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Fighting in Fairyland: Back on the Horror Beat

The Agony Column for May 28, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


I'll admit that I never stray too far from horror fiction. This is because to me it seems to offer all the best attributes of a genre. Horror fiction is usually about pretty down-to-earth characters but allows the writer some great tools for imaginatively exploring those characters and their relationships to one another and the world about them. The two last horror novels I read, James Herbert's 'Once...' and Simon R. Green's 'Drinking Midnight Wine' offer up a nice miniature of the horror spectrum, and have some small amount of similarity. They both use big chunks of children's fairy tales, and traditional fairy tales, and spin them in a horrific fashion. Both recall to some extent one of the earliest attempts to do this, Raymond E. Feist's 'Faerie Tale'. If you're interested in fairy tale horror, these books might be a place you want to look.

Yes, we all know that fairy takes are the original horror stories, and like many horror stories, they intend to teach by example. But each of the three authors of the novels in question takes some pretty serious liberties in the Fairy Tale department. And each of them comes up with a result of varying success. Nope, this column isn't going to be the usual Rick Kleffel 'Gosh I sure love all those books' festival. Sorry about that.

When I originally started thinking about this column, I talked to a friend my subject, which I then called 'fairy tale horror'. She replied to me that my idea sounded interesting, and then proceeded to rattle off her experiences with this sub-genre so expertly and in such detail that I was rather take aback. How could I do this? But like the reviewer in Stanislaw Lem's 'Pericalypsis' from 'A Perfect Vacuum': "...going by the title of the book, the English introduction, and a few understandable expressions here and there in the text, he has concluded that he can pass muster as a reviewer after all."

Who could count the young minds permanently damaged by Lin Carter's prestigious series of Adult Fantasy re-releases of the late 1960's and early 1970's?

I read Arthur Machen in this edition just after escaping Covina High School. 'The White People' is still one of my all-time favorite horror stories.

Fairy tales do have along history in horror fiction. Machen, Dunsany -- and now these gents. Let's ignore the past and focus on the present. The first of these works to come into my purview was Raymond E. Feist's 'Faerie Tale'. I can still summon the memory of buying it at the Crown Books on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, California. Crown was a new store and new idea at the time, which would be 1988. It was one of those instant-buy books -- I saw it and I bought it, loving the cover, concept, knowing nothing about Feist except that he had written some fantasy. I was pretty much a solid horror fan back then, enraptured by Barker, Campbell, Simmons and the whole splatterpunk wave of creative horror that was NOT taking the nation by storm.

I was also a fan of fairy-oriented horror fiction, in particular Machen's 'The White People', which still stands towering over much of anything else that might dare to call itself fairy-tale oriented horror. I was perfectly primed, a bullet in the chamber aimed and ready to shoot. I liked the cover art. It promised monsters. I bought the book.

I read Raymond Feist in 1988, as the world spiralled down the Big Swirly. But some things bob back up....

Fourteen years have passed since I read 'Faerie Tale'. I remember it vividly. The premise is simple, but promising. Philip Hastings and his family have pulled up their California roots and headed back east to Lovecraft country -- or thereabouts. They've bought the Old Kessler Place, built on Erl King Hill. Philip has just come away from authoring a series of films remarkably like 'Star Wars', his wife Gloria is an Oscar winning actress, he has beautiful twin boys and a gorgeous teenage girl. They're ultra-rich, super-talented and fairly famous. They're looking to make a new start, away from the hustle and bustle of California. Alas, you buy any abode, the name of which conforms to the template 'Old [Name] Place', located on '[Name] King Hill', you better have ghost and alien abduction insurance. They didn't actually have alien abduction insurance back then, as the Anal Probe Brigade hadn't yet been heard of at Harvard. But I bet these folks could have gotten Ghostbusting coverage, and had they just paid attention to genre literature, they certainly would have. It's clear they're headed for trouble.

As I read the novel, I still to this day remember my realization that, for this family, Trouble Can't Come Fast Enough. I got an immediate and allergic reaction to Gloria who only needs to get to page 8 before she exclaims '"This is not what Oscar Winners are supposed to be doing! Phil!"' This is still in the sympathy-building stages, but it had the opposite effect on me. I'll admit it though, I like my characters to have some flaws. Rich, famous, beautiful, talented -- Feist might as well have made them Neo-Nazi torturers as far as I was concerned. The Hastings was a family that Could Not Die Fast Enough.

