Blowing the Doors Off Those Crypts

vintage halloween costumes~

The better to see you with…

Lately horror and the Weird have each been going great guns, entering an efflorescence unlike anything we’ve seen for decades. Tobias Carroll put up a fine essay at Electric Literature the other day about the state of literary horror—”‘Then, a Hellbeast Ate Them’: Notes on Horror Fiction and Expectations.” It captures the breadth of the authors who are making free with all things horrific these days, often in places where the word “horror” previously was unwelcome. Whenever I encounter a meaningful and unapologetic treatment of literary horror (or literary fantasy, for that matter) I feel a kind of excitement that goes bone deep.

Genre and literary snobs look down their noses at each other, particularly around formations like “literary [GENRE],” and phrases like “slipstream” or “magical realism” have both lost and gained precision over time, but at least that latter is finally a little less likely to be used as a term of contempt in genre. That said, literary genre work is a strange beast, and, pace Carroll, I think not actually all that common, to judge by the shelves at B&N. Little of it appears in the F/SF section, or to stay for long if it does, and so it’s off to sift through literary fiction to find eloquent novels about disaffected werewolves.

The Weird has had similar success of late, with a high-water mark being Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Southern Reach novels. He has a piece over at The Atlantic, “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” that is about as clear as sign as you’re ever going to see that this strange little niche is seeing more daylight than I ever could have hoped. Jeff’s piece is very well written and introduced me to, as every time I see something from him, writers of whom I’ve never heard.

The VanderMeers should bear, of course, a huge part of our gratitude for the recent surge. Jeff’s fiction was a part of the New Weird when that came along, of course, but it’s grown since then, strengthened by his omnivorous consumption of fiction in all forms and his well-documented efforts to focus intently on his writing. Ann VanderMeer’s stint as Fiction Editor at Weird Tales put the cat so much among the canaries that a veritable legion of living fossils rose up and cried “to R’lyeh shalt thou go, and no further.” Though flags have repeatedly been planted in the sand about the end of the avant-garde, such flags are ever meant to be torn down. Jeff and Ann blew the doors off with The Weird and everything that followed, debunking some of the Old Weird/New Weird/That’s Not Weird stupidity in the process. I do so love the Weird of the early 20th century, but people too often think of those guys as a terminus, when they were actually a phase.

Yesterday Laird Barron posted “New Blood,” calling out some of the current leading lights of horror, springboarding off of an introduction Stephen Jones wrote at the start of his 2011 A Book of Horrors that led with “What the hell happened to the horror genre?” I won’t repeat Laird’s excellent roll call, but I will point out that the average age of the contributors to A Book of Horrors (2011) was 55. A similar book with the same lineup could, with the right twists of fate, have shown up in Horror at B. Dalton Bookseller around 1989. Laird’s list is a little harder to suss, age-wise, in so far as the people he names haven’t all cast such long shadows yet that their biographical data is easy to find, but the “new blood” moniker is pretty apt.

This is no complaint about Olds: many writers come into their prime a lot later than people do in other fields of artistic endeavor. Some of the names on the roster of Jones’ anthology are ones that I respect and have loved to see work from for decades. And while some of what Jones has to say is distinctly get-off-my-lawn-y, there’s a certain truth in what he says that’s clear from the work of many of the authors on the list: many of them share a certain idea of horror, one that’s faded away. I expect that’s hard to deal with. When literary horror goes fallow a couple decades down the road, I’m going to be irritable.

Some months back I had a lengthy conversation with a friend about horror now vs. horror in the 1980s. As my friend said, while I was busy lamenting that Young Me never got to read Barron or Llewellyn, “you know, it was just a very different scene.” And that, folks, is truth you can take to the bank. Jack Williamson, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Charles Grant, Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Justin Cronin, and Lauren Beukes all have something to do with horror, but they are not all doing the same thing. Not by a long shot. (To which I personally say “thank God,” but I digress.) While one writer may be more skilled than another, what we are writing now is… what we’re writing now. It’s generally more self-consciously literate, and much of it profits, one way and another, from the overall greater attention to good prose that prevails in U.S. fiction these days, thanks primarily to the development of BFA & MFA pedagogy, and the ripple effect it caused throughout literature.

