"The stories which follow don't have to be read on a dark night, with glowing embers banked in the fireplace, and a dark wind howling across the moors. You can read these tales under the clear light of day and pure reason... None of the tired old symbols which have defined the genre for far too long will be found here."
Editor Thomas F. Monteleone, introduction
How could any editor put together such a trailblazing anthology as 1990's Borderlands and not desire to follow it up with another volume? Again, Monteleone has gathered together stories by writers both (in)famous and not, stories that don't fit comfortably under the generic rubric of "horror," or any other either. Borderlands 2 (Avon Books, Dec 1991) treads a dangerous line: in its efforts to present horror/dark fantasy/suspense/science fiction stories that fit no mold it risks pretension, ambition outstripping execution (Prime Evil, anyone?); stay too close to identifiable territories and it is simply another paperback horror anthology cluttering up the shelves. The original Borderlands is one of my top favorites ever precisely because it tight-roped that line perfectly. Can Monteleone (pic below) and cohorts do it again?
For the most part, yes.
Disturbing is a word I'd use to describe the fictions herein; disturbing, unsettling, poignant, grotesque. Horror is normalized; lived with, understood as a fact of life, and isn't really scary anymore. Here there are moments struck in which I felt my flesh turn inside out, my shoulders shivering with revulsion, while my brain was engaged by a story's central idea, or an image or an implication. A writer who can do that to me—delight my mind while revolting my body—will have my undying devotion. And the story here that completely knocked me out, kept me glued to the page with a well-told tale and imagery of primal horror, was "Breeding Ground," by a man named Francis J. Matozzo.
I doubt you know that name. He had a story in the original Borderlands, "On the Nightmare Express," which was kinda cool. In this one he details three seemingly disparate events: a man undergoing surgery for excruciating craniofacial pain, an amateur archaeological expedition, a woman estranged from her husband. It's how Matozzo fractures the story and then pieces it back together, building suspense, that really won me over. Also, I dig evolutionary biology and that figures in here too, both literally and as analogy. Skin-crawlingly disgusting and sadly effective, "Breeding Ground" succeeds at all levels.
Another strong work is Ian McDowell's "Saturn," which is not a reference to the planet but to the Roman god who, well, devours his children. It is filled with grim wit and ends on one of the darkest notes in the anthology. Yes, I killed Michael. And buried his head, hands, feet, and bones in the geranium bed, after eating the rest. I can't even honestly say I regret it, although I'm sorry you have to find out.
One of the longest stories is "Churches of Desire" by the late Philip Nutman. Clearly inspired by Clive Barker, a film journalist wanders through Rome, marveling at its filthy wonders and trying to pick up young men for anonymous trysts when he's not futilely attempting to interview an aging exploitation filmmaker. The "church of desire" is a porno theater, of course, and our protagonist eventually succumbs to its offerings, a depraved celluloid vision that would make Pasolini blush. While it may be too beholden to Barker, especially in its final paragraphs, "Churches of Desire" satisfies. The Church would welcome fresh converts that night and there would be new films to watch, new stories to tell, his own among them. In the name of the Father and the Son the congregation would sing silent praises to the Gods of Flesh and Fluids.
Sexual politics are a prominent feature in Borderlands 2, as the culture at large was beginning to deal with them in the early 1990s. The lead-off story, from F. Paul Wilson (of whom I am no fan) is "Foet," a so-so satire of high fashion and the absurd lengths to which people go in order to be stylish. You can probably guess the gimmick from the title. As with his notorious "Buckets," I found the approach over-done and the effect reactionary, which mitigates the shock factor. Better: "Androgyny," by Brian Hodge (pictured above),is a sympathetic and relevant fantasy about a marginalized people, while Joe Lansdale's
"Love Doll: A Fable" is an unsympathetic portrayal of someone who
enjoys marginalized those less fortunate, or simply those not born straight white blue-collar male. "Dead Issue," from Slob author Rex Miller,
doesn't have enough moral weight to justify its graphic sexual
violence. Pass. "Sarah, Unbound," from which the Avon paperback chose
its cover image, is Kim Antieau's solid contribution about a woman exorcising her real-life demons (She hated him so much. She had loved him. Why had he done it?) by counseling an imaginative yet abused child.
