Friday, July 30, 2010

FFB: ANNO DRACULA by Kim Newman; THE CIPHER (originally THE FUNHOLE) by Kathe Koja; PRIME EVIL edited by Douglas Winter

"The Death of Horror Publishing"





So, Ira Levin and Dark Shadows and The Exorcist and Tom Tryon and even Night Gallery all happened, and supermarket Gothics were still going strong in the early '70s, and so some groundwork was laid for a number of writers to actually make a career of horror-fiction writing by the mid '70s...and a few started doing better than that. Stephen King is the obvious person to think of, but he wasn't on his own, even if he did seem to be more talented (if not always applying that talent, in fact frequently coasting) than such peers on the bestseller lists as John Saul and V. C. Andrews and James Herbert and Anne Rice. And publishers, as is their wont, noted that there seemed to be gold to mine...so established horror lines, sometimes as tentative extensions of their sf or fantasy lines, as did Ballantine/Del Rey by 1978...while others created huge lines full of black or foil-covered paperbacks, such as particularly Tor, which had a line which featured some of the best work in the field and some rather undistinguished, and Zebra, which had Rick Hautala and a whole horde of terrible writers, including the V.C. Andrewsish Ruby Jean Jensen.

Thus the 1980s horror boom...wherein a few writers, including Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, and a slightly retooled Dean Koontz, were able to find sustained readership, even if they, like King, seemed to move away from writing horror per se rather quickly...and King's occasional collaborator, Peter Straub, was more than anyone else out of the boom able to gain a certain cache with critics not familiar with most of the better writers of horror. By the end of the '80s, the lines were mostly dead or dying (Tor and Zebra not only were the most enthusiastic publishers in the boom, but also among the diehards), and horror as a publishing category was suddenly non grata..."dark fantasy," "extreme suspense," "thriller" and other terms were dusted off or created, even as the current resurgence in supernatural romance began to gather. Dell bucked the trend with the innovatively packaged Abyss line, but that was a shortlived experiement...a few companies, such as the small Carroll and Graf, kept horror lines in place, and the likes of the Del Rey editions of Lovecraft retained their horror tags (and Borders Book Shops kept the small horror sections in their stores, even though they like their competitors mixed a lot of horror into their other category sections).

So...any number of good and even important books were released in this flood, and even these three, one a bestseller and the other two already considered classic as well as highly influential in some quarters, are all, incredibly to me, out of print...all perhaps in part as a result from appearing late in the gush.

Douglas Winter is an often brilliant if not particularly prolific fiction writer, and a rather prolific nonfiction writer; he has published important collections of interviews and a continuing body of music as well as film and literary criticism. His Prime Evil was probably the highest-profile original anthology of horror fiction and related material in the 1980s, with the full support of New American Library and a lineup of writers sprinkled with bestselling and good writers, occasionally both at once. One of the better King stories I've read, "The Night Flier," leads off the collection, which is also notable for high-profile anthologies in that decade in having Dennis Etchison and Ramsey Campbell, two of the best writers in the field and doing relatively well in the boom (particularly Campbell, nearly all of whose works were in print with Tor at the time) as the grand old men of the book, as still relatively young men who had nonetheless been publishing for a quarter-century at the time...everyone else had come to prominence in the years since, as distinct from, say, Kirby McCauley's earlier well-distributed anthologies such as Dark Forces, which were careful to feature such long-established writers as Manly Wade Wellman, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Bloch (and a few women, such as Joyce Carol Oates) in their mix. David Morrell was probably the most promiment contributor not known to the larger world for his horror fiction, and the worst of the stories (unsurprisingly the Strieber) was at least readable.

Kim Newman is another brilliant fiction writer, and an even more prolific writer about film and literature than Winter; nothing he's written is more delightful than Anno Dracula, a novel which offers a world in which vampires thrive openly among humans, up to and including the court of Queen Victoria, uncomfortably under the thrall of the Count himself. Newman, quite aside from providing a superb fantasy-historical espionage story, also incorporates essentially every literary and folkloric vampire he can into this work, without doing so obtrusively or inelegantly. He has spun a seris of sequels to this novel since, of which I've found only the fist sequel, the WWI-set The Bloody Red Baron, a disappointment. Such shorter works as "Andy Warhol's DRACULA" have been particularly fine.

