Thursday, June 20, 2013

91. Horror fiction notes (4/7) } ”A work of art must breathe life.”

When Carl Taske, the narrator in David J. Schow’s “Not From Around Here,” finds a monster curled up in bed beside his young daughter Jilly, and is then unable to stop the monster from slowly eating her, I realized Jilly was a totally undeveloped character, so in spite of my own fatherhood, and the worry I daily experience for my own daughters, I wasn’t horrified at all.

To a lesser extent, a similar problem occurs when Taske’s wife Suzanne is eaten. Though Schow provides Suzanne a little backstory, she is mainly a middle-aged wet-dream:
After bearing Jilly and dropping the surplus weight of pregnancy, her ass and pelvis had resolved into a lascivious fullness that I could not keep my hands away from for long….
Furthermore, she “Recently shed all self-consciousness about sex…” and is nearly always naked or throwing on a robe as she rushes around her new house.

The inability to write realized characters is an oft-cited weakness of horror fiction authors. Schow, however, is able. Carl Taske is likeable in spite of a host of flaws because he is fully self-aware. He knows he’s a yuppy and he feels the attendant class guilt, he’s desperate to please his wife and child, his temper gets the best of him, he’s afraid but willing to do for his family, he accepts blame, he’s insecure, and he’s unsure what to do with his success—it’s this uncertainty, he determines, that imperiled his family. Taske’s neighbor, Dunwoody, who serves as a glimpse of what Taske might become, is another sympathetic character. Maybe Schow just doesn’t write women well.

When Dunwoody first meets Taske, Dunwoody asks a series of very specific questions. Dunwoody wants to tell Taske something, but is prevented—we understand later what prevents him. The second time they meet, however, Dunwoody is free to speak, but rather than clearly explain to Taske that he and his family is in danger, he’s cryptic and rude.

And that’s a cliché. The old man, addled by the horrors he’s experienced, offers warnings no one would ever take seriously. What if the old man simply told Taske everything, the instant the two had a moment free? An interesting way to start a story—a real challenge to the protagonist. Sir, I know you just bought this house, but there is a monster here that mutilated my son and keeps me enslaved with its addictive venom. Here’s proof.

The addictive venom is the reason Dunwoody doesn’t warn Taske: Dunwoody is an addict. Addiction is the real horror in this story. It explains—justifies—everything. Even the cliché.

“Not From Around Here” starts strong, then drags to the end. Too much resolution for my taste.  Schow’s macho persona interferes, too—Taske’s page-long anecdote about losing it in middle school and beating up a bully is completely unnecessary.

While reading for my Video Lies series, I came across a 1993 review of X, Y that begins, “Michael Blumlein is best known in the horror community for The Brains of Rats, widely acclaimed as one of the most disturbing short story collections of the last few years “(Fangoria #130, Don Kaye). Who is Michael Blumlein?

“Bestseller,” ultimately collected in The Brains of Rats, is in the 1991 Year’s Best, and I admit I couldn’t finish it in one sitting because it disturbed me so. Specifically, the narrator is an author struggling to write in the face of his family’s growing economic desperation. His wife is losing confidence in his work and so is he. Then—and this is when I took my break—his son Nick is diagnosed with cancer and the doctors want to amputate his leg. This is not maudlin—Blumlein is better than that. The suffering of his characters is felt.

The weird of the tale is the arrangement the narrator makes with a private organ farm, a deal he enters into wide-eyed, and benefits from. The horror does not stem from forced harvesting, as it could, but rather from how the narrator responds to the progressively aggressive procedures. What the narrator becomes.

Briefly, “Bestseller” falls into a pattern that slows the tale down, but I’m not sure this should be considered a problem. A little lull is to be appreciated.

Susan Cooper’s essay “Fantasy in the Real World”—one of Terri Windling’s selections for the Year’s Best—proposes that the United States lacks the ritual that myth provides, and that this is the reason the United States “falls into destructive violence” (Cooper is paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, by way of Bill Moyers). Fantasy literature, she suggests, could provide the myth the States lack, presumably creating order in our society and putting an end to gun violence.

Cooper writes,
Great Britain is a fortunate country; there is a great deal to be said for constitutional monarchy. The actual governing is all done by a democratically elected Parliament; the monarch has no power at all, but leads a benevolent and very public life as a figurehead, a focus for ritual and emotion—a hero. Popularity is less important for a British prime minister than for an American president, since in Britain the public can focus all its adoration, all its hero-worship, upon the Queen—not to mention Prince Charles, Princess Di, and the rest.
She explains that, “We are short of such figures in the United States.” I don’t consider being without a preposterously entitled figurehead a lack, but a virtue. “Who are our heroes?” she asks, and then dismisses our heroes as either mere celebrities, or dead (she names John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), or possessed only of great talent, intelligence, and great beauty—none of royalty.

