Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New Terrors, edited by Ramsey Campbell (1980): There's a Place for You In Between the Sheets

Throughout the 1980s paperback horror boom, there was no shortage of horror anthologies. Sure, prior decades had seen their share of tomes of short horror fiction, but often they were mixed with tales of science fiction, fantasy, and crime. The American paperback original edition of New Terrors (Pocket Books, October 1982), showcased writers of various genres right there on the cover. As the '80s wore on this practice was seen less and less and horror anthologies began to feature solely horror writers. For the most part, horror anthos were a treat, even if they were uneven; useful for voracious readers to sample writers they were unfamiliar with, to see what short sharp shocks they could deliver, to learn in a bite-size morsel who might be worth reading an entire novel by and who might be best to avoid.

Pan Books UK, 1980

The American edition doesn't include all the stories as the 1980 original from across the pond, but it does have an utterly delightful cover. Lisa Falkenstern, illustrator extraordinaire, painted vivid portraits of the macabre that have become icons of the era. Sure, okay, the lovely wrapped in bedsheets doesn't exactly align with what's going on between the covers (heh) but who cares? Did anyone ever try to return a book because what was depicted on the cover never actually occurred inside?

As an author Ramsey Campbell is one of the modern horror greats, that hardly needs to be stated, and he is no slouch as an editor either. For New Terrors he's chosen short works of various styles and themes, but which are wrought with fine instruments, presented with an artist's care, then deployed just so for maximum horror impact. The authors wield scalpels, not sledgehammers. The caliber of imagination at work here and the general quality of the prose in its service is impeccable. There is no jokiness, no ill-timed humor, very little grue. The writers strive for elevated implication rather than spell-it-out twists. For the most part the writers succeed at this distinctive style of quieter horror—indeed, many if not most stories have a Campbellian quality to them.

Aickman (1914-1981) 

New Terrors reveals its high pedigree from the first. It begins with one of Robert Aickman's inimitable stories, "The Stains," and it is the longest tale here at nearly 60 pages. Stephen is a middle-aged widower who visits his brother at his small parish in the British moors, where Stephen goes on long lonesome walks. He meets a young woman collecting lichen-covered rocks for her father; Stephen's brother is an amateur expert on the topic but she seems unimpressed, and knows her illiterate father won't care either. This is Aickman's version of "meet cute." He entices the girl to meet him the next day, and they do, exploring an abandoned primitive country home which contains an old mattress in a small room upstairs, where:

...every night the moon shone across their bed and their bodies in wide streaks, oddly angled. "You are like a long, sweet parsnip," Stephen said. "Succulent but really rather tough." "I know nothing at all," she said. "I only know you." The mark below her shoulder stood out darkly, but, God be praised, in isolation. What did the rapidly deteriorating state of the walls and appurtenances matter by comparison with that?  

Allusive, symbolic, literary, lightly weird: yep, this is vintage Aickman, and it won the 1981 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. I appreciated its mild earthy eroticism, the "stains" that creep up on Stephen and slooowly subsume him. Give yourself some time to savor this mature master.

Wellman (1903-1986) 

"Yare" by Manly Wade Wellman is written in his own country grammar, which I can enjoy in doses very small. But Wellman's pen is sure and fine as he characterizes well rough-hewn working men with good trustworthy hunting dogs and backwoods superstitions that turn out to not be superstitions at all. One man has been summoned: "Hark at me good. It ain't no fox that we come out here tonight to have the dogs run." A tale of rural dark fantasy, it's good, but I think it would would have been more at home in Stuart David Schiff's Whispers anthologies.

One of Steve Rasnic's earliest stories, "City Fishing," has two men and their two young sons going out on a fishing trip. Simple. Except they had to physically restrain the mothers:  Jimmy overhears his mom: "You can't take them!"... then there was a struggle as his dad and Bill's dad started forcing the women to the bedrooms. Bill's mother was especially squirmy, and Bill's father was slapping her hard across the face to make her stop. His own mother was a bit quieter, especially after Bill's mother got hurt, but she still cried. Yikes. The travelogue that follows grows more surreal as the men drive into a city that grows more and more decrepit but buildings begin to appear hung down from the sky on wires. Is this an initiation rite of toxic masculinity? Perhaps; its weirdness stands on its own.

