Age is a fairly (and bafflingly) rare subject in most works of horror. Written, cinematic or video game, they tend to primarily revolve around protagonists in states of relative youth or good health (at least, to begin with).
It's a strange thing that a genre that concerns itself primarily with dredging the unspoken dreads and disturbias of our sub-conscious fails to address or acknowledge a very genuine, overt horror that the vats majority of us are well on the way to being delivered into:
The decay of our bodies, our minds; the increasing isolation and sense of obsolescence that culture imposes on us as we become less capable of fulfilling the basic requirements of civility and humanity it proscribes. These are factors that all of us face to some greater or lesser degree, the dissolution of our sense of self as our brains physically fail perhaps one of the most pervasive and inevitable fears that besets us.
Yet horror fiction rarely even approaches it. Other forms of mental disease are certainly common-place: the mind that distorts in schizophrenic fashion, in which reality becomes subjective and uncertain, but the notion of the mind simply dissolving with age, the body breaking down...very, very rare indeed.
A recent short story collection by horror luminary, Ramsey Campbell, addressed the topic as its central theme: Holes for Faces is a highly unusual and extremely fascinating look at the confusions, the abandonment, the frustrations of ageing, each story revolving around characters who find themselves at the latter end of their lives, often uncertain of how they got there, not knowing what to do or where they should be. The decay of mind and body occurs simultaneously with a decay of certainty, everything that they were so reliant upon in their younger days, as different men and women, insidiously stripped from them, resulting in stories that provoke tears as much as they do shivers.
Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone's Home is of a similar species; a novel that focuses on the abandonment and isolation of the elderly, of the mentally infirm; of the manner in which society and humanity regards them (i.e. as things to be put aside and disposed of; to be put to use or put out of everyone else's inconvenience).
Occurring from the perspectives of multiple characters, the reader is drawn into a world of grey uncertainty and urine stinking neglect; of dementia-driven confusion and capitalist indifference: a so-called “care” home whose residents are little more than meat in waiting; a means of keeping offal relatively fresh, whilst those responsible for their apparent “care” engage in every species of abuse, from the merely neglectful to the directly rapine.
Care is taken never to pose characters as monsters; even those that engage in the neglect and abuse directly are given their moment of illumination, the reader riding behind their eyes whilst they go about their business, from the cold indifference of Alexa, the care home manager, to the uniquely perverse but entirely human Milo, whose peculiar abuses have an almost artistic, philosophical bent. There are various shades of inhumanity and nihilism on display throughout: the parade of familial faces who pass through on reluctant visits, speaking about their bed-ridden relatives as though they are little more than sacks of meat; simultaneously deaf and brain dead, as though they couldn't possibly understand what is being said of them; some so utterly indifferent and divorced from the situation, they cannot tell one resident from another, uncertainty arising as to whether they have the right bed, the right room, the right Mother.
Indignity is acutely drawn, particularly when the text occurs from the perspectives of those bed-ridden; a woman who cannot recall her own name or those of her apparent daughters, whose paranoia leads her to conclusions that are simultaneously fantastical yet not far divorced from the horrific truth.
The book most certainly has a consistent theme, an agenda, even; to highlight the inhumanity we so casually accept and which many of us will invariably suffer from, at some point in our lives. An extremely novel and necessary subject; one that horror in particular would benefit from examining more closely. The book does so in isolated scenes extremely well; those written from the perspectives of residents suffering abuse and neglect are particularly effective.
However, the impact of these scenes tends to suffer as a result of the format: one cannot help feel that the project would have served better as a number of short stories from the perspectives of various characters operating in the same setting. Owing to the need for a binding or over-arching narrative, there is a tendency for the story to lose focus or feel as though it is spinning its wheels, which is a shame, as there is some extremely effective and markedly uncomfortable material, here.
The inevitable “secret” of the care home is also somewhat superfluous, given how pervasive and impactful the general state of abuse and neglect within the eponymous home is; given the format, it is necessary to lend the overall work dynamism; a sense of narrative cohesion, but it feels somewhat too “horror story” when compared and contrasted to the very probable, very real and evocative horrors that go on within the general day to day operations of the place. Again, this issue could have been solved by a simple shift in format: making each character the focus of their own, smaller narratives, rather than part of the wider, less cohesive whole.
The sections written from the perspective of Milo, for example; the male nurse responsible much of the resident's general care, would work beautifully if removed from the novel and marketed as a series of short stories; his general callousness, inhumanity and bizarre photographic proclivities tempered by the position of the reader inside his head; understanding him, if not sympathising with him: his almost Darwinian world view laid bare.
The switch in perspective also has the effect of diluting the principle narrative, which feels like it occurs in clumps and rushes, rather than as a continuous flow; much of it communicated from the perspective of Steve, an elderly man who, owing to a sickly and disabled wife, takes a part time job at the home as a cleaner, grounds-keeper etc. His narrative is interesting, in that it demonstrates the powerlessness and lack of even the most basic civility afforded to the elderly; that he begins to notice the abuses happening within the care home, yet finds himself so isolated that he can do nothing about it; that even when he does, it is simplicity itself to brush him off as senile, as paranoid; as just another one of the home's residents causing mischief...that feeds beautifully into the over-arching themes of the book. However, it also feels like it diminishes the comparatively more minor instances of neglect and abuse that are common place as part of the home's general operation; which could have become the principle subject of horror within the story, if communicated and emphasised in a particular manner.
The result is something that is genuinely affecting; genuinely uncomfortable to read, at times, but also somewhat fragmented and inconsistent; portions that are fraught and engaging, others that seem superfluous or to drag somewhat.
Nevertheless, it is heartening and significant to see horror fiction engaging with this subject matter; the baffling rarity of which the book acknowledges, making distressingly overt the general powerlessness, indignity and inhumanity which many of us will inevitably be delivered into as we age, as we decay.
Not a book necessarily to read for pleasure; it is somewhat too much a slave to its message for that, but certainly one to read through activist eyes; as one that will, at times, genuinely disturb and horrify.
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GEORGE DANIEL LEA
THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FICTION REVIEWS