Sunday, February 27, 2011

Three by Charles L. Grant

As threatened, I've spent the past few nights reading the remaining Charles L. Grant books I bought.  In addition to Night Visions 1, there were three more Oxrun Station novella collections, all done along the lines of the first, Nightmare Seasons.  I don't see any point in writing at length about each of the three, since they're so similar in style and structure, so I've written a paragraph or two about each one.

The Orchard:  This one is, I think, the weakest of the four novella collections.  Grant's language is as poetic as ever, and as a result the endings of three of the four pieces worked all right, but up to that point most of them had been disappointing, lacking the depth of detail and characterization that elevated Nightmare Seasons.  It doesn't help that some of the themes and narrative structures in this collection are similar to those from that one.  Each has: a novella with a series of brutal murders that could be the work of human, animal, or something in between; a novella with a group of characters mysterious trapped in one location; a novella with an elderly character who feels worn-out and useless; a novella about unrequited love.  I'm emphasizing similarities rather than differences, of course, but those similarities were enough to make me a little impatient.  (This is largely my own fault, of course, reading books written several years apart within a single week.)  Also, the linking device here feels a little forced; the titular orchard plays a tangential role in the third and fourth novellas.  The frame story also fell flat for me; the epilogue, which ought to have been moving, seemed overblown because of the weakness of the individual novellas.

And I found the final novella, "Screaming, in the Dark" particularly disappointing; it set up a character and a scenario with a lot of promise-- reporter investigates mysterious goings-on in hospital where he's recuperating-- but doesn't exploit either of them, and the ultimate direction the story takes isn't substantial enough to sustain a novella, and too similar to one of the other pieces as well.  However, I did enjoy "The Last and Dreadful Hour," which feels at first like a illogical series of spooky moments that will never come together into a proper story, but it does, and in a way that makes the randomness of what has come before all the more frightening; and I have a soft spot for "My Mary's Asleep" because it's a story about unrequited love.  But overall, I wouldn't recommend starting your Charles L. Grant reading here.

Dialing the Wind: This one was much stronger.  I wasn't sure about the first, title novella, which again felt too familiar (mysterious deaths, lovelessness), but again, it had a strong ending, and the rest of the collection was strong.  My favorite was "As We Promise, Side by Side," another trapped-characters novella, but one that keeps its central conceit hidden to maximum effect, and offers some of Grant's finest intensity of language, with long sentences that almost dare you to stop reading until you've reached their horrifying conclusions.  I also liked "The Sweetest Kiss," about a very grim midlife crisis.  The frame story worked well, too.

The Black Carousel: A mixed bag.  The opening novella, "Penny Tunes for a Golden Lion," is too straightforward and predictable to offer much of a surprise, and the second, "Will You Be Mine?" is also predictable, albeit less so.  But the third, "Lost in Amber Light," has some excellent nightmare-carnival imagery and a great ending, and the fourth, "The Rain Is Filled with Ghosts Tonight," is one of Grant's best elderly-character stories.  Again, the framing device is unevenly used; the carousel of the title plays no meaningful role in two of the novellas.  The prologue/epilogue is the best in any of the four collections, though, perfectly capturing the awe and melancholy that characterize life in Oxrun Station.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Night Visions 1

Halfway between an anthology and a collection, the Night Visions series, each volume of which includes about 30,000 words of short fiction apiece from three horror writers, has always struck me as a clever way of getting around the reluctance of publishers to release single-author short story collections.  However, because I don't like to buy books containing fiction I don't plan to read, the only volumes of the series I'm interested in buying are those where I happen to enjoy the work of all three contributors.  As it happens, there's only one that meets my criteria: the very first, which includes stories by Charles L. Grant, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Tanith Lee.  I've almost ordered it half a dozen times over the past few months, but after enjoying Nightmare Seasons so much, I finally took the plunge.  The book arrived yesterday, and having nothing better to do with my evening I read the whole thing.

As I finished the Charles L. Grant section, it occurred to me that the three-contributor format might have a drawback I hadn't considered.  For me, reading several of an author's stories in sequence is a process of adapting myself to that author's idiosyncrasies: style, worldview, subject matter.  After about 100 pages I really get into the right rhythm, and enjoy the work all the more as a consequence.  Since the Night Visions series includes about 100 pages per writer, you can see my problem: just as I got into the spirit of Grant's stories, it was time to turn to Steve Rasnic Tem, a writer who often engages similar themes but in a very different style.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder whether my regret wasn't about changing gears, but about the thinness of Grant's contributions to the book.  His 30,000 words is spread out over seven stories, the longest of which is about 5,000 words.  That isn't enough room for Grant to unroll the poetic style that so impressed me in Nightmare Seasons.  There's barely room for him to describe an emotionally resonant scenario (a friendless blind child, the insecure son of a dominating father) before adding the genre twist.  This makes several of the stories feel tentative, as if they're just getting warmed up and then abruptly stop.  In a couple cases those stopping points are eerie enough that the story works anyhow, but mostly not.  I did, however, particularly like "To Laugh With You, Dear," which manages in only ten pages to create its scenario and build to a creepy crescendo, and "And We'll Be Jolly Friends," which keeps its concept well-hidden until the shocking ending.

