Sure, everyone knows Dracula and Frankenstein. Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are spoken of in reverential tones. Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice are household names who reach the top of the bestseller lists book after book. Despite all that, horror fiction -- as a genre -- has yet to find a steady home on bookstore shelves or publishers' lists. The classics that birthed the horror genre are racked with "literature." Commercially successful authors are "fiction" writers, regardless of the ghosts, vampires and other ghouls that populate their books. Occasionally, there'll be a vampire craze or slasher sensation that will inspire the book industry to think of horror as a marketable genre and fill up the shelves with crappy knockoffs of not-very-good movies or bestsellers. A few months later, horror -- as a publishing category -- will fade away once more and horror books will again be buried among "suspense," "fantasy," or whatever category in which they manage to get published.
But like any undead monster, horror rarely stays entombed for very long. And judging by some of the covers, maggots feed on the poor genre while it rots in its temporary grave. But appearances can be deceiving.
Sometimes, under a lurid, trashy cover, a good book might actually get published, but poor marketing (usually none at all) and inappropriate design will ensure its obscurity. Or sometimes (even rarer), quality horror fiction will get published as, (gasp), quality fiction. But will horror readers notice? Most likely, no; because the jacket blurb will do everything it can to avoid even hinting that the book falls within the parameters of horror. And the high-lit set will be put off by the "unrealistic" supernatural menace of the tale, as if fiction's only possible aspiration were mundane realism.
There are a number of writers who, while often displaying no lack of wit, take their horror seriously. They keep exploring its dark pathways regardless of public and market perceptions. They are not satisfied with repeating the cliché chills of bestselling novels, or with doling out sadistic punishments to those who transgress against Christian morality (as seen, for example, in the fate of sexually active teenagers in 1980s slasher movies). Such authors are driven to create weird fictions that not only delve into our primal and cultural fears but also dissect, ridicule and expose them.
So what's horror? Scary stories? Well... sometimes. Horror deals with fear, especially fear of the unknown, most often expressed as fear of the supernatural, or that which is believed to be supernatural. Sex. Foreigners. Authority. Other religions. Taboos. Animals. Nature. Disease. Dreams. Artistic talent. Insanity. Love. Death.
Bad horror fiction indulges these fears without questioning them, or the reasons for them. The best horror fiction deals with the social, cultural, psychological, anthropological and biological origins and dynamics of these fears and how they affect us as individuals and as cultures. Much more than merely scaring readers, quality horror is preoccupied with the existence, causes and consequences of fear.
The "Lucky 13" listed here are contemporary authors of weird horror who have published at least one new horror book since 1991. Many of the usual suspects are absent. The showcased include practitioners of horror ranging from mainstream literary figures not usually associated with the genre to more obscure writers who, for one reason or another, have not found an audience to match their considerable talents. And, of course, several of the names here are among those most often found -- and deservedly so -- on the contents pages of modern horror anthologies, including annuals such as the Datlow/Windling The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror or the Stephen Jones Best New Horror.
He was lying flat on the gurney, and his gaze was fixed on the ceiling; he had the glassy stare of a man in shock. I was concerned that he had been given analgesia, but the attendant assured me that he had not. As we were talking, Mr. Reagan turned his eyes to me: the pupils were wide, dark as olives, and I recognized the dilation of pain and fear. -- from "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report" in The Brains of Rats
The fiction of Michael Blumlein, a medical doctor, is deeply rooted in biology. It blends, in a most provocative fashion, medical and biological information with narrative. His precise and incisive prose cuts through lies and ugliness like a merciless avenging scalpel. Not surprisingly, there is, even in Blumlein's most disturbing texts, the desire to heal, or immense sadness before horrors that refuse to be healed. The Brains of Rats (1990) is a collection of 12 stories; its highlights include the title story, "The Thing Itself," and "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report," in which is described, in meticulous detail, the live dissection of an unanaesthetized Ronald Reagan. X,Y - a harsh novel of gender oppression, anatomy and confused identities -- was released in 1993.
