Friday, April 15, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears—Review Cont'd

Let's continue, shall we? 1992's MetaHorror (Dell/Abyss) contains a wealth of stories I couldn't get to in my first review.

Thomas Tessier presents us with "In Praise of Folly," and if you don't know now, Tessier is one of my favorite horror writers of the era. Our story goes along in Tessier's patented confident prose, his usual set-up, the travelogue of a man alone in search of something just beyond reach. While the premise of "folly" is a good onea genuine folly was a building, garden, grotto or other such architectural construct that had been designed with a deliberate disregard for the normal rules—and the payoff is quite unsettling, something seemed missing for me; the protagonist's reaction to his predicament is muted, almost elided; I needed it for the story to have frisson. A rare mis-step for Tessier, but still a worthwhile read.

Ramsey Campbell's "End of the Line" is about a man who slowly loses the ability to communicate. Since the guy is a telemarketer by trade, it's an ironic notion. Always with the modern world's dehumanization, Campbell is. "Nothing Will Hurt You" by David Morrell is a parent's cry of desperation after the loss of a child—something I know Morrell actually experienced—and the story is a raw, painful, an exorcism of grief. The central idea is kinda wonky, and you'll see the climax coming, but it worked for me.

Lisa Tuttle offers "Replacements" in her story about a domestic intruder. Jenny brings home a strange little creature she's found in the street to husband Stuart.

"...I realized how helpless it was. It needed me. It can't help how it looks. 
Anyway, doesn't it kind of remind you of the Psammead?" 
"The what?" 
"Psammead. You know, The Five Children and It?"

Ick. She doesn't know Stuart killed one of the repulsive things in a fit of disgust earlier that day. I really dig stories about dysfunctional relationships that have the bitter tang of real life experience, but cast in the generic structure of horror fiction. A winner.

Karl Edward Wagner's "Did They Get You to Trade" is one of MetaHorror's finest offerings. Now I'm generally not into fictional rock'n'roll (see Shock Rock, Never Mind the Pollacks, Great Jones Street, or CBGB [obviously not fictional but ugh] on how to get it wrong): authors always seem to miss that ineffable quality to the music, tiny details are wrong, but Wagner's up to the task. It's not perfect, couple notes ring slightly false, but that is to quibble. American Ryan Chase, visiting and drinking in London, stumbles upon forgotten punk-rock hero Nemo Skagg, now a meth burnout, but still retains the most satisfying part of his '70s fame. The determined grit, the encompassing humanistic tone, the assured narrative flow, the sense of place, and the just-so rambling drunken conversation show Wagner about as good as he gets—alas, as good as he would ever get; he'd be dead within two years. Stories like this one make readers realize just how much good horror fiction would never be with Wagner's death. A lost giant.

 Wagner

Donald Burleson's "Ziggles" reminded me of Ramsey Campbell in its step-by-step elevation of the banal to the absurdly horrific. A schoolteacher and her children are pursued in the oddest way by the titular character, which is, believe it or not, a stick figure. I know, right? But it works. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Barry N. Malzberg (again?!) provides "Dumbarton Oaks," an ostensibly irreverent fable casting the doings of devils as analogous to the drudgery of earthly business management. I dunno, with its archness ("It is best to retain the appearance of humility, even in the intimation of its opposite"), it reads like something Ray Russell could've dashed off back in '65 during his days as a Playboy editor, and probably after a three-martini lunch.

M. John Harrison (above, and another author known more for SF) "GIFCO" is a real mind-fuck, literate and allusive, about... child death/abduction? Grief? Marriage woes? Harrison is a heavyweight of a writer, no falsity, no dull edges, but just what he's getting at eludes the reader. That is the intent, it has to be: that feeling of unsettled, free-floating anxiety and doubt, that there are things going on around us that flit from comprehension. The tiniest detail can have the largest import. A husband and wife lose their daughter; a cop uses their upstairs room to spy on an abandoned house spray-painted with the word "GIFCO"; then suddenly GIFCO is part of the proceedings as a shadowy agent as the man and the cop search for a missing teenager (I had been warned: "Be certain to say that first. 'GIFCO sent me.'") . I really had no idea what the fuck was going on here; I googled the tale and while other readers dig it, nobody can apprehend its final meaning. I suppose there isn't a point, and that's the point. How meta.