Borderlands Press hardcover, Oct 1991, Rick Lieder cover art
David B. Silva, the late editor of Horror Show magazine, returns to Borderlands with the final story, "Slipping." Like his award-winning "The Calling," "Slipping" is about real-life fears: in the former it was cancer, here it is aging. A hard-working ad man finds moments of his life disappearing from his memory, hours, then days. One moment he's at work, the next he's on the phone with his ex-wife, then he's having lunch with a colleague, with no conscious memory of how he got to any of those points. Silva makes the reader feel the terrible incomprehension of being aware of that incomprehension... but being powerless to stop it. Excellent. The physical distress of aging also appears in Lois Tilton's "The Chrysalis"; a character's dawning horror at its climax was a favorite moment of mine.
Children are horrible, aren't they? A classic horror trope. Facing the sins of our past, our guilt unassuaged by time or deed, is central to Paul F. Olson's "Down the Valley Wild," a sensitive, painful rumination on a childhood 40 years gone. It also contains some well-rendered moments of shock; overall it was a highlight of the book for me. "Taking Care of Michael" is only a page and a half long but J.L. Comeau's prose cuts deep and ugly, presenting madness under the guise of innocence.
White Wolf reprint, Oct 1994, Dave McKean cover art
All that said, Borderlands 2 also includes a handful of stories I found middling, so this volume doesn't quite reach the heights of its
predecessor. These stories—"The Potato" by Bentley Little, "For Their Wives Are Mute" by Wayne Allen Sallee, "Apathetic Flesh" by Darren O. Godfrey, "Stigmata" by Gary Raisor—have their peculiarities, their moments of squick and dread, sure, but lack a certain edge to really sledgehammer the reader. Of course mileage may vary; other than Rex Miller's story none of them outright suck, and I think most readers will find much of Borderlands 2 to be an excellent usage of their time. Monteleone wisely continued the series for several more volumes, most of which I read as they were published through the mid-'90s—I clearly recall buying this one upon publication, eager and excited to delve into "steaming, stygian pools of unthinkable depravity"—and I hope to own them all again one day soon. Rest assured that all my future trips to "uncharted realms of bloodcurdling horror" will be documented and presented here, trespassing be damned.
A sprawling vampire epic set in the glittering midnight environs of the City of Angels, Hollywood USA, They Thirst (Avon Books, May 1981) was the fourth paperback original by Robert R. McCammon. Eventually McCammon would disown those first four novels, pulling them from print, saying they didn't represent him at his best. Fair enough, I guess, I don't know many authors that would do that kind of thing. But when I look at reviews of They Thirst on Goodreads and Amazon I see that most readers don't feel the way McCammon does: they fucking love this novel. Love. It. Like "greatest vampire novel" ever love it.
So I feel a bit bad when my reaction to the book is indifference, even impatience, same as to the other McCammon I've read. Lots of telling, telling, telling—over 500 pages of telling—and no showing. On a line-to-line basis McCammon's not a bad writer, he's just bland and pedestrian, with little snap, wit, or insight in his prose. Characters, while plentiful, are stock folks, and the story too thinly reads like 'Salem's Lot transferred to the opposite coast. His main weakness is telling the readers what they
already know, and this chokes the story up, slows it to a crawl. Too
many characters doubt for too long, or wonder aloud at their
life-threatening predicament, or argue a moot point. I skimmed all that
junk, looking for nuggets of story, of narrative, of bloodshed, to clear out all that
baggage. There are moments, to be sure, that work, but far too few. Like too many '80s horror novels, They Thirst feels overstuffed for no discernible reason.
Pocket Books reprint, Oct 1988, Rowena Morrill cover art
It's not a terrible set-up, but I tire of these broad scenarios with dozens of characters and locales. Fortunately things begin to tighten up once Prince Vulkan—how do people not know a guy with a name like that is a vampire?—appears on the scene. As he explains his nefarious plans to his two fave-rave henchmen his mind wanders back through his past, to his becoming undead 500 years ago. Here McCammon does some solid writing, even though he's doing nothing new really, but Vulkan's drive to become king vampire is well-evoked, and the fact that Vulkan was made nosferatu at a petulant 17 years of age, is unique. Were that there were even more of these kinds of tiny inventive touches! The final third or maybe quarter of They Thirst is made up of four vampire hunters tracking the creatures to their ultimate lair high in the Hollywood Hills. This is Castle Kronsteen, a massive edifice built on a cliff by '40s monster-movie star Orlon Kronsteen, who was found murdered in it, decapitated no less, 15 years prior to the events of the novel. Yes: Kronsteen's function is the same as the Marsten's House in 'Salem's Lot.
