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Sunday, October 8, 2023

31 Days of Horror: Day 8-- Wy I Love Horror by Sam Rebelein

Similar to yesterday's post, I read Edenville, a debut novel by Sam Rebelein (which came out 10/3/23 from William Morrow), for the October 2023 issue of Library Journal, and after finishing it, I had to invite Sam to the Why I Love Horror family. If you read this bonkers, in all the right ways, novel you would want to talk to Sam more too. 

But first, here is my draft review and some further notes via Goodreads:

Three Words That Describe This Book: Cosmic Horror, Sardonic Tone, Folk Horror

  • This book is a horror and humor mash up.
  • It is a scathing critique of academia, especially MFA programs.
  • It is also BONKERS but in all the right ways. It will both appeal to a wider range of readers AND turn some readers off. I think that is a good thing. You have to enter reading it with the understanding that it is over the top on purpose.
  • The ending was quite empowering in a way that would make Stephanie from the Books in the Freezer podcast happy. 
Draft Review: Cam is a struggling NYC writer whose debut novel flowed out of him in the aftermath of a terrifying nightmare but it flopppled soon after publication. Quinn, Cam’s girlfriend, is a bartender originally from Upstate NY who believes in the ghost stories from back home. When an eccentric woman from the prestigious Creative Writing Program at Edenville College, near Quinn’s hometown, comes to invite Cam to be a writer in residence, both Quinn and the reader know it is a bad idea, yet Cam accepts. What follows is an entertainingly bonkers tale infused with so much unease and danger that it is literally dripping from Cam’s eyes. It is a story that explores the Cosmic and Folk Horror tropes to their furthest reaches while also providing a scathing critique of academia, especially MFA programs, all wrapped up in one wild ride of a read.

Verdict: Rebelein’s debut confidently leans in on its sardonic tone, mixing humor with over the top Cosmic Horror, a combination that will appeal greatly to fans of We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix, but don’t sleep on the dark academia aspects as also seen in Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas.

And now it is Sam's turn to share why he loves Horror, in an essay which asks who screamed first-- us  into the void or the void at us.


Why Do I Love Horror? Because It Helps Me Scream
Sam Rebelein

When I was eight, I firmly believed all villains should be melted or eaten or both. I think the art of a brutally satisfying third-act villain death is somewhat lost in film these days, but perhaps that’s because I grew up with stories like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, in which villains were melted and eaten all the time. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the film Agent Cody Banks (I haven’t seen it since, like, 2004), but I do remember that, in the third act, a villainous Ian McShane is eaten from the inside out by nanobots. In a kid’s movie.

I think I find this trope invigorating because it insinuates that the antagonistic forces in our own lives will someday find their comeuppance at the hands of something far worse than they are. I find it comforting, knowing there are hungers out there that eat indiscriminately. Powers who don’t care if you’re a CEO or a high-ranking member of the Third Reich. In the end, all flesh tastes the same.

When you’re little, it’s easy to see the world through a cosmic horror lens like this. Almost everything is a power far greater than you, and you could just as easily melt as the next guy.

Like many horror writers I know, I was ironically a huge scaredy-cat as a kid. I wanted to be brave, but I just couldn’t do it. Multiple times, I demanded my parents take me to a haunted house, only to have them inevitably usher me through the entire thing with my eyes squeezed shut, tears streaming down my face.

I’ve always loved aquariums and zoos, so big creatures have never stirred in me a feeling of worthlessness, emptiness, or cosmic dread. The specific imagery of the Cthulhu mythos has never been particularly frightening to me. But when I was little, I had constant spirals of anxiety that I would often entertain for months on end. For instance, when I was five, I knew that if I touched the walls of our home, electricity from the wires within would jump out and electrocute me. I was sure this was true, just as I was sure that every stomachache was a mortal illness, and every night I went to sleep, I may never wake up again. Once, for no reason at all, I became suddenly so certain I wasn’t going to see the dawn that I wrote a note to be read at my funeral. The next morning, I was perfectly fine. But I still have the note just in case.

As an adult with significantly more agency than I had when I was eight, I’ve outgrown some of these quaint fears, but others have grown worse. Climate change, insurance companies, deeply-ingrained systemic hate—these are my Elder Gods now. Thousand-eyed beasts with many claws, sleeping just below the surface of our world. Whenever I need to visit the doctor and my provider isn’t in my network, that’s cosmic horror. Any time I hear about Catholic priests continuing to molest leagues of young men, I always feel like there’s very little I can do, personally, to fight that colossal tentacled beast called the Catholic church.

