Thursday, August 7, 2014

Kind Words from David Butler about CHAIN OF EVIL

David Butler, himself the author of multiple horror, sf, and steampunk novels as well as scholarly books on a number of subjects, has written the following about his experience reading Chain of Evil: JournalStone's Guide to Writing Darkness. He has given me permission to repost the comments here.

The book is scheduled for release through JournalStone on August please keep an eye out for it.

Bookshelf: Chain of Evil

ChainI sat down with a .pdf copy of this book, annotation functions turned on, intending to highlight the tidbits I imagined I’d glean from Dr. Collings. Collings is, after all, a master of the horror genre as novelist, as commentator, as poet, and of course as teacher. This is an unusual combination of excellences; I’m working on two short stories in the horror space right now, and I thought I’d winnow out an applicable tip or two.
So now–and I’d show you this, but it would be too much like giving away spoilers–my whole copy is highlighted in yellow. Okay, that’s hyperbole. Really, I’ve only highlighted about a quarter of the text. There were, in fact, one or two things I already knew.
Chain of Evil’s subtitle, Journalstone’s Guide to Writing Darkness, should be understood expansively and taken seriously. This book contains: essays focused on the mechanics of writing, including laser-focused advice on such specific subjects as semicolons, adverbs, and ellipses; meditations on staple motifs of speculative fiction (vampires, werewolves, apocalypses); reflections on reasons to write horror in the first place; analyses connecting horror to pre-modern metaphysics and tracing the changing role of, e.g., ghosts, as things have fallen apart and the center has not held; discussions of horror and Mormons (!); and actual poetry (!!).  And more.
It even, to my surprise and delight, quotes me.
From the perspective of the first step on the journey of reading Chain of Evil, not all of the essay’s titles seem equally promising as tools or lore about “writing darkness”; from the perspective of the end of the road, each essay strikes me as indispensable.  Dr. Collings wants to teach us to write literature that matters, because it grapples with the blackness behind the backs of our eyeballs and in the depths of our hearts, and to do that he sets forth a guide that is purposeful and oriented from the highest perspective, is detailed and tactical in its nuts and bolts specifics, and is replete with concrete examples.
Essential, topical, meaningful, and urgent. If you’re a writer or reader of horror fiction, get this book as soon as you can.

Poster from:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When a SNAFU is Not Such a Bad Thing

SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding
Cohesion Press, 2014

“Military horror.”
The phrase seems almost as tiredly redundant as the time-worn joke about “military intelligence” is oxymoronic. After all, by its nature, the military is expected to deal with horrific things. That is a given.
But when the already difficult and dangerous job of soldiering meets…well, other things, the term “military horror” takes on entirely new meanings.
SNAFU collects seventeen thrillers, tales in which otherwise deadly military operations ramp up even further with the addition of the outré, the mabacre, the unexpected, and whole ranges of things bloody and gruesome. To increase the interest, settings range from 48,000 BC to 50,000 AD; from nineteenth-century India to the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest; from the coast of Japan during World War II to the scene of battle in the Civil War; from San Francisco in the 1960s to Berlin in the…well, you get the idea.
Let’s look briefly at a few of my favorite offerings (although by rights I should list every story in the book):

·         Neal F. Litherland, “Blackwater”: A highly trained unit is sent into the small coastal   village of Fisher’s Cove to rescue a kidnapped woman; when they see an ancient tome with the title The Esoteric Order of Dagon, it is a sign that their task is about to become infinitely more complicated;
·         Christine Morgan, “Little Johnny Jump-Up”: A gentle (if that is the right word) Civil War ghost tale about the eerie relationship between a small boy, accidentally killed in the field, and a 6-pound cannon, and how that relationship impacts each member of the patrol;
·         Brian W. Taylor, “Covert Genesis”: When a C-14 transport is shot down by something, the survivors don’t expect fellow survivors to suddenly undergo changes in eye color and have their skin begin to ripple as if there were something underneath—and even worse, there is;
·         Jonathan Maberry, “Bug Hunt: A Joe Ledger Adventure”: What happens when one extraction team runs afoul of another such team…from somewhere else; an action-adventure tale featuring an already familiar hero and told with Maberry’s customary precision and verve;
·         Weston Ochse, “Cold War Gothic”: On the eve of one of the 20th century’s greatest technological triumphs—the moon landing in 1969—Special Unit 77 combats aliens and supernatural forces in San Franisco…watch out especially for the Box Man (an extended experiment in ick) and the geisha vampires;
·         Curtis C. Chen, “Making Waves”: When a magician teleports aboard an allied submarine off the coast of Japan during World War II, her objective is simple and direct—to awaken the Kraken hidden in the depths and thereby keep the Japanese too busy with defense to mount an offensive; the task becomes more intricate, however, when she discovers that instead of one Kraken, the area harbors two Elder Things;
·         Greig Beck, “The Fossil”: A 100,000 year-long exploration of who—and what—are truly the aliens;
·         Eric S. Brown, “Holding the Line”: In a phrase, prepare for the Sasquatch Apocalypse;
·         Steve Ruthenbeck, “Ptearing All Before Us”: A small troop of infantry, assigned to being critical news to a commanding general during the 19th-century Indian Wars, abruptly encounter a nightmare from the native mythology, and one only is left alive to tell the tale;
·         Kirsten Cross, “A Time of Blood”: Two British soldiers discover what lies beneath the foundations of Stonehenge, and they don’t much like what they find;
·         James A. Moore, “Blank White Page”: Two strangers—one abnormally tall and gaunt, the other lean, continually smiling—ride into Silver Springs, Arizona, at the height of the silver rush; when their individual strangenesses mix with the boomtown atmosphere, the presence of a military detachment, and the arrival of revenge-seeking Apaches, things go south…a long way south, in a real hurry. This one is particularly intriguing for the tone, the dialogue between the two men that is constantly and purposively at odds with what happens around them.

