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!

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