Steve Rasnic Tem also uses his 30,000 words on seven stories, but Tem's surreal, disjointed style makes it possible for him to cover more ground in each piece.  "Spidertalk" is only seven pages long, about 2000 words, but it deals successfully with literal fear of spiders, with a self-conscious child of divorce, and with her equally insecure teacher.  Other favorites of mine were "The Overcoat," in which a man's attempts to fill the emotional hole left by his father's death by helping the homeless run afoul of a strange jacket that once belonged to the dead man, and "Worms," which plays effectively with an aristocratic woman's ambivalence about her classless, but handsome, new neighbor.  The gem of the set, though, is "Punishment," about a couple's attempts to discipline their teenage daughter, and also about the fear and wonder of being a parent.  Tem's stories often operate via a nightmare logic and a psychological ambiguity that make it impossible to tell whether what's happening is literal or only a metaphor, if that even makes any difference.  Concrete-minded readers may find them annoying, but I treasure the insight they provide into the jagged edges of everyday life.

Four stories by Tanith Lee round out the volume.  Lee is a writer of astonishing range, so it's no surprise that I have a harder time talking in generalities about her contributions.  The first, "The Tree: A Winter's Tale," is a gothic piece with mild SF elements, about five members of an extended family living in a large, robot-assisted mansion overshadowed by an immense tree.  As Lee describes the isolated lives and assorted sexual neuroses of the five cousins, hints build up that the tree is something more than it seems.  I think this story, which evokes their idle, emotionally precarious lifestyle very well, is the best of Lee's four.  But a close runner-up would be "Simon's Wife," in which a woman left in her lover's house after an adulterous liaison is suddenly unnerved by... well, what exactly?  Her rising panic and the strangeness of a large, empty, unfamiliar house are grippingly conveyed.  The third Lee piece, "The Vampire Lover," is the weakest; it's delicately crafted and has a nice ending, but takes too long to get beyond the usual vampire cliches.  The fourth and longest story, the novella "The Hunting of Death: The Unicorn," uses the unicorn legend and Christian imagery to create a moving allegory of spiritual yearning and earthly love.  Despite a few dark moments it's not really a horror story, but I enjoyed it enough that I don't mind that.

For Steve Rasnic Tem and Tanith Lee, at least, Night Visions 1 is a great introductory sampler.  I'm not sure the Charles L. Grant stories are up to his usual standard, but they at least offer a sense of his themes and style.  Secondhand copies of the 1988 paperback edition (released as Night Visions: In the Blood) are pretty cheap, so if you're curious about any or all of these authors, I recommend checking it out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Robert Westall

In addition to Charles L. Grant and Gahan Wilson, another author I used to fill out that Better World Books order (this is the last you'll be hearing about it, I promise) was Robert Westall.  I first encountered Westall's work last September, while reading the inaugural edition of the Stephen Jones/Ramsey Campbell Best New Horror, which included the novelette "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux."  I didn't find that story particularly innovative or spooky, but I did enjoy Westall's dry humor, and thought vaguely that I ought to buy one of his books if I came across a cheap copy.  Later that same month I read Simon Bestwick's fine ghost story collection, A Hazy Shade of Winter.  About a quarter of that book is taken up by the excellent novella "Until My Darkness Goes."  Not only is that novella dedicated to Westall's memory, but a fictionalized version of one of his books is the initial source the ghost.  My interest in Westall was redoubled.  Then came the BWB sale, where I was able to obtain both volumes of a posthumous best-of collection of Westall's "ghostly" stories.

That subtitle, "ghostly," is an apt one, for several of the included tales are not ghost stories in the obvious sense, and some aren't even supernatural.  What links them is Westall's gift for writing about regret, memory, and the weight of the past.  Many of these stories were originally published in books aimed at young adult audiences, but Westall never talks down to his audience and, like all the best young adult fiction, his stories can be enjoyed by a reader of any age.

What I like most about the stories in these two volumes is their range, both of subjects and of sympathy.  Westall can write a fine traditional ghost story about the mysterious residents of a small village and the old church that holds their secret ("St. Austin Friars"), but he can also write with authority about a ghostly soldier who links the first and second World Wars ("The Haunting of Chas McGill"), about a haunted toilet in a disused school ("The Boys' Toilets"), or about a gang of young bikers on a midnight ride ("The Night Out.").  More than that, he is able to write respectfully and kindly about all these characters.  Bikers aren't young toughs who deserve to punished, a cruel, controlling wife can be victim as well as villain, and the man who took an ancient photograph of a dead girl may not be the monster you expect.  It seems to me that too many writers use the ghost and horror story didactically, to complain about this or that group of people, or about the horribleness of "modern times" or "city folk" or what have you.  Westall can sometimes drift in that direction, but his sense of our common humanity is too strong for him to give in fully to that sort of bitter grumpiness.

But enough about humanity-- these are ghost stories, after all.  Are they scary?  Well, yes, I think that many of them are.  "Woman and Home" manages to turn a walk through a perfectly ordinary empty house into something remarkably tense, and "A Walk on the Wild Side" reminds us just how scary even a domestic cat can be.  There are, however, other kinds of atmosphere at which the ghost story can aim than fear, and Westall explores several of them.  Sometimes he writes about friendly ghosts.  Ordinarily I agree with M. R. James' remark that "amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy stories or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story," but the one in Westall's "The Cat, Spartan" is unobtrusive enough, and the human characters so well if broadly drawn, that it works out anyway.  And the kindly spirits of "Graveyard Shift" are balanced by one who is very malevolent indeed, so that's all right.

Then there are a couple stories with religious themes.  As a rule I'm not big on those either, but Westall isn't preaching anything other than a very general morality, and is willing to accept characters in spite of their frailties.  In "Rachel and the Angel," a young girl's thoughtless wish brings a destructive spirit to her town, and the only way she can save it is to find righteous people.  This modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah plays out along familiar enough lines, but Westall knows how to make an angel frightening, and has a keen eye for the pathetic yet sympathetic sins of ordinary people.  "A Nose Against the Glass" finds an old man in his antique shop on Christmas Eve, from which the apparition of a child leads him out into the snow in search of something that may be redemption.  Now, if you described that plot to me, I'd be making sarcastic gagging noises and vowing never to read such a thing.  The reason I finished it and liked it is that Westall makes the antique dealer feel real.  He's not a Scrooge; he's a tired old man who can be happy or sad or cruel or kind depending on how his day goes, and Westall presents him in all his modes before leading him into strange events.  And the ending, which reverses the expected cliche somewhat, generates a melancholy atmosphere that makes the story infinitely more memorable.

Reversals of expectation are another of Westall's virtues.  One of the stories in Shades of Darkness makes you imagine evil that isn't really there, while another suggests a stock ghost story ending only to reject it in a way that sent a genuine shiver down my spine; a third mixes the ghost story with another genre to generate an unexpected conclusion.  And "The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux," which was included in Demons and Shadows and which I liked a bit more this time around, has a nice little trick up its sleeve too.  A few stories feel too traditional-- "The Death of Wizards" offers the well-worn notion that being able to read others' thoughts wouldn't be much of a blessing-- but even in those cases, you can find small touches to enjoy.

Westall is also a master of what you might call the non-supernatural ghost story.  What is that, you ask (assuming you didn't give up two long paragraphs ago)?  Why, it's a story that achieves the atmosphere and literary "heft" of a ghost story without having anything definitely unnatural.  Glen Hirshberg's The Snowman's Children is a fine novel-length example; Oliver Onions' "The Honey in the Wall" is a shorter one.  Westall here offers several.  I've already mentioned "The Night Out," but there's also "The Making of Me" and "Gifts from the Sea," two haunting stories about what war, or a relative's memories of war, can do to young children.  And then there's "Fifty-Fafty," in which a folk tale about a tragic, ironic murder is the hinge for a meditation on injustice, history, and collective imagination.  The opening to that story is such a fine example of Westall's way with words that I'm going to include two pages of it:

Friday afternoons, my mother picked me up from school and we went shopping down the town. Out of our leafy suburb, down into the smoky jungle. Wondrous shops were there, full of dinky toys and pink ladies' corsets. But the poor were there too. Beyond the shops, all down to the river, they got poorer and poorer. In the lower depths they Drank, and had no drains; emptied their soapy washing-up water and worse straight into the furrows of yellow clay paths that trickled, in the end, into the black waters of the Tyne, iridescent with the sick beauty of oil and awash with broken fish boxes, where only the inedible blackjack swam, caught by boys who had no boots or shoes, and left lying to rot on the cobbled quays. Where dirty women hung out of windows and shouted incomprehensible things as you passed, and did incomprehensible things with sailors, then cut their throats as they slept and lifted their wallets and dropped their bodies straight into the river through trapdoors in their houses.
I don't remember how old I was. I know I had sadly abandoned hope of dragons. I had checked for wolves under the stairs and found only a sack of musty potatoes, and a meter with the faint exciting whiff of gas. But there were still monsters. The lamplighter walking in front of us was a minor wizard. He put up his long pole to the gas lamps and created darkness. It was broad daylight till the gas lamps flared instantly, night gathering around them like smoke. My own headmaster was a fabulous monster of sorts. Tiny, bent, wizened and silver-haired, we loved him. But the boys said that he had once been a six-foot sergeant major in the Welsh Guards, broad as a house with a voice like a bull. Till the gas got him, in the Battle of the Somme. And down the town there were much more satisfying monsters like Happy Ralph, who lurked at the bottom of Borough Road and rushed out at you with outstretched arms and incoherent cries, whether to embrace you or strangle you nobody ever lingered to find out. On Sundays, Happy Ralph went from church to church, roaming the aisles and terrifying the vicar in his pulpit and the spinsters in their pews.

A trackless safari into the dusk. But not without waterholes. First my Aunt Rose's house, only a little way into the jungle, where people still holystoned their doorsteps and polished their knockers daily. But Aunt Rose was definitely a denizen of the jungle, her living room long and dark as a dungeon, only a pale ghost of daylight trickling in past aspidistra and lace curtain, over the massive overstuffed three-piece suite crowded like cattle in a byre.

