HORRORS And A Dream by
JOSEPH PAYNE BRENNAN, c.1958.
All that happens in our universe is natural;
under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal
consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers
etc., and the word "supernatural" seems
the best word for treating these in fiction.
--Algernon Blackwood, as quoted by Peter Penzoldt in The
Supernatural in Fiction (1952), Part II, Chapter 7
So much of Modern Horror—meaning from the 1970s forward—is
focused on the gruesome, the shock, the controlled scare from
that thump of adrelinine bursting your heart. There's nothing
wrong with this; it is the reality of the Modern World, afterall.
But its fixations sometimes overwhelm and neglect the reflective,
less pandering terrors of Horror; that is, that sense
of discovery, of awe, of ponderances of things and experiences
beyond our empirical, trusted awareness.
“Levitation”, a quite-laconic story in this collection
is the best example of this I've come across in a long, long
It opens to the trope of the creepy carnival appearing
in an isolated mountain hamlet. The Hypnotist starts his show,
scornful.” Abe Lincoln-like tall and gaunt, his black suit adds
a “final Mephistophelean touch” (Arkham House, c.1958, p.36).
His volunteer climbs onto the stage, acting silly with nervous
laughter. A buddy, to the delight of the fidgety crowd, lobs
a popcorn ball at him and breaks the Hypnotist's concentration.
Furious, he stops the show and goads the perpetrator to take
his prior volunteer's place, and convincingly spells him into
a slow levitation from his prone position on the floor.
At this moment, the Hypnotist grabs his chest and falls dead
on the platform.
At first, the crowd is distracted by this deathly horror,
not noticing the commanded boy moving ever upward. Then they
begin screaming, “Wake up! Come down! Stop! Frank!” until “the
floating form . . . was no more than a tiny speck . . . then
it disappeared altogether” (p.40).
I interpret this as God is dead—or, at best, disappeared—and
we are now adrift in the twinkling void, all alone and left
to our own, inappropriate conclusions. For me, this concise
and seemingly-simple story is mesmerizing; giving way to myriad
of thoughts fastened to the metaphysics of life and its opposite
But, more importantly, it opens access to a sentiment,
something so deep and barely touched I could almost call it
my soul. It leaves me feeling melancholic, untethered, mused,
to this amorphous genre called Horror—scared. Brennan consigns
more than just an intellectual conceit. In the end, don't we
all float off, alone?
There are other wonderful finds in this collection,
Murdering Mr. Massington”, a story about an ordinary man obsessed
by the notion that he will leave no trace whatsoever of himself
on this mortal soil. He badgers a small-time writer into writing
the very story the reader is reading, and, upon publication, “he
will sit down in a chair and calmly fire a bullet into his brain” (p.99).
Then there's the lead story, “Slime”. I've been, ah,
slimed by this tale from the numerous
it has spawned, including Koontz's Phantoms (1983)
and King's The
But, most impressionable of all was Steve McQueen's blockbuster
from 1958, The Blob. That put my 11-year old horrified
body under the seat at the movie theater in Phoenix, Arizona(1).
Perhaps the most celebrated story here is “Canavan's Back Yard”,
mainly because it is apotheosized by The King himself in Danse
Macabre as a “fascinating idea of perspective gone haywire” (Everest
House, ISBN 0896960765, c.1981, p.275). Again, the terror is
not delivered in buckets of blood, but the ordinary gone malevolently
askew, creating that upchuck dissonance akin to the first freefall
of a roller coaster.
Inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Joseph Payne Brennan
wrote for Weird Tales from 1952 until its demise in
1954. He founded the magazine Macabre now revered by
enthusiasts for 23 issues from 1957 to 1976. He is also known
for his poetry which was published in his other self-authored
magazine called Essence that ran from 1950 to 1977,
comprising of 47 issues.
He died in 1990 and is out of print, but is still held
dear by a diminishing number—I suspect—of older enthusiasts.
(1) Well, actually, it put my Mother,
but that's another story. It was I Married A Monster From
Outer Space from the same year
that put me under the seat.
Following his current bent of
taking impeccably-researched historical events and spinning
supernatural possibilities into them, author Dan Simmons adds Black
Hills, a story similar in layout to Berger's Little
Big Man of 1964, in that it is primarily one person's
Herculean story segmented throughout a lifetime of occurrences
where people, places, and things drop in and out of the narrative
flow, usually without chronological consistency. We meet 11-year
old Paha Sapa—Lakota for Black Hills—as he counts coup on a
dying General Custer at the climax of the most famous battle
of the American Indian Wars in the latter 19th Century. At
that moment, Custer's ghost enters Paha Sapa, setting up what
you think will be the paramount thread of this story.
Ol' Long Hair has, in fact, very little to do with
this book. He probably could have been left on the prarie
without inhibiting the strength of Paha Sapa's tale(1).
For two-thirds of the book, his sparce appearances are mainly
monologues, libidinously rambling over his sexual couplings
with his wife Libby as if he's in some spiritual jack-off
Finally, Paha Sapa, now 68-years old, takes him to meet his
91-year old widow. After scouring the memory of the love
of his life with shockingly unflattering visages like “bent
spine”, “sticklike forearms”, and “rheumy
and unfocused”(p.304) eyes, Custer tries his afterlife perspective
concerning “Custerphobes or Custerphiles”(p.312), Buffalo Bill's
lying entertainments via his Wild West Show, and finally, the
real reason for his defeat: too many damn Indians.
There is no sympathy or mention of his two brothers, a nephew, a brother-in-law,
plus the 268 men who died following him into battle.
But among these puerile frothings from his invisible presence
with his wife, there lies one of the best summations of our
protagonist, Paha Sapa.
The loneliest man you have ever met or ever could meet,
my love, a man who has lost his name, his relatives, his
honor, his wife, his son, his gods, his future, his hopes,
and every sacred thing ever entrusted to him. . .
Now, that's what this story is about: loss, and,
somewhat begrudgingly, regeneration, too, and dragging with
it all the literary manifestations possible.
Unfortunately, the book reads like an overly-zealous party
guest, blasting away with facts and figures while your eyes
glaze over with TMI syndrome. For instance, pages are spent
on backstorying the technological achievement of the Brooklyn
Bridge, sidebaring with its miserable working conditions, immigrant
laborers' histories, and whocares? facts concerning length,
weight, span. Later, Paha Sapa spends pages climbing the
Bridge, rewarded with a vision from the Six Grandfathers mealy-mouthing
that individuals such as him can change things, yet “the twining
is the secret. The twining is the waken ”(3)(p.290).
Simmons does not pander to any revisionist manifestos
of the Noble Savage. Crazy Horse, that enduring idealization
of native resistance, would mercilessly cut Paha Sapa's throat
simply because he will not predict his death. The author
is continually reminding us of the Indians' barbarous as
well as their humane behaviors. The spectacular central vision
of Paha Sapa's Quest is that of the stone giants of Mount
Rushmore rising and pounding a path of destruction along
the four compass points of the continent. This engenders
his life-long obsession to dynamite the imposing arrogance
of invading US President facsimiles from his beloved Black
Hills of South Dakota. We are led into enthusiastic agreement
of this obsession—I've fantasized this
ever since I read Deloria's(4) Custer Died For Your Sins in
1969—yet author Simmons through the voice of Custer and with
Paha Sapa's reluctant acknowledgement(5), gives a scathing
denouncement by declaring “you Sioux were a ruthless, relentless
invasion machine”(p.429) who ran out the Crows and Pawnees
just years prior to bragging that the Black Hills had been
Sioux territory forever.
There is also an attempt to parallel the Lakota supernatural
auguries and explanations—which are presented as actualities—to waken Science
and Technology as highlighted in the Columbian Exposition of
1893 chapter. But, other than magic meaning power—usually power over somebody
or something—and the allusion to the “wonders of the Machinery
Hall”(p.157) as being the real religion of the United States,
the similarities beyond the naively obvious escape me.
Unfortunately, any clear vision through the commoners or celebrities
of this phenomenal and controversial time in our history is
muddled by Simmons' strategy of segmenting his narrative into
time jumblings that disregard linear progression. I received
too much vital information about character relationships through
paststory or future projections to develop strong bonds with
them. Combined with the novel's wearisome volubility and annoying
lectures, it required more persistence and patience than I
possessed. To be gracious, I'd hafta say Black Hills is
just too ambitious, and its subjects too deeply imbedded in
the always-undulating American psyche as we re-imagine ourselves,
decade after decade, debacle after debacle.
Dead at page 346 out of 487.
(1) I dumped the book before coming onto Simmons' real reason
for the Custer/ghost setup; however, I still contend that putting
Custer on a pedestal to preach at me was unnecessary.
(2) My favorite
is when he shoots a buffalo then they eat its liver and leaves
the rest. Covered in “blood and bile”(p.97),
he and Libby fuck on horseback while they ride to a stream
to wash off.
(3) This is the
Sioux name for the Anglo invaders, but I enjoy Wasichu,
meaning Fat Takers (p.178). However, this hot-potato concept—that
of working together for harmony between races and indigenous
populations—is probably the only “visionary” solution I agree
with in this book, and it is to Simmons' creative credit that
he voices it through a Native American mouth rather than, say,
Buffalo Bill Cody.
(4) Go here and
here for info
on this Native American author.
(5) Paha Sapa calls warring against other tribes “fun”(p.429)
HAND IN MINE by
ROBERT AICKMAN, c.1975.
Straub writes in his introduction to The
Wine-Dark Sea: “What
attracted Aickman to ghosts was not the notion of dripping
revenants but the feeling–-composed in part of mystery, fear,
stifled eroticism, hopelessness, nostalgia and the almost violent
freedom granted by a suspension of rational rules–-which they
evoked in him.” (Arbor House, ISBN 1557100357, c.1988, p.8)
The always-enigmatic, often-haughty, and forever bewildering
Robert Aickman lies somewhere along the road between the tundra
of Franz Kafka and the sloughs of Thomas Ligotti. His characters
are singular, often lonely, easily irritable, scarred by some
loss or simply childhood, and usually timorous victims, pompous
crowers, or suicidal eccentrics. They are almost always male,
whereas females tend to be mysterious, unknowable, and usually
conniving, or bland and leaning toward carpiness, but congenitally
supportive of superiors. Situations are deliberately incomprehensible
because his stories are like windows into a semi-darkened room:
everything is never revealed, actions usually happen in the next room,
and what you see is evidence, not explanation. His stories
happen in your mind as much as on the paper before you.
His plots seem honest, very deliberate and precise.
But, unlike most authors, Aickman is not interested in a
tidy, wrapped-up conclusion. It's more about how it feels than
what it is. He shuns big-ticket, serial slaughter
for the living, constant terror of never knowing the real
situation or how and when it's going to explode. There's
always that ever-present foreboding that you have just entered—or
about to—the ambiguous, frivolous, and disengaged world of,
let's say, Meursault. And what's worse is the world's far
more surreptitious than it was in 1942 when Camus wrote The
Political systems, bureaucracies, social philosophies, institutions—hell,
even world-views become slithery ghosts of truths never spoken
and principles compromised when core actions come under scrutiny.
Is it any wonder that Mr. Millar's business is far more insidious
than accounting in “Meeting Mr. Millar”? Or, that the asylum-like
hotel in “The Hospice” carries its commitment to hospitality
much further than expected? The reasons don't matter. It's
only the affect and how that affect trickles down that's important.
Blame is meaningless, as is closure on anything out of your
jurisdiction. Most of the time, you don't even have mere influence.
Aickman's world is one where we're all “caught up in some devil's
"In Aickman's stories he offers us a world in which
the inexplicable, the ghostly and the macabre are manifested,
but the source and meaning of such intrusions are not at
all clear. Very often the explanation of events would seem
to be supernatural, but this alone will not account for everything
that has happened. It would appear that we should look at
the mental state of Aickman's protagonists if we are to fully
understand the implications of his stories. An examination
of their unconscious minds would seem to be the way forward,
but neither does this approach entirely suffice. It is reasonable
to assume that these two driving forces, the supernatural
and the psychological, could be brought together, but the
results of this are often contradictory. Aickman seems to
have given us more than enough clues to the puzzles he offers
in his tales, and yet they do not quite account for all that
happens in them."
