The Blockbusters Resume - The Contemporary Era - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

The Blockbusters Resume
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

In general, the fate of the four blockbusters of the 1970s and 1980s—Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice—has not, in the past twenty years, been happy.

King, although slowed by a serious accident in 1999 in which he was struck by a truck while walking along a road, has continued to produce novels and story collections in quantity—a total of twenty-one novels (not including the final five instalments of The Dark Tower) and seven story collections, along with sundry novellas, nonfiction volumes, and miscellany, since 1991. Some of the earlier of these works are of considerable merit, among them The Green Mile (1996), a poignant account of a black man on death row with magical curative powers. But others of his works come close to the nadir of his output—and that is saying something: Insomnia (1994), which will certainly cure the malady indicated by its title; The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), a fatuous tale of a little girl lost in the woods; and the incredibly bloated Under the Dome (2009), in which an invisible barrier somehow descends on a small town in Maine, setting the stage for an appalling series of ludicrous social and political machinations.

A single novel, Bag of Bones (1998), highlights both the many failings and the few virtues of King’s later output. The work is narrated by Michael Noonan, a bestselling author who is suffering from writer’s block. (No doubt for the prolific King, who recognises that one can’t scare others without scaring oneself, such a thing must be about the most frightening thing it is possible to contemplate.) After his wife’s sudden death, he becomes involved with Mattie Devore, a young mother who is the daughter-in-law of a wealthy computer pioneer, Max Devore. Much of the novel becomes bogged down in the tedious recounting of court proceedings whereby Max is attempting to wrest his granddaughter away from Mattie. This whole subplot is only minimally related to the actual supernatural element of the novel—the apparent revival from the dead of one Sara Tidwell, a black blues singer who was raped and killed by a gang of white boys decades ago, and whose “bag of bones” Michael finds toward the end of the tale.

Bag of Bones is itself a kind of shambling bag of bones, with too many elements in it that do not fit well together. It can be seen from this summary that the whole business about the custody battle over Kyra between Devore and Mattie/Michael is simply a time-wasting and space-consuming red herring: it serves no integral purpose in the novel, whose central supernatural premise is the ghostly revenge of Sara Tidwell. This latter feature is presented so sketchily and fragmentarily throughout the novel—chiefly in the form of those preternatural dreams to which Michael is subject—that its final revelation toward the end carries little impact: the reader has not been sufficiently prepared for this turn of events because King, like a too-clever detective writer, has dropped too few hints along the way that might lead convincingly to this denouement.

Dean Koontz has been even more prolific than Stephen King: since 1991, he has published at least forty novels (excluding collaborations), a short story collection, sundry children’s books and works of nonfiction, and even—if it can be imagined—a poetry collection; and I do not even count the endless reprinting of his earlier, pseudonymous volumes in the wake of his bestsellerdom. Of this dreary tsunami of words I have had the stomach to read only one: The Taking (2004). It pretty much sums up the author’s severe deficiencies as a supernatural writer.

The novel purports to be an apocalyptic thriller in which nearly the entire world is overwhelmed by a variety of bizarre phenomena ranging from cataclysmic floods, dead people reviving in various degrees and fashions, and much else besides—all the result, it would seem, of an invasion of alien entities from outer space. Some remnants of humanity in southern California gather at a tavern, where they quickly divide into various factions: one group merely wishes to drink themselves to oblivion, thinking there is no hope for humanity; a second group embraces dogmatic pacifism; a third are fence-sitters who say they need more information before taking any action; and the fourth are the fighters. It is pretty obvious whose side Koontz is on (for those of you who are a bit dense, it is the last). This last group ultimately takes refuge in a Catholic church (naturally), which unfortunately harbours a hideous spiderlike entity in the basement. The entity is dispatched (although with some regrettable loss of human life), but the church burns down in the process. The main protagonist, one Molly Sloan, takes a group of children (one must always think of the children) back to the tavern.

But let us not pursue the meandering plot of this silly novel any further. The upshot is that the aliens—who finally are seen, after a fashion, when their immense mother ship hovers over the humans for a brief time—simply leave without further ado; the loathsome fungi that had sprouted over everything—apparently their food—also vanishes. Can this be the end of the horror?

