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Interior Darkness: Selected Stories, by Peter Straub, Doubleday, 2016, $28.95.
Good Girls, by Glen Hirshberg, Tor, 2016, $26.99.
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle, Tor, 2016, $12.99.
The tale of terror, incorporating ghosts, monsters, demons—any manifestation of the invasive, outsider Other—is almost certainly our most ancient storytelling mode. It's not a long narrative leap from minatory tales told around a firepit (wander off from the blaze and you're something's dinner) to "Beowulf" (fall asleep around the hearth and you're something else's dinner), though a somewhat longer one to the first Golden Age of supernatural fiction, encompassing the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (draw your chair closer to the fireplace and listen up, after you've finished your nice dinner). By the late twentieth century, the tale of terror had evolved, or devolved, into a sort of pop cultural comfort food, its overripe embellishments providing cozy embonpoint to what had once been a skeletal figure waiting silently just beyond the ring of firelight.
In Danse Macabre, his classic 1981 book on the nature and meaning of horror stories, Stephen King neatly ascribes three levels to horror fiction. The most elevated, "finest emotion is terror," in which what we imagine is far worse than anything we might actually see. (Keep your eyes on that blaze in front of you and try not to think of what's in the surrounding forest.) The second level is horror, the primal fear that underlies terror and which is often made explicit by inviting a "physical reaction by showing us something that is physically wrong." (Just imagine Beowulf brandishing Grendel's severed arm.) The third level is "the gag reflex of revulsion." (Through the miracle of 3D Imax, take a good long look at Grendel's severed arm.)
Which brings us to our own century and a question: What constitutes the literature of terror in the age of terror?
I would suggest we're not living in an age of terror but an age of horror, with the news equivalent of snuff films streaming 24/7. Even those of us with cast-iron psyches may find it difficult at the end of the day to willingly pick up a story that promises to terrify or horrify; and yet we do. Affect horror still exists (remember the 1980s splatterpunk boom?), though it's more likely now to be shown onscreen.
But much contemporary horror tends toward the more self-aware, self-referential, even self-correcting end of the spectrum. This is probably unavoidable: We live in a second Golden Age of supernatural fiction, a remarkable efflorescence of fantastic literature that may be inseparable from decadence, in this case the deterioration of text-driven media as they're replaced by images. A love for and knowledge of literary forebears has been a hallmark of supernatural literature at least since the Romantics: a melancholy sense of belatedness underlies the Gothic impulse as much as the desire to impart unease. Harold Boom offered "the special case of the anxiety of influence as a variety of the uncanny," and literary influences, anxiety-producing or not, infuse contemporary fantastika like an opium tincture.
But Peter Straub's riffs on predecessors like Arthur Machen, Henry James, or John Ashbery, among others, reveal less anxiety of influence than reveling in the literary canon, the way a great jazz musician will improvise a standard tune and make it something extraordinary—and, in Straub's case, very, very disturbing.
The sixteen elegant, often terrifying stories in Peter Straub's Interior Darkness are drawn from the last quarter-century of this magisterial writer's work: the collections Houses Without Doors, Magic Terror, and 5 Stories. There are also three previously published but uncollected stories. Some of the tales relate directly or tangentially to Straub's Blue Rose trilogy, the novels Koko, Mystery, and The Throat, but one needn't have read that overarching work to be moved and acutely disturbed by the stories in Interior Darkness, which represent the best short fiction in his long and much-honored career.
It's relatively easy to describe the action in any given Straub story, which can involve any number of horrors: pedophilia, child abuse or neglect, lynching, rape, sexual jealousy, encroaching madness, torture. But it's far more difficult to assess or describe the experience and impact of reading the stories here, most of which I have read before. Like Robert Aickman, Peter Straub is a master of inexplicable terror, shining a blinding light on that which cannot or should not be revealed. Few of these tales rely on supernatural effects: in those that do, like the brilliant "Pork Pie Hat," the supernatural is inextricable from purely human evil, which is far more terrifying, and which permeates nearly every narrative in this collection.
"Blue Rose" depicts a childhood steeped in casual familial violence, the backstory for a character in Straub's bestseller Koko. The protagonist, Henry Beevers, himself brutalized by his older brother, hypnotizes, tortures, and eventually kills his younger sibling, a practice run for the Vietnam War atrocities he later commits in Koko. "The Juniper Tree" takes a similar instance of childhood trauma and raises it to the sublime, that moment when, in scholar Jack Sullivan's words, "beauty and horror ring out at the same moment." During summer vacation, the nameless narrator, a seven-year-old boy, sneaks off to a seedy theater to watch back-to-back showings of Alan Ladd movies. There he's repeatedly abused by a pedophile, and it's a demonstration of Straub's genius that he perfectly captures the dissociative horror of trauma, its combination of hyper-real attention to detail and almost dreamy detachment, and also the fetishistic, repetitive power trauma can exert:
But when I tried to speak, I could not remember what it was that I remembered, only that there was something to remember, and so I walked again and again…repeating myself like a fable.
The protagonist of "Blue Rose" becomes a murderer. In "The Juniper Tree," he becomes a successful novelist, whose description of the act of writing mirrors both the obsessive, repetitive nature of sexual compulsion, and the victim's immurement in a narrative he cannot escape.
It is a fierce, voracious activity. Every sentence must be tested three or four ways, made to clear fences like a horse. The purpose of every sentence is to be an arrow into the secret center of the book. To find my way into the secret center. I must hold the entire book, every detail and rhythm, in my memory. This comprehensive act of memory is the most crucial task of my life.