When I was four, I nearly lost my left arm. I smashed my hand through a glass door, tore open the bundle of nerves we apparently all keep in our armpits, and fell back onto the floor. I remember staring up at my mother, on the phone with her sister, suddenly horrified as she discovered what must have been a lot of blood spreading across the floor around me. She was able to call the ambulance quickly, because the phone was already in her hand, and the ambulance happened to be just down the street. The doctors assured her that if either of these things had not been true, I may not have survived.

She’s told me this many times over the years, which, ya know, is nice, but isn’t super helpful for my anxiety. She means to say that grand forces of good are at work in the universe, and have been taking care of me since I was very little. It’s a pleasant enough idea, except angels have always terrified me. If they have the power to summon an ambulance, they also have the power to send it further away.

My greatest fear as a kid was Heaven itself. An endless landscape of un-time, hidden in the fluffy clouds beyond the sky? What the fuck does that mean?? To this day, eternity makes my brain hurt. I imagine Heaven like the crushingly long afternoons I used to spend laying on my bedroom floor, doing nothing. As an only child, I often had to entertain myself, which is how I started writing funny little comics about dinosaurs. But I often just…lay there, too. Imagining stories. Imagining my death. Imagining the cosmic horror of Heaven.

I don’t know when it occurred to me that I could write about my fears the same way I wrote Jurassic Park fan-fic. It wasn’t until college that I started writing horror instead of short funny stories and comedy sketches. I didn’t really read horror before college, either. The closest I came to it as a kid was R.L. Stine, K. A. Applegate, Bruce Coville. Animorphs always freaked me out. The idea that anyone you love could be a meat-suit piloted by a brain slug—that’s cosmic horror for sure. I was a huge fan of Series of Unfortunate Events as well, which is certainly cosmic horror, in a way. How far and how deep do Count Olaf’s tentacles reach? How inept are the adults who are supposed to be our heroes?

When I was fifteen, I fell in love with the Saw franchise. I adored that gritty, rusted world. Everyone was having affairs, each bathroom was shittier than the last (literally). And Jigsaw presided over all. He was the mad god of this land, with an ever-crueler imagination that I found endless fascinating. He was my first horror hero, with his barbed wire and red LED clocks. Maybe it was because his orthodoxy made more sense to me than the stuff I was forced to swallow every Sunday morning. He was honest about the fact that our bodies are not our own. And in Jigsaw’s world, eternity did not exist. You never had more than 90 seconds.

This is why I love horror. It gives us the vocabulary, however twisted, to rebel against ideas that terrify us, even the most well-intentioned, saccharine ones. Horror doesn’t necessarily make us afraid, it allows us to scream into the void about the fears we already have. I was already afraid of most things from the jump. Getting buried alive, spiders, the dark, dying alone, my second-grade math teacher… Being able to read, watch, and write about these topics allows my mind to scream about them in a way that my body does all the time anyway.

Maybe that’s why there seems to be a resurgence of love for works like Goosebumps. My generation grew up reading those stories to alleviate the fears we had back then. Now that we’re adults, blossoming unto an earth that’s drowning and burning simultaneously, we want to remember those old, quaint fears about our neighbors being ghosts, our dad being an unemployed plant-monster, the posters in our bedroom coming to life… These terrors feel so much nicer, now that we’re afraid of so much more.

Which is my way of saying that if you grew up with Goosebumps and Series of Unfortunate Events as well, you should check out my debut novel, Edenville. Here, you’ll find Lovecraftian beings, horrifically narcissistic egos, deeply codependent relationships, and the unstoppable power of elite, liberal arts higher education. All fine examples of cosmic horror.

Edenville is an adventure into a haunted-house land, driven by characters who recognize that they’re in a horror story but decide to roll with it instead of running away, out of the same sick fascination that kept me watching the Saw movies as a high schooler. I wanted their reactions to this world to feel genuine. I wanted to know: How would you really react if you found myself in a Goosebump? Wouldn’t you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes? It’s horror, yes, but it’s also an escape. Because which is scarier: Losing yourself in a rabbit hole filled with monsters, or staying in a reality in which you can get shot while simply dancing?

So come scream with me in Edenville. Scream into the void of being a small breathing thing stuck inside a universal machine. Come feel the forces of evil tear into your flesh, and see the forces of good bring the ambulance to your door in under a minute.

I love writing horror because it helps me articulate my own screams into the void. Which is only fair. I feel like the void screamed at us first.

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