Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best Reads of the Year

It's a rare complaint that there's simply TOO MUCH good writing on one's plate, but that's the case this year. 2015 was filled with too many excellent releases. So many, in fact, that I find myself struggling to pare down the selections into something resembling a "Best of" list. However, what I present to you here is my attempt at just that -- a paring down, a tightening up, a creaming of the crop (which sounds as messy as it is). Undoubtedly, given the quality of releases this year, I've probably forgotten several worthy books that could have (or should have) made the list and, as always, I still have a tower of books on my "to-be-read" pile -- a pile that threatens to crush me flat if it ever topples. So this is not necessarily a comprehensive list; it's a list of books I've managed to get to and can readily recall that made an impact on me this year. Without further ado, then...

My 2015 Best Reads from Everywhere in the Multiverse (in no particular order)

A Quartet of Fine Chaps (the chapbook resurrection is upon us! long live the chapbook resurrection!):

"These Last Embers" - Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Classic Strantzas here. A deliciously ambiguous and unsettling (and in that sense Aickmanesque) fairy tale of loss, separation, and rediscovery. It proves that we CAN go home again, but what we find there may be far from what we expected. Buy it... well... on ebay maybe? It was a limited run, so if you get your hands on one, you're a lucky devil.

"The Visible Filth" - Nate Ballingrud (This is Horror)

Everything you've come to expect and love from Ballingrud. It's visceral, gritty, and unremittingly bleak without losing sight of the common humanity of even the most morally fallible characters, which makes it doubly disconcerting. Buy it here.

"X's for Eyes" - Laird Barron (Journalstone)

Barron Gone Wild. There's no other way to describe this. It's parts gleeful bizarro and cosmic horror that feels as though Barron uncorked the champagne bottle of ideas in his head and let them fly to tremendous effect. Buy it here.

"After" - Scott Nicolay (Dim Shores)

The weight of this novella will crush you in all the best ways. The monstrosity of domestic abuse meets the monstrosity of the unknown in a deeply disturbing tale that forces us to consider whether we accept monsters of all variety a bit too easily. Buy it... well... um... this one's sold out, too. TWICE. Which should tell you how good it is and why you want to track down a copy.


Sing Me Your Scars - Damien Angelica Walters (Apex Publications)

Imagine a glowing, opalescent rose sprouting from a bush of bloodstained razorwire. That's Walters' writing. It's an electric amalgam of visceral imagery, beautiful wordplay, and feminine empowerment, and every one of the tales in this collection showcases it. There's a bladed edge to these stories, a bite that's infectious, but also a strong, beating heart of survival and perseverance in the face of terror and oppression. Buy it here.

The End of the End of Everything - Dale Bailey (Arche Press)

Bailey's collection presents us with the personal and ultimately haunting side of apocalypse in its many forms. The stories herein conjure innumerable dark clouds of gloom and terror but also reveal a silver lining -- however dim or obscured it may be -- within each and every one. It's rare to find stories that are cognizant of the full scope of horror's effect, but Bailey's manage to do exactly that. Buy it here.

Head Full of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay (William Morrow)

Novels need to be pretty special to hook me (which is why there are only three on this list), and so it is with Tremblay's apparent channeling of Shirley Jackson in HFoG, a subtle and unnerving soon-to-be classic exploration of possession, psychosis, the nature and role of family, the haunting power of our own pasts, and the exploitation of it all. Remarkable in every way. Buy it here.

Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales - Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

I've said elsewhere that I believe Slatsky's work is some of the most singularly weird fiction I've encountered in the field, and I stand by that statement. By mining the outer limits of science and the occult to craft for us strange puzzle boxes of stories that make our heads spin and send us to other realms of reality, he cranks the weirdness knob to 11 without ever wandering into absurdity or bizarro territory. An astonishing feat. Buy it here.

Voices in the Night - Steven Millhauser (Knopf)

The Master releases another superb collection of tales that alternately challenges our conceptions of middle class normalcy and conjures up contemporary myths and legends. As always with Millhauser, there's a deep sense of unease and melancholy here, permeated with bursts of revelation and insights into the nature of humankind. Superb in every way. Buy it here.

