Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween!

As promised, I wanted to deliver a small surprise for readers of this blog in time for Halloween.

And what better than include some fun content?

So what I've done is include both Halloween episodes I recorded with my friend on our podcast in this post. In case you are unaware, Cannon Cruisers is a podcast I do with my partner centered around the filmography of Cannon Films with some works of the same era by different studios.

Last year we recorded an episode centered on the movie franchise Halloween (the first three movies) before we were even aware of the recent film's existence.

You can listen to out long and unedited discussion here:

But as was said earlier, we recorded that last year.

For this year we included a discussion on another seasonal franchise favorite. In the new episode we talk at length about A Nightmare on Elm Street 1 and 3. Why those two? Well, you'll have to tune in and listen for yourself!

You can hear that at the Cannon Cruisers blog here.

Everyone, have a great Halloween and I will see you next week.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Final Part)

Now that's a horror cover!

And so we end off our short series with this final batch from the odd 27th Pan Horror anthology. It's been a bizarre ride filled with violence (a lot of violence), sex (a lot of sex), and horror (not as much as the other two), with pieces ranging from insane to far too predictable, but these last three should help put the final nail in my evaluation of this collection. Twelve stories down and what did I think? Well, we'll get to that.

Let us continue where we left off.

Joint Family by B. Seshadri is about an extended Indian family and the man who is in charge. He is in his mid-forties and still single, but begins plotting a way for his family to get ahead and up the social ladder. This requires using a disease from the backwards and superstitious Medieval era. Yes, the Black Plague. But he's a smarter and more modern man, so he can control it to do his bidding and plot everything out. His Machiavellian schemes depend highly on modern medicine and the way the current era works in order to team up with a disease in order to win out. As you can imagine, this doesn't go as well as he hopes it will.

I was pleasantly surprised by this story. The themes are strong and the main character not being so good while his family is works with the plot so that you want him to fail and them to succeed. My only real problem with this story is that it takes a long time to get going and leaves a far shorter time to deal with the consequences of his actions. This leads to the ending being abrupt and the tension draining right at the end, hurting the entire story a bit in the process. But it doesn't hurt it that much.

Otherwise it is a good story about a man who has his ego run out of control, thinks he can control nature and the modern world, and leads to unforeseen destruction. It's a solid entry and easily one of the best in this collection.

What comes next is The House That Remembered by Jonathan Cruise. As you might imagine it is a haunted house story. This one follows a newlywed couple as they travel to a small Irish town and overlook a new property they inherited. But there is a history behind this place, and it is quite dark. Nonetheless, they are hoping to build themselves a new life on this old family property. What follows is a tale of ghosts, legends, and curses, and an ending that brings an entire eerie history to a close.

As you might be able to tell, this is a Weird Tale, and it is a very good one. This wouldn't have been out of place in the titular magazine. In fact, it is my personal favorite story in the collection. The tension is high, the pacing ramps up, the horror is well defined and palpable, and the ending is satisfying (if a bit too quick for my tastes) and left me wanting more after the final line. If you're looking for a reason to read through this book I would say it is worth picking up for this story alone. It is quite good.

So far, these last two were surprisingly strong compared to the absolute weirdness that the anthology started with, but we're not done yet. There is still one last tale to go. Surely Mr. Paget will end it with a banger, though? Let's have a look.

The final story in the anthology is Rothschild's Revenge by Jay Wilde, a tongue in cheek story about a serial killer who goes after the people who did him wrong. He hunts them down and murders them in absurd ways. That is the entire plot of this shorter piece. It is lighthearted and leaves with an ending that leaves the reader with the lingering question as to why it was chosen to be the last story in the collection. It doesn't leave the reader with any particularly strong feeling, it has no weight, and it is brief on top of it all.

This doesn't make it the weakest story in the collection (it would be difficult to usurp Red Recipe), but it does mean it is placed in a bad spot. Sequencing in anthologies is important to keeping the audience engaged, and using a small comedic piece at the end of what is supposed to be a horror anthology doesn't leave the reader with the right impression. It leaves them slowly closing the cover and filing the book away.

