Thursday, May 17, 2012

Soft and Others by F. Paul Wilson (1989): I Don't Want a Baby That Looks Like That

Known primarily as the author of the Adversary Cycle and Repairman Jack series of supernatural thrillers, Jersey-born physician F. Paul Wilson (born today in 1946) also made fairly regular appearances in various genre anthologies throughout the '70s and '80s. The Keep from '81 is probably his most famous novel (made into a woefully misbegotten film I watched last year on Netflix Instant and has about 20 seconds of goodness in it), and I've got a copy of it here on my desk but haven't read it yet. I'd heard very good things about this out-of-print short story collection, Soft and Others - very high ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads - and recalled liking a couple of his stories back in the day. It was on my must-buy list for ages, and I was excited to find a mint paperback copy (Tor July 1990) at a huge book sale last month.

And the verdict... Soft is kinda really meh. Which kinda sucks. No way around it: despite some really inventive and unsettling scenarios, Wilson's pedestrian, humdrum prose and tin-eared dialogue dampened any enthusiasm I originally had. His writing isn't terrible, no, just bland, flavorless, middling. Some readers don't mind this and don't read horror to be challenged literarily, but I'm not a fan of letting my brain coast through fiction, and sometimes his "style" is so flatfootedly clunky it snapped me right out of a story. That's the last thing a writer should want. Arranged chronologically, this collection starts off with some ho-hum science fiction tales from the early '70s and finishes up with some trite and obvious '80s horror.

Sorry 'bout the shitty review on your birthday 

The titles are stark and simple, which makes them sound menacing: "Traps," "Buckets," "Muscles," "Cuts." Problem is, he's stuck in that cliched EC Comics manner of telling simple, one-dimensional revenge stories, or nasty ones that simply dispatch the protagonist for no other reason than to have a "Twilight Zone" twist at the end, in final sentences which are too hacky to have any real impact. I didn't mind the SF tales "To Fill the Air and Sea," a charming sort of alien Old Man and the Sea, and "Green Winter," which vaguely mines Planet of the Apes territory, they're well-imagined, if derivative. The less we say about the two rock'n'roll pieces, "The Last 'Oldies Revival'" and "The Years the Music Died," the better. Cringeworthy.

Oh Lansing State Journal, my most trusted source of horror lit criticism!

Straight horror can be found in "Ménages à Trois" - which I read years ago in the first Hot Blood anthology - and "Cuts," again, a story I remember from Silver Scream. Straight horror, yes, if more than a little cheesy and predictable. "Traps" is pretty dumb and one-note although the final line strikes a sadly thoughtful moment of real fear and helpless despair. Kirkus may have loved "Dat-Tay-Vao" but I sure didn't; the main character is such a cowardly shitheel I never believed he was a real person. The titular tale works really well even if underwritten in places; it's graphic in just the right and disturbing way and has gained itself many fans in the intervening decades since its first publication in 1984's Masques. Honestly, I had no idea what it was about, and... I'm not inclined to spoil it for y'all! Even the ebook cover won't give it away:

You may have heard of "Buckets," as it achieved some minor notoriety in horror fiction circles for its, uh, indelicate subject matter (it was chosen by Karl Edward Wagner for inclusion in Year's Best Horror Stories 18 and published as a standalone chapbook in 1991 - bought a copy back then, never read it, now can't find it). Now "Buckets" sorta works as a standard horror tale of comeuppance, with a foolish and self-important "protagonist" receiving his just deserts. The problem is in the execution. The touchy topic should have been dealt with in a deft and sure and perhaps even ironic hand - which ain't the case here.

Pulphouse chapbook, 1989

A 50-ish gynecologist - presented as vain and self-regarding - faces the "ghosts" of the children he's "killed" performing abortions (guess what's in those buckets). All kindsa conundrums here render the story's reactionary point moot. It made me posit a ludicrous question: can there be ghosts of people who never existed? How can those who never were rage about never being? Is this some bizarre alternate reality tale? "Buckets" is as clever, as subtle, as insightful as a raving anti-abortionist's misspelled placard decorated with a photo of a bloody aborted fetus. About as brave, too. Fuck that.

