Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 6: Filthy With Blood

In the absence of any better idea, I decided to spend the next couple of days staging a showdown of sorts between two “best of” anthology series, both of which think they’re so big. The only criterion I’m going to use is one of taste, and also all I’m really going to be doing is reviewing stories from random editions of each series, and the resulting posts will be no more or less meaningful than anything else I write for this place, but…but I mean, might as well pretend this is something other than it is, right?

The two series in question are The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, edited by Stephen Jones (formerly edited, under a slightly different title,
Karl Edward Wagner, later by both Jones and Kim Newman, I think maybe by Ramsey Campbell for a little while…) and The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow. The Best New Horror series has been around for many, many years, but Datlow’s series is only on volume two. You might be tempted to consider The Best Horror of the Year the young gun upstart, but, like Jones, Datlow is a perennial figure in the world of horror editing, with a slew of titles to her name. In fact, she used to edit, or co-edit, a whole different, but similar, series called The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. That series folded, I guess, and she recently shifted gears to this new one, but the point is that Datlow knows her business.

It might have been nice to select stories from the current editions of each anthology, but the most recent volume of The Best Horror of the Year came out in some goofball month like April or May, and the next edition of Best New Horror is slated to hit stores in November. Which is stupid. It might be easier to schedule these things if there was some time of year that was in any way associated with horror, but with those lamebrains in Congress doing all that shuckin’ and jivin’, I don’t think that will ever happen, so we’re stuck with these arbitrary release dates. Furthermore, this means that I just randomly grabbed a volume of each series and picked stories from those. So now you have a little window into my process.

I’m going with volume one of Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year first, because whatever, and a couple of things struck me. One is that while certain newly established writers are likely to show up in both series (Glen Hirshberg, Laird Barron, and so on), Datlow seems much more likely to use stories by unknown writers, while Stephen Jones’s series is going to be packed with stuff by Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman – in other words, Jones uses the big names as his base, from which he can build a (possibly) more diverse volume of stories. Datlow doesn’t seem to care so much about that. I certainly don’t know that she’s intentionally ignoring the Campbells and Barkers of the world – she clearly doesn’t do that in her other anthologies – but it’s an interesting difference to note, anyway. It’s possible that Datlow takes the word “new” as meaning something more than just “published recently”.