Kathe Koja's The Cipher, which would've been entitled The Funhole if Dell hadn't blanched at that, was one of the inaugural novels of the Dell Abyss line I mention above, which was hoping to re-energize the horror publishing scene with innovative work and packaging. Fitful success in this, and not enough to keep Dell from decommissioning the line, but Koja's first novel was the (not universally loved) account of two rather marginalized youngish folks discovering a rather remarkable, well, hole...which does Strange things to items put into it, including one unfortunate person's hand. The anomie so fecklessly celebrated and supposedly mocked in the likes of Bret Easton Ellis's fiction was rather more effectively and honestly dealt with here, and I detect a degree of influence on later works, not solely literary, that goes beyond Koja's own work, mostly published these days as YA fiction (where she's gained a sustained audience). There was a film nibble a few years back...it's certainly likely to work in that medium.

For more of this week's "Forgotten" books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

11 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I've read the first two of these you discuss and certainly agree about their quality. Haven't read the Koja.

Todd Mason said...

Flabbergasting, somehow, to think that Campbell and Etchison now approach fifty-year careers. I think you'd dig the Koja, Bill.

Evan Lewis said...

Fine analysis of the media trend. Since horror is BIG again, these would likely do well in reissues.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks. Yes, but what's big remains mostly the romantic sort of horror, which the Newman touches on, but not flagrantly. The Koja is very much in the spirit of, say, the films HARD CANDY or DEADGIRL, but that is an undercurrent that publishers might or might not want to pursue (even thought in crime fiction there's certainly a place for similar work). Really, though, there's a brisk trade in used ocpies of both of these, if not as brisk as it should be...the Winter book, one would think, would be a natural catalog title if the tax structure is ever revised to allow catalog items to be profitable again...probably not, here at the dawn of the virtual book.

K. A. Laity said...

Forgotten?! Really? They seem so central to the 80s... oh yeah. Time passed. Ah well. Not sure I agree with your assessment of Winter but then I may have other factor affecting my impression. Newman is always entertaining and clever enough. Koja is terribly underrated -- or else dismissed by the fan boys as "literary" (the horror, the horror). A lot of good stuff and you're really spot on with the comparison to Ellis' mean-to-be-shocking yawnfests.

Todd Mason said...

This has been a Hell of a day, and not all the plates are still in the air, alas, so I didn't quite get the dates on these citations...Newman and Koja were just over the line into the '90s. Which is also getting to be A While Back. As for Winter, his fiction continues to impress me, when I see it; but I've not hung out with him much, just a random meeting in a bookstore which led up to an decent interview on my radio show and that's about it. Unless we count my calling into a DC public-radio appearance, before I'd read his work, to promote PRIME EVIL itself...

Indeed, by me all three writers are underrated, despite the esteem they are held in by too few. Hence even the blockbuster antho, which didn't sell as well as NAL hoped, being OP. Really, given the potential audience each still has...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Kathe's new book is coming out soon by a small press. Under the Poppy.

Todd Mason said...

I hope that is a good deal for Koja, rather than a sign of a falling out with her previous publishers. The small presses are doing the bulk of the more interesting things these days.

Todd Mason said...

Ah, yes, UNDER THE POPPY is adult work, coming from Small Beer Press, also the publishers of LADY CHURCHILL'S ROSEBUD WRISTLET, that fine little magazine devoted to the fantastic. Kelly Link and Gavin Grant's house and kitchen-table enterprise.

George said...

The market for horror novels collapsed like disco. But it never went away. Now, we're into a new phase that blends romance and vampires and werewolves. This new market is made up of mostly teenage girls as far as I can tell.

Todd Mason said...

Well, the market for TWILIGHT is largely young women (but by no means exclusively), but the market for the vampire romances runs a wider gamut, I'm pretty sure (even Meyer is no worse a writer than Anne Rice).