The Horror of the Past, the Horror of the Present

In an essay recently published at LitHub, Rebecca Solnit  shared some thoughts on what it takes to be a writer, and I found myself nodding along with a lot of it. I almost suffered a spinal injury while nodding at this:

Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.

“Co-signed,” I say. My reading has included plenty of horror and weird fiction and fantasy and such, but also: a ton of history, folklore, literary criticism, foreign (German, Greek, Latin, more) literature in the original and in translation, poetry, and a large, non-representative thwack of 20th century U.S. fiction. And for as long as I have even flirted with the idea of writing seriously, I’ve encountered poets and writers the same age as me who shrugged at the idea of reading books older than they were, or outside their area of specialization. Unfortunately for a lot of them, it showed in their writing. Almost to a one, nobody wanted to hear “you should read some Henry James,” or “have you tried Seneca,” or “dude, Christina Rosetti.”

valancourt book of horror stories coverAll of which brings me to the first volume of The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, [B&N | Amazon | publisher] edited by the publishers of that esteemed house, James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle. If you have any interest in horror fiction, I urge you to give this book a try. Two-thirds of the names in the Table of Contents were either unfamiliar to me, or very nearly so, and the stories in this volume come from across the last two centuries of the tradition of Anglo-American horror. Some are early 18th century, some less than ten years old. You’re not going to find Blackwood, Brite, Stoker, King, Langan, Rice, or the like in this book, which is kind of the point. Tread these waters, and you’ll encounter new voices and new stories, told in forms and rhythms that may just change you.

One of the supposed joys of reading anthologies is that you encounter a range of authors, a kind of heady stew that takes you in new directions. In practice, many’s the anthology I go to read where 50-90% of the authors are familiar to me, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want. This anthology, however, not only introduced me to new authors, but to authors whose work I intend to seek out (some of which can be found in Valancourt’s catalogue): Michael McDowell, Stephen Gregory, John Trevena, M.G. Lewis, and Charles Birkin.

This book contains many gems, from Christopher Priest’s transgressive “The Head and the Hand,” to Mary Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose,” a proto-vampire tale that plays with various conventions of the vampire tale seven years before the publication of Dracula. Michael McDowell’s “Miss Mack” is a tale of dread and female friendship, with a strong Southern flavor in keeping with the author’s background.

If I had to point to one story I liked best, I’d say Stephen Gregory’s “The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe.” The story is excellent and elliptical, and I’ve already read it several times. This is a case where I had not only not read the author, but hadn’t even heard of him, as best I can recall. He’s a Welsh author of horror fiction, with a number of books out there and is still publishing. I’m grateful to Valancourt Books for this collection in general, but in particular for opening  such promising new rooms to me in the mansion of horror fiction.

But What If It’s Life That’s Political?

Lindsay Chudzik at Strange Matter

Lindsay Chudzik emcees at Strange Matter, photo by Justin Stillman

Last Friday I attended Love Trumps Hate: A Community Reading, held at Strange Matter here in Richmond. My ass-kicking friend and fellow writer Lindsay Chudzik made all the arrangements for and publicized this event, which was well attended and featured readings of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The works all explored “experiences with racism, homophobia, sexism, sexual assault, and xenophobia,” and we raised money for Safe Harbor and Health Brigade, a couple RVA orgs working to support sexual assault survivors and the LGBTQ+ community.

The event was electrifying, and there was a lot of courage on that stage. I read “Sufficient Pangs,” a piece of flash fiction I published several years ago and revised lightly for Friday. The story turned on a moment of sexism of the buddy-do-you-understand-what-you’re-saying variety, the kind that we all gotta step up and talk about in the moment. Thank you to my friends and colleagues who were able to make it out to hear everyone read, and to Lindsay for making it happen.

Despite living here as long as I have, it was my first time at Strange Matter. The crowd was a welcome blend of alt, art, college, and hip. Great staff and food, and I’m grateful they served as a venue for this event. Will I try a different combination of cheeses on my grilled cheese next time? Only time will tell.

The elephant in the post is, of course, why J.T. Glover, writer and reader of dark and weird fiction is all fired up about social justice. Friends, I don’t plan for this to become a political blog, but I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say I was horrified by the events of the past month. The election of Trump, the wave of hate crimes in the weeks following, and the country’s public surge to the right are more than troubling to me, and I think we have a hard road ahead. The modest efforts I previously made to support candidates, organizations, and initiatives that align with my beliefs… were not enough to prevent a truly terrible happening.

