Tag Archives: Robert Aickman

‘Dark Forces’ – A Review

IX-kirby-mccauley-dark-forcesIn the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.

And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.

In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.

 Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!

Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.

And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.

Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels  a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.

As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.

Grade: A

‘I Shudder at Your Touch’ – A Review

IX-i-shudder-at-your-touchI picked this hardcover anthology up at my local Goodwill store for a song, and what a fantastic bargain!  The twenty-two stories in editor Michele Slung’s compendium are, as the cover suggests, thematically linked by the broad concepts of sex and horror, which so often go hand-in-hand anyway.  As she points out in the book’s preface, pretty much every horror story is ultimately about sex in one sense or another, and I think she’s spot on there.  But in the case of these tales, the relationship between the two is made mostly overt.

Generally these anthologies tend to be full of contemporary work, but Slung draws from every era of horror and suspense fiction from the late Victorian on, a rich well indeed, and with casting such a wide temporal net, she could easily have filled a hundred such volumes with quality fiction.  What a job it must’ve been to boil her choices down to a little over twenty stories (though ultimately there was a sequel, I believe).  But nearly every piece here is a gratifying read.

The earliest story in the collection, R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Basilisk, is not so much horror as dark Symbolist myth, so drenched in the poetic language of the era that it feels more like a somber dream than a cohesive story, but it works nonetheless.  A more traditional piece from roughly the same era is Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea, wherein a dispassionate man of science finds himself the object of a lascivious spirit’s attentions.  The most disturbing story for me was Christopher Fowler’s The Master Builder, which reads like Peter Straub at his best and takes the concept of stalking to a whole new level.  Robert Aickman, one of my favorite short story authors, can always be relied on to creep me the hell out, and his contribution, The Swords, is certainly no exception.  Another highlight, Hugh B. Cave’s Ladies in Waiting, starts out as a haunted house tale but becomes something far worse by the end.

Some pieces (Michael Blumlein’s Keeping House especially) are morbidly melancholy. Others, like Thomas M. Disch’s Death and the Single Girl, are humorously cynical.  A few are uncomfortably erotic (T.L. Parkinson’s The Tiger Returns to the Mountain; Harriet Zinnes’s Wings; Carolyn Banks’s Salon Satin).  The rest of the collection is sandwiched between stories by two of horror fiction’s living legends, Stephen King and Clive Barker.  Of the two, it is Barker’s story, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, that I most enjoyed.  Longtime fans of Barker will almost certainly have read this already in his Books of Blood, as I did, but I was quite young when I first read it and remember it being one of my least favorite stories of his.  With time I have come to appreciate its true horror, seeing it essentially as the story of a female supervillain with the ability to manipulate human flesh with her mind, a power she utilizes in some creatively awful ways.  King’s story too is about a woman with psychic powers, though hers is the more traditional (less interesting) power of telepathy; it’s still a wonderfully entertaining story though, accessible and funny.

Not every piece is wildly successful though.  Valerie Martin’s Sea Lovers, her dark answer to the Little Mermaid, doesn’t quite feel fleshed out, May Sinclair’s The Villa Désiréé feels as dated as it is, and Ruth Rendell’s A  Glowing Future feels like a rejected Robert Bloch story.  Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Conqueror Worm divides its loyalties between humor and horror but ultimately achieves neither, and Angela Carter’s Master, while conceptually intriguing, offers us a cliched and unnuanced antagonist.  Still, none of the stories are outright awful, and all but a couple are at least decent enough that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time.  A solid majority of these stories are real gems.  All in all, a dynamite anthology that any horror aficionado should be pleased with.

Grade: B+