Solid, every one of them.
If I have any objections to the stories, it would be that several just aren’t long enough. They read like chapters; they engage me with fascinating characters—both villains and heroes—follow exciting adventures, then concluded by intimating deeper problems, more dangerous situations…and I want to read more! Seems like a healthy objection to well-imagined tales.
Not one of the stories failed to attract and hold my interest. Not one of them failed to suggest new ways of looking at old monsters, and old ways of looking at new ones. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a collection whose authors  responded to the theme with such wholesale enthusiasm or one that so neatly defined and redefined its title: SNAFU.
Strongly recommended.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Brief Review of THIS DARKNESS LIGHT (August 11, 2014)

This Darkness Light
Michaelbrent Collings
eBook, 11 August 2014

This is the BEST thing he has written yet!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Past into the Present: Joe McKinney’s Zombie Horror

When I was still teaching at Pepperdine University, one of my favorite courses was “Myth, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.” The class read contemporary novels and short fiction, many of them based on time-honored themes and motifs, and discussed ways in which modern writers re-worked and re-shaped the old to make it speak to the new.
One of the more intriguing assignments, I discovered, incorporated film with the written word. During two class periods one semester, we watched the classic 1956 science-fiction film, Forbidden Planet, then spent the next two periods talking about it: its genre-bending influence on films and stories of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond; its power as sheer storytelling; and its relevance to students of the 21st century…for whom Robby the Robot was arguably more familiar than any of the star-level actors involved. We finished on Friday with thoughts about differences we saw between two modes of narrative: writing and film. What could be established in a few seconds on a camera, for example, that might take sentences or even paragraphs to re-create on the page; and what had to be told through objective images in a film that might entail internalized thoughts in a story. On the whole, the students’ responses were intelligent and enjoyable.
Over the weekend, I assigned an additional reading, one that I had not included on the list of required books: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
During the first period the next week, the students were confused and upset and even a bit angry. All right, they conceded, the Shakespeare thing was a fantasy; it had magical creatures and, in fact, a magician. But why did they have to read something that old—and that difficult—for what was supposed to be a general-studies course. Only a handful of the students were English majors, and none of them had encountered The Tempest before, so even they were more or less up in arms.
Instead of trying to mitigate their confusion directly, I asked if they had noted any similarities between Forbidden Planet and The Tempest.
Being a patient teacher and a strong believer in letting thoughts arise on their own timetable, I waited.
More silence.
Then: “Well, isn’t Dr. Morbius sort of like Prospero, you know, alone, with only his daughter and a servant?”
“Yeah, and then people come, and the daughter falls in love, and….”
“And the Monster from the Id, that’s kind of like….”
That was all it took.
By the end of the period, they were deeply into the parallels, some pointing out how having read The Tempest had altered their perceptions of characters and events in Forbidden Planet, other commenting on how smoothly the film translated the play into a form at once recognizable (with a bit of a prod, perhaps) and entertaining.

