Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is the short story really the novel's poor relation?

By: Chris Power

Last month saw the publication of 50 Mini Modern Classics by Penguin, marking the 50th anniversary of their Modern Classics list. Each of these miniature volumes, the size of a slice of toast, contains several short or single longer stories by one writer. It's often said short stories don't sell, or that the form only thrives in the independent sector, or in America, or online, so it's heartening to see a major UK publisher releasing 50 all in one go, in the traditional dead-tree format.

Yet if my friends, acquaintances and assorted others I speak to are at all representative, the short story is, like fiction in translation, a minority interest. A 2004 Arts Council report found that just over half of "light to medium" readers "sometimes read books of short stories". It's a situation that some in the publishing industry describe as a self-fulfilling prophecy: advances for short stories are much lower than those for novels; sales are expected to be one third or a quarter of those for a novel by the same writer, and marketing departments accordingly deny short stories much or any promotional budget. The advice the report offered writers was unequivocal: theme your collection, write it in such a way that it can be disguised as something else, or scrap it and write a novel instead.

The belief that the short story is a poor relation of the novel persists. Its roots reach back to literature's beginnings, but the short story as we know it only came to be regarded as a distinct form in the 19th century, with works by Poe, Kleist, Gogol and Turgenev resisting established pigeonholes. In the 20th century the short story was the site of as much innovation and great writing as the novel. Consider the Mini Modern Classics list: even in terms of this relatively modest sample, any reader who hasn't read at least some of the short stories of Joyce, Borges, Kafka, Barthelme, Mansfield, Conrad, Carter, Kipling or Trevor is neglecting some of the great literature of the last century.

Nadine Gordimer has said that "I don't think one should compare novels and stories. [The story] is a different thing." I agree: I consider the short story quite different from the novel. Extricating the two, however, is not straightforward. Writers seem incapable of defining the short story other than by its difference from the novel. Deborah Eisenberg tells us that "the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel". To Nabokov, "In relation to the typical novel the short story represents a small Alpine, or Polar, form. It looks different, but is...linked to it by intermediate clines." For Lorrie Moore the short story, compared to the novel, is "a more magical form". JG Ballard sees short stories as "the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit".

I was reminded of Ballard's somewhat combative position by a 2008 New York Times op-ed by Steven Millhauser (which I came to via Charles May's excellent blog, Reading the Short Story). Millhauser knows whereof he speaks, having written novels as well as some outstanding short fiction, and begins on familiar ground: "The novel is insatiable - it wants to devour the world. What's left for the poor short story to do? [...] The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence."

But he quickly subverts the idea of the "poor short story" and its modest ambitions. The novel, obsessed with containing the whole world, is doomed to fail, whereas the short story can see "a world in a grain of sand": "In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. In that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean, the sun that shines down on the ship, the interstellar winds, a teaspoon in Kansas, the structure of the universe. And there you have the ambition of the short story, the terrible ambition that lies behind its fraudulent modesty: to body forth the whole world."

As last month's debate on this blog about the "Great Novel" status of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom underlined, novels that seek to contain multitudes, to embody a particular society at a particular time, seem doomed to fall short. The short story, by contrast, acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big. Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity. The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different. As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, "Forms of literature don't compete. They don't have to compete. We can have it all."

Monday, March 28, 2011

Subject: Re: sales ot bestselling novelists
From: pinkfreud-ga on 26 Jan 2004 12:43 PST
I have not been able to find the statistics you need, but I wanted to
point you toward a resource that you may find very useful. This is a
93-page paper entitled "Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business
of Trade Books, 1975-2002." It contains numerous observations about
the increasing influence of "brand name" authors in the book market.
Below are some excerpts, with a link to the paper itself (in pdf

"Consolidation has occurred in every sector or role of the book
business: retail, wholesale, distribution, publishing and libraries
(e.g., the budgetary emphasis on aggregated databases as opposed to
individual book purchases). The only exception is in the role of the
author. Consolidation in the publishing function is visible in the
bestseller list. In 2000, 83.5 percent of the best-selling titles on
the weekly lists of Publishers Weekly were from only five companies.

[ . . . }

"The overwhelming majority of spaces on the annual fiction bestseller
list are taken up by brand names. The phenomenon has become much more
pronounced during the last two decades."

[ . . . ]

"The book business today is highly consolidated on every front, save
that of the author and the book itself - just recall the 122,108
individual titles published in 2000. Thousands of small publishers and
self-publishers are responsible for producing many of them, but the
titles populating the bestseller lists tell a very different story. Of
the books appearing on PW?s weekly bestseller lists during the year
2000, 83.5 percent were published by only five companies - Random
House, PenguinPutnam, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, AOL Time

[ . . . ]

"The pattern was set: a handful of fiction writers would reappear on
the list year after year and dominate it."

