Friday, April 15, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears—Review Cont'd

Let's continue, shall we? 1992's MetaHorror (Dell/Abyss) contains a wealth of stories I couldn't get to in my first review.

Thomas Tessier presents us with "In Praise of Folly," and if you don't know now, Tessier is one of my favorite horror writers of the era. Our story goes along in Tessier's patented confident prose, his usual set-up, the travelogue of a man alone in search of something just beyond reach. While the premise of "folly" is a good onea genuine folly was a building, garden, grotto or other such architectural construct that had been designed with a deliberate disregard for the normal rules—and the payoff is quite unsettling, something seemed missing for me; the protagonist's reaction to his predicament is muted, almost elided; I needed it for the story to have frisson. A rare mis-step for Tessier, but still a worthwhile read.

Ramsey Campbell's "End of the Line" is about a man who slowly loses the ability to communicate. Since the guy is a telemarketer by trade, it's an ironic notion. Always with the modern world's dehumanization, Campbell is. "Nothing Will Hurt You" by David Morrell is a parent's cry of desperation after the loss of a child—something I know Morrell actually experienced—and the story is a raw, painful, an exorcism of grief. The central idea is kinda wonky, and you'll see the climax coming, but it worked for me.

Lisa Tuttle offers "Replacements" in her story about a domestic intruder. Jenny brings home a strange little creature she's found in the street to husband Stuart.

"...I realized how helpless it was. It needed me. It can't help how it looks. 
Anyway, doesn't it kind of remind you of the Psammead?" 
"The what?" 
"Psammead. You know, The Five Children and It?"

Ick. She doesn't know Stuart killed one of the repulsive things in a fit of disgust earlier that day. I really dig stories about dysfunctional relationships that have the bitter tang of real life experience, but cast in the generic structure of horror fiction. A winner.

Karl Edward Wagner's "Did They Get You to Trade" is one of MetaHorror's finest offerings. Now I'm generally not into fictional rock'n'roll (see Shock Rock, Never Mind the Pollacks, Great Jones Street, or CBGB [obviously not fictional but ugh] on how to get it wrong): authors always seem to miss that ineffable quality to the music, tiny details are wrong, but Wagner's up to the task. It's not perfect, couple notes ring slightly false, but that is to quibble. American Ryan Chase, visiting and drinking in London, stumbles upon forgotten punk-rock hero Nemo Skagg, now a meth burnout, but still retains the most satisfying part of his '70s fame. The determined grit, the encompassing humanistic tone, the assured narrative flow, the sense of place, and the just-so rambling drunken conversation show Wagner about as good as he gets—alas, as good as he would ever get; he'd be dead within two years. Stories like this one make readers realize just how much good horror fiction would never be with Wagner's death. A lost giant.


Donald Burleson's "Ziggles" reminded me of Ramsey Campbell in its step-by-step elevation of the banal to the absurdly horrific. A schoolteacher and her children are pursued in the oddest way by the titular character, which is, believe it or not, a stick figure. I know, right? But it works. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Barry N. Malzberg (again?!) provides "Dumbarton Oaks," an ostensibly irreverent fable casting the doings of devils as analogous to the drudgery of earthly business management. I dunno, with its archness ("It is best to retain the appearance of humility, even in the intimation of its opposite"), it reads like something Ray Russell could've dashed off back in '65 during his days as a Playboy editor, and probably after a three-martini lunch.

M. John Harrison (above, and another author known more for SF) "GIFCO" is a real mind-fuck, literate and allusive, about... child death/abduction? Grief? Marriage woes? Harrison is a heavyweight of a writer, no falsity, no dull edges, but just what he's getting at eludes the reader. That is the intent, it has to be: that feeling of unsettled, free-floating anxiety and doubt, that there are things going on around us that flit from comprehension. The tiniest detail can have the largest import. A husband and wife lose their daughter; a cop uses their upstairs room to spy on an abandoned house spray-painted with the word "GIFCO"; then suddenly GIFCO is part of the proceedings as a shadowy agent as the man and the cop search for a missing teenager (I had been warned: "Be certain to say that first. 'GIFCO sent me.'") . I really had no idea what the fuck was going on here; I googled the tale and while other readers dig it, nobody can apprehend its final meaning. I suppose there isn't a point, and that's the point. How meta.

1996 German paperback

A violent shoot 'em up of biblical proportions, Robert Devereaux's "Bucky Goes to Church" affects that down-home vulgarity of a redneck spinning tales at the cracker barrel, disarming you with philosophical asides and then an apocalyptic climax. Definite Joe Lansdale territory. Devereaux went on to write at least one notorious over-the-top splatterpunk novel (1994's Deadweight, also from Abyss). At times bizarrely silly and ridiculous, so much so I wanted to dismiss the story utterly, at other moments Devereaux shows a deft hand with his monstrous conceit: "You sending me to hell?" he asked. She laughed. "Looks to Me you found your own way there." Her eyes surveyed the carnage... This has got to be one of the founding stories of bizarro horror.


My issue with MetaHorror is that I wish there'd been a Poppy Z. Brite, an Elizabeth Massie, a David B. Silva, a T.E.D. Klein, a Kathe Koja—I guess I'm naming writers that appeared in the Borderlands series, aren't I? MetaHorror is very good in places but quite weak in others, and stories by the writers I named would have been a better fit. While not essential, MetaHorror is, as Etchison notes in his intro, "wonderfully varied in both content and style." I think there will be something here for adventurous readers seeking something beyond.

