Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 13: Even, Only, Human

Speaking of editor Paula Guran's The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010, as I was yesterday, reminded me that, while it may not be the most up to date volume of the series available (that would be The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2011, for the curious), there are still a couple of stories from that volume I wanted to read for this year. Three, actually, one of them also by one of Tuesday's featured authors, Michael Marshall Smith. The story is called "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night", and it appeared, if memory serves (I'm unfortunately not near my vast library at the moment) in all three of the major "best of" horror anthologies from 2010. I felt like I was kind of hard on Smith yesterday, so I wanted to give him a second chance with this story, but as I started reading it last night, I realized I'd read it a while back, which for some reason I can't remember disqualifies it from use in this series. But I will say it's a good story, very odd and much more interesting than the one I covered the other day. Just wanted to throw that out there.

The other two major "best of" horror anthology series are, of course, Stephen Jones's The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. Jones's approach to his books is of a very broad, all-encompassing, This is the Year That Was kind of philosophy -- the stories themselves are just a part of the package. Datlow's feels a bit more meat and potatoes -- very little ancillary material, and what there is is very brief, certainly when compared to what Jones provides (this should not be read as a critique to either approach). Guran, meanwhile, provides only the briefest of introductions to her 2010 volume (the first, for the record) and instead of prefatory story notes, which is the norm, she, in 2010, went for a brief afterword for each story, with the real difference being her tone. This is how she closes out Gary McMahon's "Strange Scenes from an Unfinished Film":

The narrator says: "I'm not important. I have nothing to offer...I have no story to tell."

Perhaps we all should hope this is true because -- to my mind -- at the end of this story, one gets the feeling that he will soon have all too many stories to offer...and they will be tales we might not survive the telling of.

I, just, huh? Guran's approach is one of swoony romanticism, her love affair being with the horror genre, but it gets a bit thick, and not very helpful, certainly not informative. Her note there has very little to do with McMahon's story, but I suspect she thought it sounded good.

On the plus side is that this all takes up very little room (and obviously, you're free to skip it), and in terms of pure amount of horror fiction provided, Guran's book beats out both Jones and Datlow. Her 2010 volume is 568 pages long, and almost every page of that is given over to the stories themselves. And her taste is as good or as bad, by which I mean as individually distinctive, as either of her top peers. You take the good with the bad with all three, in other words, but Guran's looking pretty sharp right at the moment as the two stories I pegged for today are both wonderful.

Here's the book itself. I like this cover because it's mostly just big blocks of text, but then up in the top corner there's a little horror guy. Anyway, in her brief introduction to the book, Guran talks briefly about defining horror, and how difficult that's become not just due to the genre's diversity, but because those who don't care so much would pigeonhole it as one or two things that aren't very flattering. Guran pretty quickly gives up with an air of "Oh, who cares what those people think," as well she should, and then five stories later, with Stewart O'Nan's "Monsters", gives us a story that even I am tempted to consider as something other than horror. I'm certainly not going to argue the point, because I am generally on Guran's side and I don't want to look like one of those douches she was talking about. And besides, even if I did want to argue, O'Nan's story was originally published not in All-Story or n+1, but in Cemetery Dance, so I would be very much alone in my opposition.

I'm somewhat familiar with O'Nan's writing, and I'm a fan. And I must admit, though he is not regarded as a genre writer, he has flirted with the fringes of it more than once. If O'Nan has a best-known book, it might be Snow Angels, which was the basis for the David Gordon Green film (I've neither read the book nor seen the movie), but I know him from two other novels, A Prayer for the Dying, which is about a devastating diphtheria outbreak shortly after the Civil war, and The Speed Queen, at one point to be called Dear Stephen King, and which takes the form of a long letter to that writer by a young woman embroiled in a rather nasty cross-country crime spree. Both are very strong (even stronger is his non-fiction book The Circus Fire, about the Ringling Bros. disaster in Hartford, CT, in 1944), and on the basis of the latter book O'Nan came to be friends with King, and eventually together they wrote Faithful, a book I don't give a fuck about because it's about baseball. O'Nan also has a straight-up ghost story out there in the form of his novel The Night Country.

