Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Little Stranger

Near the end of his recent book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson paints a grim picture of the lives of wealthy British landowners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Because of death duties and other skyrocketing taxes, he tells us, most of the rich "lived within a semipermanent state of crisis," forced to sell off the heirlooms from their country houses, and sometimes the country houses themselves.  Beautiful estates were torn apart or torn down, their treasures scattered to the four winds.

When I read that section of Bryson's book, I rolled my eyes.  I don't generally do well with being asked to sympathize with idle rich people who are no longer permitted to be idle, and I've never cared about the "fate" of pretty houses and the pretty things inside them.  But this week I've been rereading The Little Stranger, the latest novel by the great Sarah Waters.  It's about the fate of a wealthy British family and their grand manor in the changing social and political climate of the late 1940s-- and, as before I found it captivating and remarkably moving.

Part of the reason for that is that Waters, unlike Bryson, is taking the decline of the great estates as her primary subject rather than as an epilogue, so she can paint a more nuanced portrait.  More importantly, it never feels like she's trying too hard to make us feel pity or sympathy for the Ayres family.  Each member of the family, from the widowed, ladylike Mrs. Ayres to her injured veteran son Roderick to her tough-minded "spinster" daughter Caroline, is carefully-drawn and multi-faceted, much more complex than the stereotypes my descriptions may have evoked.  They're not heroes or sacrificial lambs for a cruel modern age, but people, with all the faults and virtues of their class.  Mrs Ayres may be unfailingly polite, but when the conversation turns to trained monkeys she's also capable of this little gem: "“Some society or other would prevent it, or Mr. Gandhi would object. Probably monkeys have the vote in India now.”

Likewise, Waters offers a balanced view of the evolution of postwar British society.   She acknowledges the regrettable loss of gorgeous eighteenth-century architecture without losing sight of the affordable council housing that will replace it.  Whenever one of the Ayreses reflects on the loss of their genteel way of life, the novel's narrator, Faraday, who rose from the lower class to become a doctor, is able to provide a contrary memory of deprivation or ill-treatment by that same aristocracy.

"That's all very well," you may be saying, "but why are you writing about this on a ghost story blog?"  Well, The Little Stranger is also a ghost story, a subtle, evocative one in the manner of M. R. James and other early twentieth-century masters.  Something seems to be wrong at Hundreds Hall, the Ayres mansion.  Is it all in the imagination of the new housemaid, Betty?  Is it the ghost of the household's dead daughter, Susan?  Or is it something even stranger?  Like all the best ghost stories, this one builds slowly, to the point where the first hundred pages or so may be a bit of a slog for the first-time reader.  (My mother put the book aside about halfway through and had to be persuaded to pick it up again.  Once she did, she sped through the second half in a white heat.)  When the supernatural manifestations begin, though, there are some genuinely chilling sequences, including an extended one that's so brilliant I wish I could copy the whole thing out and quote it here.  The only thing I'll say is that it provides more confirmation that the most effective terrors are those that are aural or tactile rather than visual, not to mention those that go undescribed entirely.

The book is suffused with imagery that's simple but nonetheless intensely atmospheric, as in the opening of Chapter Eight:

In purely practical terms, changes occurred almost at once, for the estate's already overstretched finances were hit hard by the fees of [spoilery reference removed], and drastic extra economies had to be put in place in order to accommodate them.  The generator, for example, was now routinely turned off for days at a stretch, and going up to the hall on those wintry evenings I'd often find the place plunged into nearly total darkness.  There would be an old brass lantern left out for me on a table just inside the front door, and I'd pick my way through the house with it-- the smoke-scented walls of the passages, I remember, seeming to dance forward into the soft yellow light, and then to recede again into shadow as I moved on.  Mrs Ayres and Caroline would be together in the little parlour, reading or sewing or listening to the wireless by the light of candles and oil-lamps.  The flames would be weak enough to make them squint, but the room would seem a sort of radiant capsule in comparison with the inkiness all about it.  If they rang for Betty she'd come with an old-fashioned candlestick, wide-eyed, like a character in a nursery rhyme.

It's at this level, where the mildly gothic ghost story trappings run in parallel with the decaying lifestyle of the postwar aristocracy, that The Little Stranger achieves its greatest success.  It helps that Waters isn't determined to run the metaphor into the ground.  It's always there, but only rarely comes to the forefront as thoroughly as it does in the following exchange:

I shook my head. "This is a weirder thing even than that hysteria.  It's as if-- well, it's as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family."

"Something is," he said with another bark of laughter.  "It's called a Labour Government."

