Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Modern Masters of Horror, ed. by Frank Coffey (1981): Two Minutes to Midnight

When I first saw this cover I thought that little tag read "The Best of the Scaries!" which I found disarmingly cute for an anthology of horror fiction. Turns out I just missed the final "t" and then the uniqueness disappeared. Modern Masters of Horror (orig. 1981, Ace paperback 1982, Berkley paperback 1988) offers up plenty of bankable names who for the most part are definitely "masters." Editor Frank Coffey has two '80s genre titles to his name, neither of which I've read but both of which I own thanks to some sweet cover art; otherwise I have no idea what relation he had with horror back in the day. His introduction feels rote, as he ruminates on why horror/occult goes through cycles of popularity. 

Neither Modern Masters paperback cover offers much to catch a prospective reader's eye (the Ace '82 resembles a Hitchcock crime anthology) and the only reason I picked up the '88 edition was because it was in pristine condition. Lucky too because inside are several standouts that aren't available anywhere else.

The unexpected star of this anthology is not, as one might think, the long Stephen King tale that starts it off ("The Monkey," which headlined Skeleton Crew [1985]; good but not great King), but the sole short story from one George A. Romero. "Clay" bears no resemblance to his zombie movies, but there are similarities to his excellent 1977 film Martin (and fine with me; Martin is my favorite Romero flick). With a careful and a vivid pen, Romero lays out a tale of two men in the New York City of decades ago: one a priest and one a neighborhood drunk. Compare and contrast: If the priest had ever visited Tippy's brownstone under the el, if he'd ever gone up to the third floor, he would have seen the beast of the city at its most dissolute... The matter-of-fact descriptions of horror and perversion elevate "Clay" to the top rank; one wonders what if Romero had written the story as a screenplay...!

 Romero & King, early 1980s

These days—if ever—I'm not crazy about the threat of rape used as a generic horror device, but hey, this was some three decades ago, times were simpler, so I take it as it comes. Written without any whiff of exploitation, "The Face" by Jere Cunningham speaks of secret selves to maintain sanity, but perhaps that's where we hide our madnesses as well. Robert Bloch's "In the Cards" is a terrible example of his old-man puns in short-story form. In Gahan Wilson's bit of playful metafiction, "The Power of the Mandarin," a mystery writer has created the ultimate villain for his Sherlockian detective—and doomed himself in the process. "The Root of All Evil" boasts a banal and cliched title but is a serviceable tale of ancient myths in the modern world thanks to Graham Masterton. Enjoyed William Hallahan's returns to the sort of astral projection he utilized for his 1978 occult thriller Keeper of the Children in "The New Tenant"; brief and to the point and dig that ice-cold climax.

Long-time SF/F/horror scribe William F. Nolan's piece was originally published in 1957, which I didn't now as I began "The Small World of Lewis Tillman." "What is this?!" I thought to myself as I read, "some shameless rip-off of I Am Legend?" Except instead of a last man on earth facing a vampire horde, Nolan's protagonist faces a horde of children. I honestly don't know which would be worse.

"Absolute Ebony" by Felice Picano (above) is a another gem. Set in a well-wrought 19th century Rome, it's about an American painter's discovery of the "blackest of the black," a charcoal so black it is like peering into infinity, somehow pulsing alive with the very negation of matter. This revolutionzies the man's art, but is cause for greater concerns. "Absolute Ebony" predates David Morrell's "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity" and the surreal mind-bending of Thomas Ligotti as it mines similar ideas and images.  Despite penning some lurid thrillers in the 1970s and early '80s, Picano is not associated with the genre; his prose has a confident panache often lacking in horror fiction which makes the story a highlight of the anthology.

Wasn't too taken with Ramsey Campbell's contribution, "Horror House of Blood." A couple lets a horror film crew shoot a few scenes in their home, and subtle weirdness ensues. I couldn't figure out what was happening in some places due to Campbell's opaque stylings but I do like the effect of ending the story just before the horror begins.

"The Siege of 318" is Davis Grubb's (above) tale of an Irish immigrant family living in West Virginia in the 1930s. Young master Benjy receives, as a gift from an uncle in Kilronan, an enormous crate of toy soldiers and attendant vehicles and weapons, enough even to reenact the Great War. At first father Sean approves: "'Tis time you learned the lessons of life's most glorious game." Except of course it goes slowly downhill as the "game" obsesses Benjy and enrages his father. You may be reminded of King's "Battleground" from Night Shift but this story is subtler, better written, with a tinge of world-weary resignation about the world's historic horrors that really chills. Another gem!

Two writers I'm not crazy about have two stories worth a read. "The Champion" from Richard Laymon is a competent bit of undeserved turnabout that wouldn't have seem out of place as an episode of Hitchcock Presents. Not a whiff of his retrograde approach to horror but features his trademark lack of believability. Laymon never bothers to convince a reader that the impossible is possible; he simply assumes it because, hey, this is horror fiction, right? Robert McCammon's "Makeup" I recall reading in his 1990 collection Blue World and thought it was merely kinda okay; this time I kinda enjoyed it more: loser crook in Hollywood inadvertently steals an old makeup case that once belonged to horror movie star Kronsteen (also featured in his novel They Thirst) and when he smears some on his face he—well I won't ruin it for ya.