Cold Hand in Mine contains the
story in which Aickman won the World Fantasy Award,
"Pages from a Young Girl's Journal", and is the only trophy
recognition he received during his lifetime.
(1) Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock", Ladies of the Canyon,
10/05/2010 by Larry Crawford
IN SPAIN by
NANCY KRESS, c.1993.
Okay, I admit, I tried to get away just reading the novella
of this book which won the Nebula award back then, but it stopped
after the first section of four, leaving way too much unresolved.
So, onward to its expansion via this novel and into a dialogue
of social, political, and biological quagmires. The conflict
necessary for plotting is quite simple: one group commands the
biological changes that alter humanity forever, and the left-behind
group is pissed. The specific is Sleeplessness and its side-effect,
possible immortality. The rub is that it can only be created
in vitro and is very expensive. Wanna try an' raise a Sleepless
baby on no sleep?
Remember the early 90s? It was an era of technological
euphoria. Microsoft, cell phone technology, another and better
damned DVD format. Science Fictional product ideas like R2D2
cleaning robots, 3D gaming glasses, The Segway, inter-actional
holography, complete-immursion virtual reality, and, of course,
the Internet. Scientific breakthroughs produced Dolly the
cloned sheep along with more sophisticated, genetically-engineered
crops, DNA identification and GPS location, plus the start
of the Human Genome Project and the installation of the Hubble
telescope in space. The economy was rolling in greenbacks from
teckkie gadgetry produced by 20-something software billionaires.
Suddenly the dork with the pocket protector and wader trousers
that you teased with spitballs in high school could buy and
sell you ten times over.
The Nerds had taken control and they spoke a language as different
Computerese. The ebb and flow between comprehension and productivity
began to widen.
When information became a commodity, the line was firmly set
in the sand. The geeky Brainiacs were steering the boat and you'd
better find a floatation device because a big, economic wave
was coming. Driven by the nano-second speed of multi-quad processors
and sophisticatedly-written software simple enough even Wall
Street banksters could pound the right keys, this red tide of
WMDs finally crashed on the beach in the fall of 2008 as the
Credit Deficit Swap.
Beggars in Spain contemplates The
Outsider in this way, drawing its conclusions in extremity. Earth
society, after it's initial massive cringing and pity-party creating
the We-Sleepers, abdicates like water finding level and lets
the Sleepless do all the work. The World moves into three tiers:
Livers who exist on the Dole like 18th Century aristocrats but
without any intellectual or social pedigrees, the Donkeys who
are enhanced Sleepless and run the economic and political as
well as the industrial machines under the electoral whip of
the 80% Livers population, and the brightest and most powerful
Sleepless who chose defensible isolation and elope off to an
orbital called Sanctuary in space.
The novel does an excellent job of world-building using
plausible tie-ins to the ever-present bogies of cultural development:
envy and greed. The expansion from novella to novel, however,
becomes quite soap opera-ish, breaking up the blarney with
technical side-effects and their subsequent societal influences.
You know, like, what happens when Sleepless use their advantage
for evil gain, or just go psycho-dog batty? How ‘bout what to do when
Sleepless start having Sleeper babies? (Clue: think unwanted
runt in a litter of kittens). And, comprising the race to the
finish: the impact of the upcoming Super-Sleepless generation.
These conflicts add readability among a cast of ever-growing
characters—time frame of the novel spans generations—but more
means less when connecting interest and engagement to these newbies.
By the time I approached Book IV even the main personalities—Leisha
Camden as the good yin and Jennifer as the bad yang—were diluted
like weak tea and had lost a lot of their flavor past the initial
Dead at page 322 out of 438.
11/11/2010 by Larry Crawford
WARDED MAN by
PETER V. BRETT, c.2009
like this book a lot, I really do. It easily held my interest
through a medieval-like world that's charged at night by corelings,
or demons coming up through the surface of the earth. It's
been happening for so long humanity does not fight the demons,
but merely tries to protect itself from their ravenous attacks.
Until, of course, a common farmer youth named Arlen swallows
back his fear and stands toe to toe with them in the darkness.