But the biggest problem is that the story just exists. There isn't any tension in the tale due to the comedic bent, the kills are meant to make the reader laugh, and the ending is so ridiculous it can't possibly be taken seriously. There's nothing for the reader to sink their teeth into for a final story. It's funny if you like black comedy, I suppose, but that's about all. This is all fine, but it is a tonal shift from the stronger last two pieces which also works against it. This is what I mean by its placement not doing it any favors.

Overall, these problems would factor into my impression of this collection as a whole. There's no coherence or logical placement of the stories within. The tale chosen for the cover was not one of the stronger pieces and doesn't represent this anthology well.

This emphasizes another issue: this anthology is confused. It does not choose an identity for itself, and the sequencing makes the problem worse than it could be.

The style of horror varies, but most of the explicit material is placed near the start leaving the creepier content at the back, aside from Red Recipe being placed between two of the strongest ones in the last half. It's a mess. The strongest stories are buried, and the comedic ones front-load the selection with a random light piece at the end to fizzle out the building tension and reader expectations. It's not very well paced, and most of the stories are simply not enjoyable. This is a weak anthology.

Would I pick the best pieces to check out it would be Stephen King's I Know What You Need, B. Seshadri's Joint Family, and Jonathan Cruise's The House That Remembered. 3 out of 12 is not a good batting average, but if you like comedic satire that is not very scary then you'll find a bit more to enjoy in these pages, but to a much more limited degree. Unfortunately most of the stories simply contain over the top gore, slow plotting, and lean on the crutch of terrible characters you can't root for which bring them down from heights they could otherwise reach. This all holds it back tremendously. It's just not a good collection.

Now I can see where the state of horror writing was by the late 80s and it is no wonder this series died on the vine not long after this volume released. The unexpected success of Goosebumps in the 90s (and Are You Afraid of the Dark? for television) by using simple horror stories and monsters with a basic underlying morality must have been a revelation for the audience at the time. There was a reason, I suppose, that more than just children were reading them at the time.

I was unaware that written horror was in such a bad state by this time, although perhaps the lousy movies of the period should have clued me in. Most of the stories in these pages really could have used some of that old magic and because they don't have it they feel far more of their time and less universal than a classic story like Dracula or Frankenstein does. Most of these stories have no actual point, and as such they have little to offer outside of violence and sex. And in the age of readily available pornography and video games they offer even less.

Because of this, I don't think anyone other than a horror zealot will find much enjoyment in these pages. It reads as a genre out of gas and stranded on an abandoned back road with nothing but a dying flashlight. What you'll find out there is nothing you would want. This is a genre that has lost its way with no idea how it happened.

As a whole this has been a fun read, and I enjoyed sharing it here, but this not something I will be passing around to others. There just isn't any reason to. Look up the best stories and find something else to read.

Not recommended.

And that's all for this short series. See you on Halloween for a special surprise!

Friday, October 19, 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 3)

I wish this was a story in the book. (I'm still not posting the cover)
Welcome to the third part of this mini-series covering volume 27 of the Pan Book of Horror Stories. In the first part we covered a set of odd shorts that were vaguely horror-ish but more in the vein of satire (at least, I hope so), and in the second part we went over three stories that each had their own weaknesses. Halfway through this book and I've started to question just how this once vaunted series had fallen so far. I keep hoping the back half will improve in quality.

And it sort of has. In a way.

The first story covered is Norman P. Kaufman's Dead or Alive. A man has a woman who is sick. He begins to have sex with her mother, then soon learns the daughter has an inheritance. The narrator and the mother-in-law argue about how to kill the daughter, and the latter ends up dead. But the attraction he has for her remains high even in death. Look at the title and you should understand what the horror element in this story is.

Unfortunately, this one is very similar to Spiders in that the characters are really just awful people you can't get behind. It's also . . . not really a horror story. This is about a degenerate with a libido problem who accidentally commits murder and hides it. Nothing else happens, and the story just stops without a real ending.

If you're just looking for schlock I suppose it works despite its brief length, but it isn't anything you've probably seen a hundred times by now. This is the man problem with shock horror. It simply doesn't age well.

Next is I Know What You Need by the famous Stephen King. You should be able to tell from the author, but this is the strongest story in the collection, written by King during his peak period of the late 70s before drugs and ego enveloped him entirely. But I digress.

