow them.
However, when it comes to violence, there are no rules in this particular literary world, nothing that is off limits or too terrible to be considered a taboo. All rules are meant to be broken and often the end result is a story or novel, which is nearly impossible for the reader to digest and not find themselves, in some way, permanently scarred. With each year, the stories generated become increasingly hard to bear, the violence depicted within the pages beyond even the most possessed dreams of a serial killer. Is this a sign of our cumulative societal desensitization or is it merely another artistic-psychological experimentation where we, the unwitting audience, have found ourselves placed within a maze of electric fences while the authors record our reactions with the kind of sick glee only a mad scientist could thrive on? And what will the end result be of this new movement of horror literature?
As with all literary rebellions, regardless of their original intent or eventual outcome, the Shorror movement will no doubt, for better or for worse, irrevocably change the face of horror literature, and in many ways mainstream fiction, now and for generations to come. I am, and have always been, a massive advocate for literary and artistic experimentation. Whatever the media or genre may be and whether or not I find it palatable or pleasant, I can stand back and appreciate the profundity of the generational statement it is attempting to make, if it is made out of genuine creativity and not simply an attempt by an individual to garner negative public attention.
As with all artistic revolutions, there are those works which rise above the rest, those pieces or collections which actually serve to define the true nature, the spirit if you will, of the movement itself. These individual contributions separate the artistic genius from the wretchedly shabby facsimiles. They allow otherwise pessimistically skeptical critics of the said movement an opportunity to see the potential power of the original intention, the original vision of the artists, whatever their media (painting, sculpture, poetry, literature, film, comedy, etc.), instead of merely having their doubts reinforced by the rampant rivers of trash trying to piggyback their way into infamy in the name of the original movement.
Max Ernst versus Chris Ofili, Stanley Kubrick versus Parrish Randall, Dahli versus Andreas Serrano, George Carlin versus Andrew Dice Clay...The list goes on and on. The Shorror movement is no different and out of the hordes of infantile attempts at infamy has emerged a handful of authors who have proven that not only can literature be truly controversial in its level of brutal shock-factor, but also highly intelligent and brilliant in its craftsmanship. One such author leading this pack of feral writers is Monica J. O’Rourke.
O’Rourke’s 2007 collection of short stories entitled Experiments in Human Nature is truly in a league of its own. Before I was sent the review copy I have to admit that I had previously been somewhat unfamiliar with her work and, thus, was unsure of what I was in for. The cover of the book is unassuming with a simple white type on a black background surrounding a small abstract painting of a woman’s back in umber and sienna tones. And perhaps it was best that I did not have any preconceived notions or expectations of the work, nothing to prevent my reactions from being wholly honest and raw.
From the first story, the first page, I knew I was in for a very brutal and bizarre ride. In fact, the first story, “Attainable Beauty”, was so disturbing that it took me nearly an hour to finish it because I was standing in line on the opening day of a movie premiere and felt strangely unnerved at reading the story in public. I kept wondering if anyone was reading over my shoulder or if the weird glances people were occasionally tossing my way, as people tend to do, were specifically directed at the book and not me. Indeed, it was a strange sensation, as if I were experiencing a moment of temporary paranoid insanity.
I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was about the story that messed with my mind so acutely, but perhaps it was the razor-sharp intelligence with which it was written that lent to it a deeply psychotic sensibility which, combined with the brutal subject matter, made for one undeniably uncomfortable tale. I would imagine I would have the same reaction if I were sitting across from a serial killer listening to him or her calmly recount the last moments of their victims with a cool and misty-eyed reverie, the sick twisting in my gut and the slight rise of bile in the back of my throat as every nerve within the small residual reptilian part of my brain screamed RUN.
However, I could not run and nor could I put down Experiments in Human Nature as the rational part of my being told me I was experiencing a moment of true insane genius. And that profoundly uncomfortable, yet undeniably fascinating, moment did not end with “Attainable Beauty”, but continued throughout each and every one of O’Rourke’s twenty-three tales, each more bizarre and horrifically beautiful than the one before it. Indeed, this is not a collection for the weak of heart or the easily offended. As I mentioned, at times, even I had to pause and recollect myself before proceeding.
However, O’Rourke has also masterfully seeded her storytelling with gently pulsing veins of the darkest of humor, now and again, which evokes a nervous, strangled laughter at all of the most inopportune times. I can honestly say that O’Rourke is one of the finest short story authors I have read in some time and I am quite intrigued at her ability to weave such an elegant structure into such downright demented subject matter. If anyone has ever found themselves questioning whether or not women have the chops to compete in the merciless slash-or-be-slashed world of Shorror, or horror in general, I highly suggest they check out Experiments in Human Nature. Regardless, you will be forever changed.