DarkEcho Horror
darkdial by
Rick Berry
Night Visions 11
Edited by WIlliam Sheehan
Two reviews: "Volume 11 features three very different novellas from three very different writers -- Kim Newman, Tim Lebbon, and Lucius Shepard -- each born toward the end of a different decade... With Newman and Lebbon involved, it also brings the total of British contributors in the series up to five, the only previous Brits collected being Tanith Lee (in the first, 1984) and Ramsey Campbell and Barker (both in the third, 1986)."

Night Visions 11
William Sheehan, ed.
Subterranean Press / $30 / 244p
ISBN: 1931081948

Dark Harvest originally published nine volumes of the Night Visions series, one annually from 1984 through 1991 (with two in 1988). Its mission was, supposedly, to provide a vehicle for the publication of short fiction by both established writers and new talent. Each offered original fiction from three writers, usually in the form of from three to seven short stories. There were a few novellas along the way as well, including then new-talent Clive Barker's "The Hellbound Heart" (Volume 3, 1986), George R.R. Martin's "The Skin Trade" (Volume 5, 1988), Sheri S. Tepper's "The Gardener" and Ray Garton's "Monsters" (both in #6, 1988), and Thomas Tessier's "The Dreams of Doctor Ladybank" (Volume 9, 1991).

When Subterranean Press revived the series in 2001, after a decade of nonexistence, NV Volume 10 led with two novellas. Now, Volume 11 features three very different novellas from three very different writers -- Kim Newman, Tim Lebbon, and Lucius Shepard -- each born toward the end of a different decade. All three novellas are well worth reading.

With two Newman and Lebbon involved, it also brings the total of British contributors in the series up to five, the only previous Brits collected being Tanith Lee (in the first, 1984) and Ramsey Campbell and Barker (both in the third, 1986).

The leadoff contribution comes from Kim Newman...

Visualize literary and historical figures, both real and fictional, as well as historical events and nonevents as LEGO bricks. Now picture a very strange, very intelligent child building a castle of Gormenghastian complexity and immensity with those bricks. Sometimes he swaps out some LEGOs for others, sometimes he builds entirely new castles but, mostly, he uses the same bricks. He moves the little LEGO people about from one construct to another with logic and an occasional interchange of heads to bodies. The kid builds some fascinating structures, large and small. Over time, you realize they form a whole even greater than the individual parts.

The strange kid is Kim Newman. He and his LEGOs (sometimes he may melt a few, or maybe take a chainsaw to 'em) have been making up a hell of an imaginative omniverse for over a decade. Although he gets away from the LEGOs entirely at times (as with Life's Lottery and the forthcoming An English Ghost Story), plays with a new set or two with Eugene Byrne (the Where The Bodies Are Buried stories and the USSA cycle), and dabbles in many other playrooms, readers are probably most familiar with Newman through his trilogy of "Anno Dracula" novels and stories. (The premise is that Dracula survived Van Helsing, returned to London, married the widowed Queen Victoria, and turned a large percentage of the English population into vampires.) But he's also used many of the characters and "historic" elements in stories set in an alternative reality in which vampires didn't take over.

Not that he stops there, Newman is a fount of pop cultural references, literary history, and he never met a Zeitgeist he didn't inhale. Nor is he afraid to toss in political and sociological implications while maintaining an impeccable "Britishness" about his work. He manages all this while maintaining a high level of intelligence, entertaining and engaging readers on several levels.

Horror, fantasy, science fiction, pulp fiction, experimentation, alternate history, movie mythos, mystery, detection -- this man doesn't mix genres -- he's created one of his own. (Can you say "sui generis," kiddies?)

You don't need to know any of that to enjoy his novella "Swellhead" in Night Vision 11. It's all just something I've wanted to tell you. Anyway...

Members of the Diogenes Club, in the Newmanian alter-reality of Swellhead, are ever-stalwart, super-secret agents who deal with "matters mysterious and malign...protecting the Great British from knowledge deemed likely to send them off their collective nut." As readers of Sherlock Holmes may (or may not) recall, his brother Mycroft Holmes was authorized, circa 1880, by Queen Victoria to form the organization and became the first Chair of the Diogenes Cabal. When disbanded one hundred years later by the dastardly Margaret Thatcher, its Chair was Richard Jeperson. In Swellhead, Jeperson emerges, somewhat reluctantly but with great conviction of the need, from retirement to combat diabolical evil.

His earliest memories date from 1945, so Jeperson's age can only be estimated, but logic places him over the age of 70 and possibly closer to 80. Age has not withered his mystic Talent nor custom staled his infinity capacity for cerebration -- although he occasionally doubts himself. His fab Carnaby Street threads are also intact and he is handily provided a new highly attractive and capable female colleague in Detective Sergeant Stacy Cotterill.

Cover Jeperson, who may be not just a fictional character but a fictional fictional character, was somewhat inspired by Marvel's Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and outrageously camp novelist-detective-spy, Jason King. [Played by Peter Wyngarde on British television 1971-72, King was a hirsute womanizer with terrible teeth and a colorful wardrobe dominated by crushed velvet, frills, and tailor-made double-breasted jackets. (If you think this sounds like Austin Powers, you are right.)] The plot is James Bond amplified to the nth degree complete with an underground 60s set-decorated superbase of operations full of white jump-suited minions.

His foe is an evil genius -- Sewell Head, or, in malevolent mastermind nomenclature, Swellhead -- whose intent is not just to take over the world -- but to become reality itself.

There is, of course, a colorful near-invincible henchman (with a hand of tiny whirling blades that can plow through good guy flesh like an inside-out multi-bladed blender) and a kinky henchwoman, Miss Kill, whose martial moves match any in Crouching Tiger.

