REVIEW: Ladies’ Night by Jack Ketchum

First published in 1997, Ladies’ Night was the tenth Jack Ketchum novel to see print but the second to be written. Ketchum’s introduction mentions that the original form of the novel was far longer than the 166-odd pages that would eventually see print nearly two decades after it was originally written. While I assumed this meant that Ketchum had written the novel and stuck it in a drawer, his Wikipedia page alludes to the shorter version of the story being a re-working of an unreleased Balantine Press manuscript. This suggests that the decision to stick this novel in a drawer might have come from the publishers rather than the author himself.

While the fate of the original version of Ladies’ Night is ultimately both immaterial and ancient history, it is interesting to think that Balantine Press might wave through a novel as gloriously violent as Ketchum’s debut Off Season only to draw the line at Ladies’ Night. Maybe the original form of the narrative was too long and maybe 1980s Ketchum was too prideful to make the sorts of cuts that he would eventually wind-up making prior to the release of this much truncated version. These are both distinct possibilities… Or maybe Balantine Press flinched from the choice of subject matter as Ladies’ Night is essentially a version of Night of the Living Dead in which only women are affected and men are forced to violently put them down.

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On “The Crawling Chaos” by H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bad trip into the outer darkness.

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REVIEW: The Dark between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

A French literary critic whose name currently escapes me once argued that all genre storytelling resembles a jewel necklace in so far as it can be seen as a series of eye-catching jewels held together by a tiny thread. There are no structural differences between genres; the only things that change are the colour of the jewels.

Under this view, the character of each genre is determined by the appetites to which the various jewels appeal: A work of erotic fiction is a series of sex-scenes strung together to create a story. A work of science-fiction is a series of speculative set-pieces strung together to create a story. A work of horror is a series of terrifying interludes strung together to produce a story. A work of traditional literary fiction is a series of psychological interludes strung together to produce a story.

If we accept this characterisation of genre story-telling, then it makes sense to distinguish between a story’s affective payload and the technical proficiency with which it is delivered. It follows from this that there are two primary failure modes for genre story-telling: Firstly, there are stories that have the wrong affective payload for their designated genre. Secondly, there are stories that are so technically flawed that the audience never gets to connect with whatever it is that the author wants to show us.

While Fiona Barnett’s debut novel The Dark between the Trees is too well-structured to be an example of the latter, I do have serious questions as to the nature of its affective payload. Which jewels are supposed to be catching our eye? The publishers seem unsure as despite its dark cover and a blurb that speaks of witches and sinister forests, the book is not being marketed as horror. Instead, much like Francis Toon’s excellent Pine, The Dark between the Trees is being marketed as something called a Gothic Thriller.

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REVIEW: Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Kiernan is a horror writer who denies that they write horror.

They don’t just deny that they write horror… they angrily deny it and then decide to accept horror-themed literary awards and allow their work to be published in magazines and anthologies with impeccable horror credentials. I mean… between you and me… if your work is getting re-printed in Lovecraft-themed anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi then I don’t think you get to be sniffy about whether or not you write horror. You might not only write horror but you’re writing horror.

Unlike Margaret Atwood, who famously denied that The Handmaid’s Tale was science-fiction on the grounds that it didn’t contain any space squid, Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label seems rooted less in economic self-interest and literary snobbery than in the nature of their relationship to the tropes that horror writers tend to deploy.

Caitlín R. Kiernan is an author that found their voice remarkably quickly. Go back and read their first novel Silk and you will find a story about the boundaries of madness, identity, sexuality, fantasy, and self-delusion that deploys horror tropes to represent the emotional landscape of fragmenting, marginalised selves. A similar set of themes and motifs recur in Kiernan’s most celebrated novels The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl but while Silk can feel diffuse and gestural, The Drowning Girl feels not just raw but downright uncomfortable.

I believe that Kiernan’s objection to the ‘horror’ label lies in the assumption that horror tends to be about monsters in a rather abstract and untethered way. Kiernan’s books are full of monsters, but the monsters are neither abstract nor untethered as Kiernan uses them as a kind of vocabulary for articulating their innermost thoughts and ideas. The real difference between The Drowning Girl and a lot of Kiernan’s earlier work was the clarity, legibility, and rawness of that self-articulation.

