Sunday, October 25, 2009

Edited by Peter Straub
Library of America, $70, 1,500 pages

Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage, $25, 1,056 pages

By Graham Joyce
Night Shade, $10.08, 256 pages

By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.95, 368 pages

By Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt
Dutton, $26.95, 432 pages

By Joe Schreiber
Bantam Spectra, $14, 288 pages

Every October they emerge from the shadows, at first moving stealthily into full light, gradually taking their place among us as if they’d been there all along, eventually dominating the landscape, devouring attention and turning all us innocent folk into compliant zombies programmed to hear, then spread throughout the afflicted land their doom-laden message.

Yes, folks, we’re talking horror novels and stories, long held in critical disrepute (really, ever since Edmund Wilson scoffed at H.P. Lovecraft’s excesses back in the 1940s), until Stephen King revitalized the genre 30-some years ago. Now there’s a vampire on every bookstore shelf, and unspeakable things dredged up from cemeteries reign as beloved culture heroes. What’s the gentle reader to do?

Go with the flow, I say. And we may as well begin with two pleasingly plump anthologies that perform the invaluable service of recalling to life many more than several of this venerable genre’s damp and reeking treasures.

Horrormeister Peter Straub’s terrific “American Fantastic Tales” offers 1,500-plus pages’ worth of stories that express this fledgling country’s transition from a hopeful society buoyed by the optimism of the 18th-century Enlightenment into an introverted, fragmented nation haunted by fears of a world too complex and threatening to be inhabited safely, much less understood or “tamed.”

Of course, Mr. Straub includes classic tales from such masters as Poe, Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Ambrose Bierce, and selects judiciously from their modern and contemporary counterparts Shirley Jackson, Truman Capote, and Steven Millhauser, among dozens of others best known as genre writers. And there are numerous wonderful surprises: Davis Grubb’s stunning piece of American Gothic “Where the Woodbine Twineth”; Robert W. Chamber’s agreeably bizarre dystopian melodrama “The Repairer of Reputations”; Kelly Link’s brilliantly metaphoric “Stone Animals”; and T.E.D. Klein’s ambitious and thrilling novella “The Events at Porlock Farm” (later expanded into his even better novel “The Ceremonies”). Peter Straub has undertaken a forbiddingly difficult task and completed it most honorably.

Almost as much can be said for Otto Penzler’s “The Vampire Archives,” whose own 1,000-plus pages gather more than 80 stories, poems and nonfiction accounts of the love that has chewed its way into our hearts with presumably undiminishable appetite and energy. But the problem here is a superabundance of flawed, when not downright substandard material.

Mr. Penzler does include consensus classics ranging from Poe’s “Ligeia” and Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s frequently filmed “Carmilla” to Fritz Leiber’s disturbing (and quite sexy) “The Girl With the Hungry Eyes” and the amusingly lurid inventions of Poppy Z. Brite. Alas, we get far too much hackwork from the undistinguished likes of Hugh B. Cave, Basil Copper, Richard Layman, and F. Paul Wilson. Fortunately there are such blessed (cursed?) exceptions as Julian Hawthorne’s florid, overwritten, yet insanely inventive “Ken’s Mystery”; Frederic Brown’s mordantly hilarious one-page gem “Blood”; Manly Wade Wellman’s atmospheric folklore-drenched stories (notably, “When It Was Moonlight”); and Gahan Wilson’s truly wicked appropriation of the world of Lewis Carroll “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Can Be.”

And, as surely as the Great Pumpkin annually rewards the faithful vigilance of Charles Schulz’s lovable “peanut” Linus, some of our favorite BMFs — that’s Best Monster Friends, of course — have made eagerly anticipated reappearances.

The evil Count himself presides over “Dracula: The Un-Dead,” a busy sequel to Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic written by the master’s “great-grandnephew” Dacre Stoker, collaborating with screenwriter-researcher Ian Holt. Set 25 years after Dracula was put to what we thought was his eternal unrest, it focuses on his surviving enemies and captors (Mina and Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, Seward, et al), who find themselves — in 1912, yet — threatened by Something Out There.