It's thoroughly enjoyable and the very best thing about Swellhead is an ending that encourages one to believe that we'll soon be hearing more of Richard Jeperson. Whether this introduces you to Kim Newman or is another injection to feed a growing Newman addiction, "Swellhead" will more than suffice.

Tim Lebbon's "In Perpetuity," Night Vision's second novella, is something completely different.

Lebbon, the youngest of this lot, is one of the better things to happen to horror in the last five years -- and in a variety of ways I won't even get into. He is consistently definable as a contemporary horror writer in a literature that is becoming increasingly hard to define. His work, so far, has been a bit uneven, but he seems strongest when working at novella length and is most evocative when he slips into surrealism and enigma. Since he does both here, you're on solid ground.

The horror begins with the heart-stopping terror of losing a child but is quickly replaced with a darkly bizarre mission the child's father must undertake to restore his child. A mysterious and cruel "keeper" has snatched the child and is keeping him in some strange dimension of his curio shop of horrors. He feeds his collection of grotesqueries and wonders by sending men and women out to seek impossibilities in order to set their children free. This father's quest is for the "proof of love" and the keeper grants him access to his "hidden thoughts and the places they lead...pathways that most people cannot or will not see..." in order to find it.

The desperate father quickly learns the world is full of unseen detail and "invisible people looking for miracles." Most of them have wandered for years with little or no success in finding what the keeper has demanded of them; one, the Green Man, has been so maddened by his endless journey that he will do anything to get back to the keeper, including stealing whatever proofs of love the father thinks he's found.

The raw authenticity of the recently widowed father's emotions fuels a story that might otherwise have turned into the sort of exercise in surreal Symbolism that drips with meaning but is bereft of consequence. At the end, you are left with not so much an idea of distinct images and scenes but an impression of a nightmare from which you have awakened and cannot totally shake. Quiet, but quite effective, horror.

Which leaves the third novella by Lucius Shepard...

The eldest of the trio, Shepard's first life as a writer was in the 80s. His debut novel, Green Eyes (1984) won the John W. Campbell Award, his 1986 novella "R & R" received a Nebula, collections The Jaguar Hunter (1987) and The Ends of the Earth (1991) won World Fantasy Awards. Science fiction novella "Barnacle Bill The Spacer" won the 1991 Hugo Award. Numerous Locus magazine awards came along, too, as well as nominations too numerous. Then, in 1992, he stopped writing. (Mayhap he was tired out from carrying the weight of all those ugly awards?)

In 1998 he started writing short - really mostly novella-length -- fiction again. "When Crocodile Rock," hit The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction's October 1999 issue, you knew he was back and better than ever. (The International Horror Guild was so happy with "Crocodile Rock" they had to load him up with another award for it.)

F&SF celebrated his return in March 2001 with a special section and the publication of "Eternity and Afterward." His 2002 novella "Over Yonder" (first published online by SCIFI.COM's SciFiction) won the Theodore Sturgeon Award. If you hadn't noticed him by then, he made sure you did with novella "Floater" (PS Publishing, 2002) then hit us all upside the head with four novellas published as stand-alones in 2003 alone: "Aztechs" and "Colonel Rutherford's Colt" (both Subterranean), "Louisiana Breakdown" (Golden Gryphon, reviewed in Cemetery Dance #45) and "Valentine" (Four Walls Eight Windows).

So, it should come as no surprise 2004 dawns with another novella, "Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?", a dark sex and violence and scum of the earth story set in Florida. (As far as contemporary sex and violence and scum of the earth writers, only John Shirley is in Shepard's class and, not surprisingly, both men are survivors of personal periods of low living.) The characters in "Hands Up!" are, characteristically, trapped by circumstances that are, at least partly, of their own devise.

Maceo an ex-con with an anger management problem hooks up with Leeli, a hot little cracker honey whose worth to humankind lies only in her being a hot little cracker honey. They're hardly past their first screw, actually in the midst of their second, when they meet up with the mysterious and highly-sexed Ava and her side-hunks Carl and Squire. Ava has plenty of money and a hankering for Leeli and next thing you know the oddball fivesome have partied themselves to one of the armpits of the western hemisphere, Daytona Beach. There are some hints of UFO strangeness and maybe some stuff that strikes one as peculiar, but as our narrator Maceo puts it, "Pretty much everything strikes me peculiar. So I guess nothin' does."

Like much of Shepard's work, there's not so much of a plot here as a structure Held together with precisely wrought prose and palpable tension, the structure is built to be toppled. It's a risky writing game and few can play it. Shepard not only plays, he usually wins. This time out, the conclusion is neither weird enough nor rational enough to quite work and Maceo is left to conclude that, well, "shit happens." Still, overall, put another tick mark in Shepard's "winner" column.

--originally appeared in Cemtery Dance #49

Night Visions 11
William Sheehan, ed.
Subterranean Press / $30 / 244p
ISBN: 1931081948

Three fine novella-length examples of cross-genre dark fiction. Kim Newman's Richard Jeperson -- a combination of Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and outrageously camp novelist-detective-spy, Jason King (a Brit TV character to whom Austin Powers owes a great deal) - comes out of retirement to tackle a reality-thieving mastermind in "Swellhead." A pop cultural m&eague;lange that puts James Bond to shame. "In Perpetuity" by Brit up-and-comer Tim Lebbon a distraught father undertakes a nightmarishly surreal quest to save his son. "Hands Up! Who Wants to Die?" by Lucius Shepard is Florida noir with plenty of sex and violence and maybe some "witches and spacemen and scum of the earth." Although it's from a specialty press, this hardcover is worth seeking out, especially if you've never been exposed to the amazing Mr Newman or the weirdly wonderful Mr Shepard -- you've got a lot of catching up to do.

--review originally appeared in Cinemafantastique April/May

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Copyright © 2004 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.