Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Dark Descent: The Evolution of Horror edited by David Hartwell

The Dark Descent is a peculiarly difficult anthology to review because if it had a different title and reason-to-be, I'd be a lot less judgmental about it. Let's say the title is '60 Horror Short Stories and Novellas that David Hartwell Really Enjoyed.' Fine. I can get fully behind that anthology. So if that anthology were this anthology, contents unchanged, I give it a solid A- and request that in subsequent printings of this enormous trade paperback, TPTB print it on lighter paper.

This is, quite seriously, the heaviest 950-page book I have ever read. My forearms grew three sizes from reading it. It's so big and heavy, it was broken up into not two but three volumes for its mass-market paperback edition (for the record, those paperbacks -- with the titles of the three thematic sections of the HC/TPB -- are The Color of Evil, The Medusa in the Shield and A Fabulous Formless Darkness).

However, this anthology is supposed to be a useful all-in-one-volume survey of horror literature from its beginnings to the present day, the present day being the early 1990's, when the book was published. And as a survey, it's a bit of a bollocks on three fronts.

1) Thematic Organization: Generally speaking, I'd say historical surveys need to follow some semblance of chronological order. You can play with this a bit by having lots of sub-categories with, say, three representative stories in chronological order. Having no discernible order, though, and only three vague categories of horror, really doesn't help the hypothetical reader who's new to horror. I can figure out when certain things were published, sort of, and how they link together, because I've read a bloody awful lot of horror. A new reader can't, and thus can't actually get much of an idea of how M.R. James leads to, say, Robert Aickman.

2) Dates: Unless I missed them somewhere, this anthology doesn't provide a clear and consistently deployed explanation of when the stories were published. This is a really irritating omission, and one easily remedied by putting dates on the various stories.

3) ...But He Sure Loves Robert Aickman: Of the 60+ stories in this anthology, three are by Robert Aickman and three are by Stephen King. So 10% of the history of horror is tied up in Stephen King and some British guy no-one who doesn't read a lot of horror has ever heard of.

This wouldn't be as much of a problem if Hartwell hadn't bewilderingly left out Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson and limited M.R. James to the short and somewhat second-tier "The Ash-Tree." Machen and Hodgson and James are as central to the development of the horror story in English as Dickens and Thackeray and Joyce are to the development of the English novel. Maybe moreso. But they're only represented by one measly James story.

Now, this anthology deserves some love, not as a useful or even decent survey, but as an occasionally eclectic assortment of horror stories. And unlike the woeful, smug Masterpieces of Horror and the Supernatural survey anthology edited by the woeful and smug Marvin Kaye, The Dark Descent confines itself to stories that can actually inspire horror and terror and unease. So kudos to the unlikely but apt inclusion of Thomas Disch's "The Asian Shore", Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights", Philip K. Dick's "A Little Something For Us Tempunauts" and Michael Shea's "The Autopsy", among others.

The Terror, the Terror, yawn....

The Terror by Dan Simmons (2006): If there's a preset figure for the number of pages one can read in a lifetime, The Terror ate up 760 pages of that total without giving much back. But being one of those people who will almost always finish a novel, I finished it.

I think I may actually have skipped about 50 pages total in my rush to the end, but I finished it. The whole mess makes Stephen King's extended version of The Stand look like a model of narrative economy by comparison.

The Terror is about the doomed Franklin expedition of the 1840's which set out to find the Northwest Passage with two ships -- the Terror and the Erebus -- and ended with everyone dead. Well, so far as we know. Pack ice and fire destroyed the two ships, and only scattered bodies and camp sites and sledges give any indication of what happened to the expedition, and why.

Historically, the expedition fell prey to two years of being stuck in the ice off King William Island; its own lack of knowledge about how to survive north of the Arctic Circle; the complete lack of a Northwest Passage through the ice; and food poisoning brought on by tinned food prepared for the expedition by a really low bidder. Technically speaking, it's probably the last thing that really ensured the death of everyone involved before any attempt at rescue could get close to the two ships -- inadequate canning and cooking probably more-than-halved the expedition's food supply, which was enough to last for seven years. Botulism, lead poisoning from the lead solder used to seal the cans, and putrid food helped seal the deal.

