Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Borderlands, edited by Thomas F. Monteleone (1990): Wake Up in the Night with a Fear So Real

An admission: I almost didn't read this one back in the day. The cover art of a skeleton driver at the wheel almost turned me off Borderlands (Avon, Nov 1990), the first in the anthology series edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. At that time I was just so over skulls and skeletons on covers, thinking that whatever was inside was just as cliched and tiresome. But I finally succumbed to that wonderful blurb from Peter Straub, had already enjoyed Wagner, Klein, and Lansdale, and so found Borderlands to be a terror treasure trove, stuffed with inventive, colorful, eclectic stories I remember fondly - well, I remember fondly that I enjoyed them almost 25 years ago. I've been wanting to revisit and review Borderlands since I began this blog more than three years ago....would it hold up on this reread?

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.

The tone is set, wisely, with the first story, "The Calling." It's by the recently late David B. Silva, who edited one of the essential horror magazines of the 1980s, The Horror Show (many of the writers in this antho sold their first stories to Silva). Grim and despairing and all too real: a man caring for his mother as she slowly succumbs to cancer. This is horror of humiliation and embarrassment, failure and resentment. With a delicate yet graphic touch, Silva deftly explores what we choose to ignore. The ending is the essence of horror. And I just learned "The Calling" won the 1990 Bram Stoker Award for best short story; no surprise there.

"Scartaris, June 28th" is Harlan Ellison in Deathbird Stories (1975) mode: What happens to gods after their last believers die? Here Ellison's anger and impatience are tempered by a more forgiving, more understanding nature. A nameless man wanders the globe, giving a cessation of suffering to some, simply a hard time to others who deserve to be confronted about their outmoded beliefs. Ellison drops arcane comparative mythology knowledge on the reader and it'll help if you know who Arne Saknussemm is. Ellison's story is the most sophisticated and ambitious of works here and it contains some of his finest-ever writing.

(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.

A quick stop in lycanthropy land, in which Les Daniels upends who's monster and who's man; like his other fiction, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" uses 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!
Ed Gorman's (above) "The Man in the Long Black Sedan" has a family man in the grip of madness - or utter calm rationality? - confront a most innocuous villain in a motel room. Gorman is more known for his 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.

A handful of contributions leave the reader spooked but bewildered, such as "The Pounding Room" by Bentley Little (above). An author whose only work I've read have been this story, twice now. Neither read has gotten me interested in reading more of his stuff, but that's me. Obviously lots of readers like the inexplicability of this story, this style, revealing the unbelievable horrors that lurk behind, beyond, beneath the mundane. But to what end? Perhaps that's the point: the horror of incomprehension. He would become one of the big paperback horror writers of the turn of the century but oh well.

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.

Works from my faves: several times Karl Edward Wagner (above) has written sensitively of the fallout of the Vietnam War; in "But You'll Never Follow Me" a veteran still beholden to his war-torn battlefield ethic must now deal with his aging, ailing parents. It's a sad, sad story, without a trace of the unreal, and the climax hits a lot harder today than it did in 1990. Read it, and see what I mean. Ouch.

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...

One of the more infamous short stories of its day - the impact of which I've never forgotten even if the specifics were vague - "Stephen" ruminates upon bodily disfigurement in several disturbing ways, none of which resort to the supernatural. Elizabeth Massie (above) knows that while it was once proper to look away from the physically unfortunate, we all want to stare. And stare she does, unblinking, sympathetic, but without pity. Anne Zaccaria volunteers at a nursing home for the disabled and learns to confront her own deformities - not of the body but of her mind, her past, her family - thanks to the title character. "Stephen" is perhaps the most emotionally wrenching tale in Borderlands, never faltering in places where a lesser writer may have stumbled into grotesque tastelessness - well, I suppose there's some grotesque tastelessness here, but that's life. Excellent stuff, and another Bram Stoker Award winner, for best long fiction.

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.


James Everington said...

Sounds great, this one. Anything that contains a TED Klein story I've not read before s straight onto my 'hunt down list'.

Brian Schwartz said...

You might give A Bentley Little novel a try. I reviewed his first collection of short stories and found it uneven at best.

His novels require a different degree of suspension of belief, because Little uses horror as social commentary on everyday life. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but the guy writes some spooky stories.

Adam said...

Did Karl Edward Wagner ever write anything not worth reading? I mean, maybe Silted In or Shrapnel, but even then, you get a portrait of a talented and methodical artist in the throes of personal destruction. I mean, I always try to separate the artist from the work when I am absorbing them, but there's something about Wagner that is a little too...close to the heart. Knowing his troubles and triumphs, it makes each one of his tremendous works that much more powerful and resonant. Have you read his Kane works? It might be out of your wheelhouse a bit but my God if they aren't the most operatic and imaginative Sword and Sorcery's written since the fifties. Another great article and another delight to read. Thanks for your contributions to the "ghetto" genre.

Ron Clinton said...

The BORDERLANDS series is one of the best original-work (i.e. not a Best Of reprint) horror anthology series produced to date. Dark Harvest's NIGHT VISIONS series is also outstanding (and the first few were reprinted in mass-market pbs under different titles). Those two are what I think about when I think of exemplary antho series. WHISPERS, SHADOWS, MASQUES, et al...all quite good series, but I think there's something fundamentally special about BORDERLANDS and NIGHT VISIONS.

Will Errickson said...

James - I was happy to have read this Klein tale; don't think I read it originally.

Brian - Little's first novel is from 1990, so who knows?

Adam - KEW's fiction had an emotional authenticity not often found in horror. I do look for Kane stuff occasionally but no, haven't read any. Thanks for the compliments!

Ron - Great point. Can't wait to keep rereading this series. Have some NIGHT VISIONS too, and MASQUES. Oh hell, I have plenty and wanna READ 'EM ALL.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I've never even seen subsequent volumes, which is too bad. I remember buying this at a college bookstore solely because it had a Klein story in it. That was like finding gold.

Oh, I'm sure you probably know this, but Poppy Z. Brite--Billy now--isn't a girl anymore.

Unknown said...

Tom Monteleone here . . . someone just steered me to your blog. Thanks for all the kind words. If you could let your audience know--all the Borderlands volumes are now or soon will be available as eBooks from Cross Road Press. I encourage readers who need a break from crappy cliched horror to give them a try