Thus ends my guest-blogging at Ecstatic Days, an experience for which I’m profoundly grateful to the generous Jeff Vandermeer.Â I’ll be around over at my blog; I’ll also have a collection of stories out in about a month and a half, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and a novel out next April, House of Windows.Â Drop by when you can; keep an eye out for the books.Â Thanks for reading; I appreciate it.
Here’s a link to one of my favorite contemporary poems, Robert Hass’s “Meditations at Lagunitas.”
At some point, I hope to write a longish essay about Charles L. Grant’s novels and stories. Grant was a writer I was very much aware of as a kid: he was part of that group of horror writers who came to prominence in the early-to-mid-seventies and was at the forefront of the horror boom in the eighties. Of course, he was also well-known for his editing work on the Shadows series of anthologies. It’s his fiction, though, that I want to address here, briefly. When I was a kid, I didn’t care much for it: in comparison to Stephen King’s colloquial abundance, or Peter Straub’s studied mannerism, Grant’s work struck me as thin. I read a few of his stories here and there, but while I had several of his novels in my possession, I never read any of them.
When Grant died in 2006, though, I decided to take another look at his fiction. I chose his 1981 Arkham House collection, Tales from the Nightside. With the second story, “Old Friends,” Grant evoked the idea of a darkness so ancient it has forgotten its identity–and I was hooked. What I realized as I made my way through the rest of this collection, and others such as Nightmare Seasons, was that Grant is one of those writers who really does ask to be read slowly. If Lovecraft was right in his assertion that horror fiction is fundamentally about the creation of mood, then Grant’s work fulfills that claim. The source for his style, though, seems to me more Bradbury than Lovecraft. Like Bradbury, his sentences marry lyricism to a kind of stripped-down prose that seems to have its roots in naturalism.
I continue to read through Grant’s work. Much of it is out of print; although available cheaply through such venues as abebooks. It’s my hope that, at some point, we’ll see a selected stories, then a collected stories. In the meantime, such individual works as Tales from the Nightside, The Orchard, Nightmare Seasons, and Black Carousel are well worth searching out.
I’d be seriously remiss in my blogging duties here if I didn’t urge everyone to order a copy of Joel Lane’s excellent collection, The Lost District. Laird Barron recommended Lane to me a year or so ago, and at some point I ordered The Lost District. Over the past few days, I’ve finally been reading it, and it is extraordinary. In his evocation of urban unease, Lane is clearly the heir to writers like M. John Harrison and Ramsey Campbell. His prose style shows that he’s studied both Harrison and Campbell: it shows the former’s eye for detail, the latter’s skill at slipping into the surreal. Time and again, the stories show a concern with subterranean environments, real and metaphorical; there’s also a concern with what I want to call the role of the victim, the dynamics of which I haven’t quite worked out yet but that isn’t something I’ve encountered in supernatural fiction before. There is a depth to Lane’s fiction, a feeling of mystery and immanence, that reminds me of my first encounter with Peter Straub’s fiction at the local library. The thirteen year old me knew that there was a lot more going on in books like Ghost Story and especially Shadowland than I was getting, and this drove me to check them out again and again, each new read yielding just a bit more. Lane’s book is like that; it has been a good long while since I’ve read a book that has felt so full, so solid. From what I understand, The Lost District didn’t do particularly well sales-wise, which is maybe not so much a surprise as it should be. It’s the steak au poivre to the Big Mac of so much contemporary horror fiction. Savor it.
The funny thing is, I don’t usually write about zombies much if ever. Yet here I am posting another short(er) tale of the walking undead. In this case, it came about as part of the “Kill Jack Haringa in Your Blog” movement, a short-lived but energetic artistic credo whose principle article of faith was to have notorious horror-critic and grammar-maven Jack Haringa eaten by zombie children.
In part, I’m posting this because it and various of Jack’s other demises were reprinted in Jack Haringa Must Die, a chapbbook whose purpose was to raise funds for the Shirley Jackson Awards, for which I am a judge. If you like this piece, think about buying the chapbook to support the award.
The other reason I have for posting this is that I have a much, much longer original story in John Adams’s massive new zombie anthology, The Living Dead. I describe it as Thorton Wilder’s Our Town with Zombies. If you take a look at John’s website for the book, you can read an excerpt from my story, “How the Day Runs Down,” an interview with me, and lots of other cool stuff.
