Monday, March 12, 2012

The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners

This is one of two long-delayed anthologies finally released by Cemetery Dance Publications in early 2012. The other, The Century's Best Horror Fiction, had been in the works for upwards of a decade, but The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners has it beat by a few years. The introduction by Joe R. Lansdale is copyright 1998, and although it actually seems to have been updated or entirely rewritten since then, that's probably a decent ballpark figure for the anthology's beginnings. In any case the included stories span only 1987-1996, the first ten years during which the awards were given. Fifteen years' worth of more recent winners are unrepresented. This gives the anthology something of the feel of a time capsule, as Lansdale acknowledges in his introduction. "These stories have been on the shelf for a long time, and as they still seem fresh and progressive, it speaks to the nature of their continued prominence. They age well, and they will continue to do so." But that only invites questions: do they seem fresh and progressive? have they aged well? My answer, anyway, is a mixed one.

The tone of Lansdale's introduction reflects a confidence in, if not awards processes in general, then the process of the Stoker in particular as producing winners that are in fact good stories. Based on what's included here, I can't disagree; all of these stories are good. But how many are especially good, so good that even with hindsight they stand as clear contenders for such distinction? Maybe I'm just picky or out of touch with contemporary opinion on quality horror, but by a generous count I would label only half the stories here notably ambitious, intelligent, or skillful. Some of them seem to reflect not great or even moderate artistic success, but other processes by which work wins awards.

Before looking at the stories themselves, it might help to note that the thirteen tales included here are not all the winners for shorter fiction between 1987 and 1996. Because there were two (and in one year three) short fiction categories, and because of occasional ties, there are in fact 25 stories that fit the criteria for this anthology. The volume is silent on what the selection process was, but one aspect seems obvious: the exclusion of additional stories by multiple winners. Within the ten year span, David Morrell and Harlan Ellison won twice each, and Nancy Holder and Joe R. Lansdale three times apiece; each is represented by only one story. (Morrell, Ellison, and Lansdale also had two additional nominations apiece; Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon, not included in the anthology, also won twice each, and Simmons had two further nominations.) Without casting doubt on the talent of any of these writers, none of whose work I'm very familiar with, I might argue that a rather narrow range of nominator reading explains this as least as well as consistent brilliance on their part.

But this is a review of a particular anthology, not of the Stoker process, except insofar as that process might explain why certain stories fall short of what one might hope for in an award winner. Take Robert Bloch's "The Scent of Vinegar," the first entry in the table of contents. A bad story? Not really. It uses a Malaysian variation on the vampire myth so weirdly effective that (questions of cultural appropriation aside) I'm surprised it isn't more popular. An abandoned house of prostitution from 1940s Hollywood provides both a spooky setting and a touch of the glamorous past. The pace and the prose and all that sort of thing are fine. But: a gaping plot hole is ignored to produce the desired ending. The treatment of Asian characters is, ah, not optimal-- there's a reference to one's "slant-eyed stare." And the story suffers a serious lack of originality: its only striking idea is lifted wholesale from existing myth, and there's nothing much in it that couldn't have appeared in a pulp horror story written at the beginning of the author's career sixty years earlier. There's something to be said for really good work in a vintage style, but "The Scent of Vinegar" just isn't that good.

So why did it win an award? Well, questions of subjectivity and intersubjectivity aside, it's probably not insignificant that in the 1990s Bloch, correspondent of Lovecraft and author of Psycho and much other well-regarded work, was a grand old man of the horror genre, or that his death in September 1994 made "The Scent of Vinegar" his first posthumous story. I don't mean any criticism of the Stoker voters when I suggest that this win has something of a gold watch feel. In 1995 that was no bad thing; in 2012, for an anthology whose stories are supposed to seem fresh and progressive, it's a bit of a letdown.

On the other hand, David B. Silva's "The Calling" is as relevant and genuinely, honestly upsetting now as it was in 1990. At first it seems only (only?) to be a grim portrait of the powerlessness, despair, and anger of a mother and son facing her terminal cancer, and on that level it succeeds by insight into the specific humiliations of such illness and by a flatness of prose that avoids any hint of sentimentality or other emotional manipulation. Then the ending, a final powerful image that's gruesome but not crude, transforms the story into the best kind of supernatural metaphor: the type that's both forceful as metaphor and disturbing as horror.