Which brings me, at long last, to "Monsters." “Monsters” is about Mark and Derek, two kids, best friends, who, shortly before Halloween and the opening of the church-sponsored haunted house where they’ll both be dressed up as creatures from the Black Lagoon* to scare patrons, are out playing one day with Derek’s BB gun. A wild and unlikely shot by Mark (“from the hip”) hits Derek in the eye, and the rest of the story deals with the aftermath, the extent of Derek’s injury, and Mark’s guilt. The strength of the story is in the details, both of everyday childhood and Halloween (O’Nan mentions white tubes of a product called Vampire Blood, and brother, I haven’t thought of that stuff in forever; I remember stressing over how much “blood” was “dripping” from the corner of my mouth, and whether or not it was getting smeared – I treated it like lipstick, basically) and of the way children handle guilt, and the idea of being the cause of significant damage:

The nurse at the emergency room said Mark's mom could go in with Derek but Mark and Sarah would have to wait outside. Sarah lost herself in Cosmopolitan and Mark got up and looked at everything in the vending machines. The hospital had taped up the same cardboard decorations his Sunday school class had -- the same pickle-nosed witches and rearing black cats and ogling, wide-eyed pumpkins. Mark tried to read a Sports Illustrated but it was too old. The last time he'd been here was when he broke his wrist trying to grind on a concrete bench in the back lot, and now he wondered if he was bad luck, if the rest of his life would be like this. It would be okay, he thought.

There's also a hint here, maybe more than a hint, of a story about a young boy losing his faith in God. Nothing much is made of this, and no one who believes, including the friendly and sympathetic priest who is overseeing the haunted house, is demonized. But Mark prays with his family on behalf of Derek, and he wonders if it will work, and it doesn't; his father tries to help him by relating a Bible story to him, but Mark can't find the relation between the story and what happened to Derek (neither can I, for the record). He doesn't even seem terribly surprised by any of this. On that note, and speaking of "Monsters" being a kind of flashback to my own childhood, at one point Mark agrees to say Derek's name during his church's prayer for the afflicted. I remember this part of my Catholic church's service very well, though one person read all the names in my church, and O'Nan brings it all back:

The church was a field of heads bent down, and he was taller than all of them, except Father Don, who turned to look at him, as if he expected this.

"Derek Rota," Mark said, and Father Don nodded.

He wasn't loud enough, he thought, but it was too late and knelt down again.

"Eileen Covington," someone else said, and then it was quiet.

"Gertrude Wheeler."

"Jan Tomczak."

It went on for eight names. Mark thought it was a lot, all of those people in the hospital, and all their families worried about them. Some of them were probably going to die. He'd barely noticed this part of the service before, and now it seemed terrible to him, proof of something gone wrong.

I can remember noticing when a specific name that had been part of the prayer for the ailing for several weeks in a row would change over and become part of the prayer for remembrance.

So as you can probably see, "Monsters" is not a horror story, as such. There is nothing supernatural, and more to the point, there is no evil. However, interestingly, by the end of the story horror imagery, specifically the Creature from the Black Lagoon, of all things, has come to the forefront. So it's not a horror story (as such) that nevertheless comes to rely on horror imagery, and not in some cute or nostalgic way. This is much different from Bradbury's "The Tombling Day", discussed here the other day, because while that story features the supernatural and actual death, it does so in a fantastical, not macabre, way, while "Monsters" uses imagery borrowed from what some would regard as B-level trash (I would accept the B-level part, but only the B-level part) to shade his nostalgic story of a childhood accident into something very grim and sad and maybe even, in its uneasy implications, slightly disturbing. This can also be contrasted with Joe Hill's (rather disappointing, but anyway) "Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead", which is a light-hearted and sunny non-horror story about a kid and his parents who have roles as zombie extras on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. "Monsters" is by far the most interesting and insinuating and lingering of any of these.

