Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strange Seed by T.M. Wright (1978): Strange Eyes Fill Strange Rooms

It's rare that I'm at a loss for words after reading a horror novel of any kind. Usually I can gather an argument somehow, pro or con, or even just wing a review going by gut instinct. But in the case of Strange Seed, a vintage horror paperback that's garnered a fair reputation over several decades as an effective example of "quiet horror," I'm a bit baffled. T.M. Wright's first novel, published by Playboy Press Paperbacks in 1980, is a subtle and even obtuse tale of nature and its effects on the human psyche. Or maybe it's about the disintegration and reintegration of personhood. Or the ineffable and alluring evil of natural perfection. Or perhaps it's just about a couple's crappy misadventure in the country. It's kinda up for grabs, folks.

Original hardcover from Everest House

The setup is simple enough: newlyweds Paul and Rachel Griffin escape from the stress of city life to the countryside, moving into Paul's childhood home in upstate New York. There they meet Hank Lumas, the neighboring handyman who remembers the tragedy of the Schmidts, the family who lived there after Paul's father died. Lumas doesn't think the Griffins will be able to adjust to life so far removed from "civilization," but Paul is determined, grimly so, to prove him wrong.

...the day the Schmidt woman threw herself from the second-floor window, followed soon afterward by her husband - those small deaths proved what Lumas had contended all along: Some folks can learn to accept what happens here, and some can't. Some can't shake what the cities do to them...

1987 Tor reprint

Then the odd, silent child from the forest appears in the Griffins' kitchen, naked, mute, its eyes and face unwholesomely perfect, harmonic, hypnotic. The boy appears from nowhere, and Rachel thinks as she realizes she can't look away, He is some wild creature that's gotten into the house, and the only thing human about him is his form. And there are more of them, and while they don't speak, they are excellent mimics, which makes for some chilling confrontations for those unfortunate enough to run across them in the woods...

One thing I've found while reading '70s horror is that in general it tends to be better written than '80s horror; it's obvious the "horror boom" of the later decade allowed the publication of many lesser authors whose talents were wanting. Wright's style may be enigmatic and oblique but it's definitely literate, allusive, even poetic. He melds scenes of the heartless natural world with the slow-burn collapse of the Griffins' relationship, and the letter Rachel writes to her mother throughout the novel gives insight into her hopes as well as her denial. Why Wright was doing this felt too vague to grasp; the allusive becomes elusive.

However Wright strains credibility when the Griffins accept the weird "earth children" as part of their new world, even when, after death, Paul has to bury them beyond the house. That really threw me off, but just as Wright does that, he also tightens up the narrative and his prose gets sharper as the story begins to close. A decidedly erotic undertone makes its appearance and we do get some sort of ultimate explanation of the eerie events. That was a relief.

Overall, Strange Seed made me feel off-center quite often, as I was not sure what I was reading. The cover art of both editions makes you think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Children of the Damned, but that's not really the case. Stephen King included it in his horror fiction appendix in Danse Macabre, and has compared Wright to Ramsey Campbell and Michael McDowell, which I can sorta see. Strange Seed is unlike other horror novels I've read recently, I'm just hesitant to say whether I liked it or not. Well, that'll happen. For a more positive take on Wright's stuff, be sure to check out this Phantom of Pulp post.


Rob K. said...

Yes, I agree that TM Wright is a true original, but also an acquired taste. I've read several of his books and I can recommend A Manhattan Ghost Story, The Playground, The Place, and Little Boy Lost. I didn't care much for The Waiting Room (which is the sequel to Manhattan Ghost Story) and I pretty much disliked The House on Orchid Street. Sleepeasy & Boundaries were both actually pretty good too. Read Strange Seed years and years ago and didn't like it but I was much more impressed with a recent reread. I hear he's a real cult figure with some readers.

Mac Campbell said...

Perhaps I had high expectations because he is seen as an unsung saint of horror, but I couldn't get through this. Perhaps I'm an ignoramus? After I finish the first game of thrones, I'll try several Michael McDowell books I've got on the back burner.
I hate 'literary' horror. Usually it means quiet books that digress, a problem I had with that Caitlin Kiernan book, the Red Tree. Literary horror means you're supposed be punching in the same weight class as Blood Meridian (written in 1985 if you're interested, Will!).

Mac Campbell said...

Couldn't get through the BOOK, not the review. That is bad pronoun use on my part. I enjoy your reviews.

Anonymous said...

I read and really liked his THE ISLAND many years ago. A deeply chilling and beautifully executed modern ghost story, one of the best I've ever read.