Man, now I'm not looking forward to reading The Keep at all.


William Malmborg said...

Wilson sometimes has said this book should have been subtitled 'watch Wilson learn to write' which could be taken in many different ways. I think you might find his work written after this period of writing better and more enjoyable. I know the stories in his collection The Barrens and Others really blew me away, especially the first one 'Feelings'. That is still my all time favorite 'non-Repairman Jack' story of his.

Will Errickson said...

Good to know. And you reminded me of "The Barrens," which I've got in an HPL-inspired anthology. Always liked that one.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

I was never a Wilson fan.

I tried my hand at Midnight Mass and found it wanting, despite the fairly cool/blood simple concept of vampires actually managing to take over the world.

Perhaps it's just his conservatism that bothers me. Midnight Mass sported some short and sweet anti-Muslim invective and also highlighted the fact that only crosses (but not Stars of David or the Star and Crescent or any other religious symbol) could repel vampires. That was a bit narrow-minded for my taste.

Maybe Wagner was just throwing a fellow medical man a bone by choosing "Buckets" for his annual anthology.

Rob K. said...

I too find Wilson just sort of Meh. I finally read The Keep and it was entertaining enough and had a good plot, but yeah, his prose and characters are flat and rote and I just need more from novels I guess.

The Doctor said...

I liked The Keep well enough, and several novels since. I do feel he is quite overrated, but I've enjoyed him regardless.
My biggest problem with Wilson, and why I don't read him today, is his relentless retconning of past material into his dull overarching mythos. Most recently, Nightworld, which was at least decently entertaining (from what I remember), but certainly not worth reading all over again for the added linked-into-everything-I've-ever-written-to-screw-more-cash-out-of-my-fans material.

francisco said...

The barrens is in Cthulhu 2000 one of the best anthologies I have read full of excellent stories

Vietnam horror is a great subject with very good stories by Robert R McCammon, Lucius Shepard or Joe R Lansdale

A more controversial issue is abortion I suggest you the spanish telefilm Blame by Narciso Ibañez Serrador (one of his 6 films to keep you awake)

When the single mother nurse Gloria has financial difficulties, her colleague and friend Dr. Ana Torres invites her to move with her six year-old daughter Vicky to her old big house where she runs a gynecologic clinic. In return, Gloria would assist Ana in her clinic in the afternoons. Sooner Gloria finds that Ana dedicates to abortion in her clinic, and also that she is lesbian and has a crush on her. When Ana gets pregnant of her lover Javier, Ana proposes an abortion, and after more than three months, the reluctant Gloria accepts her offer with tragic consequences. Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

taken for imdb

~ said...

Only Wilson thing I've ever finished is the story "Foet" which appeared in one of the Borderlands anthologies. A good, chilling short-short. Title is short for foetus, so I think you can guess where it's going... Apparently this theme is important to Dr. Wilson.

I have one of the Repairman Jack novels way down on my someday-to-read pile. Started The Keep long ago, but lost interest quickly. You would think the WWII Eastern Front would be fertile ground for horror, until you consider how hard it is to out-do the actual historical horrors!

Tinderbox said...

Michale Mann's film adaptation of The Keep had a lot more impact at the time of its release than it does today. Nothing else looked like it and it was quite eerie due to its visual style and subject matter. Partly due to Mann's influence in the film industry there have been plenty of productions since, from Silence of the Lambs to Event Horizon to The Matrix films, etc., with that stark, cold tone and style so it's nothing unique anymore. The fact that the studio cut the film's original run time down by half may explain why the story makes such little sense, or they may have just cut out more incoherence. We'll never know unless a director's cut is ever released on DVD. I think it's worth seeing just for the visual style and that it's one of the few screen portrayals of what I think is a golem (not the Tolkien character, but the Jewish folkloric creature).

Will Errickson said...

I didn't think much of the movie other than the early decapitation in the walls scene (which actually just reminded me of an early ALIEN scene when John Hurt descends beneath the alien planet floor). Again, the problem with this book is that its central idea is perfectly good. It's simply neutered by the delivery.