Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.

 

Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.

 

And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.

 

Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.

 

Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorably are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.

 

Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.

 

Detours into dystopia

 

(c) Warner Brothers

 

A little while ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s troubling 1985 novel about a near-future USA where the religious right rule the roost.  Society is militarised, elitist, patriarchal and supposedly puritanical.  The majority of women are either kept as domestic servants or kept as ‘handmaids’, i.e. veiled and isolated receptacles into which the male members of the elite pour their seed during brutal sex rituals in a desperate effort to propagate the species – the ladies of the elite are too old and / or too genetically damaged to reproduce healthily themselves.  Late on in the book, we learn too that some women are kept as hostesses / prostitutes in gaudy out-of-the-way brothels because the elite’s menfolk, no matter how Christian, Bible-quoting and sanctimonious they are, still have certain needs, urges and desires to satisfy.  Because they’re still blokes, after all.

 

I have mixed feelings about the ‘academic’ epilogue that Ms Atwood tags on at the end of the book but overall I found it an impressive, if depressing, piece of work.  When I finally set it aside, I decided it was good enough – and spiritually bad enough – to feature among the best pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read.  And that set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?  What books would make my top dystopian dozen?

 

(c) Vintage

 

Firstly, though, I will define my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails – either because of hellish political oppression of some fashion, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s suddenly turned life into a frantic scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  Otherwise, Graham Greene – whose novels were commonly set in totalitarian or failing states (or in a combination of both, as in The Comedians) – would be king of the dystopian hill.

 

There’s also the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is, a setting.  It’s a backdrop against which a character-filled, twisting-and-turning plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters who populate it.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront.  The setting has to be so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And finally, I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively; but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastic that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t really disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse are both out.

 

Anyway, here are my literary-dystopia top twelve:

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

The Iron Heel by Jack London.

I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  These include P.D. James’s Children of Men, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor and another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake.  I’ve seen the film version of Children of Men, however, and thought it was pretty darned good – despite Clive Owen being in it, acting on autopilot.

 

Another novel I haven’t read that might have been a contender is Harry Harrison’s meditation on the threat of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  This was also made into a film, the 1973 Hollywood production Soylent Green, which added mass cannibalism to Harrison’s story.  I remember one critic making an interesting observation about Soylent Green.  He noted that the American filmmakers seemed not to realise that the crowded, impoverished world they were showing was actually real life (apart from the cannibalism) for many people living on the planet in the 20th century.  Hence, the film didn’t really reflect American fears about the end of the world.  It reflected American fears about the USA becoming just another, bog-standard poor country.

 

But to the list itself.  Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  A number of J.G. Ballard’s novels could easily have made the list, like The Drought and The Crystal World, but I’ve chosen The Drowned World because it’s the first and perhaps most famous of that sub-genre of surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic post-disaster novels that Ballard pioneered and made his own.  Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is really a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.

 

(c) Penguin

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters – their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a tangled, noxious-looking weed in someone’s garden to the condition of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types, but whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as that wrought on the societies around them.  Fugue, which was written in 1972 and which is probably regarded as a minor book in Priest’s canon, seems particularly chilling in 2014.  It sees Britain go to hell after a nuclear war breaks out in the developing world and the country gets swamped by desperate refugees.  In the 21st century, if climate change — as most scientists warn — wreaks environmental and economic havoc on certain parts of the globe, there could be a lot of refugees on the move very soon.

 

(c) Panther

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos – the joke being that, in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.  Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

http://io9.com/5988144/limited-edition-of-fahrenheit-451-was-bound-in-asbestos-so-it-wouldnt-burn

 

Ray Bradbury: 1920 – 2012

 

The death a few days ago of American writer Ray Bradbury drew tributes, to both the man and his remarkable fiction, from everybody from Barack Obama to Stephen King.  It seems a bit pointless for the author of a lowly and obscure blog like Blood and Porridge to say more about Bradbury and his oeuvre on top of what’s been said already – but of course, I’m going to say it anyway.

 

Bradbury I would definitely classify among the top ten writers, and quite possibly among the top five, to have most influenced me – not just as a writer (or an attempted one) but in my whole outlook.  Only last weekend, I was having lunch with a colleague and our conversation somehow got around to what our favourite flowers were.  Promptly and automatically, I said, “Dandelions, because Ray Bradbury wrote a book about them.”  This indicates how deeply the venerable author of Dandelion Wine, the October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, the Illustrated Man, the Small Assassin and so on had penetrated my psyche.

 

Unfortunately, in the obituaries written about Bradbury during the week, several things were said that I’d regard as misconceptions.  Here are three such misconceptions and my responses to them.

 

(c) Panther Books 

 

Misconception number 1: Ray Bradbury, science fiction writer…

 

William Shakespeare featured a ghost in Hamlet and three witches in Macbeth, but that didn’t make him a horror writer.  Similarly, Bradbury’s stories contained the odd dystopian future, the odd adventure set on Mars or Venus, and the odd rocket-ship, but that didn’t mean he was a writer of science fiction – certainly not if you define the term using proper ‘science’, because Bradbury plainly didn’t give a hoot about making his settings and plot devices in any way scientifically feasible.  His dystopian futures and alien planets might have been fairy kingdoms where he could let his imagination off its leash and his rocket-ships might have been magical spells that transported his characters to those places.  (In fact, his supposed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s has dated far less than that written by his peers, many of whom had engineering or scientific backgrounds and did try to restrict their plots to what the science of the time deemed possible.)

