A few years ago I did something that remains one of the low points of my life: I went to Virginia. If you’re interested I’ll share the whole wretched event with you sometime, but suffice it to say, what should’ve been a relatively simple fourteen hour car trip turned into a thirty hour dead-of-winter hellride. The thing is, I was a nervous wreck for three days leading up my trip and literally got almost no sleep during that time. And there was a storm when we got there, and not one but two semi-trucks flipped across the middle of the interstate. And we got lost in the mountains. And, and . . .
Now, I have nothing against the state of Virginia itself; I’m sure it’s lovely (when not in the grip of a snow storm, that is) but I plan never to return if I can help it. Ever. But long before that trip I read a little novel called Goat Dance set in Virginia at wintertime by a then-new author on the horror fiction scene. It probably planted the seeds of my dread of Virginia, for which the road trip only cemented it.
Oddly enough, I first read this book during another road trip, albeit a far less eventful one. I was a teenager at the time. I had already cut my horror teeth on a handful of novels by McCammon, Koontz and King, and I had just discovered Clive Barker. Our vacation was ending and I wanted something to occupy my time during the twelve-hour ride back home. I found Goat Dance in the book section of Wal-Mart, or maybe it was at a drugstore. I don’t really remember where I picked it up. It’s not important. But the cover had caught my attention. It had one of those cutout covers that were so in vogue in the ’90s, and the cutout revealed a goat-headed man with a pentagram carved into his forehead (which, by the way, is not in the book, and a good thing too), and I loved, loved, LOVED monsters, so I figured I’d give it a try.
[Note: As you can see, I didn’t use the original cover for my review–there are a variety of reprint covers and I chose the one I liked best.]
Anyway, expecting a so-so novel that would nevertheless keep me entertained for the duration of the trip, I bought it. And then I read it, and . . . holy shit. I finished the book right before we got home. It had completely sucked me into its dark world. When I say dark world, I’m fully aware this is a cliche often used to describe horror novels, but in this case the term is completely accurate. This was Clegg’s debut novel, and he had knocked it right out of the park. I haven’t read his entire oeuvre yet, but in terms of what I’ve read this book comes in second for me only to Neverland, or even ties with it, depending on my frame of mind. Now this is what horror was capable of, and possibly more than any other book I’d read up to that point save McCammon’s Swan Song, it made me want to write in this genre. And yet Clegg himself considers this one of his mediocre contributions. Go figure.
The central protagonist of the story is Malcolm “Cup” Coffey, the survivor of one terrible winter at a prep school in Pontefract, Virginia which ultimately ended in two equally traumatic events for him: the death of another boy, and unrequited love for a girl named Lily, both of which Cup is still obsessed with years later. So when Cup, now living in Washington, DC, receives a strange phone message from Lily on his answering machine one winter’s day, he decides to return to Pontefract to look Lily up and discovers a town caught in the grip of a nightmare that has only just begun and is slowly building up to something, of which Cup is unwittingly a big part.
I hadn’t read the novel for about fifteen years (ironically, about the same amount of time that passes between the prep school events and Cup’s return to Pontefract), but I recently realized what a debt I owe to Clegg, and this novel in particular, for the structure and certain elements of the content for my novel-in-progress, AL+ER. Like Goat Dance, my novel uses fictional supplemental items tangential to the story to reinforce its verisimilitude, has a small town where the horror builds slowly and is rooted in a past tragic event in the town’s history, and features a little girl who has certain abilities and who is something like a compliment to the protagonist. Of course, my book is significantly different in a variety of ways too. For one thing, the young girl plays a much bigger role in my story. For another, neither the protagonist nor the girl are from the town (Milton’s Eye, Mississippi) where the bulk of the horror occurs and are not directly connected to it in any way. Also, my book is meant to be the first in a series that will feature the protagonist and the girl as a team, and there is more of a science fiction feel to it than Clegg’s novel has. But for me to suggest that Goat Dance wasn’t extremely influential on AL+ER would be a bald-faced lie. And there you have it. So I decided to reread it, to see if it had held up to time and my own maturity (such as it is) and to determine exactly to what degree I am borrowing from it.