Now, I'll give Feist a bit of credit where the monsters go. He at least actually read some bits of various legends here and there. There are some nice moments of monster menace. He can string grammatical sentences together, one after another, describe coherent scenes, do all the things that add up to 418 pages of Book. The Faerie monsters are imported from any number of better-written works and seem merely uninspired.

I think however, in this particular work (I've read nothing since), he got the whole black and white thing mixed up a bit. Black is the print, white is the page. In the 1990's, with the explosion of the World Wide Unreadable Web, things have gotten a bit more varied, mostly to the detriment of those attempting to decipher puce type on a brown background. Back to Black and White. It's supposed to be for the type only, not the characters. Feist's characters in 'Faerie Tale' are so monochromatically good that they annihilate any interest the reader might attempt to bring to the book. By the novel's conclusion, I was ready to make the trek from sunny California with a bucket of sewage to rain these relentlessly cheerful characters. But you know what happened? I just didn't care.

Tor put together a classy package for James Herbert's 'Once...'.

The same cannot be said for the main character of James Herbert's remarkably similar 'Once...' now out from Tor. Before I get out the scalpel, let me take a minute to praise effusively the remarkable package that Tor has put together for this novel. It has a very classy cover that might suck you in even if you've never read (or didn't enjoy) 'Rats'. But open it up. Inside on the endpapers are some of the nicest paintings I've ever seen, four of them, beautifully printed. The registration is perfect. The binding is such that you can actually see them. For some insane reason, they're totally uncredited, at least, in so far as I can find, and I've looked several times.'re inside the book, you'll notice a very nicely printed and drawn title page, map, and chapter headings. It's the kind of thing you often only see in small-press limited editions, very well done. Congratulations to Tor for a job well done. It's something I'd love to see them continue, and I have to admit that it did factor into me shelling out $26.95, plus California's sales tax for the novel.

The endpapaer from Tor's version of James Herbert's 'Once...' WARNING: These endpapers are not found on the UK version. For once, the US publisher added something to the package, and improved the art direction immeasurably.

If you're worried that the reviewer is praising the package but hasn't yet got round to the novel itself, it's with good reason. The premise of this novel is remarkably similar to the premise of 'Faerie Tale'. Guy moves into an old house, the Fairies come out both erotic and psychotic, make his life a mess. Now, it's only one guy, however, and he's moving back into the house he grew up in as a kid. So this novel isn't just a rewrite, but the similarity was so strong that I actually took 'Faerie Tale' off the shelf and looked at it. Given my thoughts above, one can imagine that this took some doing.

Fortunately, in 'Once...', the reader is at least given the crumb of a good character to enjoy. Thom Kindred is a 27-year-old man who is recovering from a stroke. He is pretty crippled, and fairly nervous. I like that in a character. Much of what follows is fairly well-written, though nobody is going to quote Herbert in book reviews to illuminate the inner torments of the woodcutter, Thom's occupation. Herbert can set a scene of tension and carry it out well. He can also describe landscapes and move his characters though them in a way the casual reader can easily visualize.

Herbert's got something on his mind in his latest novel, 'Once...' Maybe he should have written in....

But there's this erotic thing. I guess I have to in fairness reveal that I prefer experiencing sex to reading about it. Good erotic writing is very, very difficult, and the bar's been raised by that most unlikely of sources, 'Letters to Penthouse'. Yes, I've read some in my time. Trouble is, that once you have -- or even if you've only read parodies of 'Letters to Penthouse' -- any erotica that is not mind-blowing art tends to get shuffled over into the next bin which is LTP. There's no middle ground. Herbert's erotic scenes are, to give them credit, really good letters. You might think the writer of these letters had written books before. You might even think 'Hey, these should be re-written to be included in a novel where they can stand as erotic scenes'. You'd probably be wrong. Needless to say, this is not a book you want to hand over to your11 year old who has gone through Stephen King like nobody's business.

