DarkEcho Horror SpoonFork by Rick Berry

By Richard Bleiler

A version of this article appeared in DarkEcho 11.27.02

In August 2002, The American Library Association's BOOKLIST magazine, a periodical bible for librarians, featured horror literature. Librarians are, of course, often wonderful supporters (and subversive agents) of dark fiction. its author, Richard Bleiler graciously agreed to allow *DarkEcho* to re-publish an updated version of his essay. One caveat: This was written with library needs in mind!

"Horror literature" is difficult if not impossible to define, depending either on individual perceptions of what constitutes horror or on a publisher's telling a marketplace that what it is publishing is horrific, which it may be, though perhaps not in the way the publisher intends. And, of course, there is the question of what is literature? For the purposes of this essay, all of these terms shall remain cheerfully undefined, and what will be presented is the material that H. P. Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature," one of the first and finest introductions to the subject, refers to as "a literature of cosmic fear."

For purposes of convenience, this essay shall address its subject in alphabetical order rather than attempting a chronological or thematic survey, and for purposes of showing that there are numerous fine practitioners currently working, the survey shall address only the material written by living writers. It must be stressed that there are an enormous number of fine writers currently writing horror -- horror literature is one of the few genres that actively encourages stylistic experimentation -- and while a comprehensive survey is not possible, one should not claim even a rudimentary knowledge of the field without first having read the majority of the writers and works below.

Peter Ackroyd Peter Ackroyd (1949-). His best-known work of horror is HAWKSMOOR (1985), a stunning combination of historical novel and contemporary detective story that discusses architecture and its influences while showing the events of one century shaping the events of another; HAWKSMOOR won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction award. The wonderfully dark THE HOUSE OF DOCTOR DEE (1993) plays with the ideas of death, betrayal, and of fiction itself -- the 16th century mage and mathematician knows that he is a character in a 20th century book -- and has as one of its plot lines Dee's desire to raise an homunculus, a child with no parents conjured from strange substances. Ackroyd also wrote DAN LENO AND THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM (1994), an account of murders in the 19th century -- or is it?

Clive Barker Clive Barker (1952 -). Though successful as a playwright, Barker initially attracted attention with the six volumes of CLIVE BARKER'S BOOKS OF BLOOD (1984-1985), short stories that showed there was no subject too risky or outrČ for him. Barker's stories can be surprisingly thoughtful as well as bizarrely humorous. Barker has written a number of fantastic novels, but as a horror writer, he is probably at his best at the short story length. Unfortunately novel and film commitments keep him from writing much short fiction.

Ray Bradbury Ray Bradbury (1920 - ). The oldest of the writers discussed here, Bradbury is occasionally dismissed as a sentimental chronicler of by-gone ways, but he has a horrific streak that manifests itself in simply told stories of great power: an invalid is visited by his dead dog; a child cannot convince his parents that a woman has been buried alive; an ordinary farmer must become the Grim Reaper; a simple bedtime game destroys a marriage; a harmless mushroom farm may not be so benign after all; and those friendly relatives who are so glad to see you may be something quite different. Bradbury's earliest collections DARK CARNIVAL (1947), THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1951), GOLDEN APPLES OF THE SUN (1953), OCTOBER COUNTRY (1955), A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY & OTHER STORIES (1959), and I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC (1969) are all back in print. More recent collections available include THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY (1980), DRIVING BLIND (1997), ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD (2002), and LONG AFTER MIDNIGHT (NOVEMBER 2002).

Poppy Z Brite Poppy Z. Brite (1967 -). The youngest of the writers discussed here, there is no topic too risky for Brite, no boundary that she will not try to transgress, and no sensibility that she will not try to outrage. Her fictional obsessions include vampires and serial killers, her portrayals of these frequently involves graphic sex that manages to be utterly unarousing, and her style is brilliantly smooth and neo-Goth in sensibility. Her first three novels - LOST SOULS (1992), DRAWING BLOOD (1994), and EXQUISITE CORPSE (1996) -- should be read, as should her short stories.

Ramsey Campbell Ramsey Campbell (1946 -). Campbell's first book, published when he was 18, was the Lovecraft-inspired The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (1964), and he has since done many works characterized by a cold and bleak vision. Almost anything Campbell has written is worth reading, but his short story collection ALONE WITH THE HORRORS: THE GREAT SHORT FICTION OF RAMSEY CAMPBELL, 1961-1991 (1993) offers an excellent introduction to his themes, and such novels as THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER (1976, but the 1987 edition is better), THE FACE THAT MUST DIE (1979, but the 1983 edition is better), HUNGRY MOON (1986), and THE HOUSE ON NAZARETH HILL (1996) show him at his peak. His erotic horror collection SCARED STIFF was recently reissued and collection GHOSTS & GRISLY THINGS is also available. THE LAST VOICE THEY HEAR (1998), SILENT CHILDREN (2000) and PACT OF THE FATHERS (2001) are his most recent novels.