I could witter on a lot longer here.  I haven't mentioned, for instance, how Waters is able to keep Dr Faraday's narration stolid and straightforward without making it dull, or how perfectly managed the book's final twists are.  But I think I've said enough.  Whether you admire elegant classical ghost stories or thoughtful, well-observed historical novels, The Little Stranger is well worth a look.  It's one of my favorite books from 2009.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction of Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

Near the end of "The Man on the Ceiling," a story that won the Stoker, the International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award, co-author Melanie Tem writes:

"It was hard for us to write this piece.

For one thing, we write differently.  My stories tend more toward magical realism, Steve's more toward surrealism.  Realism, in both cases, but we argued over form: 'This isn't a story! It doesn't have a plot!'"

I think that's an apt description of the Tems' different approaches to their solo work.  Their prose styles are also distinct: Melanie Tem's is smooth, more suited to her magical realism, while Steve Rasnic Tem's has a harsher, disjointed quality, fitting his surreal tales of loss and psychological degeneration.  Despite their different approaches, the Tems have written nearly two dozen collaborative stories over the past quarter-century, all of which are collected in the new Centipede Press volume In Concert.  These twenty-one finely crafted, insightful tales highlight the talent of both members of this husband and wife team.

Although I was most familiar with the Tems as writers of horror and dark fantasy, several of the stories included here are science fiction.  Some of those, such as the earliest entry, "Prosthesis," are dark, using aliens and alien worlds as metaphors for loneliness and fear.  But the title story, the longest in the collection, in which an old woman's intermittent telepathy brings her into contact with a trapped astronaut, is more optimistic, showing how human connections can ease the pain of life.  That may sound overly sentimental, but the story's observant portrayal of the elderly protagonist's life keeps it from feeling cheap or idealized.

The dark fantasy pieces included here frequently feature familiar monsters; vampires and vampirism are central to six stories, while two deal with zombies.  But the focus is not on these creatures as boogeymen, but on what they can tell us about humanity.  "The Tenth Scholar" appeared in a book called The Ultimate Dracula, but its true protagonist is the streetwise young woman who goes to him in search of an unlikely education.  The vampire mother of "Mama" offers a poignant metaphor for the devastating power of a mentally unstable parent, while "Nvumbi" puts a unique spin on a father's sense of isolation and impotence in a household dominated by women.

Ultimately, it is this interest in the human condition that defines and elevates the Tems' work.  As Melanie writes in "The Man on the Ceiling," a haunting, jointly-narrated metafictional meditation on family, love, and fear:

"And the world also has in it: Werewolves, whose unclaimed rage transforms them into something not human but also not inhuman (modern psychiatry sometimes finds the bestial 'alter' in the multiple personality).  Vampires, whose unbridled need to experience leads them to suck other people dry and are still not satisfied.  Zombies, the chronically insulated, people who will not feel anything because they will not feel pain.  Ghosts.

I write in order to understand these things.  I write dark fantasy because it helps me see how to live in a world with monsters."

It is because she and her husband understand this human darkness so well, and describe it with such sympathetic insight, that In Concert makes such a fine, harrowing volume of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Click Click Click: A Ghost Story for Christmas

Every year the extended family on my father's side gets together for a big Christmas party.  Earlier this year I was thinking that instead of the usual arrangement, where I put my name in for our Secret Santa thing and buy for one other family member, I might do something creative for everybody.  And, since the ghost stories of M. R. James were originally written to be read at Christmas, why not write a small tribute to those subtly chilling tales, print up a couple dozen copies, and distribute them at the party?

So over the summer I wrote a draft of a story about a peculiar Christmas tree.  But when I'd finished it occurred to me that no one in my extended family particularly likes ghost stories other than me.  So why, under the pretense of a gift, oblige them to read something they won't enjoy?  I decided instead that I would put the story online, where it might potentially find its way to the attention of other enthusiasts of the classical ghost story, who might find it entertaining, or at least momentarily diverting.  Over the past few months I've tinkered with the story at intervals, and now here we are.

You can click here to see the story as an online PDF, which you can also save or print if you'd like to read it offline or in dead-tree format.  As with any piece of writing it's still in some sense a work in progress, so if you have any comments or suggestions for improvements, don't hesitate to let me know.  And although this story happens to center around Christmas, I'd like to wish a happy holiday season to all the two or three readers of this blog, no matter what holidays they do or don't celebrate.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 21

A few months ago I set about acquiring complete runs of two of the three long-running "best horror" anthologies: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror.  (I plan to start on the third, The Year's Best Horror Stories, at some point in the future.)  Thanks to online used book sites, I bought them a lot faster than I could read them, and it was only recently that I got around to the volumes of Best New Horror.  As a result, I'd only read the first two when the most recent entry in the series, #21, was released.  My eccentric reading-order obsessiveness led me to feel I should finish all twenty of its predecessors before I bought the new one, but when I saw the table of contents I knew I wouldn't be able to wait.  So I ordered a copy, and sped through it in a single night.