This is a story about college students, specifically a geeky young man who seems to know a lot about the female main character to the point that she finds herself attracted to him. Or does she?

This is the strongest story here for two reasons. For one, there is a moral point to the story. I'm not talking about message fiction: this wasn't written for the purpose of lecturing the audience on some political point. I mean that all horror has a message about how important morality and good is and how evil and disfigurement is not ideal. It doesn't have to come out and say it, but the horror has to clash with the normality that it is replacing enough to jostle the audience and want it to end. If normality is awful then the audience isn't going to care about returning to it. Early King understood this exceedingly well. For instance, this story actually has an ending where normality is celebrated.

It is the way horror is meant to be. Therefore it is by default the best story in this anthology. The fact that it is well done only adds to it.

That would be the second reason it is the best story here. It has a complete arc. The main character starts in one place, goes through an experience, and ends up in a new place. As do the other characters. This is a crucial piece every other story (whether deliberately or not matters little) does not have. It is the best inclusion in this anthology.

My only issue with this one has more to do with an observation about King as a writer, and not so much about this story specifically. He can't seem to write normal, untainted men very well. There aren't any male characters in the story beyond the main foil, and the few that there are only have a handful of lines each that say nothing much about them at all. I've read a few of his books and I'd say The Stand is one of the few were there are some normal male characters without major hang-ups, but it's rare. Anyway, I'm getting way off track.

Last we look at Red Recipe by Ray Askey. This is once again more of an anecdote than it is a story and doesn't really go anywhere.

A woman arrives at a country bed and breakfast, eats dinner, falls asleep, and is tortured and cut up by the owners who turn out to be cannibals. That's it.

Much like I said with Dead or Alive, and many other stories in this collection, there's just nothing here under the hood. The main character has no character or motivation, there's no real plot aside from an exposition dump at the end, and you can tell everything that is going to happen from the first paragraph of the story.

I've gone on record saying I've never been a horror fan, and this collection is showing me why. If I want to see empty violence I could watch a bad 80s action movie or an anime satire like Mad Bull 34. At least then I would still be getting some semblance of morality out of it, regardless of how shallow, and still get hyper-violence on top of it. After reading this I'm merely reminded as to why I don't like what the slasher fad started in the late '70s did to horror as a whole.

Bad people suffering grisly deaths in an uncaring world is not horrific. It's boring and more pathetic than it is entertaining. I guess I just don't see the point. I could watch or read true crime if I want to see horrible people get away with horrible acts. Mindless bloodshed is just empty.

For blood to have purpose it must be shed for a reason. Effort, sacrifice, love, hate: blood should be the result of an action and leads to another action. It's not the end. Blood by itself means nothing. Just like a random sex scene in the middle of a slasher film, it only exists to titillate, not to entertain. At that point it's mere pornography.

And in the age of the internet it is easy to see why these stories don't work so well today. Titillation is everywhere and far more explicit. As a result there is little to recommend here.

But we still have one part to go, so let us hope the final stories really pick up the slack. I sure hope they do!

In case you missed it last time I have my own short story appearing in StoryHack #3! My piece is called Inside the Demon's Eye, a fantasy that takes place in a dark place called the Black Lands. It stars a young adventurer on a quest who finds that he may be the one being hunted. If you've read my material before then you may expect things to go sideways.

This was a story that I constructed after reading too much CL Moore, and is the first outright traditional fantasy I've ever written. Though there is some horror to be found. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

Next week we look at the final set of stories in the anthology. I should also have a surprise for you on Halloween itself, but you'll have to wait and see on that.

Until then!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 2)

Still not the collection cover.

I'm back with more horror for you today! After last week's trio of stories, it was pretty clear Mr. Paget would really have to outdo himself here to keep up with the craziness. But these stories are not as insane as those were, though a few have some issues of their own. Let us continue the spooky fun with my ongoing look at The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories. It promises to be an interesting ride.

First let's look at Spiders by Buzz Dixon. This one centers on an unattractive lower middle class man named Marvin who has a phobia of spiders. The plot has Marvin seeing spiders, calling an exterminator, dealing with his woman, and then dealing with more spiders. I'm simplifying it a good deal, but its a pretty typical monster tale, and not too badly done. There is some decent creature craziness here. But the bigger problem is how nasty it is.