Another difference I noticed is that the stories that Datlow chooses tend to be, on average, a good deal shorter than those chosen by Jones. This means nothing I can see, as far as Datlow vs. Jones goes (other than that maybe Datlow favors shorter stories), but for my purposes it did allow me to read three whole stories for today’s post. And so I did.
The first story is "The Rising River" by Daniel Kaysen, and if any of the three are going to get short shrift today, it's this one. It's not a bad story, and I felt Kaysen got across a nice sense of the environment in which our two main characters, roommates Amy and Tish, lived (which is just a flat, in some unspecified area of England). And Kaysen's appropriation of James Ellroy's telegraph style of prose -- somewhat de-toughened for his purposes -- keeps things moving. But the story revolves around ghosts and/or madness, both revolving around Amy and her possible ability to see spirits, and the dark truth of her childhood, and so on. Ghosts and madness are themes that, when paired off, have grown tiresome to me. Not only that, but, like many contemporary horror writers, Kaysen has a tendency to match off his bleak story with moments of childish sentimentality, as in:
She brought a teddy bear. That made me smile. Gifts are always better when they're furry.
Yes, well, fine. It just doesn't go down smooth, is what I'm saying.
Next up is a curious little number by Trent Hergenrader called "The Hodag". A hodag, so you know, is actually a thing, in the same way that the Loch Ness Monster is "actually" a thing. This particular legendary creature roams the wilds of Wisconsin, and a, I guess, sculpture, or something, of a hodag can be seen below:
And that's not too far off from they way Hergenrader describes it in his story:
The face looked hauntingly human despite its oblong shape, the mouth crowded with sharp teeth, and its black leathery skin. The eyes burned like embers and there was an unmistakable intelligence behind them, perhaps even cunning. Worse, the face was grinning in pure malice.
As you see. Hergenrader's story takes place in Oswego, WI, before World War II. It opens with a dog named Maggie, who belongs to a boy named Whitey McFarland, staggering out of the woods, ripped open. The story's narrator, his friend Whitey, and a bunch of other kids are playing baseball, and they come together to save Maggie (the fact that this is a story about a vicious creature, and a beloved animal doesn't die at any point, is, in itself, unique), but of course the question of what attacked the dog lingers. Also lingering is Whitey's father, a boozer who abuses both his son and the dog.
It's not uncommon, I've found, for horror writers to match up some kind of violent, otherworldly mystery with real-world childhood trauma. In fact, this could probably describe 90% of all horror fiction published since Carrie came out. What makes "The Hodag" interesting is its lack of resolution, and its relation to Wisconsin folklore. Obviously, it's discovered who attacked Maggie, and who is behind subsequent violent attacks on men and animals, but where that discovery takes anyone is anyone's guess. The resolution of Whitey's abusive homelife is left similarly ambiguous, because what a frustrated, impotent child might wish to see happen in such a situation may not actually benefit anyone -- then again, with that alternate future unwritten, maybe it would.
Finally, I read a story called "The Man from the Peak" by Adam Golaski. And let me just tell you, this story is pretty stunning. It's the best piece of horror fiction I've read so far this month: so precisely written, so effortlessly evocative, and so confident of its eventual effect that I became a bit giddy as I read it. It's a story I'd hate to spoil for anyone who might follow my recommendation, but briefly Golaski tells the story of a party. Richard, who is wealthy, is taking a job in Boston, so his friends, also wealthy, are gathering at his place in the mountains to send him off in style. Our nameless narrator wants mainly to discover if Richard's girlfriend Sarah is going to Boston, as well, or if she's staying to pursue the flirtatious relationship the narrator's had going with her for, apparently, a long time. When the narrator is unable to spend time with her, he spends time with a busty woman in a bikini who says her name is Prudence ("Of course it is," the narrator says).
There are satellite partygoers, but mainly, there is the stranger, the man from the peak. The peak of the mountain, that is, where everyone agrees nobody lives. But he's there -- the narrator first saw his shadow descending from the peak, and then heard him being issued into Richard's home by someone who said "What, you need a formal invitation? Sure come on in, you are welcome to come in."
The man from the peak brings horror with him, and the way Golaski quietly insinuates that horror, here and there in patches, as the story progresses is a marvel, and clearly the work of a writer who knows what he's doing. The ghastliness of it all just stays in the background for a while, until it's the only thing left, and the man from the peak has control of everything.
Again, I hesitate to say any more than that. It's too good a story for my gushing to ruin it for you. But one thing that's especially important to note is that Golaski is simply a very good writer. He can toss off lines that sum up not only the person being observed: unfortunate looking girl (pasty, a large flat nose and hair forced into a strange shade of red).
...but the person doing the observing. He also has a clean, sardonic way with human behavior, as in this bit, where Prudence, rising from a hot tub full of men, accepts a beer from the narrator:

"Thank you so much," she said, and took the beer. The guys in the tub were happily gazing up at her tiny bottom -- those men were nothing to her, made to carry her bags and perform rudimentary tasks while she gazed off in other, more interesting directions.
Plainly speaking, you don't see that kind of writing in horror fiction very often. Almost worse than that is the acceptance of this fact, and the apparent belief that good writing in horror fiction must necessarily be different -- in other words, worse -- than good writing anywhere else. The expectations for quality horror prose have descended to such a low level that competency has been celebrated as brilliance. I myself am so unused to anything of genuine quality from contemporary horror that a story like Golaski's can stop me dead.
It is a brilliant story, wonderfully unsettling, with a final three or four pages that I simply want to just type out here for you, as it will make my point better than I ever could. But I can't do that, so you should go and seek this out.


John said...

The Golaski story (the only one of these I've read) impressed me, too, enough to get me to shell out for a copy of his book "Worse Than Me" (a collection of stories), but I haven't read anything else of his yet.

Funnily enough, that story reminded me a lot of Etchison, for some reason, the spare, incisive writing, the imagery and atmosphere reminiscent of some of his more gruesome stories, like "It Only Comes Out at Night", "The Dark Country", "The Woman in Black", etc.

"Gifts are always better when they're furry." Uh-huh. That quote sounds like sheer glibness trying to pass for minimalism. Can't say that particular story sounds too promising.

(Just a note on the "Best Horror" anthologies: the Wagner books were a wholly separate series under a different publisher. There had been two previous editors in its run through the '70s & '80s, and Wagner was the last; it ended with his death. But, for a couple of years at the beginning of the '90s, I suppose this means that there were at least three major "Best Of" anthologies going for horror: the Wagners, the Joneses, and the Datlows (her section of the "Best Fantasy and Horror" series). The interesting thing about this, from what I've seen, is the way the contents of all three books seemed so rarely to overlap. Wagner, especially, seemed happy to shun all the most popular names and titles, and took the bulk of his selections from all kinds of obscure and unlikely venues.)

bill r. said...

Obviously, I flat out loved the Golaski story, and will be picking up that collection as soon as I can.

