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       Poe's Children: The New Horror: An Anthology, p.1

           Peter Straub
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Poe's Children: The New Horror: An Anthology



  INTRODUCTION • Peter Straub

  THE BEES • Dan Chaon


  THE MAN ON THE CEILING • Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

  THE GREAT GOD PAN • M. John Harrison

  THE VOICE OF THE BEACH • Ramsey Campbell

  BODY • Brian Evenson

  LOUISE’S GHOST • Kelly Link

  THE SADNESS OF DETAIL • Jonathan Carroll

  LEDA • M. Rickert

  IN PRAISE OF FOLLY • Thomas Tessier

  PLOT TWIST • David J. Schow

  THE TWO SAMS • Glen Hirshberg


  UNEARTHED • Benjamin Percy

  GARDENER OF HEART • Bradford Morrow

  LITTLE RED’S TANGO • Peter Straub



  THE GREEN GLASS SEA • Ellen Klages

  THE KISS • Tia V. Travis

  BLACK DUST • Graham Joyce


  MISSOLONGHI 1824 • John Crowley

  INSECT DREAMS • Rosalind Palermo Stevenson





  I could say: Kelly Link created a world, and it then had been there all along. Or: John Crowley entertained the possibility of a grand possibility, and after that it had always been in place, available for use. Something similar could be said of all the superb writers in this book, which category includes every one of its contributors, from Dan Chaon to Rosalind Palermo Stevenson. Each of these writers either came through to the recognition, or were permitted by a generous environment early on to understand, that the materials of genre—specifically the paired genres of horror and the fantastic—in no way require the constrictions of formulaic treatment, and in fact naturally extend and evolve into the methods and concerns of its wider context, general literature. Yet most professional reviewers of fiction instinctively tend to protect the categories that simplify their tasks. Therefore, when faced with work that, while indisputably though perhaps even in some not-quite-definable sense connected to a genre like sf or horror, also possesses literary merit, they tend to fall back on the convenient old shell game of expressing their admiration by saying that the work in question transcends its genre.

  Now, let us be clear about this. Claiming that a work transcends its genre is almost exactly like saying, as people once were wont to do, that an accomplished African-American gentleman, someone say like John Conyers or Denzel Washington, is a credit to his race—the unstated assumption of course being that the race in question needs all the help it can get. (One day I’d like to hear an after-banquet introducer describe some silver-haired New England WASP as a credit to his race.)

  By my own ground rules, then, I have been called a credit to my race maybe half a dozen times, directly or indirectly, and about half of those times I was dumb enough to feel flattered. These days, publishers market a product they are happy to call “literary horror,” but when I first appeared everyone understood that horror was inherently trashy, unliterary to the core, actually rather shameful, literature’s wretched slum. Teenaged boys and other degenerates were its natural demographic. Of course Poe had somehow crept into the canon, maybe because Baudelaire’s translations had fooled the French into mistaking him for a reputable figure; hints and echoes of the supernatural filled Hawthorne’s books; Henry James had written “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Jolly Corner” and other great ghost or horror stories; and Edith Wharton had written many wonderful ghost stories. These figures, so important to me that in my 1979 novel Ghost Story I had not only named two principal characters James and Hawthorne but inserted into its first part what I called a “junked-up” version of “The Turn of the Screw,” were nonetheless safely in the past. During the late seventies, when you thought of horror, you did not think of the Master of Lamb House, Rye. What came to mind instead were paperbacks with graphics of broken dolls, severed heads, or minimalist mouths letting slip single drops of blood.

  (When at a lovely, crowded party in London in 1977 I complained about the dripping severed head on the newly released paperback of my latest book, its publisher told me, “Peter, that book isn’t for people like you.” Too stunned to reply, I turned around and aimed for the bar.)

