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?


  1. "The All-Consuming" sounds like a J.G. Ballard short story I vaguely remember. Man stranded on a small tropical island used as a toxic waste dump, finds animals and plants there undergoing strange transformations, etc. This psychedelic biological chaos presented in a positive light as much as a potentially negative one.

    But in Ballard that kind of solitude often seems to be the goal of escape, rather than the starting point.

  2. "The All-Consuming" concludes on an optimistic note that undercuts the protagonist's satisfaction with solitude. For some reason, the toxic jungle, made incarnate through a Japanese man who consumes a place's identity in a quest to "understand" it, wants Arce to be happy. I don't know the Ballard story you're referencing, but it sounds smarter than "The All-Consuming"--let me know the title if you figure it out.

  3. I'm pretty sure, thanks to Google, that the Ballard story is called "Dream Cargoes" and appears in his book War Fever (where I must have encountered it) as well as in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. Yes, I don't remember it all that well, but I'll bet it's much better. Ballard's optimism tends to be more deranged than most horror writers' pessimism.

  4. Your observation re. Ballard's optimism vs. most horror writers' pessimism is terrific. Has me thinking about horror author cred, i.e. that the author is tortured in some way. A point I hope to explore.