I thought of that experience again when I read a short story by Joe McKinney, “Resurrecting Mindy,” first published in Undead Tales (2011), edited by Armand Rosamilla, and now being incorporated into a forthcoming volume, Dead World Resurrection: The Collected Zombie Short Stories of Joe McKinney.
As I read the McKinney tale, something kept knocking at the back of my mind. It wasn’t that the tale was familiar, exactly, but there was something about it….
A quick summary: A young man, believing himself the sole survivor of the zombie apocalypse, builds a life alone…until he sees a girl he had once dated, standing amid a horde of zombies. He realizes that she, too, is still alive, that she is a Faker. They meet in his apartment—third floor, safe from zombies—and gradually the story shifts from simply “boy meets girl” to something far deeper, far more insightful, and ultimately far more terrifying than mere zombie-horror. Stimulated by the appearance of another living person, they each begin to re-think and re-define their modes of survival, leading them to opposing but equally distressing crises of faith—in themselves, in the other, in their choice of surviving over accepting. And these lead to more complex and difficult thoughts about relationships, love, life, and death itself.
I won’t give away any more of the story; suffice it to say that McKinney provides twists and turns aplenty, and an ending as horrific in its own way as that of Stephen King’s 1983 Pet Sematary. I will, however, note that about three-quarters of the way through, I finally recognized the fluttering memory that kept trying to insist itself into my consciousness. It had nothing to do with the details of the story, except perhaps that the tale focused on a boy and a girl in an unforgiving world and their struggle to rise above it. No, what I felt more than thought was that the story seemed to be following a deeper, underlying pattern. Most likely, it was McKinney’s use of Christmas-time as a motif that finally did triggered it.
Remember the classic O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905)?
While often considered sentimental and superficial, it has demonstrating a lasting endurance, through frequent adaptations, particularly around Christmas, and equally frequent reprints.
Just as Forbidden Planet took the narrative, thematic, mythic, even certain symbolic patterns of The Tempest and transformed them into one of the first truly science-fiction films, and thus provided form and texture for additional films; so McKenney’s “Resurrecting Mindy” builds on the foundation of “The Gift of the Magi.” And does so without losing its own claim to originality or individuality. What it echoes are the themes, the isolation of characters, the need for each to accommodate a way of living to the other…and the desperate irony of all of this happening in a world in which there is no life, no hope, no love.
If nothing else, reading “Resurrecting Mindy,” with its perhaps not-so-subtle evocation and reversal of Christic themes, of questions of life and death, of skillful manipulation of landscape and season, reinforces one’s sense of McKinney’s artistry in a sub-genre that names itself after the walking dead but, in its best and most effective manifestations, concerns itself almost exclusively about the living. Even knowing—sort of—what must come, the story captivates. It builds upon its predecessor and in doing so elevates both.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monsters: Through a Perspective Glass

At the moment, I am working on an exegetical study of C. S. Lewis’s three space novels, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—none of  which could properly be labeled “horror” stories yet each nonetheless replete with monsters and (at least potential) mayhem. So perhaps they might serve as a starting point for some thoughts about monsters and one of their primary roles in fictions.
Briefly, in Out of the Silent Planet, a philologist, Elwin Ransom, is kidnapped by an evil scientist (possibly a “mad scientist”) and his venal assistant. The two have already traveled by space ship to “Malacandra,” the natives’ name for Mars; and they have been instructed to return and bring another human with them. Assuming the worst, and perhaps judging the Martians by their own predilections, the two conclude that the unlucky third is to be sacrificed to some savage god.
On the way to Mars, Ransom overhears part of a discussion in which one of the two mentions their ulterior purpose in kidnapping Ransom. Apparently the other man, the physicist Weston who had initiated the entire enterprise, warns against what might happen should Ransom tumble to their plans:

“But he can’t find out,” returned Devine. Unless someone is fool enough to tell him. Anyway, even if he suspects, do you think a man like that would have the guts to run away on a strange planet? Without food? Without weapons? You’ll find he’ll eat out of your hand at the first sight of a sorn.” (Ch. 5)

The half-heard conversation continues for several more paragraphs, then Devine closes the door and Ransom hears no more.
But he has already heard enough.
Having just moments before quoted Milton to himself, Ransom continues in that vein: “Out of this heaven, these happy climes, they were presently to descend—into what? Sorns, human sacrifice, loathsome sexless monsters. What was a sorn?” Building on stories by H.G. Wells and others (from the specifics included, possibly Lovecraft or his followers), Ransom begins to speculate about the creatures he must face:

No insect-like, vermiculate or crustacean Abominable, no twitching feelers, rasping wings, slimy coils, curling tentacles, no monstrous union of superhuman intelligence and insatiable cruelty seemed to him anything but likely on an alien world. The sorns would be…would be…he dared not think what the sorns would be. And he was to be given to them…. Given, handed over, offered. He saw in imagination various incompatible monstrosities—bulbous eyes, grinning jaws, horns, stings, mandibles. (Ch. 5)

