Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Borderlands 2, ed. by Thomas F. Monteleone (1991): It's a Long Way Back from Hell

"The stories which follow don't have to be read on a dark night, with glowing embers banked in the fireplace, and a dark wind howling across the moors. You can read these tales under the clear light of day and pure reason... None of the tired old symbols which have defined the genre for far too long will be found here."
 Editor Thomas F. Monteleone, introduction

How could any editor put together such a trailblazing anthology as 1990's Borderlands and not desire to follow it up with another volume? Again, Monteleone has gathered together stories by writers both (in)famous and not, stories that don't fit comfortably under the generic rubric of "horror," or any other either. Borderlands 2 (Avon Books, Dec 1991) treads a dangerous line: in its efforts to present horror/dark fantasy/suspense/science fiction stories that fit no mold it risks pretension, ambition outstripping execution (Prime Evil, anyone?); stay too close to identifiable territories and it is simply another paperback horror anthology cluttering up the shelves. The original Borderlands is one of my top favorites ever precisely because it tight-roped that line perfectly. Can Monteleone (pic below) and cohorts do it again?

For the most part, yes.

Disturbing is a word I'd use to describe the fictions herein; disturbing, unsettling, poignant, grotesque. Horror is normalized; lived with, understood as a fact of life, and isn't really scary anymore. Here there are moments struck in which I felt my flesh turn inside out, my shoulders shivering with revulsion, while my brain was engaged by a story's central idea, or an image or an implication. A writer who can do that to me—delight my mind while revolting my body—will have my undying devotion. And the story here that completely knocked me out, kept me glued to the page with a well-told tale and imagery of primal horror, was "Breeding Ground," by a man named Francis J. Matozzo

I doubt you know that name. He had a story in the original Borderlands, "On the Nightmare Express," which was kinda cool. In this one he details three seemingly disparate events: a man undergoing surgery for excruciating craniofacial pain, an amateur archaeological expedition, a woman estranged from her husband. It's how Matozzo fractures the story and then pieces it back together, building suspense, that really won me over. Also, I dig evolutionary biology and that figures in here too, both literally and as analogy. Skin-crawlingly disgusting and sadly effective, "Breeding Ground" succeeds at all levels.

Another strong work is Ian McDowell's "Saturn," which is not a reference to the planet but to the Roman god who, well, devours his children. It is filled with grim wit and ends on one of the darkest notes in the anthology. Yes, I killed Michael. And buried his head, hands, feet, and bones in the geranium bed, after eating the rest. I can't even honestly say I regret it, although I'm sorry you have to find out. 

One of the longest stories is "Churches of Desire" by the late Philip Nutman (pictured above at an archaic contraption known as, I think, "typewriter"). Clearly inspired by Clive Barker, a film journalist wanders through Rome, marveling at its filthy wonders and trying to pick up young men for anonymous trysts when he's not futilely attempting to interview an aging exploitation filmmaker. The "church of desire" is a porno theater, of course, and our protagonist eventually succumbs to its offerings, a depraved celluloid vision that would make Pasolini blush. While it may be too beholden to Barker, especially in its final paragraphs, "Churches of Desire" satisfies. The Church would welcome fresh converts that night and there would be new films to watch, new stories to tell, his own among them. In the name of the Father and the Son the congregation would sing silent praises to the Gods of Flesh and Fluids.

Sexual politics are a prominent feature in Borderlands 2, as the culture at large was beginning to deal with them in the early 1990s. The lead-off story, from F. Paul Wilson (of whom I am no fan) is "Foet," a so-so satire of high fashion and the absurd lengths to which people go in order to be stylish. You can probably guess the gimmick from the title. As with his notorious "Buckets," I found the approach over-done and the effect reactionary, which mitigates the shock factor. Better: "Androgyny," by Brian Hodge (pictured above), a sympathetic and relevant fantasy about a marginalized people, while Joe Lansdale's "Love Doll: A Fable" is an unsympathetic portrayal of someone who enjoys marginalizing those less fortunate, or simply those not born straight white blue-collar male.

