Consider This: Tableau Horror
A question of personal taste?
Maybe this is just a question of taste…
Today we’re going to look at two novels. The first is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. The second is The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. In many ways, the two books are the same. Both use first-person, female narrators who live comfortable lives in wealthy neighborhoods in Atlanta and Charleston, respectively. The Grady book, I suspect, was inspired to no small degree by the Siddons book. Both are full of Southern traditions and quirky characters, at once hide-bound by silver-plated traditions and by down-home hillbilly redneckery.
The Siddons book is a textbook example of what I call “Tableau Horror.” The Hendrix book is not so much. Published in 1978, the Siddons book has been on my radar since Stephen King praised it in his 1981 nonfiction book about the horror genre, Danse Macabre. Published in 2020, the Hendrix book fell into my lap when he volunteered to do a Zoom session to help me promote the release of my novel The Invention of Sound.
What do I mean by “Tableau Horror”?
In a nutshell, Tableau Horror shows us a fixed scene after the violence or offense has occurred. Consider the elaborately staged crime scenes in books like The Alienist, where various child prostitutes are slaughtered in lofty places — atop a tower of the Brooklyn Bridge! — and the gutted victim is arranged in a careful way, surrounded by his organs and whatnot. Consider the films Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs. Again, we see very little violence, we arrive after the fact. At most we hear an account via a witness, but even that’s truncated by trauma and discretion.
The horror and dread arrive in the form of a fixed scene. A tableau. We might see an act of horrific violence at the very end of the story, but most times we don’t even see that much. We’re just shown a series of scary pictures that suggest violence which has already occurred.
In contrast — and I’ve no spiffy name for it — I’ll call the opposite Active Horror. We actively engage with a threat. We’re being chased, or physically struggling with the danger.
Which brings us to the Siddons book…
Our narrator is named Colquitt Kennedy, who drinks often and a lot, and to no ill effect because by page nine she’s boasting of her “long, thin thighs” and how neighborhood teenage boys just walk into her kitchen, sweaty from mowing her lawn, and tell her she’s smoking hot. She’s childless and middle-aged and happy to walk around the house naked until she hears that a house is being built next door.
Like almost all of the book, the news of the impending house is delivered secondhand and through dialog with a neighbor. Mostly people stop by Colquitt’s patio and drink and tell her things. Vast parts of the book are delivered as gossip. Over drinks they tell her the new neighbors are a young ditzy couple expecting a baby. The ditzy couple stop by for drinks, bringing a hot architect straight from the Howard Roark School of Redheaded Architects, who is hot and drinks and flirts with Colquitt because she’s hot, despite the fact she’s married and she has regular hot sex with her husband, who’s kind of a cypher. In fact, while faceless workers build the house next door the hot architect spends most days on Colquitt’s patio drinking. He takes showers in her bathroom, and has a drink. They bond. The new house is coming along swimmingly. Here people begin to stumble across wild animals mangled beyond recognition by some unseen force.
Rest assured, if a baby, a puppy, a cat, a possum, or a bird stumbles into the book, a beat later we’ll soon find its exploded carcass near the new house. Colquitt actually steps into the mangled, smashed mess of the dead puppy. Everything is simply found. It’s described for a beat, then we move on to finding another static scene of horror. But it’s not really-really described, because an inarticulate character usually finds the horror and has to recount it to us by dropping by Colquitt’s for drinks and getting sufficiently wasted to evasively summarize the juicy parts.
For example, the ditzy new neighbor drops by the unfinished house and falls down the stairs and almost bleeds to death while suffering a miscarriage. None of which we actually see. In the spirit of discretion, an inarticulate neighbor discovers the poor woman — the neighbor hears mewling sounds and fears a cat has been trapped in the animal-eating house. Then this neighbor stops by Colquitt’s patio, gets plastered, and describes the horror tableau in vague terms. She lets slip that the fetus had been partially expelled, so much so she could see it would’ve been a boy, but then everyone gets the vapors and they wave away the tasteless subject at hand. It’s the opposite of TMI.
