The American School - The Contemporary Era - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The American School
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

John Shirley (b. 1953) has been publishing horror novels since 1979, but he attained widespread notice only with Wetbones (1991). And yet, it is not clear that this gruesome work—which might well be considered a contribution to the short-lived splatterpunk movement—represents him to best advantage. We are here concerned with a serial killer, Ephram Pixie, who appears to be able to control his victims with his mind. A teenager, Constance Garner, falls under his spell and kills strangers while having sex with them. Eventually we learn that a group of entities called the Akishra, who have the unique ability of using other people’s brains for their own pleasure; they are, it would seem, responsible for all addictions: “The addict, see, is losing life-force. He’s basically using up his life energy on his addiction—little bit by little bit. The Akishra suck off that run-off” (273). And yet, these seemingly powerful creatures are, in an action-packed ending right out of bestsellerdom, banished to the astral realm by an electrical fire.

Wetbones is by no means the pinnacle of Shirley’s output. Far superior are such items as the novella Demons (2000; expanded into a novel in 2002), about demons taking over the Earth, and Crawlers (2003), a searing portrayal of decadent youth culture. And yet, Shirley’s best work—work that exhibits his vibrant prose, his daring themes, and his challenge to conventional morality—may be found in his short stories, collected in The Exploded Heart (1996), Darkness Divided (2001), and several other volumes.

Kathe Koja (b. 1960) made a remarkable debut with The Cipher (1991). The premise of this novel seems absurd—in the basement of a run-down apartment building is a seemingly limitless black hole, nicknamed the Funhole by the tenants, that produces bizarre effects on those who come close to it—but Koja’s exquisitely modulated, prose-poetic prose makes the conception terrifyingly real. The weirdness quotient increases in excruciatingly subtle increments: a mouse lowered over the hole is shot back up, strangely distorted; a severed hand that is thrown into the hole crawls out of it. The driving force behind the exploration of the Funhole is a young woman, Nakota, whose compulsion is initially abetted by the first-person narrator, her sometime lover Nicholas Reid. On one occasion, Nicholas inadvertently inserts his arm into the Funhole, after which his entire body begins mutating hideously. Nicholas realises that the Funhole, whatever it may be, is monstrous and dangerous, and strives to keep others away from it; Nakota (who “had always considered herself the uncrowned queen of the bizarre” [318]), infuriated by Nicholas’s actions, forces her away into the basement room, with loathsome consequences.

The Cipher is a gripping novel of obsession—in particular, the obsession for weirdness as exhibited by Nakota, perhaps as an antidote to the emptiness of her life—and is written with an intoxicating mix of metaphor-laden prose-poetry and contemporary slang. It remains one of the finest weird novels of the past twenty years. Koja has not been able to duplicate the success of The Cipher in subsequent novels, many of which are written for young adults.

Bentley Little (b. 1960) attained celebrity with The Ignored (1997). This novel focuses on one Bob Jones, whose plain name signals the underlying thrust of the novel: he comes to realise that “I am completely and totally ordinary” (70), with the result that he is not only estranged from his lover, Jane, but, when he takes to performing small acts of sabotage at his “mind-numbingly boring” (39) job, finds that no one notices them—or him. It turns out that he is one of a growing cadre of the Ignored: “I was a product of the mass media standardization of culture, my thoughts and tastes and feelings shaped and determined by the same influeces that were acting upon everyone else of my generation” (138). He, along with others, becomes a “Terrorist for the Common Man” (164).

It is not clear that this idea, elementary and even superficial as it is, is a sound basis for a very long novel, especially as it veers increasingly into the implausible, as when a band of the Ignored attack the White House with tanks and weapons. Charles Beaumont wisely restricted the idea to a short story, “The Vanishing American,” whose sociological import is undiminished by the implausibilities of Little’s novel. But Little has gone on to do better work, such as Houses (1997), a clever riff on the haunted house motif.

