As I have noted before, it’s not that I deliberately disparage horror fiction. It’s just that in general, what disturbs me is not, it seems, what disturbs writers of horror, or what such writers think should disturb me. I think this is partly a matter of familiarity, and partly a matter of presentation. Editorial hyperbole, certainly, is never more distracting than when it’s telling you how you’re going to feel. So it’s a shock in itself when the introduction to a story such as Monica J O’Rourke’s “Cell” — “as fiercely uncompromising as anything we’ve published” — really does turn out to denote a story of comparable quality to the work of other newish horror writers such as Joe Hill and M. Rickert. In outline, “Cell” is formulaic: a second-person narrative in which “you” find yourself imprisoned in an unidentified prison, with your fellow inmates being carted off by black-robed folks one by one, or else banging their heads against the wall as a way of committing suicide. Two things make it work: that the narrative doesn’t flinch; and that it is self-interrogative. By the first I don’t mean that it’s graphic, but that it remains tense throughout, and stays true to the totalising, intimidating nature of its premise. (“You” pass in and out of sleep several times; on one such occasion, O’Rourke writes that sleep “has been searching the darkness for you” . Were I to indulge in my own hyperbole, I’d suggest that the same could be said of this story.) And by self-interrogative, I mean that “Cell” foregrounds the nature of both second-person narration and horror fiction. The disjunct between the “you” of the story — a married caucasian Christian man with two children — and the “you” reading is never downplayed; indeed the central questions of the story involve guilt and empathy, how the former, including in the form of watching others suffer, engenders the latter, and what that implies for the sincerity of either emotion.
But self-awareness, sadly, is not always self-interrogation; if it were, then This is the Summer of Love, the first anthology edition of PS’s Postscripts magazine, which at least so far as I’m concerned has more than its share of mildly metafictional horror tales, would be much more to my taste than it is. (The anthology becomes the latest victim of my ongoing skirmishes with genre horror quite inadvertently: I read it because it’s advertised as simply a “new writers” special — albeit with a flexible definition of “new” that translates to “people who may have published quite a few stories that we think you won’t have heard of”.) Into the category of “middling success”, for instance, falls RB Russell’s “Literary Remains”. The setup involves an older woman recalling an episode from her youth: she was in her early twenties, living on her own for the first time, in a band, and working in a second-hand bookshop to make ends meet. One of the shop’s customers, an elderly man, develops a creepy but seemingly harmless mild obsession with the narrator, leading him to donate various books of ghost stories — some rare editions, some pulp, all heavily annotated. The narrator finds her interest sparked by the annotations, and from there she develops an appreciation of the man’s own, little-known, fiction. Then the man dies, and becomes posthumously successful, and the narrator finds herself visiting his flat to help with an assessment of his book collection for resale. The voice throughout is unfussy and well suited to the denoument; the trouble is that the denoument delivers nothing unexpected. That is to say, creepiness ensues, of a kind that may be in the narrator’s head (having been sensitised by the man’s fiction) or may be real and which, if real, constitutes sexual abuse. Russell leaves enough unstated, and introduces enough doubt about his narrator’s perceptiveness and accuracy of recall, for the story to work passably well, but there’s no denying its predictability, and predictability (as a story like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” demonstrates) is itself a form of comfort. Although that said, arguably the most terrifying sentence in the story is the first, with its utter dreariness: ‘When I look back on my life in Eastbourne in the late 1980s, I find it amazing that I could ever have had enough time and energy to accomplish what I did’ (129).
There’s a writer at the centre of “The Family Face” by James Cooper, too, and here predictability has produced a story so snug in the grooves of genre that it’s barely there to criticize. Said writer is English, called Michael, and heading to the country for a week’s peace, quiet and writing; on his way he meets an odd and apparently itinerant family, one of whose members specialises in carving uncannily life-like dolls. Michael declines to take one, but on arriving at his remote retreat he finds himself haunted by a child carrying a half-finished doll. There is a wearying laziness to the tale — Michael’s first encounter with the boy is described as being ‘as though somewhere, just out of sight, the trace of someone’s nightmare was being inexplicably defined’ (91), rather than in a way that might actually evoke nightmarishness — and by the time Michael is thinking that ‘he knew implicitly that there was nothing remotely derivative about his own mounting disquiet’ (95) all you can do is roll your eyes.
