Short Reviews – Horror Movie, Stuart Dybek

Horror Movie by Stuart Dybek appears in the January 1976 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Reading this story, I realized I’ll never be able to read SF/F featuring creepy old men offering to do things to little boys from the inner city without being reminded of Samuel R Delany now. Thank god that’s not something I’ll have to worry about often.

I feel as though I missed out on a vital part of the American experience, never having gone by myself or with friends (though without an adult present) to a bad horror movie at an age when I would be genuinely frightened by men in a wolf-man suit or in mummy bandages.  Damn if Horror Movie is not evocative of that feel, or at least what I presume that feeling to be.  But more than that, it’s evocative of a fear which I am thankful to have missed out on: growing up poor in the slums of Chicago.

Horror Movie follows a young boy who is having one hell of a bad and freaky weekend. His mother has been taken to the hospital while he was out due to a complication with a pregnancy which has left the bathroom a scary bloody mess. He is terrified of his mother’s abusive boyfriend. The boy is troubled by nightmares and is a habitual bed-wetter, yet loves watching horror movies (or at least masochistically enjoys subjecting himself to them). Much of the story is vivid descriptions of the boy’s dreaming and waking nightmares -all very strange and unsettling affairs- which serve as a mirror for the uncanny and alienating nature of the rotting and hostile urban setting in which the character is forced to grow up.

Horror Movie is a parade of the grotesque; the boy’s bad dreams, his living conditions, the blaxploitation horror movie he goes to see, the pederast usher, the crimes and decay of the city, the procession of urban nightmare fuel escalates, fluctuating between the real and imagined, ultimately culminating in a fat Puerto Rican lady tied to a lamp post getting kicked in the tit so hard it smacks her in the face as she half-heartedly begs the boy for help on his sojourn from the theatre. This strange and ghoulish tale ends with the kid locking himself in his dark house, slashing about at shadows with a kitchen knife for comfort. You almost expect the story to end with him accidentally plunging the knife into the abusive boyfriend, the mamacita neighbor who’d told him his mother was taken to the hospital, or -worst of all- his mother returning home, but all is left to the imagination of the reader.

While Horror Movie is an excellent example of modernist grotesque, it would be a stretch to call it speculative fiction. Not a criticism, merely an observation.  Dybek’s story is a masterfully put together tale of existential urban terror, but it’s not something one could call fantasy or science fiction or even horror in a conventional sense. There is no supernatural horror; the only horrors present are those in the young boy’s dreams and those in his environment. Things kids face growing up in the inner city are more terrifying and horrible than anything in a scary movie. Horror Movie is by far the best thing I’ve read so far in the January 1976 issue, which isn’t saying anything by itself, so I’ll also point out that it’s better than a lot of the stuff that I liked from the June 1977 issue.  But man is it an unpleasant read…