[ . . . ]

"Seven publishers - Random House Inc., Bantam Doubleday Dell, S&S,
HarperCollins, Time Warner, Putnam Berkley, Penguin and Hearst -
accounted for 87 percent of the hardcover bestseller slots and 82
percent of the paperback slots in 1995.82 Since then, Random and BDD
have combined, as have Penguin and Putnam. (Recently Putnam was
'combined' even more - it was eliminated as part of the corporate
name, although it still e xists as an imprint.) PW?s comment that ?one
can clearly see how few opportunities are left for midsize and smaller
publishing firms? [to make the bestseller list] is even truer now."

[ . . . ]

"In 2000, five companies - Random House, PenguinPutnam, HarperCollins, Simon
& Schuster and AOL Time Warner - accounted for 83.5 percent of slots
on the weekly hardcover bestseller lists and 78.9 percent on the
weekly paperback lists."

[ . . . ]

"The huge inequity between the select few - books by brand-name
authors and books that have been 'anointed' to be 'made' -  and all
the rest is very troubling. If one could do the impossible - a study
of how money, in terms of advances and marketing budgets, is allocated
to each book on a publisher?s list in any given year - it would speak
volumes about the distortions of today?s business."

[ . . . ]

"Brand names clog the bestseller list, but many more people are buying
those books than had bought their equivalents twenty-five years ago."

National Arts Journalism Program
Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975-2002


Here's a quote from another article that might be of interest:

"Consider the following: Between 1986 and 1996, 63 of the top 100
best-sellers in the United States were written by just six authors:
Clancy, Grisham, King, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Danielle
Steele. During this same period, the top 30 best-sellers doubled their
share of the total of books sold in this country, so the fortunes of
American publishing have been riding largely on the sales of just a
few authors. If these authors were to join forces, their combined
sales would dwarf those of most publishing houses."

The American Prospect Online: Bibliosophy 
Subject: Re: sales ot bestselling novelists
From: poe-ga on 27 Jan 2004 02:53 PST

This doesn't answer your question in the slightest but does offer a
little insight into how bestseller culture has affected the publishing

A friend of mine is a writer of long standing. He has over a hundred
books to his name and all have sold well, though his only 'bestseller'
was a pulp novel that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in the
summer of 1976. He is what is known as a b-list author, a solid one
but b-list nonetheless, and was thus mostly ignored by the publishers
who were increasingly only interested in the next big bestseller.

This state of affairs deteriorated rapidly. When he sold all his own
copies of one of his children's books at the launch party, he asked
the publisher for more, only to be told that they'd already sold out.
Naturally he was very happy that the entire print run should sell out
in a couple of weeks, so he asked when the book would be reprinted.
The answer was that it wouldn't.

In short his solid track record of selling out print runs, albeit much
lower ones than the big names attract, meant nothing. The publishers
were only interested in big budget blockbusters with high risks but
potentially high returns. The numbers people have mentioned above
explain why they should think that way, but the end result is that the
bread and butter stuff doesn't matter any more.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Top 20 Greatest Horror Writers of All-time

The Top 20 Greatest Horror Writers of All-time

Who are the Masters of the Macabre?