With "Chatting with Anubis," we come to another story by a major name in the genre, Harlan Ellison. But I'm not as inclined to credit this story's success to voting for the author as I was with Bloch. Although it's not an especially substantial piece of work, and the great secret toward which it builds is not as shocking as it might once have been, the story is extremely well-crafted to achieve a mythic quality by the careful deployment of superficially-simple prose and almost random detail that nonetheless resonates. Here, since we're at one of those moments where I feel ill-qualified to describe the effect, have a quote:
When the core drilling was halted at a depth of exactly 804.5 meters, one half mile down, Amy Guiterman and I conspired to grab Immortality by the throat and shake it till it noticed us.
My name is Wang Zicai. Ordinarily, the family name Wang-- which is pronounced with the "a" in father, almost as if it were Wong-- means 'king." In my case, it means something else; it means "rushing headlong." How appropriate. Don't tell me clairvoyance doesn't run in my family... Zicai means "suicide." Half a mile down, beneath the blank Sahara, in a hidden valley that holds cupped in its eternal serenity the lake of the Oasis of Siwa, I and a young woman equally as young and reckless as myself, Amy Guiterman of New York City, conspired to do a thing that would certainly cause our disgrace, if not our separate deaths.  (ellipsis in original)
Next we come to "The Pear-Shaped Man," by George R. R. Martin. As with most of Martin's fiction across all genres, the style is what one might politely call competent; the opening passage is actually rather atmospheric in its way. There's no sense of thematic ambition. The structure is eminently traditional: a woman moves into a new home, is menaced by a frightening stranger, becomes obsessed with the threat he poses, is ignored or dismissed when she tries to warn of the threat. What sets the story apart, and makes it at least defensible as superior work in the genre, is the nature of the stranger: not a suave gentleman who might turn out to be vampire or ghost or serial killer, but an overweight, solitary, socially awkward guy, the kind who lives alone in a small, dirty apartment and seems to subsist on junk food. Martin does an admirable job of making such a lifestyle menacing as well as pathetic, so that the classical structure becomes newly involving, and if you can accept a story in which the weird outsider really is as awful as the bright young go-getters find him, this is a solidly impressive piece of work.

Joe R. Lansdale's "The Night They Missed The Horror Show" is one of three stories from this anthology that also appears in The Century's Best Horror Fiction, so I've read it twice in the past few weeks. It also appears in the second volume of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, so I'll be reading it again when I get around to working through my unread volumes of that series. That's a lot of praise for a story to earn, and it's not difficult to see why. The rendering of an ordinary southern night that descends into a nightmare of racism and casual brutality is memorable and disturbing, and the portrayal of the hate-filled, frustrated mindset that drives such behavior is credible. In spite of all that, I wasn't greatly impressed by "The Night They Missed the Horror Show." The amount of grotesque behavior that piles up in a short span of time is so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to take seriously, verging on the ridiculous, and I don't see much deep insight into any aspect of the situation. Does a horror story have to be deeply insightful? Of course not, but if it isn't it runs the risk of becoming a simple exercise in the unpleasant, and for me that's all this one is.

I've been thinking lately that a major problem with contemporary psychological horror is that much of it lacks the detailed and convincing representation of its psychological aspects that's necessary to make it about psychological dysfunction in a real sense, rather than a portrayal of dysfunction for upsetting effect. What made "The Calling" work were specific moments that captured the anguish of the situation and communicated the reason for the narrator's profound despair; what makes a few other stories in the anthology fall flat is that they lack such authenticity. Nancy Holder's "Lady Madonna" is a case in point. It's clear that the combination of certain external forces and personal instability are meant to have driven the protagonist to the extreme form of protectiveness that the story describes, but she's more a collection of delusions than a credible human being, and the ultimate atmosphere of the story is of Gothic excess. Reasonably well-executed Gothic excess-- the first-person narration is clean and not in and of itself unrealistic, and the central idea is upsetting-- but still.

"The Box" by Jack Ketchum is another story also in The Century's Best Horror Fiction and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. And again, I'm afraid it didn't do very much for me. I appreciate its attempt at subtlety, but in this case I think the attempt backfires, producing a story so lacking in stylistic, atmospheric, or narrative excitement that it rests entirely on one's degree of engagement with the harrowing tragedy it inflicts on its protagonist after his son takes a peek inside a box containing a stranger's Christmas present. That tragedy is enough to generate some sympathy, but despite some suggestion of a deep sense of solitude the protagonist isn't developed enough to make his senseless plight feel more compelling than manipulative. I feel bad for him, in the way I'd feel bad if I heard about a similar event on the news, but nothing more.

