Monday, October 14, 2013

Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror, ed. by Olson & Silva (1992): Come and Die with Me Forever

I don't believe in ghosts. And yet... ghostly doings in horror fiction tend to work their chills on me. What I find particularly effective are the emotions and psychological states the ghosts often represent: guilt, unrequited love, vengeance, regret, loneliness, grief, rage, even sexual longing. Becoming the external manifestation of characters' repression is an essential part of any ghost's (albeit fictional) existence. Same goes for haunted houses, which function as geographic representations of the mind and all its tortures. I'm a sucker for that stuff, even if my readings in the classic ghost stories of antiquary is rudimentary; it's those ideas I find satisfyingly creepy. 1989's Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror (Dell/Abyss Jan 1992) contains solid examples of these ideas, from generally skillful writers with names both recognized and not.

While its paperback cover resembles nothing so much as classic '80s Slayer album art, Post Mortem doesn't rely on graphic or demonic excesses to frighten readers; there's hardly a broken bone or bloody wound or occult word in these entire 350 pages. None was an outright bomb but there are some ho-hum entries. Not all the stories even attempt horror; they can mostly be divided up between "hopeful" ghosts and "scary" ghosts. Although both Paul F. Olson and David B. Silva were editors of well-regarded '80s horror mags, Horrorstruck and The Horror Show respectively, I wasn't impressed with their metafictional introduction. Ditto Dean Koontz's afterward, which highlights exactly why I find him useless as any kind of horror authority. Koontz prefers, it seems, those "hopeful" ghost stories, the ones that confirm his belief that his spirit "will never die."

The opener "Each Night, Each Year," by Kathryn Ptacek, works well enough, and has some of the creepiest imagery in the book, but she overplays her hand at times by underwriting. When the haunted narrator states "It is my guilt that brings him here," it's already obvious, I think, that that's exactly what's going on, and stating it so baldly snaps the spell. I don't need to have my head grabbed and pointed right at the issue; a gentle handhold can be just as unnerving, no? The recently-late Gary Brandner brings a gruesome little ghost story in the simplistic "Mark of the Loser," solidly in the old-fashioned EC Comics style.

Next, "Timeskip," Charles de Lint's entry, is a modern urban fantasy with 20something protagonists; I know he's considered a pioneer in that subgenre, as his felicity with environs and character is obvious. Romantic ghosts promise meeting again. A similar encounter turns up in James Howard Kunstler's "Nine Gables," about a couple whose marriage is rekindled in the unlikeliest manner when they welcome guests into the titular inn they buy. From horror-writing couple the Tems, Steve Rasnic and Melanie, we get the terrific "Resettling." This is about the finest little haunted-house story I've read recently (after Michael Blumlein's "Keeping House"). It works every which way, a mature, insightful work that confronts family life's innumerable disappointments, with a true and bittersweet finale that oh-so-subtly upends ghost story protocol. The Tems really get - deliver - domestic horror.

Would an '80s horror antho be complete without Ramsey Campbell? Non. Utilizing a rare book of ghost-story author extraordinaire M.R. James, Campbell's "The Guide" is told in his usual slow-to-the-point-of-agony prose, but the payoff is claustrophobic and nightmarish, hinting at horrors scarcely imaginable: Imagine, if you will, a spider in human form with only four limbs, a spider both enraged and made ungainly by the loss, especially since the remaining limbs are by no means evenly distributed.

Visiting ghosts also appear to those whose pasts are unfinished. Sometimes these shades bring closure, as in Silva's "Brothers" or P.W. Sinclair's "Getting Back," but just as often bring a horrific justice. "The Ring of Truth" from Borderlands editor Thomas F. Monteleone is a longish tale of Vietnam survivors and insane murderous machismo. Hate burned like the heart of a star, and not even death can keep that feeling contained. The abused wife of Janet Fox's "The Servitor" escapes to an abandoned house in the country. Surprise: it's not so abandoned, and what's there demands a debt for its services. A finely-tuned depiction of a woman's desperate attempts to save herself, the story's final lines are chillingly pitiless.

Will it surprise regular readers of TMHF that my absolute favorite story in Post Mortem was Thomas Tessier's contribution "Blanca"? Here the ghosts are victims of historical/political tragedies. In Tessier's usual tone of detachment, dry wit, and maybe even resignation, his narrator begins:

When I told a few close friends that I was going to Blanca, their reaction was about what I had expected. "Why?" they asked. "There's nothing to see in Blanca. Nothing to do except disappear." Sly smiles. "Watch out you don't disappear." "Maybe that's why I chose it," I said with a smile of my own. "It might be nice to disappear for a while." 

Can there be any doubt the story will end the same way?

Another terrific story is the sensitive "Whisper of Soft Wings," by Melissa Mia Hall. It is very good but very sad: a little girl comes around to visit an elderly woman in a world that has less and less of a place for the old. With a rare sense of poignancy, Hall draws the two together in an intimate embrace. I will definitely be looking for more from Hall; but nothing new, I'm afraid, as she died several years ago.

Last, the somewhat interesting "Haunted World" - what if all the people who ever lived on earth came back to haunt us - is told in a cliched good ol' boy voice, which completely undermines the premise. The bland, obvious style of Robert McCammon proves to me once again why I have little interest in reading any of his novels, despite their seeming endless popularity with fans of '80s horror.

Final words: Post Mortem is a good but not truly essential horror fiction anthology. Fans of de Lint, Tessier, the Tems, Campbell, or Hall should find a copy, as their stories work in the classic ghost story mold but also are convincing and fresh in their modern settings and concerns. Me, I could've used a few darker tales, a few more nastier, eerie moments that lingered after I put the paperback back on my shelf. But it did reinforce my belief that nothing is so haunted as the human heart, and that the most unsettling ghost of all is the most recognizable, the one we live with every day, long before we die.


francisco said...

hey Will you didn't mention two of my favourites in the anthology Walkie talkie by Donald R Burleson and Major prevue here tonight by William F Nolan, really effective stories in a very good to excellent anthology now is your turn to read other anthology in some way complementary to this, The architecture of fear by Kathryn Cramer and Peter D Pautz


Bob The Wordless said...

Horrorstruck,and Horror Show.Two truly great magazines.

Post Mortem was a great anthology. The 80's and 90's brought out some superb anthologies. Nowadays, though, they seem kind of blah.

Then again, maybe I'm just getting old.

francisco said...

I think that nowadays there are interesting anthologies like The mammoth book of best new horror by Stephen Jones, Best horror of the year by Ellen Datlow or The year's best dark fantasy and horror by Paula Guran