Nancy Collins Nancy Collins (1959 -). Collins's best works are a series featuring Sonja Blue, a vampire first introduced in SUNGLASSES AFTER DARK (1989). There is nothing noble or aristocratic about Blue; she was at one time a mortal, and her hatred of the being that converted - and her self hatred -sustain her for much of the series. Collins shows a world in decay, inhabited by monsters passing as human, and her Blue stories are dark, memorable, and psychologically very interesting.

Tananarive Due Tananarive Due (1966-). With only three novels -- THE BETWEEN (1995), MY SOUL TO KEEP (1997), and THE LIVING BLOOD (2001) -- Due has shown that she is one of the most original horror writers today. Due is African American, and her works not only use African Americans as protagonists, they are steeped in African American culture and show that horror is for all peoples. Due's fourth novel is scheduled for fall 2003.

Dennis Etchison Dennis Etchison (1943 -). Etchison's view of humanity is consistently bleak and warped and often quite funny. He is at his best in his short stories -- "The Late Shift" is perhaps his most famous, though "The Olympic Runner" and "The Dog Park" were prize winners -- but such novels as SHADOWMAN (1993) and CALIFORNIA GOTHIC (1995) reveal his creepy talent. Recent collections include THE DEATH ARTIST (2000) and the comprehensive TALKING IN THE DARK (2001).

Stephen King Stephen King (1947 -). Probably the most famous writer of horror fiction living, King's horrors tend to be traditional and familiar. Picking a "best" with King is impossible, for he has written much -- some would say too much -- but his short stories and novellas show him at his best, and many think these are better than his novels. His most recent collection is EVERYTHING IS EVENTUAL (2002). Many feel NIGHT SHIFT (1978) is his best.

Dean Koontz Dean Koontz (1945 -). There has no question that Koontz has written too much, and he is simply not as good a writer as many of the others considered here; his plots and characters are repetitive and too often interchangeable. At the same time, the best of Koontz's works offer relentless paranoia, showing ordinary people caught up in events they only dimly understand and forced to flee forces almost beyond their comprehension.

Joe Lansdale Joe R. Lansdale (1951 -). Putting a genre label on Lansdale is impossible, for he has written westerns, mysteries, and adventure stories, and sometimes his works are all of these at once. What makes Lansdale enjoyable is his style, which - at its best - is folksy and homespun, quirky, animated by a "B movie" sensibility, and deceptively humorous. (Shakespeare knew that humor offset and increased the horror; so does Lansdale.) He won an Edgar award for THE BOTTOMS (2000), a gentle tale of childhood in Texas during the Great Depression that is reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, if that novel had a serial killer and murders. The excellent 1994 collection WRITER OF THE PURPLE RAGE is now back in print as is the two-novel omnibus THE DRIVE-IN.

Patrick McGrath Patrick McGrath (1950-). A love of the grotesque and a gleeful black humor enlivens almost all of Patrick McGrath's work. McGrath's output is small, but his first collection of short stories (BLOOD AND WATER AND OTHER TALES, 1987) shows a bizarre imagination at work, and his first novel -- the aptly titled THE GROTESQUE (1989) -- features one of the most unreliable narrators ever created as well as an ambitious butler, a pig farmer, a murder, a dinosaur skeleton, and a mystery that remains mysterious and memorable long after the novel ends. His other novels are: SPIDER (1990), DR. HAGGARD'S DISEASE (1994),ASYLUM (1999), and MARTHA PEAKE (2002)

Richard Matheson Richard Matheson (1926 -). Matheson has been writing since the 1950s and describes ordinary people caught up in terrifying situations that become even more terrifying as the story progresses. He has given us some of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "The Invaders") as well as such books as I AM LEGEND (1954), which inspired George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and Stephen King's 'SALEM'S LOT. Matheson's horror fiction has become part of American culture: his short story "Duel" describes a driver being menaced by a truck and was filmed, by Stephen Spielberg, in 1971.