The United States is not without myths—look to the wild west—nor without heroes—legendary and otherwise. The great benefit of heroes who are entrepreneurs, actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, etc., rather than royalty,  is that it is possible to not only emulate such heroes, but to become one yourself by achievement.

Cooper abandons her central claim (fantasy is really important) to conclude that “parents, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers” must bring together “the right child and the right book.” She explains: 
The biggest truism of our professional lives is that hugely important fact too many civilians still forget: every child should be encouraged to read books, words on a page, for his or her own pleasure, in his own time, dreaming his own—and the author’s—dream.
Originally a speech delivered at the New York Library, I’m sure she delighted her audience, as I’m sure the essay gave certain readers a sense of importance. It is, however, a mess. Condescending, too.

Too bad, because I like very much that a couple of non-fiction pieces made their way into The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series (the other is Douglas Winter’s flawed essay “The Pathos of Genre” from the thirteenth volume, which I criticized in New Genre #4); it suggests that critical writing about fantasy and horror fiction, written by its practitioners, is of value.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

90. Horror fiction notes (3/7) } "...his protective suit."

Ellen Datlow chose two stories by Jonathan Carroll for inclusion in the 1991 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror—“The Panic Hand” and “The Sadness of Detail” (the latter, also chosen by Terri Windling, the fantasy half of the series). (Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell took Carroll’s “The Dead Love You” for their Best New Horror 2.)

I see a parallel between Carroll’s “The Sadness of Detail” and T.E.D. Klein’s “Ladder”: both present an image of God, and while Klein’s God is childishly cruel, Carroll’s is heartbreaking. There’s a whisper of  W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw”—but it’s not anything like that story. I see a parallel between “The Sadness of Detail” and Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”: the horror of Alzheimer’s. Datlow and Windling placed “The Sadness of Detail” last in the book, absolutely the right choice.

A reviewer for Kirkus compared Carroll to John Collier and Saki. I’ll add Paul Bowels to that list. The same Kirkus review (of the 1996 collection The Panic Hand) states, “Carroll's weaker stories are slight and uninvolving, but his best are among the finest fantasies being written today.” I’m suspicious of this kind of comment—it may be accurate—I just made a similar remark about T.E.D. Klein—but it might also be a sign that the reviewer failed to appreciate the more subtle stories in the collection. I really don’t know—I haven’t read The Panic Hand.

I have, however, read “The Panic Hand.” Aside from loving the title, high school Adam didn’t think much of this story. Maybe I failed to understand that it’s about more than just a manipulative child (manipulative on the scale of The Twilight Zone), but is also about a pedophile. Or at least a pedophile in the making. Strip out that reading, and we’re left with a fairly satisfying fantasy story; but as Carroll has it, the story becomes horror. A fine illustration of the thin wall between genre.

Why collaborate to write a short story? This is not a rhetorical question. I can’t think of many fiction collaborations that generated work better than the work the authors write individually. Titus Andronicus is not better than Othello. Maybe it’s better than The Battle of Alcazar? I don’t know, though. Do chime in. I am currently collaborating with Anna Eyre on a series of cantos called On Land, so I know how a poetic collaboration of a certain type might work, that is, by treating the lines we each produce as found text we can rearrange, erase, add too, etc. When I work with Anna, authorship ceases to matter: it is we. And I love that.

I suppose with a fiction collaboration, as with a collaboration in verse, you set up a system. In the case of Lucius Shepard and Robert Frazier, I imagine Shepard was assigned to rough out the South American setting, the sex scenes with the barely legal prostitute, and the descriptions of psychotropic drug use. So what does that leave Frazier? The best scene in “The All-Consuming”: the main character rests in a clearing deep in a toxic future-jungle, surrounded by deadly flora and fauna, entranced by “a cloud pool” and his surroundings:
Through gaps in the foliage, Arce could see the slender trunks of other gargantuas rising above the canopy, vanishing into a bank of low clouds. And in the middle distance, its translucent flesh barely visible against the overcast, a rainbird flapped up from a stinger palm and beat its way south against the prevailing wind. Acre watched it out of sight, captivated by the almost impalpable vibration of its wings, by the entirety of the scene, with its gaudy array of colors and exotic vitality. At times like this, he was able to shrug off the bitter weight of his past for a few moments and delight in the mystery he inhabited.
Nothing else in the story interests as much as that description of replenishing solitude—a solitude so rich and satisfying as to make the main character’s escape from this jungle at the end of the story much less redemptive than it’s supposed to be. Oh and Arce? Arce is a terrible name for a main character—is it meant to be read as “arch” or “are-say”? I read it as “arse,” as in kiss my….

