All this is true and all this is (mostly) what I want in my horror fiction. Sure sometimes you need to know six ways to kill a vampire, and who doesn't love a good rat chomping? But for this, the third volume in Dark Harvest's long-running hardcover series Night Visions (published in paperback by Berkley, Mar 1988), Martin has chosen well and wisely the kinds of the stories he's described, and almost to a one, they show the width and breadth of what good horror is. Or at least was, in the mid 1980s.
First, two of the biggest names of '80s horror, Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. Campbell at this time was already fairly well-established as both an editor, while Barker, hot off the Books of Blood, was the rising star, the enfant terrible, the upstart splatterpunk. Fellow traveler Lisa Tuttle, while much less known, had been writing SF/F shorts for years, and even co-authored a fantasy novel with Martin. Her 1985 collection (published in the UK only) Nest of Nightmares was well-received, and she also appeared in the seminal horror anthology Dark Forces in 1980. Together these three writers provide perfect contrast to one another. Let me not quibble: Night Visions 3 is as good a horror anthology as I've read lately; I enjoyed it immensely (a far cry from my experience with Night Visions 2).
His wife lay face up beside him, her mouth gaping. She might have been panting in her sleep, except that her chest was utterly still. No, the sound was coming from the face that quivered above hers, the jowly face with its tongue gray as slime and its tiny pink eyes like pimples sunk in the white flesh. He thought of a bulldog's face, but it was more like a noseless old man's, and its paws on her chest looked like a child's hands.
Tuttle and Martin, 1970s
Now I've read a few of Tuttle's horror stories over the years and I've liked them just fine. After reading the three longish ones here - "The Dragon's Bride," "Another Country," and "Riding the Nightmare" - I hope to move on to at least one of her '80s novels. Yeah, she's good - an entirely different writer from the more stylized Campbell and Barker, her prose almost a palate refresher. Her depiction of male/female relationships is a welcome one, a healthy one - Campbell has almost none, and Barker's is beyond the pale - a believable one. Relationships she describes however don't necessarily end happily.
ménage à trois when a nightmare from her childhood creeps back into her slumber. Then a pregnancy threatens to tear the whole relationship asunder. What terrifying revelation does a child bring? Only this: this baby girl made her feel not only love but also fear and frustration and pain. Motherhood was not as instinctive as she had believed it would be. And only that nightmare will give understanding.
"The Dragon's Bride" might have been my favorite work in Night Visions 3. It's interesting people doing interesting things. A young man picks up a shy young woman in a bookstore and learns she knows as little about her past as he does. Together they journey to the English countryside after the aunt who raised her commits suicide. Young man realizes he may, as the saying goes, have gotten more than he bargained for. Dragons, snakes, sex, caves, vaginas, father issues: "Dragon's Bride" has it all, plus a great - ahem - climax.
The cave was hot and moist around them, she was hot and moist, embracing him, and then he felt the dragon moving, still alive, and he tried to free himself, but she held tight, and it was too late. As he came he shouted. The orgasm seemed to empty him of everything, pain, pleasure, memory, desire, understanding. He lay, stunned, on top of her, unable to move, as he waited for his personality to come back from wherever it had gone.
He had expected sighs, and languid bodies spread on the floor underfoot like a living carpet; had expected virgin whores whose every crevice was his for the asking and whose skills would press him - upward, upward - to undreamed-of ecstasies. The world would be forgotten in their arms. He would be exalted by his lust, instead of despised for it. But no. No women, no sighs. Only these sexless things, with their corrugated flesh.
Original Dark Harvest dustjacket, Oct 1986
Sure, there's more - there's always more with Barker - but there's not as much as you'd think; he could have more thoroughly fleshed out (pardon the pun) characters both human and not, given us more of the Order of the Gash, the Engineer, the backstory of Kirsty and Rory (renamed Larry in Hellraiser), because I had no idea why Kirsty kept turning up. She's not his daughter as in the film, which makes sense. Why would imperious, beautiful Julia permit one of Rory's former lovers - is that right? - to be part of their married life? I really dunno. What I do know is that "The Hellbound Heart" showcases Barker's immense talent, his untouchable talent, for twining the repulsive and the seductive; for limning the limits of desire and the thirst for knowledge. Characters do not shy away from horror, at least not for long; they confront it, embrace it, confound it, bargain with it - as Kirsty does, promising Frank back to the Cenobities, to which one replies: "...And maybe we won't tear your soul apart." Gee, thanks guys! (Also includes the line "No tears please. It's a waste of good suffering," case you were wondering.)
Julia could not see Frank's eyes, but she felt them sharpened beyond pricking by envy and rage. Nor did she look away, but stared on at the shadow while Rory's moans increased. And at the end one moment became another, and she was lying on the bed with her wedding dressed crushed beneath her, while a black and scarlet beast crept up between her legs to give her a sample of its love.
So, yeah: Night Visions: The Hellbound Heart. So good it hurts.