Leza Cantoral, “Cartoons in the Suicide Forest” (2016) – The internet has been good for horror literature, it seems, both as material and as means of propagation for independent producers. That could be nonsense- horror, like video games and Star Trek, is one of those things that really defines the culture of much of my friend group but on which I basically missed the boat. But I think this collection of short surrealist horror fiction (by an old school pal! We once rescued another horror writer from central Pennsylvania. Fun story!) backs me up on this assertion.
That said, not all of the stories in “Cartoons in the Suicide Forest” are directly about the internet or computers- avoiding the literal-mindedness that dogs “Black Mirror” in its more pedestrian moments. There’s all kinds of weird shit packed into this slender container: mermaids fleeing a collapsing earth, Eva Braun in Nazi Oz, and some scathing realist material, too. Leza doesn’t stint on body horror, and there’s an iridescent quality to her prose in those moments of horrifying nightmare logic.
In the titular story, the main character makes reference to a “Queen in Yellow.” That might ring some bells from “True Detective,” who in turn borrowed the “King in Yellow” myth from turn of the century horror/fantasy writer Robert Chambers. This story, of a play (perhaps based in some older legends) that led to the death of anyone who saw or read it, encapsulates the major theme of that influential period in horror writing: the confrontation between the supposedly rational civilization of the turn of the twentieth century and its own knowledge of the vastness, oldness, and irrationality of the world and the cosmos.
Contemporary social and technological changes have brought us face to face with a whole new side of our irrationality and the world’s unknowability, and this is part of why horror has become as important as it has to a lot of people. Leza brings out the aesthetic and gendered elements of the ways in which the internet (well, the pedant in me insists on saying “the internet under capitalism” but let’s just take that as read) and the culture around it contributes to our situation. “The internet runs on women’s misery,” someone smart once said, and the difficulty of escaping gendered victim-victimizer dynamics animates most of the stories in the collection.
For Chambers’ generation, the vastness of the universe ruled out an escape from existential dread- build up “progress” as much as you like, you’re still a dying speck of dust on the cosmic scale, etc. In Leza’s work, there simply isn’t an outside, or if there is — like the suicide forest which makes its sad girl visitors into surreal, dancing, bloody cartoons — it’s just the logic of these bounded universes taken to their conclusion. That should sound pretty contemporary, I think. ****