Herbert also has a couple of curious lapses in logic early on, as if he's not sure how the novel is going to turn out. Benevolent forces get mix-mastered with malevolent forces in a chase scene that is otherwise well done. Characters fail to see that wearing the Red Shirt is not a good thing. Well, it's been done before without too much of a fuss. His scenes of the happier side of the fairy realm tend to get a little 'Bambi'-esque. It's a risk you take when you walk into fairyland. You'd better be ready to fight the good fight when you're trying to describe the beautifully fantastic. It's a real trap that can ensnare even the best writers.

This well-used paperback version of 'Shrine' is more in keeping with my experience of james Herbert. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you...

I'd like to be quick to give Herbert his due. I read this novel because I've read others by him that I particularly enjoyed, in an 'American Cheese' kind of way. I loved 'Domain'. Big ol' rats after the nuclear holocaust is pretty much a sure-fire formula, and Herbert gets it in one. 'Shrine' was one of those novels that glued me to chair for couple of days way back when (probably about the time I was reading 'Faerie Tale', come to think of it). And 'Once...', in spite of its faults, did pretty much glue my butt to various chairs and couches in its time. Herbert does know how to crank up the tension, and keep the pages turning.

The UK version of this fine novel preceded the American version. The covers are similar, bu the UK does give a bigger size to the excellent cover image. Whoever did the cover image must have actually read the novel, or talked to someone who did.

So 'Drinking Midnight Wine' by fantasy writer Simon R. Green is left holding the bag. When I first saw this novel on the bookstore shelf, I took a brief look at it and said 'Ugh.' Fairy tale oriented horror by a fantasy writer. Probably not the best formula. But then Penguin Putnam sent it to me. OK, I'll take another look at it. Maybe I'll read it later. Only when Andy Fairclough of HorrorWorld recommended it to me did I unearth it and move it towards the top of the stack. Mark Ziesing said he thought I'd like it as well. Closer. Fortunately, I earlier published my intention to read it and thus sort of forced myself to do so. It's an absolutely ace novel, number one. It has everything that many types of genre readers would like. It is an example of the best that you can do with genre writing, and it straddles horror, fantasy and even a bit of SF. The book lays flat on the table so you can read it while eating chicken fried steak. This is what good writing is all about.

The US version of this novel has the distinction of being one of the easiest-to-lay-down-while-eating books I've ever owned. In my opinion, this is an often overlooked attribute.

Here's what mainly distinguishes 'Drinking Midnight Wine' from these other works mentioned in this column, besides characters you really like, very imaginative writing, solid mythological research, and uniformly trouble-free execution -- a sense of humor. Simon R. Green made me laugh out loud, several times, actual laughs that would probably be described as "guffaws". But some "belly laughs" and "titters" could also be included. Green is capable of being very funny, and he does so effortlessly enough and often enough that the reader can look forward tot he next laugh, but still not see it coming. Now 'Drinking Midnight Wine' is also a bit off the trail that Feist and Herbert follow. Green expertly puts a few Neil Gaiman novels in the blender, then adds enough of his own ingredients so that eventually there's no more Gaiman, only Green. 'Drinking Midnight Wine' follows slacker/loser bookstore worker Toby Dexter out of our world ("Veritie") and into "Mysterie". At first I was afraid that Toby might be the sort of bookstore worker who often inhabits horror, SF and fantasy novel, that is, one who reads a lot of the genre. Happily, Toby does not even seem to read a lot. But Green expertly plots his novel as Toby is drawn towards a Battle Between Good and Evil of which he will become the focal point.

Green excels I his prose, his humor and his characterizations. His plot keeps the pages turning, but the better than you'd expect prose keeps the eyeballs lingering on one good turn of phrase after another. And Green is savvy enough to write a book that readers of horror, science fiction or fantasy would all find equally appealing even if for varying reasons. Admirers of none of those genres might still find the abundant humor enough to carry them through any residual distaste caused by genre-exposure. This book doesn't take itself seriously, though it does take it's characters seriously enough to make us care, it's plot seriously enough to have it make sense and its prose seriously enough to slide towards poesy without use of hammer or really loud trumpets. It's reasonably priced and readily available.

In other, non-rant-related news, Tor has recently released Paul McAuley's 'Whole Wide World' as a domestic hardcover. If you missed the original column on this book, take a peek, and then give this novel a look as well. McAuley's got something here of interest, and it's finally showed up in your local bookstore.


Rick Kleffel