By Tim Janson     February 20, 2009

Mania's Top 20 Horror Writers of All Time
© Mania.com/Robert Trate

When I recently wrote the list of the 15 Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All-time, I definitely had my sights set on tackling horror with the next list…and I had no idea just how difficult that would be. With Sci-Fi, you have a starting point that most people can agree on, namely the publication of Amazing Stories in 1926, the first magazine devoted to science fiction. On the other hand, horror’s legacy is far older. One can trace the telling of ghost and monster tales back thousands of years to ancient times. For example, almost every culture has their own tales of vampires, dating back to Mesopotamia. Some scholars will point to the rise of the gothic novel in the 18th and early 19th centuries as the roots of modern horror.
While not considered horror writers, some of the most renowned Early American writers like Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables), plied their hand at horror stories and created early classics. While neither of these men is on the list, it shows just how rich the lineage of horror literature has become. With that in mind, my list presents a mix of the modern and the classic…of subtle ghost story and blood-drenched splatter tales. 
The criteria were also more difficult to settle on. While Sci-Fi has had awards like the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus that have been around for several decades, the top horror honor, the Bram Stoker Award, has only been around since 1987, and the International Horror Guild Awards were only started in 1994. So while the awards might have some influence, it isn’t nearly as much as in the Sci-Fi category. The other things I’ve taken into consideration are body of work, the longevity of the work, and the influence of the work on popular culture. Also, it was important that the writer’s work have been predominantly in the horror field. Dan Simmons, for example, has written a couple of outstanding horror novels but I would not consider him a horror writer. 
I began my list with close to 60 names and whittled it down to the final 20, and once again that last spot was the one that was the most difficult to fill. There were many names I came close to including and I will note those in the honorable mentions. There were also names I excluded for various reasons that I will also note. The emphasis is on HORROR…not dark fantasy…not romantic vampires and werewolves trying to disguise themselves as horror (Sorry Anne Rice fans!). These are the writers who will truly give you sleepless nights!
20.  Graham Masterton
Masterton has written over 40 horror novels and dozens of short stories but he still seems to be a guy unknown to a lot of people. His first novel, The Manitou was adapted into a film in fairly major 1978, starring Tony Curtis, Burgess Meredith, and Susan Strasberg. My first Masterton read was the gruesome Charnel House with its tale of an evil force living within an old house. Masterton is still going strong with a new book due out this year. His early books are fairly quick reads and while they are long out of print, they’d make a good quest for used book stores.
19. Richard Laymon
Laymon died all too young in 2001 at the age of 54 but he left behind an incredible legacy of horror. He was nominated three times for The Stoker Award for best Novel, winning once in 2001 for The Traveling Vampire Show. One of his earliest (and best books) The Woods are Dark was just released last year in an uncut version with fifty pages of material not in the books original release in 1981. Laymon often worked in more visceral sub-genre’s of horror such as splatterpunk, but his 1991 novel Darkness, Tell Us is a fantastic supernatural story. Funland is another classic…who doesn’t love a horror tale involving a carnival funhouse!
18. F. Paul Wilson
Wilson’s first novel The Keep (1981) is a classic that was adapted into a film by the same name. It tells the story of Nazi soldiers in 1941 who are being killed off within the confines of a mysterious castle in Romania. This would be the first of Wilson’s “Adversary Cycle”, a series of six books so far. The second book in the series, The Tomb, would introduce Wilson’s popular anti-hero, Repairman Jack. The Repairman Jack novels (a dozen in all) have tied in with the Adversary Cycle works to create a lush mythos of classic supernatural and modern horror. Outside of these series’, Wilson’s Midnight Mass is a superlative vampire novel.
17. Robert McCammon
McCammon could have been ranked much higher on this list and perhaps will some day. During the 1980s, McCammon could easily be mentioned in the same breath as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. His early novels, now out of print are classics: Baal, Bethany’s Sin, They Thirst, Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf’s Hour. McCammon won the Bram Stoker award for best novel three years in a row from 1989 – 1991, a feat no other writer has duplicated. But then McCammon took over a decade off from writing, some people even thought that he had passed away. He returned in 2002 with the first in his “Matthew Corbett” series of historical mysteries set in early colonial America that border the horror genre and are fantastic. They show that McCammon lost none of his skill during his ten year sabbatical. Hopefully he will return to some straight horror but even if he doesn’t, he has earned his spot on the list. 
16. Ambrose Bierce
Bierce may be the most colorful writer on the list. Bierce was a novelist, journalist, and adventurer. Bierce was a Civil War veteran who joined up with Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in 1913 and was never heard from again. Bierce wrote one of the most famous horror stories of the 1800s, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, about a Confederate sympathizer who is about to be hanged when the rope breaks and he falls into the creek, escaping to return to his wife and children…only to find it was all an illusion as he feels a sharp pain in his neck and all goes black as he dies at the end of the rope. This story was adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone. This story has influenced countless films and TV episodes over the years. His story An inhabitant in Carcosa would later be an influence on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. His story, The Damned Thing, Was recently adapted into an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror”.
15. Algernon Blackwood
Blackwood is one of the legends of early horror. This English writer was called one of the “Masters” by no less than H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft considered Blackwood’s tale The Willows to be the finest weird tale ever written. If you read Blackwood’s stories such as The Man Who Found Out and Ancient Sorceries would heavily influence the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Long before modern day supernatural detectives came along, Blackwood created his Supernatural hunting Psychic, John Silence. The Complete John Silence stories are readily available as our many collections of Blackwood’s work. If you’ve never read Blackwood, he’s certainly worth checking out. Even though many of the stories are over one hundred years old, they are still powerful and relevant. 
14. John Saul –
John Saul is one of the finest horror writers in the classic tradition of old style supernatural fare. His subtle prose has sometimes kept him under the radar of modern horror fans, even though most of his books have made the New York Times Best Seller List. His first novel, Suffer the Children (1977) remains a potent and disturbing read. Hellfire is a quintessential New England horror about a haunted mill where children died in a tragic fire decades earlier. His serialized novel, The Blackstone Chronicles dealt with the effects than an old asylum had on the residents of a nearby town. Saul has been criticized for writing the same type of story over and over but he really is the master at what he does. These are the kinds of books you read on a dark and stormy night. Pure horror in the classic vein!
13.  Jack Ketchum
Jack Ketchum aka Dallas Mayr isn’t your traditional horror writer. He doesn’t write about demons, vampires, vengeful spirits, or ax-wielding maniacs…his monsters are much more mundane and terrifying because they are us, man…everyday people. His stories are among the most unsettling to read because of this. The Girl Next Door is a terrifying tale about everyday suburban kids who brutally torture the nieces of an alcoholic woman, often with her encouragement. It’s as depressing a story as I have ever read. Ketchum’s first book Off Season about a clan of cannibals preying on vacationers in rural Maine created somewhat of a stir when it was released in 1980. The original story was edited, and later pulled from shelves by the publisher because of its explicit content. An unedited version was release in 1999. Ketchum has been nominated for seven Bram Stoker awards, winning three times, including his long fiction story, Closing Time.
12.  Dean Koontz
I’ve always like Dean Koontz. Koontz effectively blends elements of science fiction and horror to be wholly unique among modern horror writers. His novels often contain threats which are technological or biological in scope but they never lose that pervasive sense of terror. Koontz’ breakthrough novel was Whispers about a psychotic man who is killing women he believes are possessed by the spirit of his abusive mother. Koontz wrote a number of very good books prior to Whispers under various pen names including The Funhouse, later adapted into a film of the same name. In Phantoms (good book, bad film) the residents of a small ski resort village are being devoured by an amorphous creature which can create life-like phantoms that go out and hunt for food. Other Koontz works adapted into film or TV include Hideaway, Demon Seed, Watchers (including sequels, Intensity, and The Servants of Twilight. In 2003 Koontz wrote the first of six planned novels about his creation “Odd Thomas”, a short-order cook who is able to see and communicate with the dead. Koontz has received three Stoker Award nominations for best novel.
11. Brian Lumley
Perhaps no modern horror writer has done more to keep the spirit of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories alive than Brian Lumley. His Titus Crow character has appeared in over a dozen novels and short stories. The difference with Lumley’s stories is that Crow and his allies don’t drop dead or go insane when confronted by the creatures of the Mythos. They actually strive to defeat them and so there is a far more heroic tinge to Lumley’s take on the Mythos. Lumley’s other famous creation is the long-running Necroscope series, now up to over a dozen novels. Harry Keough is the Necroscope, able to communicate with the dead and use their knowledge and abilities in battling the Wamphyri, evil, vampire-like creatures. The prolific Lumley has also had numerous collections of his short fiction published as well. 
10. Joe R. Lansdale
Good ol’ Texas boy Joe Lansdale is one of the most diversely talented writers in the business. Novels, short stories, screenplays, comic books…you name it and Lansdale has done it. How can you not love a guy who can write the raucously satirical Bubba Ho-Tep, and then can turn around and write the blood-soaked zombie classic, On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks. The Drive in is another classic about a group of friends who go to an all-night drive-in theater to watch a horror film marathon, and find they are trapped inside, along with the rest of the movie-goers, by a malignant force. His story Incident On and Off a Mountain Road was the adapted as the first episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series. Lansdale has been nominated for an incredible 16 Stoker Awards, winning seven times, most recently in 2006 for his anthology, Retro Pulp Tales. True to his tough guy image, Lansdale operates his own martial arts school in Texas. 
9.     Peter Straub
Were it not for the looming shadow of Stephen King, Peter Straub might be the most well-known American horror writer of the past thirty years. Ironically the two would become friends and collaborators on two best-selling novels. Straub’s first big hit was the chilling Ghost Story in 1979, and later adapted into a lackluster film. The novel that made me a Straub fan was his next one from 1980, Shadowland. This is an enthralling story about two prep school buddies who spend the Summer at the creepy estate of one of the boy’s uncle, a magician whose magic may not be just parlor tricks. He and King wrote Talisman in 1984, and then got together again for the sequel Black House in 2001. Straub has won four Stoker Awards for Best Novel (The Throat, Mr. X, Lost Boy Lost Girl, and In the Night Room), two Stokers for Best Collection, and another for Best Long Fiction. The thing that might work against Straub is that he has had numerous gaps in his writing career where he has gone several years at a time without publishing anything new. 
8.     M.R. James
The UK has an incredibly rich tradition when it comes to horror literature. Some of the great writers of English literature like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson took their turn at writing horror tales. Particularly popular in the UK were themes involving ghosts and the supernatural and there is no finer writer of ghost stories than Montague Rhodes James. James was a well-respected mediaeval scholar who wrote numerous book on historical subjects but it was his ghost stories that he became famous for around the world. His most famous books are Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories. “Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad” is a truly chilling story of a man who finds an ancient whistle buried in the sand of a beach, and what is summoned when the whistle is blown. “The Ash Tree” was adapted into a 1975 UK produced film. Several other James stories were adapted for British television on the BBC. When you sit down as a kid to tell ghost stories, these are the kind of stories you want to tell. They exude atmosphere and even after a hundred years they are still terrifying. Many of James’ stories are now in public domain so they can be read for free. Just Google his name.
7.     Ramsey Campbell
How good is Ramsey Campbell? S.T. Joshi, one of the most respected historians of weird and horror fiction, considers him “…every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood." High praise from a man noted for being highly critical of modern horror writers. Campbell burst onto the scene in the 1960s with a volume of Lovecraft-inspired tales The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. Campbell isequally adept at short fiction as he is with novels, perhaps even more so…Collections such as Alone with the Horrors (1993), Demons by Daylight (1973), and Told by the Dead (2003) are classic short-story collections. His 2008 novel The Grin of the Dark was one of the best horror novels of the year. Campbell has won two Stoker Awards, Nine British Fantasy Awards, and an International Horror Guild Award. I can see Campbell one day cracking the top five…he is THAT good!
6.     Robert Bloch
As a mere teenager, Robert Bloch became a regular contributor to the pulp magazine “Weird Tales”. He became a letter-writing pal of H.P. Lovecraft and soon was writing his own tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. However in 1959, Robert Bloch wrote a story that took the horror world by storm and eventually went on to influence literally hundreds of horror films, Psycho! Without crazed Norman Bates and his motel of horrors, would we ever have a Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or any of the other modern horror icons? Bloch wrote a sequel in 1982 called Psycho II that is completely different than the film of the same name. he completed his trilogy with Psycho House in 1990. Bloch won a Hugo for his 1959 horror tale The Hell-Bound Train. While Psycho is one of the most important horror novels ever written, Bloch truly shined as a writer of shorter fiction. If you read one Bloch collection, it must be The Early Fears, a collection of forty stories. This was released as a limited edition and is hard to find and hopefully it will be re-printed one day but this book gives a fantastic overview of Bloch’s work.
