Some Other Tale-Spinners - The Boom: The Literati - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

Some Other Tale-Spinners
The Boom: The Literati
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The veteran Fritz Leiber made a triumphant return to the supernatural with Our Lady of Darkness (1977), a novel that simultaneously captured the topography of San Francisco, where Leiber had long resided, and is a grand summation of many of the elements of urban horror that he had introduced in his pioneering short stories of the preceding decades. Here Leiber introduces us to the notion of “paramentals” (paranormal elementals), the souls of the metropolises that, according to a tract discovered by the novel’s protagonist, are the death-traps of the hapless human beings who dwell in them. The smooth-flowing prose and compelling action of this novel is a fitting capstone to Leiber’s distinguished career.

Dan Simmons first came to the world’s attention with short stories in the 1980s; these were collected in Prayers to Broken Stones (1990). Perhaps his most satisfactory work to date is “The River Styx Runs Uphill” (1982), which appears to deal with the hideous and poignant results that ensue when a mother dies but is resurrected. As a symbol for the natural human inability to accept the finality of death, this scenario is not likely to be surpassed. Another poignant tale is “Metastasis” (1988), which postulates the notion of “cancer vampires” (125). A man radiates himself with immense quantities of X-rays, then lays hands on cancer patients; the cancer molecules appear to migrate into the man’s body, whereupon they are consumed by the cancer vampires. Once again, the supernaturalisation of one of the most terrifying natural forces in human society lends a distinctive atmosphere to the tale.

Simmons’s first novel, Song of Kali (1985), has been highly praised, but it is not clear that this praise is warranted. We are here taken to Calcutta, which is described with the kind of ingenuous horror that a Westerner might feel toward this chaotic and kaleidoscopic megalopolis. Once Simmons gets down to a plot, we find that we are concerned with an Indian poet, M. Das, who claims that he committed suicide but was resurrected by the goddess Kali. An American, Robert C. Luczak, working on a magazine article about Das, finds him after a long search: “I was looking at a thing from the grave” (199). Soon thereafter, Luczak is captured and thrown into an underground chamber, where he appears to encounter the goddess herself. But all the events of the novel can be explained naturalistically: the “resurrected” Das may simply be suffering from leprosy, and Luczak’s vision of Kali may well be a hallucination. It is not entirely clear what message Simmons is trying to convey with this meandering novel; a vague concluding discussion about “black holes in the human spirit” (308) doesn’t help much. Simmons has written several other weird novels, but their increasing length, as in Carrion Comfort, blunts their impact.

Scottish writer Iain Banks (b. 1954) wrote one of the most striking non-supernatural horror novels in literary history with his first novel, The Wasp Factory (1984). It is the bleak story of Frank Cauldhame, a seventeen-year-old who lives on an island off the coast of Scotland and tells the story of his life in an affectless but curiously chilling first-person narrative. Along the way we learn that Frank not only killed his younger brother and two cousins before the age of ten, perhaps out of rage over the horrible mutilation of his genitals by a dog when he was three years old. But for all the crimes that Frank has committed, his older brother Eric appears to be an even worse specimen of flawed humanity; and nearly at the end of this compact novel we learn why: he was traumatised by something he witnessed while serving in a hospital and attending to a seriously handicapped infant:

Then he saw something, something like a movement, just a tiny little movement, barely visible on the shaved head of the slightly smiling child. Whatever it was was small and slow. Eric blinked, shook his head to try to dislodge the quivering lights of the migraine building inside. He stood up, still holding the spoon with the mushy food on it. He bent closer to the skull of the child, looking closer. He couldn’t see anything, but he looked round the edge of the metal skull-cap the child wore, thought he saw something under it, and lifted it easily from the head of the infant to see if there was anything wrong… .

Flies had got into the ward, presumably when the air-conditioning had been faulty earlier. They had got underneath the stainless steel of the child’s skull-cap and deposited their eggs there. What Eric saw when he lifted that plate up, what he saw with all that weight of human suffering above, with all that mighty spread of closed-in, heat-struck darkened city all around, what he saw with his own skull splitting, was a slowly writhing nest of fat maggots, swimming in their combined digestive juices as they consumed the brain of the child. (141—42)

Lest one think this is a mere excursion into physical grisliness, it should be noted that this revelation has been prepared for by a meticulous and detailed portrayal of the severe psychological aberrations of both Frank and Eric. And there is a still more appalling revelation to come: Frank is not a boy, but a girl, Frances; his father had been surreptitiously feeding him male hormones since infancy. This turn of events casts a pungently ironic shadow over the frequently expressed misogyny in Frank’s own temperament.

Banks has never returned to the overt horror of The Wasp Factory in subsequent novels. Under the name Iain M. Banks, he has written a succession of exotic science fiction novels, while also writing mainstream novels that certainly contain their modicum of gruesomeness—such as Complicity (1993), a politically charged serial killer novel, and A Song of Stone (1997), a grim novel of torture that also features political overtones—but must be regarded largely as outside the weird tradition.

Another writer residing in Scotland, the American-born Lisa Tuttle (b. 1952), did some interesting work in the 1970s and 1980s, although it is perhaps not quite as distinguished as her devotees seem to believe. The short story collections A Nest of Nightmares (1986) and Memories of the Body (1992) contain a wealth of stories that purport to study human relationships by means of supernatural and psychological horror, but the results are often disappointingly flat and superficial. Perhaps the only noteworthy tale in the former collection is “Bug House” (1980), a chilling tale about a man who proves to be a kind of huge insect who rapes women so that eggs can be planted in them. This supernaturalisation of sexual violence is effective because of the gradual manner in which the weird element is revealed. Other tales are less successful. “The Other Mother” (1980) is the story of the Welsh legend of a “white goddess of creation and death” (103) who appears to gain possession of the two children of a young mother, whose actions in saving them end up killing them; but the story lacks dramatic tensity. Somewhat better is “A Friend in Need” (1981), which deals with the encounter of two young women, each of whom had imagined the other as playmates when children. A tone of wistful melancholy suffuses the narrative, which is manifestly an expression of loneliness and family trauma.

Memories of the Body contains several tales that almost work. “The Wound” (1987) is about a formerly married man who seems to be attracted to another man: is he thereby becoming a woman? The interesting premise of the story is insufficiently worked out in a tale far inferior to Ramsey Campbell’s similar story “The Second Staircase.” “Lizard Lust” (1990) is the story of a librarian in London who becomes fascinated by a lizard owned by a man (or perhaps a woman) named Gert, who leads the librarian to some kind of alternate world. But—and this is a problem with many of Tuttle’s stories—the tale is told with too much clarity and rationality for the fantastic premise to be convincing. “Riding the Nightmare” (1986) is a complex story about the nightmares that a woman is having while she conducts an extramarital affair with a man whose wife initially condones the relationship. But the whole account is too rushed to be effective; it would have benefited from novel-length treatment.

It can be seen from the above that Tuttle’s chief focus is on human relationships, especially the infinitely complex relations between the sexes. This focus is the thrust of her several novels, including The Familiar Spirit (1983), Gabriel (1987), and The Pillow Friend (1996), the last of which is probably the best.

American writer Chet Williamson (b. 1948) emerged out of the fan world of the 1970s to publish weird tales in Playboy, the New Yorker, and other distinguished venues. After writing an able haunted house novel, Soulstorm (1986), Williamson wrote the substantial Ash Wednesday (1987), a novel that well displays many of his literary talents. The premise of the novel is simple: ghosts of the dead begin appearing in all corners of a small town in Pennsylvania, apparently where they had met their deaths, whether natural or otherwise. In one particularly vivid scene, the ghost of a woman shows up on the bed of a man who had had an affair with her while his wife was away and who, by accident, killed her there. The ghosts remain for months, becoming a media phenomenon. At the end of the novel, we learn that they are now appearing in a neighbouring town.

What distinguishes Ash Wednesday is the depth of character portrayal that enlivens many of the central figures in the story. Unlike the superficial portrayals we find, say, in the novels of James Herbert, Williamson’s characters are vivid and vital, and he has displayed remarkable skill in showing how the living figures gradually become reconciled to the presence of their ghostly companions. The narrative ultimately focuses on two individuals: Jim Callendar, traumatised because he believes he has caused the death of his own son and of some other children when his school bus was hit by a truck and burst into flames; and Brad Meyers, an unsympathetic character who brutalises his wife and blames Jim for the death of his own son, Frank, who was on the bus that crashed. Other characters—including a corrupt federal official, Clyde Thornton, who has been assigned to investigate the matter—are also crisply realised.