She gave us tea, which we balanced on our knees. She stayed on her feet, solid as a bullock in her flowered pinafore, hair in a tight black bun, and railed against God.

Like many YA writers, Westall is good with direct, accessible language that nonetheless offers a tinge of the poetic.  And-- I have to say it again-- he's very good with human foibles.  "The Red House Clock" offers a rough, illiterate father and his more intellectually inclined son, but their strained relationship avoids stereotype; "In Camera" features a strong-minded young policewoman, but she's not Tough-As-Nails, and Westall shows that she's as aware as anyone of her own short temper.  His characters are clear enough that younger readers can grasp them, but subtle enough that adults won't be bored.

So, strong prose, strong characters, and a deft hand with the ghostly in all its forms.  What's not to like?  As far as I can see, hardly anything.  If you enjoy YA fiction or ghost stories, do yourself a favor and add Robert Westall to your reading list.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Cleft and Other Odd Tales

People who are more culturally literate than I am will know Gahan Wilson primarily as a cartoonist/illustrator.  However, he also writes the occasional spooky or fantastic short story.  I first noticed his work with the story "The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be," which was reprinted in Ellen Datlow's anthology Blood is Not Enough.  A sinister reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll's famous poem from Through the Looking Glass, it was a crisply told, enchantingly nasty story of idle rich people meeting a grim fate.  This, I've discovered, is a recurring feature in Wilson's fiction.  A paragraph from the opening of the story "Sea Gulls" will suggest the narrative voice and social world of many of Wilson's protagonists:
We had been sitting side by side on a large, sun-warmed rock, I in a precise but somewhat Redonesque pose, Geraldine in her usual, space-occupying, sprawl.  I was deep in a poetic revery, reflecting on the almost alchemical transition of sand to water to sky while Geraldine, my wife, was absorbed in completely finishing off the sumptuous but rather overlarge picnic the hotel staff had prepared for our outing, when she abruptly straightened, a half-consumed jar of pate clutched forgotten in her greasy fingers, and suddenly emitted that barking coo of hers which never has failed to simultaneously startle and annoy me throughout all the years of our marriage.
As you might expect, several macabre twists of fate are in store for both Geraldine and her scheming husband.  Like Roald Dahl and John Collier, Wilson delights in cruel humor and reversal of fortune.  In "Traps," rats take revenge on the exterminator who has targeted them; in "Leavings," two police detectives learn more than is good for them about the mysterious ailments of the local homeless population.  In the hands of a lesser stylist, these tales, many of which date from the 1960s and 1970s and were originally published in Playboy or Fantasy and Science Fiction, would feel passe, but Wilson's sharp prose makes for such quick, easy reading (I finished the 330-page book in about three hours) that there's no time to become bored with them.  And his ear for comedy is just great:
Lester fumbled uncertainly over the limited information he had at his disposal concerning the handling of the violently insane.  There was not much, but he did recall it was very important to humor them.  You've got to humor them or they'll go for the ax or the bread knife.
He's particular funny with first-person narrative by "friendly" rich women, as in the cat-themed story "Best Friends" or his mid-twentieth century version of "Hansel and Grettel:"
Well, anyhow, when they were very young, just as young as you are, there was a great financial depression and all those funny people you see when you're out in the streets were losing their jobs in amazing numbers and looking more ragged and dirty by the day.  Of course that was nothing near so bad as what was happening to people like ourselves, darlings, people who had real money to lose.

Hansel and Grettel's parents were starting to notice that there wasn't quite as much to spend as there used to be, and less all the time, and they realized they'd have to do something really serious about it if they wanted to avoid dipping into their capital, so just like that, they decided to kill their children.

Now, now, don't look at me that way, my dears.  It's only that sometimes grownups have to do things they'd really rather not.  It's just the way it is, so stop fretting.
But I don't want to suggest that this collection is all about the travails of the amoral upper class.  There are also stories about mad scientists, sinister ice cream men, small towns with odd habits, disappearing corpses, aggressive Martian vines, impossible giant statues, and a zombie-infested midway.  Wilson is able to make each of these as creepy or funny or downright weird as he wants.  A case in point is "The Marble Boy," a variation on the one of the oldest campfire ghost stories in the book.  But Wilson describes the central scare with enough originality that it becomes unsettling all over again.  Fans of the classical weird or sinister story will find much to admire in The Cleft and Other Odd Tales.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nightmare Seasons

Even though I seem unable to keep myself from buying books (34 this month, and it's not even over yet), there's always a long list of authors whose work I'd like to check out but haven't gotten around to yet.  Until recently, one name on that list was the late Charles L. Grant, known both as an author in his own right and as an editor of anthologies, including the widely-acclaimed Shadows series and the shared-world milieu of Greystone Bay.  I'd read a few Grant stories here and there and been quite impressed by them, especially "If Damon Comes," which was included in David G. Hartwell's mammoth anthology The Dark Descent.  That story, like a sizable chunk of the prolific Grant's work, is set in Oxrun Station, a fictional Connecticut where strange things happen all too often.  When I was looking for items to fill out a large order from Better World Books, I thought of Grant, and ended up ordering Nightmare Seasons and The Black Carousel, two collections of linked novellas set in Oxrun Station.  On Friday night I read all four novellas from Nightmare Seasons in a single feverish sitting.