In part, that was because this installment contains less fiction than any previous entry, only about 300 pages' worth.  The other 180 pages are given over to editor Stephen Jones' summary of the year in horror (100 pages) and Jones and Kim Newman's exhaustive necrology, which takes 80 pages this year to note the death of anyone with even a passing connection to horror, science fiction, or fantasy in any form.  Personally I find these sections too exhaustive to be readable-- I have no use for one-sentence plot summaries of every paranormal detective novel or paragraph-long obituaries for every actor who played a bit part in a monster movie-- but I know others find them useful, so I won't complain that they're there.  I do wish the annual summary had clear section headings so one could find, say, all the anthologies without having to flip through novels, collections, etc.

One thing the size of the summary proves is that Jones knows the full range of the field, and that knowledgeable eye leads to a wonderfully-varied selection of fiction.  From ghost stories to an action-packed revenge tale to a unclassifiable sequel to King Kong, this year's selections meet a fundamental criterion for a strong non-theme anthology: they have nothing in common but excellence.  Like all types of fiction, horror is intermittently accused of being dead, or dying, or devoid of new ideas, but the quality and scope of these stories demonstrates that such accusations have more to do with the limited knowledge of certain commentators than with the actual shape of the field.

Instead of drudging up dutiful comments on every story, I've focused below on those about which I thought I had something to say.  (You may well disagree.)  Those not mentioned were all fine stories and come recommended.

As he often does, Jones picks two stories by a single author to open and close the anthology.  In this case, it's Canadian writer Michael Kelly.  Both are short; the first, "The Woods," is only four pages.  It may seem odd to say that so brief a tale is predictable, but with a few paragraphs I could see where it was going.  Kelly capably captures the atmosphere of the frozen woods where the story takes place, but I've read too many stories about similar desolate, isolated settings for this one to have much effect.  It's a fine little tale, but I'm not sure what makes it one of the best of the year.

For most of its length I was likewise uncertain about "Throttle," a novelette written by the father/son superstar team of Stephen King and Joe Hill.  I admire both writers, especially for their short fiction, but for a long time it seemed that this story had nothing more to offer than a well-written variation on Richard Matheson's "Duel."  I like fast-paced, gruesome action as much as the next guy, but I was hoping for something more, and the story eventually provided it, with a concluding twist that ties together various threads from earlier in the narrative to great effect.

I had previously read Barbara Roden's "Out and Back" in its original context, as part of Roden's dazzling debut collection, Northwest Passages.  There, among Roden's other subtle stories about isolated places and the things that haunt them, I loved it, but rereading it here I had some doubts.  The concept, an abandoned, decrepit amusement park where something lingers, is a great one, but the ghostly occurrences feel like random atmosphere generators rather than part of a single haunting, and one central image is a little too implausible and thematically on-the-nose for my taste.  Ultimately, though, these are small complaints about a successful story.

Ramsey Campbell is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living horror writers, so it's hardly surprising that his stories have appeared in almost every installment of Best New Horror.  This year's selection, "Respects," originally appeared in the anthology British Invasion, where I read it a few months ago.  I wasn't greatly impressed then, and rereading it didn't change that feeling.  In some ways, I suppose, I take Campbell's skill for granted.  His evocation of a grieving widow and her nasty neighbors is undeniably excellent, and the supernatural creature at work in the story is a creepy one.  But, as is often the case with Campbell's lesser work, I found his "something ghastly happened, unless it was actually only something mundane" device wearying rather than spooky, and the conflict between the widow and her neighbors, while realistic, was too one-sided to be interesting.  But this story is in two different "year's best" anthologies, so what do I know?

The major reason I wanted to read this volume right away was that it included Reggie Oliver's completion of the M. R. James fragment "The Game of Bear."  This was originally published in Madder Mysteries, an already out-of-print collection that I was almost but not quite willing to pay a ridiculous price to obtain simply to read this story.  As readers (both of you) may remember from an earlier entry, Oliver is one of my favorite ghost story writers and a master of pastiche, so it's no surprise that I loved this story, which complete James's tantalizing fragment in an entirely appropriate style, with spooky nursery rhymes some good old-fashioned chills.

When I first read Michael Marshall Smith's "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" in Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, I wasn't impressed by it.  As is often the case with subtly disarming stories, I was expecting something more dazzling and was disappointed when I didn't get it.  This time, knowing just what to expect, I was able to appreciate Smith's use of the innocuous voice of a small child to find the terror in a simple but baffling situation.

The final story in this volume that I had previously read was "The Reunion" by Nicholas Royle, from Datlow's top-notch 2009 anthology Poe.  Royle uses the physical dislocation of wandering a vast hotel and the emotional dislocation of attended a school reunion to fashion a quietly unsettling story of bewildering events and missed connections.  No fireworks here; just confusion, uncertainty, and a brilliantly-controlled sense of dread.