Whether Williamson’s refusal to account for the origin of the supernatural phenomenon is to be regarded as a failing is a delicate question. There is some suggestion toward the end of the novel that the ghosts’ appearance was somehow triggered by the psychic trauma experienced by Jim and Brad, but it is not clear that we are to take this suggestion seriously. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. (The fact that the ghosts, while tinted a weird blue colour, are naked is perhaps a nod to Ambrose Bierce’s whimsical essay “The Clothing of Ghosts” [1902], which poked fun at accounts of “true” ghostly sightings by wondering why such ghosts always wore clothes: Do clothes also have souls and return from the dead?)

Williamson has gone on to write many more novels and tales, but none have been quite as commercially or critically successful as Ash Wednesday. Dreamthorp (1999) mingles supernatural and non-supernatural horror in an ingenious fashion in suggesting that a serial killer’s depredations trigger the resurgence of a Native American curse. In the short fiction collected in Figures in Rain (2002) there is much of merit.

Thomas Tessier (b. 1947) has done some sound work, especially in the novel, but his writing is plagued by unevenness of conception and execution. An early novel, The Nightwalker (1979), was highly regarded, but it is not in the end a sound work. It is the tale of an American Vietnam veteran, Robert Ives, who lives in London and finds himself committing acts of violence—including pushing his girlfriend in front of a bus, killing her—for no apparent reason. He becomes convinced that he has lived before, having been a zombie in the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century. After another incident in which Robert assaults a woman in a park, slashes her belly, and drinks her blood, he is informed by a psychic that he is a werewolf. Other violent actions follow until the psychic kills Robert with a silver knife. The problem with The Nightwalker is that it is narrated in such a bland and textureless fashion that no genuine psychological analysis of the protagonist is possible, and the matter of whether he really is a supernatural entity or merely a psychotic fails to be of any great moment.

Phantom (1982) is marginally better, if only for some spectacular individual scenes of terror. These scenes involve a ten-year-old boy, Ned Covington, who explores the ruins of a spa near his home in Lynnhaven, Maryland. But the novel overall seems not to have a clear focus, and the climactic scene—in which Ned, while afflicted with a high fever, has a vision of being led by a woman first into a strange city, then to an immense mountain made of bones, the woman later identifying herself as Death—is not entirely convincing.

Finishing Touches (1986) is probably Tessier’s best novel, although it is non-supernatural. Returning to a London setting, it tells of a young physician, Tom Sutherland, who falls under the sway of an elderly cosmetic surgeon, Roger Nordhagen, and becomes a member of an exclusive club where all manner of sexual and other irregularities are practiced. Tom also has a torrid affair with Nordhagen’s secretary, Lina Ravachol. Later there is an appalling revelation: in a secret basement laboratory, Nordhagen is keeping twelve human beings, partially dismembered, imprisoned for a variety of physiological and psychological experiments, and Tom realises that he is being groomed to take over the work after Nordhagen dies. Although Tom, in revulsion, kills both the twelve patients and Nordhagen himself, he later resumes his affair with Lina and, out of boredom, takes to killing people at random. Although a generally effective novel of psychological obsession, Finishing Touches fails to probe Nordhagen’s motives sufficiently, and its conclusion is predictable.

Tessier’s Rapture (1987) was also highly acclaimed, but it too is not wholly successful. This is another novel of obsession—in this case, the obsession of a middle-aged man, Jeff Lisker, for a high school sweetheart, Georgianne Corcoran, to the extent that Jeff kills Georgianne’s husband and insinuates himself into the life of Georgianne and also into the life (and, implausibly, the bed) of her college-age daughter, Bonnie—but, aside from an irritating habit of shifting the narrative perspective from one character to the other in a rapid and bewildering fashion, Tessier again fails to make Jeff’s obsession entirely plausible. On the whole, however, it does seem as if Tessier is somewhat more successful in the non-supernatural as opposed to the supernatural vein.