Kim Newman Kim Newman (1959 -). Newman's fiction (written under his own name as well as the pseudonym of "Jack Yeovil") blends many influences, narrative traditions, and cultural references, and somehow it works. His longest work of horror is JAGO (1991), in which the psychic Reverend Anthony William Jago is able to unleash people's fantasies and transform reality. His Anno Dracula series began in 1992 and asked, what would happen if Van Helsing and Harker failed in their quest to stake Count Dracula? The resulting world is an incredible blend in which historical reality and fictional creations overlap to the point where neither can be separated. All of Newman's fiction is thoughtful and thought-provoking -- the Yeovil works are more entertaining, and it is hard to take seriously a work entitled ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES (1994) -- and Newman's THE QUORUM (1994) has one of the more chilling scenes ever written. Three young men meet a being (Leech) in a hut who offers them success but at the cost of lifelong pain. When they object to this bargain, Leech grins: "Did I say the pain had to be yours?"

Joyce CArol Oates Joyce Carol Oates (1938 -). Though horrific elements had appeared in Joyce Carol Oates's writing from the first, until 1980 nobody seemed to think that she could or would admit to being a writer of genre horror fiction. In 1980, however, Oates's short story "The Bingo Master" appeared in Dark Forces, an enormously influential anthology edited by Kirby McCauley, and began started a long series of dark fantasies and horror works: BELLEFLEUR (1981), A BLOODSMOOR ROMANCE (1982), MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHURN (1984), BLACK WATER (1992), and ZOMBIE (1995) ARE BUT A FEW OF HER MANY NOVELS. Among her collections, HAUNTED: TALES OF THE GROTESQUE (1994),THE COLLECTOR OF HEARTS (1999) FAITHLESS: TALES OF TRANSGRESSION (2002) compile her dark short stories. She has also written a number of works of psychological suspense as "Rosamond Smith."

Anne Rice Anne Rice (1941-). Like Stephen King, Anne Rice needs no introduction and perhaps has never done the work that she might be capable of. Nevertheless, Rice has the capacity to take seemingly exhausted subjects - the vampire novel, for example - and see them in a new way: her vampires are rock stars and unabashed in their needs; her Mayfair Witches are larger than life, studied for centuries by the secret occultic society, Talamasca, even as the Witches are pursued by a family demon, Lasher.

John Shirley John Shirley (1953 -). It is hard to resist somebody who publishes books entitled REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WEIRD STORIES (1999), THE VIEW FROM HELL (2000), and ...AND THE ANGEL WITH TELEVISION EYES (2002) -- and there are times when Shirley is irresistible. He has written science fiction as well as horror, and in his hands the two are occasionally indistinguishable, as in such works as CITY COME A-WALKIN' (1980) and SILICON EMBRACE (1996). Similarly, many of his short stories might be termed modern crime noir, as can his novel SPIDER MOON (2003). His darkest novels, such as WETBONES (1991) and DEMONS (2002) and collections BLACK BUTTERFLIES (1998), NEW NOIR (1993), and DARKNESS DIVIDED (2001) are not for everybody. They do not try to be.

Peter Straub Peter Straub (1943 -). Horrific elements were present in Straub's earliest works, but he was not commonly considered a horror writer until he published GHOST STORY (1979), which shows a town besieged by a malevolent being that forces characters to confront their past misdeeds or die. He followed it with SHADOWLAND (1980), perhaps his finest work of dark fantasy, detailing a boy coming of age in a magical world. Straub has since written novels about Vietnam war, as well as a loosely linked "Blue Rose" series, and two collaborative novels with Stephen King. He returned to solo novelistic horror with MR X (1999). Straub's short story collections HOUSES WITHOUT DOORS (1990) and MAGIC TERROR (2000) contain some wonderfully dark assessments of humanity.

Jane Yolen Jane Yolen (1939 -). It is possible that Jane Yolen might object to being considered a horror writer, arguing that she is a fantasist and a fabulist, and that horror makes up a tiny part of her work. She would be correct: the majority of Yolen's more than 120 books are fantasies, and many of them are intended for a young adult readership. But every so often Yolen takes a theme as trite as that of a teenaged babysitter in a creaky old house and turns it into a story of pure horror, or she begins what seems to be a routine fairy tale and links it to some of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century.

About the Author:
Richard Bleiler is the Humanities Reference Librarian at the Homer Babbidge Library at the University of Connecticut. He is the editor of SUPERNATURAL FICTION WRITERS (Edition 2), a single volume addition to Scribner's 1985 2-volume set. He is also the author of numerous articles and guides on science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery and detective fiction, and the pulps.

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Copyright © 2003 by Richard Bleiler. All Rights Reserved.