Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late 20th-century Horror Stories by Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja & Dennis Etchison

I'm no Dinosaur Dracula, but, getting into the spirit of the season, I checked out 2010's Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, an anthology full of illustrations of snakes, edited by Ellen Datlow.  Early this week I read three widely-admired and widely-anthologized horror stories from its pages.  Maybe these "modern" horror stories will provide a contrast to the Victorian and Edwardian horror stories I have been reading?

"The Greater Festival of Masks" by Thomas Ligotti (1985)

Written in the present tense and full of rich descriptions, but with its plot and point not all that easily discerned, "The Greater Festival of Masks" has the qualities of a dream or nightmare.  I had to read it twice to feel that I had much of an idea of what was really going on.  It first appeared in the collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Noss lives in a sort of neverland, an odd city with no connection to our own real world, in which a festival is taking place.  A prime component of the festival is the wearing of masks, and Noss walks through town, to a shop which sells masks.  He has been delaying participating in the festivities, but has resolved to now acquire masks for himself.

We come to realize Noss is not a native of the town but an immigrant, and along with him we learn the truth of the festival at the mask shop.  The people of this town, during the rare mask festivals, put on two masks, one after the other.  The first erases their features, leaving their faces egg smooth, and the second mask creates for them a new face--Ligotti compares the slow process of a new face forming to being like that of a garden growing.  After some initial reluctance, Noss joins in this practice.

Any fiction in which masks feature prominently is going to make you think about identity and about the difference between what we show of ourselves to the world and the true character of our souls.  ("Every day you've got to wake up/disappear behind your makeup.")  On the second page of the story we get a description of how deceptive and fake are the facades of many of the city's buildings, incorporating false doors which do not open, stairways which lead nowhere, and balconies that cannot be accessed, decorative features which mimic practical ones, but lack any utility themselves.  This is a city characterized by false faces.  Perhaps ironically, during the festival of masks people in the city are more open and aboveboard: "He also observes numerous indications of the festival season.....For instance, not a few doors have been kept ajar, even throughout the night, and dim lights are left burning in empty rooms."

This city is also one characterized by change; it is implied that buildings come and go, and change places, like the plants of a curated garden.  (The garden is a metaphor Ligotti uses more than once in the story.)  And I think the story is primarily about change, the way change can be scary, the way that moving to a new city can change you, and also social change--everybody in the city, after all, changes at the same time, not each citizen individually and of his own volition.  The device of the masks seems to suggest that changes in the character of individuals come from without, not within, and Ligotti hints that social change comes from the periphery, not from society's recognized rulers ("...the delirium of this rare celebration does not radiate out from the center of things, but seeps inward from remote margins.")  He also suggests that after a major change the past is buried, forgotten ("of the old time nothing will be said, because nothing will be known.")

This reminded me of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, and of recent changes in the conventional wisdom about homosexuality in the United States--such changes seem to bubble up from the the culture and the people, instead of being lead by politicians, who follow trends in an effort to appeal to the masses and seem to be lying half the time about how they really feel.  As Ligotti suggests, once the change has taken place everybody acts like the new fashion is the obvious norm, and claims to be shocked and disgusted by the way people thought and behaved in the past.

Well-written, full of good images and phrases, and thought-provoking--"The Greater Festival of Masks" is a quite good story.    

"Teratisms" by Kathe Koja (1991)

This story is sort of opaque, or at least difficult (editor Datlow appropriately uses the word "oblique" to describe Koja's style.)  As with the Ligotti story, I had to read this one twice to satisfy myself that I knew what the hell was going on plotwise.  The tone and feeling of the story is no mystery, however; Koja generates an atmosphere of disgust and despair, of helplessness in the face of challenges and guilt, partly by including realistic little details about the depressing lives of her degenerate lower class characters, partly with all the bizarre descriptions of blood.

Mitch and his sister, who changes her name periodically and is currently going by the name of Randle, are young adults.  Their mother, before dying, made them promise to look after their illiterate kid brother Alex, and so the three stick together even though Mitch and Randle openly detest and are sickened by Alex and by each other.  This soul-crushingly antagonistic family can't settle down anyplace, but instead moves across the country in a beat up old car because, unless I am totally misinterpreting Koja's clues, Alex is a cannibal, perhaps even a vampire or ghoul, who kills and eats children when he gets a chance.

("Teratisms" first was published in the anthology Whispers of Blood, which has the subtitle "18 Stories of Vampirism," but in the story Koja never uses the word "vampire" and Alex seems to walk around in the sunlight all the time.  The story works without any supernatural content, as far as I can see.)

Koja is a little cagey when describing the cannibal stuff, but open with other examples of this trio's insanity and abnormality.  Alex obsessively recites the list of towns they have been to, and obsessively plays with little scraps of paper.  Randle is always coming on to her older brother, exposing her breasts to him and so forth, and I thought Koja was hinting that the three of them form a love triangle or maybe sometimes have group sex:
They [Randle and Alex] were almost to the counter, holding hands. When Randle saw him [Mitch] enter, she looked away; he saw her fingers squeeze Alex's, twice and slow. What was it like for her? Middleman.   
In the final lines of the story (remember our spoiler policy here at MPorcius Fiction Log) Mitch, exhausted by this horrible life, intentionally runs over Alex as Randle sits beside him in the passenger seat, and then drives the car into some trees in hopes of exterminating his entire insane and predacious family.

"Teratisms" is a skilled performance, and is twisted, disgusting and disturbing.  Read at your own risk!

"The Dog Park" by Dennis Etchison (1993)

I read Etchison's story "The Dead Line" in the summer and thought it was pretty good. Dinosaur Dracula praised, and then illustrated, Etchison's novelization of Halloween III just recently.  (Illustration is the sincerest form of flattery.)  So I thought "The Dog Park" worth a look.  

"The Dog Park" is about Hollywood people.  I guess it is about the way Hollywood chews up and spits out so many ambitious people without the talent or luck to achieve their dreams ("success walks hand in hand with failure," you know), and maybe about how the people in Hollywood who have already made it feel contempt for and even prey upon those who have yet to make it.

The story takes place in a dog park alongside an overgrown canyon.  People come to the dog park to network, giving their business cards to the other dog walkers and discussing scripts and that sort of jazz.  In the canyon, apparently, live coyotes and mountain lions who, it seems, kill any dogs who stray into the canyon.  On the other side of the canyon are the houses of rich people.

The plot follows a novelist who has produced only one novel and is leaving Los Angeles soon, defeated.  His dog vanished into the canyon a few weeks ago.  In the dog park one last time, in hopes of finding his lost dog, he meets a young woman who works for the Fox Network on a TV show about police dogs; she aspires to write a movie-of-the-week about Elvis Presley and his relationship with dogs.  Her dog is also stupid enough to end up in canyon.  As the story ends the rich people above the canyon are having a party, and seem to be applauding the wild beasts in the canyon as they devour the TV writer woman's canine.  Etchison directly compares the canyon to the Roman arena.

Maybe this story would do something for me if I had lived in Hollywood or ever owned a dog.  As it is, I am just sort of shrugging it off as OK.  Despite my lukewarm reaction it won a British Fantasy Award in 1994, and is apparently the favorite horror story of Richard Matheson's son!  "The Dog Park" first appeared in Dark Voices 5: The Pan Book of Horror.


Datlow seems to have put together a collection of solid stories of importance to the horror fiction community; maybe I'll read more tales from Darkness later this week.

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