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.

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