Elizabeth Massie's "Stephen" is the third story that also appeared in The Century's Best Horror Fiction. And in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Oh, and this one was also in Stephen Jones' Best New Horror for that year. And it got a World Fantasy Award nomination. After all that, could I possibly give it a negative review? Maybe, but in this case I don't have to; after three readings (including that volume of Best New Horror) I'm conflicted enough not to be wholly positive or negative. The story certainly pushes buttons simply by its subject matter: a victim of extreme physical and sexual violence whose work as a therapist among seriously disabled patients at a rehab center brings her own issues to the forefront. This provocative situation is the basis for a reflection on how bodily and emotional damage affect the eternal need for and fear of human contact. What leaves me uneasy about the story despite this profound ambition is that same fear that the topic isn't being handled with an appropriate depth of insight. Obviously it's not my place as a man who was never a victim of physical or sexual violence to comment on the authenticity of such a story, but none of the characters are examined in enough detail to make me confident that their suffering is being explored rather than exploited. But it's a richer, more humane story than (say) "Lady Madonna," enough so that I can't reject it entirely. Maybe after yet another reading I'll have a better idea where I stand.

Thomas Ligotti is often praised, sometimes by me, for the philosophical content and dreamlike quality of his fiction, but what most struck me on rereading "The Red Tower" was its disturbing imagery and the paranoid tone of its narration. Ligotti is as adept at visceral discomfort ("a series of lifelike replicas of internal organs... many of them evidencing an advanced stage of disease and all of them displeasingly warm and soft to the touch") and disordered, unsettling narration ("I hear them talk of it every day of my life... Then the voices grow quiet until I can barely hear them as they attempt to communicate with me in choking scraps of post-nightmare trauma"), and on top of that this story functions as a pessimistic commentary on the horror and absurdity of conscious existence. That sort of layered achievement is what makes for a truly superior story, and it's why "The Red Tower," though not a particular favorite of mine, is a thoroughly deserving award winner.

Alan Rodgers' "The Boy Who Came Back From the Dead," the sort of story for which the phrase "does what it says on the tin" was made, is an odd one. It seems to be reaching for a reserved, resonant melancholy, but there's a plot element that jars pretty badly against that tone, and there isn't much to feel melancholy about, beyond the not-groundbreaking observation that coming back from the dead might not be the great pleasure you'd hope for. The prose has a direct, childlike quality that's appropriate to the young protagonist and makes his situation more involving, but overall this is another story for the good-but-not-great category.

Jack Cady's "The Night We Buried Road Dog" is the longest story in the anthology, and also the best. In addition to the Stoker, it won the Nebula and a couple lesser known genre awards, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and a Hugo. That a ghost story should do so well in competitions more strongly associated with science fiction and fantasy is a sign of the power of this novella. Perhaps it tries a little too hard to evoke the pathos of the solitary lives of its protagonists, men of the great open spaces in the American West whose cars and dog are the most important thing in their lives, for whom lonely driving is a peculiar pleasure. But Cady is enough of a stylist, his prose authentically simple and lean yet wistfully evocative, that it works, even for a reader who's cynical about the type of person he's describing. The capturing of a way of life is so gradual that the ghostly quality is subdued, but when it emerges it makes a basic trope of ghost lore eerie and subtly moving. Another story that does enough things well to be an obvious award contender, and all by itself goes a long way toward making this anthology worth reading.

It is perhaps unfair to describe the plot of a stylized horror story in blunt language-- anything can be made to sound ridiculous that way-- but sometimes the temptation is irresistible, so here we are: P. D. Cacek's "Metalica" is about a woman who gets pelvic exams for kicks. There's a psychological aspect to her behavior, but the story is less about that than about explicit descriptions (it originally appeared in an erotic horror anthology) that certainly succeed in getting under one's skin. This is another case where emotional disturbance feels used for visceral effect, and while that's not always a bad thing, the erotic tone of the prose makes this story unsettling in all the wrong ways.

The anthology concludes with "Orange is for Anguish, Blue is for Insanity" by David Morrell, in which a young art student discovers the secret behind an avant-garde artist's unusual work. Will that secret claim him as it did previous enthusiasts? Well, obviously. This fits comfortably into the tradition of horror stories about over-curious scholars, and while the ultimate explanation has unusual qualities and the ending introduces a metaphorical/psychological element that isn't original either but is carried off with real intensity, following along as the story develops along expected lines wasn't a whole lot of fun for me.

Which doesn't mean that many readers won't enjoy it. From a certain perspective I've been too hard on this anthology. Taken as a set of stories, rather than as award winners about which high expectations are reasonable, it's above average. All the stories are at least solid on a technical level; none are out-and-out boring. Pick a horror anthology at random and the odds are pretty good that neither of those things will be true. The range of styles and subgenres here is also inviting. The book production is nice: no author biographies or story notes, but there's an illustration for each story by Glenn Chadbourne. Chadbourne's style isn't invariably appropriate for these stories, but his work is always accomplished and atmospheric, and adds to the polish and appeal of the volume. As a sampling of professional horror stories from the late 80s and early 90s, this anthology is easily recommended, and although not everything has aged well, most readers will find at least a couple stories they can thoroughly enjoy.