5.     Clive Barker
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the most significant event in horror fiction in the last 25 years was the publication of Barker’s Books of Blood series in the mid-1980s. These books changed horror fiction as we knew it then, ushering in a raw power that Stephen King hailed as “the future of horror”. The six books feature thirty stories in all, several of which have been adapted into feature films including The Forbidden (Candyman 1992), The Last Illusion (Lord of Illusions 1995), and Midnight Meat Train (2008). The Books of Blood should be required reading for any horror fan. Barker’s story The Hellbound Heart would introduce the Cenobites and become the basis for the Hellraiser film series. His novella Cabal, would be adapted into the 1990 film, Nightbreed. In recent years, Barker has been devoting more time to his career as a painter and writing far less than he did twenty years ago. In fact he’s written only ten books in the last two decades. Fans can only hope Barker returns to horror soon.
4. Edgar Allan Poe
Like a lot of great horror writers, Poe died very young and you can’t help but wonder what works he would have produced had he lived a full life. Poe’s work cannot be described as anything else but macabre. He was infatuated with death and themes of premature burial and torture. Poe’s stories read like the Hall of Fame of horror tales: The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Premature Burial, and Ligeia. All of these stories have been adapted for film or TV, some multiple times. Legendary horror actor, Vincent Price, made a career out of starring in roles based on Poe’s stories. Even his Poetry has been adapted to film including The Raven, The Conqueror Worm, and The Haunted Palace. As recently as the second season of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” we saw an adaptation of The Black Cat, showing how relevant his work still is over 150 years later.
3.     Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson may very well be the greatest horror writer NOT to be influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. His accomplishments in the horror field are staggering! His 1954 novel I am Legend is one of the top ten greatest horror novels ever written. Hollywood has failed to do the story justice in three attempts so if you haven’t read the book you DON’T know the story. Matheson wrote one of the most famous episodes of the original Twilight Zone TV series, Nightmare at 20,000 feet in which a traveler on an airplane (played by William Shatner) sees a monster on the wing of the plane. So many of Matheson’s stories have been turned into feature films or TV episodes or movies including The Incredible Shrinking Man, Stir of Echoes, and Hell House (The Legend of Hell House). The made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror, was based on three of Matheson’s tales including the one about the Zuni warrior doll that comes to life and tries to kill a woman in her apartment. His story, Duel, about a motorist stalked by a trucker along a remote highway is regarded as one of the great TV films of all time and was the first film directed by Steven Spielberg. His novels The Night Stalker & The Night Strangler would both be adapted into TV films and introduce the character of monster-hunting newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak. The character would later get his own series that unfortunately only lasted one season. 
2.     Stephen King
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny King’s overwhelming credentials. There simply is no more important person in horror literature in the past 40 years than Stephen King. His books have sold over 300 million copies. King has won 6 Stoker awards, 6 Horror Guild awards, 5 Locus Awards, 3 World Fantasy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 by the Horror Writers' Association. It all began with Carrie in 1974 and thus began an unparalleled string of best-selling novels. Salem’s Lot (1975), perhaps the only vampire novel that may be better than Matheson’s I am Legend; The Shining (1977); The Stand (1978); Cujo (1981); Christine (1983); Pet Sematary (1983); The Talisman W/ Peter Straub (1984); It (1986); Misery (1987); The Dark Half (1989); Needful Things (1990); Gerald’s Game (1992); Then there are the collections: Night Shift (1978); Skeleton Crew (1985); Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993); and Everything’s Eventual (2002).
 No need to talk about adaptations as there are too many to list, suffice to say that nearly every novel and numerous short stories have been adapted for film or TV. King has shown a remarkable ability to regionalize his work into his quaint New England settings while still being able to reinvent himself with new takes on old plots. Snobbish critics have often lambasted King’s writing style but such is the price of fame when everything you write becomes an instant best seller. Jealousy knows no bounds! After all, it’s idiot snobs who gave us Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark and Annie Hall over Star Wars as Oscar Winners for Best Picture. 
1.     H.P. Lovecraft
It’s fitting that the #1 writer on the list have probably the greatest name a horror writer could ever have. Lovecraft’s influence has not waned, even more than 70 years after his death. Any writer who mentions “old Gods”, “Elder Gods” or beings of cosmic origin owes a debt of gratitude to Lovecraft. Like so many other horror writers, he died before he could see the fruits of his labors flourish. His works have been adapted into film, TV, comic books, video games, and role-playing games. The conception of the Cthulhu Mythos, and its pantheon of terrifying deities and monstrosities remains the most important creation in horror during the 20th century. Lovecraft show incredible foresight by opening up the Mythos for writers to create their own characters and stories. This early group consisted of writers who would all become legends in their own right including: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth, and Henry Kuttner. 
Lovecraft’s most famous Mythos stories include The Unnamable, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour out of Space, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow over Innsmouth, Dreams in the Witch House, The Shadow out of Time, and The Haunter in the Dark. Lovecraft’s stories were frequently set in his beloved New England and often in the fictional town of Arkham, MA. Miskatonic University, located in Arkham played a role in many Lovecraft tales including the ghoulish Herbert West-Re-animator, later adapted into a cult horror film that spawned several low-budget sequels. Lovecraft’s stories have often failed when being adapted to film and TV, largely because of poor directing and adaptations and the fact that his suggested and psychological horror just doesn’t translate well to live action. Still, one of the better recent adaptations was a “Masters of Horror” episode featuring a faithful version of Dreams in the Witch House. 
Lovecraft by no means took full credit for the development of the Cthulhu Mythos. He pointed to many writers as inspiration including Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsay, Ambrose Bierce, Poe, and Arthur Machen. But his genius was taking various ideas and concepts and molding them into a coherent, shared landscape that still has many active writers today. There can be little doubt that Lovecraft is the clear choice for #1 horror writer of all-time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More Sex'n'Horror: The Tepid Blood Series

By Paula Guran
Written March 2005
Published: As part of "Waves of Fear", Cemetery Dance #52

The "latest" Hot Blood anthology (as of this writing) from Pinnacle is a re-release of Deadly After Dark (January 2005) originally published in 1994. This re-publication encapsulates, in a way, the fossilization of "erotic horror" specifically and "horror-as-a-genre" in general. The cover's even a dated "Day-glo" green and features a blonde skull. (Not quite a cheerleader-skeleton -- but close.)

Book Cover The idea that sex is integral to horror is a given, but you'll find very little written about sex and contemporary horror literature other than a few introductions to theme anthologies, some elegant but brief thoughts from Clive Barker here and there, and some (not exactly contemporary) comments from Stephen King in Danse Macabre. You'll find more written thought focusing on sex and vampires and/or the role of sex in Gothic and Victorian novels. There's quite a bit written about sex in horror cinema, most of it pointing out the obvious, but with pictures.

No reason to waste much time wondering why this is except to say that people don't seem to be too interested in reading about contemporary horror literature as a whole. And although folks are interested in reading about sex, it would be human nature to look more for titillation than philosophy--deep throat rather than deep thought.

This is Cemetery Dance. You get deep thought rather than deep throat -- and probably not very deep at that.

One way to consider the emotion of horror in a widely philosophic sense is to see it as the antitheses of human connection. Human beings are essentially alone in the universe and anything that relieves that burden of separateness is "good." Fear isolates us; horror is alienation and disintegration. Separateness is, therefore, "evil."

On a human level we seek love, understanding, empathy, a sharing of our solitary burden of mortality. Sex can be the physical expression of this desire: the conjoining of two into one. But sex is also scary. It can overwhelm, make us lose control, bring out the beast within us, and defeat the rational. Perhaps worst of all, it can make us vulnerable.

On another level, we seek unification with something bigger than ourselves, beyond the human, an ultimate merging with a universal whole.

"Ecstasy is a glimpse of the infinite," wrote Kirk Schneider, "terror is full disclosure." Ecstasy, like horror, is an overwhelming emotion. We think of it as an attainment of bliss, but the word "ecstasy" also means "a state of trance or near immobility produced by an overpowering emotion." In Greek, ekstasis meant "trance, distraction," from existanai "displace." Existanai phrenon meant, "drive out of one's mind" (from ek, "out" and histanai, "to place, cause to stand." Ecstasy, in the religious sense, is a state of exaltation in which the self is transcended.

Chances are, you live within relatively easy driving distance of a public gathering place named with some derivation of the word "ecstasy." Chances are, it celebrates earthly desire rather than blissful unification with God and/or the universe.

Sex and its overwhelming emotions and sensations weren't always separated from the spiritual and seen as something to be controlled. The sexual and the spiritual were, earlier in human history, not divided into evil (darkness, matter, flesh) and good (light, the spirit, the divine). The separation was made and Western religions developed their hostility toward human sexuality; we were taught such urges must be repressed and restricted.

That sex could control us, could push us to extremes, could make us step outside the bounds we considered "self" became something scary rather than enlightening. But, at the same time, we also desired that relinquishment, the surrender to "temptation." Horror fiction once dealt primarily with the embodiments of good and evil. As the old order fell away, the firm delineations dissolved, the rules changed -- we could no longer "be safe" if we stuck to the rules. A world with no place to hide is a fearful place. The best modern horror fiction more often explores the area between the light and the dark, asks questions about the possibility of the external, and expresses our own ambivalence about internal forces that can control us

We seek the ecstatic and we fear it.

Not surprisingly, Clive Barker, the writer who finally brought explicit sex into horror circa 1984, has expressed a belief in the connection of the spiritual and the sexual: "Is it not possible that our experience of the flesh...the profound feelings that sexual excitement arouses in us...should not be mostly connected with our spiritual selves? Whatever divinity made us...that divinity gave us the potential for physical and sensual bliss, which, when we are moved most deeply, leads us on to profound spiritual feelings. In other words...when I am at my most physical I am reaching for the divine."

An integration of the sexual, the spiritual, and the extreme was as natural to Barker as being embarrassed about sex -- and not being able to write it -- was to Stephen King. Barker's exploration of sex and horror was just being Barker. Unlike earlier horror, some of the stories in his debut, Books of Blood, left no room for misinterpretation; the sexual meaning was intrinsic to the story itself.

Sex, for Barker, was (again, in his own words), "fertile ground...because it isn't for so many other people. It seems as though horror fiction has not really looked deeply into sexuality. Or if it has, it's been very covert about it. There's an argument, and a pertinent one, that every vampire book is, at root, a sexual book. After all, we are sexual beings...What I've tried to do as a writer...is talk about the full range of sexual possibilities. The job of fantasy fiction, horror fiction and science fiction is to say that the only rule is there are no rules: 'Let's just go to the extremes.'"

But while Barker was breaking all the rules and going to extremes, horror itself had been confined to a genre formula. While recognizing that more explicit sex had potential in the marketplace, major publishers weren't ready to push any real limits and few writers had Barker's awareness of and openness about sexuality.

By 1989, when the first of the mass market Hot Blood anthology series was published, "erotic horror" was an identifiable marketing subgenre, but one of decidedly mixed signals. Tellingly, the first Hot Blood (entitled Hot Blood) anthology used the term "provocative horror" on its cover as "erotic" was deemed too provocative an adjective to use. The word "provocative" was used much as an old-time stripper used pasties -- to cover-up what was obviously there.

The reason I keep surrounding "erotic horror" with quotation marks is because although sex in horror certainly can be erotic, not all the sex in horror is erotic. Some of it is even anti-erotic. And, since what is erotic is as impossible to define as what is pornographic, "sexual horror" is probably a better term, but it's not much of a marketing phrase. Neither, of course, was "provocative horror," and the next book in the series, Hotter Blood (1991), was subtitled More Tales of Erotic Horror. (A regrettable sell-phrase on the cover: "New Demon Hungers Possess You!"). It was followed by Hottest Blood (1993) ("The ultimate in erotic horror" and "You will be consumed..."). By 1995 The Hot Blood Series: Deadly After Dark boasted it was "The original erotic horror anthology."

Obviously, the term stuck, but we needn't be misled by it.

Rather than the erotic, or the extreme, all too many of the anthologized stories were of the Bevis and Butthead school of (snigger-snigger) sexuality and the "you fuck, you die" syndrome. At least a few, though, were good sexual horror -- just as a few writers in horror as a whole slipped through genre expectations.

Since it is horror's job to BE provocative and subversive and trangressive, it would be easy to say, as many have (including me), that when society represses the sexual, that proscription will be expressed in horror fiction. Exhibit "A" is Bram Stoker's Dracula with countless academic and nonacademic psychosexual analyses hinging on the repression of Victorian society itself or the women of the time.

But even if this theory were true, and I'm not saying it is, then what about more recent social contexts? Before Barker, sex in twentieth century horror fiction (with a few exceptions) was a suggested element of a relationship or light relief or used to symbolize evil or so deeply buried in subtext and metaphor that it was virtually absent. Pulp stories mildly mirrored primarily male fantasies. Sex played a role in Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend, but what does it tell us of sexual repression in the 1950s? It merely reflects its times -- women are symbolic stereotypes (a spinster librarian he imagines dying "never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one's embrace"; seductive vampiresses representing the sex-and-death connection) and Ruth, with whom Neville has his solitary non-explicit encounter, is the means to his end -- and confronts no taboos.

