Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Book Reviews: August 2017

Read This! Volume 2
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

Horror and humor walk hand in hand along the beach of fiction, and if occasionally there’s only one set of footprints, it’s only because that’s when one is carrying the other. Humor breaks the tension of horror enough to make it bearable when readers might otherwise lose heart and walk away, and horror has always been in humor. Long before the ’60s fad for dead baby jokes, comedy dealt in death and destruction. As comedians like Mel Brooks have often pointed out, the worst disaster is funny when it happens to someone else.

The Germans even have a word for it, schadenfreude—a perverse pleasure at other people’s misfortune. I think that feeling, no matter how shameful when applied to people we know, explains why we enjoy stories of fictional people chased down, brutalized, dying at the hands of men, monsters—or worse—for our entertainment, whether we laugh or scream. It’s because it isn’t happening to us . . . our lives are at least that much better than those on the screen, stage, or written page. We aren’t being eaten or made the butt of a joke.

Roald Dahl’s classic Lamb to the Slaughter translated effortlessly to American TV on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Who doesn’t laugh when Barbara Bel Geddes serves the frozen leg of lamb she used to bludgeon her husband to death, freshly roasted, to the police? Ghostbusters wasn’t the first film to make us chuckle as we squirmed. Creepshow was both funny and scary, alternating horror and humor, each increasing the effectiveness of the other. R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps books honed the combination to a fine art, creating a decades-long franchise for young audiences, as he dances the fine line between yocks and boffs.

The French Grand Guignol theater called the method “hot and cold showers,” each one-act play of the night progressively more chilling, then lightly amusing, then darker again, building to a last big laugh to relieve the tension before ramping the horror up to its highest—until someone fainted. They considered the night a loss if at least one patron wasn’t carried out, undoubtedly to the laughter of others.

So, fearful and funny, do they reside in the same part of the brain? Are they kissing cousins? Whatever the reason they go so well together, like many, I enjoy a healthy helping of humor with my horror, no matter how grim. This month, I read a new novel in a series and an expansive themed collection of short stories that gave me both.

The Delirium Brief (The Laundry Files Book 8)
Charles Stross
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-0765394668
Publisher: Tor.com (July 11, 2017)
384 pages

The Delirium BriefThere is a perverse conceit to The Delirium Brief, and others in the series as well, I am sure. It’s the eighth case of the Laundry Files, and is told from the point of view of Bob Howard (not his real name, as that can magically be used against him), Detached Senior Specialist grade one, Q-Division, SOE, a middle management bureaucrat in the British government, raised to a higher position by unfortunate circumstances. His department is under assault from competing agencies and politicians, his marriage is in crisis because of the jobs he and his wife have in the agency, and—oh yes, there is a world-destroying supernatural threat of immense magnitude rising from the literal ashes of his last assignment.

Bob works for The Laundry, a covert ops group so covert that their own government barely knows they exist until the city of Leeds is largely destroyed by a battle with The Host of Air and Darkness, magical elves (not the cute kind) from another dimension trying to take over ours. As the book begins, Bob’s just been shoved in front of the glaring eye of the media to explain who they are, why no one knew they existed, what happened to Leeds, and how much is this all costing? As the newly appointed head of his department, he’s facing massive restructuring of The Laundry, its resources, and a fresh threat from an old enemy thought dead.

The perverse conceit is that Bob is a bureaucrat, through and through, and the book begins with his lengthy detailing of the department, its functions and its failings. He talks like a bureaucrat, albeit one with a darkly self-aware sense of humor, and there were times when my head was reeling from pages of the intricate workings of The Laundry, how it fits into government structure, and how that works . . .

Interspersed in this are personal details of how his perfect relationship got screwed up when his wife became partnered with a jealous magical weapon that wanted him dead, and his own new status as The Eater of Souls. Yes, that is just what it sounds like, even if he claims when confronted with the title on TV that it’s a joke about how often he puts his foot in his mouth. It’s not. They agree to marriage counseling to try to find a way to live together without accidently killing each other with their supernatural powers.

Not your typical marital woes.

All that earlier minutiae becomes important as the true evil of the book arises, the Reverend Raymond Schiller and his GP Services, working hard with money and mind control to help officials in the United States and Britain privatize supernatural defense with his company, an offshoot of his Golden Promise Ministries. Schiller is not just a corrupt televangelist offering the world up to an ancient evil; he’s a master of modern business. He subtly and swiftly rips the rug out from under Bob and his co-workers before you can say hostile takeover, using entirely traditional means, bribery and blackmail. As Bob’s co-workers include vampires (called PHANGS—Mhari is my new literary crush), wizards, and a host of other beings with mad crazy supernatural and bureaucratic skills, the battle is on.

What follows is a build up in stakes and power plays that encompasses wizardry, Lovecraftian horrors almost but not quite beyond belief, the use and abuse of forces beyond human ken, and lots of good old-fashioned heartfelt human feelings, both good and bad, throughout. By the end, we’ve achieved a satisfactory conclusion that still leaves a threat equally great in play.