Sphere Books UK, 1981
Indeed, King's shadow looms large, too large. They Thirst reads like a combo of The Stand and 'Salem's Lot, a vampire apocalypse loosed upon the world. Young Tommy is basically Mark Petrie, a loner kid with a penchant for Lovecraft and horror movies; rising TV comedian Wes Richter is Larry Underwood; Padre Silvera is Father Callahan (although he's not a drunken coward); homicide detective Andy Palatazin is plagued by his own childhood demons (which comprises the novel's prologue) like Ben Mears. There's even a plucky tabloid reporter as in The Dead Zone. I kinda liked "Ratty," a burned-out grime-encrusted leftover hippy living in the LA sewer system, who helps Tommy and Palatazin navigate the underground tunnels but first he tries to sell them hallucinogenics. Their subterranean journey reminded me of the Lincoln Tunnel chapters in The Stand—surely one of King's greatest sequences of terror—but is nowhere near its heights in execution. The novel's climax, a literal earthshaker, is mighty but reeks of deus ex machina.
Sphere Books UK, 1990
They Thirst is not a bad horror novel, it's not insulting like, say, The Keep or The Cellar, and I guess I can see how so many readers value it; but to me it is an unnecessary horror novel. I ask myself: had I first read this book when I was a teenager, would I have enjoyed it? I'm not sure I would have: too much like King, not sexy at all, nothing new is done with vampire lore, and its violence is standard (although more than once I sensed an interesting John
Carpenter movie going on). Probably in 1981 the book made more of an impact; Avon Books certainly went all out in promoting it so could it be I'm being too hard on it? Maybe I am. Will I read one of McCammon's later books, one that he's not embarrassed by? Maybe I will.
Oh my Goth is this a lovely cover! Taken right from the back of a Siouxsie Sioux record or ripped from the pages of Propaganda magazine, it's a perfect image to appeal to the reader who wants romance tinged with a hint of death and black nail polish: Let her taste the forbidden, the erotic, the evil... Yeah, potential readers of 1992's Dark Dance know who they are. The bats have left the belfry...
Tanith Lee is a writer I've been meaning to read for over 20 years. A prolific British author whose many, many paperback novels combined
elements of fantasy, horror, science fiction, myth, and fairy tales, it was her recent death, alas, that made me realize I needed to do that now, and so I picked up Dark Dance, the only book of hers I own, published by Dell as a title in their ground-breaking Abyss line. Like many novels from Dell/Abyss, it isn't only/just/quite a horror novel. Nothing is scary, or even meant to scare, but there is foreboding and threat, a gloomy old house near a cliff-side overlooking the sea, a secret family made of members of indeterminable age clad in black, and the promise of illicit pleasures. We are in Gothic romance territory here, as will become clear early on.
The dance begins on a foggy London day as 29-year-old Rachaela Day arrives at her paltry job in a dingy dank bookshop (She hated computers, they frightened her. She liked old things... she was happy only with printed words). Her mother, a bitter and resentful woman, has been dead several years, and Rachaela's found herself utterly thankful for the release. She knows little about her father, who pretty much disappeared before she was born, although her mother complained about him and his ne'er-do-well family, the Scarabae (a weird name to go with a weird fly-by-night man). Into the bookshop then comes a man with a letter for Rachaela, from a law firm representing her father's family: as the back cover of Dark Dance tells us, the Scarabae beckon to Rachaela, inviting her to their family estate by the sea. And all travel expenses included!
Desiring something more in her life but unsure what, she accepts the summons to the Scarabae home after her
apartment building goes up for sale, quitting her bookseller job in a
fit of pique (I was a bit disappointed when this segment concluded; I do
love tales set in dusty old bookstores!) and is driven up the seaside
coast. In the house, faceless and black but for its one lit window (I told you we were in Gothic romance land!), she is met by Miss Anna and Mr. Stephan, very old, thin as twine, one female and oen masculine,and at that borderline of age where the sexes blend, these two had sustained their genders. At dinner she meets the rest of the Scarabae, more than a dozen, each
with their own role save the oldest, Uncle Camillo, who labors under
some kind of juvenile dementia, galloping about the endless halls and rooms as if on a horse only he can see. One of them at least was insane.
Warner Books UK, Feb 1993
Removed from the world at large, the family's only contact a hired
driver, with rare trips into a desultory village some miles' walk away
for supplies, Rachaela spends malingering days and nights in the home. The reader feels the claustrophobia of
the Scarabae estate, its bizarre stained glass windows and winding
halls, locked doors and silent inhabitants. She hears snippets of the family history: superstition, outcast, pogroms, escape, told in hundreds of years. Vampires? Perhaps. She learns her father is called Adamus and he lives in the tower (of course!) but he comes and goes as he pleases, a mystery almost even to the others. He seems to spy on her in the night, accompanied by an enormous black cat. When she finally confronts Adamus, it goes about as well as expected:
"You dropped me like a lost coin. Less than that."
