Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison (1986): You Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

The 1980s saw plenty of horror anthologies that sought to broaden the scope of the genre, to encourage its growth both as a literary force as well as a mode of delivering fear as entertainment. Horror fans will well recall anthologies like Dark Forces (1980), The Dark Descent (1987), and Prime Evil (1988) as some of the most prominent and well-respected of their day; in 1986, editor Dennis Etchison presented Cutting Edge, which can stand near and perhaps above some of that heralded class.

Thoughtful and ambitious horror writers wanted their works to become more real, more penetrating, more relevant, and therefore more terrifying, than ever before and Cutting Edge illustrates that effort. The stories Etchison collected subtly explore very adult concerns and are not much for the supernatural; serial killers and car crashes, drug trips and gender confusion, sexual abuse and Vietnam PTSD wend their way through all the stories. When I first read them as a teenager this approach perplexed me a little, but this reread was much more satisfying.

Etchison's longish yet insightful introduction serves as a shorthand lesson in the failures of genre fiction during the modern era: Tolkien, Heinlein, and Lovecraft impersonators who refused to engage with the fracturing world around them. It's obvious he sees this anthology as "explorations of the inscape," bold new writers unwilling to look backwards, who wish to forge unafraid into untamed territory without regard for genre limitations or, indeed, monetary reward. These stories fall through publication cracks: too raw and intense for the mainstream; not supernatural enough, perhaps, for horror fans bred on "haunted houses and fetid graveyards," as Etchison disparages. He is dead serious; there is none of that obnoxious chumminess that mars so many other anthology introductions. It's this dead seriousness that could seem to be pretension; this may be nearly unavoidable when writers try to class up any genre.

1986 Doubleday hardcover

Just what is "cutting edge"? Besides the obvious reference to mutilation and murder, it's about a style of horror that wants to explore human fear and pain without the typical generic conventions. It can be an experiment in language, as in Richard Christian Matheson's unique "Vampire," a two-page story made up of one-word sentences; it can be the extreme sexual dysfunctions of Karl Edward Wagner's "Lacunae" or Roberta Lannes's "Goodbye, Dark Love"; or it can be the detonated bombscape psyche of Vietnam vets in Peter Straub's excellent, sad, disturbing "Blue Rose" and The Forever War author Joe Haldeman's (pic below) "The Monster." Straub's long story deals with the worst kind of child death and its shattering effect on an already distant and emotionally volatile family and is part of a character cycle that includes his novels Koko (1988), Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993). His prodigious literary skill is part and parcel of this "cutting edge."

In one of the few stories to use a supernatural creature - Clive Barker's "Lost Souls," with his noir-ish detective Harry D'Amour - the demon is dismissed with a curt "Manhattan's seen worse," meaning, the horrors of a modern world belittle otherworldly chaos, not pale before them. Leave it to old grandmaster Robert Bloch (pic below) to feature the Grim Reaper himself in "Reaper," in which an aging man attempts to deny the final disgrace of death. Classic Bloch, but also fitting in here, in that it confronts a man dismayed by growing old and who'll do anything to miss that last and final appointment.

Lots of us are mixed on Ramsey Campbell but I found "The Hands" to be very good, albeit a bit dense. It's a tense, claustrophobic tale of a man who, after stepping into an old church to get out of the rain, is tricked into "a test of perceptions" by a strange woman with a clipboard, always a sign of officialdom. He's given a pamphlet with the most appalling image of violence he had ever seen. With that vision spinning in his head as well as childhood fears of a vengeful deity, he tries to leave but gets lost in a nameless building and stumbles upon horror.

Drugs and sex figure largely in Wagner's "Lacunae," which is unsurprising, as he often wrote of the dangers of both in a way that spoke of real experience and not just a pose. There's a new drug that fills in the gaps of our conscious minds, all those lost moments finally regained, but perhaps we need those gaps to retain sanity, to keep apart dangerous, contradictory aspects of our most intimate selves. A few years after first appearing in Cutting Edge, "Goodbye, Dark Love" by Lannes was collected in Splatterpunks (1990), and for good reason: it's a short but extremely graphic story of a young woman exorcising the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Mixing this kind of psychological insight with unflinching sex and violence was splatterpunk's specialty; hoping for a catharsis instead of just the gross-out. I believe Lannes, and her female protagonist, succeeded.