Brian Hodge (b. 1960) established his reputation in the 1990s with a succession of short stories—collected in The Convulsion Factory (1996), Falling Idols (1998), and Lies & Ugliness (2002)—that fused raw sexuality, urban horror, and supernaturalism into a distinctive mix. Many of these stories are, however, a trifle obscure, including his most celebrated tale, “Cancer Causes Rats” (1991). Here a serial rapist/murderer approaches an attractive female television reporter to tell his side of the story. He had come up with the view that, just as the widespread prevalence of cancer causes more and more scientists to experiment with rats, thereby increasing the rat population, so do reporters need murderers like him to maintain their careers. In the end, the murderer escapes from jail and inspires a copycat killer; thereby—in his mind—he has mutated from being a rat to being a cancer. Other tales—many of them written for the Hot Blood series of sex/horror anthologies edited by Jeff Gelb and Michael Garrett—are still less comprehensible than this specimen.

Hodge actually began publishing novels in the late 1980s, but they failed to attract much notice. The Darker Saints (1993) seems representative of his early novelistic work in its chaotic fusion of voodoo, zombies, and modern advertising, with a New Orleans setting. The novel—similar, but inferior, to William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (1978)—was clearly written with the hope of bestsellerdom, but, alas, the horror boom was over, so it sold only moderately. But Hodge has continued doggedly to write horror novels and short stories, although several of his novels are non-supernatural tales of crime and suspense.

Douglas Clegg (b. 1958) is one of the few writers to have established himself in the 1990s, with a succession of novels that use relatively conventional supernatural motifs but are highlighted by deft construction and an ability to draw character and portray human relationships effectively. The Halloween Man (1998) is one of his more successful novels. The convoluted plot ultimately resolves into the conundrum of what kind of creature may be harboured in the chapel of a wealthy family’s home in Connecticut; but along the way, we are treated to plangent depictions of young love and the tragedy of early death. His short fiction has been collected in The Nightmare Chronicles (1999) and other volumes.

It is difficult to difficult to discuss the work of Steve Rasnic Tem (b. 1950) and his wife, Melanie Tem (b. 1949) in short compass—not because they are, individually and collectively, notably prolific, but because the depth and richness of their work defies concise exposition. Melanie Tem has made her reputation largely on such novels as Prodigal (1991), Wilding (1992), and Revenant (1994), which are distinguished not so much for their supernatural scenarios (they involve the usual array of ghosts, vampires, revenants, and human beings with extraordinary powers), but for the delicacy and keenness of the character portrayal. Steve Rasnic Tem has largely become known for his meticulously crafted short stories, although Melanie Tem’s short stories are also a notable part of their work.

Unlike C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, it appears that there is a reasonably clear distinction between works by the Tems published under own names and works that bear both their bylines. The latter were collected in In Concert (2010), and it contains such jewels as “Resettling” (1989), an atmospheric haunted house tale that is simultaneously a poignant tale of marital discord; “This Icy Region My Heart Encircles” (1991), a moving tale of the aged Mary Shelley and all the ghosts of the people who have died around her; “Safe at Home” (1993), a searing tale of the psychological devastation of a woman who was sexually abused by her uncle; “The Marriage” (1994), about a vampire who thrives on human emotion; and “Mama” (1995), a haunting account of a teenage girl whose mother dies but returns from the dead.

Then there is the utterly unclassifiable The Man on the Ceiling (2008), a book-length work expanded from a novelette of the same title. Featuring the recurring refrain “Everything we’re about to tell you here is true,” this meandering but exquisitely written work—alternating between first-person and third-person narrative, with each author’s identity detectable (if at all) only by context—is something of an imaginative autobiography, as the authors admit: “This memoir … is as much a biography of one family’s imagination as a chronicle of real life events” (10). The courage of the Tems’ revelations of their personal life—they have adopted five children, one of whom, nine-year-old Anthony, hangaed himself, whether by accident or design—is matched by the sensitivity of their revelations of their own goals and motives for writing: “We tell each other fearful stories. Not to banish or deny or even calm the fear, but to give it form, to call it out and make its acquaintance” (248).

