Friday, September 07, 2012

Book Review: The Horror of Lisa Mannetti

4.5/5 -- MA-LSV
3/5 -- MA-LSV

 (Spoiler warning in full effect.)
This has been a damnably difficult review to write; I read both of these back-to-back a couple of weeks ago, and am still not sure what to make of Mannetti's freaky and deeply disturbing modern gothic. The Gentling Box won the Bram Stoker for Best First Novel in 2008; Deathwatch is made up of two novellas -- Dissolution (a 2010 Stoker nominee for Long Fiction) and Sheila Na Gig. All three tales, though varied in setting, explore similar psychological ground, and some of the themes -- including necromancy, blood sacrifice, possession and (in particular) medical horror and taboo sexual transgressions -- are most unpleasant. As in, "WTF is wrong with Lisa Mannetti?" unpleasant. Of course I intend no insult; from the interviews I've read she seems like a warm and intelligent woman with a quick sense of humor, someone you'd like to chat with over tea or a beer. Which makes these dark, unforgiving, and ultimately rather misogynistic stories all the stranger. But in the horror field, the provocation of, well, horror, in the reader is kind of the point . . . right?

Set in the Romany culture of Hungary and Romania in the 1860s, The Gentling Box is as claustrophobic as a gypsy caravan, and as bone-chilling as an open grave. Through skillful, atmospheric prose, intense research and a wicked imagination, Mannetti recreates a world where fear, superstition and magic still hold sway; impeccably detailed, exotic enough to feel like a dark, bloody fairy tale, this book is definitely not for the squeamish. The Gentling Box is the tragedy of horse-trader Imre, his Romany wife Mimi, and their daughter Lenore. The two women become targets (and in Mimi's case, a meat-sack) for the ghost of Anyeta, Mimi's scheming mother, in life a powerful gypsy witch with a lust for immortality (among other things). Anyeta's power springs from "The Hand of the Dead," a repulsive fetish that grants the possessor power over life and death, and her goal is the acquisition of a fresh body. Anyeta's assault on the family includes poisoning the desperately protective Imre with disease and hallucinations, particularly sexual illusions -- she seduces and mocks him while possessing his wife's body, and curses him with unbearable and humiliating desire for the adolescent Lenore. The more Imre struggles to save his family from Anyeta's foul gypsy curse, the more it  tightens around him, until he's left dying and helpless, faced with an impossible choice. There's no question this deserved a Stoker: The Gentling Box, though unrelievedly dark and dreadful, is ambitious and uniquely haunting.

However, the novellas that make up Deathwatch are more problematic for me. That they again feature wicked women wielding supernatural powers to manipulate men into destroying other women (children, really) is what disturbs and somewhat dismays me. In Dissolution we meet another ghost, the mother of twelve-year-old conjoined twins Abby and Ellie, who seeks to live again through the body(ies) of her daughters. Again the ghost plays manipulative erotic tricks, this time upon the young surgeon  burdened with separating the twins, and to even more disastrous and disgusting results. In Dissolution, the medical/body horror works, but the young doctor's slide into madness and pedophilia plays like a repetitive and far less subtle version of The Gentling Box's horrors. And in Sheila Na Gig, an Irish crone uses ancient fertility magic to keep her family and its fortunes firmly under her control. If I told you her manipulations result in several deaths and an adolescent girl incestuously impregnated, I think that might be enough of the plot with which to make my point.

So here it is: the but-face. You know I love me some horror, the darker and more hopeless the better. I also  love the way Mannetti writes . . . The Gentling Box is unforgettable and alone warrants her a place at the big kids' table. But so far my experience with her work has left me equal parts impressed and repulsed. I think her various violations of the body -- possession, radical surgery, and the twisting of the erotic to make it unpalatable and unnatural -- work, even as they are profoundly disgusting. But I can't say that the repetitive theme of violence done to women by other women  (using men's lust and gullibility as their weapons) is a good look for any writer to be stuck in, let alone a woman. I'm pretty shock-proof, so when something makes me want to throw up on a book, that's news. Dissolution in particular openly crosses a line that is difficult to stomach. I'm no prude, but there were points at which I felt contaminated by the text.

Now . . . is that good horror or not? 

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