In a passage magnificent in its ability to elicit terror and horror, Ransom contemplates the essential Otherness of the creatures. Stretching his imagination to its limits, he knows that he cannot begin to fathom the horrors that await him. From that instant on, his journey becomes enmeshed with terror, with fear.
Upon landing on Malacandra/Mars, he realizes that nothing is quite understandable. He does not have the needed matrix of experience and observation to define the shapes he sees, not even the colors that surround him. Only gradually does he decide that certain forms are mountains, that others are vegetation of some sort, that yet others are water. And in that water there are…reflections: “long, streaky, white reflections” of six “spindly and flimsy things.” They are twice the height of humans, elongated because of gravitational differences from Earth, motionless.
They are sorns. And yet, curiously enough, Ransom’s descriptions of what he sees do not jibe at all with what he has feared.
Until they move…and then the terror overcomes whatever rational thought he is capable of. He immediately re-interprets the beings, using such loaded terms as “unnatural,” “long, droopy noses,” “drooping mouths of half-spectral solemnity.”
As his mind makes sense of the alien images before him—whether accurately or not—he races off into the forest.
For the next fifty pages or so he explores the Malacandrian landscape, even meeting a colony of hrossa, vaguely seal-like creatures whose language he learns. He is content to stay with them, but after a horrifying encounter with a sea-monster, he is instructed that he must seek out Augray. When he finally reaches Augray’s Tower he discovers that Augray is…a sorn.
Here the novel makes a sudden shift. That which Ransom has feared is revealed. He now has a framework, a background to understand what he sees and hears, and realizes that he has been entirely mistaken. Where earlier he had considered the sorns ogrelike, he now sees them as “Titans” or “Angels.” Where once “spectral,” now “august.” “So might Parmenides or Confucious look in the eyes of a Cockney schoolboy!” (Ch. 16).The monstrous has passed through the unintelligible and the fearsome to the comprehensible; proximity and understanding allow Ransom to realize the depth of his error…of his lack of human acceptance.
The lesson is half learned. But only half.
Some chapters later, as Ransom meets with a gathering of Malacandrians on a sacred island, he sees a procession approaching. He immediately recognizes four hrossa and two creatures of some known species. Since he has met sorns and hrossa, battled the vicious hnakra, studied the artisanship of the frog-like pfifltriggi, and spoken with the truly august and virtually invisible Oyarsa, he concludes that the strange creatures are merely an as-yet-unseen variant on Martian life. As the group draws nearer, he begins to feel distinctly unease about the two.
They are awkward, thick-limbed, sausage-shaped, cumbersome. Their oddly heavy feet seemed to “press into the ground with unnecessary violence” (Ch. 19). Their faces are lumpy and puckered and bristled. They….
They are humans. Weston and Devine.
For an instant, before his brain sorts what he has seen and attaches meaning to the details, Ransom has seen humanity as the Malacandrians see them. And they are the monsters. They came seeking gold and bringing death. They made no attempt to understand where they were or who/what lived there. Their only purpose was to destroy, to make way for the human species to expand throughout the universe, committing xenocide as need be to clear planets for their own insatiable and unimaginable greed.
In the remainder of the novel, Ransom gradually acclimates to Weston and Devine and—unlike the insane Gulliver at the end of Jonathan Swift’s equally monstrous novel about monsters—accepts the inevitable fact that he is one of them. Given the chance to remain on Malacandra, he declines and chooses instead to return to Earth. The voyage back is controlled entirely by the Oyarsa of Mars, but that does not stop Weston and Devine from treating Ransom as little more than an adjunct to their species; and when the ship threatens to “unbody” at the end of the time specified for the voyage, they disembark, leaving Ransom behind, presumably to die.
The “monsters” in the story—the sorns and all of the other aliens on the distant world—turn out to be models of civility, trust, virtue, honor. The “humans”—excepting Ransom—become the monsters. And this is often how the monstrous functions in fiction. We as writers create entities that readers fear because they act out our fears, our irrational concerns, our disappointment in the monsters that we must live with each day—ourselves and our frail fellow humans.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Thoughts on “Ordain Women” (The Phrase, Not the Organization)

I have a sometimes irritating habit of thinking about words. I like to explore them, inspect their ancestry and occasionally their descendants, prise them apart and see what makes them tick, put them back together and see what has happened during the exploration. And sometimes I find that words simply will not do what we want them to do or what they think they are doing.
Words are funny that way.

Pedantically speaking, any phrase consisting entirely of a verb plus a direct object (with its adjacent modifiers) is a specific sort of sentence: an Imperative. For example: “Make the bed.” Or “Empty the trash.”
Structurally, it contains almost all of the elements of a declarative sentence. While it seems not to have a subject, it does in fact have one—of sorts: the person (in these instances) to whom the sentence is addressed. When I was first learning grammar, that apparently missing person was referred to as “you-understood,” and it was explained that the sentence essentially points a finger, identifying the person, then gives the command or order: “[You], make the bed.”
What is interesting is that the unspoken “you” cannot be simply added to the verb and object without fundamentally altering the structure from an Imperative, with its particular tone and mood, to a Declarative. “You make the bed” describes what someone is doing, present tense; “You, make the bed” defines what that person must do, immediately.
If a mother speaks to a child and says, “Make the bed,” it is generally acceptable; it is well within the normal understanding of mother/child relationships. If the child says the same thing to the mother, however, no matter how gracious in tone, it will probably come across as assumptive and presumptuous. If a father says to a teen-age son, “Empty the trash,” no one has any difficulty in interpreting the words as an order. If, on the other hand, the teen-age son says it to the father, the moment is probably followed by a serious discussion of authority and obedience.
The “V + DO” format is always an Imperative. It cannot be mistaken for a request for discussion, for elucidation of the situation, for further consideration either by the one uttering (or writing) it or by the addressee. It is uni-directional. In speech, power, as it were, flows in one direction only: from the utterer to the hearer…“you.”
In the case of “Ordain Women,” the first word is a verb and the second clearly its direct object, since otherwise a comma would be required and the meaning would be something like, “Go out and ordain, women.” But as it stands, grammatically it relays a command, a demand, an imperative to the addressee, with no options for additional comments included.

