Book Reviews

Book Review: Gender and Genre in Aaron J. French’s ‘Festival’

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (1981) offers a number of approaches for interpreting horror cinema and literature. Throughout his study, King touches repeatedly on the notion of “catharsis,” but also on the genre’s ability to tap into sociocultural “pressure points,” accessing what he describes as “artesian wells” of collective anxiety. At one point, he rather glibly suggests that a profound conservatism historically underlies the genre at large, stating that the horror story, beneath its fangs and fright wig, is really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit; that its main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands. Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile. The horror story most generally not only stands foursquare for the Ten Commandments, it blows them up to tabloid size.”

To be sure, the ideological problem raised here by King has long hovered over horror fiction and cinema, but I submit that its progressive counterpart persists equally (quite frequently in novels and stories written by King himself). I’ve quoted King’s reflection here because it seems to me that, while composing his novella Festival, Aaron J. French might have had this issue in mind. Indeed, fiction-writing is political the moment it has been physicalized and submitted for consumption, but a work like Festival announces itself as political in a truly exceptional way. For this reason, I cannot go without addressing its ideological cruxes.

What underlies Festival above all else is its protagonist’s deep-seated distrust and fear of female sexuality, and it is from this place that the novella sources its suspense and fear. Indeed, this is where the horror comes from. The novella, written mostly in third-person singular perspective, focuses on young couple Steve and Cherie’s vacation at a New Age-y destination called Serenity Sanctum. The first thing readers learn is that Steve was raised by an alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother. Not long after, it’s revealed that his girlfriend Cherie is an alcoholic and abusive partner. Steve reflects spitefully on Cherie’s traumatic drunken encounters of the past, condemning her sexual forthrightness with strangers rather than considering the ways in which her addiction might be tied to issues with her own internal struggles. The protagonist’s point-of-view is consistently and strikingly misogynistic.

As the plot progresses, a supernatural threat presents itself in the form of collective femininity. Oddly, Steve reflects on similarities between his situation and Last House on the Left (1972) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), whereas the setting resembles neither (for this reader), but more obviously hearkens The Wicker Man (1973) by way of Ira Levin’s brilliant feminist novel, The Stepford Wives (1972) (although Festival’s narrator subjects this latter text to an aggressively masculinist inversion).

This is a novella of tensions, whose complexities are further muddied by a deliberate blurring between protagonist and author (readers learn that, like French, Steve is a horror writer, and readers also learn, eventually, that Festival itself is presented as a fictionally “autobiographical” transcription of Steve’s experiences). One suspects that French riffs knowingly on Steve’s total fear of open female sexuality in order to scrutinize violent tropes. Why else offer such brazen and persistent insights into this protagonist’s misogyny and self-denied lesbophobia?

On the levels of craft and form, this is undoubtedly the work of a skilled writer. French’s plotting is tight and thoughtfully executed — scenes build deliberately toward a thrilling climax, with character development performing the dual role of reader engagement and narrative foundation. The prose is clean and precise; the aforementioned Levin springs to mind as a stylistic comparison, as does the great Robert Bloch (whose 1959 novel Psycho also gets multiple references here). While reading, I was also reminded of the fast, efficient enjoyment offered by R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. There’s no doubt about it: in terms of technical construction, this book is an impressive feat.

That its ideology leaves me puzzled and unsure speaks to its open engagements with political ideas. Indeed, many of the most beloved works in the genre have been weighed down by offensive or problematic perspectives (examples as disparate as William Beckford’s Vathek [1786], Richard Laymon’s The Cellar [1980] and, hell, the majority of H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre comes to mind). Bottom line, though: it’s a compelling read. I can’t say that its perspective always rests easy, but it’s worth noting that French writes from a fictional character’s point-of-view. For its meticulously calibrated momentum, unapologetic commitment to its own ideas, and intelligent plot construction, Aaron J. French’s Festival is worth the time.

Mike Thorn’s criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.