Nearly every story here is a sinister joy. In addition to the two mentioned, I love "Ashputtle," a brief, astringent take on "Cinderella" featuring a monstrous kindergarten teacher; "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Chuff," a grotesquely funny revenge novella that riffs on "Bartleby the Scrivener;" "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine," a macabre, magical realist romance that, like "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Chuff," makes good use of surgical instruments and various body parts; "Mr. Aickman's Air Rifle;" "Little Red's Tango;" and my favorite of all Straub's stories, the novella "Pork Pie Hat," wherein a legendary jazz musician on the skids (inspired by Lester Young) recounts a childhood experience that occurred on Halloween. Every time I read it, it makes my hair stand on end, and I still can't quite figure out how he does it. I can only say that his description of the eponymous Hat could stand as a description of Peter Straub himself: "He was like someone who had passed through a great mystery, who was passing through a great mystery, and had to speak of what he had seen, what he was seeing."
Glen Hirshberg's 2012 novel Motherless Child was one of the best and most original vampire tales to come down the pike since Kathryn Bigelow's 1987 film Near Dark. Natalie and Sophie are music-nerd single moms in North Carolina, twenty-something childhood friends on the downhill slope of adolescence, working dead-end jobs and savoring their few chances to have an evening out unencumbered by babies. The novel dispenses with the usual slow buildup to an encounter with the undead. Instead, after ten and a half pages, wham bam thank you ma'am, the two wake up after karaoke night at a New South bar to find they've been irrevocably changed, by an encounter—more of a date rape of which they have little memory—with a vampiric figure known only as the Whistler. At once appalled and exhilarated by what they're become, the two young women leave their infants with Natalie's mother, Jess. They hit the road, Thelma and Louise style, with the Whistler, who's obsessed with Natalie, in pursuit. The novel has a high body count, and ends with Natalie dead on a beach, killed by her mother, and Sophie mortally injured.
After a brief prelude where we meet Aunt Sally, surviving matriarch of the nameless vampire clan, Good Girls, the sequel to Dead Girls, introduces us to Rebecca, an orphaned student at a small New Hampshire college. Rebecca is one of the novel's titular good girls, an earnest student who works at a women's shelter and volunteers at her school's crisis hotline, where she receives a disturbing call that she thinks is from a suicidal young man. The caller is in fact the Whistler, and his otherworldly allure is powerful enough that Rebecca goes off-script and responds to him flirtatiously. Horrified when he abruptly hangs up, she speed dials the police to report what she thinks is his suicide attempt.
The story now begins in earnest, as the narrative returns, in medias res, to three weeks earlier and Ocean Beach, where Sophie is trying to pick up the pieces of her life—quite literally, as the Whistler has severed her legs. She survives, thanks to her undead status, and despite having only stumps for locomotion, retains the supernatural sexual luster that vampires radiate like a pheromone. Her baby is dead, but not Natalie's infant, Eddie, who remains untainted by his mother's craving for blood.
Natalie's mother, Jess, has also survived. Against her better judgment—she knows Sophie is a vampire, just as Natalie was—she doesn't kill Sophie.
"How could you do this?" Jess blurted out. "How could you let this happen? Either one of you? You were good girls, Sophie, you were such…
"You were such good girls," she whispered.
This bizarre family unit eventually makes its way to the same small town where Rebecca lives, and where the Whistler has come in search of Jess, intent on killing her because she murdered his beloved Natalie. At this point the various narrative strands begin to weave together, and the novel, somewhat frenetic up until now, finally hits its groove.
Good Girls is a more visceral horror novel than Motherless Child. With Natalie dead, it lacks the intense, increasingly desperate friendship that was the heart of the earlier novel, and gave it much of its oddball charm. Still, by making the damaged, grief-mad, yearning Sophie the emotional center of his tale, Hirshberg ensures our attention never leaves her.
Like Miss Havisham, Rebecca thought, only young. Not young Miss Havisham of the doomed, blind love, but old, vengeful Miss Havisham, younger.
The satisfyingly gruesome surprise ending nicely sets us up for the third and final book in Hirshberg's brilliant, darkly captivating trilogy. Good girls may go to heaven, but undead bad girls go everywhere.
Victor LaValle dedicates his novella "The Ballad of Black Tom" to H.P. Lovecraft, "with all my conflicted feelings." LaValle, an African-American writer whose marvelous novels Big Machine and The Devil in Silver successfully blurred the lines between horror, thriller, science fiction, and mainstream fiction, here takes on the repellently racist Lovecraft, whose Cthulhuian cosmic horror cast its shadow and its spell over Big Machine, and now "The Ballad of Black Tom."
Tommy Tester is a young black man in 1920s Harlem, working a con where he impersonates a down-and-out jazz guitarist in order to support his ill father. One day, a well-dressed mark offers Tommy a job: he asks him to deliver a mysterious book containing The Supreme Alphabet to a mysterious woman in Queens named Ma Att. Tommy does so, but first he carefully removes and pockets the volume's last sheet of parchment. One doesn't have to be a fan of Lovecraft to know something eldritch is afoot (or a-slime), especially when the mark later offers Tommy (a terrible musician) five hundred dollars to play at a party at his Flatbush mansion. Tommy accepts and, armed with the stolen parchment and an enigmatic song his father taught him—conjure music—ventures out to Brooklyn, with dire consequences.
LaValle cleverly subverts Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos by imbuing a black man with the power to summon the Old Ones, and creates genuine chills with his evocation of the monstrous Sleeping King, an echo of Lovecraft's Dagon. And while the novella has a satisfying slingshot ending, I wanted much more of the story's rich cultural and historical milieu, and much more of LaValle's subversion of Lovecraft. "The Ballad of Black Tom" begs to be expanded into a novel, graphic novel, or movie that will bring this visionary tale to a bigger audience.
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