Discovering Alan Peter Ryan

Alan Peter Ryan
Alan Peter Ryan

I can’t remember where I read it—one of his blog posts, or in one of his now out-of-print blog collections—but Brian Keene once recounted the story of how he and some fellow writers, early in their career, visited a used bookstore while at a convention (maybe World Horror; I can’t remember). Excited at their own writing futures, while browsing the stacks, looking for their favorite classic authors, they discovered, with a rising sense of unease, a number of authors they had never heard of before. Writers who had at least ascended to paperback fame (of a kind) only to descend once again beneath the waters of obscurity, with barely a ripple.

It’s a little haunting, when you think about it. All of us writers trying to make our mark in the world, and even while most of us are content with whatever we accomplish…it doesn’t ever cross our minds that we’ll someday be completely forgotten. We’re caught up in our excitement, focused on the goal, committed to making our dreams come true. That we might someday suffer the same fate as those authors Brian and his friends discovered never crosses our minds.

When I set out to widen my horror horizons, I discovered this myself. Short stories—wonderful ones—written by authors I’d never heard of. Novelists who, for whatever reason, only had one or two books in them, and that’s it. All fine writers no one remembers. On the one hand, these discoveries were wonderful. For someone who’d recently realized how narrow his reading palette was, finding a great story by someone I’d never heard of before was like finding a surprise rare gem.  

On the other hand, it was rather disconcerting, and humbling. Here’s this writer whose short stories made it into multiple editions of Karl Edward Wagner’s Best in Horror, or Charles Grant’s Shadows series, or Stuart David Schiff’s Whispers collections (all of which I’ll cover in a future column), so they must’ve made it big, right? Surely a big novel deal must’ve followed?

And more often than not, an Amazon search turned up…nothing. Or maybe a chapbook published through a smaller than small press. Or, in the case of someone like Russell Kirk, you discovered fiction wasn’t even their main gig. For a guy who was struggling from his preconceived notions and dreams to a more nuanced, realistic understanding of the publishing world…it was quite an eye-opener.

One writer’s career story was more than an eye-opener to me—it was like a smack upside the head. That’s the story of Alan Peter Ryan, or what little I know of it.

I first discovered Alan Peter Ryan’s work when I received two advance reading copies (ARCs) from Cemetery Dance for the limited edition books Amazonas and The Back of Beyond in the summer of 2011. I encountered these books at a pivotal time in my development as a writer. I’d just discovered both Charles L. Grant and T. M. Wright, so I was primed for the kind of horror Ryan was offering in those two works.  

Also, as I mentioned above…it had only recently occurred to me the stark reality that no matter what I might be fortunate enough to accomplish as a writer, eventually I was destined to be forgotten. Maybe for some reason I’d get tired and just quit writing. Or maybe readers and publishers would tire of what I had to offer. I’d stop selling stories, sales would trickle off, I’d get tired of writing and focus on other things, and ten years later, new horror writers MIGHT (and this is a BIG might) here my name somewhere, frown and say, “Never heard of him.”

And of course, at the time I discovered Ryan, fresh off my milestone evening with Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson and Stuart David Schiff, I was on the hunt for writers who weren’t the current “vogue.” So I jumped online to find out more about Ryan…only to discover, much to my dismay, he’d just passed away from pancreatic cancer, after a twenty year or so absence from horror. I’d found a blog he’d started shortly beforehand (it doesn’t appear to exist, anymore), and the few entries I’d read had hinted at leaving the horror genre to work as a travel writer, and this was his return to horror. That’s about all it said, which of course left me hanging.

I would discover more later in the afterword of his final published novel, The Slave Tree. At that moment, however, I plowed through both Amazonas and The Back of Beyond. What I found there delighted me. Ryan offered something much different than the usual Leisure fiction fare (what I’d been reading and reviewing at the time; and that includes some fine, fine novels). Amazonas—which I’ll comment on briefly, because it’s actually a smaller portion of The Slave Tree—was like reading a lucid fever dream. A macabre and weird story about a trip into the Amazon jungle, and much like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the deeper the doomed characters traveled, the more things slipped out of balance.  

The Back of Beyond feature four novelettes—not really short stories, not really novellas—and just like in Amazonas, Ryan’s settings read so clear and tangibly. After spending twenty years working as a travel writer, Ryan brought a sense of place to his fiction which just couldn’t be duplicated. And, at the time, for a guy who’d mostly sold a handful of stories I’d purposely written to be “horror,” I really dug Ryan’s light supernatural touch in Back of Beyond. In my new column for LampLight magazine I covered “quiet horror” and spoke of not only its strengths, but also its weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the sometimes inconclusive, anticlimactic ending. Quite frankly, sometimes a story can be too quiet, and simply peter out in the end.

Whatever can be said of Ryan’s early novels (which I’ll discuss in a bit), the stories in Back of Beyond are simply stories about the human experience. It might be said the supernatural elements are added as an afterthought, but really they’re not. These stories are about people either traveling somewhere strange and foreign, where they don’t belong and don’t understand the customs and nature of life (“Sexual Exploration is A Crime”), or about people who live in places strange and uncanny (“The Winter’s Tale” or “Mountain Man”), or those strange stops along lonely highways which can’t be found again, no matter how hard one tries (“Starvation Valley”). In each of these stories, Ryan’s characterization is vivid, the settings so well-articulated, the strangeness in each story seems to simply be parts of those world.  

After reading both of these books, I immediately set out to get as many Ryan novels as I could find. Again, remember—this was six years ago. Doesn’t seem like that long, but you learn quickly in the writing world, so back then I was still trying to figure things out. It seemed like a sure bet that a writer as skilled as Ryan must have a pretty healthy backlist. Imagine my surprise, however, when my initial search came up with only three novels.

Three.

Wait, that couldn’t be right. This guy had some serious chops, Seems like he should have at least ten novels out there. A little more digging turned up a fourth novel, a short story collection, a novella collection, and some anthologies Ryan had edited. That was it, until 2016, when Ryan’s final novel was published posthumously. We’ll get to that, The Slave Tree, last.

As happenstance would have it, the next Ryan book I read, Cast A Cold Eye, was actually the last novel he’d written before the ill-fated The Slave Tree. It’s an absolutely gorgeous read. Set in Ireland, (again, here was Ryan’s wonderful sense of place), Cast a Cold Eye is about legacy, tradition, ancient rites, spirits of the suffering dead, belief and faith—and how, even though those last two are necessary, they are often horrible and frightening things to behold.

Cast a Cold Eye is wonderfully tense novel, paced perfectly, an exemplary piece of quiet horror. It was also clearly the work of a novelist finding a powerful voice. Panther!, Ryan’s first novel, was a fairly straightforward, efficiently written thriller about a publicity stunt—bringing live panthers from Africa in cages to theater lobbies for the promotion of a really bad thriller movie entitled Panther!—which predictably goes horribly wrong.  

The story is efficiently told, and Ryan’s portrayal of Hollywood hustle and bustle and wheeling and dealing is very convincing…but it’s not recognizable as the writing present in Cast a Cold Eye, or a reflection of the wonderfully literate and quiet speculative stories in his short story collection The Bones Wizard. It reads like an efficient, predictable first novel (though I should be so lucky to write as good a first novel).

His next two novels, The Kill and Dead White, are interesting reads because they are markedly different from Panther! and more reflective of the fiction which would eventually appear in Cast a Cold Eye and The Slave Tree, very clear stepping stones (from an outsider’s perspective, anyway) toward a writer who could’ve been a quiet force if things had perhaps turned out differently. Both novels take place in the fictional Catskills town of Deacon’s Kill, a kind of New York mirror to Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station (which gets a nice name drop in Dead White), and it’s a pity Ryan didn’t go on to write more Deacon’s Kill novels. I can very easily imagine a nice mythos developing there, and who knows? Perhaps that was Ryan’s initial intent.

Both of these novels, however, suffer a bit in their endings. The writing is quiet and restrained, and Ryan succeeds where many writers do not: his prose stays out of the way. Both stories are neatly told, and Dead White‘s oppressive, claustrophobic winter setting crackles with suspense. But The Kill ends on a very flat note. Basically, after being menaced by an invisible, mysterious creature (theorized to be a fossilized prehistoric man now made of invisible rock) the Deacon’s Kill sheriff, town doctor and our main two protagonists realize: Wait. EVERYTHING IS KILLED BY FIRE! SET IT ON FIRE!

And they do.

Dead White holds its tension much longer, to the very end, and while it’s not Cast A Cold Eye or The Slave Tree, it’s a far stronger work than The Kill. In Dead White, a terrible storm descends on Deacon’s Kill, cutting them off from the rest of civilization. A storm which seems…unnatural. With the storm comes a traveling carnival in true Something Wicked This Way Comes fashion, showing up unannounced on the town’s long-unused railroad spur. Stanton Stockley, a suitable stand-in for Bradbury’s Mr. Dark, is the proprietor of a small, underfunded, held-together-by-threads theatre and carnival troupe which has arrived in Deacon’s Kill just ahead of the storm. This is where we get a neat reference to Oxrun Station, when Stockley lists the towns they’ve visited in the past.

Dead White‘s atmosphere and plot is superior to The Kill, but there’s no surprises, really. Again, one wonders how things would’ve turned out for Ryan if he continued on in horror after The Slave Tree, because Cast A Cold Eye and afterward reads as a horror writer (again, from an outsider’s perspective) who has found their voice. Dead White is effective, filled with atmosphere, and inherently readable despite a plot which sounds recycled (of course, how many original plots are there, anyway?) about the revenants of a carnival which died in a fire, visiting the town of their “last” performance.

