Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Joys of a Good Scary Story

In highschool, and during my first year of university, I subsisted on a greedy diet of horror fiction. I was at first mostly interested in novels, but for some reason I gradually became obsessed with anthologies of short stories, and I collected them rabidly: "The Year's Best Horror Stories," all those Charles L. Grant "Shadows" books, the sublime "Tales By Moonlight," the less sublime "Hot Blood" series, "Dark Voices," "Night Cry" magazine, "Night Visions," the seemingly endless collections edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg...

There was something fun and sort of chocolatey about picking up a new anthology and seeing the same names again and again; Ramsey Campbell, Alan Ryan, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Steve Rasnic Tem, Karl Edward Wagner, all jumbled together without any thought of transition or theme. I'd rate each story out of ten and add it to a computerized database, then go out and hunt for all the books I'd missed over the years. It was a project, an education, and a joy.

These books inspired a friend and I to start our own small-press horror 'zine called "Lost," which pulled in a few professional authors who probably didn't realize that the editors were two little kids with acne. I even got some of my own sub-par stories published. But more on that some other time.

Soon, maybe in an attempt to resurrect declining sales, the anthologies started going all thematic. Stories about vampires! Stories about freaks! Erotic horror, zombie horror, ecological horror! Splatterpunk! Bladderspunk! Even something called "architectural horror!"

Dennis Etchison coined the term "Metahorror" for my personal favourite stories, a new breed of fiction that was kind of like "magic realism gone bad." A bunch of the more successful authors banded together as "The Horror Writers of America," which seemed particularly mean-spirited at the time (and possibly was, a bit). I bought the books anyway, I loved the books, maybe I sort of LIVED the books.

But in university I discovered a whole new world of literature that I'd never cared about before, and I packed up all those anthologies into a bunch of cardboard boxes and put them in the basement. I decided I wanted to be HAPPY, not some loser kid who sat at home assigning ratings to mediocre stories by Whitley Strieber. And that was it. The end.

...

Until I picked up Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher" last week, and I remembered why I liked horror fiction to begin with: it's breezy, it has a near infinite number of themes and permutations, and when it's good it scares you. I still remember the stories and novels that terrified me the most, and I probably enjoyed reading them more than I ever enjoyed "Oliver Twist." And even when a book is BAD it is still at least INTERESTING, and you don't need to invest much in order to pick out the kernels of fun.

Yeah, I'd love to open those boxes and revisit the best stories, anthologies, and novels...and maybe I will. I even bought Peter Straub's "Floating Dragon" the other day, and I'm actually considering re-reading "It" or some of the better Dean R. Koontz books.

Darn it, I've spent too many years reading high-falutin' literature. I think I've earned the right to read some genre fiction now, no?

13 comments:

Scott said...

Of course! You've gotta give the brain a little candy every now and again. Just cause you're smart doesn't mean you gotta be smart ALL the damn time.

Funny story re:LOST, I was shuffling around in my basement a while back and came across a box full of zines, including like, 6 issues of LOST!

The next day, I was at the in-laws and saw your article in the Record.

Weird.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Aha, I totally forgot you had some of "Lost!" We finally published nine issues, with a tenth "mega-issue" all completed before I just dropped everything; it was never mailed out.

That is a particularly weird bunch of coincidences, slightly stranger than my digging up our grade 7 "Choose Your Own Adventure" story a week before you revealed Your True Blog Identity.

Adrian said...

Record Article?

Hey, a 'top 10' list I would really like to see from you would be the 'Top 10 Horror Flicks'... I always enjoyed the horror flicks you used to introduce me to.

Of particular note were "Prince of Darkness", "House", "Return of the Living Dead" and "The Keep"... although I may have got the latter one wrong.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

And speaking of "Lost" Magazine, here's one of the publishers now!

Thanks to your suggestion, I'm already trying to figure out what my "top ten" would be. Some of those movies I haven't seen for years, so I can't vouch for them much anymore ("The Keep" still wasn't out on DVD last time I checked, and sadly "Prince of Darkness" seemed sort of silly when I watched it a few months ago), but most of the good ones are still good.

As for the Record article, yes, there was an article about my proposed "Buswalk Tour" a few months ago.

JJ said...

I gradually became obsessed with anthologies of short stories, and I collected them rabidly

Hey. I can relate with this. Only thing is, this is something I started doing with SF, and started doing it only in the last year or two. I genuinely find something unique to appreciate in each author. Plus in my childhood,
a) I didn't know where to hunt for books
b) I didn't have the money anyway. :)


A bunch of the more successful authors banded together as "The Horror Writers of America," which seemed particularly mean-spirited at the time (and possibly was, a bit)

Would you explain this? I didn't understand what you are saying here. HWA is modelled on the SFWA and the MWA, right?

Darn it, I've spent too many years reading high-falutin' literature. I think I've earned the right to read some genre fiction now, no?

All right, welcome to the gutter!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Congratulations on your new obsession, jj! May it bring you happiness. :)

I've never read a rationale for why "The Horror Writers of America" actually formed, and I realized as I wrote the post that its rationale might be different from what I initially thought.

The HWA authors tended to be the most established authors, the ones with name recognition. Their anthologies only featured them (and they tended to be pretty bland, but that's beside the point).

It seemed to me at the time that HWA was at best an elitist society for authors who hardly needed the protection that a union provides. By banding together, it seemed, they were excluding all of the new and more unconventional talent, the folks who were struggling to get read, noticed, paid well, and actually included in anthologies.

It seemed to me like -- say -- like Madonna and Matchbox 20 and Britney Spears forming a "Musicians of America" organization, and then putting out compilations featuring only themselves. What's the point?

But I've never actually looked into what they DID. Maybe they supported up-and-coming authors or even allowed those authors into their club. It just seemed like a way of excluding fresh blood and stagnating the genre, just to keep their own profile high and their own stories in print.

scott said...

On horror movies, I'd like to see a revised list, too.
I remember the Keep, House and Return of the Living Dead, as well. You musta pushed 'em on all your friends, you bad influence you!

Also, Blair Witch Project, yea or nay?

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Yes, and I continue to want to push them on friends to this day!

But where is this "House" thing coming from? I let it go the first time, but I never liked the movie and I can't imagine recommending it. One of us has a memory glitch...

"Blair Witch" is a sad story; I was SO annoyed with the constant hype, and then I finally saw it with people who weren't particularly interested (I think we were literally getting FACIALS at the time).

So I bet is IS scary, but it's a case of the hype killing the movie for me.

JJ said...

Aww, give the poor kids a break! The very fact that some established authors NEEDED whatever money your little 'zine was willing to pay should tell you just how little money they were making. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

My little 'zine paid only in contributor's copies, sadly; it was a labour of love.

We also never attracted anybody like "The Horror Writers of America," but we did get submissions from the next tier down (D.F. Lewis, Pam Chillemi-Yeager, and Duncan McLean come to mind).

Anonymous said...

What about Robert Bloch. Disturbing or not?

Ripper inspired stories?

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Robert Bloch gets two thumbs up from me. He was classy, quiet, and very very frightening. I'm thinking particularly of a story called "Heavy Weight."

So yes, if I saw Robert Bloch in an anthology, that was an automatic endorsement!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

As for Jack the Ripper, there was at least one anthology entirely devoted to Ripper stories, which seemed a BIT desperate to me -- the REAL Jack the Ripper was so frightening, do we NEED to fictionalize him? -- but yes, in general, JTR-inspired stories were disturbing.

Vampire stories, however, usually left me yawning. And still do. I'm just not into the whole oh-so-sexy vampire thing.