Friday, June 28, 2013
Monday, June 24, 2013
It is surely impossible to overestimate the influence that Richard Matheson had on the fields of horror and science fiction and fantasy throughout the latter half of the 20th century. The titles of his legendary works hardly need to be repeated for true fans of genre entertainment. His death today at age 87 ends a long reign as a respected master of the macabre mixed with the mundane, of the everyday horrors and wonders and threats that once were found only in places like ethereal Gothic castles of the old world. Matheson found terror in the abandoned streets of Los Angeles, in the skies 20,000 feet above the earth, in the high-rise apartment of a young single woman, on the winding roads of a West Coast desert. You know the stories, you love them, and fortunately for us all they will continue to haunt us for as long as we are able to be haunted...
Thursday, June 20, 2013
many incarnations - The Bad Seed was recognized upon publication as a major work of popular fiction, nominated for the 1955 National Book Award (Indeed, the NYT Book Review stated "no more satisfactory novel will be written in 1954 or has turned up in recent memory"). Today's reader can easily see why: March is a careful, precise writer who doles out suspense and psychological insights with a master's pen. Every character's motivation and dialogue rings true, every development seems necessary and tragically unavoidable. In fact, March was inspired by the real-life serial killer Belle Gunness when writing the novel, and references the case in the story.
No doubt about it: The Bad Seed is a first-rate psychological thriller, an unassuming yet wonderful bit of murderous merchandise itself, written with skill and insight, a small masterpiece of down-home horror that I urge you to become acquainted with at once!
It was doubtful that she ever regretted the things she'd done, or thought with remorse of her acts. She probably regarded herself not as a criminal but as a cunning little businesswoman who traveled in an unusual line of merchandise, whose foresight and skill lifted her above the fates of those less gifted than herself...
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Good news, vintage horror fiction fans: Michael McDowell's debut 1979 horror novel The Amulet has been brought back into print by specialty publisher Valancourt Books. As you can see, it boasts an introduction by another TMHF fave, the now-retired Poppy Z. Brite, which features some background on the writing of the novel and McDowell himself. Also of note: to my great surprise and complete delight, quotes from this blog are featured both on the back of the book - I've become a blurb! - as well as in Brite's intro. What! It's true. Anyway, I don't think you'll be disappointed if you drop a few bucks for this nicely-produced title from a publisher who knows just what it's doing. We can hope that more of McDowell's incredible '80s horror fiction will be treated in just the same way. Purchasing info here.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
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.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Sad, although expected, news: the great Scottish writer Iain (M.) Banks has died. Just two months ago he wrote an honest, clear-eyed note about his cancer, fully aware he would not live out the year. What bravery. I haven't read everything Banks wrote, but a couple of his works - The Player of Games (1988) and The Bridge (1986) - provided me with some of the most enjoyable reading I can remember. And I've always absolutely loved the cover art for his books published in the early 1990s, evoking as it does the epic grandeur of his space operas, all of which are filled with wit and drama, intellectual games, sharp characterization, beauty and sophistication - and yes, many a scene of alien guttural horror. I can't recommend his books highly enough!
Iain (Menzies) Banks, 1954 - 2013
Thursday, June 6, 2013
The eternally prolific V.C. Andrews (she died in 1986 but is still writing new books!) and her Flowers in the Attic series from Pocket Books were staple items on any paperback shelf throughout the 1980s. The cover images became rather iconic and the books themselves were devoured by teenage girls, probably while babysitting. I've never read a word but I can't deny that almost totemic quality of the cover. Classic vintage paperback stuff. Great stepback cover, too - you have to go here and read about its creation.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Some of the titles have jumped around in my head for ages, as did a few of the authors names, both because some became favorites and others because they seemed to become nothing. What Borderlands offers is stories that feature all kinds and styles of horror, from the non-supernatural to the otherworldly, from the quiet whisper to the shockingly violent, from dark fantasy to urban realism, psychological thriller to fairy tale, gritty suspense to gothic decadence. There's something here for the proverbial everyone. This means you.
(Speaking of Ellison, Borderlands was also my very first introduction to Poppy Z. Brite, whom Ellison lauded to the sky and back. "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood" is a goth-punk update of Lovecraft's "The Hound," both factors endearing her to me at once. I wrote about this story here.)
