No matter how much planning I put into The Kind of Face You Slash each year, and no matter how many books and writers I have pegged as definite topics to take on during any given October, inevitably there will be a few days every year where I flail about, choosing to not deal with something I'd planned on because it's better to do something else than half-ass one of my tentpoles. This is sound logic, as far as I'm concerned, but it does leave me with a table loaded with horror anthologies, poring over their contents for a couple of stories I feel like it might be within me to read and absorb and whatever else...spit back out, I guess. So today's that kind of day, and those kinds of days, incidentally, tend to produce rather short posts. This news could come to you as a fresh whiff of Spring for all I know, but there it is either way.
Today what I decided to do was take two of the three annual "best of" horror anthologies I pick up every year, and pick a story from each (the new edition of one of the three anthologies, Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, will be out later this year; the 2012 editions of the two I'm pulling from today are already out). Boom. Done. In the past, I've tried to turn the use of these anthologies into some kind of mini-project within the larger one we now find ourselves in the midst of, sometimes sort-of-but-not-really pitting the books against each other to judge (but not really) which one really represented the best of that year's horror, but I couldn't now tell you why I bothered with this kind of manufactured justification when no justification of any kind was necessary -- these books already provide me with an easy source of dozens of horror stories, so just read them you dumb motherfucker (I'm talking to myself in this case). So that's what I did. Two paragraphs and some swearing just to get me to this point. I'm off today.
However off I may be, though, I read today's stories with a clear head and open heart, or near enough. The first story is "Final Girl Theory" by A. C. Wise, taken from the newest edition of editor Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year.
But I hated "Final Girl Theory" by A. C. Wise, and here's why. The authors of these stories generally create one horror film, or a series of horror films by one filmmaker, that is, or are, so powerful that some portion of the public becomes unhealthily obsessed. This is the idea behind the good stuff, like Flicker and Throat Sprockets, and the bad, like I think maybe everything else. A story like this is doomed to failure when the writer fails to make their film-within-the-story sound even remotely interesting, or unlike any movie we've seen in our real, actually horror-obsessed lives. And so Wise collapses on page one. She writes in paragraph two:
The camera is focused on a man's hand. He's holding a small shard of green glass, no bigger than his fingernail. He tilts it, catching the light, which darts like a crazed firefly. Then, so very carefully and with loving slowness, he presses the glass into something soft and white.
The camera is so tight the viewer can't see what he's pushing the glass into (but they suspect). Can you imagine the moment of realization for someone who doesn't know?
Do they say "Oh, it's a woman's skin. I should have known that"? The film in question is called Kaleidoscope (perhaps a reference to the abandoned Hitchcock film), and it's called that because this opening scene reveals that, indeed, the colored glass is being stabbed into a naked lady and she's tied to a wheel and once she's full of the glass an unseen hand spins the wheel and she's a kaleidoscope. This, we're told, is "the most famous two and a half minutes ever put to film." "No matter what anyone tells you," yet.
Also supposedly fascinating is the fact that the sequence is silent until someone off-screen (the killer? The director? Are they one in the same!?) catches their breath. Nobody who sees the film even knows the scene is silent until that happens. And then they're shocked!
Kaleidophiles (yes, they really call themselves that) [This story is lousy with obnoxious parentheticals - Ed.] have worn out old copies of the film playing that split-second transition from silence to sound over and over again. They've stripped their throats raw arguing. Does someone catch their breath, and if so, who?
And while we're at it, in Silent Movie, does Marcel Marceau say "No!" at any point!? Some say he does, others disagree. I've argued the point until my tongue bled. Also, Jesus, I'm only on page two of this thing. I read "Final Girl Theory" from beginning to end, I promise you -- there's a guy named Jackson Mortar who knows just a whole heap about Kaleidoscope and he sees the film's star and "final girl" go into a drugstore, even though none of the filmmakers in front of or behind the camera have ever revealed themselves, and even though the film is forty years old, and he tracks her down -- but Wise is so convinced right out of the gate that the film she's describing is one that will fascinate us, her readers, with its horrific mysteries that there's this terrible smugness about it all. Worst of all is that the fucking thing, particularly that quiet, breathing, glass-into-flesh bit feels like such a ripoff of Tim Lucas's Throat Sprockets, so she's being smug about effects achieved by someone else that she then took. And, and, speaking of italics, Wise evidently believes that if she italicizes words when describing the fascination Kaleidoscope, then that fascination will be taken by us as read (parentheticals are employed in a similar fashion -- "(What did you see? What do you think you saw?)" -- and are similarly useless. I saw a movie that's so muddily filmed that no one who watches it can tell what's going on, that's what I saw).
Enough. My attempts to amuse myself while writing about this story are probably aggravating the hell out of all of you. The other story I read, God bless it, is much better. It's called "The Lake," was written by Tananarive Due, and can be found in editor Paula Guran's The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2012. Due has been publishing all manner of genre fiction, from horror to fantasy to science fiction, since the 1980s, is highly thought of, and she's long been on my list of Writers I Should Read. Creating an excuse is one of the reasons I do this every year, though the positive/negative blowback is always the same, and happened again: after finishing this story earlier today I got online and ordered two of Tananarive Due's novels.
"The Lake" is about Abbie LeFleur, a school teacher from Boston, who for reasons Due doesn't make explicitly clear, has decided to start her life over by moving to Graceville, FL, and getting a job, to start off, teaching summer school at the local high school. She buys a home by a lake, and shortly after moving in feels a strange impulse:
As if to prove her newfound freedom, Abbie suddenly climbed out of the tattered jeans she'd been wearing as she unpacked her boxes, whipped off her T-shirt and
...Abbie felt brave enough to wade into the water, inviting its embrace above her knees, her thighs. She felt the water's gentle kiss between her legs, the massage across her belly, and, finally, a liquid cloak upon her shoulders...
Because of the isolated nature of her home, Abbie makes these nude swims a nightly activity. During the day, she begins her job teaching a creative writing summer class (Due describes it as the kind where everyone sits in a circle and listen to music and then writes whatever and they also read their journals; I have chosen to not hold this against her), and scopes out her students for candidates to help her do manual labor at her home -- this has apparently been a regular source of cheap labor for her over the course of her career. She settles on one, Derek, a fifteen-year-old football star who Abbie can't stop looking at. She gets around to asking him over to her home to do work, he brings his cousin Jack, and the stage is set for the story's ending. Except I didn't mention that Abbie has developed webbed feet and gills by this time.
I'm being glib about that, but Due sort of is as well. Abbie notices these things happen, and just lets them happen. After an initial curiosity, she doesn't think about it beyond hiding these changes when necessary. What I found particularly fascinating about "The Lake" was what Due is finally using the horror for, which is to deal in some way with female teachers who sleep with their students. This certainly does appear to be a thing these days, though there's not much genuine outrage over it, but Due, in "The Lake," is pretty angry about it. I don't tend to like fiction of any sort that is about Issues, and Has Something To Say About Those Issues, but Due does it right, but not making any kind of statement, and not sketching out villainous caricatures -- or villainous anything, really -- and, perhaps most importantly, guiding the story quite naturally in this direction, so that the issue isn't an Issue, but rather a story, and the horror develops in a clean near-parallel.
There's an allegory here too, I suppose, but while it's easy to tell what the allegorical bit is an allegory for, Due has a light, mysterious touch regarding how it's being allegorical about it. It's rare for fiction to be clearly about a subject that's in the news, and take a stance on that subject, but remain mysterious. There's an elegance to it that I'd nearly given up on ever seeing again. But here it is.