Aickman's Heirs - Ed. Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Two anthologies blew me away this year, and here's the first. A tribute to a writer who's still relatively overlooked by the general public, all the stories in here pay respect to Robert Aickman's signature ambiguity and slowly building dread and disquiet without ever falling into pastiche or parody. A superb assemblage by Strantzas and a remarkable consistency by the authors that would make Aickman proud. Buy it here.

Nightscript Vol. 1 - ed. C.M. Muller

Here's the deal: Muller's anthology is Shadows & Tall Trees volume 7 without being Shadows & Tall Trees. Yes, it's that good. Just as as S&TT showcased some of the absolute best weird fiction and quiet horror in the biz, so too does Nightscript. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see a couple of the stories in here picked up by Year's Best editors. Get on board with Nightscript now, because it's sure to be a flagship publication for horror and the weird in years to come. Buy it here.

Let Me Tell You - Shirley Jackson (Random House)

Maybe not the best work Jackson ever produced, but this collection is worth reading for its first section -- Sudden and Unusual Things Have Happened -- alone. Those 150 or so pages contain plenty of Jackson's signature quiet weirdness to make it worth your time and your money. I shouldn't have to say more. Buy it here.

Vermilion - Molly Tanzer (Word Horde)

Supernatural Western is one of those subgenres that usually presses the right buttons for me, and Tanzer's steampunky romp certainly does the deed. As with all good alt-history novels, Tanzer builds a subtly off-kilter world we'd love to further explore and populates it with intriguing characters crying out for further adventures. A delight you'll want to revisit for certain. Buy it here.

Neil Spring - The Watchers (Quercus)

I'm also a sucker for sci-fi horror, and when it's wrapped up in an X-Files-ish, folkloric conspiracy narrative, I'm totally on board -- which is exactly why Spring's novel is here. An interesting and engaging amalgam of paranormal phenomena and high strangeness a la John Keel or Jacques Vallee, the story spins out somewhere between weird tale and traditional mystery all tinged by a goodly amount of dread. Buy it here.

Skein and Bone - V.H. Leslie (Undertow Publications)

Leslie's stories are the contemporary echo of the great ghost story tellers of old (the Jameses, the Bensons) as viewed through a blood-stained lens. Built of fluid, muscular prose, they contain the same tension-building and malign supernaturality all wrapped up in a slightly more violent and more compact package than that of her venerable elders. A magnificent debut collection. Buy it here.

The Sea of Blood - Reggie Oliver (Dark Renaissance)

This is mostly a "Best of" collection, but there are a few new offerings mixed among the already well-polished gems. Any excuse to revisit Oliver is a good one and this collection proves why: rich and foreboding atmosphere, bibliophilia and occult religion as oft-centralizing themes, and prose that's as melodious as it is intricate. Oliver collections are pure literary sustenance, and here we're treated to a feast. Buy it here.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti (Penguin)

It's a reissue of two classic collections, I know, so it doesn't really count as "new," per se, but given the rarity of SoaDD and Grimscribe, a reissue was welcome and necessary so that new readers might have a chance to experience the greatness of Ligotti. Cosmic despair and existential horror at its best. Buy it here

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is a Progressive Horror Possible?

The underlying nature of the horror narrative is indebted to the conservative. This seems an odd statement, given the great wealth of authors who work in the genre that identify as "liberal" or "progressive," but it's nonetheless true. Horror is, by its very nature, a conservative mode of writing. Now, I'm not speaking in terms of contemporary politics here or the social schema that is popularly represented in the media as "conservative," but in a more expansive philosophical sense. When stripped of whatever political machinations are made synonymous with it in any given era, the fundamental idea of conservativism remains the same across all times and places in that it is, ultimately, the maintenance of a status quo, a way things "are." Whether this status quo consists of a set of cultural mores, a political agenda, or a belief structure, conservativism holds that the "old," "static," and "known" are positive values to be favored over the "new," "dynamic," and "unknown" -- with these latter values forming the underpinnings of conservativism's dialectical opposite, progressivism. The idea of conservativism thus revolves around the notion that what is "tried and true" -- i.e., a preexisting state of being or thought or action -- is categorically better than any alternatives to that preexisting state. So why is this a central concept for horror narrative? Because, in order to frighten, horror requires a status quo, a static, preexisting state with which its reader identifies if not outright supports.