It certainly appears so. Let us ignore the fact that this resolution is staggeringly anticlimactic: even in the absence of some titanic battle with the disgusting aliens, the reader is surely owed something a bit more exciting and interesting than the mere cessation of weird phenomena. So the critical question becomes: How does Koontz explain all the odd things that have happened in his book? The supernatural incidents have been of such a bewilderingly diverse sort that it would seem difficult to encompass them in any kind of convincing account. What is Koontz’s solution?

Well, in effect, there is no solution. First of all, he asserts that all the adults who survived the alien armageddon “had been chosen not just to save the children but for the talents he or she could bring to this larger purpose” (329). The religious undercurrent of this utterance is elaborated upon—after a fashion—in the few chapters that remain, for it appears that the aliens were really conducting a kind of purging because humanity had become so corrupted by violence, lack of faith, and other evils that the only solution was to get rid of them all. The irony of this “explanation,” if it is even credible, is that, in spite of its underlying (Christian) religiosity, is that it unwittingly endorses a kind of Social Darwinism that he would presumably be the first to hold in abhorrence. If the people who are left on earth were “chosen” because of their various “talents,” it means that the ones who were “taken” had no particular talents to offer to the newly cleansed planet—they are simply “unfit” to live and must be whisked off to other realms, whether it be above or below. I am certain that the pious author would be horrified at this conclusion, but his own “explanation” leads inevitably to it.

Clive Barker, mercifully, has not been nearly as prolific as King or Koontz: a mere twelve novels since 1991, with various story collections and miscellany. This includes one more instalment of “The Book of The Art” (which had begun with the bloated Great and Secret Show), three volumes of something called the Abarat Quintet, and so on. A good many of these books appear designed for young adults, and are also generally more inclined toward fantasy than supernatural horror. Where the latter enters is in the intolerably prolix Coldheart Canyon (2001), a hackneyed ghost story set alternately in Eastern Europe and Hollywood, and the cryingly stupid Mister B. Gone (2007), about a demon in Hell. But Barker doesn’t command either the popular or the critical acclaim he once did, and much of his work already seems to have descended into the maw of oblivion.

The literary and personal evolution of Anne Rice is perhaps the strangest of any of the writers considered here. While she has maintained both her productivity—twenty novels since 1991—and her popularity, she has fluctuated wildly in her religious views; a matter she recounts, in part, in her autobiography Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (2008). We learn that, in 1998, she returned to the Roman Catholic Church after declaring herself an atheist (in part because of the death of her daughter in 1972). The result, as far as her work was concerned, was that, although continuing to write the Vampire Chronicles (ten volumes to 2003), the Mayfair Witches chronicles, and several novels that fused these two series, she also turned to writing ponderous pseudo-philosophical tomes as well as several novels specifically dealing with the life of Jesus. This tendency had been evident even before her conversion—Memnoch the Devil (1995) is burdened with tedious theological and cosmological maunderings by the protagonist—but was markedly enhanced after 1998. Then, in 2010, because of the Catholic Church’s continued opposition to homosexuality, feminism, birth control, and other causes that Rice espouses, she claimed to have given up being a Christian in the orthodox sense of the term, although she remains committed to Jesus. What effect this newest turn in her spiritual development will have on her work remains to be seen.

The author whom I deemed the “bridge” between the blockbusters and the literati, Peter Straub, continues to struggle to produce a wholly satisfactory weird volume. What we have among his recent output are an intermittently compelling serial killer novel, The Hellfire Club (1996); a lacklustre Lovecraftian pastiche, Mr. X (1999); a disappointing story collection, Magic Terror (2000); and so on. The novel lost boy lost girl (2003) perhaps encapsulates Straub’s difficulties. This tale once again resurrects both Tim Underhill and Tom Pasmore from previous novels, but its focus is on Tim’s nephew Mark, who becomes fascinated with an abandoned house behind his own in the town of Millhaven. Ultimately we learn that a serial killer related to Mark’s mother has supernaturally inspired a contemporary serial killer. But the novel is routine and uncompelling—a novelette idea stretched out to novel length.