Jeffrey Ford’s CRACKPOT PALACE (William Morrow, 2012) is a prime example of what I like to call a “showcase collection”. Some writers assemble their collections so all the stories are of a piece. This could be by design before the tales are written, or carefully selected afterward from a larger crop. In both cases, the goal to evoke a certain feeling or message from the sum of the parts. This does not seem to be what Ford has done with CRACKPOT PALACE. Instead, the book’s raison d’être is to showcase the wide range of stories that Ford writes. This is just as valid a method of collecting work, especially in the case of a writer like Ford—one who is capable of writing fantastic fiction across a wider spectrum.
As a result, the contents of the collection encompass a wide variety of styles. Some, like the vampire tale, “Sit the Dead”, take a unique approach to tired subject matter, weaving in a deliciously dry sense of humour. Others like “Dr. Lash Remembers” are steampunk-for-steampunk-haters. Then there’s “Glass Eels”, a bizarre noir crime story about two schlubs trying to make their big score. Ford runs the gamut of locations, styles, and topics. There may be something for everyone, which is unsurprising considering Ford’s place as one of our top fantasists.
CRACKPOT PALACE won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection, and for good reason. Showcase collections can become dilute and unwieldy without a strong voice to guide them. Rest assured, Ford has that voice, and the results are as fascinating as they are mesmerizing.
T. E. D. Klein’s DARK GODS (Viking, 1985) is one of those books, the sort that gets called “influential” in interviews with other authors, that is a staple of the “best of” lists whenever they appear. And it is with good reason. DARK GODS is the sort of book that encapsulates how exciting the Horror genre was during the heyday of the boom. At no other time could a book of four novellas inspired not only by the California Circle but by the Lovecraftian Circle go on to become an international best-seller.
One striking aspect of the book is that Klein’s protagonists, for all their eduction, are unfaithful and flawed men. They are questioning, rational, and almost as a whole self-absorbed without quite realizing it, or caring to. When the supernatural invades their world, they don’t believe it, instead trying to think it away. But the threats that face them are often too big to be considered, and though these men are able, for the most part, to survive their experiences, it is this reflection that proves to be the true vector for horror. It is what’s revealled in the aftermath that they have to find a way to reconcile.
In regards to Klein’s craft, he shows a mastery of evoking terror from the accretion of details. Small moments gather and reflect on one another to reveal a horrible tapestry by the tale’s climax. It also leads to turns of phrase that, divorced from their context, are benign, but as a part of the whole become frightening to consider. This is the sort of thing that seperates the experts from the pretenders. And T. E. D. Klein is no pretender. With only these four novellas, and the preceding novel, THE CEREMONIES (Viking, 1984), Klein established himself as a premiere force in the field. A true writer’s writer, even two decades out of the spotlight hasn’t dulled the shine of his star. Nor should it ever.
Lynda E. Rucker’s THE MOON WILL LOOK STRANGE (Karōshi Books, 2013) fits right in with the wave of North American weird and strange fiction releases that have been appearing over the last year or so. By which I mean, it fits in because it explores similar themes yet from its own direction. Where someone like Nathan Ballingrud tackles the concept of loss on reflection, when broken men and women try to cope with what they have experienced, Rucker instead explores it from within the moment of loss itself. Her characters a suffering loss as the stories unfold, and as is so often the case they don’t recognize it or understand it as it is happening. Rucker’s characters do not experience loss as much as they are lost, and the disorientation they feel is mirrored in the reader’s own disorientation, evoked by Rucker’s delicate sense of ambiguity. (See stories such as “No More A-Roving”, or “Beneath the Drops” as examples.) In this way, her work calls to mind one of the most appealing aspects of Robert Aickman’s work—the air of dislocation created by the unfolding of strange and dreamlike events. Rucker is, if nothing else, careful, and that’s something too often absent from even the best of Horror fiction. For lovers of the strange, I can hardly think of a better book to recommend.