Given the situation—those adopting the term and those to whom it is addressed—it seems as if it might not have been the best choice…grammatically speaking.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Suzanne Robb, Z-BOAT, BOOK I--A Solid Introduction to a Complex World

Z-Boat (Z-Boat, Book I)
Suzanne Robb
Permuted Press, March 12, 2014)

Reading Z-Boat is a bit like watching two of my favorite television shows simultaneously.
The first is an oldie-but-goodie series, Mission Impossible (1966-1973). Each episode began roughly the same way: first the baddies would be shown doing bad things for a few scenes. Then James Phelps (played by the inimitable Peter Graves) would shuffle through several pages of file pictures, selecting his crew for the emergency at hand…usually the regular cast. Only then did the primary action of the episode—defeating evil in various inventive, do-not-try-this-at-home-kiddies ways—begin, and from that moment on, no one got a chance to do more than take a quick breath.
The second series is more recent, NCIS, soon to be entering its twelfth season. A couple of years ago, I watched a discussion featuring the cast and producers. The question rose as to how the series managed to maintain its high rating among viewers. One of the staff said that early on in the series, the producers had decided to use more on-set cameras than had yet been used on a weekly television series and cut from one camera to another every five seconds or so. The effect: the sense of non-stop action, even when characters were relatively static: speaking or sharing information.
Blend the two, and you get Z-Boat.
The book begins with crisply written “Chapter One,” in which readers discover that something is horrifically wrong on a deep-sea submarine, although they do not yet know precisely what is wrong or where the submarine is. Then follows “Six Months Later,” as Brian Kingston, captain of the salvage submarine Betty Loo, summons enough sobriety to scan the files of those to accompany him on a secret rescue mission. He does not know exactly who has hired him; there are no nations anymore, only Firms—primarily Russia, Israel, and North Korea. He does not know the name of the submarine he is to locate, nor does he know precisely what he is after, only that he must return with “the item” and, as an afterthought, “survivors, if any.”
Readers next meet each of the various cast members, some belonging to the Betty Loo’s normal crew, others strangers to Kingston and to each other. And each of them has a SECRET. Something so crucial that the characters don’t even think about it until the book is well under way…and the Betty Loo is under weigh.
From that point, the story is non-stop movement, even though—as with NCIS­—many of the scenes are dialogue. But the scenes and the subsequent narration are quick, often truncated, shifting rapidly from one character’s perspective to another’s. Many are told in a single paragraph. The result is that there is a breathless sense of urgency about the story, even though the first half contains little direct action.
Gradually, however, Robb reveals the deepest secret of all. The Peacemaker, designed to find alternative fuel sources and, perhaps most crucially, supplies of non-polluted water to be harvested, desalinated, and sold world-wide, has become infected by a poisonous-green bacterium with unique and terrifying properties. Essentially, it transforms its host organisms into zombies.
Robb mentions zombies in non-threatening contexts, including the declaration that “Zombies aren’t real,” so the revelation that they are real and that they constitute a threat to everyone and everything on earth does not come as a surprise. What does surprise are the ways Robb treats her zombies—yes, they are insatiably hungry for brains, but they also hunger for much, much more. Yes, they shamble at times, but at other times….
Unlike viewers of Misson Impossible or NCIS, readers of Z-Boat do not have the luxury of assuming that the main cast will survive to the end. As the action picks up—as it shifts between the Betty Loo and The Peacemaker 25,000 feet below the surface—not only do readers not know who will survive, they are not even certain who everyone is, who works for whom, who is ally and who is antagonist…and who will become the next victim of the bacterium.
Z-Boat is, as the subtitle indicates, the first in a series that will presumably chronicle the outbreak of zombiism worldwide. It may seem a bit slow at the beginning, primarily because it must establish—quite deftly, as a matter of fact—the context of a world two hundred years beyond our own, with its own political, social, and environmental concerns. But readers willing to go along with that pacing will soon find more action than they counted on.

