Saturday, May 9, 2015

Horror from 1979: Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison & Hugh B. Cave

Let's get horrified!  I recently purchased a paperback copy of DAW's eighth The Year's Best Horror Stories, the first installment edited by Karl Edward Wagner. As I have said on this blog before, Wagner wrote one of my favorite horror stories, "Sticks," and is perhaps most famous for his sword and sorcery tales about Kane, which I found uneven and underwhelming. Wagner also co-wrote with David Drake the entertaining space-alien-in-Ancient-Rome novel, Killer, which I talked about here recently.

I've decided to read every story in this volume, DAW No. 393, UJ1549, which includes numerous stories by people I have never read before, as well as people I have mixed feelings about, so there is no telling what is going to happen.

"The Dead Line" by Dennis Etchison (1979)

We're off to a horrifying start with this one.  On the first page of the story the narrator is in the hospital, visiting his comatose wife.  When nobody is looking he breaks a bottle, grinds the shards under his foot, and then sprinkles the tiny pieces of glass into his wife's eyes.  When I read this I think I made that face I make when I drive by a deer that has been hit by a tractor trailer, a regular event out here in America's heartland.  "Uchhhhhkk...."

At first I thought the narrator some monster who hated his wife, but Etchison quickly overturned my expectations; his story is full of disturbing details of bodily mutilation, but proves to be a brief rumination on medical ethics.  "The Dead Line" is a science-fiction story set in the near future, when the hospital can keep a brain dead person's body alive indefinitely, and harvest the blood and tissues for years, for use in treatments of others and for experiments.  Knowing his wife is not quite dead and is regularly subject to all kinds of invasive procedures causes the narrator tremendous anguish, and he seeks to sabotage her body in order to render it useless, so she can finally die and be buried.  He meets a woman whose husband has recently fallen into a coma, and passionately urges her to refuse to allow him to be admitted to the harvesting program, to bury him and achieve closure as soon as she can.

Disturbing, surprising, and dedicated to raising a moral dilemma; pretty good.

"The Dead Line" first appeared in Whispers 13-14, a semi-professional zine edited by Stuart David Schiff which attracted a lot of top talent.  The story has been reprinted numerous times.

"To Wake the Dead" by Ramsey Campbell (1979)

This is the prologue to Campbell's novel of the same title (well, in the U.S. I guess it was released under the title The Parasite) which won the August Derleth Award in 1981.  I've liked some Campbell stories and disliked others, so let's cross our fingers for this one.

A ten-year old girl accompanies some older kids and teens into an abandoned house, where it is said a person died a few months ago.  The leader of the group has set up a ouija board, and the kids appear to contact a spirit.  When the older kids flee the room the door locks behind them, leaving the ten-year-old trapped dark room, where she is assaulted by who-knows-what.

I found this story to be effective; it generates a sense of unease at its beginning that escalating to truly scary at the end.  It would be easy to criticize Campbell for piling on a surfeit of physical description of settings and objects, for using such a tired device as the ouija board (though maybe it wasn't so tired in '79), and for trying to manipulate us in a cheap way by having the victim be a little girl.  Despite the apparent validity of all these complaints, the story works.  The verbose description, the dialogue with the (purported) spirit, and the vulnerability of a small girl succeed in setting a tone of suspense, fear, and then terror.  I also think Campbell does a good job of channeling the feelings of a young child among adults and older children; the frustration of not quite belonging, of feeling like an inferior, the painful need to both show independence and win approval; the little girl comes off as a real person, which makes her ordeal at the end emotionally affecting.

Thumbs up!

"In the Fourth Year of the War" by Harlan Ellison (1979)

As with Campbell, I've enjoyed some Ellison stories and been unimpressed by others, so let's hope I get lucky again.

"In the Fourth Year of the War" reminded me of a Malzberg story, though more lushly written. A guy argues with a voice in his head (the war in the title is the narrator's struggle against this voice for dominance of his mind and body)--in the fourth year of this struggle the voice insists he murder his Uncle Carl!  The narrator hasn't seen or spoken to Carl in years!  But he has (perhaps dubious) reasons to think Carl ruined his father's life, and the voice triumphs.  So he travels from California to Chicago and disposes of Carl.  Revenge!  But the voice's bloodlust is not satiated!  As the voice's power over the narrator increases, more people who have contributed to the unhappiness of the narrator's life are slated to suffer vengeance for deeds of years long past!

This is a good psychological horror story, maybe more fun, with its clever details (the blue pinstripes on Uncle Carl's night shirt match the veins of his skinny legs) and its little jokes (the murderous voice sometimes does an impression of Humphrey Bogart!) than actually scary, but quite entertaining.  As Etchison does in "The Dead Line," Ellison invites us to identify (maybe just a little!) with the destructive protagonist, to consider to what extent his anti-social acts are justified by psychological trauma and the selfishness of others.

A good story.  "In the Fourth Year of the War" first appeared in Gary Hoppenstand's Midnight Sun Five, like Whispers, a well-regarded semi-pro zine.

"From the Lower Deep" by Hugh B. Cave (1979)

Cave's name comes up all the time in horror anthologies and criticism, and he has a stack of Lifetime Achievement Awards to his credit.  But when I borrowed a copy of a novel by Cave from the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 41st Street eight or ten years ago (I think it must have been The Mountains of Madness), I was flabbergasted at how boring it was.  The whole book was a guy walking around a tropical island! (At least that is all I can remember.)

Well, the time has come to give Cave another chance.  I've already read three good stories in The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII--can Cave make it four?

Matthew Greene, professional photographer, owns a home on an island in an East Coast lake.  While he is on assignment in Connecticut he gets word that there has been an earthquake and a flood at the island, so he rushes back.  There he discovers gruesome hints that indicate that the earthquake has opened up a cave and unleashed on the island man-eating frog/blob monsters!  The ultimate horror: Greene's housekeeper goes insane when she sees a pack of the monsters eating a woman, and witnesses her nine-year-old son, believed to have drowned months ago, chowing down right there with them!

This story is OK.  The style is not very good, pedestrian with some sentences I thought clumsy.

"From the Lower Deep" was first published in Whispers II, an anthology published by Doubleday and edited by Stuart David Schiff which included new stories as well as some material from Schiff's Whispers magazine.  Tarbandu read Whispers II in its entirety a few years ago; check out his assessment of its contents here.


I'm quite happy with The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII so far.  Wagner seems to know how to pick 'em.  The next four stories are by people I have never even heard of, so it will be interesting to see in our next episode if they can maintain the high standards set by famous pros Ellison, Campbell, Cave and Etchison.


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  2. Horror is usually not my genre of choice, except for those stories which I like, and the few that I really, really like. My favorite horror story would have to be Bradbury's "Skeleton." However, I haven't read enough of the rest of the genre to comment intelligently on these stories. Thanks.

    1. Bradbury's "Skeleton" is good; among his horror stories I also like "October Game," "Small Assassin," and "The Jar."