1994 reprint from White Wolf, cover art by Dave McKean
It was a pleasure to reread tales I'd half-remembered: "Muscae Volitantes" by Chet Williamson, but mostly unforgotten since I've been plagued by the titular condition for years. A husband's lover threatens to reveal the truth to the wife. Surely the husband can see his way out of this untenable position? And things get wonderfully, maniacally surreal in "Oh What a Swell Guy I Am," a story Monteleone happened upon out of the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts he received. Jeffrey Osier, a regular contributor to small press mags like Deathrealm and The Horror Show, possesses a strong, passionate prose style; his bizarre images are conveyed fully formed, which resonated uncomfortably with me. In a good way. The title... is literal. Oh man, is it literal.
standard horror tropes with wit and irony but is no less the horrific for it. Pure entertainment. John Shirley's "Delia and the Dinner Party" is part child's-eye view of the titular event and splatterpunk reveal, while Nina Kiriki Hoffman's creepy short-short "Stillborn" reminded me just a bit of the underseen 1990 film The Reflecting Skin, children obsessed with... well, no spoilers!
crime fiction but wrote quite a few pulp-horror novels under the name Daniel Ransom. Likewise, "Suicide Note" by Lee Moler isn't necessarily horror but more dark erotic suspense, a man obsessed with carnality till the very end of life.
In a more general vein, two looming specters over horror fiction of this era appear in Borderlands: religious fundamentalists and sexual abuse/incest. Today these topics seem a little shelf-worn in fiction, tropes that inexperienced or lazy writers can trot out and use to push readers' buttons all too easily (it's not just in genre lit either you can be sure). But when these themes starting appearing in horror fiction it signaled efforts to make horror more serious, more real, more involved with the world at large than retreating into the vagaries of the imagination à la Lovecraft, say. These themes date Borderlands but negate it little.
Bizarre hands indeed
Fortunately their appearances here are for the most part handled with intelligence. And, yes, irreverence: Joe R. Lansdale's "By Bizarre Hands" trades in both businesses, riding the edge of irreverent black humor and down-home horror in his own inimitable style as a pedophiliac preacher/conman drives the dusty roads of Texas looking for simple-minded girls he can "save" with the Good Lord's help. Joe's story ends Borderlands on a very high note, no surprise there. And "The Good Book" from G. Wayne Miller works the Lord works in mysterious ways just right, I thought.
Nazis, chemical pollution, and the nightmare of a homeowner's lawn care make John DeChancie's "The Grass of Rememberance" an intriguing read; the connection of these disparate elements didn't quite come together for me. "Alexandra," from '80s anthology essential Charles L. Grant, was quite good but again, the ultimate intent seemed to dance away from me at the last moment. A subtle and powerful woman befriends an Oxrun Station physician. Cool, but you all know Charlie: it's what he leaves out that is probably the most important aspect of his fiction. Sometimes I wish he'd just left it in.
In "Evelyn Grace," by Thomas Tessier, a young man feels up a female corpse in a funeral home. Then things get weird. This one ends with very nearly the most objectionable word in the English language... and it is oh so right. Another one outta the park for Tessier; he's batting 1.000 here at TMHF. The ever-welcome-but-rarely-seen T.E.D. Klein contributed one of his few short stories of the '90s, "Ladder." Fate is a gamesman, a wordsmith, trailing an Irishman as he travels the globe. Klein's sense of place and locale is impeccable, and his brand of Borgesian wordplay tickle the intellect but unsettle it too; surely we are not gamepieces for an idle god...
When I solicited material for what I hope will be the first of many volumes, I made it clear I didn't want stories that employed any of the traditional symbols and images of the genre. I wanted writers to expand the envelope, to look beyond the usual metaphors, and bring me something new... They are all extremely well-written. Some stories will dazzle, while others will quietly subvert, but they will all reach down and grab for the soft parts.
So says Tom Monteleone (above) in his intro, and he really deserves kudos for his editing skill here - and I don't have room to go into everything included. There is an air of conviction in all the stories; every one means business, even the "lesser" stories. No juvenile hijinks mar the carefully crafted terrors, no lapses in the write stuff to break the spells cast. Even the tales that get under the skin in a surreal yet inexplicable manner are serious in intent and purpose but without that sense of literariness of, say, 1988's Prime Evil; it's not so high-minded as that anthology. Borderlands (and the subsequent volumes, of which I own only the second today) promises to take us far, and it does, oh it does. What you will see there you've not seen elsewhere, but it's a one-way trip. So be warned: you'll have to find your way back on your own.