Even if, as rumor would have it, Dahl loathed children, he certainly wrote cracking good stories for them. I guess I was a little too old when this onEven if, as rumor would have it, Dahl loathed children, he certainly wrote cracking good stories for them. I guess I was a little too old when this one came out . . . I'm sure I'd have loved/been terrified by it as a child. (I had quite a complicated relationship with James and the Giant Peach, I recall.) Despite its goofy "witches hate kids" plot*, The Witches can be disturbing and intense, and the illustrations by Quentin Blake only accentuate the uncanniness of the titular menace. But of course the brave narrator and his Van Helsing-level witchhunter Grandmamma win the good fight in the end, though not without a whimsical twist of fate. And a slight whiff of genocide. Oh, Dahl. You scamp.
*Not to mention the totally fucked up selective misogyny. Grandmamma is not down with the sisters....more
Let's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-faceLet's start here: shock for shock's sake as a genre has kind of lost its shock value. While I'm sure all of these stories were considered in-your-face transgressive in their initial releases (some were even banned), after a decade of torture porn in the theaters -- piles of sharp objects and body parts on the "Hostel"/"Saw" franchise model, the puke-inducing zenith of which has to be the Human Centipede Trilogy -- we have become comfortably numb to mindless, graphic horror. Splattering fluids, unfathomably unsafe sex games, torture, mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. . . . yawn. I mean really, wasn't all that just, like, a clip from next week's episode of "The Walking Dead"? (I kid. I enjoy TWD very much. I don't, however, take it very seriously, and still find it unreal that it's one of the most popular shows on TV.)
In some ways, this collection is an interesting reflection of its times, as it lingers on many of the subversive subcultures of the millennium years. There was a free-floating cloud of nihilism, a lot of pain and anger bubbling up as self-mutilation in the name of self-expression and mind-expansion, the brute reality of AIDS for everybody, Y2K, whatever. It's no surprise this era bred a particularly dark brand of horror story.
But these transgressions today? No longer so transgressive, and many of these stories from splatterpunk's heyday seem dated, almost quaint, even as they try so very hard to shock. The boundaries having moved, these stories now have to rely on good writing to keep the reader's interest, and there are about four, maybe five actually good stories out of nineteen:
The collection, wisely, starts off strong. George R.R. Martin's "Meathouse Man" from 1976 (!) still retains its visceral shock, maybe because the idea at its core is a still-fresh twist on the undead genre, and one that's deeply psychologically disquieting. And it's George Martin . . . we know he can write. But Horror George is not much like jolly old "kill ALL the Starks" George. I mean, some of his short pieces make the Red Wedding look like a baby shower. This is one of those.
Next up: Joe R. Lansdale's "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a hair-raising no-good-very-bad night in the Deep South story that makes "Deliverance" look like a weekend in Ibiza. But again -- established writer in his element. Sociopolitical commentary. A real, meaty story.
The others I really enjoyed, if that's what one calls it, were Bentley Little's outrageously, sneeringly cruel "Pop Star in the Ugly Bar," which still works because pop stars and audiences never change (the author's note on this one is quite interesting); Elizabeth Massie's "Abed," another unique zombie story, and possibly the most tragic (yet repulsive) piece of shock fiction ever; and Charlee Jacob's "The Spirit Wolves," which captures the modern primitive ethos in a dark fairy tale about fur and teeth.
So what's not to like? Obviously it's pointless to expect to "enjoy" this kind of extreme horror, but I do expect to find the pleasure of a well-crafted tale, one with a point, if you will. Unfortunately, many of these are just badly crafted excuses to pile shock-upon-viscera-upon-snuff-club. Also? Full of cliched characters, riddled with plot holes and without much in the way of any profound insights to ponder. And I'm not even going to touch the misogyny and sexual violence. I try not to conflate sexual politics and fiction, but even I became uncomfortably aware of a pattern. (There are, however, a few stories where the women come out on top; John Everson's "Every Last Drop" had the potential to be a clever morality play on the dangers of anonymous sex, until I noticed a fairly large logic hole. You might enjoy it if you don't pick that out.)
There's probably a cultural historian's thesis in the themes of Millennium-era Horror Fiction, but I'm too tired to write it. Basically, this collection contains a small number of really good stories, a whole lot of "meh" stories that just didn't hold together or were ridiculously predictable, some that were just violent, juvenile prurience, and some that were offensive in a purely literary sense. (One author cited Clive Barker's truly masterful story "Dread" as the inspiration for her tale. Clive should be wildly offended.)
So I didn't love it. But it was like $1.99 on Kindle, and it's a curious time capsule of millennial nihilism and hopelessness. ...more
As a kid, I absolutely loved this book, but for the life of (the adult) me could not remember the name. A GR trivia question brought it all back -- IAs a kid, I absolutely loved this book, but for the life of (the adult) me could not remember the name. A GR trivia question brought it all back -- I need to read this one again! It might seem a little tame by today's standards, but when I was 8-or-9 reading The Saturdays felt like having the adventures myself. A classic....more