Not to be stopped, the ditzy young couple move into their house. The house is constantly described in vague terms such as beautiful, organic, otherworldly, a masterpiece, making the novel like The Fountainhead but with dead animals. Lots of dead animals. The book consists of three acts, each act marked by a new ill-fated family who comes to live in the house. At the culmination of the first act, the ditzy couple is throwing a housewarming party. A cry of alarm brings all the guests to a bedroom where we witness another horror tableau: There, next to the bed where guests have left their coats and handbags, the young ditzy husband stands naked and embracing his handsome naked boss, a sight so disturbing (no, really, it’s just two naked dudes hugging and looking stunned, no buggery on the coats, no oral-genital, no rusty trombone) that the ditzy wife’s father has fallen to the floor and died of a heart attack.
None of which we see happen. Through Colquitt’s perspective we simply stand in the doorway and look at two naked guys, a crying wife, and a dead father-in-law. A tableau. Now it’s back to more drinking and dialog on Colquitt’s patio next door.
Seeing as how my biggest gripe is about stories that include only architecture and dialog, without any meaningful physical action, The House Next Door, well… I kept reading. Architecture and dialog. I kept telling myself: Stephen King loves this book.
In the second act a couple Yankees move into the house. The wife is deeply traumatized by something, and as soon as we get to drinking on Colquitt’s patio we find out — in dialog, always dialog — that the wife’s father and brother and only son have all died in aircraft accidents. At one point the troubled couple takes a trip. Colquitt and the redheaded, hottie architect pop over to water their houseplants in the evil house. The architect grabs Colquitt and begins kissing her (did I mention she’s hot?). Her head is buzzing with some supernatural force. Her husband enters the house, and grabs a kitchen knife to kill them. And… they all head back to the patio for more drinks. Of the Yankees, the husband becomes a lush and screws a neighbor — a former fashion model — on the sofa, while his wife lapses into catatonia, seated on the stairs and watching them. Oh, and we only know this because Colquitt’s dropped by to look in their glass patio door and witness: The Horror Tableau. Soused Yankee humping model watched by catatonic wife. End of second act.
Then, of course, all of this gets recounted on Colquitt’s patio over drinks. The hot architect flees to Italy in search of inspiration. A third family buys the troubled house. Here the novel gets troubling, but for the wrong reasons. You see these new folks are named Greene, and their furniture is frou-frou (described as looking like a French whorehouse), they swaddle the modern architecture in heavy drapes, and send out engraved invitations from Tiffany’s for their upcoming house party. He’s a social-climbing, pushy New Yorker, trying to impress local intellectuals, while constantly berating his harried wife. I’m slow on the uptake, but even I guessed: Are the Greenes Jewish? Just who you don’t want living next door: Homosexuals, Irish boozers, or Jews. Poor Colquitt gets all three! Has any novel ever been scarier?
Long story short, the Greenes’ taciturn daughter poops on the kitchen floor during the housewarming. Horror Tableau Number Three. We just watch as a small girl produces “wave after wave” of watery diarrhea.1 Maybe this is tableau number five. We’ve seen a smashed puppy, a miscarriage, two naked guys hugging, a drunk banging a model as his wife watches, and now a child going #two on the kitchen linoleum. In short order the harried wife shoots her child, her husband, and herself, but we only hear about someone else overhearing the shouting and gunshots, and we read the rest in the newspaper. All over drinks.
Architecture and dialog and drinking. Between tableau we get a couple montages. Colquitt goes on vacation to the beach. Colquitt goes on vacation to New York City. Nice to get away from that patio.
In the end, Colquitt realizes that the hot redheaded architect is cursed. You see, he was adopted as a child, so no one can ever know the deep background of evil that’s birthed him. Nature > Nurture. No discovery process is needed because this scenario just pops into Colquitt’s head fully formed. Yes, like a light bulb. Therefore, if the architect is allowed to build more houses, those houses will torment and kill others. To stop the madness, Colquitt and her husband kill the architect — offscreen, God forbid we actually see anything happen. By now the evil house has managed to kill Colquitt’s two cats (offscreen, of course). In closing, she and her husband arrange the dead cats, the dead architect, and oodles of gasoline cans in the evil house. After drinks on the patio — always drinks on the patio — the couple enter the evil house and prepare to destroy it at the moment it destroys them. A kind of murder-suicide. A final tableau: Married couple, dead architect, dead cats, gasoline, waiting. The end.
Did I mention that this newsletter is called “Plot Spoiler”?