Monday, June 2, 2014

To Name the Genre

Recently I’ve heard, read, and participated in discussions of what to call this peculiar genre of ours, the one that many readers find so intriguing and exciting. Some aficionados refer to it simply by what many consider its primary component—horror, with (as noted on several panels I have served on) careful emphasis on the final syllable.
The name falls handily on the lips and offers an immediate guideline as to what readers might legitimately expect: blood and gore, the grisly and the gruesome, mayhem and monsters of all ilk. The name—along with the almost mandatory black cover—provides book sellers and book buyers a recognizable kind, directing both to the appropriate shelf, usually in the nether reaches of the store. On the whole, it serves as a handy moniker.
In some ways, though, horror seems a misnomer, a simplistic way to describe a complex kind of writing. If one were to state that Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert McCammon’s Stinger is horror, such a contention would be only partially true of those novels and would leave out hundreds of novels that do not resemble those two at all yet are demonstrably horrific.
Certainly alternative terms exist: dark fantasy, which I used frequently when addressing academic audiences that might have automatically bristled at the mention of horror; speculative fiction, which would undeniably include horror but which would also include much more; dark speculative fiction, which seems more to point out the difficulties in naming than resolve any of them; dark fiction, which would again include more than is conventionally intended by horror. Additional possibilities might include supernatural fiction, weird fiction, monster fiction, slasher fiction, and the cumbersome all-in-one of dark psychological suspense thriller. None of them define precisely the same approach to writing, and none of them quite work as a comprehensive identifier for this particular brand of writing. But then, apparently, neither does horror.
Using that single term as an umbrella label for such widely divergent novels as Stoker’s Dracula and Jeff Strand’s A Bad Day for Voodoo would be roughly equivalent to re-thinking The Lord of the Rings and simply calling it Frodo. Frodo is central to the key action, the destruction of the ring of power; and he does appear in a number of episodes, perhaps more than any other character. But as important as he is, his personal story cannot encompass the complexity of the whole. He does not destroy the ring, although he makes its destruction possible; he does not restore kingship to Middle Earth, although he does facilitate that restoration; he cannot fully redeem the Shire for himself after Sharkey’s depredations, although he makes possible Sam’s fulfillment as husband and father.
Similarly, to call a novel horror and expect it to provide horrors on every page would be like calling a play a tragedy  and expecting the emotional intensity implicit in the term to show up in every line, every scene. Such a compression of powerful feelings would simply be too much; no audience would be able to endure it. Shakespeare was well aware of the unviability of constant, uninterrupted tragic power and consistently provided comic undercurrents to alleviate the strain...and paradoxically make the catastrophe that much more compelling, that much more  cathartic.  Hamlet without the grave-digger scene (as it is so frequently produced nowadays) becomes merely a litany of death without providing Hamlet the opportunity to first reconcile himself to its inevitability. Macbeth without the porter and his incessant “Knock! Knock! Knock!” devolves into a chaos of murder.
For all of these reasons—and no doubt more—a number of “horror” writers have chosen to set aside horror in favor of yet another alternative, referring to their works as cross-generic fiction.
The first time I heard the term was during a conversation with Dean Koontz some twenty years ago. He had graciously agreed to speak to one of my classes at Pepperdine, and afterward we talked at length about him, his writing career, and his books. I had brought along several for him to autograph and, when I opened Phantoms (1983) to the title page, he tapped it and told me that that one had been his “break-away book.” When I asked what he meant by that, he began discussing it, not as a horror novel but as his first conscious effort to mix and merge genres.
In a new afterword to Phantoms, he writes at length about precisely what he meant by that and how the novel affected his career: “Writing Phantoms was one of the ten biggest mistakes of my life, ranking directly above the incident with the angry porcupine and the clown, about which I intend to say nothing more.” The mistake, he continues, lies in the fact that that novel, more than any previous one, earned for him the label of “‘horror writer,’ which I never wanted, never embraced, and have ever since sought to shed.”
More to the point, he says:

I believe, however, that 95 percent of my work is anything but horror. I am a suspense writer. I am a novelist. I write love stories now and then, sometimes humorous fiction, sometimes tales of adventure, sometimes all those things between the covers of a single volume. But Phantoms fixed me with a spooky-guy label as surely as if it had been stitched to my forehead by a highly skilled and diligent member of the United Garment Workers union—making a far better wage than that poor bastard crocheting license-plate cozies.

Because his previous novel, Whispers (1981), had been marketed as horror and had been a marked success, his publishers pressured him to produce another in the same mold:

     I thought I would cleverly evade their horror-or-starve ultimatum by making Phantoms something of a tour de force, rolling virtually all the monsters of the genre into one beast, and also by providing a credible, scientific explanation for the creature’s existence…. Phantoms would be a horror story, yes, but it would also be science fiction, an adventure tale, a wild mystery story, and an exploration of the nature and source of myth.

Phantoms does in fact provide a paradigm for cross-generic fiction:

·         It has a monster; therefore it is horror;
·         It has a developing relationship between two characters; therefore it is a romance;
·         It looks directly to the past for information and themes; therefore it is historical;
·         It has a lawman pursuing an evil-doer; therefore it is a police procedural;
·         It has several chases, an apparent burglar, and missing jewels; therefore it is a thriller;
·         It has a moment of hesitation before the monster is defeated—will it win or will it die?—and therefore the novel is suspense;
·         It has a murderer and a victim; therefore it is a murder mystery;
·         It has a scientist equipped with the latest cutting-edge apparatuses nudged slightly into the future; therefore it is science fiction;
·         It has characters following clues to discover the underlying causes of an event; therefore it is detective fiction;
·         It has a distinctive landscape, one recognizable to anyone familiar with the general area; therefore it is regional fiction;
·         It deals with the disintegrating mental state of several characters; therefore it is psychological fiction;
·         It persistently ties the story to contemporary life; therefore it is realistic fiction;
·         It speaks of and through a sentience beyond human understanding; therefore it is a story about aliens, i.e., again science fiction;
·         It points out occasions when the creature has interacted with humanity throughout history, imprinting itself on human memory as eternal and immortal and simultaneously sifting through human memory to find appropriate guises in which to appear; therefore it is mythic;
·         It deals with characters that become larger than life and an enemy that potentially threatens the existence of all humanity; therefore it partakes of the epic;
·         It has a dog in it (what self-respecting Dean Koontz novel doesn’t?); therefore it is dog fiction;
·         It deals in philosophical abstracts; therefore it is philosophical fiction;
·         It covertly affirms the existence of the Devil, and thereby of God; therefore it is theological fiction.

