Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Nightmares and Dreamscapes is Stephen King's third and, to date, largest collection of short pieces by about 100,000 words. If it weren't for King forgetting that "The Cat from Hell" had not been collected, Nightmares and Dreamscapes would have completely cleared King's published back catalogue of stories he intended to collect.
Yes, Virginia, there are published King stories that have never been collected because King thought they sucked, from the 1960's to the 1980's. "The Cat from Hell" (adapted in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) would finally appear in 2008's collection of otherwise recent stories, Just After Sunset. But other than that accidental omission, King's two collections after this one contain material published after 1993.
Besides being the longest of King's collections, this is also the broadest by about four genres and one non-fiction essay about King's son Owen's Little League baseball team. King was a much more nuanced writer by 1993 than he was earlier in his career, and that generally shows up in places like that excellent baseball essay, mainstream pieces that include "My Pretty Pony", straight-ahead suspense stories such as "Dolan's Cadillac," and homages to hardboiled detective fiction ("Umney's Last Case") and Sherlock Holmes ("The Doctor's Case"). There's also a nifty Cthulhu Mythos story from 1980, "Crouch End."
Where the collection falls down is in the area of horror. The best pure horror story here is the earliest story in the book -- "Suffer the Little Children", from the late 1960's, is a marvelously nasty story. "Chattery Teeth," from the 1990's, is a fun mirror-image of the much-superior "The Monkey" (collected in Skeleton Crew). "The Moving Finger" and "Rainy Season" are both enjoyable duds as horror, with concepts that are simply way too over-used, or that are much funnier than they are scary. "The Night Flier" and "Popsy" are both pretty terrible, vampire stories without any bite.
King's career really is interesting if one now takes completely seriously the concept that the gigantic 1986 horror novel It really did represent King's summation of his fictional concern with horror. There hasn't been much straight horror since, and much of what there has been has been awfully scattershot.
King's best post-It long work of horror fiction, The Library Policeman, is itself essentially a condensed retelling of It. He may always be a horror writer in the popular imagination, but I don't think King's best work has been in horror for decades. In any case, this is a solid collection. Maybe too solid. It's thick as a brick. Recommended.
Monday, May 27, 2013
The Great White Space by Basil Copper (1974): The recently deceased Basil Copper gives us a splendid homage to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, with perhaps a smidgen of Moby Dick, in this tale of an expedition into a mysterious cave system located beneath mountains somewhere in Asia. The exact location is never given because the narrator doesn't want anyone to follow in his expedition's footsteps for reasons that become abundantly clear as the narrative progresses. He only is escaped alone to tell thee.
Narrated decades after the (thankfully fictional) attempt of the 1932 Great Northern Expedition to penetrate the mysteries of that cave system, The Great White Space goes not into the southern polar regions (as Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Jules Verne's The Sphinx of the Ice, and Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym did) but beneath the Earth.
Copper devotes a lot of space and detail early in the text to explaining the technical and logistical preparations for the descent and then the long voyage to 'The Black Mountains', where the entry to the cave system exists. Along the way, two different and somewhat odd Asian tribes are met, and possible taboos about entering the caves encountered. The natives do not go in there, through an artificial cave mouth that stands several hundred feet high.
Once inside the system -- which is, to use a favourite Lovecraftian adjective, cyclopean, as in monstrously huge -- the expedition soon discovers that the entire cave system is artificial, carved or somehow otherwise scooped out of the rock through unknown technological means. Something lurks, of course, though much of the terror of the novel lies in what comes before the Big Reveal.
Unnerving details and an attention to both the squeamish and the Sublime build to the revelation of what waits in the region of The Great White Space, a region paradoxically located miles beneath the Earth. There are things in bottles, a library, and great forms glimpsed in the distance, coming closer. And there comes occasionally from far off the sound of enormous wings.
Some may find this brief novel a tad slow -- the horrors come on-stage fairly late in the game, and explanations are abandoned in favour of mystery and dread. I quite liked the modulation of this novel -- it's quiet and it demands concentration, but it's a page-turner nonetheless. Highly recommended.
Friday, May 24, 2013
This is Copper's first collection, and it contains several stand-outs, though none of the stories moves particularly far into the neo-Lovecraftian cosmic horror he would practice later in his career that would lead to such indispensable works as The Great White Space and "Shaft Number 247." Instead, Copper's first collection reminds me of a variety of different writers at certain points, though it also establishes Copper's gift for building suspense and mystery through the patient and increasingly unnerving accumulation of detail.
"The Great Vore" gives us a Holmesian occult investigator, while "Old Mrs. Cartwright" nicely evokes the nasty horror shorts of Saki. The cool Copper tone is already evident, though later stories would seem more of a totality and less suggestive of homage ("Charon", for example, reads like a British version of a gentle Bradbury fantasy or even a Twilight Zone episode).
"The Great Vore" is tense and detail-packed as it follows Professor Kane's attempts to thwart the murderous operations of an occult cult in Great Britain some time in the middle of the 20th century. "The Grey House" is the story most reminiscent of LeFanu, while "The Cave" suggests some of Algernon Blackwood's traveller's horrors of wandering into dark places in Europe.
