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.