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.


  1. A shame to hear the TED Klein story is weak - like you I'm a massive fan of Dark Gods & Porlock Farm. At his best, he's as good a horror writer as there's ever been, in my opinion.

  2. James, I'd modify what you've said: he's written horror stories that are (maybe) as good as the best ever. Aside from the five novellas everyone rightfully praises, his work is uneven. Subterranean Press published a collection of Klein odds and ends that I haven't read all of--so there may be a gem I've missed.

    I like the short story "Growing Things" (which appeared in Al Sarrantonio's 999 anthology), but it is minor. If I remember correctly, "One Size Eats All" is about killer sleeping bags (when reprinted in Jones & Campbell's Best New Horror 5, Jones was very careful to warn readers that the story was written for a children's anthology). I think the wish for Klein to be great is so strong, some folks have been fooled by his lesser work.

    He's not alone. I can think of a few authors working now who've written short stories so stunning they've short-circuited many readers ability to be critical of the bad writing they regularly turn out.

  3. The Ligotti story was in large part a direct homage to Lovecraft's "The Festival" ("Things have learned to walk that ought to crawl"), I think. At least, I remember the stories being very similar in their basic outlines. Each good in its own way, though.

    Incidentally, I recently finished Worse Than Myself, which I enjoyed I lot. Some very good pieces in there, and the book as a whole easily ranks with the best new horror I've read in longer than I care to remember.

  4. John, You're absolutely right. I still see strong parallels between the "The Last Feast of Harlequin" and "Shadow over Innsmouth"--between the structure, the narrator, and themes--, but "The Festival" reads like rough notes for Ligotti's story. I made a note of this in my original post.

    Thank you for reading Worse Than Myself, and for your praise. What presses do you keep your eye on? I hope you'll continue to comment as my "notes" as they progress.

    I followed your name to an animated Chopin Nocturne. Is that part of a series? I liked it very much.

  5. I have to say I'm not too aware of the presses, or even of many of the writers, currently producing stories in this vein. My genre knowledge is largely restricted to the annual Year's Best Horror Stories type of thing, and that's how I was introduced to your work, finding "The Man from the Peak" in one of Ellen Datlow's recent volumes, which inspired me to seek out the collection.

    Yes, it seems the fellow who made that video has been producing a whole series of fairly stunning graphical visualizations of famous classical pieces (not limited to solo piano) for some years now. You can find the list of them at:

    The performances and the audio quality may not all be quite up to concert standard, but for a musical novice like myself his style of playing often makes it a little easier to follow the finer details of the music, and the visuals, of course, are frequently mesmerizing, as well.

    Thank you for the fine fiction as well as the intriguing blog, Adam. I hope to continue reading both well into the future.

  6. The problem with some of the most interesting little presses is that it's hard to get books from them because they either sell out or are terribly costly. That said: check out Mark Samuels' work from Chomu Press and from Tartarus. Tartarus makes many expensive hardcovers, but also a series of very fine paperbacks normal humans can afford. Several of their paperback titles will appeal to you. Brian Shower's press, Swan River out of Dublin, makes limited runs of hardbacks that aren't too expensive. He just did a book of John Howard stories and a best of Mark Valentine, both authors you should read. I contributed an afterword, which is also a short story, to Brian Shower's Old Albert, which I think is less expensive than most Swan River books. There's also a "free reader"--an e-book sample of work from the press. Why not start there!

    And I suppose it goes without saying that you might like my own Color Plates, from Rose Metal Press. I mean, why wouldn't you?

    I'll look into the videos. I thot the first was very fine. I imagine a rave with that projected on the wall, and folks shuffling to Chopin.

  7. Yes, I am well aware of Tartarus Press, and picked up a couple of their recent re-issues of Robert Aickman's stories. They've got a book of Walter de la Mare's stories I'd like to get my hands on one day, too.

    Rest assured, I have already looked up and considered getting hold of a copy of Color Plates, too.