In both "Lapses" and "The Transfer," by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Edward Bryant respectively, women try to deal bravely with random moments in life that open up to unexpected violence and our capacity for both committing and enduring it. There is darkest humor, however, in "They're Coming for You" by Les Daniels and "Muzak for Torso Murderers" by Marc Laidlaw. Other stories, by luminaries such as Charles L. Grant, George Clayton Johnson, and original Playboy associate editor Ray Russell, as well as newcomers like W.H. Pugmire and Nicholas Royle, are all worthwhile.

Steve Rasnic Tem (pictured) contributes "Little Cruelties," one of my favorites, which "excavates" the everyday hurts that we visit upon loved ones. But a father regrets more and more the pain he's caused, and reflects how anonymous cities have almost bred this carelessness inside us. Tem writes strongly and suggestively, with an affectlessness that heightens the prosaic horror.

The final story, "Pain," is Whitley Strieber's mix of tinfoil-hat crankdom - UFOs, the Vril Society, pagan mythology - with a clear-eyed glimpse into the depths of a different kind of S&M. Waxing rather philosophical about death, "Pain" is one of the best stories in Cutting Edge and the perfect end to the anthology, encapsulating as it does all that has come before it. A writer meets a fetching young woman who knows a thing or two about pain:

I wait as she comes scything down the rows of autumn. Although her call will mark the last stroke of my life, it will also say that my suffering is not particular, and in that there is a kindness. She comes not only for me but for those yet unborn, for the old upon their final beds, and the millions from the harvest of war. She comes for me, but also for you, as in the end for us all.


Anonymous said...

Very nice write-up. And a good anthology, with such a diversity of unique talents(some well-known, others not) on board, that you really had no idea what to expect when starting a new story, and were almost always at least pleasantly surprised by what you found.

The ones that stuck with me the most were probably the darker & weirder ones, like the Tem, the Yarbro, the Royle, and particualrly the Campbell, which is so suffocatingly creepy and sinister it's like being trapped in someone else's nightmare. The Barker was also excellent in that seemingly effortless way he had back then of producing a tale so vivid & richly imagined it's hard to believe it only takes up about 10 or 20 pages.

Anonymous said...

Hey Will, many thanks for recognizing my many contributions to this fine site of yours by dedicating the above cover image to me. It's much appreciated & I am, indeed, flattered. LOL

Seriously though, I haven't read this one.
It's one of those anthologies that gave me the slip at bookstores. Though I do have a fair amount of Etchison's stuff in my collection. Including those HALLOWEEN movie adaptions that he did as "Jack Martin".

And, I've read the Peter Straub story featured within this book's pages that provided the inspiration for said cover image. I believe I've read all the author's short work that ties into The BlueRoseKiller trilogy of KOKO, MYSTERY, THE THROAT & the other novels that followed featuring characters from them. All of which I've loved. Obviously.

lazlo azavaar said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to be a contrarian and disagree with you on this one. I found Cutting Edge to be a rather disappointing collection. Individual stories (the Straub, the Strieber, the Haldeman) are excellent, but I didn't think the whole thing held together. Just my opinion.

Malibu Express said...

Granted my experience with his work is limited but I find most of Wagner's stuff a little too weird - and not in a good way. I understand that he had something of a wild lifestyle but his stories, and his distorted version of "that life" really don't work for me. I hear his fantasy stories were quite good though.

Strieber's story though sounds interesting - as anything involving the Vril Society does. Do they play a major part in it or are they mentioned in passing?

- Aaron

Will Errickson said...