Part of Stross’ skill is in cleverly amusing us with what seems to be misdirection, but is really essential information, as he slowly boils a Lovecraftian many-tentacled frog in the background, degree by degree. This leads to a situation suddenly fraught with extreme peril, with risks of such a current nature that it’s scarier than a simple monster story could be. Parasitic alien infestations aside—and I’ll let you find out the icky nature of how they are administered yourself—the book warns us that the most dangerous horrors in the world are administrative. In the movie Devil’s Advocate, Keanu Reeves’ character asks Al Pacino, who plays the titular Devil, “Why the law?” Lucifer’s answer is simple—because the law is in everything, and by controlling it, you control the world.

The same applies to bureaucracies.

Sycorax’s Daughters
Edited by Kinitra Brooks, PhD; Linda D. Addison; and Susana Morris, PhD
ISBN: 978-1941958445
Cedar Grove Publishing, March 2017
565 pages

Sycorax's DaughtersAnthologies filled with assorted authors give you the chance to enjoy a heaping buffet of stories and find new favorite authors. I met a few in this collection I’ll definitely follow in years to come, and even in the least of them saw modern horror through the eyes of a delightful group of contemporary black women authors.

I was surprised to read the source of the title, and though I haven’t read The Tempest or seen a production of it in decades, was shocked that I had no memory of Sycorax at all. A quick search showed that she has life well outside of Shakespeare’s play, as other authors expanded her story. Described in The Tempest as Algerian born, she’s embraced by many as a symbol of powerful women of color, created in an era that feared the growing female power and the advance of North African Muslims into Europe. I was amused by the debate over a contradiction in the Bard’s reference to her having blue eyes. I’m a black man whose brown eyes developed blue rings in my teen years that eventually expanded to cover my irises, just like Miles Davis, Morgan Freeman, and many others. According to my eye doctor, it’s a condition called Arcus, a build up of lipid fats in the cornea that doesn’t affect vision, only eye color. It’s a gene manifested in my mother and her mother, who one day when she saw it starting in my eyes told me that it was a sign of magical powers. I’m going with grandma’s explanation.

The twenty-eight stories and fourteen poems of Sycorax’s Daughters are impossible to cover here in the depth they deserve, but I think I can sample them well enough for you to get the flavor. Sheree Renée Thomas, editor of the groundbreaking Dark Matters anthologies of black science fiction, opens the collection with Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight, a beautifully noir tale that is the first of several showing us how old gods might survive into and embrace our age to survive. Later stories cover issues of identity bound up in transformation . . . Do our bodies and what they make us do, whether monstrous or beautiful, make us who and what we are, whether in Zin E. Rocklyn’s morally ambiguous heroine in Summer Skin, or one trapped by an inability to change, like Cherene Sherrad’s not quite mermaid who needs to be more than she is in Scales?

Others come from our legacy as black folks in America, rooted in the past, like The Tale of Eve of De-Nile by Joy Copeland, one of my favorites, a very Hurston-like tale of the value of being specific that, like Zora’s work, is deceptively folksy while being slyly satirical, and L.H. Moore’s stylish then chilling A Little Not Music. Some are entirely of today. Dana McKnight’s Taking the Good is another new view of the survival skills of old gods, and Kim by Nicole D. Sconiers is a twisted tale of black appropriation that gives Get Out a supernatural run for its money. Others are set in speculative futures like that of Tenea D. Johnson’s Foundling and L. Marie Wood’s The Ever After, where the real horrors are all too often the human element. The novel excerpt from Valjeanne Jeffers’ Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective II made me wish I had coined the term Steamfunk and the rest of her world.

The poems are interspersed throughout, and would need their own column to do them justice. I hope it’s enough to say that their range of style and subject match that of the stories and complement them beautifully as appropriate punctuation, in theme or language, to provide poetic palate cleansers between the prose, helping us see them all as individual pieces more than as a conglomerate uniform whole. The temptation would be for someone reviewing this book to declare that there is a unified singular voice here, when the delight is in the vast disparity of style, approach and themes. It’s proof that there is no single black or female voice in horror fiction any more than there is a single white male voice.

If there is any connection between the wide-ranging tales told here in prose and poetry, it is that all the authors have found the same freedom to express their individual voices in horror, unbound by more staid literary conventions. They’ve also found unique ways to make their magical realities feel real, worlds you can enter and embrace as believable.

Some are deeply disturbing and stick with you like childhood traumas; some are laugh-out-loud funny. They are historic, but also brutally contemporary, with familiar horrors of myth and legend and new ones with the potential to be every bit as enduring. Points of view shift from those we might call victims to that of the so-called monsters, until we are left unsure at times which is truly which.

I cannot say I loved them all equally, but that’s based more on my own personal preferences in story structure, style and subject, and no fault of the authors. With such a rich feast laid before me, it’s not surprising I didn’t digest them all with equal gusto. It’s still a meal I highly recommend, prepared and presented well. With plenty of tasty treats to choose from, you can decide which you prefer for yourself.

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Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. In addition to horror and science fiction short stories, Terence is author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure, and has returned to work on the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. He has recently appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! and the What the #@&% Is That? anthology. Find Terence on Twitter @vamptestaments or walking his neighbor’s black Labrador mix along the banks of the Gowanus Canal and surrounding environs.