Thus, the Warded Man is created to lead and teach us all that
destiny's road is changed by the drivers, not the obstacles.
Two other parallel stories play out, adding
richness to our understanding of this culture and the invariable
ways human beings act out their fears, desires, compulsions
and dreams. Leesha is that busty beauty sporting Pollyanna
behavior with a fiery streak of independence that ultimately
leads her to become the Herb Gatherer or holistic healer of
her village. Her talents--and affections--will help bring
the Warded Man away from the envelopment by the Undead and
back among the civilized. And Rojer, well, he's the physically-impaired--he's
nicknamed "Halfgrip"--novitiate to a besotted Jongleur who
discovers the secret power his music has over the insatiable
It is certainly no surprise these three
hook-up on the road during the treacherous and deadly
nighttime hours. Naturally, they combine to create a fighting
opposition their world of hamlets and castles has not seen
for 300 years. It is the perfect predicament to launch the
second book of the series, The Desert
I like this book, I really do. I just wish
I'd discovered it as an adolescent
so I could continue with the series, wide-eyed and unsullied.
06/05/2010 by Larry Crawford
IMAGO SEQUENCE by
LAIRD BARRON, C.2007
Thomas Ligotti and Gary Braunbeck, Laird Barron is a writer I
just don't get. The Imago Sequence is a group of nine short stories,
each developed with obvious skill and surprising variance, sporting
obscure but colorful characters and baffling, obtuse plot machinations.
Most of the protagonists are stereotypicals usually found in
actioneers, like the burned-out CIA agent in “Old
Virginia”, the hoary Pinkerton detective stomping through “piss-burned
saloon facades . . . of Old World decadence and frontier excess” (Night
Shade Books, TPB edition of 2009, ISBN 9781597801461, c.2007,
in “Bulldozer”, the whiny, unemployed actor hangin' with some
jacked-up skip tracers in “Proboscis”, or a first-person
narrator who is a celebrated but delusional artist and maybe/maybe
not be a Bundy-style serial killer in “Parallax”. The best story
here is probably the title piece, "The Imago Sequence".
Again, it takes a pulp-level personality--ex-wrestler, hired muscle
type--as its taleteller and imagines a far greater and deeper complexity
in its unraveling. The central image of utter, anthropomorphic
strangeness frozen in timeless amber and constructively revered
with deistic demonism haunts far after the book is closed.
The formula governing the amounts of withhold
verses exposure seems weighted the wrong way. Barron is
working from previously-dressed mannikens and clothing them
in original and complex outfits for renewed interest and mystery.
He's not trying to de-emphasize the plot like Robert Aickman
does, but his ways for distributing meaning does not match
the pure connections of Joseph Payne Brennan's approach, either.
Like these authors, too much happens offstage for any blanket
conclusions, but then the high points of comprehension seem
as absent as the incongruous facts revealed seem unsatisfactory.
Barron's literary pitons are just not strong enough for me
to summit with confidence. Or, manage a descent of creepy yet
fascinating conclusions. The writing of it all just makes little
sense to me.
A consideration is that I have not been able to complete
a single story in one sitting. The finishline session is always
marred by non-remembrance chasms, which indicates—to my ego, anyway—that
the writing lacks resonance with certain fundamental commonalities
like interest, comprehension, recognized protocols. These are
withholds, I'm afraid, purposely scrambled to engender mystery
and curiosity, yet come off more like discarded, broken yokes.
I mean, hell, who'll take the time to dig out the grail if you
don't know what it is nor receive the inspiration to care? Ultimately,
I don't sense a governing or identification with this preceptor.
It could be a simple matter of author Barron using caricatures
instead of archetypes, thereby lulling me to relax and ingest,
thinking I'm here for mere sensation, instead of awake and hunting
for enlightening breadcrumbs of devilish irony or the subtle
muscle of hidden epiphanies.
At any rate, bored and confused is not mesmerized or
terrorized by the “stygian wasteland of night . . . of an indifferent, devouring
cosmos” (back cover blurb).
Others disagree, or, at least, present a far worthier
10/23/2010 by Larry Crawford