Even assuming Trump’s presidency and a complicit legislature don’t result in the actual destruction of the U.S. as we know it, or some sort of global conflict, I think there’s a solid chance that we’re about to enter a truly miserable period in American history. It’s still too early to be certain, but so far the next four years appear likely to include some combination of Gilded Age business practices, Red Scare-era propaganda, re-fighting the battles of the Civil Rights Era, and Cold War paranoia, plus greater general public tolerance for xenophobia, discrimination, and non-interventionism than we’ve seen for decades.

Life is always political, and it’s always been more political for marginalized groups than for straight, white, male, able-bodied, land-owning, etc. Americans. As such, if those latter traits apply to you, this is the time to use your power to speak out against the threats that lie ahead. We owe it to those who do not have our privilege to raise our voices.

And finally, if Love Trumps Hate sounds good to you, keep your antennae up. There was interest among attendees in doing it again, and I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more such events in the years to come.

A Couple Nice Notices

library of congress photoOnce I was talking with a good friend who’s also a writer, and we were lamenting the frustrations of the writerly life. Part of that’s never knowing who is reading your stuff, whether anyone likes it, etc. As my friend said, “you publish this stuff, and maybe no one reads it. It sucks.”

The great maybe-read, maybe-not question makes it all the nicer when you encounter someone with something to say about your work. As a writer without a book of my own (yet!), I most often hear things about stories I have in anthologies, and that’s the case with the two nice reviews here.

  • Des Lewis often posts reviews of work that he’s reading, while he’s reading, and I regularly see them floating around social media. I was delighted by his kind words about my short story “En Plein Air,” which appears in Nightscript 2.
  • Goodreads user Adamjames recently had kind words for “Pale Apostle,” which Jesse Bullington and I co-wrote for The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron a couple years back.

I’m grateful to the gents in question, and likewise to you, dear readers, for your time. And that’s it for a sleepy, falling-back sort of Sunday. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Publishing Notes: Wandering Spirits, Fall Update

I enjoyed Selena’s travelogue when it first appeared and picked up the print version shortly after it became available. If FRANKENSTEIN is, as they say, your jam, I urge you to check it out…

Selena Chambers

WS CoverWhoops. I have been meaning to do an update for…two months?…and just haven’t. Blame the lassitude and election anxiety.

Anyway, as you may recall, Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN is my travelogue through three key geography points in Mary Shelley’s seminal text. It was nominated for a Best of the Net a few years back and is available now as a bicentennial, special-limited edition designed and annotated by Yves Tourigny and Tallhat Press. I write more extensively about it here.

Only 200 copies will be made, and only then available for 9 months from its initial release.

So, current stats are:  there are 140 copies of Wandering Spirits: Traveling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein left, with 4 months to go.

If you would like to purchase a copy, you can do so at the below links:

Order now on Amazon.com
Order now on Amazon.ca
Order now on Amazon.co.uk

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Fifteen Fabulous, Frightful Novels

The other day a friend asked what my top ten-fifteen horror/suspense novels were, and I said I’d give a try to listing them. Time is passing, and I’d better do it before Halloween’s gone, so here they are in unranked format. I’ve limited myself to one book per author, so keep your salt shaker handy, but if you haven’t read these books, well, you know the drill…

scott smith the ruinsThe Ruins, by Scott Smith. You know that one about how things go bad sometimes? But you know that, somehow, one way or another, they’re eventually bound to turn out all right? Scott Smith never heard it. This is one of the novels that comes to mind for me when people talk about “unrelenting” books. A holiday in Mexico takes a disastrous wrong turn and exposes young people in the prime of their lives to multiple terrors. Spoiler: they don’t come back! Part of Smith’s amazing accomplishment with this book is that you know pretty early on that it’s over for them, and that their only escape is going to be death, and yet you still care, still want them to survive.

cover of the dark halfThe Dark Half, by Stephen King. This novel is one of many I could have picked by King, and it’s less cited as an influence than a dozen (Hell, two dozen) other things he’s written, but it’s tight, grim, well plotted, and the characters are real. If someone asks me which King book I recommend, but they don’t like reading long books, I usually say either this one or Salem’s Lot, and the latter gets enough love.

the red tree coverThe Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Among the best novels I’ve read that deal with haunting, in every sense of that word. It’s clear by novel’s end that something has gone deeply wrong for the protagonist, but the reader may never fully know the nature of that wrongness. I got goosebumps writing that sentence. Ignore the cover, which was a mind-bendingly terrible choice for this book, and doomed it to a lower profile in the market than it might otherwise have attained. In another timeline, this was the book that scooted Kiernan out of genre and into a Shirley Jackson-like mainstream position. Speaking of which…

cover for we have always lived in the castleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s influence looms over this list in a dozen ways. People like to point to “The Lottery” or The Haunting of Hill House as her masterpieces, and I’d say each is respectively her most well known short story and novel, but this novel is the one that rocked my world. I am an inveterate re-reader of books I love, stretching to dozens of reads for some titles, but I have never been able to finish this book again in its entirety. Amazing.

