Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Books Read in June 2017

American Supernatural Tales edited by S.T. Joshi

This is a collection of horror stories written by American writers over the past 200 years, starting with Washington Irving's 'The Adventure of the German Student' (1824) and finishing off with 'In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)' by Caitlin R. Kieran in 2000. In between there's stories from Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, and many others.

I liked a lot of them, while others left me cold, which isn't surprising given the wide range of stories here. The older stuff from Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe, Fitz-James O'Brien was okay, but because of its age, was never going to seem new and exciting. The shocks in them have been used so many times since they were written in the nineteenth century, that they stop being shocking, though 'The Fall of the House of Usher' had a pretty creepy final scene.

Ambrose Bierce's 'The Death of Halpin Frayser' (1891) felt like it could have been written today. It's ambiguous, violent, has a weird dream sequence, and leaves clues for the reader to try and work out what's going on, like an 1800s Laird Barron or David Lynch. What's going on is pretty unpleasant. Unpleasant enough that I didn't entertain what it was all pointing to, and had to read S.T. Joshi's introduction to discover the truth.

I've read 'The Yellow Sign' by Robert W. Chambers before - it's part of his collection The King in Yellow, which inspired some of the weirdness in HBO's True Detective. But like the other older stuff, its age shows. The supposedly horrifying climax is overshadowed by the rather twisted Catholic morality concerning a painter and the young girl who falls in love with him.

Henry James has a story here called 'The Real Right Thing'. Although overall it's interesting, I found it hard to read, with odd sentence structure. He also did 'The Turn of the Screw', which is a revered piece of supernatural fiction, though I haven't read this yet. I get the feeling James might be an acquired taste.

H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Call of Cthulhu' is next, the seminal piece of weird fiction which became his most famous example of cosmic horror, and which spawned imitations, brilliant variations on the theme, and basically the whole genre of cosmic horror itself. Good when I first read it, not so good on this umpteenth reading, but still a classic.

This is followed by a couple more stories written in the 1930s - Clark Ashton Smith's 'The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis', about horrific Martian beasties, and Robert E. Howard's 'Old Garfield's Heart' - neither of which were all that good. I like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stuff, but this was, y' know, fine. Clark Ashton Smith... well... his prose is so overdone it's annoying.

In the 40's section, things improve. There's Robert 'Psycho' Bloch, August Derleth, and Fritz Leiber. Bloch and Leiber both have a cool, slangy, wise guy kind of style - Humphrey Bogart language.

From Blochs 'Black Bargain':

"Same old malted milks, cherry cokes, Vaseline, Listerine, hairnets, bathing caps, cigarettes, and what have you?

Me, I had a headache. It was four days later, almost the same time of night, when I found myself scrubbing off the soda-taps again.

Sure enough, he walked in."

The selection from the 50's includes Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. I liked them all, especially Shirley Jackson's 'A Visit', with its polite language and ghostly happenings, like an old-fashioned ghost story, told really well.

There's nothing from the 60's, but then we hit T.E.D. Klein and Stephen King from the 70's. I've read a lot of Stephen King, and this selection of 'Night Surf' wasn't vintage King by a long shot. What I liked more was discovering Klein's novella 'The Events at Poroth Farm', about a college lecturer's stay with some folks on a farm in an isolated community in New York state. The lecturer reads a lot of supernatural fiction during his visit, and it was fun to see which books I'd read and which I'd yet to read. Weird things start happening round the farm, and the lecturer does a couple of odd things as well, which aren't explained. It all ends horribly, natch, and I liked how what actually happened wasn't cut and dry. What was the lecturer's role in it all? Did he even have a role? I wasn't sure, but I thought about this story more than any of the others in the collection.

From the 80's there's 'The Late Shift' by Dennis Etchison, 'Vastarien' by the bleak but brilliant Thomas Ligotti, and 'Endless Night' by Karl Edward Wagner, which was not my cup of tea at all. A sequence of dreams and pretentiousness and isn't-life-awful-ness. If you're going to do that, do it with panache like David Lynch.

The 90's brings us 'The Hollow Man' by Norman Partridge, 'Last Calls for the Sons of Shock' by David J. Schow, and 'Demon' by Joyce Carol Oates. 'The Hollow Man' is interesting as it tells the story from the monster's point of view, and offers little hope for the beast's human victims. 'Last Call for the Sons of Shock' didn't have much going for it, just a reunion between Dracula, Frankenstein's Creature, and the Wolfman, as if they were real monsters who'd starred in those old black and white horror films - it was light-hearted and trashy and instantly forgettable.

'Demon' hurries through impressions of a boy's unhappy, bullied life, continuing on into his twenties, and was pretty unsettling.

The last story is 'In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)' by Caitlin R. Kieran from 2000. It's a good one to finish off the collection - while a tunnel is being dug through a mountain to lay water pipes, a paleontologist uses the opportunity to look for fossils. He's shown something disturbing by the workmen in the depths of the caves. The revelation is nothing very original, but it's told in a convincing, well-written style. The 'weird thing' that happens, is vivid and believable, which isn't easy to pull off after the many weird things that have happened in horror stories down the years.

So, a mixed bag, this anthology, whose highlights were the Ambrose Bierce tale from 1891, Shirley Jackson's 1952 'A Visit', T.E.D. Klein's 1972 'The Events at Poroth Farm', 'In the Water Works', and the slick 40's tales from Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber. Ray Bradbury's 'The Fog Horn' was pretty atmospheric too, and August Derleth's 'The Lonesome Place', which seemed to be channelling the beauty/horror of childhood that Bradbury evokes. The older tales (Irving, Hawthorne, Poe), while I'm happy to have read them, didn't have as strong an effect. But it was interesting to see how the horror genre changed over the period covered in the book. From Gothic horror to cosmic horror, then into the mundane urban horror ushered in by Robert Bloch and perfected by Stephen King, American Supernatural Tales was entertaining and showed me writers I hadn't read before.