What constitutes a horror novel?
Obviously it isn’t a strict adherence to blood, guts, jump scares, and Clive Barker nipple ring monsters. Poe is perhaps the most celebrated horror author of all time and his most popular work is a poem about a lonely widower and a bird that won’t leave him alone.
Lovecraft was more allegory (“We’re insignificant and look, brown people!”) than straight up horror, as well. One of Stephen King’s most criminally underrated (and flawed) novels delves more into emotional trauma and sexual abuse than monsters.
Because horror can be considered literature – The Road by Cormac McCarthy, for example – and literature can certainly be considered horror. Ivory tower snoots don’t get to tell us what horror is, it’s us, the unwashed plebians of genre fiction that get to decide.
So it is in that spirit that I’m reviewing Ironweed by William Kennedy, one of my favorite books and a true literary masterpiece, here on HNR.
It’s the story of Francis Phelan, former pro-ballplayer, inadvertent murderer, and grade-A stumblebum haunted by the lives he’s taken. Francis fled Albany, New York as a younger man after he killed a scab on a picket line. He came back home only to drop his infant son Gerald, breaking the child’s neck in the process.
And thus, Francis ran again, only this time he didn’t return.
A Depression-era tale, Ironweed’s cast is adorned with all types of shambling homeless bums, some dangerous, others hilarious. Francis is both.
Francis is back in Albany now. He sleeps on the street and works odd jobs to secure his booze (and maybe a place to stay if there’s enough left over). When he’s not drinking or literally killing other men to stay alive, Francis suffers visions of the dead
In the book’s most chilling and heart wrenching scene, Francis returns to his family after twenty-two years and goes out back play ball with his grandson. Before he does, everyone Francis knew that ever died, by his hand or not, emerges to watch by candlelight, singing a Latin hymn for the dead, as Francis plays catch.
Even Gerald, complete with his broken neck, joins in with this impromptu mass for the dead.
It encapsulates Francis’ guilt, something he holds onto because he has nothing else.
Yet the grounded horror of Ironweed is intertwined with hope. Francis cannot escape his guilt, nor does he want to, yet despite the crushing weight of it, he fights on, often literally.
Sometimes Francis faces his demons from the past, other times it’s a hobo-busting thug wielding a baseball bat. Francis stares them down on their own terms; with sorrow or, at least, an explanation, other times with a snarl and his literal killer instinct.
Whether it’s visions of the dead, the brutality of a hobo’s existence during the Depression, or the simple terror of everlasting guilt, Ironweed will haunt you.