More recently, I tried THE PLACE but found it a little too deliberately offbeat and whimsical to pack much of a punch. Not recommended.

THE ISLAND, on the other hand, gets my highest recommendation.

Jeff P said...

I read this when it came out in '78 and enjoyed it. Subsequent books of Wright's didn't do much for me. I met him at the 1982 World Fantasy Convention, nice but one of those oddly quiet guys.

With all due respect, I have to disagree w/ Mac re what he says about what he calls literary horror. I think Kiernan's 'The Red Tree' was the best horror novel (though she'd despise hearing it termed that) of last year---or the year before, maybe? While I enjoy well-plotted horror fiction where everything is spelled out and explained, a story like 'The Red Tree' is, to me, better for its uncertainty and lack of clarity. Stories like that, where I'm left not 100% sure of what really happened, are the ones that raise the hair on my neck the most. But to each their own.

Anonymous said...

Hey Will.
I MUST have really enjoyed Wright's work back in the day, because I've got all his output from the '80s. And I know that I read all those paperbacks back in the day, but oddly enough, I could tell you next to nothing about them now other than that they were all pretty quick reads & that the author relied a lot of atmosphere.
Oh, plus that many of his books took place in my neck of the woods of upstate & western New York. The most memorable of them being THE PLAYGROUND, which took place in a thinly disguised version of Lilydale. A psychic & spiritual community about 40 miles south of me here in the Buffalo area.


Rob K. said...

To Anonymous: I thought The Playground was easily one of Wright's finest books. Eerie as hell and very well written. And BTW (re an earlier post), "literary horror" or whatever you want to call it, IMHO, is too easily dismissed by people who simply don't want to work at their reading, ever. To each his own, but I say you're missing a lot this way. Some of the best, most unforgettable genre books I've ever read are written from a more "literary" vantage point (The Haunting of Hill House springs instantly to mind here).

Anonymous said...

for my surprise he is translated to spanish, Strange seed, Nursery tale, Boundaries and A Manhattan ghost story, what is better? The synopsis of Boundaries has catch my interest but Strange seed is interesting too, I'm afraid A Manhattan ghost story is out of print and is not in the second hand markets

Quiet horror, best subgenre for me, The ceremonies of T.E.D. Klein is maybe my favourite book of any genre or kind, his long tales The children of kingdom and Petey are excellent too, I liked very much Midnight sun by Ramsey Campbell and Ghost story by Peter Straub too, I should read more from authors like Charles L Grant

Maybe could be interesting for your blog an article about the subgenres of modern horror, isn't it?


Will Errickson said...

Rob - I'd read a few glowing reviews of Wright's stuff recently, and got the impression he had a cult following of a kind; this was what really got me interested in reading him. Don't recall hearing much about him in the '80s.

Mac - Definitely read McDowell; I don't consider him an "acquired taste" at all. As for "literary horror," I have the same problem with it as I do with anything "literary": if I can *sense* someone *trying* to be literary, it really turns me off. McCarthy's CHILD OF GOD struck me that way. It should be unnoticeable; I despise writing that wants to show off.

Jeff - I hope Kiernan has improved since SILK, which was literally the last modern horror novel I (tried to) read. Seemed like a really self-conscious impersonation of Poppy Z. Brite...

Francisco - For Klein, I prefer his short fiction over CEREMONIES. As for modern horror, I probably won't be covering it here; others have blogs about it, and I really prefer keeping this blog vintage.

Thanks for reading, everybody.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if your post was aimed directly at me or not, but if so, I assure you that I have nothing against "literary horror".
In fact, I would say that the majority of my personal all time favorite novels fall comfortably within the "literary horror" realm.
Some of those being:
SUMMER OF NIGHT by Dan Simmons
& nearly all of the genre work by Peter Straub. Particularly GHOST STORY & his Blue Rose trilogy. From which I took my online moniker of bluerosekiller. Which I used to use here rather prolifically, until logging in that way began to take several long minutes for some reason. Thus, my switch to the anonymous log in.
Back to the subject at hand however, like Will, I love good genre literature. But, I have little patience for pretentious genre work that is more concerned with filling pages with lyrical prose than it is with telling a good tale. THAT sort of genre fiction is, to me, as dull as dishwater & a frustrating waste of my time.

( aka bluerosekiller )

Anonymous said...

You sir, have EXCELLENT taste in literature & in authors.
Klein's THE CEREMONIES has long held a permanent spot in my own personal three-headed dragon of co-no.1 favorite novels, in a virtual tie with Dan Simmons' SUMMER OF NIGHT & King's 'SALEM'S LOT.
Those three edging past Robert McCammon's underrated USHER'S PASSING.

