Thursday, October 15, 2015

1980s & '90s horror stories by Edward Bryant, Poppy Z. Brite and Gene Wolfe

The Halloween celebration at MPorcius Fiction Log continues with three more late-Twentieth Century horror stories selected by Ellen Datlow for her 2010 anthology Darkness, these by Edward Bryant, Poppy Z. Brite, and Gene Wolfe.

Click to read a census of Ellen Datlow's pets and library.
"Dancing Chickens" by Edward Bryant (1984)

I've devoted two posts to Edward Bryant in the past, liking some stories and disliking others.  Let's see what Bryant has in store for us this time.  I have to admit that "Dancing Chickens" is not an inspiring title--I don't want to read any dumb jokes! "Dancing Chickens" first appeared in the anthology Light Years and Dark.

Like Koja's "Teratisms," which I talked about in my last blog post and also appears in Darkness, this story realistically describes a lifestyle which is disturbing and disgusting.  Our narrator, Rick or "Ricky," is the product of a broken home, a street kid who loves dancing.  He was lifted out of the gutter by a man he calls "Hawk." Hawk and Rick have a pederastic relationship:
He had taken me home, cleaned, fed, and warmed me.  He used me, sometimes well.  Sometimes he only used me.
We are even informed that Rick has suffered anal damage which he tries to pass off to doctors as hemorrhoids.  Yuck!

Alien spaceships have been hovering over the Earth for months; they have yet to communicate with the human race, and everybody is constantly wondering why the aliens are here and what they will do.

At a party where cocaine is available and all of the attendees appear to be gay men, one partier uses a raw chicken, dressed in doll clothes, as a puppet, making it dance to a recording of  "Tea For Two"and "If You Knew Susie."  (Not "Sledgehammer," however, which would not be released until early 1986.)   This performance sickens Rick, who flees the apartment and runs in front of a bus.  As he lays dying, the space aliens use a tractor beam to make him dance around, their first interaction with the human race.  The point of the story is, no doubt, that the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.

This story is well-written, and certainly horrible, but it is hard not to see the resolution of the plot as sort of ridiculous.  It is like those EC comics in which a guy who enjoys pulling off flies' wings is captured by giant alien flies who delight in tearing people's arms off--a little too obvious.  "Dancing Chickens" is a borderline case that I hesitate to say is bad, but don't feel I can endorse.

"Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" by Poppy Z. Brite (1992)

Poppy Z. Brite is one of those names that I see in anthologies all the time, but I had never read any of her work.  I decided to give her a shot this week.  When I read editor Datlow's intro and learned "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," which first appeared in the anthology Still Dead, was a zombie apocalypse story I was discouraged, as I am sick of that kind of thing, but having committed myself I went through with reading it. Luckily its main focus is not the kind of zombie stuff we've read and seen a billion times already.  (Maybe I shouldn't read these introductions until after I've read the stories they are affixed to.)

You might call this story transgressive.  How often do you read a story in which the smell of the vagina(!) takes a starring role in a metaphor:
The world squats and spreads its legs, and Calcutta is the dank sex you see revealed there, wet and fragrant with a thousand odors both delicious and foul.  A source of lushest pleasure, a breeding ground for every conceivable disease. 
This story is also a real gorefest--among other things, we hear how zombies will claw the breasts of a new mother so the milk spurts out of the wounds!  Yuck again!

The plot: Our narrator was born in Calcutta to a local woman and an American man. Mom died in childbirth, and Dad took him back to the US.  Dad was a drunk, and died when our hero was 18; soon after the narrator moved to Calcutta.  While he was living there the zombie apocalypse broke out.

Because the zombies move slowly, they can only catch cripples and children, so life in Calcutta goes on more or less as usual: the buses run, shops open and do business, etc. The story consists primarily of our narrator, who apparently has no need to work, spending a day strolling around the town. The picture he paints of Calcutta would not be appreciated by the Department of Tourism of the West Bengal government (whose official English website is full of adorable typos.)  We are told that the people smell bad, and shit and piss wherever they feel like.  Five million of the inhabitants "look as if they are already dead--might as well be dead--and another five million wish they were...."  I'm not feeling encouraged to book a flight to this center of art and culture!    
In the morning our Indian-born, American-educated hero visits the temple of Kali, the four-armed and three-eyed Mother and eater of souls, where he offers her statue a handful of flowers and spices.  In the evening he returns to the temple, and finds a gaggle of zombies there, also making an offering.  The living dead offer Kali severed heads, hunks of human flesh, and piles of bones!  Our hero hallucinates that the statue of Kali begins to move, exposing her gaping sex and gesturing him to come inside. Our narrator flees.