"Dead Issue," from Slob author Rex Miller, doesn't have enough moral weight to justify its graphic sexual violence. Pass. "Sarah, Unbound," from which the Avon paperback chose its cover image, is Kim Antieau's solid contribution about a woman exorcising her real-life demons (She hated him so much. She had loved him. Why had he done it?) by counseling an imaginative yet abused child.

Borderlands Press hardcover, Oct 1991, Rick Lieder cover art

David B. Silva, the late editor of Horror Show magazine, returns to Borderlands with the final story, "Slipping." Like his award-winning "The Calling," "Slipping" is about real-life fears: in the former it was cancer, here it is aging. A hard-working ad man finds moments of his life disappearing from his memory, hours, then days. One moment he's at work, the next he's on the phone with his ex-wife, then he's having lunch with a colleague, with no conscious memory of how he got to any of those points. Silva makes the reader feel the terrible incomprehension of being aware of that incomprehension... but being powerless to stop it. Excellent. The physical distress of aging also appears in Lois Tilton's "The Chrysalis"; a character's dawning horror at its climax was a favorite moment of mine.

Children are horrible, aren't they? A classic horror trope. Facing the sins of our past, our guilt unassuaged by time or deed, is central to Paul F. Olson's "Down the Valley Wild," a sensitive, painful rumination on a childhood 40 years gone. It also contains some well-rendered moments of shock; overall it was a highlight of the book for me. "Taking Care of Michael" is only a page and a half long but J.L. Comeau's prose cuts deep and ugly, presenting madness under the guise of innocence.

White Wolf reprint, Oct 1994, Dave McKean cover art

All that said, Borderlands 2 also includes a handful of stories I found middling, so this volume doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor. These stories—"The Potato" by Bentley Little, "For Their Wives Are Mute" by Wayne Allen Sallee, "Apathetic Flesh" by Darren O. Godfrey, "Stigmata" by Gary Raisorhave their peculiarities, their moments of squick and dread, sure, but lack a certain edge to really sledgehammer the reader. Of course mileage may vary; other than Rex Miller's story none of them outright suck, and I think most readers will find much of Borderlands 2 to be an excellent usage of their time. Monteleone wisely continued the series for several more volumes, most of which I read as they were published through the mid-'90s—I clearly recall buying this one upon publication, eager and excited to delve into "steaming, stygian pools of unthinkable depravity"—and I hope to own them all again one day soon. Rest assured that all my future trips to "uncharted realms of bloodcurdling horror" will be documented and presented here, trespassing be damned.


Jonathan Stover said...

This actually answered a question I pondered yesterday after reading "Babycakes," a Neil Gaiman piece illustrated by Michael Zulli in the 1990 horror comix anthology TABOO #4. Which is simply to say that "Babycakes" predates "Foet," with which it shares some similarities. I now wonder if that's part of the reason the somewhat unlikely Wilson wrote an introduction to one of the collected SANDMAN volumes in the 1990's, an intro that has since been replaced by an intro by a different author.

Will Errickson said...

Interesting. I don't know that Gaiman story; I only own TABOOs 1 - 3. Looking it up, I see what you mean!

Ron Clinton said...

I own and have read all the BORDERLANDS volumes (and there has been a rumored sixth volume in the work for years now...I hope someday we'll all see it), and while it does seem to me that each volume is a victim of progressively diminishing returns, it's a landmark, long-running series of original horror fiction of such quality that it has had few serious competitors through the years. All that said, my preference for the earlier volumes could also be simple nostalgia that has me looking upon those volumes with rose-colored glasses; truth be told, you really can't go wrong with any of the five volumes published thus far.

toomuchhorrorfiction said...

Yeah, don't get me wrong--the stories that didn't completely knock me out, while more prevalent in this second volume, were still better than lots of stories I've read in other anthos. BORDERLANDS is definitely a landmark of horror fiction.