Next is Gerard Houarner’s “The Other Box”. I’d never read Houarner before this, but for what seems like years I’ve been waffling back on forth, trying to decide how much interest I actually had in reading his cult novel The Beast That Was Max. My assumption, which I’m now forced to question, had always been that this was some kind of latter day splatterpunk wank, and while splatterpunk of a sort it still may be (and wank it still may be, too, let’s be honest), on the basis of “The Other Box” I believe I’ll have no choice now but to give The Beast That Was Max a whirl.

“The Other Box” is a bizarre, mystical horror story about a woman, Samarra, whose children go missing one by one. First the eldest, Justine, then Mirabel, the middle child, and finally Rey, the youngest. Justine somehow goes missing (“picked up by an angel”, according to Mirabel, though she can provide no further information) sometime between getting off the bus outside of her dance school, and the front door of the dance school itself. Sometime later, Mirabel and Rey disappear apparently right out from under the noses of both family, and finally authorities, who are trying to protect them. But nobody sees anything. Nobody hears anything, or knows anything, or can even imagine what could have happened.

The day of Justine’s disappearance, shortly before Samarra realizes that anything has gone wrong, she finds a box sitting in the middle of the floor in her home’s foyer. After everyone realizes Justine has gone missing, the strange box, which no one can account for, is believed to be a clue, but when the police open it, it falls apart, apparently consisting entirely of some intricate and delicate origami construct. Apart from Rey’s desire to build his own version of this box – before he himself goes missing – not much is said about it until the end of “The Other Box”, and by then the story has gone from a more or less straightforward telling of a strange story to something much more unhinged. Not that Houarner alters his prose – it still remains mostly cold, yet warmed occasionally by Samarra’s intense grief (after Justine and Mirabel have disappeared, she remembers how she used to tell them stories, and is overheard saying “Once upon a time, I had two daughters”), but something mad has surely occurred by the end of “The Other Box”, something that can’t help but make everything seem ripped off its axis.

“The Other Box” is not all smooth sailing. There is a mysticism -- which is distinct from, or at least distinct within, the supernatural -- to the story that is hard for me to take. Other writers can sometimes do this, and it’s all such a nebulous attempt by the writer to grapple with spirituality without trying in any way to be clear or concrete about it. Pretty much every time I’ve seen this in horror fiction, the mysticism is rooted, though pretty loosely for the most part, in some kind of native spirituality – American Indian spirits are popular in the work of Dan Simmons, for instance, though he at least appears to know what he's talking about – and I believe the same might be going on in “The Other Box”, which I base solely on the names of some of the characters: Mirabel, Rey, Samarra, and possibly most importantly, her strange brother Reynaldo. Nothing more specific about the root of any of this is said, though Reynaldo’s appearances in the story tend to end or even begin with him making statements such as “We were too young to be soldiers…Now we’re too old.” He speaks in bleak aphorisms, the root of which only Samarra seems to have any idea about, and she wants nothing to do with any of it.

So even if the mysticism unintentionally works to dissipate the story initially, it comes to firm up the terror in the final stretches, which I will not give away. Suffice it to say that there is a horrible uncertainty to what eventually happens. Something unknowable has occurred here.

*The Creature from the Black Lagoon is threatening to be something of a motif this year. Yesterday he popped up as the allegedly funny part of a joke I insisted on telling, here he is again today in Stewart O'Nan's "Monsters", and there is yet another, much more direct, appearance to come. How curious!


Will Errickson said...

That Joe Hill story sounds kinda like something David Schow might've written back in ye olde days. Sorry to hear it's disappointing; I liked Hill's 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS.

bill r. said...

But that story is IN 20th Century Ghosts! Maybe we have different editions?

Greg F. said...

I was led to believe, falsely I now realize, that today's post was going to be, "You guys ever read CUJO? The dog bites a guy in the nuts!" I even deleted my post on the same subject as a result. Now I see I was lied to. You, sir, are a charlatan and a rake!

And a cad!