In other news, I had two new stories published in June.
The first, after a long wait with many dramatic turns, is “The Bones”, which appeared in Weirdbook # 41. I get to share a TOC with such talented fellow authors as C.M Muller, S.L. Edwards, Darrell Schweitzer, and the poets Ashley Dioses and K.A. Opperman.
The second is the flash piece “A Winter’s Tale”, in the anthology Itty Bitty Writing Space. There I share the pages with one hundred and three other contributors of very short stories, including Gregg Chamberlain, James, Dorr, Joanna Hoyt, and Russell Smeaton.
Both Weirdbook and Itty Bitty Writing Space make fine additions to a summer reading list–and will help tide us all over until I can report on several autumn releases.
Creep Throat: Sex Fables for the Horny, Gloomy, and Unhinged, edited by Viorika La Vae, is a surprising, uneven, and entertaining little anthology. Its ten stories and single poem are a roller coaster of style and mood, with the stories ranging from simply goofy, to overwrought, to brilliant. There is a touch of cyberpunk, a hint of the gothic, and even a call-back to the slick pulp horror of the seventies and eighties. Taken together, they make for an unexpectedly engaging read.
My favorites here are:
“Lust and Death in 2045” by Melanie Sage Thibodeaux is a moody and evocative piece that firmly binds together sex and death in something that feels like one of the better indie horror movies. It’s gritty and brutal, conveying desperation and decay without being over the top.
“Gear Head” by Duane Pesice tells a sharp, hallucinogenic tale of the cybernetic skin trade. The descriptions are tactile and disorienting, the plot a stream of garbled consciousness. It is weird and wonderful, with the extra added uncertainty of what is experiencing who.
“Lady Luck” by Eve Kerrigan and Ben Keefe reminded me, with its fast pace, glitzy setting, and snarky characterizations, of the cheesy beach books on spinner racks at the drugstore. I mean that with great fondness. The monster is wildly bizarre, while sex is background noise here–part of the set-up but not a big part of the resulting chaos.
“At Lazio’s: A Tale of the Crawling Chaos” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is a variation on a classic tale of vampirism, beautifully told. The story ended up more or less where I thought it would, but was a joy to read with its terse, perfect descriptions and the lovely line, “…for me it’s about the kill, not the chase”.
So, while the stories collected in Creep Throat weren’t always to my taste, overall the anthology is a solid read. The authors are a talented bunch, and there is a good balance between the ridiculous, the serious, and the sublime. I’d say it’s definitely worth a look.
Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft is an older but still handy guide to the many attempts made at filming Lovecraft’s cosmically weird tales. Authors Andrew Migliore and John Strysik bring a fan’s enthusiasm to the project, producing an often unpolished but still joyful compendium of Lovecraftian media. They approach their subject from several different angles, and end up giving quite a rich experience to their readers.
Since Lurker in the Lobby dates from 2006, it serves primarily as an historical reference. But what a history! The authors cover all the major films to that point, from Quartermass to The Thing to Dagon, with many familiar and lesser-known movies in between.
And when seen through the right lens, Lovecraftian elements show up in many places you wouldn’t normally think to look. Unexpected additions to the movie list include The Trollenberg Terror (1958) with its giant crawling eyes, Uzumaki (2000), based on a horror manga, and The Maze (1953), about the classically subversive threat of hereditary evil.
The television show list is also surprising, with Lovecraftian themes and references showing up not just in the usual horror anthology series but in the Saturday morning cartoons, as well.
But while the capsule reviews of the movies and TV shows are great fun, the interviews end up slowing the book down. Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, Jeffrey Coombs, and Bernie Wrightson are among the luminaries the Lurker spoke with, and their interest in Lovecraft and filmmaking is inspiring. But the overall tone of the interviews is uneven. The questions are fairly formulaic and not particularly probing. They end abruptly. And while many of the interviewees have long had an active interest in the source material, others are included only by the chance of having worked on an adaptation.
To round out their offerings, the authors include a picture gallery featuring art by Richard Corben, Mike Migliore, and Bernie Wrightson, a pretty thorough list of short Lovecraft adaptations, and an index of feature films listed by year and again by the story that provided the basis for them.
So while it is imperfect and rough around the edges, Lurker in the Lobby is still an essential read. It is an affectionate look at some of the many, many films and filmmakers inspired by Lovecraft, presented in a way that can only inspire more.
C.M. Muller’s debut collection, Hidden Folk: Strange Stories, is an enjoyably weird read. The volume contains twelve small, finely-tuned stories of lives slipping quietly out of control, even when the characters are sure they still have agency. The inhabitants of these stories range from preteen children to desperate mothers, from recent immigrants to young women to lonely old men. The overall mood is dark and subdued as the characters struggle with loneliness, loss, and their own irrelevance. And that mood lingers long after the book is closed.
Muller’s writing style in Hidden Folk is deliberate, dreamlike, and formal. He creates a distance between the characters and the reader that enhances the sense of disconnect and unbalance inherent in the tales. Because of this quality, many of the stories remind me fondly of Rod Serling’s measured prose and of Steve Rasnic Tem’s disorienting shifts in circumstances.
Besides the overall voice and tone, Hidden Folk also contains some lovely, evocative imagery. “For the past week, the ride home had begun in semidarkness and ended in pitch” and “A dwelling situated at the worst possible angle to the sun” can both stand as examples of the rich and compact descriptions scattered throughout the stories.
My personal favorites in the collection are these three:
“Absconsa Laterna”, in which a father inexplicably loses his son at–or to– a mysterious outdoor art installation.
“Resurfacing”, where an unusual construction project in a stagnant neighborhood opens up strange new options to our reclusive narrator.
And “Omzetten”, an epistolary tale of three young women on a European tour who make the ill-advised decision to visit a quaint, isolated old town just a short train ride away.
Hidden Folk is a fine reminder that the weird can be internal as easily as it is cosmic, and that fear can be as simple as familiar circumstances. I recommend it.
I’m pleased to announce that my story “One Last Mile” will appear in Cthonic Matter’s new anthology Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles, alongside twenty-one other tales of doppelgängers, twins, and disturbing duplicates.
Coming face to face with yourself can be comedy gold, but it is just as often an unsettling, unnatural thing. We are used to thinking of ourselves as unique individuals–which makes the idea of encountering our own double both fascinating and deeply creepy. Doppelgängers have long been harbingers of unhappy things. Twins are suspected of having opposite natures, one good and the other pure evil. Imposters steal our very identities for their own ends.
Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles taps into this deep well of unease. And as you can see from the table of contents, my story and I are in some very fine company.
“The Last Salvador” — Tim Jeffreys “Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow” — Clint Smith “Zwillingslied” — Patricia Lillie “Static” — Chris Shearer “Stuck With Me” — Shannon Lawrence “The Fifth Set” — Charles Wilkinson “Murder Song” — Craig Wallwork “The Final Diagnosis of Doctor Lazare” — David Peak “Endangered” — Jason A. Wyckoff “The Half-Life of Plastic” — Esther Rose “Eidetic” — Steve Rasnic Tem “They Are Us (1964) : An Oral History” — Jack Lothian “Birds of Passage” — Gordon B. White “The Half-Souled Woman” — Nina Shepardson “Released” — Timothy B. Dodd “As With Alem” — Farah Rose Smith “The Fall Guy” — Tom Johnstone “Scordatura” — Jess Landry “Stringless Puppetry” — C.C. Adams “The Bath House” — Tim Major “Picky Yunn” — J.C. Raye “One Last Mile” — Erica Ruppert
Twice-Told; A Collection of Doubles will be released on February 22. You can pre-order your hard copy of the book here, or pre-order the kindle edition here.
Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.
“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”
This is not merely a coffee-table art book. Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.
Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.
D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.
Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.
The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.
Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.
“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”
Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.
Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.
Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.
The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.
Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.
The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.
Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.
A great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.
Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.
Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.
Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.
While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.
Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.
Here are more October chills—enough to fill all thirty-one days several times over.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories was a twenty-two volume annual anthology series that ran from 1971 through 1994. Its creator, Richard Davis, edited the series from 1971-1973, with Christopher Lee himself writing the introduction to 1972’s Volume II. After a few years’ pause, Gerald W. Page revived the series in 1976 and edited it until 1979. Then, the inimitable Karl Edward Wagner took over, editing The Year’s Best Horror Stories from 1980 until his death in 1994. Since then, the series has been dormant.
The Year’s Best Horror Stories was an introduction to some of the most consistently dread-inducing authors I have ever encountered. Ramsey Campbell’s work appeared a remarkable 26 times in the 22 volumes, lending some support to my (and Mr. Wagner’s) opinion that he is one of the most frightening horror author working today. Other authors who appeared multiple times were Dennis Etchison (14 stories), Charles L. Grant (12 stories), Brian Lumley (11 stories), and Wayne Allen Sallee (10 stories). Other authors who appeared often in the series were David Drake, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Tanith Lee, David J. Schow, Robert Bloch, T.E.D. Klein, Manly Wade Wellman, Kim Newman, and Lisa Tuttle.