The world was in the middle of a sexual revolution and fetters were unfettering in 1967 when virtuous Rosemary's nasty hubby pimped her to Satan, passed her through the closet, and stood by as she was raped. Stephen King, He Who Does Not Write Sex, emerged in the 1970s. So did Anne Rice, whose vampires in Interview With a Vampire may have been decadent but could not have sex. Barker, a gay man, did assault previous sexual limits in horror in the mid-1980s -- just as it became clear that a new sexual plague, AIDS, was scything its way among us and its first obvious victims were gay men.

And, for the last twenty years, what has horror had to be provocative about concerning sexually? I'm not sure. But I do know it wasn't being said through the Hot Blood series and it certainly isn't being said by reissuing those volumes. Nor, with the exception of a story or two that probably slipped in by chance rather than editorial choice, will it be found in the new anthologies, numbers ten and eleven, in the series.

Copyright © 2005

Friday, March 4, 2011

Excerpt - The Girl Next Door : Jack Ketchum

You think you know about pain?
Talk to my second wife. She does. Or she thinks she does.
She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting – her own cat and a neighbor’s – and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you still can see today, scared her so badly she fell back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-si stitches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted days.
My second wife says that’s pain.
She doesn’t know shit, that woman.
Evelyn, my first wife, has maybe gotten closer.
There’s an image that haunts her.
She is driving down a rain-slick highwayon a hot summer morning in a rented Volvo, her lover by her side, driving slowly and carefully because she knows how treacherous new rain on hot streets can be, when a Volkswagen passes her and fishtails into her lane. Its rear bumper with the “Live Free or Die” plates slides over and kisses her grille. Almost gently. The rain does the rest. The Volvo reels, swerves, glides over an embankment and suddenly she and her lover are tumbling through space, they are weightless and turning, and up is down and then up and then down again. At some point the steering wheel breaks her shoulder. The rearview mirror cracks her wrist.
The the rolling stops and she’s staring up at the gas pedal overhead. She looks for her lover but he isn’t there anymore; he’s disappeared, it’s magic. She finds the door on the driver’s side and opens it, crawls out onto wet grass, stands and peers through the rain. And this is the image that haunts her – a man like a sack of blood, flayed, skinned alive, lying in front of the car in a spray of glass spackled red.
This sack is her lover.
And this is why she’s closer. Even though she blocks what she knows – even though she sleeps nights.
She knows that pain is not just a matter of hurting, of her own startled body complaining at some invasion of the flesh.
Pain can work from the outside in.
I mean that sometimes what you see is pain. Pain in its cruelest, purest form. Without drugs or sleep or even shock or coma to dull it for you
You see it and you take it in. And then it’s you.
You’re a host to a long white worm that gnaws and eats, growing, filling your intestines until finally you cough one morning and up comes the blind pale head of the thing sliding from your mouth like a second tongue.
No, my wives don’t know about that. Not exactly. Though Evelyn is close.
But I do.
You’ll have to trust me on that for starters.
I have for a very long time.
I try to remember that we were all kids when these things happened, just kids, barely out of our Davy Crockett coonskin caps for God’s sake, not fully formed. It’s much too hard to believe that what I am today is what I was then except hidden now and disguised. Kids get second chances. I like to think I’m using mine.
Though after two divorces, bad ones, the worm is apt to gnaw a little.
Still I like to remember that it was the Fifties, a period of strange repressions, secrets, hysteria. I think about Joe McCarthy, though I barely remember thinking of him at all back then except to wonder what it was that would make my father race home from work every day to catch the committee hearings on TV. I think about the Cold War. About air-raid drills in the school basement and films we saw of atomic testing – department-store mannequins imploding, blown across mockup living rooms, disintegrating, burning. About copies of Playboy and Man’s Action hidden in wax paper back by the brook, so moldy after a while that you hated to touch them. I think about Elvis being denounced by the Reverend Deitz at Grace Lutheran Church when I was ten and the rock ‘n’ roll riots at Alan Freed’s shows at the Paramount.
I say to myself something weird was happening, some great American boil about to burst. That it was happening all over, not just at Ruth’s house but everywhere.
And sometimes that makes it easier.
What we did.
I’m forty-one now. Born in 1946, seventeen months to the day after we dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima.
Matisse had just turned eighty.
I make a hundred fifty grand a year, working on the floor on Wall Street. Two marriages, no kids. A home in Rye and a company apartment in the city. Most places I go I use limousines, though in Rye I drive a blue Mercedes.
It may be that I’m about to marry again. The woman I love knows nothing of what I’m writing here – nor did my other wives – and I don’t really know if I ever mean to tell her. Why should I? I’m successful, even-tempered, generous, a careful and considerate lover.
And nothing in my life has been right since the summer of 1958, when Ruth and Donny and Willie and all the rest of us met Meg Loughlin and her sister Susan.