The distinguished work of Norman Partridge (b. 1958) also deserves far more space than I can devote to it here. His first novel, Slippin’ into Darkness (1993), ranks high among weird novels of the past twenty years, even though it entirely eschews the supernatural. But it creates an illusion of the supernatural by the ghostly hovering of April Destino—a young woman who, gang-raped in high school, descends into prostitution and ultimately kills herself—over the entire scenario. She is already dead when the novel opens, but she is nevertheless the central character in the book, the character against whom each of the vividly realised figures—the four high-school jocks who raped her, the black man who filmed the rape and who becomes a shabby producer of child pornography films, the woman who was April’s best friend in school but who betrayed her through jealousy—must define themselves.

This tour de force of a novel, whose entire surface action occupies exactly one day but whose flashbacks skilfully paint an affecting picture of high school life, is a relentless psychological portrait of people who showed youthful promise but have lapsed into mediocrity, amoral criminality, and humiliating failure. As horrible as the rape of April Destino and her subsequent suicide are, the true horror of Slippin’ into Darkness is the horror of wasted lives and futile violence.

The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists (2001) is a substantial collection of Partridge’s short stories and supplies a good an introduction to the many virtues and few deficiencies of his work. In his engaging and illuminating introduction, Partridge—a Northern Californian by lifelong residence—makes an unashamed confession of the significant influence of horror films (many of which he initially saw at a drive-in theatre near his home) upon his work. It is quickly evident that these films have left a decided impress upon Partridge’s work. The tales in this volume are replete with these standard creatures: vampires in “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu,” werewolves in “The Pack,” and zombies in “In Beauty, Like the Night,” a tale that (aside from the fact that these zombies are otherwise lovely supermodels) manifestly betrays the influence of The Night of the Living Dead, the film that had the greatest impact on the young Partridge’s imagination. Nor is Partridge particularly concerned with providing a plausible rationale—or, indeed, any rationale at all—for the existence of these redoubtable entities. This is because the true merit of his work lies not in its conception but in its execution and style. His prose does not quite reach the gonzo pyrotechnics of a David J. Schow, although it is heading in that direction; but its hard, chiselled tensity and its rugged, slashing beauty are what carries the reader along in spite of the occasional mundanity of the root idea.

But Partridge does occasionally expend his imagination into his monsters as well as his prose. “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse” features (aside from a coyote-lycanthrope that seems thrown in rather haphazardly into an otherwise predominantly crime/suspense narrative) a character who wears boots made of live bats. “The Hollow Man,” if I understand it correctly, is an atmospheric tale narrated in the first person by a Wendigo.

The tales alternate between supernaturalism and non-supernaturalism, the latter perhaps slightly in the majority. In my opinion Partridge works best in the non-supernatural vein (as he did in Slippin’ into Darkness), although one clever story, “Coyotes,” begins as an apparently routine tale of sadism and verges suddenly off into the supernatural at the end. “Minutes,” “Last Kiss,” and “Red Right Hand” are only a few of Partridge’s triumphs of suspense and psychological terror. It is here that his noir prose finds its perfect match in the scenario he has orchestrated. His story construction frequently features a fragmented narration that can be highly effective, but on occasion produces obscurity and confusion. I am not ashamed to confess that in several stories I am quite unable to ascertain what has actually happened. Every sentence is jewelled, but the overall effect is opaque even on the level of the surface plot.

A later collection, Lesser Demons (2010), displays Partridge’s skill both at supernatural horror (the werewolf story “Road Dogs”; the stylish Lovecraftian tale “Lesser Demons”) and non-supernatural horror (the poignant “And What Did You See in the World?”). Norman Partridge has such a wealth of talent—a prose style of wondrous luminosity and grace; a narrative drive that carries the reader inexorably to the spectacular climax; an ability to convey violence and gruesomeness without the least suggestion of crudity or exploitation; and an imagination that opens new worlds to all who venture within his realm—that it will be engaging to chart his course in the future.

The one writer of genuine merit who has emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century is Laird Barron (b. 1970). On the basis of only three published books, Barron has established an enviable reputation as one of the cutting-edge writers in our field. He has some similarities with Caitlín R. Kiernan, notably in the verve and panache of his prose, in the firm backbone of science that underpins much of his work, and in an engaging melding of genres (chiefly those of science fiction, hard-boiled crime fiction, and espionage with supernatural horror) that produces atmospheric effects that he already seems to have patented.

There is some difficulty in discussing Barron, because he is a writer of such immense talent that criticising him seems almost an impertinence; but, although the overall distinction of his first story collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (2007), is not in doubt, there are more than a few drawbacks to the nine long stories in the volume. His first published work, “Shiva, Open Your Eyes” (2001), is a meandering, confusing story full of “fine writing” but little coherence of thought. In many of his early tales one gets the sense of an accomplished virtuoso indulging in stylish improvisations that fail to cohere; Poe’s “unity of effect” seems woefully lacking in many of these narratives.

Consider “Hallucigenia” (2006). What we have at the outset is the tale of Wallace Smith and his wife, Helen, both of whom are apparently kicked by a horse under strange circumstances, with Helen suffering brain damage and Wallace hallucinations. But then the tale veers off into the account of the original owners of the property, especially one Kaleb Choate, who wanted to “accelerate his own genetic evolution” (163) and had also somehow “bored a hole through space and crawled through” (163). But the overall development of the scenario is far from clear.

Barron’s besetting sin of throwing out too many plot threads is evident even in the most accomplished story in his first collection, “The Imago Sequence” (2005). The tale begins compellingly with the idea that a triptych of photographs taken by one Maurice Ammon, and which he calls The Imago Sequence, depicts a hominid unknown to evolution. But this promising beginning is overlayered with so many other ideas, interesting as they are, that the overall focus of the narrative becomes obscured.

Barron remedied many of these flaws in his second collection, Occutation and Other Stories (2010). There are, to be sure, tales here that fail to cohere, such as “The Forest” (2007), apparently about insects taking over the earth after the human race dies out; and the oddly titled “—30—” (2010), which, insofar as any sense can be made of the plot, deals with a series of killings in the Southwest that may or may not have a supernatural cause. But on the other hand we have such gems as “Occultation” (2008), a hypnotic story in which the various phenomena that frighten a young couple heavily engaged in drinking and drug-taking may be real or may be imaginary; “The Lagerstätte” (2008), a plangent tale of loss that poses the provocative theory that “there exists a certain quality of grief, so utterly profound, so tragically pure, that it resounds and resonates above and below” (58); and “Six Six Six” (2010), an effective tale of a Satanist family, told almost entirely in dialogue.

Not quite as successful is “Mysterium Tremendum” (2010), in which a quartet of gay men find a mysterious guidebook to weird places in Washington State (Barron regrettably comes up with a hideously bad Latin title, Moderor de Caliginis, which he purports to translate as Black Guide) that leads them to a dolmen that shouldn’t exist. This dolmen is the gateway to a realm of unthinkable mystery and terror.

The best story in Occultation would appear to be “The Broadsword” (2010), which is noteworthy not only for its setting—a dubious hotel in Olympia, Washington—but for its keen portrayal of a man, Pershing Dennard, who is haunted by the loss and apparent death of a coworker, Terry Walker, in a forest in the Olympic Peninsula. Increasingly bizarre incidents occur in the hotel, leading to the staggering idea that Walker is part of a vanguard of a race of creatures that feed, literally and spiritually, on the human race. The depiction of a torture session undergone by Dennard exhibits the rich texture of Barron’s prose:

An eternal purple-black night ruled the fleshy coomb of an alien realm. Gargantuan tendrils slithered in the dark, coiling and uncoiling, and the denizens of the underworld arrived in an interminable procession through vermiculate tubes and tunnels, and gathered chuckling and sighing, in appreciation of his agonies. In the great and abiding darkness, a sea of dead white faces brightened and glimmered like porcelain masks at a grotesque ball. He couldn’t discern their forms, only the luminescent faces, their plastic, drooling joy. (186—87)

Barron’s separately published novella The Light Is the Darkness (2011) is a gonzo extravaganza that exhibits to the full his mingling of genres. Beginning as a tale of a modern-day gladiator, Conrad Navarro, who is searching for his sister, Imogene (an FBI special agent), who may have been captured or killed by a Dr. Ambrose Drake, an old Nazi, the narrative metamorphoses into the supernatural by its suggestion that Drake and others are on a quest for eternal life. Conrad himself appears to metamorphose into a kind of superman figure.

Barron’s long-awaited first novel, The Croning (2012), fully justifies his high standing in the realm of supernatural fiction. A complex tale of the long life of a scientific couple, Donald (a geologist) and Michelle (an anthropologist) Miller, the novel ranges over several continents and decades in depicting Michelle’s search for the “little people.” These hints of Arthur Machen (and, later, of H. P. Lovecraft) lead to a grippingly apocalyptic climactic scene that involves the revelation of the existence of an extraterrestrial race of creatures called the Dark Ones whose ultimate designs for the human race are too appalling to contemplate.

Another writer who has made some noise in the present century is Joe Hill (b. 1972). It was a poorly kept secret that Hill is the son of Stephen King (he was born Joseph Hillstrom King), although Hill himself appears to have played no role in the “outing” of his identity. But the acclaim he has received on the basis of a very slim body of work is more than puzzling. There is no question that he has some talent as a writer, but he is not nearly as good as his supporters seem to fancy. His prose, although far from distinguished, is substantially superior to that of his father; but whereas Stephen King glories in the sermo vulgaris, Joe Hill’s style occasionally tends dangerously toward that of the Iowa Writers Workshop school of fussy, self-conscious prose.

There are, however, serious questions as to his skill in the manipulation of horrific or supernatural tropes. In my mind there is not a single wholly satisfactory story in his first collection, 20th Century Ghosts (2005), and many of its difficulties rest upon Hill’s clumsiness in the use of the supernatural. Consider two stories, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” (2004), a lame updating of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a teenage boy named Francis Kay (get it?) turns into a giant cockroach; and “The Cape” (2005), in which a young boy finds that he can fly (or, more properly, float) when wearing a much-beloved cape. Stories of this type, where the supernatural manifestation is so obviously preposterous, can only work if some symbolic or metaphorical element is superimposed on the narrative. But instead, the former tale merely revels in a certain amount of repulsive physical horror, and in the second the protagonist takes his ex-girlfriend on a flight through the air, only to drop her, presumably out of vengeance for dumping him. What symbolism are we to read here?—a regression to childhood?

Other stories are beset with other difficulties. “20th Century Ghost” (2002), about the ghost of a young woman and her decades-long effect on the owner of the movie theatre she haunts, is full of exactly the sort of smarmy sentimentality that condemns so much of Stephen King’s work. “Abraham’s Boys” (2004) could have been an effective story of how Abraham Van Helsing has become a paranoid psychotic in his fears of vampires if it were not spoiled by a corny suggestion that he himself is a vampire. “The Black Phone” (2004) grimly depicts a teenage boy kidnapped by a serial killer—but, in another descent into contrived sentimentality, the boy is saved when the ghost of a previous victim calls him on a non-working phone and advises him how to escape the killer’s clutches. “Voluntary Committal” (2005) is a novella in which a mentally disturbed boy constructs a complicated structure out of boxes that somehow swallows up a friend of his brother and then, years later, himself.

Hill’s tales of non-supernatural horror are somewhat better but also flawed. “Best New Horror” (2005) tells of an anthologist seeking to track down the author of a gruesome serial-killer tale, but lapses into predictability when it is revealed that the author and his family are themselves deranged. “In the Rundown” (2005) is a straight crime story in which a young man tries to help a woman who may or may not have injured her infant son; but Hill does not provide sufficient clues as to whether the man himself may be blamed for the incident, and the tale ends inconclusively and anticlimatically.

Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box (2007), has an intriguing premise but is poorly executed. A woman, Jessica Price, tricks the ageing rock star Judas Coyne into purchasing a ghost—by means of a suit worn by her dead stepfather, Craddock McDermott. She does so because she blames Judas for causing her sister Anna’s death, apparently by suicide. Sure enough, almost immediately upon Judas’s receipt of the suit the ghost of Craddock appears. He is an unusually limber ghost, for at one point he gets into a pickup truck and chases Judas and his young girlfriend Georgia for hundreds of miles down I-95! It would be profitless to follow all the ins and outs of this ridiculous narrative; suffice it to say that in the end we learn that Craddock had molested both Anna and Jessica and caused Anna’s death when she threatened to inform the police of his actions.

Heart-Shaped Box is written in curiously flat, affectless prose that does little to enliven the characters or the overall scenario. We get plenty of information on Judas, his relations with Anna (they had lived together for less than a year), the deaths (usually by suicide) of other members of his band, his difficult relations with his father, and so forth; but they fail to make Judas or anyone else particularly interesting. But the overriding problem with the novel is that there is far, far too much supernaturalism. Hill has watched too many horror films, where bizarre events take place for no reason, or merely to move the plot along, or to jolt the increasingly jaded viewer. The epitome of absurdity is reached when Judas and Georgia bring out a Ouija board—manufactured by Parker Brothers—and effortlessly contact the spirit of Anna. Even Judas’s dogs somehow gain a supernatural dimension, warding off Craddock until they themselves perish. Judas claims that the dogs may be some kind of familiars—but that would make him a witch or warlock, which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

I humbly suggest that Hill move on to mainstream fiction, which better suits his literary talents. His use of the supernatural is beyond clumsy: the critical element of plausibility is lacking. His strengths are the portrayal of human character and of human relationships, which is the domain of mainstream fiction.

A much more promising writer than Joe Hill is Jonathan Thomas. Thomas began by publishing a now very rare and not particularly notable slim collection, Stories from the Big Black House (1992). After a hiatus of a decade and a half, he resumed writing, publishing the noteworthy collection Midnight Call and Other Stories (2008), whose first story, “Eben’s Portrait,” is one of the most chilling tales in contemporary horror fiction. Thomas has a pungently jaundiced view of human foibles, a lively, evocative prose style, and an ability to develop a sense of cumulative horror—especially in such novelettes as “Tempting Providence” and “Dead Men’s Shoes,” both included in his second collection, Tempting Providence and Other Stories (2010)—that is enviable. His Lovecraftian novel, The Color Over Occam (2012), a loose sequel to “The Colour out of Space,” is one of the most terrifying supernatural works of the past half-century. Its insidious display of regional horror (it is set in and around the town of Occam, which, in this novel, is postulated as the original spelling of Lovecraft’s Arkham), and its climatic scene, in Occam’s sewer system, is one of the most gripping set-pieces in contemporary weird fiction.

I cannot conclude this chapter without a brief note on contemporary Lovecraftian writing. Several recent writers, having absorbed the findings of the new wave of Lovecraft scholarship that began in the 1970s, have come to understand the true nature of Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic horror, and they have used his conceptions and imagery as springboards for work that goes far beyond mechanical pastiche. W. H. Pugmire (b. 1951), although he began publishing as early as the 1970s, is finally gaining recognition as one of the more skilled prose-poets of weird fiction; the story collection The Tangled Muse (2011) features much of his best work. Donald Tyson has written a fascinating historical-supernatural novel, Alhazred (2006), about the author of the Necronomicon. Michael Shea’s Copping Squid (2009), Brian Stableford’s The Womb of Time (2010), and Rick Dakan’s Cthulhu Cult (2011) are only three of the more interesting treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos to emerge in recent years.