Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Richard Matheson Born of Man and Woman on This Date, 1926

The legendary Richard Matheson was born on February 20, 1926 and died on June 23, 2016. To mark the occasion I present to you this interview with him from Douglas E. Winter's indispensable nonfiction work Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror (Berkley Books, Nov 1985). I think you'll find Matheson's thoughts on his writing career and life enlightening indeed. Click to embiggen and enjoy.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Shadows 4, edited by Charles L. Grant (1981): I Was Born Here and I'll Die Here

"This volume breaks almost every one of my rules," states esteemed author and editor Charles L. Grant (1942-2006)  in his introduction to the fourth volume of his long-running anthology series of quiet horror stories, Shadows. Published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1981, this Berkley paperback from 1985 promises ghoulish, skeletal frights by the cover art (artist unknown), but in truth the tales within aren't quite obvious as a mouldering corpse looking for revenge. But you can't deny the eye-catching quality, which is what it's really about, no? The lantern is a nice touch, I mean you can't expect that skeleton to see, he's got no eyeballs.

Grant's "rules" are that stories for Shadows had to be contemporary and nontraditional. He's right: rules are broken by several stories here that aren't contemporary or nontraditional, but still achieve the chilling vibes that Grant's name was associated with. Though at times I find this quiet horror style too mild or old-fashioned for my personal taste, I'm also open to subtle terrors that don't reveal themselves in a blast of super-heated prose or vistas of inhuman cruelty. Suppose my main issue with quiet horror from this era is that it's too cozy, too slacks-and-slippers, to truly disturb or unsettle. Oh well, these stories date from 1981, the big bulldozer of more graphic horror is still beyond the horizon. But our tastes are not so jaded and degraded that we can't enjoy a few more refined horror treasures?

Anyway. Check out the names in the contents list, I'm surprised not a one of them made it onto the paperback cover! You got Steve King, you got Tabitha King, and Ramsey Campbell and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Tanith Lee, Alan Ryan and Lisa Tuttle... I was even impressed that there was a story from science fiction giant William Gibson, albeit from before he was a science fiction giant as publication of his epoch-defining Neuromancer was still a few years off (although the Berkley paperback came out after that novel). Written with jack-of-all-trades John Shirley, "The Belonging Kind" is a story I've read before, in Gibson's own short-story collection of his early cyberpunk works, Burning Chrome (1985). Glad to have read it again!

Gibson, Shirley, 1980s

Set in countless bars, discos, nightclubs and cocktail lounges, "Kind" is mildly SF, with some bio-weirdness and identity crises as a slacker-slob kinda guy meets an attractive woman while out drinking one night and ends up following her from bar to bar (I can't help but picture a neon-lit cyberland of synths and urban squalor). But she's changing, always in flux, to "belong" in whatever environs she finds herself in.  

She stepped off the curb and it began. It began with tints in her hair—at first he thought they were reflections. But there was no neon there to cast the blobs of color that appeared, color sliding and merging like oil slicks. Then the colors bled away and in three seconds she was white-blonde. He was sure it was a trick of the light until her dress began to writhe, twisting across her body like shrink0wrap plastic. Part of it fell away entirely and lay in curling shreds on the pavement, shed like the skin of some fabulous animal... 

This is quality short fiction, not easily fitting into any genre, but capable enough to belong anywhere it chooses.

Tanith Lee's "Meow" presents the ultimate cat-lady scenario. Writerly fella meets a shy, independent woman... and her cats. Lee's story is so charmingly, brightly written, so fresh and winning, so unexpected in some of its imagery, that I will forgive its maybe short-sighted generic climax; Lee could have gone for bigger, deeper rewards with the end. Passages like I'd spot their eyes in the early morning darkness when I brought her home, ten disembodied dots of creme de menthe neon spilled over the air. Demons would manifest like that make "Meow" a high point of the antho.

Another favorite turns up as he does in many of the era's anthologies: fellow author/editor Alan Ryan. "A Trip to Brighton" breaks no new ground, yet it does its deed with all the clarity, precision, and sensitivity that Ryan is known for. A doll left behind on a train ride promises to be the perfect gift for a loathsome little girl, an ill-mannered, ungrateful little thing. A perfect beast.