And on. And on.
Of course, much of what I just listed is intended to be taken at least partially as tongue-in-cheek. Each item is a single element in a long, coherent, unified novel; and none—including horror—deserves to be elevated into the sine qua non of the story. To do so would result in a much narrower book, in several cases something along the lines of a novella or a short story. No single item could control the story without much of importance being lost.
Yet to remove anything from the list would also lessen the novel. Phantoms is an enduring story—as well as a bestseller—precisely because Koontz took great care to include as many audiences as possible. Those readers approaching it looking for horror will be gruesomely pleased by graphic, nauseating, gooshy details in passages such as the following:

Blisters formed, swelled, popped; ugly sores broke open and wept a watery yellow fluid. Within only a few seconds, at least a ton of the amorphous flesh had spewed out of the whole….The great oozing mass lapped across the rubble, formed pseudopods—shapeless, flailing arms—that rose into the air but quickly fell back in foaming spasming seizures. And then, from still other holes, there came a ghastly sound: the voices of a thousand men, women, children, and animals, all crying out in pain, horror, and bleak despair.

For those less interested in the visceral, there is the intellectual excitement as the characters systematically anatomize their enemy—literally and figuratively—struggling to place it within some knowable taxonomy of creatures. For others, there is a marriage and honeymoon at the end, and the promise of a restored family unit.
In short, there is something for everything…for every reader, for every interest.
That is, I think, one of the strengths of Dean Koontz’ stories…and of King’s, and McCammons’, and great numbers of books by a great number of writers who are usually passed off as simply writing horror. By themselves, horror motifs may not be strong enough to carry the weight of a novel. Joined with elements of other kinds of fiction, horror becomes part of a deeper, richer texture that, by means of monsters-as-metaphors and horrors-as-emblems, come to reflect the parallel depth and richness of human experience.
Yet cross-generic fiction itself fails to encapsulate the essence of a kind of story telling that does have as its ultimate aim a physiological reaction, a frisson along the spine, a coldness in the blood, a hesitance to turn the lights off after reading late at night. Perhaps the term is too clinical, too objective to direct attention to one of the most passionate and in many ways the most subjective modes of storytelling. It almost demands an intellectualization that monster stories struggle to subjugate to visceral responses.
Is the term horror the best possible label. Perhaps not. Is it the most appropriate, given the alternatives? Perhaps not. But I think that until someone invents a shorter, crisper, more convenient and more appropriate label than cross-generic fiction, one that will indicate a similar interest in storytelling from numerous perspectives that still has the possibility to chill, it may have to serve by default.

[This essay was recently published in Dark Discoveries 27 (Spring 2014). Please look at the issue for more fascinating insights into horror and its practitioners.]

Thursday, May 22, 2014

David Barker and W. H. Pugmire, THE REVENANT OF REBECCA PASCAL

The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal
David Barker and W. H. Pugmire
Dark Renaissance Books,  June 2014
Trade paperback, 130 pp., $16.99

Reading The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal is rather like reading a long-time favorite H. P. Lovecraft Arkham story again for the first time. Everything in the pastiche fits: eerie landscape; odd, idiosyncratic, and distinctly weird characters; eldritch events (to borrow Lovecraft’s term, often overused but here precise and apt); carefully modulated and almost flawlessly executed tone.
The plot—as with so many of Lovecraft’s stories—is simple. Richard Pascal has taken possession of an Arkham mansion once occupied by his eccentric poet/actress aunt, Rebecca. He is satisfied to sit around in a rather desultory retirement, reading in her huge collection of books and visiting local hangouts, especially the Desolate Café. Students from Miskatonic University—and occasionally members of a notorious witch cult—gather there to read their poetry, and one evening, Richard hears some startling verses from an apparently homeless woman, Julia Spenser.
After a series of outré events, including nighttime visits to Hangman’s Hill, frighteningly prophetic dreams, and encounters with a would-be book buyer obsessed with locating Rebecca’s rumored cache of occult books, Richard discovers a secret room filled with ancient tomes and, as he tries to make sense of them, opens the way for the spirit of his dead aunt to possess Julia Spenser. The revenant Rebecca takes up residence in the old mansion and, in true Lovecraftian style, begins maneuvering for the return of a long-exiled elder god, in this case Kamog.
What makes The Revenant enjoyable is the sheer energy the authors bring to re-creating the rhythms and cadences of Lovecraft’s quasi-eighteenth-century prose, complete with long, complex sentences and abstruse vocabulary which, upon consideration and sometimes investigation, turn out to be exactly right. They gather an estimable congregation of favorite old families—especially the Waites and the Derbys, with a cameo by a painting from Richard Upton Pickman—then allow them to penetrate further and further into cosmic darkness until they all arrive at an apocalyptic conclusion.