Today, on this best, scariest, and most ooga-booga of days, I’ll say that I’m grateful for masks of all kind. A mask-maker who uses burlap and twine is trying to do something different from the injection molded and painted horrors of Party City. One’s no better than the other, and we’re the happier for having both. It’s a shit game, trash-talking your elders, and it’s likewise a shit game to trash-talk the young turks. You’d be smart to avoid doing either, not least because you either were once the New Blood, or will, with luck, wind up part of the Old Guard.

Happy Halloween.

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Cosmic Horror: Credit Where Credit Is Due

book cover

Thomas Ligotti’s Noctuary

Sometime in the mid-90’s I picked up an anthology or year’s best collection (I no longer remember which one) and read a Thomas Ligotti [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s] story. I would like to think that it was “The Last Feast of Harlequin” that forever changed my view of what cosmic horror could be, but in truth I just don’t remember. I do remember going looking for a collection by him, and being blown away by Songs of a Dead Dreamer. I couldn’t lay my hands on a copy of Grimscribe at the time, so a year-ish passed, and then I picked up Noctuary at the library. (Some wit had scrawled on the title page, in thick lead, “Ob-noxuary,” which wound up being another lesson, of sorts.)

Noctuary gave me what I later realized was my first exposure to anything that felt like what we now call “flash fiction” in the third part of the collection, “Notebook of the Night.” Among the stories there, “Autumnal” blended what I by then recognized as Ligotti’s signature worldview with all things autumn and a scrap of story-feel, and moved me in ways that very short fiction rarely had to that point.

Reading Thomas Ligotti led me to hunt down Bruno Schulz, and also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, Franz Kafka. It wasn’t that I’d never read Kafka at all–I’d read several stories, in both English and German–but I hadn’t made a point of seeking him out in the context of cosmic horror or weird fiction generally. For that nudge, and for everything else, I’m grateful to Thomas Ligotti.

***

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Low Red Moon, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In 1998,  I was roaming some bookstore or other and picked up a copy of Silk, the first novel published by then-newbie Caitlín R. Kiernan [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. I read the back cover copy, opened it to a page at random, saw a bunch of made-up words and something about angels, and I put that book right back on the shelf. It was the late ’90s, and horror was a shit-stew of late Splatterpunk, sketchy vampire novels, and wailing about the “end of horror.” The greats were failing to turn in great work, and trying-too-hard crap like Silk was flying under the “H” banner, so I figured horror could stand to compost for a while. A few years later, I saw that “that Silk person” had put out something “Lovecraftian” that involved… what? Dinosaurs? Time-traveling dinosaurs? Set in Alabama? “What the fuck ever,” I thought, and moved on. Surely this hodgepodge bullshit was not worth my time.

Never have I been so wrong about an author.

Fast forward to 2005. I’d been busy with grad school and had barely written a word of fiction from about 1998 to 2002 or so, and I’d been warming the writing engines up again during library school.  I was wandering around in Magus Books in Seattle, and I came across a used copy of Threshold. It was $7.00, and I decided I’d give it a shot. Perhaps I might have been unwarrantedly dismissive. Reader, I have written at length in various places about the effect this had on me, but, in short, Caitlín R. Kiernan changed all over again my perception of what cosmic horror could be and do. I had been reading sundry Modernists for a while, and I’d developed the so-original idea of writing Lovecraftian fiction, but, like, with contemporary, taut prose, man. Reading Kiernan was exalting and devastating, because she did exactly what I wanted to do.