Children are the main characters in both Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Giveaway" and Al Sarrantonio's "Under the Bed." They're competently written and creepy-clever enough, but the climactic twists can be seen coming and going, not uncommon when reading horror tales of this vintage; both authors have better-realized works elsewhere. "Need" I'd read in Lisa Tuttle's splendid collection A Nest of Nightmares (1986). A college student has her pleasant walk through a quiet cemetery spoiled by a clueless dude who sneaks up on her. She felt uneasy now, her pleasant mood shattered. She had no desire to be standing in a cemetery, talking to an odd boy who had watched her without her being aware. But force of habit kept her polite. Ugh, guys, really, leave women alone. And then he goes and kills himself and still won't stop bugging her? Seriously, this guy's the worst.

"Hearing is Believing" is Ramsey Campbell's contribution, and fine, vintage Campbell it is. A lonely man with a drab job begins hearing voices and pouring rain from his stereo speakers; the clerk at the repair shop is no help. Things get worse. My appreciation for Campbell's style has grown immeasurably since beginning this blog (nearly 10 years ago now!) and his twilight world of disorientation, decay, and dribbling rain that smears vision is the stuff of my literal nightmares. At one end of the unknown street, amid a chorus of unhurried breathing, something was feeling for him along the broken facades.

Although she's published several novels, I've never read anything by Tabitha King till "The Blue Chair." It's perfectly cromulent, a well-described tale of a businesswoman alone in her hotel room with the titular object who meets up with a male cousin she once had a crush on. Things get hot and heavy—you know that's totally legal and fine, right?—but that chair isn't gonna let things end so easily.

Would you shake hands with this man?

Does anyone actually talk like the characters in some of Stephen King's stories? Oh, who cares: in "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands," King employs one of the most effective tools in his arsenal, the tale-within-a-tale (whyyy is that so terrifying?!). Group of old men at the old-men's club play a game with a stranger, a young man who won't—you guessed it. Much of the tale includes blow-by-blow card hands, which I never understand. Grant calls this one "Kiplingesque" and maybe that's so, I wouldn't know myself, but the story is minor King yet readable and satisfying, you can tell Steve's having some fun writing in a mannered period style.

Brower staggered away from the table, holding hand out in front of him like a masculine Lady MacBeth. He was as white as a corpse, and the stark terror on his face is beyond my powers of description. I felt a bolt of horror go through me... Then he began to moan. It was a hollow, awful sound, cryptlike. I remember thinking, Why, the man's quite insane...

1988 Doubleday hardcover, art by Christopher Zacharow

There are other stories, too: short-shorts and whatnot, meager morsels I found neither here nor there, so I won't bother noting them except that they made passably engaging reads while on the bus or at the bar for happy hour. Grant notes in one of his intros to each contribution that finding and publishing new writers is one of the joys of his job, and while he says nice things like "This is their first story but it won't be their last," it is often the case that some of these new writers never published again. Cherie Wilkerson's "Echoes from a Darkened Shore" is an accomplished work for a first-timer, a moody bit of parental love and guilt, a child who refuses to grow up, and an old man wandering the sea shore.

"How long has it been since you've been to sea?" 
"A long time," he said without glancing up. I stared at him and felt my scalp trying to lift from my skull. 
"Did you ever have children?" 
The Captain nodded slowly. "My grandson was about her age when he died." 
"I don't want you to touch her," I said, trying unsuccessfully to control the quiver in my voice.

There are also writers, such as Juleen Brantigham, who rarely wrote anything but stories for Grant's anthologies, so much so that I wonder if that's one of Grant's pen names! "The Hour of Silhouette" is all slithering shadows and misdirection, hallmarks of the Grant style.

The longest story is the last, "The Spider Glass" by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, one of her exquisitely detailed historicals featuring the Count St.-Germain, the "decadent foreigner" who is also a vampire. Another tale-within-a-tale, another men's club, a bookend to King's opener, it's lush, witty, somewhat romantic. Glistening in the mirror, the spider hung in its jeweled web. The body was red as rubies or fresh blood. The eight, finely-made legs were garnet at the joints and tourmaline elsewhere, delicate as a dancer...

I've enjoyed other volumes of Shadows more, but for the completist there might be an hour or two of whiling-away reading. Overall the stories are professional, mature, varied, and eerie (which is not always the case with horror anthologies as the Eighties continued). The whole series is, of course, essential for any paperback horror library, perfect for dipping into when one wants a bit of tasteful terror to darken the light.