In around the 1970s, horror began to change from being about fear of the uncertainty and sin to being about how normality is just as bad as the unknown. Every character in this story is a dirtbag. Every single one. You don't feel anything when bad happens to them because they're such bad people, and when the ending comes you simply shrug and turn to the next story. This obsession with staining normality with "Realism" and making the people just as bad as the monsters is what killed horror in the mainstream to where all that is left are these sorts of stories.

Horror is supposed to be about dread and terror, and the hope of escape to something better. Even Lovecraft didn't have to rely on normal people being terrible to get his point across, and they still held the hope that maybe they could get away from the terror. A fundamental rule of the universe is broken and the protagonist has to get it back in order. Whether they succeed or not is up to the author.

But if there's nothing to fight for? If there is no one to fight for? If nothing matters to begin with?

And there is the problem with modern horror.

The next story we'll look at is J. Yen's A Weird Day for Agro. A man hears a story in a pub from a guy with a nigh incomprehensible accent obscuring most of the anecdote.

I'm not a fan of frame stories. If a writer is telling me a story, I would like to get as close to the action as possible. This was my problem with Abraham Merritt's Through the Dragon Glass. He was telling a story from the point of view of a man telling a story to the main character. It pulls me too many steps away from what is going on. That said, I can deal with them.

The bigger issue is the accents. If you write that the character has a brogue to him, I can use my own imagination to understand his voice. Writing out incomprehensible words to mimic an accent is torture for the reader. Any writers out there, please take my advice. Do not write out accents unless they are a word or two every now and then. Few things will completely take readers out of a story harder than not understanding what the heck you just wrote.

All that aside, those two devices work against anything this story has, which is a horror that isn't well explained at all.

Lastly, there is Pebbledene by Alan Temperley. A convict gets released from jail and, because he has no family, gets taken to a farm to work and gets pampered by the women living there. You probably already know the ending to this without knowing the rest of the story. It's a really long piece despite having such a predictable plot and characters. Any chance the author has of using a Chekov gun to take a detour into an interesting direction is never fired for barreling to a conclusion that I'm sure readers in the '80s already saw coming.

There isn't really a point to the story except to see an ex-con have sex with random women and then get his just desserts in the end. There's nothing here.

And that's probably the most disappointing part of this batch of stories. There's nothing really to talk about because there's nothing scary or interesting here. I thought horror was supposed to frighten or shock? Well, I'm still waiting. So far, about halfway through and I've laughed far more than anything, and I don't think I'm supposed to. Hopefully the second half of the collection delivers.

In other news, StoryHack #3 is out today, and I have a story in it! My piece, Inside the Demon's Eye, is fantasy quest inspired by the likes of CL Moore. An adventurer gets dragged into the Black Lands in his hunt for a treasure, but a mysterious creature is also in pursuit of him. Can he make it out in one piece, or his destined to die like so many others have in the land under demon eye?

I had a lot of fun writing this one, so I hope you enjoy reading it. This was really new territory for me, and I would be grateful to hear your thoughts.

And that's all for today. Until next time!

Friday, October 5, 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 1)

No, I'm not posting the cover. Too graphic for this blog.

This Halloween season I am going to try something a little different. I will be creating a series of posts centered on one small short story collection I acquired. The book is The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories first published in 1986.

For thirty years, from 1959 to 1989, Pan books put yearly collections of horror stories based on the best of the year. There were 30 volumes, originally edited by Herbert Van Thal before his death in 1983. Clarence Paget edited the last six volumes before the series finally ended, coinciding with the the ultimate death of short stories in the western world by '80s end.

And this was no small series. It ran stories from writers like Muriel Spark, C.S. Forester, Ray Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, and Basil Copper throughout its lengthy run. For those who recognize these names, you should know why this series interested me for this post. However, the issue is that not every writer up there was writing in the 1980s.

For those who were around in the '80s, horror was possibly at its most popular, but definitely not at its best. It was the decade of slasher movies, after all. This series, however, has a pedigree that extends further back than just that small period, which means it should be an informative read. If nothing it will prove to be a fun time capsule.