Not long after I read Low Red Moon, the sequel to Threshold, and it remains, to this day, one of my favorite novels of cosmic horror: delirious, beautiful, hinting at the shadowy world behind it all. I followed these up with a long-delayed read of Silk, which humbled me when I understood more about her aims, as well as Murder of Angels. About her short fiction it’s hard to say enough good things. If I one day manage to write a short story half as good as “Standing Water,” I’ll consider myself a real writer. When you can write an effective, striking story about a puddle, you have chops.

For her incantatory prose and leading me to think more broadly about the Lovecraftian tent, I’m grateful to Caitlín R. Kiernan.

***

book cover

The Croning, by Laird Barron

At some point late in the Oughts I started to hear rumblings of a New Guy, who was the next cosmic horror sensation to watch out for: Laird Barron [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. This was years after I’d started up on LiveJournal, and I’d occasionally see this guy with Hemingway and other tough-guy userpics, and he seemed both smart and funny. I had come to grips with the idea that authors were, in fact, real people, but in the vicissitudes of LJ comments and conflagrations I hadn’t sought out any of his fiction. I was, after all, busy reading other things, and there was a whole world of other authors out there on LJ I wanted to read. Then, sometime in the spring of 2010, I picked up Occultation, his then-just-published short story collection, and, once more, I was off to the races.

You know where this is going, right? Laird Barron blew me away. The stories in Occultation were often long, which threw me for a loop at first. The 5-10,000 word story had never much appealed to me as a reader, and I still don’t do it much as a writer, but he made me consider the possibilities of the long story. En route, he mashed up Lovecraft, noir, and lengthy sentences, refusing to be rushed. I was impressed. I read interviews with him, followed his blog, and realized that here was another writer who cared about cosmic horror, not in the yes-I’ve-read-Lovecraft sense, but in a holistic, all-encompassing way that was more Weltanschauung than mere preference.

And then in 2012 came The Croning, his first widely-published novel. (His 2011 novel, The Light Is the Darkness, slipped under the radar and didn’t get very much attention.)  The Croning is an unforgettable novel of cosmic horror. Hallucinogenic, vivid, and terrifying, it manages to pay homage to the forebears without feeling stale. Likewise, it’s unquestionably horror, and would alone have justified a revival of the genre, if it hadn’t already been cranking back up after the collapse of the ’90s. Why do I single out this novel for credit, which I read barely two years ago? There are many reasons, but the one I’ll cite is this: it’s a good short novel of cosmic horror. Short novels have always been around, but they aren’t much in favor right now, and if I need to think about what cosmic horror looks like at that length, I go to The Croning. That it didn’t win any awards is unfortunate, but there is a very long history of excellent works not winning awards for all manner of reasons. If I’m still around fifty years from now, and if I’m still rereading the books I have loved over the course of my life, I expect that The Croning will be on the shelf by my bed.

I’m grateful to Laird Barron for writing what he writes, as well as he does, at the length that he does. His engagement with and references to (in his fiction, interviews, and non-fiction) the masters of cosmic horror and the weird tale are a constant reminder that we are part of a tradition, and that strong trees have solid roots.

***

I’m grateful to these authors for the way their fiction has enriched my life and expanded my understanding of cosmic horror, and literature generally. I recommend their books to you, particularly those I’ve mentioned by name.

Release the Leeches!

Today is July 15th, and it marks the official release date for The Children of Old Leech. If you’ve been thinking of picking up a copy, what better time? The editors, Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, mailed the contributors last week, suggesting we all raise a glass in toast to Old Leech. They also suggested we caption the photo with our thoughts on the anthology, but I have a few more words to offer than will fit in a caption, as you’ll see below.

Here’s a mug of the first and truest drink of the day, in honor of co-editors Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele, my co-author, Jesse Bullington, all the rest of the authors in this volume, and most of all to Laird Barron, without whom there would be fewer terrors from beyond the darkest rim of space, and certainly no Old Leech. Cheers!

old leech and coffee

Here’s to Old Leech!