Which is, in a way, somewhat surprising, since if you'd described the plots of those four novellas to me, I'd probably have said, "Ugh, really?"  In particular, the first of them would sound silly and awful, like a bad Stephen King knock-off, if I told you its concept in a couple straightforward sentences.  (It doesn't help that Grant's titles, while often charming, sometimes feel a little labored; that first novella is "Thou Need Not Fear My Kisses, Love".)  But what sets Grant's approach apart is his subtlety, which finds and exploits the highest dread in even the most gruesome situation.  His prose style, while not, I'm sure, to everyone's taste, seems to me to balance masterfully on the line between poetry and pretension.  Here, for instance, is the opening to the prologue of Nightmare Seasons, the framing device that links the four novellas:

Winter... and rain.
During the blade-sharp days of a January cold snap, during the hours when snow immobilizes and breath turns to short-lived fog, there are the dreams of summer, of green, of walking with no particular purpose except to savor across the playing fields of the park beneath hickory and ash and white birch of such luxuriantly thick foliage that even the stilled air seems hazed with mint.  In part it is a steeled defiance of a numbing temperature that reduces animals to hibernation and man to bitter complaint; and in part it is a hypnotic gesture to the pleading of one's senses for an earnest reassurance that this sort of weather will not last, that there will indeed be a time when warmth beyond the hearth is a reality in spite of the past that it seems now like nothing more, and nothing less, than an attic memory.
But there are worse times than the cold.
And there are worse illusions than memory.
There are the cruel teasing thaws that defy the season with a mercury grin; thaws that banish the snow, fill the streams, oftentimes clear the sky to a taunting deception of June's soft blue.
And when there is no blue, there is the rain.
I must confess, I like that a lot.  A similar gift for language runs through all four novellas, turning an attack by demonic bikers or an antagonist with the power to control lightning into something more than the 80s horror cliche it might initially seem.  Each novella is set in a different season a decade apart-- Spring 1940 through Winter 1970-- and small details of period and weather add to the atmosphere that Grant carefully builds.  And no matter how unusual the plot, the real focus is always on character.  Whether it's a woman trying to maintain her independence while juggling three suitors, an elderly postal employee with nothing ahead of him but work and death, or a young woman hoping to establish a career and friends while overcoming a tragic family history, Grant uses the length offered by the novella format to draw his characters deftly and sympathetically, so that the dark fates that swallow some of them are disturbing rather than garish.

If all of the above isn't enough of a hint as to how much I liked Nightmare Seasons, I'll add that the three latest books of this month's 34, ordered early this morning, were two more Oxrun novella collections and Night Visions 1, which also includes several stories by Grant.  They arrive on Wednesday, and I think I'm going to have a hard time not devouring the first of them that very night.  As far as I'm concerned, Charles L. Grant really is that good.

Noonday Sun: The Book of Bunk

This is the first in an irregular series where I'll review books that, while not horror fiction, may be of interest to this blog's readers for one reason or another.

The jacket copy of The Book of Bunk: A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers' Project describes it as an "unclassifiable explosion of storytelling," and while that may be a little histrionic, I can confirm from personal experience that it's basically accurate.  You see, my bookshelves are arranged by genre, and having finished The Book of Bunk I was very much at a loss as to where to put it.  Glen Hirshberg's other books are in the bookcase set aside for horror fiction: The Two Sams and American Morons because they include ghost and horror stories, and the novel The Snowman's Children because, while not horror per se, its grim atmosphere and its focus on the weight of the past make it close enough to fit the bill.  The Book of Bunk, on the other hand, includes only a single fleeting incident that captures that tone, and while it's a heck of a scene, it's not enough to make the book horror.  In the end, I decided to put the book on my science fiction/fantasy shelves, where it now nestles between Theodora Goss's In the Forest of Forgetting and Robert E. Howard's The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  In a way it doesn't fit there either, because none of the book's events can really be called supernatural.  They're unlikely, in the best sense of the word, the "things should happen like this" sense, which is why the subtitle labels it "a fairy tale," but that's not the same thing.

The point here is that The Book of Bunk really is unclassifiable, in the best sense of that word.  As such, it's unfortunately no surprise that the novel was unable to find publication with a large press, and was released in a limited edition by Earthling Publications.  That edition is already out of print at the publisher, and I snagged what I believe to have been's last copy, but various specialty book dealers still have copies at or close to cover price.  I do hope that eventually a press with larger reach picks up this novel, because it deserves a much wider audience than a 415-copy edition can ever bring it.

The Book of Bunk is the story of Paul Dent, who, after burying his father, leaves behind college to ride the rails.  Before he knows quite what has happened, a young woman named Grace has hired him for the Federal Writers' Project, a branch of the WPA, and set him up in the small town of Trampleton, North Carolina, where he's supposed to research local history and geography for one of 48 state guides the Project is assembling.  But what Paul discovers in Trampleton in 1936 is a web of interconnected stories, too large, too strange, and too dramatic for any guidebook to capture them.  And the arrival of Paul's charismatic brother Lewis sets in motion a chain of events that will reveal secrets stranger still... and lead, in the end, to great tragedy.

That may not sound terribly interesting to you.  I'll confess that at first it didn't to me, either, which is why I took so long to acquire the book even though Hirshberg is one of my favorite writers.  And as I read the first half of The Book of Bunk, I was a little uneasy, wondering whether the gentle pace and quietly stylish prose would ever propel me toward something more interesting.  I also worried, based on the novel's framing story, that it would turn into a didactic parable about the value of art and the foolishness of certain politicians.  But then came the arresting, spooky scene I alluded to above, which was followed in turn by a revelation that added another layer of complexity to the carefully-constructed relationships among the novel's large supporting cast.  I read the last third of the book in a white heat, and closed it in awe at the multi-faceted ending, which combines violent resolution with subtle ambiguity and offers hope and melancholy in about equal doses.  This is a novel that takes in a lot-- sibling rivalry, race relations, government hearings, orphans, knife-juggling-- without feeling anything other than lean and poetic.  All this, and a cameo appearance by... but, as an reviewer points out, it would be churlish to give that away.  If this sounds at all promising, get your copy of The Book of Bunk while you can, because it won't be too long before the few remaining copies dry up and prices sky-rocket, and there is, alas, no guarantee that this fine literary-historical novel will find the wider publication it ought to enjoy.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition

This is the third "best horror of 2009" anthology I've read.  In March of last year there was Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, the new home for the horror half of the venerable Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series.  Then last November there was (The Mammoth Book of) Best New Horror 21, edited by Stephen Jones.  Between them these two veteran editors have produced 44 annual best-ofs for dark fiction.  Given their experience and judgment, one might consider a third such annual anthology unnecessary or overkill.  If so, one would be wrong.

In the first place, I'm not at all sure that there could ever be too many best-of series for speculative fiction.  Too much great horror, fantasy, and science fiction appears only in expensive limited editions, obscure magazines, or markets not traditionally associated with those genres.  Inexpensive, widely available reprint anthologies make this material available to readers who otherwise might never see it.  I first encountered virtually every contemporary horror writer I now admire in the pages of one or another best-of.  The more such books are published, the wider the range of reprinted material will be, and that's good for writers and readers alike.

In the second place, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition distinguishes itself from its fellow best-ofs in a couple important ways.  I'll let editor Paula Guran tell you about it herself, in this quote from the acknowledgments:
The scope and intent of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2010 [sic] is unique.  As the publisher allowed me a considerable number of pages to fill, I was able to select some longer works that, in a thinner book, might not have been afforded the space.  And, with such a broad theme, I was able to select stories that do not fit anthologies more tightly constrained by definitions.  Thanks to Sean Wallace of Prime Books for the lack of boundaries.
And the volume's page count is indeed considerable: 575 large trade paperback pages, all of them, except for an introduction and the back matter, devoted to fiction.  For this particular year, Guran's volume includes about as much fiction as Datlow and Jones combined.  That's 39 stories, including three novellas.  Even though I had previously read over a quarter of those stories on original publication and/or in other best-ofs, there were still 28 pieces completely new to me.

But enough about quantity; it's that other thing that really matters.  Fortunately, Guran hits a home run here as well.  Part of the fun of a best-of is seeing excellent stories you've already read get the recognition they deserve.  Here, for the second or third time, I read such great tales as Suzy McKee Charnas's "Lowland Sea," Michael Shea's "Copping Squid," Barbara Roden's "The Brink of Eternity," Catherynne M. Valente's "A Delicate Architecture," and Norman Prentiss's "In the Porches of My Ears."  There are some stories so good that seeing them in a table of contents is an added incentive to buy the book, even if I already own the piece in question in some other format, and all five of these fit that bill.

And I was equally impressed by many of the pieces that were new to me.  In particular, I got a kick out of the three novellas.  Jones usually includes only one novella a year in Best New Horror, and they're even rarer in Datlow, so Guran's triple threat was a nice change of pace.  I'd especially been looking forward to the novella "Sea-Hearts" by the indescribably brilliant Margo Lanagan, and it didn't disappoint.  This reworking of the selkie legend, which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, showcases all of Lanagan's virtues: her ability to modify elements of fantasy and legend in fascinating, dark ways, her insight into harrowing psychological experiences, and the strange, poetic diction that makes her language a joy to encounter.  To begin a Lanagan story is to be dropped into a strange, shifting world where the rules have changed and even the most familiar things can become mysterious, but if you persevere you'll find the radiant humanity that defines and enriches all her work.

The other two novellas were equally fascinating in their diverse ways.  John Langan's "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" reinvigorates the vampire by turning it into a force of nature and tying its existence into the experience of injured Iraq War veterans, while "Halloween Town," by Lucius Shepard, begins with a town hidden in the shadows of an immense gorge and a man who becomes intelligent and jaded after being hit in the head with a rivet, and only gets more surprising, funny, and thoughtful from there.  As for the shorter works, I especially want to mention Stewart O'Nan's "Monsters," a story that captures the horror of a very real situation by telling it straightforwardly, avoiding excess and melodrama; Stephen Graham Jones's "The Ones Who Got Away," a spooky tale of memory and regret, elevated by the slightly disjointed language in which it's narrated; and Maura McHugh's "Vic," which is that great rarity, a story told subtly enough that you might well miss its chilling point on first reading.