Speaking, as we were earlier, of bad ways to introduce stories, here’s another: “I believe new writers are forced to be copyists by publishers who accept only work of a kind that has been successfully received”, says Clive Johnson. Whatever the truth of this assertion — and I’ll be charitable and accept that some attenuated version of it is true for at least some publishers at least some of the time — it smacks of defensivness for a writer, let alone a relatively new writer, to introduce his work this way. Unlike “Cell”, “Pieland’s Dream” doesn’t quite escape its introduction, either. It begins as a sort of club story, with one member of a writing group relating his dream to the others (and in the process renders the introduction doubly redundant by putting very similar sentiments into the mouths of its characters), and develops into a deconstruction of the desire for and impossibility of originality, as another member of the writing group begins to experience the dream, before they all perform in a play that recreates a key scene from the dream; the story gradually tightens its grip on them, ultimately killing one of the group. What’s good is Johnson’s willingness to be inventive; there’s a decent dialogue-heavy opening section that juggles its characters well, an almost dialogue-free section of some intensity, and sections towards the end rendered as a transcript. What doesn’t work so well is pacing; none of the sections feels quite the right length, and Johnson doesn’t quite manage to balance the different levels at which the story is operating. And there’s the sense that even if the form is original, acknowledging the familiarity of the base tale does not, here as in “Literary Remains” and “The Family Face”, translate into a successful iteration of it.
There are fewer writers, but not much more success, in the non-horror tales. Deborah Kalin’s “The Wages of Salt”, for example, seems to me a classic case of an interesting setting coupled to under-developed story. Alessia is a student in New Persia, an intriguing if sometimes baffling city-state on a salt desert. (One source of bafflement: why is salt “white gold”, the basis of New Persia’s economy, given its apparent abundance?) She is researching the nature of the “theriomorphs”, nicely realized half-man half-animal creatures that occupy the salt plains around the city; that research ultimately leads her, and us, to a new understanding of the therimorphs, and her. And sadly, that — plus a few rather perfunctory exchanges on ethics and pragmatism, and the abstract value of knowledge versus the immediate value of coin — is it. Similarly inessential is Neil Grimmett’s “A Hard Water”, a short, mimetic piece about fishing. The water of the title is a spot that appears to be idyllic and undiscovered, but in actuality is a hard water, which is to say one that refuses to give up its fish. The narrator, obsessesed with the place, is one of only two fishermen to stick it out over the season, hoping to land an enormous carp. There is a sort of rivalry with the other fisherman; there is the suggestion that his wife is using his absences to have an affair; there is a climactic storm, and a hint of the immanent fantastic. It is perfectly reasonable and unexceptional.
Livia Llwellyn’s “Horses” is the most fully realized sf piece, although it certainly carries a horror glaze: it is the story of the nuclear apocalypse and after as experienced by an American Missile Facilities Technician called Angela Kingston. Its ambitions are good, aiming for a mix of McCarthy nihilism and Russ anger, but the end result is too messy and melodramatic to match either. Llwellyn aspires to the cinematic, and some images, such as an emaciated man emerging from a dark tunnel “as if a swimmer is breaking the surface of the ocean”, are vivid; but too many others, such as nuclear explosions on the horizon described as “voluptuous jets of lightning-shot ziggurats” (22), are confused (can you even have a jet of ziggurats?). Emotional moments, too, tend to be overly dramatic, such as Kingston’s acceptance of radiation poisoning on the grounds that when it reaches her heart, it will be surprised to find said organ already gone; or the establishing assertion that “In the next twenty-four hours, she’ll take the pill, or a bullet. Which one it will be, she cannot say” (16). Which is a shame, because in many ways Kingston’s dysfunctionality — suicidal yet driven to survive — is narratively and psychologically promising, at least until Llewellyn stoops to soften her (slightly) with maternal love. Even the lack of a happy ending can’t stop that feeling like a bit of a betrayal. But it is better, at least, than Chris Bell’s “Shem-el-Nessim”, the title of which is also the name of a magically bewitching perfume, which may be linked to visions of a mysterious beautiful woman, and which includes sentences of this kind: “They lay together in the failing light of a late afternoon, the indescribably oriental fragrance of her skin buffering the room’s airlessness” (64). I’m not convinced a strong perfume in an airless room would work quite like that, but fine, it’s magic; and the deployment of “oriental” makes me cringe; but what really gets my goat is the addition of “indescribably”. Admittedly it is an easy word to misuse, but here it is misused in a way that makes everything else about the sentence worse. There is no irony: this is entirely straight-faced exoticisation for no original, or even unoriginal but strongly felt, reason.