But if "The Man from the Peak" reminded me of Etchison at all, it reminded me of what Etchison is trying for, but often falling shy of. I don't want to keep running Etchison down -- I really have nothing against the guy, and plan to read him in the future. It's just the level of regard he's attained does not match my reading experience. Something like the Golaski story is what I'm ALWAYS trying to get when I read horror, and it's a true thrill when I find it.

I thought I'd heard that when Wagner died, his peers and friends kept the collection going through various editors, until it finally morphed into the Jones series. Although now that you mention it, that would explain why the Jones series is only at volume 20. Oy. Where did I get that idea, anyway?

Greg said...

I just wish we, the people, would pass a law against those knuckleheads doing all that shuckin' and jivin' 'cause brother, it burns me up!

Also, always glad to see someone use the name "Whitey" in a story. I never knew a "Whitey" so it really takes me away to another universe.

The doodad godog dodag thingamabobber is AWESOME!

Finally, I know what you mean by standards, in this case horror writing, falling so low that competence is celebrated as brilliance. That's how I feel about modern sci-fi, so collapsed under the weight of its own cliches that when something like the rather average District 9 comes along, it's celebrated as a modern classic. And, it's not.

Bryce Wilson said...

One of the rules for surviving a horror fiction needs to be that if someone needs a very formalized stated invitation to enter the place you currently are; THEN FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST DO. NOT. GIVE. IT. TO. THEM.

I'm going to go read Dread now.

Best thing Barker's written IMO.

bill r. said...

Greg, we need to get out there and picket, or possibly "rock the vote". I can never tell which, but I do know that only we can make a difference when it comes to those silly gooses in Congress.

And you should look up "hodag". You'll find much of interest!

DISTRICT 9 is a perfect SF equivalent of what I'm talking about. People are so over the moon with that film, and you know what I thought? I thought it was fine! Not because I'm so much better than those people, but goodness, where have our standards gone? SF on film (I don't know about contemporary SF literature) is in even worse shape that horror (print or film). How many pure SF movies do we get? I mean, that aren't basically action films. There was MOON, and before that? The SOLARIS remake? Then AI?

Bryce - Yes, and what I liked about the way he was invited into the house is that you don't even know who did it. It's like a disembodied voice lets doom waltz right on in.

I read "Dread" about 20 years ago. Sorta remember it, but not too well.

Tom B. said...

Yeah, Karl Edward Wagner's year's best horror antho was published thru DAW books until he died back in the '90s. It had no relationship to the Jones series. I enjoyed Wagner's anthos because he looked to so many obscure sources for stories. I like Datlow and Jones, too, but they both have a stable of favored authors whose work will pop up year after year.

Greg said...

Just a warning: As with my Facebook inspired post, I'm going to expand upon the sci-fi idea here for a post and quote you. So say NO MORE ABOUT IT! I'll put it up Sunday, probably.

bill r. said...

Tom, I wish I had some of those Wagner books. I'll have to track them down.

Greg - You'll be hearing from my lawyers.

Frank B said...

"The expectations for quality horror prose have descended to such a low level that competency has been celebrated as brilliance."

Once again, you've read my mind. I don't read much within the genre anymore, for that very reason. I also more or less walked away from SF and fantasy when I was 18 or so, because I just couldn't take the crappy prose, flat characters and formulaic plots after dipping my toe into the world of "serious" literary fiction. Since I'm now attempting to write in the field, I feel as if I should be up on my contemporary horror, but its been so long I don't know where to begin.

Aickman comes with your highest recommendation, obviously. And now Golaski. Who else? If you had to come up with a top ten -- or even a top five -- list (current practitioners only), who would be on it?

I'd like to hear what your readers have to say as well. Even "y'all are morons who don't understand ambiguity" John.

bill r. said...

Hmmm...well, Aickman, unfortunately, is no longer practicing, as he's dead. But let's see: Thomas Ligotti, Mark Samuels, Terry Lamsley is good from what I've read so far, this guy I've just started reading named Brian Evenson (see subsequent post)...Chet Williamson is good. Um...there are some big names who are good, like Straub, Barker, and King, but I don't need to tell you about them. The short fiction of Joe Lansdale (skip his novels)...

Andrew LH said...

I'd like to salute Bill for the blog in general, the Face You Slash in particular, and his reviews regarding Adam Golaski and Chuck Beaumont in particular particular, since I've now bought copies of Worse Than Myself and The Howling Man and enjoyed them both thoroughly.

I have just this minute finished a review of Worse Than Myself which, if yerself or any of your admiring crowd fancy casting your eye over, can be found here: