Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII: The Final Battle: Steve Sneyd, Charles L. Grant, Harlan Ellison & Richard A. Moore

I see a light at the end of the tunnel!  Today we are reading the final four tales from Karl Edward Wagner's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII, DAW No. 393, published in 1980.  This batch includes two famous writers, Harlan Ellison and Charles Grant, and two I am not familiar with, Steve Sneyd and Richard A. Moore.

"A Fly One" by Steve Sneyd (1979)

This is a brief (six and a half pages) first person narrative from a British detective, Vrczynski, whom Sneyd makes a point of telling us is foreign-born. A fourteen-year-old girl has been murdered; there are signs of sexual assault.  Vrczynski has no clues, but when a freakish hunchback comes into the station he realizes, in a flash of intuition, that this weirdo is the killer. The freako explains to the gumshoe that he needed the blood of a virgin to complete the magic spell that would give him wings--as Vrczynski watches the wings start bursting out of the sorcerer's hump! Vrczynski rips the wings off, and keeps them at his home, in alcohol, as a trophy!  The wizard, who was proclaiming that he was the next stage of human evolution seconds before Vrczynski tore his wings off, goes to whatever British people call the funny farm...maybe "nuttery?"

This is a cynical story, depicting a fallen, corrupt world.  The cops beat and trick the prisoners to get information, the family members of the slain girl either don't care she is dead or use the opportunity to get attention, the way the evil wizard guy has to murder a vulnerable, innocent, person to work his spell implies that the only way to "get ahead" and "make progress" is by exploiting others, and Vrczynski acts as judge, jury and punisher, ignoring the long English tradition of a jury trial.  Maybe, like Russell Kirk's story about criminals in this same volume, it makes sense to consider this story in the context of rising crime rates in the 1970s.

One thing to ruminate over is why Sneyd has the detective be foreign-born.  To provide an outsider's view of British society?  To emphasize the decay of British culture by having the smartest and hardest-working character in the story be one of non-British background?  To provide a chance to accuse the police force of discrimination (Vrczynski claims few foreign-born officers achieve seniority)?  Maybe Vrczynski is a refugee from communism (his name sounds Polish, right?) and so he serves as a reminder of international conflict and/or government tyranny?

A good story: economical, atmospheric, and full of interest.  Like Dennis Etchison's "The Dead Line," "A Fly One" was first published in Whispers 13-14.  It would be included in Whispers III in 1981.

"Needle Song" by Charles L. Grant (1979)

Like Harlan Ellison's "In the Fourth Year of the War," "Needle Song" was first unleashed on the world in Midnight Sun #5.  It has been reprinted a few times, including in the 2012 collection Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant.  As you probably know, Grant is famous for practicing and advocating for "quiet horror." How sotto voce is "Needle Song"?

Pretty sotto voce, but with a bloody gong at the end.  The ten pages of the story switch back and forth between brief paragraphs in italics about an old blind woman and long passages in normal type about two kids, Caren and Eric.  It seems that Hawthorne Street was a happy neighborhood where everybody got along and people had decent jobs and stable families.  Then a blind old woman moved into the house number 136. This weird character refused to interact with the rest of the neighborhood.  Then she began regularly playing the piano at 9:00 PM; the music could be heard throughout the neighborhood.

The town suddenly has good luck; people were winning lotteries, getting raises, Caren's brother gots into a high class university, and little Eric was discovered to be a musical prodigy!  But then the little concerts ended.  Everybody's luck turned sour; people lost their jobs, Caren's brother became a drug addict, the lawns and trees started dying, a house burnt down.  Then the music starts up again, irregularly.  Eric and Caren believe that the old woman is sucking the happiness and good luck out of the town.

The italicized paragraphs suggest they are on to something--the blind woman, after one of her little concerts, takes a magic needle and sews colors onto a black square of cloth.  "One day, she thought, she would sew herself a new dress of a thousand colors and be young again."

Caren and Eric, after abandoning schemes to shoot or decapitate her, try to foil the witch by relating happy memories to each other and laughing enthusiastically during one of her sorcerous serenades; they think this will show the witch that she can't hurt them and convince her to give up and leave.  They believe they have succeeded, but then Eric slips and smashes his mouth into the corner of a table, ruining his hopes of a career as a trumpet player.