The central property of the horror story is the violation of an established order or norm. Such orders and norms can be based in any arena of existence but tend to be grouped into the major categories of perception, knowledge, and being. In order to accomplish violation, a horror story must first find within one of these categories a foundation that its reader will accept as "true" or valid. A story like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, violates the supposedly conventional knowledge that a mere place lacks the capacity for sentience or action or moral character; it undermines a certainty, a status quo, to which the reader had previously adhered -- namely, that inanimate objects and spaces cannot be "alive." Much of the horror of Jackson's novel arises because Hill House does appear to possess malign intentions and is able to exert physical force upon its inhabitants in pursuit of these intentions. The implication in the story is that the house might be, in some alien way, alive and sentient. If a reader finds the thought of an "evil" house disturbing, it is due to the violation of the presupposition that houses are nothing but lifeless wood and inorganic stone. A reader is suddenly shaken in his or her belief that a house cannot be a thinking being capable of action. The question "what if?" enters his or her mind and undermines a fundamental order that he or she had previously relied upon. "What if a house COULD possess emotion? Or thought? What if it could DO things to me?" the reader muses in various degrees of seriousness and sincerity, at some level worried that nice, static, safe state that he or she had believed existed might be false or illusory. The fictional representation of a threat to the status quo, to the security of the "known" and the "way things are" frightens the reader. And herein lies the reason horror narrative is conservative by definition: in order to function as horror, to cause fright or dread, the horror narrative must violate a preexisting state, a status quo, and cause that violation to be read as fear-inducing, thus (and perhaps inadvertently) reinforcing the positive nature of the particular preexisting state being violated.

In my above-mentioned example, very little horror could be generated by the narrative if one already honestly believed houses were capable of destructive thought, emotion, and action. In such a scenario, the house would simply be doing what some "bad" houses do -- possessing people, eroding minds, killing its dwellers. The narrative would be less a tale that focuses on abrogation of norms than a reinforcement of the sorry condition of "bad" houses; indeed, if one were to truly perceive houses in this manner, The Haunting of Hill House would be more social or cultural critique (what can we do to prevent this senseless house-on-human violence? from whence does it arise?) than a horror story. It is only because readers do NOT believe in the animation of the inanimate that the novel is "scary." To remain a horror story, the status quo as represented within the story must remain the status quo to the reader; as soon as a reader no longer accepts that status quo, the story, at least in its effect, slides from the horror genre into some other literary realm (perhaps weird fiction? perhaps dark fantasy?), as the tale will fail to generate any meaningful violation and, therefore, fail to frighten. Horror scares (i.e., IS horror) because it breaks the stasis of its reader -- a stasis the reader must value in order to be scared of that breaking. The narrative of horror qua horror relies upon a conservative way of being or thinking or doing that must be held in the reader's mind as valuable for its stability and/or safety. Once that preexisting way of thinking/being/doing is shattered, once the status quo is erased, no more fear can be generated from a violation of that status quo because it will, after all, no longer BE the status quo.

Now, does this mean that horror cannot be used toward philosophically (and potentially culturally, socially, and poltically) progressive ends, even if the narrative itself must rely upon the conservative for its thrust? Not at all. If an author's intention is to utilize horror to cause a reader to question various fundamentally held "truths" and values, then it is entirely capable of this task. After all, the big "WHAT IF?" that horror generates in violating a norm causes the reader to put less stock in that norm, to imagine what might happen if that norm were to disintegrate. Horror can crack gaping fissures in the supposedly stable fabric of our world and point out the disjunctures of our patchwork status quo; it can make a reader realize lies, illusions, and injustices within the fabric of the "way things are." However, when a reader becomes comfortable with the existence of those fissues and disjunctures, when a reader accepts that those lies, illusions, and injustices exist, the horror of the horror story will fall away, to be replaced with other, potentially more complex, cognitive and emotional responses. Thus it is that the horror story becomes less horror in effect than horror in theory, and this "horror in theory" -- a horror that does not frighten but utilizes the genre conventions and structures to explore the need to disrupt or dissolve various status quos -- might be what could be termed a progressive horror.