When I first conceived of this column, my intent was to focus on authors and how their body of work influenced me during a specific period in my development. After several columns, I realized that while maybe an author’s entire body of work didn’t necessarily impact me, one or two of their novels had—hence my previous column about Don’t Take Away the Light, by J. N. Williamson, and The Reach by Nate Kenyon and The Pines, by Robert Dunbar (subjects of future columns).
Sitting in my office the other day, going through my copies of the Shadows and Borderlands collections (the focus of my next column), I realized I could cast the net even wider. I’ve read so many powerful short stories over the past few years, as I consumed one horror anthology after another. These tales played vital roles in my development. They served as mile-markers leading me to my own voice.
I’ve written and spoken at length about the night I spent with genre legends Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson and Stuart David Schiff (editor of Whispers Magazine). I honestly still don’t have the words to describe the impact of that evening, and I doubt I’ll ever experience another night like it. What I can say is, prior to that evening, my reading diet consisted mostly of the newest Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels, and whatever review copies various publishers and authors sent my way.
However, that night, Tom, Paul and Stuart talked about authors I knew by name only, and authors I’d never heard of before. While I’m a loyal reader and I’ll always return to Stephen King and Dean Koontz, that night sent me on a quest to encounter these new authors.
I often joke that when we plan our out-of-state vacations, my wife Googles entertainment and dining, while I Google used bookstores to plunder. It’s not a joke, honestly. I’ve come to view used bookstores as unplumbed treasure troves possibly containing gems of horror fiction just waiting to be discovered.
Like the time I found the original paperback version of Tales of the Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti, in a used paperback store in Delaware. Or the original paperback of Why Not You and I, by Karl Edward Wagner, which I unearthed in a similar Michigan store. Or the five copies of Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror, which I found at our local library’s used book sale.
I’ve read several dozen horror/speculative fiction anthologies over the past six years, and the following are only a few of the short stories which have impacted me.
I’ve only read one other short story by Jack Cady (which I’ll also discuss today), and I’m sure at some point I’ll go searching for a collection of his short fiction, because both of these tales stand as two of the finest works of speculative short fiction I’ve ever read. “By Reason of Darkness” appeared in Prime Evil, (Signet, 1988) edited by Douglas Winter. It stands as a kind of story I could never imitate, and that’s how it impacted me the most. It made me wonder. Can I eventually write fiction only Kevin Lucia could write?
“By Reason of Darkness” is only one of the many fantastic works of short fiction dealing with the horrors of the Vietnam War; horrors soldiers endured while fighting, and horrors endured while trying to re-assimilate to civilian life. In this tale, Cady regales the story of three Vietnam veterans dealing with ghosts of the horrors they experienced. In some ways, this story offers recognizable horror tropes: desecrated burial grounds demanding vengeance, a man willing to trade the life his friends for an illusory peace, and how debts must be paid.
However, this story derives its power from the horrors of the Vietnam War; the loss of self and sanity soldiers suffered, wounds which often proved far worse than mere physical trauma. The cold, grim reality that war changes people. Governments change people to fight in their wars, and then disposes of them when that war is done. How all of us sitting here at home can never understand that, and maybe are afraid to.
In 2011, at the very start of this transitional time, I encountered another story by Jack Cady, “The Night We Buried the Road Dog,” in The Horror Hall of Fame (Cemetery Dance, 2011). Originally published in a 1993 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this is another example of a story which it seems only Jack Cady could’ve written. A profound depiction of fast car culture, of young men driven by a consuming desire for speed, with gasoline pumping in their veins and fumes burning in their lungs.
What amazed me about this story, however, was its simple, economical, conversational prose, which so easily draws the reader in…and the story’s mystery. Part ghost story, part psychological suspense, the reader is left wondering who or what was haunting who. This story, like the work of Robert Aickman and the stories in Jack Finney’s The Third Level (subjects of future columns), further clarified what type of stories I wanted to write: tales which drifted so quietly from “mundane” to “weird” that the reader doesn’t realize they’ve crossed over until it’s far too late.
