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.

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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]

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.

ICFA 37 & The Horror of It All

iafa logoICFA 37 promises to be exciting, and the preliminary program has been posted. I’m looking forward to talking with friends and colleagues old and new. My activities are mostly horror-related, and include…

Thursday, March 17, 2016 8:30-10:00 a.m., Dogwood
(HL) Paranormal Publishing and Pedagogy
[Paper session. I’ll be giving “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom.”]

Friday, March 18, 2016  10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Oak
(HL/FL) Cosmic Panic: The Continuing Influence of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
[Panel discussion on Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” chaired by the estimable Sean Moreland.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016 10:30-12:00 a.m., Cove
(HL/FL/VPAA) Folkloric Monsters Old and New
[Paper session I’m chairing.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016  2:00-3:30 p.m., Cove
Words & Worlds: Prose I
[Long-running ICFA group reading series, in which I’m delighted to be included.]

Recent Publications

cover for THINKING HORRORHalloween 2015 marked the launch of Thinking Horror, a new non-fiction journal co-edited by s.j. bagley and Simon Strantzas, which focuses on horror and philosophy. The first issue is themed “Horror in the Twenty-First Century,” and I’m delighted to have an essay in it. My piece is entitled “Against Nature,” and is about the sorrows of naturalism and the merits of flash fiction for horror, touching on fiction by Thomas Ligotti and Laura Ellen Joyce, as well as art by Amy Bennett and Gregory Crewdson.

Frankly I’ve been excited ever since Thinking Horror was announced. It’s right up my alley as a reader, and it features a ton of articles and interviews that look outstanding.  Even better news for all interested in such things, this journal is the initial offering of TKHR, which will be publishing a variety of works on contemporary horror, from further themed projects to other delights that are yet to be revealed. You can purchase a print copy of Volume One from Amazon, and an electronic version is just around the corner.

cover for weirdbook 31September saw the release of Weirdbook 31, the first issue in the revival of Weirdbook, a classic publication. I aspired to publication in its pages during it’s previous run, and I’m delighted to appear in this magazine now. It’s chock-full of good horror, fantasy, baroque fantasy, weird horror, etc., including (if I may be so immodest) a fable of my own devising, entitled “Wolf of Hunger, Wolf of Shame.” While this is “issue 31” of a magazine, note that it’s 160 pages, almost all of which are fiction, so it can hang with plenty of anthologies out there! You can pick up a copy at Amazon, or directly from Wildside Press.

Of late I’ve been busy enough that under-the-radar has been more necessity than convenience, but I have been reading various things. I’d like to point your attention to Orrin Grey’s new short story collection, Painted Monsters. It’s a fine book, and I hope to post a writeup down the road. I’d also like to highlight Molly Tanzer’s forthcoming novel, The Pleasure Merchant, which I had the pleasure of hearing an excerpt from earlier this year at World Horror. It’s gonna be fab, and I can’t wait to read it.

Aickman’s Heirs

cover of aickman's heirsAickman’s Heirs [Amazon|B&N|Publisher] is a new anthology from Undertow Publications, edited by Simon Strantzas, composed of stories written in the shadow of Robert Aickman (1914-1981). Aickman was an award-winning author of supernatural fiction, referring to his tales as “strange stories,” a moniker which has stuck due to his work’s singular character. He hasn’t been as high-flying as many other authors in terms of public citation of his influence, though that’s changed in recent years with the current wave of weird fiction, much of which quite directly engages with the tradition. In the case of Aickman, that means subtle and sometimes inscrutable tales of people’s experiences with perhaps-supernatural forces. As multiple people commented in one way or another at last year’s World Fantasy Convention, celebrating Aickman’s centennial,  it’s sometimes difficult to know precisely what has happened in a strange story.

This anthology is a fine window through which to view an Aickman-ish world, and I can honestly say I enjoyed every story in the book.  Some gave me more chills than others, some tugged at my heart more than others, but not a clunker in the bunch. Some of the stories I expected to enjoy based on past experience of the authors’ work: Cisco, Gavin, Langan, Marshall, Mills. Others I enjoyed and look forward to rereading a few years down the road.

One of the remarkable strengths of this anthology is that it held no less than four excellent stories by authors I hadn’t previously read much or at all. This is theoretically one of the virtues of anthologies, but it often isn’t so. If the focus on the theme is too strong, the book features well-themed stories that may be poorly written. If the focus is resolutely commercial, too many “safe” author choices. Finding one really good story in an anthology by a to-me-unknown author I take as a gift… which is why Aickman’s Heirs is surprising. Some of the authors below I’ve met at conventions or seen around online, but their work was new to me.

David Nickle‘s “Camp” is short, lean, and packed with meaning. The climax arrives with a visible cause nodded at, but workings left thoroughly unexplained. This is a story I might point to in future if asked to describe a story with a “mysterious” aspect. I currently own no David Nickle books, which this story suggests is a grave error, to be remedied as soon as is feasible.

Lynda E. Rucker‘s “The Dying Season” delivers tiny shocks all the way along its twisting, suggestive length. Striking, lyrical, and brooding. Shades of Shirley Jackson as well as Aickman, I think, or perhaps Joyce Carol Oates. I cannot imagine not buying her collection after reading this story.

Michael Wehunt‘s “A Discreet Music” shares a certain similarity to “Camp,” which I’ll leave the reader to discover. It was a strange story, but it also smacked of magical realism as much as anything specifically in-genre. Whether it’s more Kelly Link or more Gabriel García Márquez, I cannot quite say, but it’s damn good, and I’ll be on the lookout for more stories from him in the future.

Finally, Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is something of a slow burn that goes in a different direction from many others in this book. The tale of two old friends reconnecting after a many-years-long gap in their relationship is a sleeper. We follow the two women through conversation and a train ride off to what turns out to be The Strange Little Town. Allan weaves in many elements that typically have a share in the supernatural, but she leaves questions hanging as to the precise nature of the darkness the women find. I’m a sucker for ekphrasis, and this story uses it to killer effect.

undertow publications books

A Bouquet of Undertow

Apart from the fiction, the cover is truly evocative. The artist, Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, appears to work in thin layers with various kinds of supports and media, and the sentiment he conjures fits the book perfectly. It also seems to me to fit in with the overall design of Undertow’s books, which makes the lot a pleasure to consider. His work is of a piece with that of many other artists (Santiago Caruso, Galen Dara, Kris Kuksi, Daniele Serra, etc.) who have amped up their landscape elements or decorative motifs vs. more conventionally character-heavy illustration. A welcome companion to the new golden age of weird fiction.

Aickman’s Heirs was a genuine pleasure, and I’ll happily read more Strantzas-edited anthologies down the road. Fortunately Simon is editing Volume 3 of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, so there’s something just over the horizon.

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.