Naturally, there were a few stories I thought were adequate but not exceptional, including one I'm not going to name that I've now read three times in various anthologies, always vainly hoping that I'll like it better this time around.  But the nice thing about an anthology this size is that I can find six of its stories underwhelming and still be a fan of the other 33.  And the volume's wide scope means that you can go from a retold fairy tale to a ghost story to a doppelganger to a vampire to a deal with the devil to a story that isn't supernatural at all.  For the reasonable price of $20 US, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition offers an excellent overview of where dark fiction went in 2009.  Here's hoping this series, unlike other recent attempts at a new horror best-of, will have some staying power.  It certainly deserves to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Man on the Ceiling

I've never been much given to philosophical ruminations on the "nature" or "purpose" of horror or dark fantasy or any type of speculative fiction.  It's a large, abstract question, and like most large abstractions it bores me silly.  Such questions invite the answerer to indulge in banal, often self-serving generalities, offering nothing that's interesting or really, deeply true.  Beyond that, I have little interest in the metaphysical, the metaphorical, the spiritual as ways of approaching human existence.

How, then, to explain my enthusiasm for The Man on the Ceiling, a 2008 novel by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem that expands on their 2000 novella of the same name?  Novel and novella alike are, among other things, an attempt to explain why the Tems write dark fantasy and what doing so means to them, in terms that often brush up against the laden metaphors I so dislike.  What makes the difference, I think, is the sentiment that appears in the first line of the novella and on the first page of the novel.

"Everything we're about to tell you is true."

And it is.  The authors go on to say, "Don't ask me if I mean that 'literally.'  I know about the literal.  The literal has failed miserably to explain the things I've really needed explanations for.  The things in your dreams, the things in your head, don't know from literal."  That's another sentiment I ought to despise.  Maybe this is a sign of my own limitations, but I've never needed any frame of reference beyond the literal to make sense of the world.  So why don't I despise it?  Because, while some of the book may not be "literally" true, much of it is.  As the back cover of the novel versions notes, this is a work that "blurs the line between memoir and myth, where story and reality blend to find the one thing that neither can offer alone: truth."  The Tems are not merely spinning abstractions about the purpose of writing.  They are explaining, with reference to the tragedies and joys of their own family life, as precisely as they can, what their writing means to them.

It would be easy to be glib about this.  Too often the presence of a fictionalized version of the author in horror fiction is a gimmick, a way to provide a veneer of "reality" to a ghost story or something similar.  One could dismiss the way the Tems use "the man on the ceiling," a shadowy figure seen by night, as a metaphor for the fears and weaknesses that lie beneath the surface of even the happiest family's day-to-day existence.  But there's a directness to way they write here, a poetry of simplicity that makes the metaphor work.
I follow the man on the ceiling around the attic of our house, my flashlight burning off pieces of his body, which grow back as soon as he moves beyond the beam.  I chase him down three flights of stairs into our basement where he hides in the laundry.  My hands turn into frantic paddles that scatter the clothes and I'm already thinking about how I'm going to explain the mess to Melanie in the morning when he slips like a pool of oil under my feet and out to other corners of the basement where my children keep their toys.  I imagine the edge of his cheek in an oversized doll, his amazingly sharp fingers under the hoods of my son's Matchbox cars.
But the man on the ceiling is a story and I know something about stories.  One day I will figure out just what this man on the ceiling is "about."  He's a character in the dream of our lives and he can be changed or killed.
The original novella, slightly altered, makes up about 50 pages of the 370 page novel version.  The new material continues the examination of the Tem's lives through the framework of story, of their lives as an act of storytelling, of storytelling as one of the ways in which people keep themselves alive.  There are times, it is true, when this longer version seems too long: too diffuse, too repetitive, too reductively aphoristic.  But there is always the pull of family history to give the novel a shape, to remind us that this is not merely writerly contemplation but real human beings confronting their real lives.
Moments cast in amber.  Invisible rooms.  Reality puddling.  Breakthroughs from and into the divine.  I hasten to protest: Steve and I don't always live like that!  Not everything is fraught with Meaning.  Like everybody else, we bumble through most of our daily lives attending to basic maintenance: doing laundry, going to the dentist, stocking up for whatever disaster might come, getting a haircut, walking the dogs, earning a living.
But even in the daily doing of what must be done, transcendence finds a way to creep in.
Looking back over this review, I can't help but feel that I've done what I've accused others of doing, shaping sentences that please me, gliding smoothly over the surface of a topic without getting inside it as I ought to.  But I'm unable to explain precisely what it is that makes The Man on the Ceiling work.  I sometimes suspect that, despite the air of contemplation I aim for when writing reviews, my reasons for liking and disliking things are deeply primal, inexplicable, irrational.  Maybe everyone's are, and the very act of reviewing is simply a form of barking at the dark.  Probably not.  But at this moment it's something I can believe, the story I want to tell.  And at this moment, perhaps, that makes it true.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dark Corners

In the afterword to his first story collection, Dark Corners, Stephen Volk writes, "Whether, en masse, these diverse fragments tell you anything about their author, I honestly have no idea.  Other than the 'Venables' stories, they all seem quite diverse to me."  He goes on to acknowledge that some readers may notice connections that he hasn't, but for me the most striking thing about these stories is indeed their variety.  From traditional ghost stories to more modern monsters to non-supernatural tales of psychological suspense, Dark Corners runs the gamut of horror fiction, and does so in style.