On television, a man beat a white baby seal over the head with a wooden truncheon. The seal screamed while its head spewed dark blood on to the snow. Japanese fishermen pulled in huge fishing nets full of dead dolphins. Friend stood next to the set and barked. -- from "Friend's Best Man" in The Panic Hand
Jonathan Carroll is best known for his first novel, The Land of Laughs (1980), and for the six-volume sequence of loosely linked novels that began with Bones of the Moon (1987) and ended with his best -- and scariest -- novel, From the Teeth of Angels (1994). His tales -- featuring characters with vivid and complex emotions -- are profoundly moving. In Carroll's work, the universe is filled with mysterious forces that take perverse pleasure in interfering with people's lives. Hope and salvation lie in the strength of relationships -- with humans and animals. It is when characters allow their ties to the living world to fritter away or deteriorate -- even in the subtlest ways -- that the malevolent supernatural finds a space to invade their existence. Carroll's greatest strength is the empathy and deftness with which he portrays relationships, between friends, lovers, human and dog, or mentor and apprentice. The Panic Hand (1995) collects his stories, and his most recent novel is The Marriage of Sticks (1999).
The countess bit the girl's nipples, first one, then the other, drawing blood. She caressed the length of Ilona's neck, then pressed softly, looking for the pure notes that had moved everyone to tears. Where were those notes? She squeezed harder, expecting those angelic sounds to rise unbidden from the depths of the girl's soul. But nothing came out, not even a cry of fear. -- from The Blood Countess
Essayist, poet, editor and NPR broadcaster Andrei Codrescu's two latest novels reveal his unexpected affinity for horror. Messiah (1999) is an engaging, if flawed, New Orleans love story set amidst human and supernatural millennial hijinks. The Blood Countess (1995), a much more successful and subtle work, is made up of two intertwined plotlines: the historical story of the notorious Countess Bathory, who bathed in the blood of virgins to preserve her beauty, and the modern-day travails of an Hungarian-American -- Bathory's descendent -- who goes back to the old country and confronts his bloody heritage.
Upon first viewing the woman's loathsomely mutilated corpse, one of the troubling thoughts he was still contending with had been, This is the work of a doctor. -- from The List of 7
Co-creator, with David Lynch, of the kitsch horror/mystery television series Twin Peaks, Mark Frost has also written two novels, both starring a fictionalized Arthur Conan Doyle. The first, The List of 7 (1993), features a young, pre-Holmes Doyle. It's a roller-coaster ride that combines 19th-century spiritualism, insidious conspiracies, Doylian mystery, supernatural menaces and the breakneck pacing and dramatic cliffhangers (at the end of every chapter) of 1940s Hollywood serials. The sequel, The 6 Messiahs (1995), is set ten years later, at the height of Doyle's fame. The author is again embroiled in a supernatural adventure of apocalyptic proportions, this time more inspired by the pulps, from the gory menaces of Terror Tales to the more sophisticated chills of Weird Tales.
The next morning I was woken by a rough hand on my shoulder. I sat up quickly and found myself staring into the ravaged face of something that had once been human. Its features were as twisted and swollen as a gargoyle's, the beard and hair a shock of white. Red eyes glared from deep pits of pain. -- from "The Dissemblers" in The Songbirds of Pain
The prodigiously versatile Garry Kilworth wears many literary hats, from historical novelist to author of children's books, from science-fiction writer to weaver of animal fables. It was inevitable that somewhere along the way he would also pen some horror. Angel (1993) is a page-turning thriller that combines the police procedural with Biblical horror: two San Franciscan police detectives investigate a mysterious outbreak of arson, only to battle an angel who has decided to bring the war between Heaven and Hell to Earth. A sequel, Archangel, followed in 1994. His best book is The Songbirds of Pain (1984). It collects beautifully sculpted tales of astonishing diversity, most of them devastatingly painful. Kilworth skillfully contrasts a probing intimacy with his large canvas of a universe filled with unknown wonders and terrors. Other excellent collections -- all of them featuring tales of terror and the supernatural -- include In the Hollow of the Deep-Sea Wave (1989), Hogfoot Right and Bird-Hands (1993), and In the Country of Tattooed Men (1993).