Of course, the frustrating thing about Klein's fine work is the fact that he apparently reached his prolific peak over 25 years ago. And, it's looking more & more like we'll never see a second, full length novel from him. Perhaps not even another short novel or ( as incomprehensible as it may seem ), another short story for that matter!


Rob K. said...

T.E.D. Klein is the best, I agree! I hate that we'll likely never will see that novel he was working on after THE CEREMONIES. In the interview with him in the book FACES OF FEAR he talked at length about how much he really hated writing. So things aren't looking good...

Jim: Point taken, and yes, we've all encountered those tedious "art" horror novels, whose authors are more interested in wowing us with their mellifluous skill with language than in telling us a good story. ORDINARY HORROR by David Searcy (2001) may be the best example of this sort of book that I can think of. It was really hard to get through and thus hard to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

hey Jim, we've got very similar likes, my other two favourites novels of any kind are by King and Simmons, but they are Pet sematary and Song of Kali, Usher's passing is very good too, more recently I hyave read a very interesting novel by Nancy Holder, Death water, Bram Stoker award in 1994, a perfect combination of a classical theme, quiet horror and some graphic moments

The thing is that nowadays in Spain we haven't got modern horror translated, apart from King and zombies, and that is a great number of novels and short fiction by modern-classics like Dennis Etchison, Steve Rasnic Tem, Charles L Grant and many more without tranaslations

hey Will, when I talk about modern horror I mean horror written from the 70's until now, what is the name you use in english for the horror boom of the 80's? in Spain we use the term contemporary horror and it covers Stephen King, the 80's writers and the more recent horror, with the subgenres I mean splatter, quiet or psychological horror, classic themes in modern authors, gothic...

by the way same problem of Jim for loggin


Jeff P said...

Will, I think Kiernan has improved, actually. I tried reading Silk and one other of hers and couldn't get past the first few chapters. But I read a few reviews of Red Tree and was intrigued by the premise, so I gave it a shot. Loved it. Very New England, very weird, composed of journals and book excerpts, but definitely not for anyone who likes their horror fiction tied up neatly at the end. And I agree w/ you re occasional pretension in literary work---I think maybe "quiet" horror is a better description of what we're discussing, as some have used before me.

I also agree w/ you guys re T.E.D. Klein, one of the best out there. The Ceremonies was creepy as hell, but I can understand why some folks found it too slow or dull.

A current writer who excels at quiet and creepy is Laird Barron. He's only published short stories so far, but is working on a novel.

Anonymous said...

And what about Thomas Ligotti? Is he a writer of this kind or maybe more lovecraftian?


Will Errickson said...

Francisco, myself, I use the term "modern horror" for horror fiction written in the late '90s and the new century. I don't read it. "Horror boom of the '80s" is correct though. But I try to keep the blog vintage! It's stuff I read back in the day, and now am either rereading, or discovering for the first time. My cutoff is around the mid 1990s.

I've also reviewed Ligotti here, last year; his first collection SONGS OF A DEAD DREAMER. He's kinda Lovecraftian, but has his own style ultimately.

highwayknees said...

I happen to really like "literary horror". Some selections of course more than others, as it doesn't always hit the mark. But the same goes for traditional horror, right?

I have two recent-ish examples of this of the top of my head. One that worked for me, and one that was the ultimate struggle:

First: BEDBUGS, by Ben Winters was a good swift creepy read in the S. Jackson mode, but with some added gore near the end.

And then one that I've struggled with but cant hack: HOUSE OF LEAVES. I just dont get it.

Honorable mention goes to David Nickle's, EUTOPIA

Will Errickson said...

I've never had any interest in reading HOUSE OF LEAVES. I remember when it hit the horror shelves, so unlike the other books there, and was unconvinced in belonged in that section. Couple years later I started seeing college kids reading it in coffee shops, people who would probably not read an actual horror novel, and it was obvious it was a literature course assignment. Which made me interested in it even less. Had an ex-library copy someone gave me, no idea where it is now.

3Fs said...

Man oh man did I dislike this one. I even wrote a review on Goodreads that veered toward hater-ism. I’ve read some what-would-be-called “quiet horror,” and am able to appreciate it, but this was just boring, IMO.

Padded Cell said...

Unfortunately, Wright's two best-known books are not his most entertaining.

But most of the books reissued by Leisure Books are pretty safe bets. They include Laughing Man, Sleepeasy, and The House on Orchid Street (formerly 'Carlisle Street').

(I haven't read The Last Vampire yet.)

"Laughing Man" is about the same kind of people seen in "Strange Seed" but they've grown into adults.