Another short story which occurs in this same hazy region of unreality is “Ziggles,” by Donald R. Burleson, which appeared in Metahorror, edited by Dennis Etchison (Dell Abyss, 1992). This story’s blurring of the lines between reality and hallucination proves masterful. Is “Ziggles” merely the imagination of a burned-out, overworked, stressed elementary school teacher? Has the pressures of her job and insecurities about her effectiveness pushed her quietly over the edge? Or have her insecurities—and the strange, sometimes frightening rebellious and unrestrained “wildness” of her students—given birth to something supernatural?
“The Man with the Hoe,” by George Clayton Johnson, (Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison; Doubleday, 1986), vibrates with the kind of raw emotional power only found in horror or “dark fiction.” In this story, the impotent rage of a man who has lost his place in society boils off the page. No supernatural element manifests, there’s no graphic violence, shocking sexuality, and nothing “strange” occurs.
No, the “horror” of this story comes from an unemployed man battling feelings of disenfranchisement, his confusion in a world which feels increasingly alien, and how he sees “wolves” encroaching on the borders of his increasingly shrinking world. This horror is so terrifying because we see it in the news every day. We see it simmering in loved one’s lives, and…God forbid…we’ve seen it lurking in our mirror’s reflection every morning.
I will be forever grateful for The Horror Show, by Brian Keene, pointing me toward The Definitive Best of the Horror Show, (Cemetery Dance, 1992) which collects the best stories from David B. Silva’s magazine of the same name. So many great stories of completely different stripes are collected here. I’ve already mentioned in a previous column how I first encountered the work of Paul F. Olson in its pages, with his chilling short story “The Visitor” and his horrifyingly surreal (especially for this former retail worker) “They Came from the Suburbs.”
Two other stories which stood out were “Red Zone” and “Oasis,” both by Brian Hodge. “Red Zone” again deals with a young man’s obsession with speed, and how his obsession drives (no pun intended) him to will his way past the boundaries and constrictions of our universe. This story very much reminded me of King’s “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”
“Oasis,” to me, serves as the perfect example of a well-crafted, tight “horror” story which accomplishes so much in a handful of pages. It’s a story with a timeless message—disrespect nature at our peril—but, much like the other stories in this collection, it’s a well-written story designed to deliver a delightful shiver, and will forever make us think twice about lingering too long in places where nature has reclaimed something built by man’s hands.
Finally, two stories from The Boneyard, edited by Dean Koontz, (Berkley, 1991) round out this installment of “Revelations.” First is the novelette/novella “The Gardener,” by Sheri S. Tepper. First of all, it’s a wonderful take on the classic “vampire” tale. Second, it’s an insightful commentary on the obsession with success and perfection, and how, eventually, when success manifests, it can be vampiric in nature, draining us of the vitality and “color” which makes life worth living.
The second story from The Boneyard is a jarring, unsettling entry by Ray Garton, “Monsters.” As someone who has grappled with matters of faith and how that faith can be twisted and cultivated into cruel, narrow-minded indoctrination, I reacted very strongly to this story.
I can’t say I’ve ever faced the same persecution the story’s protagonist does—breaking free from the cult-like grip of Seventh Day Adventist beliefs, the betrayal of those who choose dogma over life-long friendships—but I know the smell of this fear all to well, if that makes any sense. In lesser hands, the symbolic consequences of repressing our darkest emotions could easily be hack material. In Ray Garton’s hands, it serves as a very disturbing and profound rumination about the dangers of zealous, close-minded, religious dogma.
Where to Buy:
- Prime Evil edited by Douglas Winter
- The Horror Hall of Fame edited by Joe R. Lansdale
- Cutting Edge edited by Dennis Etchison
- Metahorror edited by Dennis Etchison
- The Definitive Best of the Horror Show edited by David B. Silva
- The Bone Yard edited by Dean Koontz
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.