This is a pretty crazy story.  Like the Koja and Bryant stories in Darkness it relies for much of its power on realistic descriptions of the desperate lives of poor people.  I'm even considering the possibility that the "point" of "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" is that life is a horror story already for many people, that a zombie holocaust would be superfluous.

I would recommend the story as an experience: Brite's writing style is good, I learned a little about Calcutta (Brite does a good job of creating a sense of place), and the bizarre sexual elements (as in "Dancing Chickens") are striking and memorable.  Plot and character are lackluster, however.  In a conventional story a character faces a challenge or pursues a goal, and/or changes in some way.  I didn't get that from "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves;" the story is more like a "slice of life" or "tour of the city" kind of thing, meant to say something about Calcutta, that happens to be set during a zombie apocalypse.  There was also no real tension or emotional attachment, just the simple shock moments caused by the gore and cringe-and-laughter inducing sexual references; I didn't care what happened to the narrator, who in turn seemed detached and aloof himself (maybe that is part of Brite's point, that people from First World countries don't care about Third Worlders, or that the middle and upper classes don't care about the lower orders.)

I'll read more Brite in the future.

"The Tree is My Hat" by Gene Wolfe (1999)

I read this years ago, and didn't remember the details all that well, so decided to give it another read.  "The Tree is My Hat" first appeared in 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, and is also in the 2009 collection The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction.

Like Brite's "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves," "The Tree is My Hat" is a first-person narrative by an American in the Third World, and has at its center an ancient non-Western religion and the narrator's relationship with one of its dangerous deities.  Wolfe's story is more complicated, though, told in the form of a diary and not quite in chronological order, and our main character is not at all aloof--the story is about his intimate human (and inhuman!) relationships.  It also has a conventional man versus nature, man versus society, and man versus himself plot.

It is sad to see a cover that is so lazy
Our narrator's name is Baden, and, appropriately enough, because like numerous other Wolfe first-person narrators, he is an immoral person and an unreliable narrator, everybody calls him "Bad" for short.  Bad, for example, admits to being a vicious liar.

Bad works for a US government agency whose (ostensible?) mission is to provide assistance to other countries. After a trip to Africa, where he caught a chronic disease (like malaria, I suppose) he has been sent to some little Polynesian island.  Bad wants to get back with his estranged wife Mary, and even while he is in the process of doing so via e-mail he has a sexual relationship with a local woman.

Besides the native woman, Bad becomes friendly with the native king of the island, a Christian missionary named Rob, and an ancient shark god named Hanga.  (And exchanges e-mails with a psychic, who gives him warnings of danger--Wolfe crams lots of characters into this 24-page story!)  The missionary, who has been on the island for years, gives us the lowdown on the shark god and the island's history.  In ancient times, Rob claims, a great civilization in an unspecified location was ruled by a tyrannical and bloodthirsty aristocracy, who waged war and sacrificed peasants in order to appease a bloodthirsty god.  Finally, the commoners rose up and threw the aristocrats out--the aristocrats resettled on the island in which this story takes place, bringing their god with them.

Hanga appears in human form to Bad, and sees in Bad a kindred spirit--in an unsettling ritual they become blood brothers!  In a line that will thrill libertarian and conservative readers, Bad equates the U.S. government with the murderous Polynesian aristocrats:
...I had to wonder about people like me, who work for the federal government.  Would we be driven out someday, like the people Rob talked about?  A lot of us do not care any more about ordinary people than they did.
When Mary gets to the island all hell breaks loose, and in some effectively creepy and then horrifying scenes, Bad, Mary, and their children are tormented and then attacked by the shark god--there are numerous horrendous casualties!

Perhaps my favorite scene comes a little before the catastrophic ending sections, and I think it exemplifies the feel of the story.  Late at night Bad sees what he calls in his diary a UFO, but we readers can tell from Bad's description that it must be his buddy Hanga, in flying shark form!

Like a lot of Wolfe stories, this one is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, in that you get all the pieces, but you don't pull them out of the box in the order in which they fit together.  It can take a second read to slot them all together and see the big picture. Also, as usual with Wolfe, it makes sense to pay close attention to every sentence; there is no fat or filler in this story.  Besides airing some of his political views, Wolfe also talks about God and His relationship with man, and about World War II, which, as with a lot of history buffs, apparently fascinates Wolfe.  There is also a surprising little joke which I didn't notice until looking through the story the fourth or fifth time--Mary's maiden name seems to be have been "Mary Christmas!"

Another gem from the master which gets better and yields more pleasure to the reader the harder he or she works at it.  Bravo!

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Worthwhile horror stories.  In our next episode it's back to the pre-war era for some horror stories by M. R. James, whom Otto Penzler suggests was "arguably the greatest writer of supernatural stories who ever lived!"

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