I suspect I won’t be the only one posting my thoughts on Joel Lane over the next few days, but this is something I feel the need to get out, even if it ends up repeating what so many others will say.
I can’t begin to express how big of a loss I think it is that Joel has passed away. Living across an ocean from each other, we weren’t close, but I loved and respected him like one does anyone that talented and important. He was a major force in the miserablist movement, that’s true, but even more so to me he was important for the sheer craft he brought to the written word. He contributed a story to SHADOWS EDGE, the book I edited last year, and I remarked to him how incredible it was he could write such a layered and dense story in so few words. He was a master of conciseness, and yet his work was filled with beautiful surreality and dream spaces. He made me intensely jealous with every word I read. And I only wanted more.
His non-fiction was just as fabulous. A regular contributor to Wormwood, I used to look forward to any issue with an essay from him. In fact, this latest issue was to contain the second part of a retrospective on Robert Aickman, and I was disappointed when I found out his health had prevented that from happening. Now, I suppose it never will. I know that he hoped one day to release a critical book about the genre, and it was a book I was very much looking forward to. Another project forever gone. This is what hurts most about death—the loss of all the might-have-beens. There are so many things, so many stories left for Joel to tell. All of them will never be told.
This year, I was as excited as anyone that Joel won his much deserved World Fantasy Award. It was a sign that, finally, what he brought to the world of fantastic fiction was being noticed. In some ways, it makes what happened even more tragic. But I have a funny feeling that Joel influence and impact on this genre is far from over. Similar to folks like Karl Wagner, who also died too early, I think Joel and his work will be remembered for a long time, and his reputation will only get stronger as time moves on. I’m very proud to say I met him, I knew him, I learned from him. It’s not always your heroes are so close. Unfortunately, it’s also true often they are taken away before you are truly ready.
My story “Stemming the Tide” is included in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s DEAD NORTH (2013), a collection of Canadian zombie fiction from Exile Books. Contributors were tasked with writing tales of the dead that were uniquely set in Canada, regardless of time or place. My own piece is set at the Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick. The mechanics of the tide that comes in and out there are true, though I must confess the actual landscape differs in many ways from the real setting. Apart from the walking dead, of course. Still, that landscape isn’t what the story was about, but rather the dissolution of another relationship (if there even was one to begin with) and the growing spite that can happen near its end. This tale came together in a very short time—only a few days, in fact—which its length no doubt suggests, but unlike much of my work it did its coming together in a blazing heat, burning on its way out. I am pleased Ms. Moreno-Garcia liked it enough for her book.
"The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All" (Nightshade Books, 2013), Laird Barron’s latest collection, is one of those books that hardly seems to need a recommendation. Barron does not write the sort of horror fiction horror fans normally encounter, and this is what adds to its potent efficacy. So often, the genre is left toothless by the repetition of common tropes, and the knee-jerk response is to turn the horrors more and more inward, to heighten the reader’s fear through empathsizing with wispy ineffectual losers, or suburban parents. These are grounded relatable everyday fears writ large. Barron is the opposite: his characters are tough, rugged men, used to lives working with their hands (occasionally doing so by placing those hands around other people’s throats), and we don’t empathsize with them at all. We barely understand them, and, if anything, popular media has taught us to admire them. They are the sort of toughs one might watch in a film, taking down scores of faceless villains to protect a daughter, or former lover. They are brave and unflappable and über-capable. So when they encounter things that are terrifying, we expect them to survive intact. We expect them to prevail. When they don’t, when they too are impossibly terrified, when they too are unable to comprehend, let alone dispatch the darkness, we feel our own terror multiplied, our own sense of security destroyed. This is arguably infinitely more frightening then the fey intellectual scholar losing his sanity, or the emotionally damaged single father whose child had turned against him. Barron show us the failure of our strongest means there’s no hope left for us. The darkness has won. It’s a neat trick, the way Barron manipulates us, and is arguably the first new approach to horror fiction in years.