Willard's tattoos were crawling all over his body like worms, in and out of his empty, blackened eye sockets. His nostrils had become two large round holes in his face, and his lips were gone, showing a wide mouth with smoldering teeth. Willard still had the gun, but there in the blue lightning you could see that it had fused with his hand, become one with flesh and bone. The tiger Randy had tattooed so lovingly on Willard's stomach was poking a three-dimensional head out and was growling; flesh colored whiskers twitched against its dark face. -- from The Drive-In
In Joe Lansdale's introduction to "Steppin' Out, Summer, '68," included in his best-of collection High Cotton (2000), the prolific Texan writer opines "I think the happily stupid, those people who are that way because they choose to be, or are too lazy or uninspired to be otherwise, are among the scariest people in the world." Consequently, his stories are filled with such people. Lansdale's fiction is characterized by a strange and dark sense of humor and by its unpredictable quirkiness. His fiction has spanned science fiction, westerns, historicals and crime. In virtually every instance, however, his tales are laced with the bad, the ugly and the horrific. In the 1980s, he was at the vanguard of the "cowpunk" movement -- which married westerns and horror -- with novels such as Dead in the West (1986) and Magic Wagon (1986). He co-edited, with Pat LoBrutto, the definitive cowpunk anthology, Razored Saddles (1989). As the 90s neared, he moved more towards the intersection where horror meets crime fiction (which he had previously visited in his first novel, Act of Love, published in 1980), by co-editing, with Karen Lansdale, the dark suspense anthology Dark at Heart (1992) and by writing novels such as Cold in July (1989) and Savage Season (1990). The latter began the Hap Collins series which continued throughout the 90s, the latest of which is Rumble Tumble (1998). His early horror novel, The Nightrunners (1983) introduced the mythology that recurs through much of his fiction, including many of the deliciously deranged stories found in his collections By Bizarre Hands (1989), Bestsellers Guaranteed (1993) and Writer of the Purple Rage (1994). The Drive-In (1988) and The Drive-In 2 (1989) recount the horror-movie-inspired fate of a drive-in theater when it becomes strangely isolated from the real world and its patrons turn to cannibalism and the worship of a sadistic popcorn god. His latest novel, The Bottoms (2000), is a historical Texan Gothic set during the Depression. It features -- in addition to the stupid bigots and mutilated corpses that are Lansdale staples -- a folkloric monster called the Goat Man.
She kissed my mouth, slowly and sweetly, and sank the steel of a dagger, warmer by far than her lips, into my raging heart. -- from "Stained with Crimson" in The Book of the Damned
Tanith Lee began her career as a fantasist. She started to explore the regions where fantasy and horror bleed into each other with the five-volume Tales of the Flat Earth (1978-1987). Her writing especially shines when, as in that series, she creates exotic and decadent alternate worlds where demons and other supernatural entities thrive. Later such series include The Secret Books of Paradys (four volumes, 1988-1993) and The Secret Books of Venus (begun in 1998). She has also delivered somewhat more conventional horror with, for example, the Blood Opera sequence (three volumes, 1992-1994) and the vampire novel The Blood of Roses (1990). She is a dedicated short-story writer and her many fascinating collections include Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer (1983), Tamastara, or The Indian Nights (1984), Dreams of Dark and Light (1986) and Nightshades (1993).
This morning His Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse; one in particular, which was apparently concocted from virgin's piss (where did they find a virgin in Rome?) and a rare herb from the private hortus siccus of Bonet de Lattes, the pope's Jewish physician-in-chief, stank abominably. Still, it was no worse than the nauseating stench of the festering pustules and weeping ulcers adorning His Holiness's cilicious posterior. -- from Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf
David Madsen is the pseudonym of a European philosopher and theologian. He has published two novels. Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf (1995) is a historical novel set in the 16th century told from the point of view of a dwarf -- secretly a heretical Gnostic -- who is Pope Leo X's most intimate confidant. It oozes decadence and bodily fluids. Its descriptions of Gnostic rituals are riveting and its re-creation of the era is resplendent in its unfettered filthiness. Confessions of a Flesh-Eater (1997) is the the tale of a gourmet's passionate cannibalism.
'It was long ago. Do you remember my enemies? Dr Mabuse? His criminal empire was like a spider's web. The Führer himself asked me to root it out and destroy it. He poisoned young Germans with drugs and spiritualism. Was I wrong to persecute him? And the others? Graf von Orlok, the nosferatu? Dr Caligari, and his somnambulist killers? The child-slayer they called "M"? Stephen Orlac, the pianist with the murderer's hands.' -- from "Übermensch!" in Famous Monsters
Kim Newman's characters are often doppelgangers of famous and obscure people from both history and fiction. Newman cleverly entertains by revisiting preexisting characters and styles, but he also exposes the political underpinnings at the root of horror fads and superstitions. The Anno Dracula series, begun in 1992, postulates a world in which Bram Stoker's Dracula really happened, except that, in the end, the sexually potent vampire triumphed over the sexually repressed Victorians. Newman never retells Stoker, but imagines a new world history resulting from his premise. His series Where the Bodies Are Buried, juxtaposing slasher cinema with Thatcherism and other right-wing horrors, consists of four stories, collected two apiece -- along with other great stories -- in Famous Monsters (1995) and Seven Stars (2000). Other works in the horror genre include his epic of religious cultism and megalomania, Jago (1992), the Faustian melodrama The Quorum (1994), and the collection The Original Dr. Shade & Other Stories (1994).