I’m a little surprised Datlow chose “The All-Consuming”; the elements of horror are awfully mild. However, I appreciate Datlow’s expansive take on horror—more than appreciate it: Datlow’s openness to work that skirts the genre is a part of what made The Year’s Bests so important to me in the early 1990s, when I was just beginning to read contemporary horror fiction.

Has anyone read The Talisman?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

89. Horror fiction notes (2/7) } the broken span.

During a panel at a fantasy convention Peter Straub turned to me and said, “I know you! You’re New Genre.” I moderated the panel. The subject was… oh I don’t remember. We were in the largest ballroom and it was packed with other weirdoes. Straub sparkles at these conventions.

Typically, the “pros” who end up on panels never prepare, but rely on wit they lack. Retread jokes. When I used to attend conventions, whenever I was asked to participate on a panel, I prepared, often well in advance. People pay sometimes hundreds of dollars for travel and admission. It’s rude not to prepare. It’s arrogant.

In 2001, at a convention held in Manhattan, I attended a panel about vampire lit. The assholes on stage knew nothing. Straub, who was in the audience, raised his hand, ostensibly to make a small point, but actually to rescue the idiot panelists. He shared insights he’d had while rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula in preparation for writing an introduction to a new Modern Library edition. His talk was lively and enlightening.

Afterward, I asked him if he’d write a blurb for New Genre. He did. When I mentioned this to someone else attending the conference, they snickered about Straub tossing out blurbs left and right, but I remained pleased; not just to have a blurb from Straub, but by the content of the blurb:
In speaking to the need for new forums and a greater seriousness, New Genre is extremely welcome. I support the journal whole-heartedly.
“Greater seriousness” is exactly New Genre. For that matter, if you haven’t already sussed, greater seriousness is a mandate I bring to horror fiction generally, not just via New Genre. That’s what makes me such humorless fun.

I haven’t read all of Straub’s short fiction, but all I’ve read is good. “A Short Guide to the City” is good, without much in terms of plot or resolution. I’ve only read pieces of the book the story’s from—Houses Without Doors. I read “Blue Rose” in Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge anthology, possibly when that anthology was published in 1987, and “The Juniper Tree” in Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil anthology. Truthfully, I’ve read very little of Straub’s work—I look forward to it.

Ellen Datlow introduces K.W. Jeter’s “The First Time” as “brutal,” which is a mistake, because intended or no, that’s a dare, and inevitably my first reaction was, Well it wasn’t that brutal. I’m not saying Datlow is wrong, mind you, but best to find out for yourself.

“The First Time” is good, a story about a young man brought by his father, his uncle, and their friends to a brothel that provides a very unique service. Jeter is interested in the way men are taught to use women. Especially effective is the image of a diagram charting the parts of a woman’s body a Christian man is allowed to touch before marriage:
One time, when they’d been alone, she’d given him a piece of paper that she’d had folded up in the back pocket of her jeans. The paper had gotten shaped round, the same shape as he butt, and he’d felt funny taking it an unfolding it…. You had to be engaged, with a ring and everything, before you could unhook her bra. He’d kept the piece of paper, tucked in one of his books at home. In a way, it’d been kind of a relief, just to know what was expected of him.
This diagram becomes a talisman of sorts, though in the end it’s only a bitter reminder of something lost.

Jeter’s story reminded me of Robert Aickman’s “The Swords,” which actually takes a violent sexual awakening a lot further than “The First Time,” in spite of Aickman’s choice to eschew gore.

Friday, June 7, 2013

88. Horror fiction notes (1/7) } "...a joke about Fibber McGee’s closet...”

I’m rereading fiction from The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror: Fourth Annual Collection (1991), edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The spine is broken at Jack Womack’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind.” I photocopied this story for a college professor who was willing to consider my earnest insistence that contemporary horror fiction has literary worth. I’m no longer sure Womack’s story is compelling evidence, I need to reread it, nor am I so keen as I was to defend the genre.

T.E.D. Klein’s “Ladder” is included in the same volume—I was surprised to come across a Klein story I didn’t remember. Klein is the author of “The Events at Poroth Farm,” a story I love and frequently reread. His collection of novellas, Dark Gods, is very good. I lost interest in his novel The Ceremonies, an expansion of The Events at Poroth Farm, after just a few chapters.

I didn’t remember “Ladder” because it isn’t very good. Datlow wrote, in her brief introduction to the piece,  “Usually more comfortable in the novella length, Klein proves with ‘Ladder’ that he can produce equally powerful work in a shorter length.” In fact, “Ladder” is an undeveloped conceit, tediously explained in the last section.

Much is made of Klein’s small body of work; which is why coming across a bad Klein story is especially disappointing. I can’t help wonder what story wasn’t included in the ’91 Year’s Best to make room for “Ladder.”

