Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Year's Best Horror VIII: Part 3: Alan Ryan, Kevin Lyons, Russell Kirk & Robert Keefe

Here comes the third installment of our journey into 1979's nightmares with Karl Edward Wagner, who, as he explains on the first page of The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII, cast a wide net in his quest for stories that "create a convincing mood of fear and unease."

"Sheets" by Alan Ryan (1979)

Here we witness some of the snobbery people who think they are smart and/or educated feel for those who work in retail or at other low status jobs.  I am sensitive to this kind of thing, having witnessed such contempt at close range among New York academics and having been (all too credibly, I fear) accused of it myself.

George April, an unemployed teacher, resorts to taking a job at Macy's.  The boredom is "crushing, a think enveloping fog...but the frustration came from the knowledge that he alone of all of them was the only one who felt it....How can they not be bored...how can they stand it....what do they think about while they stare into space...?"  He works in the sheets department during a white sale, and is expected to be familiar with all the different patterns; there are about fifty patterns on display. The boredom of the job begins driving poor George insane, and, when at the insistence of his wife, he takes advantage of his discount and buys new sheets for their own bed, he dreams or hallucinates that the butterflies printed on the sheets come to life and murder him.

The realistic stuff about working a job you don't like was alright, reminding me a little of Charles Bukowski's Post Office or Factotum, or Henry Miller bitching about working for the telegram office.  But the hallucinations felt too long and too silly, and did not jive* with the realistic sections.  I guess I have to give "Sheets" an "OK" rating.

"Sheets" first saw light of day in Chrysalis 5.  Will Errickson has a number of interesting posts at his fun blog Too Much Horror Fiction about Ryan's work as a horror writer and anthologist; check them out here.

*For decades I've been one of the people who uses "jive" to mean "goes along with" and "jibe" to mean "a taunt," and despite recently discovering that this may be incorrect, I'm sticking to it. 

"Billy Wolfe's Riding Spirit" by Kevin A. Lyons (1979)

This story first appeared in Easyriders, which Wagner describes as a "free-wheeling biker magazine that also carries some fine fiction."  Lyons, like your humble blogger, is a graduate of Rutgers University.  There are only two publications listed for "Kevin A. Lyons" in the isfdb.

This five-page story is about a ghost motorcycle!  In my home state of New Jersey!  Every full moon, at midnight, a "real long chopper" drives recklessly from east to west on Route 80, past towns I am familiar with, like Dover (where I would catch the train to Manhattan) and Rockaway (location of "the mall," where I purchased AD&D modules and Fritz Leiber and Piers Anthony paperbacks at the Paperback Booksmith in the '80s and tried without success to date up a pale black-haired art student who worked at the Museum Company Store in the '90s).  The state police pursue the biker, whom they believe must be scofflaw Billy Wolfe, but he always escapes near the Delaware Water Gap.

Our narrator works for the state, picking up dead deer from the highway and carting them to the rendering plant.  One day he is following a wounded deer into the woods, and he finds Billy Wolfe's corpse!  And the corpse of his bike!  The corpses are quite old, proving what we already suspected and what I already told you, that Billy Wolfe (and his chopper) are ghosts!

It is fun to see the unimportant towns you spent time in as a kid in print, but this story is a silly trifle.  Put another "OK" on the scoreboard.

"Lex Talionis" by Russell Kirk (1979)

Like Hugh B. Cave's "From the Lower Deep," "Lex Talionis" first appeared in David Schiff's Whispers II.   As all you Latinists know, "Lex Talionis" means "the law of retaliation," the principle that the punishment should fit the crime.  Considering the date it was published, maybe we should think of the story as a criticism of lenient criminal justice policies.

