Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: 'Dark Forces' by Kirby McCauley

2 / 5 Stars

‘Dark Forces’ was issued in hardback in 1980; this Bantam paperback was published in 1981. The uninspired cover art is uncredited.

In his Introduction editor Kirby McCauley indicates that he conceived of the book as a sort of horror fiction version of Harlan Ellison’s ‘Dangerous Visions’ from 1967. In McCauley’s view, ‘Dark Forces’ would showcase all new fiction, from shorter stories to a novelette, from more established authors as well as newer writers. At nearly 550 pages in length, the book certainly could accommodate a variety of tales with distinctive approaches to the genre.

So how does ‘Dark Forces’ stack up ? Well, in the main, it’s rather underwhelming…

The opening novelette by Stephen King, ‘The Mist’, is the featured sales pitch on the book’s cover and the marquee piece in the collection; it is also one of his better stories. It features some tongue-in-cheek SF elements and flows rather well, perhaps because its length forces King to cut out the padding that renders so many of his novels a trying read.

Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Where the Summer Ends’, to which I’ve devoted a full post at another time in this blog, is one of the best entries. Something is killing cats, dogs, and winos amid the steaming summer heat of a Knoxville ghetto, and Gradie, the elderly junkman, may have an idea about who is responsible. Stay away from the kudzu !

‘Lindsay and the Red City Blues’, by Joe Haldeman, is another strong entry, as a salesman vacationing in Marrakesh and looking for illicit pleasures gets up close, and a bit too personal, with Third World Squalor.

Manly Wade Wellman provides ‘Owls Hoot in the Daytime’, featuring his recurring character Silver John; this time the wandering balladeer confronts some evil goings-on in a cave set deep in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.

I’m usually unimpressed with the short fiction of Theodore Sturgeon, but his entry, ‘Vengenace Is’, dealing with a violent crime and the consequences visited on the perpetrators, is well done. The biological theory underlying the tale gets more than a little contrived, but Sturgeon manages to keep the story coherent enough to deliver a memorable ending.

And while I’m not a big Ramsey Campbell fan, considering him one of the most overrated horror writers of the past 50 years, his story ‘The Brood’ is genuinely creepy. It’s rare that one of his stories has a premise, and an ending, that can overcome his turgid and oblique prose style, but somehow, someway, it happens with ‘Brood’. Even a broken clock is right twice a day !

Edward Gorey contributes one of his black and white comic strips, ‘The Stupid Joke’. The intricate pen-and-ink drawing survives the reduction to the confines of the paperback book.

The rest of the stories in the collection are not as rewarding. Some authors – such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joyce Carol Oates – are included, however awkward their entries, in order to give the anthology some Literary Merit.

Other authors represent the Usual Suspects in ‘quiet horror’ fiction at the time of the early 80s: Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Lisa Tuttle, T.E.D. Klein, Ray Bradbury, Edward Bryant. All of their entries are, sadly, too mannered and devoid of imagination to qualify as memorable horror tales.

[It should be remembered that in1980, the term ‘splatterpunk’ didn’t exist, and the idea of extending an invitation to more graphic horror writers- like James Herbert- would have seemed artless, even indecent, on McCauley’s part.]

In toto, then, ‘Dark Forces’ is an unremarkable horror collection that indicates how pedestrian, even bland, horror writing was at the dawn of the 80s. It would be several more years before Clive Barker (and to some extent Shaun Hutson) would arrive on the scene and inject some novelty into the genre.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

You're absolutely right: it's apparent from this collection alone how much Clive Barker reinvigorated the entire genre.