"Camera Obscura," an interesting fantasy of justice, was filmed for the 1960's TV show Night Gallery. "The Janissaries of Emilion" is reminiscent of some of Lord Dunsany's and Lovecraft's dream stories, but it achieves its own nasty bit of unsettling business through the patient accumulation of detail -- it's not 'dreamy' but rather very specifically described. Really a very fine first collection of stories. Recommended.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Sunday, May 12, 2013
The Hungry Moon by Ramsey Campbell (1986): Real-world fears of nuclear apocalypse made the late 1970's and 1980's the high point for certain types of horror novels, including ones in which a town or village was threatened by evil that, while coming from outside, would take root in some way in the town itself, in the souls of its citizens. Reagan and Thatcher, nuclear war and the war on the poor, the era of greed and the era of Christian fundamentalism. Come to think of it, it was a lot like now.
The three high points of this particular sub-genre in the 1980's are T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, Stephen King's It, and Ramsey Campbell's The Hungry Moon. All came out within 18 months of one another in the mid-1980's. All feature physically or metaphorically isolated pockets of humanity threatened by a terrible, cosmic creature from Outside that has nonetheless come Inside, to increasingly dire result. Campbell's novel most overtly deals with Thatcherism, Reaganism, and nuclear fears; it's also the most succinct of the three, though it's by no means short.
The small English Peaks District town of Moonwell has annually celebrated the coming of Spring with a flower-laying ritual around the entrance to a cave that gives the town its name. Once upon a time, something was vanquished there, though no one knows what, or if the story derives from a real-life event dating back to the Roman Occupation.
But then an American evangelist comes to town, vowing to descend into the cave to demonstrate that pagan rites have no place in Christianity, no matter how distanced they've become from their origins. As the evangelist prepares, the town begins to sink deeper and deeper into fundamentalist Christian hysteria.
As with It, The Hungry Moon posits a place subtly compromised over the centuries by a hidden heart of evil, gradually growing. And as in both of the other novels mentioned above, only outsiders to the place, either metaphorically or literally, are uncompromised enough to see the growing horror and act against it.
Campbell weaves together Lovecraftian cosmicism, English and Roman history, and the sort of real-world cultural artifacts that seem improbable but are actually real -- the songs about "Harry (or Hairy) Moony" are derived from real, traditional, disturbing songs. The Romans did indeed get completely freaked out by ceremonies of the people we (incorrectly) call in their totality the Druids, eliminating many of the people and most historical records of whatever it was that the Druids were doing that could disturb those hard-case, conquering Romans, who were no strangers to human sacrifice themselves. And there were indeed major protests in the 1980's about nuclear missiles on British soil: in this case, some of that soil is uncomfortably close to Moonwell, though most of the residents welcome the new base as a bulwark against godless Communism.
This isn't a perfect novel, though I think many of its faults are due to a need for a bit more length (though not It-level giganticism). The deliberate pacing and gradual introduction of horror give way to a mad rush at the end. But its depiction of evil and weakness in a variety of linked, interdependent forms is terrifically well-thought-out, as is the central monster. It's a humdinger. Highly recommended.
Friday, May 10, 2013
The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell (2002): This novel, deliberately paced and filled to the bursting with unnerving, telling detail, is Campbell's most (Arthur) Machenesque long work, firmly in the tradition of that seminal horror writer's "The Great God Pan" and "The White People." There are cosmic, Lovecraftian elements as well -- Machen was one of the great influences on H.P. Lovecraft's conception of horror, after all.
30 years prior to the main events of the novel, biologist Lennox Price attempted to discover and contain whatever psychoactive agent had been mentally crippling generations of people unfortunate enough to encounter it in the small, ancient grove of Goodmanswood in the Severn Valley near Campbell's fictional city of Brichester.
Lennox apparently succeeded, but at the cost of his own sanity. Now, he and other similarly compromised men and women live in a mental hospital in Goodmanswood. His eldest daughter, wife, and grandson live nearby.
But a widening of the highway around the wood -- and the destruction of several of the trees therein -- seems to have awakened something. Or maybe it was never asleep. And while his younger daughter, wife, and grandson all seem to have been mentally influenced by the wood, it's eldest daughter Heather who will ultimately have to piece together what's been going on in the woods since before the Romans came. Birds fly over the wood, but they refuse to land anywhere in it, and wildlife has always been strangely absent.
This is Campbell's most densely descriptive novel, one with a fairly straightforward plot but an immensity of destabilizing descriptions and things almost but not quite seen. The wood itself was planted by the Romans to obscure or erase something that was there before, something the people we call the Druids either worshipped or feared. Or both.
Campbell's cheeky sense of humour occasionally shines through -- there's a particularly funny bit about religious book-burning -- but for the most part this is serious stuff. As Heather discovers early on, the Devil was often placated by being referred to as 'The Good Man.'
Readers who require subtext will certainly find some here (some of the effects of the thing or things in Goodmanswood closely resemble global warming, while others evoke the impact of non-indigenous plant and animal species on new environments). But the horror here is ultimately the Thing itself, and the price required to acknowledge it, much less stop it. Highly recommended.