Horror That Grows On You: Mike Thorn's Darkest Hours
Horror stories: "What could possibly be more natural?"
Surprisingly, not my thought, but Theodore's. A record store owner with a seemingly unnatural desire for a very natural substance - hair. Namely, that of strangers, what sits in corners collecting dust, and even the wefts that begin to sprout from his very own tongue.
This is what lies in the pages of Mike Thorn's debut collection of short stories, Darkest Hours. For fans of body horror and tightly written concepts, it is sure to... well, please is the wrong word, isn't it?
As an opener, the short and sweet "Hair" provides the special kind of hook that makes you afraid to continue, but somehow calls for multiple readings of its beautifully grotesque sentences. We are often made to believe that the unimaginable is the most terrifying, but the images Thorn conjures up are so horrifically imaginable that they'll give you pause. And if you're a true fan, you'll probably push on.
Slipping Between the Teeth
Sometimes, it's simple vocabulary that does it. Certain words and phrases that just eat at you? How about "Fibrous morsel," "greasy threads," "hair-spun asparagus," "luscious locks," "stray shedding." I didn't read them aloud until I read through this review, but each really is "slipping between the teeth." Reading "Hair," makes you feel like hearing the word moist does, over and over - only instead of the squish of a piece of meat, you feel the brush of a frizzy knot inside your mouth.
"What he felt was the thing that mattered." - from "Hair," Darkest Hours
And so the words begin to stir terrible ideas, and from strong ideas - when executed well - come strong feelings. The best horror stories, in my mind, deal with emotion as much as they deliver guts, gore, and empty bodies. Where high-concept writing can sometimes lack a sense of deeper feeling, Darkest Hours rarely suffers this problem.
In fact, it's that raw emotion that makes this collection bind together so strongly. 16 stories with 16 individually strong premises could easily make for a disjointed whole, but Thorn's ability and willingness to allow his characters to suffer (and relish) deeply, lends Darkest Hours an overarching take on what horrortruly is.
Think again on Theodore's desire: his hair lust is, in itself, horrific. But its his genuine, honest excitement as a lust-driven human that is both relatable and totally unmanageable. As hair grows on Theodore, so does our want for more: more grotesquerie, more cringeworthy vocabulary, more dunks in the hair-laden tub. It's ingenious, really, in its metaphor for the genre itself. Horror can be an acquired taste - one that has the tendency to grow on you.
Growing into death
It's an interesting thought, that one could grow into death. In tackling thoughts on horror itself, Thorn also uses the tales in Darkest Hours to approach a kind of oddly upbeat bit of existentialism. Whether it's an art student entombed but forever preserved in his favorite artist's master work ("Lucio Schluter"), or a sentient tree root (not-really-a-root) that kills people, but brings them together, too ("Fusion"), the concepts of growth and death are never too far apart.
In "Hair", it's a literal growth that brings about Theodore's death. Hair growing around his heart, his lungs, and probably his eyeballs before long; it's impossible (if you're me) not to think of Stephen King's hapless farmer, Jordy Verrill, in Creepshow.
Vaguely awkward man is curious (too curious) about a strange thing. Man gives in to his lust for strange thing and brings it home with him. Man starts sprouting growths until he can no longer walk, see, or breathe.
"Strands grew from the cracks between his teeth, curled from the meat of his gums, rose in clumps from the insides of his lips." -from "Hair," Darkest Hours
But the main difference between Jordy and Theodore is that Jordy's natural lust for a supernatural thing brings him to end his suffering. Whereas, Theodore's unnatural lust for a natural thing brings him an impossible kind of joy. His end is equally abrupt, and in many ways, also by his own doing - but oh, boy, did he ever enjoy doing it.
Horror is like that, really. It's dirty, it's awful, it's wrong, and it's trash. But it's as natural as the blood during childbirth, the shadows that creep on the wall, the vomit that pours out our mouths when we're unwell, and the very hair that grows out of your head (and wherever it may choose to show up later).
Darkest Hours is horror for horror people. For the "confirmed ghost story and horror film addict," if you will. But It's also for people with strong emotions and a desire for philosophical thought. Funny, how horror often is.
The Best of Darkest Hours:
"A New Kind of Drug" - a genuinely bizarre and high concept piece that re-imagines drug use as not only an abuse of the user, but the drug (sentient being) itself.
"Mired" - an added bonus in many of Darkest Hours best stories is Thorn's not-so-subtle digs at the academic type. As someone once wandering the halls of grad school, I find the idea of becoming lost in academia absolutely horrifying - and also, terribly exciting. What dedicated student doesn't fear/dream being swallowed up and devoured by their own interests?
"Fear and Grace" - Men are scary: "the imprint of sockets beneath his baby blues," is all one needs as a reminder. Particularly relevant and timely.
"Long Man" - A classic haunting complete with a beautifully drawn misshape of a man: flaking skin, gaping wounds, killer reflection, and all.
Disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the author for review. This post contains an affiliate link - see my policy page for full disclosure on how this benefits One Critical Bitch.