After Cast A Cold Eye, Ryan wrote Quadriphobia, a novella quartet tied loosely together by an elusive character named Mary Cantrell. Her true nature—whether or not she’s even the same character—is never really revealed, but this collection also shows more originality than Ryan’s previous offerings. In Quadriphobia, Ryan offers up pastiches of crime fiction (with a vampire), gothic fiction, western fiction, and a Rudyard Kipling-like men’s adventure story. Winking at us the whole time while deftly aping these genre conventions, Quadriphobia is, again, a work of an author stretching his legs and finding his own way.

Following Quadriphobia is Ryan’s marvelous short story collection The Bones Wizard. These stories were collected from 1979–1988, and are wonderful examples of quiet horror, of a master stylist, stories ranging from “The Bones Wizard” to the weird “Babies from Heaven” to the restrained religious stories “Pieta” and “The Rose of the Knock” to the story of a bedsheet salesman slowly going insane in “Sheets.” These stories, again, hint at what could’ve been.  

And here comes the gap in Ryan’s career, between the 1988 publication of The Bones Wizard and the 1998 writing of The Slave Tree (as detailed in the novel’s afterword). I’ve heard a little about this gap, mostly that for some reason or other, Ryan became frustrated with the horror genre. Could be the fabled decline of the eighties “horror boom” contributed to this frustration, or—and this is pure speculation, so any veterans who are in the know, if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me—it also seems as if Ryan’s work was becoming more and more literary and original, and perhaps horror publishers simply didn’t want that at the time.

In the afterword, Ryan details the journey from writing The Slave Tree—apparently one of the most vivid ideas he’s ever had—through the course of 1998 and 1999, and his subsequent attempts to get it published. It’s a familiar enough, though unfortunate, tale. Despite earning praise from numerous New York City houses, despite earning critical buzz and also receiving bites from Hollywood from competing producers…eventually everyone passed on The Slave Tree, effectively ending Ryan’s career until he returned—for too short a time—in 2011 with Amazonas and The Back of Beyond.

The Slave Tree is a meticulously written meta-fictional narrative about a travel writer named Alan who comes into the possession of a diary detailing an utterly horrible and too-fantastic-to-believe journey into the heart of the Amazon. What is the slave tree? Sorry readers, I’m going to beg that you go found out for yourself, because Ryan’s final novel shows a writer at the height of his game. All the “horror” of this novel is generated in the lingering sense of unease found when man transgresses boundaries he shouldn’t, when he goes into places no human should. The novel’s meta-narrative is utterly believable, and even when the story takes on action/thriller trappings near the end, the story holds together. It amazes me—and saddens me—that this gem was published with but a whisper, so many years after Ryan’s death.

The “revelation” of this column is two-fold. One, that of Alan Peter Ryan’s work. His short fiction in The Bones Wizard, the clinging atmosphere in Dead White, the powerful stories of Cast a Cold Eye and The Slave Tree, the mundane-but-strange stores in Back of Beyond will stay with me for a very long time, and continue to encourage me to find the weird in the familiar. But the secondary revelation is a sober one about how quickly things change in the writing world. One moment you’re “one of the brightest lights among the new generation of horror writers” (Peter Straub on Alan Ryan), and then the next, you can’t sell what may be the best novel of your career.  

Do me a favor. Dig into Alan Peter Ryan’s work today.

Used paperback of Panther!
Used paperback of The Kill
Necon Ebooks edition of The Kill
Used paperback of Dead White
Used paperback of Cast a Cold Eye
Valancourt Ebook edition of Cast a Cold Eye
Used hardcover of Quadriphobia
Used hardcover of The Bones Wizard
Paperback edition of The Bones Wizard
Used hardcover edition of Back of Beyond
Used hardcover edition of The Slave Tree

Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.

3 thoughts on “Discovering Alan Peter Ryan”

  1. Alan Ryan’s story “Memory and Desire” from Charles L. Grant’s Greystone Bay anthology in the mid-1980’s has remained a favorite for years. I read it when it was originally published, and have always remembered it fondly. A few years back I picked up a used copy and re-read the story, a bit worried that it wouldn’t hold up. Unfortunately, some of the horror stories that I loved during my teens seem heavy-handed and dumb from an older perspective, but happily Ryan’s story continued to be an intelligent, suspenseful reflection on love and desire. I hope this essay spurs renewed interest in Ryan’s work. “Memory and Desire” is definitely worth seeking out.

    Thanks for writing this. I’d love to see more essays of this type. Another writer who remains under the radar, unfortunately, is Steve Rasnic Tem. While Tem never really “disappeared” the way Ryan did, his work should be better known. His story, “The Battering”, published in one of the Shadows anthologies, is one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever encountered–and I’ve read thousands of stories over the years.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, “Memory and Desire” is wonderful, and thanks for mentioning Steve. Eventually, this column will evolve from me writing about authors whom I discovered early on, to authors I’ve searched, and I’ve enjoyed Steve’s work, also!

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