Poe’s Children

POE’S CHILDREN: THE NEW HORROR
Ed. by Peter Straub

The thing about genre fiction is that you know what you’re getting. This doesn’t mean it’s entirely formulaic, only that it operates within a shared set of conventions no more limiting than those of a sonnet. That said, there is no denying the stigma that comes with labels like SF, mystery, romance and horror. A stigma that has led many a genre author to attempt an escape from their ghetto. The resulting jailbreaks can be confusing to fans. Several years ago I remember flipping through one of the annual Best American Mystery Stories anthologies and finding scarcely anything I would have called mystery fiction at all. Apparently the label “mystery” had been subsumed under that of “crime fiction.” Which is not what I came in for.

Which brings us to Poe’s Children, a very, very disappointing anthology of new horror fiction. The title gives some clue as to what editor Straub is about. The new horror has about it something of Poe’s literary cachet and cross-generic playfulness (he was, at least in English, the inventor of SF and the detective story as well as a writer of spooky tales). The new horror resists labels. Indeed the new horror is not necessarily horror at all. In his introduction Straub uses terms like fantasy, science-fiction and horror interchangeably. This “newly liberated atmosphere” is also attractive to “literary” authors (Straub’s quotation marks) who feel free to now embrace their “inner Poe.” And so all the old categories are gone, replaced by crossover fiction that “erases boundaries and blurs distinctions that sometimes seem designed mostly to keep everyone in their proper place.”

A strong statement of principle, upon reading which every thrill-seeking reader’s heart will sink into their shoes.

With maybe a couple of disturbing exceptions – I would single out Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone” and Thomas Tessier’s very nasty “In Praise of Folly” – these stories simply aren’t scary. That is, even when they’re trying to be scary, which is almost never. When ghosts do appear they tend to be of the harmless, friendly variety. And most of the time we are simply stuck in the world of “literary” (my quotation marks) fiction, perhaps with a bit of fantasy or magic realism thrown in, and no attempt at all to produce suspense (this latter point, by the way, which is a hallmark of much literary fiction, leads to some extremely dull stories). What possible criteria, one wants to scream, led Straub to include Ellen Klages’s “The Green Glass Sea” – a story about a girl who visits the Manhattan Project test site after the first nuclear blast with the family of a friend? Where is the horror/fantasy/science-fiction/anything in that?

One has the sense, from what is said in the Introduction as well as plodding through the stories themselves, that Straub’s primary mission was to make horror literary. In doing so he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, jettisoning any connection to the genre of horror at all. Now it’s not impossible to do magic realist or metafictional horror. “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” by Thomas Ligotti is a good example of what can be achieved in this regard. But too often we get stories here that are simply dull, and really rather unexceptional, exercises in literary fantasy. “Leda” (catch the myth?) is about a woman who lays an egg. That’s it. And the final story – which is pride of place in most anthologies – is perhaps the worst. In “Insect Dreams” (I honestly can’t tell you what it is about) we get a porridge of pseudo-poetic imagery without any narrative propulsion at all. Just

There will be land soon. She can smell it. It is a sweet smell in the air, mingled with the smell of salt. Anticipation of arrival. The first rays of the sun. Thin and tentative. The slow lifting of the darkness.

 

Surinam. Soor i nam. State of the kingdom of the Netherlands on the northeast coast of South America. 55, 1644 square miles. Capital, Paramaribo

 

Paramaribo. Delicious word. Sweet as the sugar can that grows there, sweet and savage.
Birds tear towards the sun. Their wings on fire like the wings of the Holy Spirit. Tongues aflame for all the earth to see.

Egad. This is channeling the inner Poe? More like channeling the inner Ondaatje. Poe (or Lovecraft, or any other veteran of the genre) wouldn’t want to read more than a couple of pages of this.

If these stories really do represent the best of the new (small n, signifying recent) horror, then horror has good reason to feel concerned for its future. That Straub had nearly twenty-five years of material to pick from and only came up with this lot is nothing short of shocking. But I don’t think the situation is quite so dire. Most of the blame does fall on the anthologist. This could easily have been a better book. For example, could no better story be found to represent the one undisputed master of modern horror than “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” a tired campfire tale about gremlins living in typewriters? “The Voice of the Beach” isn’t bad, but was it the best Ramsey Campbell available? Or was the “best” even one of Straub’s criteria?

An anthology is a defining document. There is no way to get around this. To take as one’s starting point an absence of definition, a complete breakdown of categories and labels, is to cut oneself hopelessly adrift. The old horror knew this. The new horror, if there really is such a thing, will have to find it out.

Notes:
Review first published online Februrary 9, 2009.