After The Drowning Girl, Kiernan seemed to drop back from the psychological coal-face. The raw brilliance of their past two novels was replaced by a series of extraordinarily ill-tempered YA urban fantasy novels in which the protagonist was continually bemoaning their presence in the story, as though the author felt obliged to produce the work but would rather have been working on something else.

First published in 2017 as the first in a series of three novellas, Agents of Dreamland marked Kiernan’s welcome return to longer-form adult writing but rather than a continuation of the work done in The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl, Agents of Dreamland feels like a step sideways and an attempt to reconcile the experimental and personal impulses that inspired Kiernan’s greatest work with the somewhat less raw and more conventional impulses that inspired the creation of early successes like Threshold.

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REVIEW: The Vessel by Adam Nevill

After an absurdly long fallow period, literary horror is showing signs of a return to commercial success and cultural visibility.

As you might expect of a cultural milieu that is only just starting to re-imagine itself as a thriving creative community, critics and literary historians have looked back to by-gone eras of commercial success in search of insights into what went right and what went wrong. For example, see Grady Hendrix’s Paperback from Hell for a wonderful overview of the publishing industry’s increasingly desperate and doomed attempts to ride on the coat-tails of Stephen King.

As wonderful and satisfying as this narrative may be, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been a number of failed attempts to re-ignite popular interest in horror literature and most of them ended in failure. Multiple generations have discovered and re-discovered King’s work but the industry has always struggled to find a second or third author towards whom King’s readers might be channelled.

About fifteen years ago, Adam Nevill (a.k.a. Adam L.G. Nevill) was the next big thing in literary horror. It turns out that fifteen years is a long time.

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On “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

A truly classic piece of horror fiction that speaks directly to the fears and anxieties that made Lovecraft the man he was.

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On “The Frolic” by Thomas Ligotti

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of Thomas Ligotti which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bit of housekeeping before I talk about the story: When I decided to start working my way through Lovecraft’s fiction in chronological, I was able to do so because all of Lovecraft’s fiction is available in the public domain and because a load of nerds had already done the work of determining which stories was written when. This was simply not an option for me when it came to writing about Ligotti.

Ligotti first started getting published in the early 1980s and his work is nowhere near the public domain. This poses two distinct sets of problems: Firstly, despite being a canonical horror author, Ligotti’s works have a nasty habit of dropping out of print and even when they’re brought back into print, it is often under the auspices of small presses that seldom print more than a thousand copies. This means that physically getting hold of Ligotti’s work is not always as easy as you’d think. Secondly, while Ligotti has a devoted fan-base and his personal website dates from the era when the internet was still about people with similar interests coming together to share resources, there simply has not been time for obsessive nerds to do the kind of sorting-and-ordering work that has already been done for writers like Lovecraft.

As a result of these two practical considerations, I’m going to proceed by working through books and collections in rough order of publication. When stuff becomes too hard or too expensive to get hold of, I will skip it and hopefully circle back around once I am able to gain access to it. This will make it a lot harder for me to attend to the development of ideas and mentality in the way I have been doing for Lovecraft, but it seems appropriate that I adopt a different set of methods anyway seeing as Ligotti is still very much alive.

Despite being the first story I’m going to cover, “The Frolic” is arguably one of Ligotti’s better known works in that it has both been adapted for the screen and referenced in a number of other works. The story first appeared in the March 1983 edition of Fantasy Tales (a magazine edited by David Sutton and Stephen Jones) before being re-printed in Ligotti’s first collection Songs of a Dead Dreamer.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1986 by Silver Scarab Press before being re-published in 1989 by Carroll and Graf who took the opportunity to revise and expand the stories to what is now considered to be their correct, author-preferred form. It would be interesting to know what exactly changed between the two editions but the Silver Scarab Press version of the book is now insanely expensive and nobody appears to have done the work of cataloguing the changes. The Carroll and Graf edition of the book also formed the basis for the Penguin Classics single volume edition of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, which is the edition that I happen to own.

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