Terry Dowling's "Two Steps Along the Road" weaves a number of disparate elements-- a setting in Vietnam, a theory about the origin of all ghostly phenomena, and the personal regrets and memories of several different characters-- into another subtle chiller with an amiable ghost creepier than any more aggressive phantom could be.

When I read a Mark Valentine story in a recent anthology, I was amazed at his command of language.  Most contemporary writers who attempt the elevated diction of nineteenth-century masters of the supernatural produce strained work that feels terribly self-conscious, but Valentine never puts so much as a single word out of place.  This makes the eerie atmosphere of the settings he describes far more unsettling than the simple events that take place in them might suggest.  His story here, "The Axholme Toll," uses the history of a real island off the coast of Scotland to tell a story about a mysterious manuscript, but the highlight is Valentine's evocation of the power of certain places to exercise the mind.

I don't think there's a type of monster I find more boring than the zombie, but there are a few zombie stories I've really liked, and "Granny's Grinning" by Robert Shearman is one to add to the list.  Like many of Shearman's stories, it uses black humor to explore the ways in which people hurt each other in their attempts, successful and otherwise, to come to terms with the pain of life.  In this case, a Christmas celebration and a visit from a grieving grandmother lead to one of the strangest zombie tales you're ever likely to read.

The longest story in this year's volume is Brian Lumley's "The Nonesuch."  I haven't always enjoyed Lumley's work in the past, but this was a fun, if slow-moving, tale of a hotel with a closed-off room and a tragic history.  That may sound like the set-up for something traditional, but the true antagonist here is not at all what you might expect.  The narrator, a cheerful alcoholic who can't help encountering the unexplainable, is charming enough that the slow development of the plot doesn't grate.  I do wish, though, that Lumley would stop buying ellipses in bulk...

And the anthology closes with its shortest piece, Michael Kelly's "Princess of the Night."  Barely a page long, it is indeed, as Jones says, "a nice short, sharp jolt in the EC comics tradition," but is it really one of the best stories of the year?

Despite my quibbles with some of the selections, I found Best New Horror 21 compulsively readable, and would recommend it to anyone curious about the state of horror fiction, or simply looking for some spooky bedtime reading.  And now that this volume is out of the way, I'm ready to double back to Best New Horror 3 and make my forward through several more years' worth of great horror stories.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Despite enjoying horror fiction in all its forms, I'm not really a big fan of Halloween.  We don't get trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood, so there's not much to set it apart from any other autumn night.  But I did spend some time trying to find seasonally-appropriate viewing and reading, without much success. 

After looking in vain for a decent horror movie in my DVD collection, I wound up watching the Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror X," not one of the better Treehouse of Horror installments but the only one I hadn't already seen ad nauseam over the years.  Then I reread a few stories from Reggie Oliver's massive collection Dramas from the Depths.  Oliver is one of my favorite modern writers of strange and ghostly fiction, and I'd been looking forward to rereadinf Dramas from the Depths virtually since I finished the first time, in June of this year

The stories I read Sunday night were "The Evil Eye," "Tiger in the Snow," "The Seventeenth Sister," "The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini," and "The Time of Blood," all of which are excellent.  "Tiger in the Snow," a ghost story that turns a slyly satirical eye toward modern art, is a particular favorite of mine, and I admire "The Time of Blood" even more.  Like M. R. James, Oliver has a knack for pastiche, and he uses it to great effect in this story, about the strange visions that afflicted an eighteenth-century French nun and the modern scholar who uncovers the cache of documents that reveals her history.

After finishing "The Time of Blood" I remembered that there was one Halloween-themed DVD I could stand to watch: the 1977 Dr. Seuss special Halloween is Grinch Night.  Even though it won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program, the special isn't particularly good, and it definitely isn't scary, but I have a nostalgic fondness for it all the same, particularly the opening musical number, "I Wouldn't Go Out on a Night Like This."

By then, damp squib that I am, I was ready for bed.  As I got ready to go to sleep I reread one last Reggie Oliver story, "Music by Moonlight."  And that was my Halloween.

(Then on November 1st I bought some marked-down candy and have been trying unsuccessfully not to shovel it in like a spoiled child.  Butterfinger bars and Starburst are my Kryptonite.)


The title of this blog comes from "Credo," Oliver Onions' introduction to his Collected Ghost Stories:
Ghosts, it is advanced, either do not exist at all, or else, like the stars at noonday, they are there all the time and it is we who cannot see them.
I thought it was a nice phrase and a useful metaphor, so I stole it.

I'm Brendan Moody. This is my LiveJournal, where I post random comments on things that catch my eye and make bad jokes.  The blog you're reading now will deal only with ghost stories and other types of horror fiction.  I intend what I write here to be a bit longer, a bit more formal, and less burdened with cheap humor.  But no promises.

Coming soon: a post about my Halloween, such as it was.