Lee (1947-2015) 

Filled with graceful contours and female perception, the late Tanith Lee's "A Room with a Vie" (that's not a misspelling) has no mythic dark fantasy, but an English country vacation home, a rented room, a former tenant now deceased, and Caroline, who must get away. But escape from one's past and personal problems is impossible in horror, and her "hallucinations of fecundity" will bring the room to life. "Oh, Christ, please die," she said. Her lucid prose, even when depicting impossibilities, as well as a tinge of black humor at the climax, make Lee's story a standout.

"Tissue" by a young Marc Laidlaw has some unsettling imagery of the flesh as you might guess by its title, and it works beautifully. Macabre, insane family issues come to the fore when a young man brings his girlfriend to meet his father after the death of his mother. Dad's idea of family? "One optimally functioning individual organism." Laidlaw gets literally under the skin with some startling imagery and ideas, assisted by certain Campbellian touches. Another high point.

Shaw (1931-1996) 

Bob Shaw was a beloved Irish science fiction writer. His "Love Me Tender" reads like a '40s crime story with an escaped convict named Massick on the lam, trudging through muddy forest, following train tracks, a city boy in a prehistoric landscape. He comes upon a shack and an old man drinking whiskey, sorting dead butterflies for the university nearby, talking about mimics and lookalikes. When Massick gets a look inside the shack's sole locked door, he's eager... but of course all that stuff about lookalikes wasn't idle chatter, and the common noir trope of femme fatale becomes all too literal. Good stuff, great payoff.

Another science fiction author offers another very good story: "Kevin Malone" by the highly-regarded Gene Wolfe. A couple in dire straits answer an ad for free living arrangements in exchange for "minimal services." Oh my god, seriously people?! Do not do this ever. Though brief, in his stately, sophisticated prose Wolfe's literate story bewitches: I felt that pricking at the neck that comes when one reads Poe alone at night.

Reed (1932-2017) 

"Chicken Soup" is about Harry, who loved being sick, and thus develops a rather unhealthy relationship between Harry and his mother. Another writer known for SF as well as mystery, Kit Reed, in addition to be a revered professor and who died last fall, ventures into domestic Shirley Jackson territory, with perhaps a hint of Harlan Ellison's 1976 darkly comic story of Jewish guilt, "Mom." Like all happy couples they had their fights which lasted only an hour or two and cleared the air nicely. Reed wraps it all up in traditional horror manner. Not bad. Neither "The Pursuer" by James Wade nor "The Spot" by Dennis Etchison and Mark Johnson rose higher than "that was okay" for me: the former is a rescue from 1951, an "urban horror" not unlike Beaumont or Matheson; the latter is, as Campbell even notes "more allegorical than most of the tales in this book," make that "too allegorical for its own good."

Wilder (1930-2002) 

New Zealand SF/F author Cherry Wilder contributes "The Gingerbread House," which has some familiar touches but a couple fresh notes. Amanda visits her brother Douglas, newly divorced and cranky as hell, living in a German cottage owned by a madwoman now in a sanitarium. Together they face ugly secrets about themselves: he may have killed a child in a hit-and-run, she suffers from anorexia (a rare acknowledgement of the disease in that day).

"You must stop running away." 
"So must you," he said, with a reassuring touch of the old self-righteousness. "Yes," she said, "yes, I promise. I'll eat... I'll put on ten pounds, twelve. Only we must leave this house... this is a rotten place. It plays tricks." 
His eyes swiveled nervously in the direction of the cupboard. 
"You may be right," he whispered.

Wagner (1945-1994)

".220 Swift" is one of Karl Edward Wagner's long, major works. It's a sweaty, claustrophobic tale of two men heading into a cavern in a North Carolina hillside, inspired by, as Wagner put it, "archaeological curiosa." Solid dialogue, solid grounding in reality, solid everything, it has all the components that made Wagner a legend in his lifetime. While I could do without passages about guns and ammo (it's the title), I realize this is something Wagner knew intimately. And Campbell's own contribution "The Fit" also hit my horror sweet spot; it also features everything that makes Campbell great. Rather alienated young man spends holidays with his aunt who is a dress-maker. She runs afoul of local crone named Fanny Cave (I kept imagining her in her cottage, her long limbs folded up like a spider's in hiding) who lives down by the water. Notes of uncomfortable sexual tension and inanimate dress dummies and clothing that take on sinister agency appear—Eventually I managed to sleep, only to dream that dresses were waddling limblessly through the doorway of my room, towards the bed. Add a shuddery finish and you've got a maybe a precursor to his classic The Face That Must Die

New Terrors ends on a celebrity note, and Stephen King's name looks great on the cover, but wow has this one always been one of my least favorites by the man. I first encountered "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game" in Skeleton Crew, when it was published some years after first appearing here, and in that collection it was rewritten for whatever reason and to whatever effect. Either version is a lesser work. One creepy image can't make up for these characters' drunken, tiresome, pointless antics. "This is his strangest story," Campbell notes, sure, but it offers little else.

