Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Do you ever read a book and just go "what the fuck?"

 Showed up from nowhere, impossible to photograph well; must be full of horror stories.

Borderlands 4 is one of those rare books that I own but have no idea how I came to own it. It's part of a series of horror anthologies that I've never read before, I have no other books in the series, I've never heard of the editors, and I'm not much into genre fiction. One way or another, I probably picked it up because it had a Peter Straub story in it and, because I'm a huge fan of The Talisman and Black House, I wanted to read some stuff that he'd written without Stephen King. So, ignoring the aphorism, I bought a book because it had "Peter Straub" in fine print and a positive review by Harlan Ellison on its cover.

Two things about Harlan Ellison: 1) It sort of seems like every story in this anthology was written by someone who read "I have no mouth and I must scream" and decided "Yes, this is what I want to do forever." and 2) the quote on the cover is "This series puts every other anthology and its editor to shame," to which I say "Hahahahaha, fucking SERIOUSLY" and have to admire as either a wonderful sense of humor or balls so big that they're the cause of the flyby anomaly.

But Ellison has nothing to do with this collection other than his review. The book is a collection of horror stories (this was a surprise to me) which seem to have nothing in common except that most of them raise the question "why is this happening to this person?"; in none of the stories is that question answered, which I guess is fairly standard in the horror genre but is a bit unsatisfying over the course of a dozen or so stories.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I feel like there are only a couple of stories that I'll revisit in the future - those stories, though, I think that I'll be revisiting often, if only to banish them from my dreams.

"A Wind from the South" - Dennis Etchison
A woman alone confronts youth and possibility while wondering about the shifting realities around her. Spooky and distant, this story suggests wonderful things of the novel it's excerpted from.

"House of Cool Air" - William F. Wu
This story makes me want more and more and more of it to flesh out the world that Wu offers only a tantalizing glimpse of. Reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale in its tone and character, the story raises more questions than it answers and allows the reader to fill in their own blanks.

"Morning Terrors" - Peter Crowther
What the actual fuck? I really wanted to fall into the world of this short, and by the end I just couldn't manage it. And again: what the actual fuck?

"Circle of Lias" - Lawrence C. Connolly
Feels like a horror story as told by Phillip K. Dick - a fascinating exploration of onrushing madness brought about by stress and a random encounter with a cult.

"Misadventure in the Skin Trade" - Don D'Ammassa
I really like it when someone gets a look inside of a crazy person's head right; the obsession and suspicion that fill the pages of this short do a pretty good job of making you feel just as crazy as the narrator.

"Watching the Soldiers" - Dirk Strasser
A very interesting modern fable that makes a wonderful commentary about the allure of war, the reasons we fight, questioning authority, and exploring deeper reasons for peace. I'm not sure how this fits in the horror genre, but I really enjoyed finding this little gem.

"The Ocean and all its Devices" - William Browning Spencer
This feels like Spencer's ode to Lovecraft and if it is it's a wonderful one. Creepy, dark, and sad with just the right overtones of overwhelming, incomprehensible horrors hiding under the surface of the world.

"One in the A.M." - Rachel Drummond
I hated this story. The anthology editors make note that part of the problem with short-short stories is that the surprise is predictable. The problem in THIS story is that I didn't care about the surprise. I just wanted to finish it and be done with it. Fuck second person voice. The only person who I have ever read who has done second person voice well was Italo Calvino in the prologue to If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, and that was largely because he was making a wry commentary on second person voice in particular and literature in general. Seriously. Fuck second person.

"A Side of the Sea" - Ramsey Campbell
I'm not sure where this story wanted to go, and I didn't particularly enjoy the route it took to get there. The language was nice, but it didn't make up for the lack of a plot or a motive.

"Painted Faces" - Gerard Daniel Houarner
Houarner's short was a page turner, but mostly because I wanted to find out what was going on so I could figure out who in the story I hated and who in the story I pitied. Interestingly he managed to write it in such a way that I ended up hating everyone.

"Monotone" - Lawrence Greenberg
I really enjoyed this story for the story, but couldn't stand the way that it was being told. This feels like an authorial experiment to write to the title, but the staccato sentences distracted from and were less interesting than the fascinating subject.

"Dead Leaves" - James C. Dobbs
This was a WONDERFUL story about how different people react to impending death. I didn't really like the (rather sexist) portrayal of female reproductive drive, but I liked everything else - the nature, the embalming procedures, and the remembrance of a life not quite over yet. And the dog. It's hard for a story to go too far afoul when the dog is okay.

"From the Mouths of Babes" - Bentley Little
Icky, surprising, and fun this story made me cringe and it made me curious. Good stuff and bad feelings all around.

"The Long Holiday" - William Ellis
An interesting little piece with a "shocker" that I might have enjoyed more if I hadn't seen it done better in a Neal Gaiman super-short a few years ago. I suppose it's not really fair to compare anyone to Gaiman, but the concept is tired even if it hadn't already been done by the best.

"The Late Mr. Havel's Apartment" - David Herter
There is something REALLY COOL going on here that unfortunately isn't given any legs - this could be the core of a great novel, or even a really good short story, but I feel like too much attention is paid to minor details and the best possibilities go unexplored.

"Union Dues" - Gary A. Braunbeck
What makes "factory men" out of generations of people who should know better, who have lived through the sufferings of their fathers? Some really creepy shit, is what. I had a lot of fun reading this short; it did exactly what it needed to in the space that it had, and managed to be surprisingly heart-wrenching at the same time. Some of the dialogue felt a little surrealistically slick, and sucked me out of the story for a couple of minutes, but what are you going to do? I got sucked back in, so the story worked overall.

"Earshot" - Glenn Isaacson
An appealing mechanism that left me cold. Maybe dehumanizing women holds some appeal for some horror readers, but I guess it works better when you don't already feel objectified by random people in your life. Upsetting because it could have worked in a million other ways, but objectifying a woman was the direction the story went.

As a side note, just a general tip for authors: about 50% of your potential audience is made up of women, most of whom have been told at some point in their life to "just sit there and look pretty" or "not to worry your pretty little head about it" or to "ignore it, it's just guy stuff" - we're used to the idea that some people think of us as subhuman: we don't find it shocking or horrifying, we just find it exhausting and boring. Find another trope.

Fee - Peter Straub
If I wanted to know what Peter Straub writes like when he isn't teaming up with Stephen King, I found out. It is awesome.

Fee was a surprisingly long novella tucked away at the end of this collection, just waiting for you to march through the preceding pages so that it could arrest your attention and drop your jaw. It tells the story of a little boy living with a terrifying father, an incapacitated mother, and the slowly creeping insanity that grows in the back of his mind as you follow him through truly horrifying situations. On top the great sense oh-my-god-that's-awful that pervades the novella there is a wonderful, surreal, and sickening story-within-a-story that seems to concentrate and focus the horror - so much of the rest of the story is dream-like, as it's written in a child's voice; the story-within-the-story is disturbingly plausible in contrast while still capturing elements of wonder and magic (these elements are subsequently debased and abused, which seems to crystallize the whole novella into an inescapable nightmare). I enjoyed the hell out of this story, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to read Straub in the future.

Ed. Elizabeth Montelcone and Thomas F. Montelcone. Borderlands 4.
     White Wolf Publishing. Clarkson: Georgia. 1995.

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