Old Stories Wear New Skins in “Burn the Negative” and “The Beast You Are” – Chicago Review of Books


In July, horror fans are spoiled for choice with the publication of a relative newcomer’s homage to classic horror as well as a new offering from a veteran of the genre. Josh Winning’s Burn the Negative is clearly the work of a horror film enthusiast, with references and tropes a-plenty for slasher buffs to enjoy. The Beast You Are, on the other hand, highlights ways in which genre mainstay Paul Tremblay has veered away from the expected over the course of his career, with stories taking the forms of blog posts, comic book pitches, and letters from readers to their favorite horror magazine, among other shapes.

Burn the Negative follows entertainment journalist Laura Warren on an assignment to cover the making of a new streaming series entitled It Feeds, which turns out to be (to quote the showrunner) a “reinterpretation” of beloved 90s horror flick, The Guesthouse, which Laura starred in during another life as a child actor—a life she left behind almost immediately after the film’s release. Laura associates The Guesthouse with the trauma of her mother’s overbearing and abusive ways, as well as the many bizarre losses of other members of the production’s cast and crew, whom the public deemed cursed. Although she has always refused to believe in a curse, Laura can’t deny that almost as soon as she arrives in Los Angeles, similar tragedies start to befall people associated with It Feeds.

Winning succeeds in crafting an intriguing premise and populating his narrative with enough suspicious characters to keep readers shuffling blame as the story continues. Laura is surrounded by people with plenty of motivation to have a hand in the tale’s gruesome events, which turns the story into a fun whodunnit that might have you squinting with skepticism at each new character who is introduced. However, you might also become frustrated by instances of unnecessary reiteration (“She couldn’t leave. She was grounded. Trapped in L.A.”), and the story’s tendency to withhold certain information until the plot demands its use. 

Setup and payoff are especially effective in horror. Introducing elements that at first appear to serve the purpose of rounding out a character, but are later used to rip the rug out from under your audience with their true significance, is one of the most satisfying experiences as a reader or viewer of horror. A number of elements in Burn the Negative are either over or (less often) under-explained, with some details even being introduced concurrently with their payoffs, eliminating the possibility for gratification. Readers don’t witness these elements in play early on, nor do they appear regularly throughout to influence the story in unexpected or organic ways. Characters also occasionally behave in ways that don’t feel entirely logical (which, admittedly, is a staple of classic horror films, and thus easier to forgive). Burn the Negative goes further beyond what feels like its most natural and compelling endpoint, which is to the story’s detriment. But, if you are a lover of old slashers, you will likely forgive whatever doesn’t hold together quite right and enjoy where this nostalgic ride takes you.

If you are looking for something both more and less familiar, Tremblay’s The Beast You Are might be what scratches your horror itch this summer. The Beast You Are is a selection of stories Tremblay fans might already have encountered, plus one new tale from which the collection takes its title. Among the highlights are “I Know You’re There,” a story that perfectly balances grief with horror as a man deals with the death of his husband by telling the morbid anecdote of how he found the body to anyone who will listen, changing a vital detail each time. Every recounting sees Silas leaving the room to call for help upon finding his husband in a way that morphs with every retelling, and in each new version of events, a different aspect of his husband’s corpse repositions itself while he is out of the room. It’s an excellent tale about wanting so badly for the person you love to go on somehow, even if it’s in a way that creeps the hell out of you and anyone else who hears about it. Another highlight of the collection is “House of Windows.” A man, who “works at the biggest library in the biggest city” (but is not a librarian), is the first to notice the appearance of a brand new building beside the library; a building with no door, covered entirely in glass that cannot be seen through because all the curtains are drawn. As the building steadily increases in size, everyone’s fascination grows. Eventually, a door does appear, and one curious soul enters through it. What she finds lends itself to a number of metaphorical interpretations. But symbolic or not, the story is compelling.

Like Neil Gaiman’s story collection, Trigger Warning, Tremblay includes a section in the book for his personal notes about the writing of each story. Unlike the insights Gaiman shares about his work, Tremblay’s don’t feel entirely necessary. He tells us when and where the stories were first published, the image(s) or memories that sparked their creation, the prompt he was given by the editor in some cases, and the real people who inspired certain characters. However, he doesn’t say very much about the stories themselves; specifically, the meanings behind narrative choices that feel pointed, yet frivolous. 

For instance, the title story—which involves anthropomorphic animals, a cult, and a monster to whom children must be sacrificed in order for the remaining population to avoid destruction—is written entirely in verse, but that decision fails to give the narrative greater dimension. It very much reads like others in the collection, rhythmically speaking, regardless of where the author chose to break his sentences into smaller phrases. In the notes for this story, Tremblay admits to regularly following the dictates of “a little voice” that says “What the hell. Go ahead, try it.” In fact, a number of elements throughout the collection seem only to exist because Tremblay thought it would be fun to experiment with them. Much like a writer’s confidence or lack thereof, arbitrary choices, too, are often detectable on the page.

In his notes, Tremblay does not delve much into how the meanings behind these decisions connect to their corresponding narrative manifestation, nor how these elements fit within the stories themselves. On my part, this led to a lot of eager page-turning to reach the notes, only to end up as much in the dark as ever. One example is the story “Mean Time,” in which a man draws chalk lines on the ground between every journey’s origin and destination to avoid losing his way. Tremblay refers to ”Mean Time” in his notes as a “trust-and-follow-your-subconscious kind of story” and, in a parenthetical aside, admits to this theme repeating throughout the story notes as a whole. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a writer getting a weird idea and following it through. For me, the letdown is in wanting to hear from the author what a particular choice means to them (because of course, I can ascribe my own meaning to any choice if I try) only to learn that there is no meaning behind it whatsoever. 

Asking any writer to know all of what their work is saying before or even as they write is an incredibly tall order no one should expect to be fulfilled. But making art can be a way to process one’s experiences, whether the artist intends to or not. Symbols in the work that hadn’t initially occurred to the creator often emerge later on. Because every story but one in the collection has previously been published elsewhere, I looked forward to more introspection from Tremblay than I found. Whether notes had been included or not, some stories would still have left me with unanswered questions, which might have been less bothersome without the prospect of an answer dangling like a carrot at the back of the book. Leaving the notes out of it, Tremblay’s stories demonstrate a variety of possibilities in horror writing that those who bemoan a lack of invention in the genre would surely benefit from encountering.

If the resurrection of your favorite horror excites you, or you’d prefer something off the beaten path, July’s releases have you covered.


Burn the Negative

by Josh Winning

See Also

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Published on July 11, 2023

The Beast You Are

by Paul Tremblay

William Morrow & Company

Published on July 11, 2023


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