In the novel, however, a magical polar-bear demon-god-thingie picks off members of the expedition by ones and twos as they sit stuck in the ice pack by King William Island. Starvation, scurvy, lead poisoning, botulism and mutiny take care of the rest. The captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, alone survives to become a sort of shaman in a legion of Inuit shaman entrusted with the job of keeping the bear-demon from coming too far south. They basically do this by entertaining the bear-demon. Crozier marries an Inuit woman-shaman much younger than himself and goes off to have magical adventures in the far North. The polar bear demon will eventually sicken and die from eating white souls, which are poisonous to it, and the demon's death will cause global warming to begin. The End.

The worst thing about the novel was the repeated regurgitation of research (doesn't that sound like a Stan Lee line?). I knew I was in trouble when one of the Ice Masters shows up for the sole purpose of demonstrating that Simmons has read up on the various Royal Navy terms for ice circa 1847. Or the various scenes (especially funerals) when the book gives us the full name and rank of everyone there. Again and again and again and again and again. Or the number of times the novel sees fit to tell us the same information about a character again and again. I was relieved when John Franklin got killed around page 300 because it meant that I wouldn't be told at length every 20 pages that Franklin was a fanatical teetotaler.

Oh, and the bear demon not only can't be killed by conventional or magical means, it can't even be hurt. Imagine a nineteen-hour version of Jaws in which the shark has a force field around it and you've pretty much imagined The Terror, only with more nautical history and research than three Moby Dicks folded into the mix, all rendered in a serviceable prose style that starts to plod about 200 pages in. Attempts at the poetic and the sublime tend to get derailed into the mundane and the ridiculous by this sort of plain style. The overall effect is that of Moby Dick as reimagined by a pompous newspaper writer.

I also despise the cliched right turn the novel takes in the last 100 pages as it suddenly becomes the story of how a white man 'became' a Native American (well, technically in this case, a Native Canadian). This is not a fruitful literary sub-genre, and is generally the stuff of melodrama (see: Dances with Wolves, Man Called Horse, even Last of the Mohicans). Large swathes of American and Canadian literature have been derailed by the narratives of white people who Learn Better and "become" native people.

Of the magical polar bear, the less said, the better. Ramsey Campbell noted in an essay that "Explanation is the death of horror", and even though it's necessary sometimes, the sudden introduction of Inuit mythology via telepathy 600 pages into the novel was jarring. Campbell does a similar thing structurally in The Hungry Moon, but a lot more interestingly and without providing any clear and definitive answer as to 'what' the long-leggedy beasty of that novel is, while imbuing the telepathic discovery of that knowledge with wonder and terror.

Here, it's like Captain Crozier just got front row tickets to the Encyclopedia of Inuit Mythology. Yippee!

And as I noted earlier, the monster can't be killed, so there's really no point to the whole struggle. Can't even be hurt. But it can be poisoned by the craptastic souls of white people, and when it dies, Global Warming will begin. Hahaha! That is fucking ridiculous!

If you want to read a good Dan Simmons novel, I'd recommend either Summer of Night or Song of Kali. If you want to read a supernatural horror story about the polar regions, go with HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness or John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or Ramsey Campbell's Midnight Sun. Rent the John Carpenter The Thing. Watch the first-season X-Files episode "Ice." Get really drunk and then try to find a cab in London, Ontario on New Year's Eve. But leave The Terror alone.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-monsters, Oh my

The Sorrows of Young Werewolf
Wuthering Heights and Werewolves
Gone with the Frankenstein
The Bell Jar Sans Merci
Finnegan's Bloody Wake of Terror
The French Lieutenant's Werewolf
The Incredible Shrinking Man of La Mancha
Howards End of Days
The Hell House of Mirth
The House of Seven Gables on the Borderland
Never Cry Werewolf
Sons and Lovers and Loup-garouxs
The Shoggoth Always Rings Twice
For Whom the Belle Dame Sans Merci Tolls
As I Lay Dying from a Zombie Bite
The Sound and the Fury of Frankenstein
Ethan Frome Must Die!
Middlemarch of the Penguins
George Romero's The Dead
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manimal
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manitou
Undeath of a Salesman
Bring Me the Head of Damaso Garcia
Zombie and Son
by Charles Dickens
Gone with the Wendigo
The Stone Angel of Death