Without going too much into the plot, I will divulge that Goat Dance is my favorite kind of horror novel: the kind where the horror builds slowly, and where, by the time the main characters realize it’s there, they’re already thoroughly caught up in its web and cannot escape it, only deal with it. Peter Straub did it beautifully with Floating Dragon. Bentley Little did it spectacularly with The Resort. And Douglas Clegg does it equally amazingly in Goat Dance.
Another thing I love about the novel is that Clegg leaves a lot about the book’s antagonist–a force or being that goes by a variety of names, including Goatman (hence the garish and inaccurate figure on the book’s original cover)–to the imagination. Where did this Eater of Souls come from? We know how it got where it is, but we never really learn what it is or how long it’s been there. The monster’s true self is never really shown. We see the various masks it wears and the people it manipulates, but we never look upon its own visage, and maybe we couldn’t even if we wanted to, which gives the book a nicely handled Lovecraftian quality.
But has it held up over time? Damn straight, it has. In fact, I think I appreciated it even more this time around (my third reading of the book, incidentally) because one character in particular, a teacher at Pontefract Prep, reminded me so much of one of my own college professors. And I realized certain aspects went over my head the first and second time I had read it. When I was a younger reader, I often found my first reading of an amazing book to be more impressionistic than detail-oriented, which was perfectly fine by me. In those days I might not have been able to completely express what it was about a book that appealed to me, but that was only a sign of its quality, because I wasn’t distracted by the little stuff that didn’t matter. I didn’t just read those books; I lived them. And if a book could so thoroughly pull me into its world that I forgot myself, then it was a resounding success. Moreover, if a book like Goat Dance could make me want to take up residence in that world, no matter how dark and disturbing it was, then that was just sheer genius. Perhaps the only other writer I have ever encountered that could do this to me with such dark material was Elizabeth Hand, especially with the novels Winterlong and Black Light. How did that happen?
Turns out the key ingredient was a heady spice made up of the beauty of the writing itself, the detail in the world-building and that slow-burn sort of build-up. By contrast, Clive Barker’s writing is every bit as smart and gorgeous, but I have only occasionally felt truly horrified by his work, merely awed by it. I think the key difference there is that Barker, as brilliant as he is, has a tendency to dazzle you with the sheer weirdness of his worlds and characters, which makes his work more dark fantasy than straight-up horror to me. Moreover, he tends to throw you right into the bizarreness rather than let it simmer and build, and that choice often has a peculiar flattening effect on the horror elements of his work. This is not a criticism of the overall quality of Barker’s work, mind you. I still love every minute of it. It’s just that for me, with the exception of some of his early stuff, the horror aspects of his fiction tend to take a backseat to the dazzling spectacle of the fantasy, which is obviously where his heart is anyway. Not a problem for me–I love that too, just for somewhat different reasons.
By the way, I just recently learned that Clegg is gay. Not that I’m shocked; many of the best horror and dark fantasy authors tend to have non-heteronormative sexualities. I think a lot of that stems from the fact that Westerners are so weirdly puritanical and guilt-ridden about sex to begin with, and when you add on top of that the fact that when you’re a preadolescent and your sexuality is just developing, if your sexual feelings happen to be taboo too, you begin to see the innate horror of existence in your formative years. The fact that you are in a sense a slave to whatever weird or unusual quirks/hitches nature has decided to throw into the pot of your genetic materials and/or the profoundly influential early years of your existence, I think we non-heteronormatives really get a sense early in life that the layer between normalcy and strangeness can be paper-thin in spots. It’s just one step up from there to understanding that the layer between civilization and chaos can be, and often is, equally threadbare.
And that dread realization is generally the driving force behind horror fiction. It’s a way for some of us to make sense of the burbling randomness and insanity of life. Further, the need some of us have to create horror, to synthesize it, at least in part taps into another primal fear: the unfairness of being born into a time and place when you are thought a freak for whatever you find beautiful. In Goat Dance, Cup is dealing with his own sexual neuroses, and it manifests in a deeply symbolic way in the resolution, as he finds himself at one point trapped in a foul pit–the sickly throbbing heart of the Eater of Souls’ domain and influence–with a naked child, the very epitome of innocence and vulnerability, and the desire (to his horror) to . . . eat her.
Ziiiinnnnng! Bull’s-eye, Mr. Clegg. Bull’s-eye.