Tuesday, August 31, 2010
When people think of horror fiction (if they do), they mostly think of the great novels of the genre: Frankenstein, Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Ghost Story, The Keep. There’s nothing wrong with that, those are all very good novels, and if you aspire to be a knowledgeable horror fan, you should read each of them eventually. The real strength of the genre, however and in my opinion, is in the short story, where the real masterpieces lurk. Poe wrote mostly short stories, as did H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Many people say while Stephen King’s novels put and kept him on the bestseller lists, his best work has been done in the short form. I can’t think of a good horror novelist who hasn’t also penned some excellent short stories.
There is at least some indication that short stories are where good writers develop their voice and learn their craft, and this may be a problem for the genre at present. The market for short stories is slim today. Whereas the 80s and early 90s saw the publication of a flood of solid-to-outstanding horror anthologies, they are scarce on the ground today. Cemetery Dance publishes their Shivers series on an irregular basis, and Ellen Datlow is still able to publish a high-quality book of original short stories just about every year, but there isn’t much beyond that. Contrast that to twenty or so years ago, when you would find on the newsstands Charles L. Grants' Shadows series, Night Visions and it seemed that every month a new themed anthology appeared. (I’m told it’s all but impossible to sell a publisher on releasing a book of short stories today. The public seems to want its fiction super-sized.)
Being in a reflective mood of late, I thought I would pull some of the older, less well known anthologies off my shelves. The internet has made it easier than ever to track down out-of-print books, and if you are lamenting the end of Leisure’s horror line, this might be something to take its place. The first one I picked was 1991’s Obsessions, edited by Gary Raisor, author of the great vampire novel Less Than Human, and published by Dark Harvest, a defunct imprint which put out some great work in the 80s and 90s. I don’t think it is that well known today, but this is a wonderful group of tales. The credit for a good anthology lies mainly with the editor, so I’ll try to give my opinion why Raisor was so successful with Obsessions.
(As an aside, I always find anthologies the hardest to review, since every review boils down to “I liked some of the stories and some I didn’t” and whether it works or not is the ratio thereof. It’s also hard to say much about an individual short story without using spoilers.)
The first thing Editor Raisor got right was to assemble stories from a great group of writers. This statement sounds a little bit like a sneer, but it seems a lot of those who put together anthologies don’t get the concept that good stories come from good writers. (If you like crime fiction, a good example of this is the [City] Noir series, books of crime stories set in specific-to-that-volume cities. Some editors used the best crime writers they could get, and turned out good books. Some seem to have used their friends from their college, or maybe their bar, and their books are almost unreadable) Raisor chose Joe Lansdale, F. Paul Wilson, Dan Simmons, John Shirley, Thomas Monteleone, Dean Koontz and others of the best horror writers of the day, and got good work from them. Many of the others are less well-known names but were also kicking out some great work. I felt more than a little wistfulness looking at the table of contents. There are authors who have since died (Charles L. Grant), those who health is too poor to write (Edward Bryant), those who abandoned horror for more lucrative fields, no doubt from necessity (Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Nancy Holder, Bill Crider, Nina Kiriki Hoffman), and those whose current whereabouts are a mystery to me (A.R. Morlan, Glen Vasey).
Secondly, themed anthologies need to be built around a theme sufficiently precise enough to give it cohesion, but not so restrictive as to inspire boredom (an anthology of zombie stories set in Toledo, Ohio may seem like a cool idea, but about page 200, you’ll probably be rooting for the zombies). Obsessions, whose theme I hope needs no further explanation, fits the bill well, as our obsessions provide nearly endless possibilities for stories, but are diverse enough to avoid a deadly sameness to the stories. The tales spun here range from the expected sexual obsessions to the less erotic (possibly) ones connected to book collecting, which should be familiar to many readers.
The final piece of the puzzle at which Raisor triumphs here is where craft ends and art begins, and the one most impossible to reproduce by just anyone: the ability to detect what is and isn’t a good story. Like a good fastball in baseball, you either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s nothing you can do about it. Raisor here demonstrates he has it in spades. As far as I know, only the Koontz story was a reprint, and while I liked some stories better than others, there isn’t a single one I felt was a waste of time. This is a rare achievement.
My favorite story in Obsessions doesn’t come from one of the superstars. It is “The Bookman”, by Chet Williamson, a story that could be Lovecraftian, a ghost story, or maybe just about a touch of madness. It’s the one that stuck with me the longest after reading, although it had stiff competition.
Obsessions was illustrated by Roger Gerberding, and as of this writing, there are used copies available through Amazon and other on-line vendors, some shockingly cheap. Who knows, if readers can re-connect with a love of the shorter story, maybe anthologies and collections will come back into style, and it just might re-vitalize a genre that too often seems stale nowadays.