Taken as a whole, New Terrors does feature some terrific writing, effectively horrific scenarios, and a couple first-rate stories, but today, some weeks after reading it, I'm hard-pressed recalling specifics about the lesser stories. Strong works from Aickman, Lee, Laidlaw, Wolfe, Wilder, Wagner, and Campbell; okay ones from the others and a couple "why bother?" equal around a 75 or 80% competency rate, so like a C+ or B if we're grading. However that Falkenstern cover is an A+ on its own merits, I think you'll agree!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

ShadowShow by Brad Strickland (1988): Theatre of Pain

If, before I picked up this book, you'd have asked me, "Hey Will, do you wanna read another horror novel about a middle-aged man in the '80s looking back on his '50s childhood in a small town and the immortal evil he confronted, and thus grew up and has not been able to escape its influence over his life?" I would have answered with a resounding "Fuck no." How tired I am of that structure, of reading about boys riding bikes in the soft summer evenings, oh god how syrupy and saccharine, spare me. No, really: spare me.

But I believe originality can be overrated. Striking out into new territory doesn't always guarantee success, while going back over covered ground can yield pleasant, if familiar, surprises. The latter is the case for ShadowShow (Onyx Books, Dec 1988, cover artist unknown), a novel set in small-town 1950s Georgia. Now the name of author Brad Strickland didn't mean anything to me till I looked him up for this review, and it turns out he has written lots of fantasy and YA novels, genres I do not follow. So while I knew nothing about him, it was obvious early on that Strickland's manner of imitation was skillful and not slavish. Ah, in good hands, let's see what you got....

The gist of it: shuttered movie theater in Gaither, Georgia reopens under now ownership by a creepy polite-speaking dude named—not too spooky now!—Athaniel Badon. As local tongues wag, he employs local no-gooder, drunkard and wife-abuser Andy McCrory as his dogsbody to traipse through town on various weird errands that arouse suspicion in any seasoned horror reader: "He had worked, oh, the dark man had made him work like a dog... He had worked harder on that theater harder, probably, than he had worked at anything else in his life. But he had a reward to look forward to..." 

We have young Alan Kirby, whom we met in the novel's opening chapter set in the 1980s, growing up motherless with his widowed father John, a WWII vet, shop owner, and paternal saint. Alan, a sensitive, mature child, wakes up one night with the knowledge of sure death and sees out his window the lighting up of the SHADOWSHOW marquee, which then haunts his dreams...

Other men and women in ShadowShow have origins we've read before: Brother Odum Tate, the preacher with a dark secret trying to make amends; Ann Lewis, a 20-something schoolteacher who's beginning to imagine herself in sultry trysts with John Kirby; Harmon Presley the cop who takes offense at folks calling him "Elvis" because that is a white man who "imitates a n***" (racism plays an integral part in the story) and expects everyone to look on him and despair, that is, except for the cadaverous man driving a pre-war Lincoln who stares on-duty Presley down one night and makes him wet his pants so you know that dude's pissed. Whatever is Sheriff Quarles gonna do with this guy?

There's Bellew Jefferson, the rich bank president, also widowed, also with a secret, whose black maid Mollie Avery will become the first victim of the ancient evil that has arrived in Gaither ("The miserable town is mine"), murdered so foully that even the coroner has to vomit. A few other characters you'll know from other books: Ludie Estes, an old black woman who also works for Jefferson but is out of a job when, spooked by Mollie's unholy death, locks himself in his home. At first I'd hoped Ludie wasn't going to be "magical Negro" but I suppose she is: for it is she who knows what happened at the farmhouse which became the theater which became the ShadowShow. She knows how one of America's greatest evils was perpetrated right on that spot decades before, and how the town "forgot" it, and now exploited by Athaniel Badon, the "man" whose name is a bastardization of scary biblical names.

