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.

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.

To Pierce the Chancre of Darkness out of Time and Space

cover of I Am ProvidenceNick Mamatas is to blame for many things: on that I think we can all agree. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s also to be praised. If there were not a Nick, he would have to be invented. That’s part of the theme of his latest book, I Am Providence [Powell’s|Amazon|B&N], wherein characters careen madly around Providence at the Summer Tentacular convention in the wake of Panos Panossian’s murder. They’re all busy creating themselves, their arch-enemies, and their hothouse-nuthouse social milieu. Toward the end of the book we’re treated to an extended eulogy for and fight over Panossian, and here we come to the meat of the matter. Following Panossian’s circumlocutory lead, however, let’s pause a moment

I Am Providence is a literary murder-mystery, stamped with “Horror” on the spine, that you’ll maybe find on the Fantasy & Science Fiction shelf, maybe in the General Fiction. It’s always one thing at the same time as something else—whodunit and fan culture send-up, meditation on mortality and gonzo thrill-ride—all welded together to form a living, breathing work of fiction. The strengths that will keep this book alive for years to come are its sharply, mercilessly honest observations of human behavior, combined with the cold ratiocination of a mind fading into darkness. It’s fundamentally Lovecraftian and Ligottian, and it is disquieting.  Praise or blame for how well it hews to the conventions of mystery, or horror, or whatever are almost beside the point: it is a Nick Mamatas novel.

This book is also, as you probably already know, a roman a clef: a satire of the community of fans, readers, writers, scholars, and hangers-on who school around things Lovecraftian, Cthulhoid, etc. Recognizable caricatures of well-known Lovecraftians fill the book, as well as composite characters and versions of generic types. It’s the funniest thing I can remember having read in years: embarrass-yourself-while-reading-it-in-public funny. Gales of laughter. My wife repeatedly came to check on me from the other room to make sure I was OK when reading at home. If laughter’s the best medicine, I just added a couple years to my life.

While I hate (I mean really fucking hate, will-cross-you-off-my-decent-human-list hate) being told that’s there’s anything I simply have to read… you have to read this book. And you have to read it now. If you are even vaguely in, around, near, tangent to, or participating in the eternally brewing celebration/maelstrom/shitstorm that is the Lovecraftian community, this book will make you laugh like hell, but mark my words: for all that it’s a good book, the roman a clef aspects of it have a shelf date. Yes, they will still be funny in five years, but people will fade from the scene, eventually Facebook will vanish, the archives of Usenet will disappear, and so on. While bits and pieces of that which is being mocked here will remain, you won’t be able to click twice and find a two-month-old fight on the web between characters in the book.

Which brings me to the point that this book is hilarious not only because it’s funny, but because the fanfic is already out there in the form of crazed screeds and ridiculous Twitter spats. The I Am Providence reading experience, if you are not yet acquainted with the principles and their conflicts, can continue through days and weeks of voyeuristic Googling. Get it while the getting is not merely good, but actually uproarious.

Some reviewers have taken this book to task for being too hard on geeks, and that’s simply not true. This book is kind of like reading the mean girls’ secret yearbook notes, true, but it’s only so mean, and it’s certainly no worse than anything you can find said by most of the principles in this book.  One reviewer described it as “loving,” and I think that’s actually not far off the mark, given how much nastier this book could be. The Fangoria review is much better, and worth a look. Now… I say all this not having seen myself in the book. I imagine that some people out there are decidedly not amused, and are stopped from bringing the lawsuits they have already contemplated primarily by the embarrassment that would be necessitated by having to prove in court that they have been unfairly slandered. And are not, in fact,  as loco, snooty, self-important, racist, sexist, megalomaniacal, deluded, or fundamentally creepy as they are portrayed in the book.

The one negative review I’ve read that makes sense to me is the one review I’ve seen that names some names. I disagree about the overall quality of the book, but there is some truth to the charge that, well, it’s not piercing enough. Many of the recognizables in this book are utterly, entirely ripe for skewering and petard-hoisting, and really they don’t come off all that badly. The same could perhaps also be said for the protagonst, Colleen Danzig, and the saner characters, all of whom get off easy… though I have seen none of them engaged in the displays of mouth-frothing, poo-smearing social maladaptation that lend this book its side-splitting humor.

Thing is? I don’t know when this novel was submitted for publication, but Yog-Sothoth knows the last two years have been full of tempests, including people in every sociopolitical corner of Lovecraftville behaving in crazed and (dare I say it) at times deplorable ways. There have been Lovecraftian dust-ups before and there will be Lovecraftian dust-ups again, but I cannot remember events as public as the recent year or so’s brouhahas that have made it to the mainstream media. And, of course, if you read this book and find yourself wondering why the man who wrote Insults Every Man Should Know did not write an even meaner book, remember that he of necessity bears some love for things Lovecraftian. However well we think of ourselves, however dramatically we may roll our eyes, we can all catch a glimpse of Asparagus Head if we look in the mirror on the right day.

Now go buy I Am Providence.

When Profit Is Not Enough

The Witch still image

Wouldst thou profit… reasonably?

Lately I’ve been watching more films, a large portion of them horror (classic and modern), and some big budget tentpoles. Months after watching, they blend into the overall stew of stories, with some standing out more than others. Star Wars: the Force Awakens was a delight to watch, and I’m so glad to have seen it in the theater. It made me very happy to watch, but it wasn’t better than The Witch, which was tremendously effective, and about which I’m still thinking.

There are a number of articles going around lately about how profitable horror movies are, and it’s not news that horror is generally cheaper to produce than blockbusters. Unfortunately, however, solidly, reasonably, or even outstandingly profitable films are not particularly meaningful to studios if they don’t have the potential for shareholder-exciting, Star Wars-level success. This comes at the expense of thousands of lost opportunities for brave, exciting, new stories that are flushed down the toilet.

cover for paranormal activity

“That door! It cost 1/345 what a Star Wars door costs!”