I recently found volume 27 of this series in a used book store and wanted to do something different for Halloween season. Therefore, I've decided to read and talk about each of the twelve stories here over the month. Both to compare current to older horror, and to see just where short stories were at in that period of the '80s when they were all but gone.

In this post I will focus on the first three stories.

The first piece is On the Fisherman's Path by Chris Barnham. The plot centers on the main character backpacking through Europe. People are dying in places he left behind, and he soon meets a woman also traveling alone. After a fling, he finds dead bodies and thinks the woman might have something to do with it. She then vanishes after he finds some dead bodies. The end.

Very well written, if a bit slow, with effective language. Unfortunately, it's boring and the atmosphere feels far more like a romance than horror until the very last page.

The problem I had with this story was that it reminded me of Shambleau by CL Moore stripped of all terror and romance. For those unaware, Shambleau deals with manly chad Northwest Smith rescuing an alluring woman from a bad scene and ends up oddly attracted to her as he takes her in. He is then pulled into a nightmare far beyond his senses can understand. The trip is quite evocative and horrific.

In this story, the woman is not particularly attractive and she has no dynamics to her to clash with the main character which leaves the reader wondering just what he sees in her. When people end up dying near the main character (at the very end) there still isn't any hint as to what she's doing or what her purpose is. She just ends up disappearing. We don't even see anything happening until near the end. It's just not as exciting or interesting as that earlier classic.

It might be unfair to compare the two, but they fundamentally are about the same thing, only the more recent story has modernism replacing the gothic romanticism and supernatural wonder. So you get a serial killer, a plain looking woman, wandering a typical city in a typical summer, and an ending that doesn't solve anything. I don't even think it's a bad story, but it is hard to not be disappointed after reading a masterwork like Shambleau. It's undeniably a step down.

The second work in this collection is Harry E. Turner's Ms Rita & the Professor. This is a story about a radical feminist (we're talking shooting Andy Warhol level crazy) and her professor friend who is losing parts of his body. The main character, an ethical journalist with a love of plain-looking animalistic women (his words) tries to stalk her for purely innocent reasons. At least, we are told that. The character is a bit unclear. He then learns the truth about her and the story flips on its head.

The pacing flows well, going from one scene to the next, and the build up works because of it. Like the first story the prose is strong and descriptive. But the horror just isn't very interesting. However, as satire (which I fully believe this story is) it is hilarious. I was laughing throughout the entirety of the story once the reveal happened. There is no way this would ever be printed today for the outrage it would cause from certain camps. Still, despite that, this doesn't really fit a horror collection as it is far too funny and not very horrific.

I just can't imagine reading this and not busting a gut. It's just strange that an obvious comedic piece would be put in here. It's good, it just barely fits with the genre its supposed to represent.

Also, this is the second story in this collection about a "normal" man lusting after a not very attractive woman (again, in their words) and the horror coming from them not realizing said woman is disturbed until it is too late. I'm not sure if Mr. Paget had a particular love for these sorts of stories, but to front-load an anthology with two very similar stories like this, even if one is a comedy, is bizarre. There's not much horrific here, either.

That said, they are different enough that it will make reading the rest quite the experience. Two stories in and I began to wonder just what else will be on offer. Thankfully, I was not disappointed with the next one.

For the last one I will talk about today is Medium Rare by Samantha Lee. This is only a page long, but well worth mentioning. Simple story, simple length. A communist in the Spanish Civil War gets tortured and ends up eating his son's left buttocks.

That's really the whole story. I was rolling on the floor after this one.

I'm sure it's meant to be very serious social commentary on the horrors of fascism against communists (as much sense as that makes) but the brief length and sudden reveal after the main character was revealed to be guilty of what he is accused either means the author was serious and the story completely misses the mark, or was not and this is an uproarious comedy piece. I will charitably assume the latter.

If true then I admit confusion. That then leaves two out of the first three stories as comedy pieces (in a horror anthology) each dunking on feminists and communists. For an anthology in 1980s Britain, I find that strange.

But I'm not going to complain. I'm having a good time.

And that is only the first three. There are still nine left to go which I will cover in the weeks to come. So stick with me on this. If the rest of the stories are anything like these, it should be fun.