1996 German paperback

A violent shoot 'em up of biblical proportions, Robert Devereaux's "Bucky Goes to Church" affects that down-home vulgarity of a redneck spinning tales at the cracker barrel, disarming you with philosophical asides and then an apocalyptic climax. Definite Joe Lansdale territory. Devereaux went on to write at least one notorious over-the-top splatterpunk novel (1994's Deadweight, also from Abyss). At times bizarrely silly and ridiculous, so much so I wanted to dismiss the story utterly, at other moments Devereaux shows a deft hand with his monstrous conceit: "You sending me to hell?" he asked. She laughed. "Looks to Me you found your own way there." Her eyes surveyed the carnage... This has got to be one of the founding stories of bizarro horror.

Devereaux

My issue with MetaHorror is that I wish there'd been a Poppy Z. Brite, an Elizabeth Massie, a David B. Silva, a T.E.D. Klein, a Kathe Koja—I guess I'm naming writers that appeared in the Borderlands series, aren't I? MetaHorror is very good in places but quite weak in others, and stories by the writers I named would have been a better fit. While not essential, MetaHorror is, as Etchison notes in his intro, "wonderfully varied in both content and style." I think there will be something here for adventurous readers seeking something beyond.

1992 hardcover title page

Friday, April 8, 2016

MetaHorror, ed. by Dennis Etchison (1992): Beyond Man's Fears

In 1992, with Dell's horror imprint Abyss up and running, it made good sense for the publisher to hire Dennis Etchison to put together their first anthology of original fiction. As we saw in his 1986 anthology Cutting Edge (a personal and important favorite of mine, both then and now), his pedigree of intelligence and taste, willingness to experiment in the genre and test boundaries, made him the right man to acquire even cutting-edgier stories. We got MetaHorror (July 1992). Right from the start you can see the ambition: check the prefix meta. Now that's a scholarly, academic word, this meta, one not generally bandied about by readers and purveyors of paperback horror fiction. What gives?

I was definitely into this idea of horror that went beyond horror, horror aware of its history, horror that left behind its tepid tropes and banal cliches in search of real true darkness, horror aware of its place in the literary pantheon (that is, nowhere) and eager to show its intellectual bonafides. I mean, we got Joyce freakin' Carol Oates on the cover! MetaHorror hit me at the right time: I'd been moving away from horror, reading more and more crime, more science fiction, more literary fiction, more world classics. I was in college at the time and reading serious academic books too (one title that I recall fondly that combined horror and academia was Lee Siegel's City of Dreadful Night—which I read about in Fangoria!). So yeah: I was all about some meta. Problem was, I seem to recall reading the few duds in the anthology first, which put me off reading the rest. So I've been meaning to get back to MetaHorror for years...

MetaHorror begins with "Blues and the Abstract Truth" by Barry Malzberg and Jack Dann, which is followed by the not dissimilar "Are You Now?" by Scott Edelman. All three authors were more known for their science fiction than horror—I'm not doing headstands here. These two openers are weak Xerox copies of the masterful futurist J.G. Ballard: fractured, dissociated, clinical tales of men still in thrall to the sociopolitical events of the 1950s and 1960s, searching for the (Freudian? Jungian? McLuhanian?) key that will unlock their tortured psyches. My psyche was tortured by Ballard's books throughout the 1990s, and while I absolutely adored them, if I'm going to revisit their corrosive obsessions I'd just as soon pull The Atrocity Exhibtion off my shelf and read it again (I don't think I read these two stories on my initial encounter).

Next up: two so-so short-shorts by Lawrence Watt-Evans and Richard Christian Matheson, all blood 'n' blades stuff, then Joyce Carol Oates shows up with "Martyrdom" and shows everybody how it's done. I don't always like her short fiction—I've been dipping in and out of her 1977 collection Night-Side for ages—but this one is a doozy. Oates strikes a bold contrast between a woman who marries into high-society and the life of a city rat (yes, you read that right); when the two meet it's the most unsettling scenario this side of (then-current) American Psycho. Densely packed with disgusting imagery and written with consummate skill, "Martyrdom" is a marvel.

Mr. X grew systematically crueler, hardly a gentleman any longer, forcing upon his wife as she lay trussed and helpless in their marriage bed a man with fingernails filed razor-sharp who lacerated h er tender flesh, a man with a glittering scaly skin, a man with a turkey's wattles, a man with an ear partly missing, a man with a stark-bald head and cadaverous smile, a man with infected draining sores like exotic tattoos stippling his body...