I’ve previously waxed enthusiastic about The Children of Old Leech, and about how excited I was when my co-author, Jesse Bullington, asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with him on a contribution for the anthology, given our past mutual appreciation of Laird Barron’s fiction. The opportunity to “play in his sandbox,” as the kids say these days, was enticing. Just as exciting as that, however, was the idea that I’d get the opportunity to see what other authors would turn in for a Laird Barron tribute anthology, and, having read the book, I can say that I’m delighted to be in such good company.

How to talk about the stories in The Children of Old Leech? They don’t all bunch neatly into sections because we all nibbled on a different part of Laird’s cosmos, and in different ways. The roads you can take in a tribute story include imitation, some form of pastiche, or doing something essentially alien to the original. I think it’s fair to say that we all aimed to do something a little different, even as we used material that we love. There are shout-outs to names, places, and a few reused settings, but nobody would mistake any of these stories for Laird Barron stories. The same church, perhaps, but decidedly different pews.

Many of us went the epistolary route. Not unusual for horror and the Weird, from Dracula to Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House,” but not really what I associate with Laird Barron. And yet, it works. Used in the broadest sense of the word, “epistolary” describes Paul Tremblay’s story, about which more later. Likewise, Daniel Mills’ “The Woman in the Wood” plays with written narrative, splicing two narratives into a frightening tale about a young boy gone north to Canada to take the country air after some trouble back home. A genuinely creepy story, made all the more disturbing by what we never learn explicitly. Molly Tanzer’s “Good Lord, Show Me the Way” is told over e-mail, centering on the academic trials of a graduate student researching contemporary cults. As a long-term resident of academia, I have a hard time telling whether her story is intended as a satire, because it rings very, very true as the story unfolds. Justin Steele’s story takes the form of an “introduction,” but it has to be said that his is actually the meta-narrative framing the entire collection. Whiskey and firearms appear therein, as they do in various of Laird’s stories, but Justin is simply telling what happened. Plain and horrifying truth.

Two short, claustrophobic pieces that rely very much on their narrators’ interior experience of the horrors of the carnivorous cosmos are Allyson Bird’s “The Golden Stars at Night” and Michael Cisco’s “Learn to Kill.” Allyson’s story focuses on a young archer, a storm, and a looming sense of dread. Laird’s protagonists generally get some spark of knowledge about what consumes their lives before it does, but it’s unclear whether Allyson’s does, and the onrushing sense of dread perfectly characterizes what an unknowing person might find before Old Leech’s servitors and handmaidens come crawling along. “Learn to Kill” comes from the perspective of someone most definitely not intended to survive his encounter with Old Leech, and I can honestly say that I don’t understand everything that happens to him, but I understand his experience of it, which Michael depicts with verve that smack to me as much of the pinnacles of Modernism as anything else.

Cody Goodfellow’s story, “Of a Thousand Cuts,” alone among its fellows draws on The Light Is the Darkness, Laird’s novel that revolves around an underground fighting match and endless, horrific surgeries in support of same. I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say how closely it does or doesn’t hew, but I have to thank Cody for inspiring me to seek out the original. He tells a good and absolutely horrifying story. I’d heard of Cody before, and seen his name around the internets, but after this one, I’ll be on the lookout for more from him.