Typically in a year’s best—any year’s best, genre or otherwise—I find only a few stories that are excellent. The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror averaged about five per volume. That’s out of about fifty stories. Half that if we consider just horror. In the Fourth Annual, I only remember a couple. Elizabeth Massie’s “Stephen” and the Womack. As I reread, I’ll remember more, and maybe discover work high school Adam wasn’t ready to appreciate.

Adrian Cole telegraphs too much in “Face to Face.” Throughout, the protagonist notes his disappearing features in a mirror, so when we’re told why and sort-of-how, there’s no surprise—for that matter, the why is unsurprising as well. The weakest moment comes when the protagonist discovers the whorls on his fingers gone, “There was nothing there, as though every line, every crease, had been wiped off.” His reaction? “I need a good sleep, he thought. It came easily.” Come on.

The story is not without its strengths. Cole moves from one character’s point of view to another, in third person, effectively (though ultimately to little purpose; this is a story that would be immediately improved by changing p.o.v. to the first). The last scene, during which the protagonist observes a surgery performed by a robot, is tense and successfully ghastly. Not enough of a payoff, however. “Face to Face” is a story with no real resonance, regardless of the anxieties—computers and robots reducing humankind to parts, corporate evil, loss of identity—that are its subjects.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Coming Home” takes a very simple premise—an adult returns to the house haunted by a childhood horror—and makes it complex with two generations of children in foster care, all in the midst of their difficult childhoods, a carefully drawn and unique house, and numerous ghosts. Time gets lost. Atmosphere is all.

Both The Year’s Best and its English counterpart, Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell’s Best New Horror, reprinted Thomas Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” for their 1991 editions (K.W. Jeter’s “The First Time,” Peter Straub’s “A Short Guide to the City,” and Massie’s “Stephen” the others that overlap). “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," but takes direct inspiration from Lovecraft's "The Festival" (thanks to John Magwitch--see comments), while also making reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm” (and more subtly references Poe when the narrator of Ligotti’s story describes Mirocaw, the city in which the events of the story take place. The description is fairly long and very detailed, a la Poe’s description of the Usher family manse).
“The Last Feast of Harlequin” is about a seasonal affective disorder that encapsulates all the grief of humanity, a subject of particular interest to Ligotti, who believes humankind would be best off extinct, as he explains in an interview with Michael Gottert:
My interest in the discontinuance of our race is extinction for humanity’s sake, a putting an end to human suffering as soon as possible. This can be accomplished only be putting an end to our species as soon as possible.
His philosophy strikes me as silly, but nonetheless I may need to revisit Ligotti. I read his first collection, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, and found it alternately brilliant and exhausting. That may be the intended affect.

Generally, in stories about freaks, the freaks are not the monsters.* Even in Tod Browning’s Freaks, shocking to us now because actual circus freaks were cast, the freaks are not the monsters—the moral lesson too obvious to be worth repeating. In spite of this nod to compassion, these stories are always themselves freak shows, indulging in a morbid fascination with mental and physical aberration. This is certainly true of Nancy A. Collins “Freaktent,” which contributes little (maybe nothing?) new to the circus sideshow sub-genre. The implications of the twist—predictable except in its details—are undoubtedly horrific, as is the notion that people with extreme birth-defects or extreme illnesses might become a commodity, but the balance is off, emphasizing the gross-out over corruption.

*Can anyone name stories or films in which the circus freaks are the monsters?

This quote, from an interview with Ellen Datlow conducted in 1997 by Dave Truesdale, caught my attention:
Newer writers seduced into writing in the Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. universes get stuck in the cycle of easy money for little work and this stunts their literary growth by discouraging them from creating their own worlds. I know this sounds harsh but I feel this short-sighted trend is destroying the future of sf and fantasy, creatively and also in the marketplace. By encouraging it, book publishers are flooding the market with movie/tv/game spinoffs, debasing the coin of the realm in readers' eyes.
What “newer writers” did Datlow have in mind? Nancy A. Collins made me think of Datlow’s criticism, but Collins didn’t do any tie-in work till the mid-nineties, and those were comic books—a different beast. Most of the authors I know who do tie-in work—Elizabeth Hand and Brian Evenson, for instance—made reputations for themselves before taking on such work. I guess I wouldn’t know the names of authors who mainly write tie-in work.

(I declined an invitation to write a story for a tie-in anthology. I was at first pleased to be asked, but I grew quickly uneasy with the job.)

Datlow’s quote is uncharacteristically idealistic for a professional earning a living by publishing horror and science fiction. She urges young writers to pass up “easy money” for the sake of their “literary growth.” So often at the conventions such professionals attend, and in their writing about writing, there is a disdain for such idealism. That one might write for intangible reasons, and choose to publish in markets one respects regardless of pay, is characterized as foolish.