cover of the howlingThe Howling, by Gary Brandner. This werewolf novel was part of what turned me on to horror. It spawned a series of movies that range from good to regrettable, but if that’s the only thing you know, check out the book. It’s a zero-fucks-given kind of novel, with no visible pretensions to greatness, nor aspirations to literature, part of the secret to its excellence. Brandner omitted needless words in writing it, and it’s a taut, frightening book. Also, it’s the first book I remember reading that might reasonably be called “erotic,” though I don’t think it’s the most commonly used label for the book. Despite the, uh, very large fang on the cover.

cover of midnight sunMidnight Sun, by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell is the horror writer’s horror writer, a living master whose novels and short stories will be teaching lessons long after he himself has left this vale of tears. It wasn’t the first Campbell novel that I read, but it was the first where I felt everything click together into an awe-inducing whole. I’d read some Algernon Blackwood by that point, to which this book owes a debt, but here I found a blend of mysticism, ancient rituals, and fearsome nature all wrapped up into a novel. The prose is the typically wry, seemingly light stuff that the author regularly uses to build dread with each word.

sheltering sky coverThe Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles. Okay, this arguably falls into the “trying too hard” category, in terms of putting books in the “horror” box, but insofar as horror is not a genre, rather an emotion that certain novels arouse? This counts. Bowles’ fiction is a grand mash-up of exoticism, orientalism, and postwar nihilo-primitivism (is that a thing? I’m saying it’s a thing) that blends worlds. I’ve always thought of the characters in this novel as the wounded, latter-day equivalents of the group in The Sun Also Rises, searching in vain for meaning away from Europe, indulging in cheap vices and increasingly hollow acts of civilization en route to brutalization and death.

cover of silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. Is there a more well known contemporary suspense novel? Well, yes, because this novel’s just shy of thirty years old, so presumably something by Gillian Flynn or Stieg Larsson would fit the bill and be contemporary, but Thomas Harris’ masterpiece hangs over its successors like the shadows of giant moth wings. This novel sits at the outer rim of suspense, as it’s the last time Hannibal Lecter is left to bloom in the darkness, unrationalized and terrifying for what the reader doesn’t know about him. I loved the television show Hannibal, but it was a very different kind of story than this book, and the Lecter novels that Harris wrote following this one were not, to put it midly, on the same level.

the house next door coverThe House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons. Ranks among the best haunted house novels out there. My appreciation for this book has only grown over time. It was creepy and terrifying when I read it as a teenager, but as time passed and I understood how Siddons mapped the terrors onto class slippage, I started to think this novel as actually great. Beyond which, having now lived in the South for almost a decade, I feel like I know the people she’s writing about, and that I have on occasion been to or seen their houses. The exact location is never quite articulated, but that works here. Siddons pays obligatory attention to the mechanics of the haunting, but they aren’t the focus of the book, not really. The terror, and the horror, are the focus.

cover of rebeccaRebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

And that’s really all there is to say. If that doesn’t remind you of your regard for this excellent novel, or drive you to learn who or what Manderley is, you’re probably reading the wrong list.

cover for the killing kindThe Killing Kind, by John Connolly. Third in the author’s Charlie Parker series of books, I read this one first, and it’s my favorite. Mass graves, spiders, terror in the Canadian wilderness. It’s a lot to handle. It also pulls off the trick of being readable in its own right outside of the series, which I always appreciate. The terrors and suspense here are ratcheted up by prose that moves smoothly, gliding shark-like through a narrative that could have gotten bogged down by many things. It doesn’t.

dracula coverDracula, by Bram Stoker. What am I going to say that thousands of readers, reviewers, critics, and yahoos haven’t already said? Not a lot, friends, not a lot. It’s a book that keeps on giving, year after year. 120 years after its publication, this novel keeps going and going, finding new audiences and new adaptations, literary and cinematic. The driving anxieties of the book—immigration, class anxiety, disease, women’s roles, insanity—are no less in play now than they were in Stoker’s time, although the stage on which they play out has shifted.

rosemary's baby coverRosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin. The best novel ever written about witches. Yes, The Witch of Blackbird Pond is great, likewise The Witches and The Witching Hour, but none are as good. Also, the basis for the best horror movie ever made. Need I say more?

 

something wicked coverSomething Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. This novel captures childhood, the Midwest, carnivals, and nostalgia in a way that no book before or since has managed to do, and its magic is as alive today as it was when it was new. I expect Cooger and Dark will be entertaining people for years to come.