I discovered Castle years before he acquired the cult following my life's work as scholar, critic, and enthusiast would one day bring him. In my case, the sacramental supper was a single flawed film, a dancing phantom of light and shadow only dimly perceived, less than half understood. -- from Flicker
Cultural critic Theodore Roszak (of The Making of a Counterculture fame) is also a horror novelist. Most noteworthy are his two most recent novels. Flicker (1991), his masterpiece, is an intricate conspiracy novel that -- through the narrator's obsession with Max Castle, an obscure (and fictional) German director of the silent era -- delicately and inextricably weaves together facts and fiction of religious and cinematic history. The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (1995), winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, recontextualizes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the struggle between feminine paganism and masculine science, ecological empathy and destructive conquest.
Some will tell you that to feel guilt or remorse over the vast inaction of our society is utter foolishness; life, they insist, is patently unfair, and all anyone can do is look out for his own interest. Perhaps they are right; perhaps we are so mired in our self-conceptions that we can change nothing. Perhaps this is the way of the world. But, for the sake of my soul and because I no longer wish to hide my sins behind a guise of mortal incapacity, I tell you it is not. -- from "A Spanish Lesson" in The Jaguar Hunter
Lucius Shepard's stories, especially the early ones, are unabashedly angry and engaged. There are horrible monsters loose upon the world, but they are the result of our rapacious greed and boundless cruelty. If the supernatural strikes out at us, it is because in its desperation nature needs to call on it to avenge the evils humanity has perpetrated upon the world. These devastating and powerful tales are collected in The Jaguar Hunter (1987), The Ends of the Earth (1991), and Kalimantan (1993). His excellent first novel, Green Eyes (1984), ostensibly science fiction, reeks of supernatural danger. Life During Wartime (1987) describes an imperialist war in a near-future South America engineered by a powerful family of telepaths. The Golden (1993) is a lushly imagined vampire novel. His most recent book, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories (1997), for the most part somewhat lighter fare than earlier Shepard, contains only one horror piece, "A Little Night Music."
William Browning Spencer
Zombies, of course, take no pride in their appearance. -- from Résumé with Monsters
William Browning Spencer's Résumé with Monsters (1995), slipping from one moment to the next from slapstick comedy to oppressive paranoia, reads like a cross between Woody Allen, Franz Kafka and Weird Tales. The protagonist is a would-be writer who, without his prescription drugs, sees the evil space gods of H.P. Lovecraft lurking around every corner. But are the drugs restoring or blocking reality? Do his analyst and his girlfriend ever believe anything he says? In Zod Wallop (1995), experimental psychiatric drugs cause the fantasy world of a children's book author to invade reality. Spencer's books are peopled with strange, dysfunctional eccentrics caught in situations in which their already feeble grasp on reality is often strained beyond the breaking point. Irrational Fears (1998) is in the same vein. His first collection of stories -- and they are delightfully bizarre -- is The Return of Count Electric (1993).
Of course what really got the place's reputation permanently into trouble was the Worper child, Wendell, who'd killed his bullying mother and then stitched her up and stuffed her because he felt guilty about hacking her into small, gory pieces with his ax, and because he didn't like messes. When Wendell saw that she'd come out of the process looking rather well it seemed to have stirred up some sort of peculiar creative spark in the boy and inspired him to go on to produce further artistic sculptures using the corpses of other ladies he'd acquired from various local graveyards rather than killing a variety of old women who'd been unlucky enough to remind him of his mother. -- from "Them Bleaks" in The Cleft and Other Odd Tales
Gahan Wilson's ghoulishly funny cartoons appear in such widely differing magazines as Playboy, The New Yorker and Fantasy & Science Fiction. He is also the editor of several anthologies of fantasy, horror, and crime fiction. And, occasionally, much too rarely, he writes short gems of absolute weirdness. Macabre humor lurks within Wilson's prose, waiting to pounce on the reader. But don't be misled by the mention of humor. Gahan Wilson's erudite tales -- collected in The Cleft and Other Odd Tales (1998) -- are filled to the brim with murders and murderous intentions, monsters human and supernatural, despair and suicidal desires, and all the creepy, eerie stuff nightmares are made of. | October 2000
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.