"I meant to make you. I tried with many women. The Scarabae seed is reluctant. It inbreeds better. But your stupid and soulless mother had, surprisingly, the correct ingredients to accommodate me..."
"All her life she hated you and what you'd done. She made me pay for you."
Rachaela resents Adamus, certainly, and comes to resent her captivity, which she's told again and again is a freedom. But just as I was beginning to feel a little worn out by the constancy of
Rachaela's entrapment in the house, she makes her escape, back to the
village she'd visited earlier for supplies. Rachaela misses the
infrequent train to London, sits in a church to pity herself, and then
turns round to see... Adamus. Who's come for her, who seduces her there
in the church pew:
"Yes, I want to fuck you. Come back and be fucked by me."
"Now you're speaking the truth, you bastard."
"Now I'm speaking the truth. What's the problem? The family will be thrilled. They'll revel in it. It's happened over and over, mother with son, father with daughter. Brother and sister. Two-thirds of them are inbreedings of one kind or another, several twice over. A charming little intimate orgy has been going on for centuries. Secret pleasures of the house. And what other values hold you back? The criterion of the church, of morality and the world? It's nothing to you. Come to me and let me give you what you want."
It works. In an erotic trance, she lets Adamus sweep her back to the house Scarabae. What
follows is a night of torrid sex, imagined with stylish high-minded
eroticism by Lee (A harp string plucked in her loins... glissandi of fires. He kneeled in prayer between her thighs, his face cruel as an angel's... Her own tongue moved on him in sympathetic sorcery) till the next morning, when Rachaela is disgusted
and angered by what's transpired. Once again she escapes, and this time,
she will not return. In a way she will not need to return, for now she
has brought a bit of the Scarabae with her: Rachaela learns she is
pregnant with her own father's child. Like her own mother, she is merely
a vessel for this immortal family, nothing more than an incubator. The plan all along. It's
all too clear why Rachaela's mother was so horrible to her. Will Rachaela be like that to her own child? There's an unsettling scene when she visits a doctor to try to get an abortion but he patronizes her ("Children are wonderful things. Special... Think of all those women who long to bear a child and are unable..."). Ugh. The patriarchy!
The narrative moves up over a chapter and little Ruth is now seven, mostly
cared for by motherly neighbor Emma, whose adult children are grown and
gone. Rachaela regards Ruth with distaste, unsurprisingly, but Ruth is
no abused or put-upon child; she's secretive, weird, self-possessed, and
actually rather ugly (that strange white face of an elf). When Emma moves away, Rachaela and Ruth are wary of one another, estranged in the same flat, till a few years pass and Ruth begins to learn of the Scarabae, and a strange man is lurking about, and Ruth herself will escape to that darkened house by the sea, clad in black, searching for the man who fathered her. It is Rachaela's worst fear realized: for Ruth to be the child-bride of Adamus: Just before midnight Scarabae's betrothed came downstairs. She looked like a bride in Hell, in her dress of blood...
I found Lee to be a lovely and melodic writer, with prose that sings (to a Yank like me) in that
British lilt, reminding me at times of Ramsey Campbell or Clive Barker.
Language must serve the story, and so Lee can use "maenad" and "bacchanant" in the same paragraph and get away with it. More than get away with it; she escorts you through a hazily-lit twilight world of ambiguous vampirism and motherhood, her protagonist a young woman who abhors her mother and has never known her father. When this dark dance is over, she will know her father in ways which will make her abhor herself. Rather than creeping you out, Lee's approach to events seem removed from the real world, occurring in some demimonde where myth and fable entwine.
If you're in the mood for a kinda slow, moody, insular novel with sharp tinges of the Gothic but no horror to speak of, told in a style that's perceptive and sensual, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Dark Dance. Vampires? One never knows for certain. But one thing is: I will definitely be reading more Tanith Lee.
Last night I was interviewed on the Castle of Horror Podcast by Jason Henderson, who graciously invited me so we could speak about, what else, horror paperbacks! It was a blast doing it and I think you guys'll dig it. Go here to listen!
Looking for a forgotten horror novel or short story? Remember the cheesy paperback art but not who wrote the book? Send me an email at toomuchhorrorfiction[at]gmail.com describing it and if I don't know it, one of my readers might!
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