These were not his students. For one thing, he’d never taught kids this young: the oldest couldn’t be more than six or seven, and the majority of the group crowding through his classroom door looked nearer four or five. For another thing, these children were beyond dirty, they were filthy: hair matted, skin thick with dirt, clothes a motley of stains. Not to mention the smell they brought with them: the pungence of garbage bags heaped high on the sidealks outside cheap restaurants. For a moment, he was possessed by the conviction, by the absolute certainty, that he had stepped into a novel–Oliver Twist, perhaps, the Artful Dodger and his crew come calling, or possibly Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the denizens of Crane’s Manhattan paying a visit–which his mind quickly corrected: I haven’t stepped into the novel; the novel’s stepped into me. The sensation gave him an odd vertigo; he reached out a hand to his desk to steady himself. Behind the six or seven year old, the children shuffled into the room en masse. Finding his voice, he said, “Can I help you?” and was surprised to hear the quaver in his words.
The children stopped where they were, the expressions on their faces those of small animals suddenly discovered by a predator. The possibility that this was some kind of strange joke, one of the seniors playing freak-out the hardass English teacher, flashed through his mind, only to be rejected as paranoia. Anyway, there was too much about the scene in front of him that didn’t make joke-sense. It wasn’t as if he were teaching Dickens right now–as if he ever taught Dickens, or Crane, for that matter. That he could recall, he’d never made mention of any phobias involving groups of small, dirty children, either. He stepped around the desk, closer to the kids. “Are you guys okay?” The children’s eyes tracked him as he drew closer to them, bent over slightly as he said, “Are you lost? Were you on your way someplace?” Maybe a student organization was doing something with kids from one of the more run-down sections of Worcester, having them to lunch or something. Although, Jesus, if that were the case, you’d think the kids’ parents could’ve done a little more to clean them up. Not that they had to be wearing dresses and suits, but still. He looked at the children’s eyes looking at him. How dark they all were, that dark brown that can seem indistinguishable from black. Strange to find a group of kids this size all with the exact same eye color. “Tell you what: why don’t you come with me, and we’ll see if we can’t find out where you’re supposed to be.” He started to walk past them, towards the door.
He didn’t see which one tripped him, was on the floor so quickly that it took a moment for his brain to register what had happened. “What…” He was all right, but he’d come this far away from braining himself on one of the students’ desks. Probably an accident. “Hey,” he said as he went to turn over.
The pain in his calf was sharp and burning. He shouted and swung his hand back without thinking. It connected with a child’s head with a loud smack, rolled the kid off and away from him. Shouldn’t have done that, he thought as he tried to stand. But OW, the little punk bit me, look at that, he bit right through the leg of my pants. It was true: the brown fabric was torn, along with the skin beneath. Blood was literally running out of the wound, tickling down his leg, damping his sock. What the hell? “All right,” he said.
He wasn’t all the way to his feet when the children broke over him. This time his head did connect with the corner of a desk. There was a flare of white light and then a gap, a moment when the the world went far away. It returned on a wave of pain. His legs, his arms, his side–all on fire with, with…Oh Christ, they’re biting me! Good Lord, the little–they’re biting me!
They were. Looking at their mouths smeared with red, you might have thought they were playing at clowns, applying their mothers’ lipstick with childrens’ enthusiastic spasms. But one of them was licking her lips; another was chewing, for the love of God; a third was jerking his head back the way you do when you’re trying to alley-oop a piece of food from your lip into your mouth. They were eating him. He could feel their teeth ripping pieces of him away. He tried to flail his arms, kick his legs, roll one way or the other, but they had him pinned to the classroom floor. His shirt, pants–what hadn’t been torn away–were sticking to him with his own blood. He tried to raise his head, to see what was being done to him, but all he could make out were small heads whose thick hair was slick with blood, with his blood. They pushed and shoved each other, jostling for the best places at the dinner table he had become.
No sound, he thought as consciousness spiralled down the drainpipe. They weren’t talking, laughing, crying, making any of the sounds a group of children might make. There was only the noise of eating, flesh tearing, teeth clicking, lips smacking together.
In one of those coincidences that make me smile, September 19th is both the birthday of Novel-Prize-winning novelist William Golding (1911, for anyone who’s checking) and the anniversary of the discovery of Otzi the ice man (in 1991, for anyone who’s checking).Â Golding is best known, of course, for his 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, which I had to read as a junior in high school and which seemed to capture the group dynamics of Catholic school pretty well, I thought; however, he’s also the author of a subsequent novel, The Inheritors (1955), which imagines a group of Neanderthals encountering homo sapiens for the first time.Â As you might guess if you’ve read Lord, this encounter does not go well for the Neanderthals.Â And if you’ve followed the Otzi story over the years, then you know that his end now seems to have been a good deal more violent than originally was thought.Â One of my former professors spent the day with Golding when he came to read at New Paltz in the late sixties; what this guy most remembered about Golding was his remark that, of all the various doctrines associated with Christianity, Original Sin was about the only one in which he could believe.