 Oates

"Briar Rose" features a young woman regaining her identity through tattoos ("I'm my own Sistine Chapel"). Kind of a dated concept today, sure, but Kim Antieu's perceptive pen confers a fresh eye to the conceit. Plus it was 1992. I've liked her stories in Borderlands II and other anthos, and this one is no exception. Old-schoolers William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson had decades of publications to their name even in 1992. I know it's impolitic of me to say, but I inwardly sigh when I see their names on an anthology roster. Their stories here—"The Visit" and "The Ring of Truth" respectively—are relatively quaint, the "unexpected" twists of the genre long utilized by themselves and their colleagues but painfully dated today (or "today"). They're outclassed by the deeper, darker, more finely wrought and conceived works that MetaHorror also contains.

Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem's "Underground" was a favorite: a sensitive, penetrating work about a man's friend slowly dying of AIDS who doesn't want to be buried after the disease finally wins. This is juxtaposed with the excavation of a city block near the man's home; Tem fills the story with imagery of raw earth, dirt, blood, bodies, loss. The fear is palpable. One of MetaHorror's finest.  

On the news they'd reported the discovery of a human skull, thought to be over a century old. Foul play was not suspected. They thought it might have drifted down from the cemetery a half-mile away. Tom tried to imagine such a thing, dead bodies drifting underground, swimming slowly through what most of us liked to think of as too solid ground.

Editor Etchison

I quit Strieber's story as soon as it was clear the protagonists were Barbie and Ken dolls.

MetaHorror ends strong, with two solid powerful works that, however, seem less like horror fiction than straight-up war literature. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro offers some of the best prose in the anthology; her piece "Novena" reads more like a novel excerpt. In a nameless wartorn city reduced to rubble, rubble that houses wounded children, a nun/nurse is desperate to provide service and comfort. She has little luck. It's confident and affecting, but almost too bleak on its own as it offers no relief from its scenario, which is why it seemed to me a part of a larger story. Genre giant Peter Straub's "The Ghost Village" is part of his "Blue Rose" universe, which includes at least three novels and a handful of short stories about a group of men before, during, and after the Vietnam war. This one is set in the war itself, and it's chilling, nightmarish, ugly; one of the best stories I've read so far in 2016 and reminds me I just have to get to those other books.

There are other good stories (and others not so good) in MetaHorror from favorite names: Tessier, Wagner, Tuttle, Campbell, Morrell; I'll get to them in a follow-up review.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

RIP Frank De Felitta (1921 - 2016)

Bestselling author and filmmaker Frank De Felitta has died at age 94. Please enjoy these terrific vintage paperback covers!


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How Dear the Dawn by Marc Eliot (1987): Have You Ever Heard of a Vampire?

You tell me: this cover art for a paperback unknown to me till just a couple weeks ago is by the same (sadly unknown) artist who produced one of the greatest horror movie posters of all time: for Herzog's 1979 remake of Nosferatu... right? It's just that I can not, for the life of me (heh) find out just who produced either image. Alas. I found How Dear the Dawn (Ballantine/Aug 1987) for sale during a random eBay search and was captivated instantly by that cover art and that not unpoetic title. Didn't know who Marc Eliot was (my Google-fu served me well on that endeavor though: it is a pseudonym of Dave Pedneau [1947 - 1990]) but that didn't matter; I bought a copy immediately and dove in. For as one character improbably, impossibly, unbelievably, asks another, "Have you ever heard of a vampire?" Why yes, yes I have heard of a vampire! I suppose this is the book for me.

Once you get past the creepy cool heraldic and relevant imagery of the arty cover, though, you read the copy front and back then realize it's about as horror clichéd as horror cliché can get; virtually every phrase could be applied to one million horror novels, approximate. This one isn't that bad though: Eliot/Pedneau is a competent enough writer, slick even, occasionally producing an apt or unexpected image or bit of dialogue, and evokes enough of the Southern American coastline, its landscape and its weather, to lend some welcome atmosphere, but the logistics and the pacing of his tale are standard B-movie style. You'll gape in disbelief as a woman, concerned about her missing friend, is asked out by the cop who arrives to investigate (and she says yes! And they become the two main characters so you have to root for them!).

How Dear the Dawn is an unpretentious little novel, not 300 pages, of old-school vampire horror: no long-winded backstory to jam up the narrative flow nor any upending of accepted supernatural mythologies (interestingly the myth of the vampire is  presented by one character as a subset of the zombie). I dug how the head vamp, Sterg LeVeau, demands obeisance from his cohorts and gets really mad at the first woman he first bites after his reawakening because she keeps killing her prey—causing them to come back as vampires themselves of course—rather than just feeding on their blood. Ugh, noobs.

Scenes of throat-ripping gore and decay mingle with steamy if straightforward vampire eroticism; characters are perfunctory but individualized; dialogue is not embarrassing for the most part. All in all, not a bad vamp book at all. If only Pedneau had lived to write some sequels: How Nice the Night, How Mournful the Moon, How Horrible the Hunger...