All the above stands in contrast with the Hendrix book, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. Here we have Patricia Campbell, a southern housewife who attends a book club. The club reads true crime nonfiction, and Patricia looks after her husband’s demented mother who lives with the Campbells and their kids. None of which turned my crank until Patricia took out the garbage one night and got her ear bitten off by the old woman who lived a few houses down the street.
The action is glorious. Early on, Patricia catches sight of something eating from a torn garbage bag. She’s chased through the dark by a haggard figure in a nightgown stained with opossum blood. Biting and pain ensue. Despite my ho-hum first impression, I was hooked by this scene. Beyond that, Patricia begins a discovery process. She enrolls people in helping her. She takes action.
Of course Colquitt in the Siddons book takes action: She calls a friend at People magazine and gets a story published about the killer house. But that’s now a story about a story within the story. Not only is this passive and abstract, it brings a tide of trashy people into the neighborhood to gawk at the evil house.
Another aspect of physical peril is that it ages better than the psychological. Stumbling through the dark woods only to find a child being slowly killed in the back of a van (Hendrix) can still seem scary, when discovering your husband is bisexual seems less terrifying these days (Siddons), and watching your husband screw a fashion model might even be the stuff of sexual fantasy. Physical peril endures.
Patricia in the Hendrix book actively stalks her vampire. Patricia goes out! After 356 pages of Colquitt sitting on her patio drinking bullshots, it’s shocking to see Patricia visit other people in their homes. No one ever tells Patricia how hot she is, nor does she tell the reader. She is a verb, moving through the world, doing stuff, suffering the on-going effects of having her ear chewed off by a neighbor.
In short, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is not Tableau Horror.
Nor is it perfect. When Patricia walks into a dark, unlocked house, with the good intention of leaving a casserole in the fridge… I didn’t buy it. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but it still seemed far-fetched. But when the vampire apparently decides to live in her nice white, upper-class neighborhood, but to feed on teenagers and children in a rural largely Black neighborhood, wow, that hit me as something fresh and new. The vampire is young and blond, and at first even Patricia wants to bang him.
Let’s not turn this into a book review. My point is to define Tableau Horror and address its limitations. In effect, with Tableau Horror we don’t have to actually witness violence, only its aftermath. The narrator need not be present, the story can be relayed to her in vague summary. Or she can stumble over the carnage like everyone else. Colquitt does in fact step in the middle of the recently exploded golden retriever puppy.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve taken my best shot at writing Tableau Horror. In my novel The Invention of Sound I wanted to interpret the style, but with sound recordings. In Tableau Horror the scares occur like photographs: think of the still images that Danny Torrance sees, the blood-spattered shootings and such in The Shining. So I wanted to create audio recordings of deaths by specific violent circumstances. Stock screams used in video games and television and films have names such as Man Falls Into Vat of Molten Steel and Screams. Or, Soldier Shot Through Head With Arrow Dies Screaming. My experiment was to do with sound what Tableau Horror normally did with visual images. Every story is an experiment.
Is it just a matter of taste?
In workshop years ago, Chelsea Cain was writing a scene in which her serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, had lured a man to a motel with the promise of sex. Instead, she’d bound the man and begun vivisecting him. In most thrillers the violence is implied in the crime scene tableau that must be interpreted. But in this case I urged Chelsea to really unpack the process. In particular I wanted to sense the heat of the man’s split-open torso, the smell of his exposed viscera, and the movement of the visible organs as they struggled to keep this doomed human being alive. The heart thrashing. The lungs inflating and deflating. Chelsea rose to the challenge, but to mixed effect.
Many of her most loyal readers thought the scene went too far. It crossed a line of realism and upset them. So, in the end the choice is yours. Do you want to reveal the horror in a fixed tableau? Or do you want to depict the violence of the physical process? Or, combine the two: in books like The Shining the fixed tableau of visions gradually escalate to the scenes of violence. Or the film The Eyes of Laura Mars in which a fashion photographer has fixed visions that predict subsequent violent killings that are dramatized on screen.
Can you cite other examples of Tableau Horror?
Please have a safe and happy July 4th.
This is arguably the most detailed part of the entire book. A veil of tact hides the horrors of the miscarriage and the two dudes humping on the guest coats, but Siddons lavishes detail on the weeping child in a taffeta party dress crapping out her guts mid-party.