In answer to a couple of requests I received after posting my little zombie story below, here’s the link to the Weekend America segment that featured my short-short, “The Visitor.”
I’m sure all readers of Ecstatic Days will be familiar with this, but just in case…Salad Fingers!
This time last year, I was contacted by American Public Radio’s Weekend America to write a thirty-second horror story for their Halloween-weekend show. As anyone who’s read my fiction will tell you, I’m not much for short-short stories, but I liked the challenge, and wound up sending them three pieces. I was happy enough with the story they picked, which a guy came over to my house to record me reading and which was subsequently broadcast along with stories by Neil Gaiman and M. Rickert, but this was the one I liked the best.
You have to go for the head. They tell you that in all the literature, the public service announcements, the infomercials. The government video even gives you suggestions for the best spots to aim at: between the eyes, behind the ear. What they donâ€™t tell you aboutâ€”what none of them tell you about is the voices. You think theyâ€™ll be silent, like in the movies we laughed at when we were kids. Or maybe theyâ€™ll moan, say, â€œBraaaaiiiinnnns.â€ You donâ€™t expect to hear them out there crying. You donâ€™t expect to hear them saying, â€œMa?â€ or, â€œMom?â€ or, â€œMommy?â€ Their voices different, rough, butâ€”you know itâ€™s them. â€œMommy,â€ they say in those voices, â€œwhere are you? I canâ€™t see. What happened to me? Are you there? Iâ€™m scared. Mommy?â€ For all the world like they were your babies again, and you steadying your arm, lining up your sights.
John Langan here, wondering how the heck I’m going to follow the glorious flood of posting that has gushed from this site in a more or less constant stream for the last several days. “Surely,” I thought as I read the savagely incisive political commentary, the riveting accounts of hunting the lesser furred squid in Hudson Bay, the recipes for Bangladeshi-Scottish-Quebecois cuisine, “surely, the man must have his limits. He must need to speak with his loved ones–to eat–to sleep.” But no, proving the full extent of the Infernal contract that gave him his fearsome abilities, Minister Faust continued to post. Indeed, I believe he could not not post, and so in sympathy engaged the services of a team of crack Presbyterian exorcists fresh from the mean streets of Glasgow to aid him in his struggle. I only pray they succeeded.
In the meantime, I thought I’d begin with a couple of links. The first is to a speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College a few years ago. I’ll be honest: I didn’t read Infinite Jest–not out of any impatience with or malice towards its author; it was more a matter of having a lot of other things I wanted to read first. But it was impossible not to be aware of Wallace, of his obvious (and to my mind, very welcome) ambition as a writer. I find his death shocking and deeply sad. It appears he struggled with severe depression for the last two decades; that he managed to produce as much and as well as he did seems to me evidence of a heroic effort. I’d rather link to this speech than any of the obituaries because it’s him talking, not someone talking about him, and it’s worth a read.
The second link I’ll offer is to Ramsey Campbell‘s home page. If you don’t know his stories and novels, I’d highly recommend them. The reason I’m linking to Ramsey’s page is because he has an explanation of why he calls himself a horror writer, what it is that’s carried in that description. It’s how I describe myself (unless I’m with my academic friends, in which case I wimp out and talk about myself writing “ghost stories” or “Gothics” or something that won’t cause them immediately to look as if they’ve had the bad seafood dip); in fact, I thought about starting my time on Jeff’s blog with my own explanation of why I use this designation for myself, before deciding that Ramsey does so much more elegantly, and more people need to be reading him.
Finally, not a link, but a poem, cribbed from the also-late Tom Disch’s blog. After Tom’s suicide, there was a lot of haste to declare him a great minor poet, which rubbed me the wrong way, I’m afraid. As I see it, time will settle who’s going to fall in the major column and who’s going to find themselves in the minor, and even that can and will change. I loved Disch’s poetry; here’s an example.
A Reverie by the Shore
We all respect you, Sir, for the violence
of your death. Who’d ever heard of a stingray
turning its tail into a spear
and thrusting it in someone’s heart?
What can one say but Wow, way to go!
I walked once alongside a ray, at dawn,
drawn from the shore step by step, entranced.
Could it have done the same with me?
The sea has so many ways to kill a person.
But your death was as though Ocean himself
had crushed you with a single kiss.