 

Two of his most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, are often cited as key works in science fiction literature, and they do have a plethora of sci-fi trimmings – mind-controlling totalitarian regimes, populations of citizens kept passive by drugs, wall-sized TV screens, space colonies, alien civilisations, robots – but I actually find them among his less interesting works.   (It’s telling that the most evocative moment for me in the Martian Chronicles comes in the final segment, the Million-Year Picnic, when the human father introduces his family to the Martians by pointing into a canal.  Looking down, they see their reflections in the water – an echo of the famous remark by J.G. Ballard, another great writer who got pigeonholed as a practitioner of science fiction, that the only truly alien world is our own one.)  I much preferred it when Bradbury threw scientific caution to the wind and just got on with things – never more so than in his short story the Kilimanjaro Device, where the hero travels back in time to prevent Ernest Hemmingway from committing suicide.  To do this, he employs a time machine that’s actually a truck.

 

(c) Panther Books

 

Misconception number 2: Ray Bradbury, whose sentimental, nostalgic stories recalled his 1920s and 30s boyhood…

 

There was obviously a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in Bradbury’s stories, many of which seemed to be set in small mid-western towns with neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences and porches where people sat in the evenings and courteously hailed their neighbours as they strolled past on the street – and occasionally the tone of these stories threatened to tip over into twee-ness.  But it would be unfair to dismiss him as a literary Walt Disney because on closer inspection you’ll find a great deal of darkness lurking around those lawns, picket fences and porches.  (And incidentally, many of Disney’s cinematic visions contain more darkness than first meets the eye too.)

 

Take, for instance, the small town in Bradbury’s short story the Handler where the inhabitants mock and belittle the local undertaker – who secretly gets his revenge on them after they die, by burying them in gruesome conditions that match the foibles they had when they were alive.  (He fills the veins of the town drunkard with alcohol rather than embalming fluid and stuffs the corpses of a couple of inveterate chatterboxes into the same coffin.)   Or the fate of the nagging wife in another short story, the Jar, who is not amused when her simple-minded farmer husband buys the titular vessel at a carnival because it has something strange and indescribable and yet fascinating floating inside it.  The husband eventually snaps at her nagging and what ends up floating inside the jar at the story’s close is not what was inside it at the beginning.  Even Bradbury’s rosiest evocation of his childhood, Dandelion Wine, contains a serial killer among its pages.

 

Perhaps the darkness in many of Bradbury’s stories eludes readers because he imbues his characters, even the very worst ones, with an ordinariness and innocence.  They’re not the twisted psychopaths that stalk through the pages of modern horror fiction.  Rather, they’re believably everyday characters who, somewhere along the line, often through gullibility or unfortunate circumstances, took the wrong turning – with grisly results.  Yet the innocence of those characters serves only to make the stories more disturbing.

 

(c) Panther Books

 

Misconception number 3: Ray Bradbury, with his unique writing style…

 

And yes, Bradbury was a stylist, but it does him an injustice to imply that that was all there was to his writing.  In fact, his stories would have counted for nothing if there hadn’t been ideas, brilliant ideas, propelling them along while his prose-style brought them vividly to life.

 

In fact, his work contains hundreds of lovely notions and sparks and fancies.  For example, there’s the short story A Season of Calm Weather, where Pablo Picasso takes a walk along a beach in southern France, then stops and uses a stick to spontaneously draw a masterpiece in the sand – much to the delight of an art-lover who watches the creation of this masterpiece from a distance.  However, the art-lover’s delight turns to agony after Picasso walks away again and the tide starts to creep in…  Or there’s the vignette the Foghorn – the baleful horn sounding from a lighthouse gets answered by a roar out in the mist, which proves to be a last surviving dinosaur mistaking the horn for a mating call.   Or the short story the Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, where a group of poor Mexican lads of similar build and height pool their money and buy an expensive white suit that they believe will improve their chances with the ladies – but then have to figure out how they’re going to share the suit and keep it clean…

 

Even reading those stories when I was 13 or 14 – an age when I was trying my hand at writing myself – I found myself subconsciously cursing Bradbury.  I knew these were all wonderful story ideas but the old bugger had thought of them first.

 

At the time of his passing Bradbury was 91, so he certainly enjoyed a good innings.  Mind you, he’d lived for so long and his fans had become so used to him being around that I’d begun to wonder if he was like a character in one of his stories – someone with so much imagination, exuberance and enthusiasm for life that he’d managed to transcend such things as ageing, mortality and death.  I had a notion that he’d be around forever, kept going by the joie de vivre that was so apparent in his fiction.  But life, alas, is never as magical as it is in a Ray Bradbury story.

 

Here’s an interview with the great man that appeared in the Paris Review two years ago: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury.