Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Nest of Nightmares by Lisa Tuttle (1986): Bodies in the Bosom of Hell

So often the horror genre is an adolescent male fantasy land, obsessed with the extremities of life and limb, madness and fear, sex and death. How far can the writer go? How much can the reader take? While I like a good splatterpunker as much as the next reader, it's also a distinct pleasure to find authors who use restraint and throughtfulness as their tools of the horror trade, writers who can portray the finer points of the human experience. Someone like Lisa Tuttle is probably not much appreciated by a fanbase that wants gore, stark terror, degradation, and perversity. With her clear sensitivity to the delicate threads that bind friends and lovers, mothers and children, the stories collected in Nest of Nightmares (Sphere Books, March 1986, creeeeepy baby bird cover art by Nick Bantock) exist in a homey, cozy world... until, of course, those threads begin to unwind and fray and snap, launching the (always) female protagonist into a stratosphere of pain, guilt, loss, death.

After reading her three impressive contributions to the third volume of the Night Visions anthology series, I realized Tuttle was a writer I needed to read more by. Nest had already been on my to-find list, and as it was only published in the UK, I knew finding it wouldn't be easy. But last month I lucked into a copy in a used bookstore, and didn't put off reading it. Tuttle is a master of the formula horror story, but not in a way that makes them obvious, creaky, or cliched. Her style is clean and quiet, not obtrusive and able to convey subtle horrors that sneak up on both the character as well as the reader. An astute chronicler of the female psyche, it's a mainstream contemporary writer vibe I get from Tuttle - until, as I noted, the horror starts. Then she wraps them right up in a hellish embrace without hesitation.

There is the set up, which she introduces with a light, modern touch, bespeaking more of a woman's experience than, say, a male pulp writer. Her flawed female characters appealed to me greatly, as did the scenarios they populated, and their final horrors sealed the deal for me. Tuttle was a practitioner of a kind of horror tale I find quite satisfying: the "punishments" her characters face are born and bred of daily weakness and insecurity, feelings suppressed and sublimated. Often the horror is all too recognizable: sadness, alienation, a not-belongness, modern anxieties and disappointments. But she is doubly cruel, for her characters suffer not just these pains but also the ineffable and unpredictable slings and arrows of the supernatural, the unexplainable, the uncanny.

But then I guess all I just did here was expand upon that simple tagline at the top of the cover: Into the worlds of loneliness, anxiety and fear...  Yes, these women are lonely, even heartbroken people, scarred by the past and uncertain of the future. At times I was reminded of Ramsey Campbell's unfulfilled protagonists going about their dreary, workaday lives; even Clive Barker's early Books of Blood tales, when the lost find meaning only in their sudden doom (so not for nothing did editor George R. R. Martin team them all up for that Night Visions antho). These things to me are all good things, and Nest of Nightmares is an unassuming collection of modern, female-centric psychological horror. Now on to the baker's dozen of tales, mostly published throughout the 1980s in either Twilight Zone mag or the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction...

"Bug House" begins the book, and it's a nice simple creepy-crawler reminiscent of Campbell's stories of urban blight. Aunt May lives in a crumbling ocean-side home and niece Ellen hopes to help. But we know better: ...A spider, pale as the sand, danced warily on pipe-cleaner legs. Circling it, chitinous body gleaming darkly in the sunlight, was a deadly black dart of a wasp... Although she liked neither spiders nor wasps, Ellen hoped that the spider would win. I think you can guess what's going on, and what waits for Ellen at story's end. Next are a couple brief, nasty episodes, “Doll Burger” and “Community Property,” which pack a not altogether surprising punch in their final lines.

I've said before one of my favorite types of horror tale are those that explore writers' lives, and in "Flying to Byzantium," we see that can be its own particular kind of hell. A realistic story of Sheila Stoller, author of a successful fantasy novel, flying from LA back to her tiny titular hometown in Texas to appear at a science fiction convention. But she no longer feels the need to write, having escaped home: Writing… took her out of herself, away from loneliness, dull school classes, and the tedium of working… when she was writing she could forget she wasn’t pretty, didn’t have a boyfriend, had no talents and no future. Girls her age thought she was a boring, stuck-up bookworm.

Illustration for "Flying to Byzantium," from Twilight Zone mag, June 1985

Her mother always said, Don’t think you’re different, don’t think you’re special. After being picked up at the airport by two women who organized and invited her to the convention, she sees they are the unwanted... the sort of people she had been lumped in with at school... women like the ones she shunned rather than admit that she was like them. Slowly, unavoidably, indignity piles upon indignity, and Sheila doesn’t have the will power to resist. Will her fantasy heroine be enough inspiration to escape Byzantium? The awkwardness throughout could be a comedy of errors were it not so pitiless about Sheila's delusions and refusal to assert herself... just as her mother never stopped reminding her.

A ghostly premonition of grief haunts "Treading the Maze," in which a husband and wife witness a seemingly harmless pagan ritual, and she will come to realize it wasn't so harmless. So, so good, and so sad, as Tuttle couches an unthinkable reality in terms of the unknown. In "Horse Lord," "The Memory of Wood," and "The Other Mother," children are a woman's undoing (ancient myths and possessed equines don't help either). Can one be a mother and a full individual person at the same time? I don't know if I can manage it, not even with all the good examples of other women, or all the babysitters in the world, says Sara in the latter story. These are words mothers must not say aloud, for once spoken those forces will manifest themselves in otherworldly ways. Tuttle unleashes them, those inchoate fears at the bottom of women's minds, and lets them do their worst. Definitely some of my faves here, each with chilling moments of helpless creeping terror.

Tuttle's first novel, 1983

The similarly titled "Need" and "A Friend in Need" feature the longing for companionship and understanding and the contradictory compulsion in us to separate, to isolate, to define ourselves at the expense of others. Another favorite, "Sun City" - a story originally chosen by Ramsey Campbell to be included in his New Terrors (1980) anthology -  is pure grotesque horror, as Nora, working a hotel desk night shift, deals with leaving her husband, as well as a horrific event she witnessed on their honeymoon in Mexico - about which she did nothing. She begins to notice a rotting stench in her apartment, then an apparition at the foot of her bed, which she sees clearly since she sleeps during the day:

The strange cloak ended in blackened tatters that hung over his hands and feet, and the hood had ragged holes torn in it for eyes and mouth - with a rush of horror, Nora realized what she was seeing. The figure was dressed in a human skin.

A perfect '80s horror tale! The collection ends with, of course, a story titled "The Nest," in which two adult sisters buy a home together, the roof of which has a large, poorly covered hole in it, which younger sister Sylvia discovers when she climbs - head-first, to her sister's dismay - into the attic. Older sister Pam wonders at what debris and vermin could have gotten into the house, but hopes the two of them can make a cozy home there. One day out for a walk, Sylvia notices something large and black in one of the trees; something that reminded me horribly of a man crouching there, spying on the house... Could something still get in through that hole in the roof? We're never sure what Sylvia sees, but the careful reader will understand, from an incident in their adolescence that Sylvia relays, remembering Pam talking to a black-leather-jacketed boy... What Sylvia finds later in the attic will utterly distress her; what she doesn't find will break her heart. Brilliant.

Will I read one of Lisa Tuttle's novels? I'm not sure yet - will her facility with the short story format translate to longer works? One can only hope. Chosen by Robert Holdstock for Jones & Newman's Horror: 100 Best Books, I can say I enjoyed every one of the stories included in Nest of Nightmares (unfortunately, copies of Nest are going for rarely less than $50 online - buy the old copies of TZ and F&SF magazines with these stories instead). Yes, some tales are minor and some more effective than others, but Tuttle, a lifelong fan of ghost stories and weird tales, gives them all a solid horror payoff, and their sometimes predictable nature to me works not against them but in their favor: no matter how cozy we are in our rooms and solid homes we are still most naked and vulnerable, and we cannot hide from the waiting world; no matter how well we tend our nests for ourselves and our offspring, certain doom awaits within and without. All that is uncertain is when.


Jack Tripper said...

Excellent review. I've been searching for a reasonably priced copy for years, having loved Tuttle's stories in Night Visions 5, Hot Blood, Dark Forces, Metahorror, etc., and now I'm even more committed to finding it, thanks to you.

Regarding her novels, I recently started 'Lost Futures,' her early 90s novel for Abyss, and it's pretty freaky so far. It's not exactly horror, more of a weird, Philip K Dick-style mind-bender dealing with parallel lives/universes. Definitely worthwhile, at least so far.

highwayknees said...

Im with you here as usual about Tuttle. And I DO recommend the one novel that I read The Pillow Friend. It was a fantastic experience . I realized at once that I was in the hands of an acomplished master. Thoroughly engrossing TPF is a bit of a coming of age tale propelled by a soupcon of witchcraft, that gradually turns into a psychosexual dream like thriller . Very subtle but very effective. I wish her stuff was easier to find.

Off topic: glad to see you finally took my advice and read TaP Tap by David Martin! I re-read it not so long ago and it still scared the poop out of me!

Lincoln said...

Finally picked this up, at a reasonable price for an unread copy. Won't remain unread for long!

Jack Tripper said...

Just wanted to add that I recently scored Lisa Tuttle's two following collections -- A SPACESHIP BUILT OF STONE (1987) and MEMORIES OF THE BODY (1992) -- and they're every bit as good as NEST, imo. Although many of the stories were originally published in sf/fantasy publications as opposed to horror, they're mostly filled with the same nightmarish sense of dislocation and unease that I loved so much in NEST.

And to followup on my earlier comment, her 1992 Dell/Abyss novel, LOST FUTURES, ended up being excellent as well -- very powerful and moving. Tuttle's definitely one of the most under-appreciated writers in the horror/weird field.