While there is considerable overlap of authors, only one entry in The Year’s Best Horror Stories was adapted for the previously-mentioned TV series Tales from the Darkside. That was “Slippage” (1982), by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, from volume XI, about a man whose life is slowly being erased.
More than four hundred stories appeared in the series. I recall many of them, if not always clearly. But there are a few that still stand out vividly for me (and some I read over and over for fresh thrills):
“Something Had to Be Done” (1975), by David Drake is absolutely one of my favorites. In it, a terminally ill Army sergeant pays a notification visit to the family of a soldier who “died in battle”, in order to tie up some loose ends. Short, sharp, and scathing.
“At the Bottom of the Garden” (1975), by David Campton is a slightly loopy but ultimately tragic story of a woman, her daughter, and the creature that might make things right for them.
“Undertow” (1977), by Karl Edward Wagner is classic dark sword and sorcery featuring Wagner’s antihero, Kane, in a love story gone very, very wrong.
“The Horse Lord” (1977), by Lisa Tuttle, in which a family moves to a farmhouse in the country and an old, hungry god is resurrected by the children. The imagery was visceral. I refer to this story often as an example of staying power.
“Winter White” (1978), by Tanith Lee is a dark fantasy set in a barbarian kingdom. A warrior makes his own end with a magic pipe, a silent witch, and the invisible child he fathers on her.
“If Damon Comes” (1978), by Charles L. Grant, is one of his Oxrun Station stories. Grim, and, sad, and terrifying, a winter’s tale about a poor father haunted by his dead son.
“Within the Walls of Tyre” (1978), by Michael Bishop is an unconventional horror story about a woman’s private tragedy being commercially exploited by a man she thought she could trust. There are no monsters, only pain.
“Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” (1989), by David J. Schow is a particularly vivid gore-fest about a survivor of the Zombie Apocalypse who eats the walking dead himself, and a small time televangelist whose faith is renewed by the zombies’ resurrection.
The tone of the anthologies changed over the years, as the style of horror itself became more graphic and early, traditional creepiness gave way to more explicit shocks. What remained consistent, though, was the ability of the selected stories to make you look behind you. I have pointed out the stories that still scare me, even after all this time. I’m sure there are plenty of unmentioned others in The Year’s Best Horror Stories that will have the same effect on you.
M.R. James is perhaps the most reliably frightening author I can think of. Although Montague Rhodes James only published 34 stories over the course of his life, each one is a polished gem of unwise inquiries, lurking supernatural threats and terrible ghostly vengeance. What could be better, with Halloween looming?
Published between 1895 and 1936, James’s ghost stories are slightly stuffy, off-handedly erudite, and almost impossibly creepy–the kind of creepy that makes locking all the doors and looking behind the furniture a rational reaction. His tales were influenced by his scholarly work as a medievalist and antiquarian, with many of them featuring archaic manuscripts and bookish protagonists, with the setting being often a small village or a country estate.
M.R. James also incorporated a subtle humor into his terrors, with side comments about social obligations and domestic disagreements. The contrast between the prosaic and the threatening unknown makes the effect all the more intense and hard to shrug off.
Although there are several collections to choose from, for the full M.R. James experience the Complete Ghost Stories is the way to go. This collection, which has never been out of print, contains all but the four stories he wrote after Complete Ghost Stories was published in 1931.
Of, course, I have my particular favorites.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” begins with the discovery of a small flute.
It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.
“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” contains a trove of stolen, rare documents.
Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’
“The Mezzotint” is a still life that is not so still.
It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.
Finally, “Lost Hearts”, which I have always found the most tragic of M.R. James’s stories.
His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
While M.R. James exerted plenty of influence in the literary world (inspiring H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as John Bellairs, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King), his work had less impact on movies and television. The only full-length film version of one of his tales is the adaptation of “Casting the Runes”, filmed as Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US) in 1957. James’s stories were adapted for television several times over the years, from a 1951 version of “The Tractate Middoth”, to the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s that used five of James’s works, to a chilling 2010 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” starring John Hurt.
M.R. James’s Complete Ghost Stories has no scaly cosmic horrors, no carnage, and precious little blood. What it does have is an undeniably unnerving atmosphere that has held up for over a century. And whatever form you find them in, M.R. James’s stories can be counted on to make you look over your shoulder–just to be sure.