Russell Kirk is famous as an erudite conservative intellectual, more the traditionalist religion and order type of conservative than the free market and small government type, and it shows in this story.  Again and again we are reminded of how civilization and public morals are in decay, and Kirk doesn't shy away from paraphrasing Pelagius and Saint Augustine and using this story as a forum to discuss Catholic doctrine.  If George Hay's story in our last episode suggested that Satan was real, Kirk in "Lex Talionis" asserts that Hell must be real, that Hell is necessary if there is to be any justice in the universe.

Back cover of
The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII
The plot: Eddie Mahaffy, after spending time at sea, foolishly joins a ne'er-do-well relative in an armed robbery.  When someone gets killed in the commission of the robbery, Eddie ends up in prison for life.  In prison Eddie devotes himself to learning and religion, and tries to stay out of the way of Butte, the rapist who, though an inmate, due to his tremendous strength and important outside connections is de facto king of the penitentiary.  But when Butte starts torturing someone, Eddie challenges him, and Butte and his lackeys beat Eddie to the brink of death.

We learn all that background via periodic flashbacks, presented out of chronological order.  At the start of the story Eddie is out of prison, and visits a church and then a bar.  At the bar he encounters Butte.  Butte wants Eddie, the only man to ever stand up to him, to help him break into an old mansion in a once fine, now crime-ridden and semi-abandoned, neighborhood to retrieve a pile of money.  Butte hid the money in there after raping and murdering the middle-class inhabitants, who had stuck around after all the other decent people had fled the area.

Eddie accompanies Butte to the house, where Butte learns to his horror what has been foreshadowed to us readers several times: Eddie died of complications from the beating Butte meted out to him, and is a ghost, an instrument of justice sent by God to deal with Butte.

I sometimes feels like almost all speculative fiction is written by socialist atheists and libertarian atheists, while the talented Catholic SF authors like R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe express their religious beliefs in oblique ways.  So the way Kirk baldly asserts that we are going to live forever, that Hell was built by divine love, that this world is corrupt and evil but it matters little because we must focus on our eternal souls' destination, is kind of refreshing.  This story doesn't just have a religious subtext, it is an in-your-face religious text.  An atheist myself, I wouldn't seek out a steady diet of such material, but it is an interesting change of pace.  

"Lex Talionis" is perhaps a little too long, but the style is good and I should probably know more than I do about Pelagius and Saint Augustine, so I don't begrudge Kirk for giving me a precis of their thought.  Moderate recommendation.

"Entombed" by Robert Keefe (1979)

This story is Robert Keefe's sole credit at isfdb.  Keefe is an academic, an expert on Gothic literature, and "Entombed" first appeared in a small press literary journal, Gothic.

"Entombed" is a mainstream literary story with no supernatural content, as far as I can tell.  A teenaged boy has a difficult life: his father left before he was born, and he lives with his mother and aunt, two annoying women who never stop complaining and yelling.  He has a job at a diner, and had a good relationship with the cook (a drunk), but the cook has moved away, vanishing unexpectedly without saying goodbye or telling anybody where he was going.

The boy was fascinated by mummy horror movies as a younger kid, and recently become fascinated by the Egyptian Wing of the art museum.  For several days in a row he has come to the museum when it opens in the morning, and sat in the Egyptian Wing, with the mummies and sarcophagi, for hours.  Today he has lost track of the time, and finds himself locked in the museum overnight.  The story ends as the sun is going down and the room is getting dark.

This story, about the horrors of our real lives and how we try to escape them in art and entertainment, is not bad.  I thought it a mistake that Alan Ryan in "Sheets" had scenes in which the sheets came to life and massacred the protagonist, so it is probably wise that Keefe did not have a scene in which the mummy of the princess came to life to reveal the boy was the spiritual descendent of a pharaoh and take him away to a better life or whatever.

Mild recommendation.


Not a bad crop of stories; each has a particular point of view, be it that of  a Catholic intellectual, bitter veteran of Macy's, Gothic lit aficionado or New Jersey habituĂ©.

Only four stories yet remain in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII. Stay tuned for our next episode!

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