Jack the Ripper, celebrated sadist Elisabeth Bathory, Vlad Tepes, even great-uncle Bram himself drop into a thunderously complex tale (recounted by multiple narrators) that channels a rather impressive amount of its famous original’s melodramatic energy. If we must have sequels to classics, may they all be as imaginative and entertaining as this one.

Alas, Peter Ackroyd’s “The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein” pays only token homage to Mary Shelley’s immortal man-monster (and Boris Karloff’s hardy meal ticket). This story differs from her original in two major ways: It incorporates a lot of information and invention regarding the Romantic circle that gathered around Shelley and Keats; and it makes the good doctor Victor a real person, and Percy Shelley’s precocious bride, Mary, a rather uninteresting character in her very own novel. Admirers of metafictional drollery will be more amused than will the general reader, who’ll miss the real monster (Mr. Ackroyd’s is a pallid wimp) and is unlikely to fall for a very unconvincing “surprise ending.” The immensely learned and gifted Mr. Ackroyd has done, and will again do much better work than this.

Conversely, Laurie Sheck’s “A Monster’s Notes” persuasively reimagines Frankenstein’s monster as a sentient, indeed scholarly outcast who has lived on into the present, educating himself in the literatures of science, philosophy, biography, and other disciplines, in hopes of understanding his own artificial nature and whatever possibilities offer him entry into human experiences.

It’s a superb premise, rich with political and sociological implication, and it emerges with stunning emotional power from a kaleidoscopic “narrative” that incorporates such seemingly incompatible topics as polar exploration, the relationship of space and time, the ethics of creation, and hidden meanings in the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.” This acclaimed poet’s innovative first novel is truly something special.

Other gifts of the season include: “Under the Dome” by Stephen King: a mammoth ecological nightmare fantasy (not unlike King’s 1978 doorstopper “The Stand”), in which a small Maine town finds itself trapped beneath a shield covering a “force field” seemingly dropped from the sky, and offering opportunities for personal advancement, selfless stoicism and unconscionable villainy. Overlong, overplotted and quite irrationally entertaining. King is a pop master who seldom fails to deliver the goods.

“No Doors, No Windows” by Joe Schreiber: a would-be writer returns to his New Hampshire hometown, a family dilemma, and an unfinished novel written by his late father and redolent of long-kept secrets bearing their threats into the present day. Literate, fast-paced, genuinely scary entertainment from a seasoned pro with a firm grip on his story and its frighteningly credible characters.

“The Red Tree” by Caitlin R. Kiernan: an Atlanta writer hunkers down in a rural Rhode Island hamlet hoping to write again, but is distracted by a menacing oak tree on the property she rents, which bears a documented history of very nasty occurrences. Kiernan is a gifted stylist whose rich depiction of her protagonist’s fall into something very like the madness she has encountered rings with conviction, and makes the pages fly by.

“How to Make Friends With Demons” by Graham Joyce: an award-winning British novelist paints a ruefully funny picture of a middle-class everyman whose marital, career and relational crises all seem quite literally hellborn. It’s an episodic domestic comedy raised to a high narrative power, as Joyce keeps finding ingenious ways to demonstrate how real our presumably irrational fears can become. Suburbia is Hell, nor are we out of it.

“Northwest Passages” by Barbara Roden: a virtuoso debut collection of ten stories from the industrious co-founder and editor of British Columbia’s splendid Ash-Tree Press. Roden knows the literature as well as anyone currently writing, and pays fine homage to it in such deftly woven stories as a replete reimagining of Victorian England’s notorious Constance Kent murder case (“After”), a grim new wrinkle on the serial-killer theme (“The Palace”), and a tale of ill-fated Antarctic exploration (“Endless Night”) that combines wrenching emotional force with who-blew-out-that-candle vicarious terror.

Though we knew it all along, it’s good to be reminded that the old stories, retold and reimagined, are still the best ones. Lock the doors, bar the windows, stoke the fire and dig right in.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who braves the horrors of winter in Kittery, Maine.

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