Pilgrimage, witting or unwitting, was at the heart of several stories in this collection. “Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox,” by T.E. Grau, is a tale of trip to see the guru, filtered through the drop-out culture of the 1960s and after. It’s got some of the same feel as Nick Mamatas’ Move Under Ground, though Nick’s story felt a bit more Burroughs, and Ted’s feels a bit more Kerouac. “Firedancing,” by Michael Griffin, centers on one of my favorite kinds of protagonists in horror—the doomed artist. In this case, said artist takes a trip to a more-or-less haunted mansion, with ritual and initiation to spare, and the protagonist’s journey parallels in certain ways that of the protagonist in John Langan’s offering, “Ymir.” John’s story is cleverly simple in its narrative structure, which I won’t reveal for reasons that you’ll get on reading it, but his structure is mythic, as is the protagonist’s experience. One thing that happens relatively often in cosmic horror, so often you could almost call it a trope, is a view of the author’s core mythology seen from a different (typically Eastern/Other/Exotic) mythological perspective. John turns this idea around in depicting a mythological take on the carnivorous cosmos that is based in Europe, not exoticizing, and thereby gives a whole new view of the horror; an excellent story. “The Old Pageant,” by Richard Gavin, is in something the same vein as Stephen Graham Jones’ “Brushdogs,” in that the arboreal horror at its center is not exclusive to Old Leech, but the feel decidedly is, and it shares with Molly Tanzer’s “Good Lord, Show Me the Way” a pleasant, almost light, tone that belies the true horror beneath the surface. In this case, a pilgrimage to a childhood retreat reveals that the fears of youth are thoroughly based in reality.

Orrin Grey’s “Walpurgisnacht” is another singular piece, in that it focuses on Eadweard Muybridge, the famed English photographer whose lesser-known films show up in Laird’s “Hand of Glory” and “666.” It’s a story about a trip to a gathering of sorts, not unlike some of the pilgrimage stories above, but its outwardly less ritualistic goal lends it a different character. I’ve read much of Orrin’s published work, and this story is both deft and a pleasure to read. Barring his stories I haven’t yet read, and on which I cannot comment, it’s his best work to date.

A fair number of stories sunk their teeth into the material by way of an object, some thing, nameless or otherwise, that links in to the Old Leech cosmos. “Brushdogs,” by Stephen Graham Jones, deals in cairns and trees, which are not unique to Laird Barron, but Stephen deals with them in way that feels very much like the way Laird does, and it gets to the question of what experience any given people will have of the same thing or place, and, perhaps, the difference between experience and knowledge. “Tenebrionidae,” by Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay, is more explicitly part of the Old Leech world, with the Black Guide putting in an appearance, but it also treats in subjectivity the way that “Brushdogs” does, as the protagonist rides the rails from reality into a strange, plastic landscape that features very human monsters that are well-drawn. Also, there’s a dog, which should make Laird smile. Jeffrey Thomas’ “Snake Wine” transports the reader to Vietnam, where the taste of snake wine sets a series of events in motion that brings the narrator to very strange seaside ritual. Jeffrey so well evokes the setting that you could also class it as a pilgrimage story, perhaps, but the wine seems more the nugget than does Vietnam. “The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays,” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., is a tale of the Black Guide, in part, but so much more. It share, in my mind, pride of place with Cody Goodfellow’s story in being the most horrifying in this book, and I had to put it down twice during my reading of it, so well did he depict the nightmare at its center. In this case, the horrors of Nazism and Neo-Nazism compete with the purer monsters that flourish in their shadows. “Pale Apostle,” by Jesse Bullington and J. T. Glover, probably shouldn’t come in for too much discussion here, but a certain book did inspire us, among other things. Finally among this grouping comes “The Harrow,” Gemma Files’ story of a plucky backyard archaeologist, door-to-door missionaries, and a very old kind of violence. Reader, this story is good, the prose is good, and Gemma welds everything together seamlessly. It’s difficult to rank so many good stories, because this collection is full of them, but “The Harrow” is very, very good, and worth your long consideration.

Now, last but not least, we have to talk about Paul Tremblay’s story. This fucking story. I don’t feel like I read comprehensively enough to know front to back any given year’s worth of horror, Weird, fantasy, etc. so I can’t in good conscience say things like “best story of the year,” but I will be sorely goddamn disappointed in humanity, even more than usual, if “Notes for ‘The Barn in the Wild'” doesn’t make at least one award ballot. As C.M. Muller noted in his review, it’s a cross between Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm.” To which I would add, it’s the best thing I’ve seen done yet in writing with the life of Chris McCandless since Into the Wild. I’m still thinking about it, weeks after having read it, and it’s a relief to see that doomed young man’s life put into some other frame than free will versus stupidity.