The Witch, in spite of slow pacing that drove nimrods to wonder whether it could even be called a horror movie (“Bro, do you even scare?”), has made back its budget more than ten times over. The original Paranormal Activity made back its budget at roughly a zillion percent. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in the ballpark of the same rate of return as The Witch, and will presumably pass that, if it hasn’t already. Those sexy, sexy returns are huge for Star Wars, though, in ways The Witch can’t match, but for every Star Wars there’s a dozen failed reboots or lackluster big movies.

This post could also be titled “What’s Wrong With America, Part [X],” given how widely this tiresome, destructive phenomenon repeats itself. Folks in the worlds of horror and speculative fiction publishing have been talking about the lawsuit Hachette has brought against the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for failing to deliver on his next novel. So many problems there, but in the theme of this post, consider how many books could have received modest advances, instead of millions of dollars pumped in the direction of a gimmick, in hopes of massive profits. I don’t begrudge the author his awesome contract, but as part of the general scheme of huge money driving out adventurous, or even modestly successful, money, it’s unfortunate.

There are workarounds, fortunately: sometimes it’s Indiegogo, sometimes self-publishing, sometimes Vimeo. I just wish the natural rate of have/have-not in the arts weren’t being exacerbated simply in order to placate shareholders. Lots of people hustle hard just to get the word out about projects so that they can see the light of day, let alone make a buck. To wit, congratulations to Orrin Grey, whose Kickstarter for a deluxe edition of Never Bet the Devil funded yesterday. Whatever the market looks like, art finds a way.

Updates, Honorable Mentions, and the Warping of Young Minds

richmond young writers logoThis summer marked the first time I taught (twice, even!) creative writing for young writers. I was delighted to serve as guest author for the good folks at Richmond Young Writers, and had the pleasure of working with Julie Geen, whom I’ve known for a couple years now, at VCU and from around town, James River Writers, etc. The kids were great, it all seemed to work out well, and I’d love to do it again one day.

Photo of H.P. LovecraftThis autumn I’m going to be presenting some of my Lovecraft scholarship in an academic venue. More details on that down the road, but I’m darn excited. My other scholarship on literary horror, HPL, and weird fiction continues apace.

In a not unrelated vein, I’m excited for the publication of “His Knife, Her Shadow,” in the second issue of Thinking Horror this autumn. My piece is a confessional memoir of sorts, all about how I came to horror as a child in the early 1980s. Writing it proved unexpectedly harrowing, and I hope it’s of interest to the readers of Thinking Horror.

Finally, in further exciting news, I was delighted and honored that Ellen Datlow noted two of my short stories for her long list of Honorable Mentions for Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 8:

“Hunger Full and Lean,” The Lovecraft eZine 34 [free online]
“Mercy’s Armistice,” Big Bad II [$2.99 on Kindle]

A HEX on Richmond!

IMG_2796Yesterday was a bad (or was it good?) day for witches in Richmond. Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt came through town on his U.S. tour, which included a talk and signing at the ever-excellent Fountain Bookstore. If you weren’t able to make his reading last night, Fountain does have on hand for you signed copies of his first novel translated into English: Hex.

I’ve been enjoying reading Thomas’ novel from the library, and I was delighted to pick up my own copy last night. It has appealed to many readers, including Stephen King. It’s a witch tale for the 21st century that will appeal to anyone who likes haunts mashed up with YouTube, The Cabin in the Woods, or the like:

Whoever is born here, is doomed to stay ’til death. Whoever settles, never leaves.

Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a seventeenth century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters homes at will. She stands next to children’s bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened or the consequences will be too terrible to bear.

The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town’s teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting. But, in so doing, they send the town spiraling into dark, medieval practices of the distant past.

 

eye-sewing kit

“Just squint. This won’t hurt a bit.”

If you were able to attend the reading in person, you got the pleasure of receiving a creepy little giveaway that Thomas prepared with the help of some friends: an eye-sewing kit. Why, pray tell, would you sew eyes? Read the book to learn more, naturally.

My wife and I had the pleasure of showing Thomas around the city during the day, and we visited various places apropos for a horror writer, including the Poe Museum and Hollywood Cemetery, among others. Richmond, which has lately been burning up all those 10-best-cities-for-whatever lists, has a vibrant arts and literary scene and history, which we talked about all day, from Poe to murals. We can’t wait to see Thomas again, hopefully on his next visit to Richmond.

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

At the Poe Museum, photo by Kyla Tew

Is Thomas Olde Heuvelt coming to your neck of the woods? Maybe: he’s on a six-week tour, the longest ever by a Dutch author, and he’s going to be visiting many places. Check it out, and check his website for updates:

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The Horror That May or May Not Be Horror

Cover of Paul Tremblay's a head full of ghostsThis spring I gave a paper at ICFA37 about the life of horror fiction after the boom of 1970-1995, wherein I talked about different waves of authors, nomenclatures of horror, and about the appearance of books like Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. That paper has been revised and slightly expanded for publication as “The Life and Afterlife of Horror Fiction,” and you can read it over at Postscripts to Darkness.

Looking for a more cinematic flavor of horror, but text-y? Try Orrin Grey’s new book, Monsters from the Vault, which collects his monster movie columns from Innsmouth Free Press. I haven’t read it yet, but I did pre-order it, and Orrin on movies is always a pleasure.

Looking for a chapbook celebrating the bicentennial of Frankenstein’s conception? Coming June 18, Selena Chambers has you covered via Tallhat Press.

Looking for carnal fiction, penned by authors with the blackest of hearts? Molly Tanzer’s new mag, Congress, is alive and kicking.