This story is just alright.  The mechanism of what the witch is actually doing is a little mysterious, what with all the starting and stopping, the good and bad luck, etc. Maybe her music at first brought good luck to the town, and then took the luck away, like how a farmer fertilizes and seeds a field before reaping it.  There are also hints that the entire region or nation is suffering some kind of economic downturn, that the witch travels from town to town devastating one after the other.  The central idea is OK, but the way the story is constructed is kind of confusing, the style is pedestrian and nothing about the story evoked any emotion.

"All the Birds Come Home to Roost" by Harlan Ellison (1979)

I always associate the phrase "the chickens come home to roost" with Malcolm X and Ward Churchill and the idea that murders like those of JFK and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were retribution or poetic justice inflicted on whites because of Western misdeeds of the past like slavery and colonialism.  The phrase is used more widely however, and apparently originated in the early nineteenth century.  Ellison modifies it to "birds," I suspect, as a reference to the use of the word "bird" to refer to a pretty girl, and maybe because "chicken" evokes comedic images, like rubber chickens or the funky chicken dance, while "bird" is somewhat poetic.

"All the Birds Come Home to Roost" first appeared in Playboy, and has been included in a number of anthologies, like 2013's Psycho-Mania and The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, as well as the 1987 Essential Ellison collection.

Michael Kirxby is a lawyer, in bed with a girlfriend.  He tells her about the unhealthy relationship he had with his wife of some 20 years ago, Cindy, how her infidelities and psychological problems made her difficult to deal with, how while under the stress of studying for the bar one day he snapped and gave her a terrific beating.  And how he divorced Cindy and she ended up in a mental institution.  "She very nearly took me with her to the madhouse.  I got away just in time."

After this confession, over the succeeding days, Kirxby has apparently random encounters with former girlfriends.  He comes to realize that he is meeting all of his lovers in reverse order; each woman from his past he meets and sleeps with brings him one step closer to Cindy, his first lover.  When he meets Cindy again will she exact some terrible revenge?  As he continues to meet women from his past he becomes more and more desperate and more and more mentally unhinged.

Ellison writes the story in a smooth style, and it is well-structured.  It didn't inspire any feeling in me, though, with its clever but incredible central idea and unsympathetic protagonist.  It reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone or one of those old EC Comics, though with its numerous references to the unsavory side of sex (e.g., "the wet spot," erectile dysfunction, and female frigidity) it is one that cries out for an "adults only!" label.  Moderately good.

"The Devil Behind You" by Richard A. Moore (1979)

This is a good finale to the collection; "The Devil Behind You" is genuinely suspenseful, surprising, and depicts something horrible.  At seven pages it is nice and tight.

An eight-year-old boy from a broken family loiters in the woods by the church on Sunday rather than attend services; the rabble-rousing preacher scares him, and the congregation doesn't like him because of his disreputable mother and absent father.  In the woods he is accosted by an escaped convict, who forces him to sneak into the church to steal a set of keys for one of the cars in the parking lot.  The impressionable child thinks the criminal may be the Devil himself, to the felon's amusement. In the final paragraph of the story the child makes a bold move that I thought would save his life, but I, like he, had been tricked--the boy's brief and unhappy life is over.

A crime story (it first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) in which a small boy is murdered perhaps deserves to be called exploitative, but, for me, it achieved the goal that Wagner set for the stories he selected for this anthology: it created "a convincing mood of fear and unease."  (Despite Karl and I liking it, "The Devil Behind You" is Richard A. Moore's only fiction credit at isfdb; there is also a "Richard Moore" listed who has two stories.)


The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII as a whole has to be counted a success; of the 16 stories all but two or three show merit, and even the clunkers (the anti-gun story and the ghost motorcycle story) are odd and memorable in an amusing way.  The collection shows great variety; there are stories by famous authors and stories by new and minor writers, left-wing and right-wing stories, stories sympathetic to religion and hostile to religion, supernatural stories, science-fiction stories, psychological stories, and realistic crime stories.  Wagner, in his first time up at bat as editor of The Year's Best Horror Stories, did a solid job for DAW and the speculative fiction community, and I feel comfortable recommending The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII to horror fans.      

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