Starting to get reading again. In the last few weeks I have finished a whole murder of horror collections, most of which I had started at some point in the past.
King's 'Nightmares and Dreamscapes' has its fair share of dodgy material, but with so many stories this is to be expected. It's still entertaining and what I always take from King is his storytelling ability. The stories are not always the greatest - just look at what too often ends up on the silver screen - but the telling is worth the journey.
Then I finished off Dennis Etchison's 'The Dark Country'. A totally different kettle of fish. Aiming more at the high-brow, his stories are resolutely downbeat. After a point I got a little weary of the whole maliciousness of it all. I put the book down over midway through some months back. However, with less left to read I thought I'd try it again. I am not sure what his problem is with organ transplants, and sometimes the ambiguity of the whole thing irritated me, but in the end he is definitely a voice worth hearing. Not entirely my cup of tea, but fine in sips.
When I was young, Ray Bradbury, ripe prose and all, was someone I associated with the Twilight Zone style of story and as a result was one of my heroes. Then I read some of 'Quicker than the Eye' in my later years and started to get a wee bit disillusioned. Am I just maturing, getting older, or losing my childlike sense of wonder? Whatever it is I read Bradbury's 'The October Country' a while back to give him another chance. Not bad. Some tales are nice and dark (the one about the husband and wife in Mexico, for instance.) Still though it didn't blow me away and I started on 'The Illustrated Man' more for completeness sake than out of enthusiasm. After a while I put it down. Again in the last few days I thought I'd finish it off, and so I did.
I had read some of the stories in this collection before and okay, it is good. But ultimately there's a superficiality to everything that kind of bores me. The downbeat bleakness I took from other stories by Bradbury (such as 'The Small Assassin' or 'The Playground') is too tempered by an overdose of sentimentality here. It's sad stuff, but paper thin too.
I suppose it's the likes of Etchison and particularly the next author I read that has raised my expectations a little. Robert Aickman's apparently most 'accessible' collection, 'Cold Hand in Mine' is BIZARRE. He is an excellent writer, but what on earth is he doing? His description of his own stories as 'strange stories' is the most appropriate description anyone has ever made of their work. Each one is full of unease, sexual tension and some sort of horror, but rarely is there any closure, and seldom any attempt at explanation. 'The Same Dog' is horrible, but what the hell just happened?!! 'Meeting Mr Millar' is full of the adult character you do not get in Bradbury, but again what is going on? As to the masterpiece of the collection, 'The Hospice', I really do not know what it was all about, I just know it was nasty. What was the cat bite about, not that it seemed to be a cat? Was it a rest home for fans of the Seven Deadly Sins? What was with the food, the lightbulb, the woman with the perfume, the changing Banner, the EVERYTHING? Never before have I reached for my phone so many times to look up Aickman to find out what were his views on religion, women, Freud - who the hell was this guy. He is bizarre, definitely not for everyone, but for those who can take the lack of solid answers, strangely addictive. It says something that the one story that seems most straight-forward, 'Pages from a Young Girl's Diary', was for me the least interesting. As a slow, slow reader I was surprised to find I had finished the book in just over two days. Addictive.
Algernon Blackwood's 'John Silence' stories should be just the thing I like. Silence is an investigator, or rather specialist, in the supernatural, something along the lines of Hodgson's Carnacki, and acting as a precursor to Kolchak and the X-Files. However, the stories despite dealing with shape-shifters, mummies, possessions and devils are almost always too genteel to really get the blood racing. After three or four stories again I had put the book down. Anyhow there were only three stories left so I picked it up again last night. 'Secret Worship' deals with a coven of Satanists masquerading as monks running a posh, isolated school for toffs (not a million miles from Argento's 'Suspiria', for instance). You can see immediately how influential it has been as a theme, and Blackwood's John Silence is always at the centre of truly mythic themes. The story starts well following a former pupil's mysterious compulsion to visit his old school and it builds well too. You can practically see poor old Christopher Lee, may he rest in peace, as Kalkmann the monk who opens the door and makes the visitor so welcome. The tension builds. Even the appearance of the devil is original enough to keep things on a good footing. However, the entrance of John Silence (previously largely missing from the tale) is something of a damp squib. He is literally compared to Jesus, and the best sort of English man, while the German monks are equated with evil. Blackwood slyly amplifies this ludicrous dichotomy with an alignment of merchants and silk-selling with the forces of Goodness. Capitalism is a very Good thing apparently! Anyhow I will finish the thing, but Blackwood, for all that he wrote 'The Willows' and 'The Wendigo' is still an awfully silly, not to mention too laid-back, a writer.
Anyhow I am finally starting to clear the reader's block.