The "Venables" stories to which Volk refers all feature Mr. Venables, an early twentieth-century investigator of the supernatural, and are written in the style of Victorian and Edwardian masters like M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.  The first paragraph of the earliest of them, "The Latin Master," gives some sense of their general tone:
The last time I met Bairstowe was at ten o'clock on New Year's Eve, ten years ago, in the library of the Ludlow Club in Chelsea, then as now frequented almost exclusively by authors and artists of varying degrees of repute, and talent.  Only now, writing this up on a dreary Sunday evening, has it occurred to me that I never saw Bairstowe but in the Ludlow Club.  As far as I know, he ate, drank and slept there, as if it were a self-imposed prison, which perhaps it was-- I shall let the story he told speak for itself.
I'm a big fan of traditional antiquarian ghost stories, but I'm afraid that on the whole I found the Venables stories a mixed bag.  Their period language, while perfectly accurate as far as I can tell, sometimes feels rather stiff, and the hauntings are often too predictable to be frightening.  The ones I most enjoyed, "The Anamorph of Hans Baldung Grien" and "A Pair of Pince-Nez," succeed because their ghostly encounters include a psychologically harrowing element that I could almost call Lovecraftian.  Not in the narrow meaning of tentacled, noisome creatures, but because of the sense they create of the vastness of time and the smallness of humanity.

I was more consistently impressed by the pieces with a modern setting and sensibility.  The collection opens with one I'd read previously, in one of the volumes of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. "31/10" is a sequel of sorts to Ghostwatch, the infamous Halloween hoax Volk (also a screenwriter) wrote for the BBC in 1992.  (I haven't gotten around to watching it myself, but it's on Google Video if you're curious.)  Ten years later, Volk and several others connected with the programme are invited to spend the night in the studio where it was shot.  As you might imagine, this doesn't go well.  The story, written in first person present tense and separated into sections by the passage of minutes, is thoroughly gripping.  Not so much for its concrete horrors, which are limited to the last couple pages, but because of Volk's elegant prose style.  It records his fictional alter ego's reactions to events and the associations they bring up, so I could call it stream-of-consciousness, but it's so finely honed and focused that the word hardly seems to apply.  This style does so much to put the reader on edge that by the time events take a dark turn, even the simplest strange behaviors become chilling.

A similarly stark prose style enlivens several other fine stories from the collection.  Here, by way of example, is the opening to the brief but potent "Three Fingers, One Thumb:"
Frankly, I wasn't taken in the by the castle.  It looked fake.  But of course, that was what it was all about.  Fairytales.  Make believe.  Fake.  Of course, it didn't matter.  Our five year old, Elize, was completely spellbound, and that was what counted.  This was her world.  Their world.  Children.
Somewhat to my surprise, given my usual indifference to non-supernatural psychological horror, those are the stories from Dark Corners that come to mind when I think of favorites.  This is perhaps because Volk's gift for language enables him to find tension and drama in situations that might otherwise seem mundane, and because he often manages to hide his true intentions in such stories until near the end.  "Indicator," for instance, seemed to me to be going nowhere in particular until the very last line, when it all came together with the force of a thunderclap.  And even though I'd been expecting some version of the ending to "No Harm Done," the description of what actually occurs is so effective that I'm willing to overlook the literal implausibility of the story's last few pages.

Most of the stories in Dark Corners are, well, dark.  The lone exception, "Curious Green Colors Sleep Furiously," is also the longest of the included stories.  A wordplay-laden surrealist fantasy about a detective hired to locate the mysterious artifact known as the Fi, it has some hilarious moments and is, on the whole, very clever, but it's also a little too meandering and random for my tastes.  I think that, contrary to what one might expect, nonsense must be strictly controlled if it's to be entertaining to a reader, and "Curious Green..." is having a little too much fun with itself.  I should admit, though, that I'm not a great fan of comic surrealism in any form, and that may be biasing me against the story.

Precisely because the stories in Dark Corners are so varied, it's difficult to feel I've done them justice without discussing each one in detail.  So far I haven't even mentioned the power Volk finds in the everyday events of "Time Capsule," the dark irony of "The Best in the Business," or the ghoulish game played by the children of wartime London in "Blitzenstein."  But I think I've said enough to communicate the range of Volk's talents.  I'd encourage all horror fans to seek out a copy of Dark Corners, which, unlike many contemporary short fiction collections in the genre, is available as an inexpensive trade paperback.  Its scope almost guarantees that it will offer that most common of marketing cliches: something for everyone.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Two sales for good causes

One of my recent Livejournal posts includes details of two charity-supporting book sales that may be of interest to horror fans, so I'm linking to it here.

My next proper post will probably be a review of Stephen Volk's collection Dark Corners.