Another year, any of the following might have made the list: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Interview with the Vampire, It, Frankenstein, Threshold, etc. The list is notably lacking writers of color, as well as (mostly) authors outside of North America or the U.K., and I expect I’d be writing a different list if I’d been born twenty years later, or indeed twenty years from now. Let’s do this again in 2036, hmm?

What’s that? Oh, right! Fifteen.

cover the hellbound heartI’m going to cheat here and say The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker. It’s not a novel, but a novella, by almost any definition. Barker’s written other novels, but I feel like The Hellbound Heart has gone on to a novel-like life of its own far exceeding that of most of his other books. Part of that’s the transmedia Hellraiser franchise, but honestly the book itself is simply that good. Strange, elliptical, and balancing very well Barker’s narrative urges and his descriptive urges, it’s a story that deserves to be read in its own right, and appreciated for the terror that it delivers.

Finding Critical Reviews of Horror and Weird Fiction

man on motorcycle

Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Early in October I asked friends to weigh in with recommendations for the sites they liked to visit to find critical reviews of horror or weird fiction. This question was inspired partly by having read too many “reviews” that consist of plot summary or praise, and partly by having read a really thoughtful critical review that, while imperfect, was judicious, engaged at length with the text, and seemed to me to fulfill the basic requirements of a critical reviews.

When asking people I mentioned my habits, which include…

People replied with a number of sites, blogs, etc., some of which I visit occasionally, some of which were new to me, some of which don’t publish regularly.

Please feel free to suggest other sites in comments. Please don’t suggest sites that are there primarily to publicize self-published fiction, sites that don’t review books at length, sites that have never given a book less than a glowing review, etc.

Note: I welcome suggestions of resources that review underrepresented writers and writing: women, racial or ethnic minority, translated horror/weird, LGBTQIA, non-English language, etc.

Nightscripts, Symposia, and More

cover of nightscript vol. 2It’s October, which means that Nightscript Volume 2 has arrived [Amazon]. This volume of the annual anthology that debuted last year contains stories from Michael Griffin, Kristi DeMeester, Christopher Slatsky, Eric J. Guignard, Malcolm Devlin, Gwendolyn Kiste, Ralph Robert Moore, Christopher Ropes, Steve Rasnic Tem, Jason A. Wyckoff, Gordon White, Nina Shepardson, Kurt Fawver, Rowley Amato, Charles Wilkinson, H.V. Chao, Daniel Mills, Rebecca J. Allred, Matthew M. Bartlett, José Cruz, and noted rapscallion J.T. Glover. I’m looking forward to reading this volume, as I very much enjoyed the inaugural edition of Nightscript. It’s on the strange and dark side, more subtle than some books, with a flavor that’s somewhere between M.R. James and Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman.

My story for the volume is entitled “En Plein Air.” As you might guess, painting is involved, and it’s set here in Richmond. I had the pleasure of reading it this past spring at an ICFA group reading, to a warm reception. Authors are prone to say their most recent story is their best, and so I’m not going to say that, but I will say that I’m proud of it, and I think it’s good. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

pulpsymposium-teaserdigitaldisplay-1

My other big thing this month in the realm of the dark, weird, etc. is a paper I’ll be delivering with my critical, bibliographic hat on this Friday at James Madison University’s Pulp Studies Symposium. My paper, “The Selected Authorship of H.P. Lovecraft,” is intended to treat Lovecraft’s letters and authorial identity. As I’ve been revising it, however, it’s evolving into something a little more holistic that’s (I hope!) on point for the symposium’s focus.

The paper I’m giving is one piece of a larger argument I’m groping toward about Lovecraft’s literary reputation, reception, and afterlife. Another part of it will hopefully be appearing in 2017 or so in an edited critical volume, and another part of it will (hopefully; less certain) be given at a conference next year. While I didn’t plan my thinking as such, I am starting to see possibilities for ways these ideas could be presented as a monograph. Whether they will or not is another question, but I do think Lovecraft is an odd literary figure, stranger than he is usually considered, and I believe that I have some useful things to say about that, particularly given my viewpoint as a writer and a scholar.

Last but not least, I’ll point you toward Nick Mamatas‘ “The People of Horror and Me,” in Nightmare Magazine‘s “The H Word” series. Published in September, Nick’s essay covers various aspects of the formation of the horror field, and he has a few things to say about the paper I delivered at ICFA earlier this year (subsequently republished at Postscripts to Darkness). Much scholarship goes unread and unheard, doing little beyond existing. I’m glad that this paper has done neither, and proved a useful stimulus.