A fairly quick read at 130 pages, and accented with ghostly, haunting color illustrations by Erin Wells, The Revenant is worth a visit…just don’t try to stay there very long.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Scott Kenemore--ZOMBIE, INDIANA: Mostly Living, Only Slightly UnDead

Zombie, Indiana: A Novel
Scott Kenemore
Talos Press, 2014
Trade paperback, 368 pp., $15.99

Scott Kenemore’s Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undead appeared in 2011, followed a year later by Zombie, Illinois: A Novel. Now, after a two-year hiatus, comes the third in the series, Zombie, Indiana, in which an outbreak of zombiism threatens to disrupt, if not destroy, life in southern Indiana.
Kenemore approaches the undead from an appropriate direction in this latest installment. That is, the novel has zombies but is not about zombies. They are among the least interesting of horror creatures for me, largely because I find it difficult to empathize with or become otherwise emotionally interested in characters who have no chance of changing. (One reason I found Patrick Freivald’s Twice Shy and Special Dead delightful was that he understood this likelihood and restructured his zombies accordingly.) Such intrusions among the living and the lively function best as backdrops, as in Joe McKinney’s remarkable Texas-based stories, in which zombies are often essentially just the latest in a series of natural disasters to be survived. And, indeed, when Kenemore’s zombies arrive in full numbers and menace Indianapolis, they are quite legitimately treated as the equivalent of such a disaster, described in terms reminiscent of floods and suggesting the total destructive power of massive mud slides or torrential rains.
The true characters in the novel—the ones the reader feels justified in investing in—are all-too-living and all-too-human. When the daughter of Indiana’s governor goes missing during a school outing in a cave complex several hours from Indianapolis, the governor sends in his own pet policeman, six-foot-nine Special Sergeant James Nolan to find her. As the novel progresses, Nolan withstands attacks by underwater zombies; negotiates a warren of caverns and tunnels in the dark, accompanied by possibly the only survivor of an earlier attack, Keesha Washington; outshoots hordes of lawless “normals” taking advantage of the sudden lack of law enforcement; locates Keesha’s father, who has set out to kill Governor Burleson for reasons of his own; discovers the apparent reason for the zombie incursion and the identity of those behind it; and returns to Indianapolis in company with a motorcycle gang to galvanize mobs of terrified civilians against the oncoming zombie hordes.
Along the way, Kenemore spends a good deal of time exploring the backgrounds of Nolan, Keesha, Governor Burleson, and Madison Burleson, each of whom harbors secrets that transcend the zombie menace and threaten life, civility, and stability in Indiana—no one knows for most of the novel whether the undead have attacked elsewhere yet.
There are some interesting twists. The zombies are apparently quite weak, incapable of battling their way out of caskets; so most of them rise from shallow, illicit graves where bodies have been hidden by murderers, kidnappers, mobsters, and others interested in secret burials. And apparently, there are a lot of such burials in Indiana, given the numbers of zombies that appear—many of them, curiously enough, in a large golf course. So when the police decide in their great wisdom to apportion much of their strength to patrolling cemeteries, they find that they have no one left to fight the zombies.
Most intriguing of all is the personality of Governor Burleson. He is publicly dedicated to his state, since privately it is his stepping-stone to his ultimate goal, the White House. He has made it the most business-friendly state in the Union by reducing restrictions on businesses, giving them free hand in polluting the soil, the water, and the air. He is secretly allied with “BP,” the largest oil company in the state; and because of that connection he adamantly refuses to call for federal help—the dreaded “F-word”—in dealing with the outbreak. Even at the ostensible last moment.
And here is where Zombie, Indiana, loses some of its power. As well-written and as smoothly narrated as it is, it stumbles in its conclusion. Throughout, the text throws out hints as to what—and who—might be responsible for the zombies. Everything up until the final pages suggests that James Nolan, Madison Burleson, and Keesha Washington somehow hold the key to understanding and stopping the zombie plague.
Then, ten pages or so from the end, a miracle happens—a literal deus ex machina appears to save Indianapolis; Governor Burleson is revealed as the lying, deceitful politician that he is; Nolan is relieved of a tremendous burden that he has been bearing for years; all secrets are exposed, the most important by a character entirely new to the story; and everything the reader assumes about the zombie invasion turns out to be wrong.
There is nothing devastating about all of the revelations; they simply need more time, more page-space, to be integrated more seamlessly into the novel. And they don’t receive it.
On the whole, Zombie, Indiana, is by and large well-enough told and a fun action-adventure novel that basically doesn’t need zombies for most of its narrative to hold together. It is fundamentally a political satire, a mystery, a chase-thriller, a mild environ mentalist screed that…oh, yes…also has zombies.