Strickland has a sure hand in depicting that era of American life and holds back on the nostalgic glow. Sure, a few chapters in you'll find a sentence like "It was the way everyone remembered summer ending, droning lazy days with the cry of July-flies audible even in the center of town, days that moved as slow, sweet, and golden as sorghum syrup." But immediately after that Strickland presents us with the old men of Gaither grumbling about world affairs and biblical prophecy while also complaining about the theater showing movies like I was a Teenage Werewolf, "ungodly trash about things that never were and never would be real" and how they admire Strom Thurmond for at least trying to stand up against the civil rights bill, and "They sat on their benches, the old men on the square, and talked over the news, and waited to die." That's a pretty good turnaround. I mean cranky old white guys, wrong about shit forever.

The most notable thing about ShadowShow is that it is a very competent imitation of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and to a lesser extent, Michael McDowell. Of course I don't need to tell you how many, many works were "inspired" by those authors, so perhaps you think I'm not saying much. What makes this inspiration notable is that Strickland has control over this influence, and knows the byways well on his own. The conversation between Alan and his father when John talks about his war experience is realistically dark yet sincerely touching; the glimpses into human evil are unsparing.

Strickland eschews sentiment and favors the straightforward prose which goes for serious dread in a kind of understatement, that plain affect of King, the hint of unfettered madness that speaks of the chaos hiding behind the facade of daily banality, the shrieking howling madness of nothing, that grabbing onto an electrical current, onto live wire running through everything that is always there no matter that we give it no thought whatsoever until it's too late.

Alan had once turned over a huge rock, the way ten-year-old boys will... beneath it he found squirming, crawling horror, gelid gray brown-spotted eggs of some creature stirring vaguely almost born life (but already looking as if death had laid a rotting hand on them)... Alan had recoiled in horror from the damp black path of earth, revolted by what he had revealed.
Alan felt the same way now, as if he alone were privy to all the darkest secrets of the town, and they were all like the concealed, light-hating life under the rock, all of it cold and stinking already of decomposition...

That said, Strickland underplays the power of his central conceit. What I really wanted here, what was promised on the back cover, was a movie theater that showed films to people of their own personal worst fears, darkest secrets, of fates unavoidable, of a future filled with horror and pain and woe, of twisted desires that play out onscreen and will not be denied, of a past rife with evil that stains the present in unimaginable ways. It happens to Bellew Jefferson, oh yes: "And for the rest of that dreadful midnight show, Mr. Jefferson sat and watched—and learned."

This seemed like a spectacular setup for what was in store for other hapless characters. Later Alan asks fellow kid Diane English to a movie matinee, and he sees not the movie they paid to see—Lon Chaney biopic Man with a Thousand Faces—but a dream-like horror show, and it’s implied Diane does as well, but we only see Alan's. Then the movie becomes sexualized death as Mollie Avery appears to him:

"You can have me," she promised... "All the things you dreamed of doing. He will give me to you." "Who?"
"The master... He gives us freedom. Freedom. To do anything you wanted, to anyone you want. And live forever."
"It's what you want. It doesn't have to be me. Would you like the little girl? He says he will give you the little girl. Would you like to love her? To hurt her? She will be yours."

Ah, a corpse promising immortality and illicit embraces, while offering up glistening entrails and speaking of Alan's mother in Hell, that's pretty fucking good horror... but I wanted more. I wanted all the characters to have stumbled into the ShadowShow, alone, confused, and then to have their haunted selves reflected on the silver screen. But we get the library research, the vampirism angle, blood-sucking, revenants reminiscent of McDowell, the creepy midnight disinterment, the ragtag band of heroes, a bit of Christian mythos, a sacrifice play, a final confrontation: "You can't give eternal life—you can only work dead bodies like puppets, play the shadows over and over, like your movies—"

ShadowShow is an enjoyable, well-written paperback original, with a fair amount of gruesomeness, believable dialogue, light on hazy nostalgia, a backstory that is truly horrific, and a climax that doesn't overstay its welcome. But in the final pages, set in the 1980s, I wanted some more lingering horror, something inescapable, some looming shadow of doom after all that's happened. It's hinted at but not explicit. Yet this pulled punch doesn't mean the book is not a worthwhile read; I believe it really is. If you're looking for another '80s horror novel set in the '50s that examines the secrets of small-town life and death, ShadowShow (mostly) fits the bill.