Howling author Gary Brandner presents another type of body transformation in "Julian's Hand," a surprisingly straight-forward story about an accountant growing a hand under his arm. I liked it right up till its unexpectedly illogical conclusion. I mean, it just doesn't work, and an alternate ending, involving a coworker with whom the accountant has an affair, was up for grabs (pun intended, you'll see). There could've been a strange and happy ending instead of the lazy twist Brandner employs.

Another story marred by its ending is "A Cabin in the Woods" from John The Searing Coyne (above). It's a solid work of literally growing unease when the titular domicile is overrun by a fungus. The only problem is that the final line of the story, creepy as it is, is entirely too reminiscent of King's "I Am the Doorway." (And if you haven't read that story, you've got some treat waiting for you!)

Despite a few so-so fictions and lackluster cover art in all editions, Modern Masters of Horror is worth seeking out for the Romero and Picano, Grubb and Hallahan stories. I don't think you'll be too disappointed with the other stories included either. The "Scaries" indeed.


Adam said...

Sometimes I wanna just fight you over Laymon. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Griff said...

Laymon really is nothing special, some of his novels are fun in a "b movie" way but come on.

A few I read or tried to read were even flat out garbage as well.

Adam said...

There's no accounting for taste, that's for sure. I'm sure there's people out there who hate Clark Ashton Smith as much as I hate Peter Straub but that's not really a knock on any party.

However, novels such as The Stake and The Island rise above "fun in a b movie way" for sure; there's nothing like 'em.

I could debate the merit of many of his novels endlessly, but I'll try not to.

I just can't see how we live in a world where Ketchum's Offseason is considered (justly) a modern classic but Laymon's The Woods Are Dark is all but a footnote.

In all seriousness, it's cool to me if people can't get on the wavelength or if his writerly tics get on your nerves (Laymon leers at his women just as much as Howard leered at corded muscles rippling with power); I can get that. I can even get not being into some of the subject material, though I'd argue he does some of the best "slasher" work out there.

However, due to sheer output, influence on and respect from his peers, and the committed fanbase, I think it's safe to say there's something to his work. Certainly, something more than "nothing special".

Ron Clinton said...

I'm with you all the way, Adam, but it does feel like these days we're in a progressively diminishing minority...and I'm not sure why. Most midlist writers' popularity and legacies do diminish when they're no longer around to promote themselves, but I guess I thought it might be different for Laymon, given the impact and contributions he made to the horror-fiction genre...but for the most part that doesn't seem to be case, unfortunately.

Still, there does seem to be enough of us around to still charge his legacy with some moderate level of recognition and respect, and I hope that continues for a long, long time.

I do wonder sometimes how his legacy is faring in the UK, where he was always more popular than here at home in the U.S. I wonder if it's seen just as much a dropoff there as here, or if it's been more resilient.

Ron Clinton said...

As far as the above reviewed anthologies go, I miss the Good Ol' Days when anthologies were many, and the lineups of most were made of masters of the form, of Big Names (e.g. King, Koontz, McCammon, Dan Simmons, F. Paul Wilson, Laymon, et al). Nowadays when anthologies do appear, I don't even recognize half the contributors. I get the (fiscal and availability) reasons why and I certainly support projects that give new writers a chance...but, man, I do miss those salad days.

Will Errickson said...

Me too!

Griff said...

Adam - I don't want to be too hard on Laymon, maybe "nothing special" is a bit harsh, by that I simply mean I don't think he's a MUST read.

But some of the books I read by him did have effectively scary and effectively sexy moments with an overall fun sleazy tone, which is harder to pull off than it looks, I mean I'd much rather read something by Laymon than say William W. Johnstone any day.

So the guy had some talent, but even so I feel like his fanbase over hypes him a bit too much, which I think actually hurts him more than it helps because it raises people's expectations too high.

fyi the best one I read was Body Rides, which was scary and sexy with a pretty unique premise, definitely worth a read.

Adam said...

It's funny you'd mention Body Rides, Griffin; it's one of the few I haven't read.

I agree though, you aren't going to do him any favors by overhyping the guy. He'd be the first one to say that his work isn't a "big think", I'd imagine. However, when I hear people digging on, say, James Herbert but thumbing their nose at Laymon, it raises my hackles. Probably more than it should but I genuinely believe that if you believe that mainstream pulp can have real power and deeper things to say while maintaining the lower denominators that we expect of the genre then Laymon had that in spades. Also, one of his biggest attractions for me is that when it comes to classic splatterpunk, at least Laymon's work always had a sense of...levity? A sense of, "this is just a movie". Too many of the splat-pack crossed that line for me and started taking the stuff wayyy too seriously and it just falls off the rails into depressing. Sometimes Laymon's absurd oversexualized characters serve as a buffer to remind that he's writing this stuff to a formula and for an audience, not because he's expressing his general disdain for the world and blackness of the soul, yada yada.

God. What I wouldn't give for peak Verhoeven to have directed a film version of Island. He understood that perfect mesh of too cartoonish to scar but too visceral to ignore that marks the best of Laymon for me.

BTW, sorry this has been derailed into a Laymon discussion. I do have the Ace PB of this collection but never really loved it. However, I don't think I've cracked it open since I was seventeen, so maybe I should give it another go.

Will Errickson said...

Definitely the Romero and Picano and Grubb stories deserve a reread as an adult!