On this wet, stormy night, they were to hunt as one, and she was to learn to sate her gnawing obsession without killing. Jo Ann, so new to her state, could not fathom LeVeau's reluctance to claim their puny lives. To her, they were pathetic creatures, livestock to be bled for sustenance. And the sensation she experienced in the process was ultra-orgasmic It reached its pinnacle at that moment when life ebbed from their bodies.... That her victims rose to become as she was, to her, a Mephistophelian magnificence. She yearned to spread her hellish splendor over the face of the Earth... Clad now in a black, mildewed dress she had found in a closet, she stood before a window, the flashes of lightning illuminating her fierce face. With each passing moment she became more rapacious...


Friday, March 25, 2016

Then I Took Out My Razor Blade Then I Did What God Forbade

I'm loving both these covers, I'm guessing from the early 1980s by the Warner Books cover prices, for Bob Ottum's 1976 thriller The Tuesday Blade. I don't know anything about the book except for what I learned online: sounds like Kirkus didn't give a shit ("It is to blench—line your stomach with Maalox before putting it in a sling") and an anonymous Yahoo reviewer says it ruined her for other books ("as long as I don't have to go through the 'Tuesday Blade ending syndrome' again.... I might wish it on an enemy"). Yikes. Don't it make you feel sick? 


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Horror Fiction Help XIV

Here are some recent emails I've received from horror fans trying to find forgotten books! Any help much appreciated...

1. A vet gets involved with a black magic group including a man tattooed with the tree of life. UK paperback cover pictured the tattoo.

2. A man imports a hyena for his sick son which escapes and causes havoc in the city....I thought this was Graham Masterton but it does not fit any of his titles. Found!
3. A man who has grown up with magic and becomes of high flyer in a secret society... early on I remember that he goes to Sweden? for a meeting and takes a sauna, later he takes over the former mistress of another cultist.

4. 1970s novel (sci-fi/horror) has to do with some space arachnid. Cover shows a window washer (high up on a skyscraper) coming face to face with some sort of alien spider humanoid thing (presumably from outer space). I'm guessing it's from the late 60s or early 70s, because of when I read it and the sexual content (I got it out of our local library when I was a kid). Found!

5. It was 'satanic horror' but pretty mild. As best I can recall the main protagonist was a man who fell in love with a young woman with a mysterious past. There some lingering threat... something to do with her father and the place she'd grown up. The only solid memory I have is that there is a trunk that holds some key to the mysteries of the past. It isn't until the end of the book that the protagonist manages to open it and know the contents. They reveal that the father and daughter had had an incestuous relationship and that they'd worshiped Satan/devils/demons.  At the end of the book the girl has gone missing, as completion of some pact the father had made (I think). Found!


6. I never read the stories but heard them from a kid in my class at school way back around 1979, so don't know if they are from magazines, pulp comics or just urban legends/folklore.  
The first story may be called 'Night of the Black Weasel' or 'Black Night of the Weasel'. It's about a hiker travelling on foot along an isolated forest road who meets a traveller along the route. The hiker is alarmed to see the traveler has jet black eyes and weasel like features. My memory of what happens next is a little fuzzy but I think it culminates in a chase or fight, resulting in the hiker being decapitated by the demon traveler with an axe or hatchet. The missing hiker's head is eventually found with the hatchet/axe embedded in it and on closer scrutiny the words "beware the night of the black weasel" are found engraved on the blade. Does this ring any bells?  
The second story is set in an amusement park or carnival. A series of gruesome murders takes place inside a dark ride ghost train. Someone or something is beheading the passengers! When the ride is investigated nothing can be found to suggest what could have caused the deaths. Eventually it transpires a deranged circus trapeze artist has been hanging upside down from the rafters of the dark ride interior and dispatching the riders with a sword as their train passes underneath.
8. Trying to remember the author and title of a story I read in the late 70s which still has the best opening line of any short story I have ever encountered: "When Deidra came out of her grave, it was raining outside." Sound familiar to anyone? Its about a teeny-bopper ghoul.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

So Don't Play with Me

A thoughtful TMHF reader has sent me some scans of his old horror paperback collection, graciously allowing me to post some of them here. Had to post this one immediately. I don't know who author Bob Veder is, nor have I ever seen his 1980 novel Playing with Fire (Pocket Books/May 1983) before. But that cover art... that cover art. Truly some of the most absurd I've ever witnessed. So specific I have to wonder if actual cookies are a story element. Delicious!