The Children of Old Leech is now available to from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, indies, etc. and Word Horde has links to your venue of choice. I’m hardly an impartial commentator, but if you like the Weird or cosmic horror, and want to spend a little more time in the lands Laird Barron has made his own, I recommend this book to you wholeheartedly.

The Children Are Coming

Cover for Children of Old Leech

Available later this year from finer purveyors of insanity-inducing fiction.

I am delighted to announce that “Pale Apostle,” a short story that Jesse Bullington and I co-authored, will be appearing in The Children of Old Leech. Scheduled for release in summer of 2014, the stories in this anthology take place in the world of Laird Barron‘s Old Leech mythology. I’ve previously had a thing or two to say about that, and so you’d be right in guessing that the story was an absolute thrill to write. The full table of contents is TBA, but I’ve started to see posts like this one popping up from Mike Griffin, Orrin Grey, and Jeffrey Thomas.

I’m grateful to editors Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele for including this piece, and to Jesse, who extended me the invitation to write the story together. It was my first time co-writing fiction in a very long while, and it was a giddy experience. We created something together that actually creeped me out at a few points during the writing, so I’m hoping it will work for readers.

A Certain Totality of Effect

The Croning

The Croning

The most gripping novel I read in the last year was Laird Barron’s The Croning. I finished the book, and then started back into it again immediately. It caused me to develop, briefly, an actual anxiety about going down into my cellar. Nearly a year after starting into The Croning, I remain enamored with it.

It’s a short novel, and the arc of the story sprawls through the lives of geologist Donald Miller and his wife, the anthropologist Michelle Mock. Time is plastic in the book, which aptly fits the theme and overall story that’s being told. The darkness is visible, complex, and compares favorably with genre touchstones.

Whether The Croning will join the list of horror novels that survive and are re-read, from Dracula to The Haunting of Hill House, has to do with other things than literary quality, and they’re hard to control for. That said, I think it may actually be a great horror novel. It’s not perfect, but neither are The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or Rosemary’s Baby.

Something about the way the pieces of the book come together move it past judgment and into the land of works that can only be judged comparatively. These novels have by some acknowledgment, tacit or overt, succeeded. Sales alone don’t mean survival, and everything from reviews to critical opinions to finding long-term champions go into it. For myself, I can only say that I cannot imagine selling my copy of The Croning. As a librarian, I’m familiar (if not entirely comfortable) with the necessity of pruning book collections to keep them vibrant, but this book already feels like a part of me, in that way that any lasting favorite should.

On Writing: Resistance

I’m reblogging this post because I think it’s a good one, I like Laird Barron’s writing, and I’ve never previously used the “Reblog” feature. He’s spot on here about stopping: there are a million reasons to stop, and precious few to continue. When the yardstick is that of improbable success, we will all “fail” regularly, if not always. There are many potential pull quotes from the post, but I choose this one:

They will read your words and pronounce you No Hemingway, no Jackson, no McCarthy. They will probably be correct in this latter judgment. It doesn’t matter. Hemingway was no Faulkner, Jackson was no Shelley, McCarthy is no Steinbeck. None of them were Shakespeare. Be sure they were told this or something like this and by someone who loved them, wanted the best for them.

To new writers, and especially to young writers: expect resistance. I am forty-three. I’ve written since I was five. I know one thing if I know anything.

They will try to stop you.

Resistance to artistic aspiration is typical. In general, people aren’t going to leap onboard your dream train. It’s cute for a teenager to talk of becoming a novelist, or a poet. The gloss is tarnished once you travel beyond the solar system of middling youth and into young adulthood. If it has not already begun, it will begin. If it has begun, it will now begin in earnest. People will gently, or not so gently, undermine your artistic endeavors. How will you pay off your loans? How will you pay off a mortgage? How will you afford a family? What will become of you?

Grow up. Get real. It’s for your own good. We love you. Stop, just stop.

They will…

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