1992 hardcover title page

Friday, April 8, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears

In 1992, with Dell's horror imprint Abyss up and running, it made good sense for the publisher to hire Dennis Etchison to put together their first anthology of original fiction. As we saw in his 1986 anthology Cutting Edge (a personal and important favorite of mine, both then and now), his pedigree of intelligence and taste, willingness to experiment in the genre and test boundaries, made him the right man to acquire even cutting-edgier stories. We got MetaHorror (July 1992). Right from the start you can see the ambition: check the prefix meta. Now that's a scholarly, academic word, this meta, one not generally bandied about by readers and purveyors of paperback horror fiction. What gives?

I was definitely into this idea of horror that went beyond horror, horror aware of its history, horror that left behind its tepid tropes and banal cliches in search of real true darkness, horror aware of its place in the literary pantheon (that is, nowhere) and eager to show its intellectual bonafides. I mean, we got Joyce freakin' Carol Oates on the cover! MetaHorror hit me at the right time: I'd been moving away from horror, reading more and more crime, more science fiction, more literary fiction, more world classics. I was in college at the time and reading serious academic books too (one title that I recall fondly that combined horror and academia was Lee Siegel's City of Dreadful Night—which I read about in Fangoria!). So yeah: I was all about some meta. Problem was, I seem to recall reading the few duds in the anthology first, which put me off reading the rest. So I've been meaning to get back to MetaHorror for years...

MetaHorror begins with "Blues and the Abstract Truth" by Barry Malzberg and Jack Dann, which is followed by the not dissimilar "Are You Now?" by Scott Edelman. All three authors were more known for their science fiction than horror—I'm not doing headstands here. These two openers are weak Xerox copies of the masterful futurist J.G. Ballard: fractured, dissociated, clinical tales of men still in thrall to the sociopolitical events of the 1950s and 1960s, searching for the (Freudian? Jungian? McLuhanian?) key that will unlock their tortured psyches. My psyche was tortured by Ballard's books throughout the 1990s, and while I absolutely adored them, if I'm going to revisit their corrosive obsessions I'd just as soon pull The Atrocity Exhibtion off my shelf and read it again (I don't think I read these two stories on my initial encounter).

Next up: two so-so short-shorts by Lawrence Watt-Evans and Richard Christian Matheson, all blood 'n' blades stuff, then Joyce Carol Oates shows up with "Martyrdom" and shows everybody how it's done. I don't always like her short fiction—I've been dipping in and out of her 1977 collection Night-Side for ages—but this one is a doozy. Oates strikes a bold contrast between a woman who marries into high-society and the life of a city rat (yes, you read that right); when the two meet it's the most unsettling scenario this side of (then-current) American Psycho. Densely packed with disgusting imagery and written with consummate skill, "Martyrdom" is a marvel.

Mr. X grew systematically crueler, hardly a gentleman any longer, forcing upon his wife as she lay trussed and helpless in their marriage bed a man with fingernails filed razor-sharp who lacerated h er tender flesh, a man with a glittering scaly skin, a man with a turkey's wattles, a man with an ear partly missing, a man with a stark-bald head and cadaverous smile, a man with infected draining sores like exotic tattoos stippling his body...


"Briar Rose" features a young woman regaining her identity through tattoos ("I'm my own Sistine Chapel"). Kind of a dated concept today, sure, but Kim Antieu's perceptive pen confers a fresh eye to the conceit. Plus it was 1992. I've liked her stories in Borderlands II and other anthos, and this one is no exception. Old-schoolers William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson had decades of publications to their name even in 1992. I know it's impolitic of me to say, but I inwardly sigh when I see their names on an anthology roster. Their stories here—"The Visit" and "The Ring of Truth" respectively—are relatively quaint, the "unexpected" twists of the genre long utilized by themselves and their colleagues but painfully dated today (or "today"). They're outclassed by the deeper, darker, more finely wrought and conceived works that MetaHorror also contains.


Steve Rasnic Tem's "Underground" was a favorite: a sensitive, penetrating work about a man's friend slowly dying of AIDS who doesn't want to be buried after the disease finally wins. This is juxtaposed with the excavation of a city block near the man's home; Tem fills the story with imagery of raw earth, dirt, blood, bodies, loss. The fear is palpable. One of MetaHorror's finest.  

On the news they'd reported the discovery of a human skull, thought to be over a century old. Foul play was not suspected. They thought it might have drifted down from the cemetery a half-mile away. Tom tried to imagine such a thing, dead bodies drifting underground, swimming slowly through what most of us liked to think of as too solid ground.

Editor Etchison

I quit Strieber's story as soon as it was clear the protagonists were Barbie and Ken dolls.

MetaHorror ends strong, with two solid powerful works that, however, seem less like horror fiction than straight-up war literature. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro offers some of the best prose in the anthology; her piece "Novena" reads more like a novel excerpt. In a nameless wartorn city reduced to rubble, rubble that houses wounded children, a nun/nurse is desperate to provide service and comfort. She has little luck. It's confident and affecting, but almost too bleak on its own as it offers no relief from its scenario, which is why it seemed to me a part of a larger story. Genre giant Peter Straub's "The Ghost Village" is part of his "Blue Rose" universe, which includes at least three novels and a handful of short stories about a group of men before, during, and after the Vietnam war. This one is set in the war itself, and it's chilling, nightmarish, ugly; one of the best stories I've read so far in 2016 and reminds me I just have to get to those other books.

There are other good stories (and others not so good) in MetaHorror from favorite names: Tessier, Wagner, Tuttle, Campbell, Morrell; I'll get to them in a follow-up review.

Sunday, April 3, 2016