Anon - "like being trapped in someone else's nightmare" is a very apt description for the Campbell story, as well as Royle's.

bluerose - You're welcome and thanks ;-). I had Etchison's Red Dreams in high school but that baby is looong gone now.

lazlo - that's cool; I read a few middling reviews of this online so I wasn't sure the collection was gonna hold up. But upon reflection I thought even the lesser ones were enhanced by the better stories.

Aaron - the Vril Society is only mentioned in passing, but the first half of the story is rife with that kind of conspiracy theory/fringe philosophy. Yeah, Wagner's stories definitely run the gamut from weird psychological horror to stories about horror writers to more traditional styles. I haven't read any of his fantasy works though.

Anonymous said...

Will, I have Etchison's THE DARK COUNTRY also, which is a collection of much of his short fiction up to about 1980 or so. Unfortunately, it's one of those books that's just completely slipped through the cracks of my memory over the years. I couldn't tell you a single thing about it.
Which, means that while I may have enjoyed it somewhat back three decades ago when I read it, I obviously wasn't blown away by it. Because, the REALLY good ones, I don't forget.

Speaking of which, are you much of a re-reader?
Not me.
I'd love to be, but with my less than blazing reading rate & ever-expanding TBR pile, I just don't get around to it much at all.
Oh, I've done so with some ABSOLUTE favs of course, but when it comes to novels, I think I'd have a couple of fingers left over were I count up all my re-reads. With 'SALEM'S LOT ( the only one I've ever read three times thus far... ), T.E.D. Klein's THE CEREMONIES, Straub's GHOST STORY & the afore-mentioned Bluerose trilogy among them.

Will Errickson said...

I'm rereading a lot of stuff for this blog after more than 20 years, but also getting to books I missed way back when. But generally I'm not a big rereader of fiction; nonfiction, though, different story.

w. h. pugmire, esq. said...

That was my first pro sale, and it came about as a surprise due to my co-author. Just recently at MythosCon Dennis presented Bill Nolan and I with ye Japanese pb edition of the book -- very cool. Man, how I loved being in a book with my hero, Robert Bloch!

Will Errickson said...

What a thrill that must have been! And I must tell you that back in the old days of my high school years, I dug your description of yourself: "Militant punk rock homosexual who worships death and reads HP Lovecraft religiously." I probably should have worked that quote into my review!

Kat said...

I've got a copy of this kicking around; I either picked it up working at the bookstore, or borrowed it from my mom (and never gave it back). I haven't read it yet, but I suspect that's something most bibliophiles can admit about a portion of their library.
Your review was fantastic. It definitely piqued my interest in "Blue Rose" as I realized that, somehow, I've never read a single thing by Peter Straub, and short stories are a great way to find out how you feel about an author, without feeling like you're playing literary Russian Roulette. Or Guess Who. Or Blind Date. Some kind of mystery board game, anyways.
And thanks, by the way, for devoting an entire blog to reviewing literary horror. I've been lurking for months, and only now have I worked up the chutzpah to comment.
Keep up the rad work, man, so I can keep reading it.

Will Errickson said...
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Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Kat! A journalist visiting Harlan Ellison's book-stuffed home asked if he'd read all of them, and Ellison's priceless reply was, "Fuck no! Who the hell wants a library full of books they've already read?!" Indeed.

And you should definitely read Peter Straub!

Rob Hamilton said...

This is a good collection of stories. I love the description here of Campbell's being a trip through someone else's nightmare. Irrelativity and Lapses could also count as that. Grant's was pretty haunting. A couple reminded me a bit of King in weird ways. They're Coming For You was an even campier version of one part of Creepshow and The Man with the Hoe kind of seemed like Roadwork (as Bachman) at heart, with a regular guy being pushed to the edge and coming to the eventual decision that there's only one way out.

Will Errickson said...

Ah, Roadwork is the only early Bachman book I didn't read!

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Ben said...

Late to the party on this one (lol) but I read this probably soon after it came out in paperback and I think I still have my copy somewhere. It's really above average and has a lot of stories that are well worth rereading. If I were to put together an anthology of all-time favorite horror stories Haldeman's piece would almost certainly be in it.