Leaving “Cell” aside, the most intriguing stories are those which open and close the collection. Like so many of the pieces here, they reflect on storytelling; but they do so via cinema rather than prose, which seems to work better. Unsurprisingly, given that it both closes and lends its title to the anthology, Rio Youers’ “This is the Summer of Love” is also more explicitly than most of the pieces here about love — as an emotion, and as a story humans tell to each other. Nick Gevers’ overall introduction to the anthology singles Youers out as a “major discovery”; he apparently has a novella, a novel, and some more shorter fiction forthcoming from PS. “This is the Summer of Love” doesn’t, by itself, justify this investment, but it doesn’t suggest it’s a terrible mistake, either. It is assured and occasionally bold work: the story of Terri and Billy, two teenagers obsessed with classic film who fall in together for a summer. The perspective is primarily Terri’s. The story opens with an exchange of overheard, unattributed dialogue: Terri (as it turns out) asking Billy to take her away to California. Billy says no, because “he knows he can only be her hero for as long as she needs one” (158), which may raise eyebrows. Flashback to when they met: Terri miserable, beaten by her father, convinced that love exists only in movies, that it is “all sweet fiction” (159). Suddenly Billy is there, and Terri has fallen head over heels: “Everything was gray next to him” (159). His smile is so beautiful it is “celluloid”(161) — a particularly effective choice that, I think. He is Brando, Dean, Stewart rolled into one.
The most appealing thing about “This is the Summer of Love” is its willingness to be shamelessly intense and (unlike, say, “Horses”) to recognize the absurdity of that intensity. It is at times hyperreal, a tale of young love and domestic abuse told with the fevered vision of Hollywood. The highs are very high, the lows very low; and the highs often disguise the lows, like the make-up Terri applies to turn the ghostly image in her mirror into a starlet. A melancholy ambivalence can be discerned: Hollywood saves Terri, day to day, possesses her in a sense, while Billy saves and possesses her in another; and at the end she achieves a happy ending, but it is happy in large part because she wants to be possessed, just not by her father. Billy’s opening worry, in other words, seems in no danger of passing: she’ll always want a hero.
And in Norman Prentiss’ opening tale, “In the porches of my ears”, out of what at first seems to be blandly middle-class American narration — meet Steve, who is snobbish enough about cinema to disdain the usual blockbuster fare, but thinks arthouse means “subtitles or excessive nudity” — but becomes slightly more warty and convincing, something quite clever and moving emerges. Steve recounts a trip to the cinema with his wife Helen, in which a (deliberately genericised version of a) Working Title-esque contemporary British romantic comedy is spoilt by the couple sitting in front, one of whom is blind and the other of whom narrates the events on screen. Steve and Helen’s annoyance appears to be validated when the woman, seemingly cruelly, changes the ending, relaying a bitter interpretation of the closing scenes that causes her companion to break down in tears; yet when Steve approaches the man afterwards to explain the real ending, the thanks he gets is deeply sarcastic.
There is an obvious commentary here on writing and rewriting, and the idea that different people get different things from stories (something of which I’m never so conscious as when reading work marketed as horror); and it’s deepened by a second part to the story, which establishes certain parallels between the two couples, and is explicit about the idea — the horror — that there may be “awful, unnarrated tragedy” (10) beneath the surface of a tale. Much is left unsaid (in the satisfying, rather than maddeningly oblique, sense), and any fantastic component is (appropriately) left to the reader to infer. But what makes the story work particularly well as an opening tale is its dark spin on the overall title: certainly love has a summer, but by implication it therefore also, inevitably, has an autumn and winter. To resist this, the tale suggests, is a kind of solipsism, a desire to make a story of love ours, to own it and make it relevant to us, to close the aching gap between story and life without regard for the consequences. As an introduction, it might be saying: do not try to make the stories that follow fit your love. Let them be their own thing. I might reply: if only more of them had managed to achieve such independence, or aspired to.