  Really because of the marketing approach reflected in those gaudy paperback covers, which included packing the newly popular category with far too many titles by authors whose ambitions went no further than that market, “horror” as a category overflowed its banks during the late eighties and flooded the chain-stores’ shelves with malevolent orphans, haunted brownstones and haunted farms and haunted subway cars, ancient curses, things in bandages, evil toddlers, zombies at play, Nazi vampires—” underwater lesbian Nazi vampire turtles,” my now-deceased friend Michael Mc-Dowell joked while impaneled at a genre convention in Rhode Island. In the early nineties, in a Guest of Honor speech at a World Horror Convention in New York, I responded to the decaying world I saw around me by saying that horror was a house that horror had already moved out of.

  The statement earned me some hostile glances during the evening’s celebrations, for far too many younger writers present had trusted that their extravaganzas about back-country zombies or teenaged vampires were one day going to settle them on or near the best-seller lists, in the vicinity of their favorite books by V. C. Andrews, Ann Rice, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and a few others. It never happened. None of these twenty-and thirtysomethings who had plotted Regicide and Koontzicide while the well-padded target at the podium dispensed urbane twaddle about Emerson and All Things Glittering and Gleaming (or whatever it was; he was having an Emersonian moment) into the microphone ever got near any best-seller list, and over the next decade a lot of them faded from view.

  Which helped prove my point of view. The process has nothing to do with best-seller lists, but time has a tendency generally to support the proposition that very good work survives, while work that is not very good does not. Who now reads, to pick three of the best of the pack, Ken Eulo, Robert Marasco, or Frank deFelita, all of whom once had great success with books that now seem more than a bit, well, gestural?

  What I had not anticipated, though, was that over the next ten to fifteen years there would appear a number of writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror—among them, Kelly Link, M. Rickert, Graham Joyce, Elizabeth Hand—who had far more in common with one another and perpetual wild cards like John Crowley and Jonathan Carroll than they did with those writers who were supposed to epitomize their fields. They were literary writers and genre writers at the same time. When Bradford Morrow invited me to guest-edit Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists (2002), I accepted on the spot, thinking that his much-respected, smart, and intrepid journal would provide the perfect showcase for these writers, most or all of whom would be unknown to its regular subscribers. The benefits of such an encounter should, I thought, flow both ways. And so, as far as I can determine, it proved: the issue was widely reviewed, much praised, and it went into three or four printings. It also inspired a couple of other anthologies edited by people who understood exactly what we were trying to do.

  Poe’s Children very much continues on from The New Wave Fabulists, and this time I am free to include work by breathtaking “literary” writers, who in this newly liberated atmosphere have no problem embracing their inner Poe, or to put it another way, no problem making use of the strengths and insights made availab
le to them from their own personal engagements with horror and sf. (For reasons having to do with length, along with many other people I wanted to include, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are not represented in this volume, but they fall into the same category.) This crossover is entirely welcome, I think, as it erases boundaries and blurs distinctions that sometimes seem designed mostly to keep everyone in their proper place.

  In November 2003, when Stephen King was awarded the National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he went out of his way to invite the resplendent audience before him to read the latest fiction by a number of his writer friends. He went on to praise the books. Not long afterward, the distinguished novelist who had just won the NBA for Best Novel, and whom until that moment I had admired, included in her acceptance speech the remark that she did not think those present needed to be given a reading list. At that moment, Stephen King and I had the same thought: you’re wrong, lady, you could really use that reading list.

  The beautiful, disturbing, fearless stories in Poe’s Children make up a kind of reading list for anyone who wants to experience what I think is the most interesting development in our literature during the last two decades. It has been taking place in small presses, genre journals, and year’s best compilations, and it has been gathering steam as it goes. You have to be open-eyed and flexible as to category to get what is going on, but some vital individual breakthroughs are in the wind. We are all fortunate, readers and writers alike, to participate in a moment of such amplitude, luxury, and promise.

  Peter Straub

  New York City

  The Bees

  Dan Chaon

  Gene’s son Frankie wakes up screaming. It has become frequent, two or three times a week, at random times: midnight—3 A.M.—five in the morning. Here is a high, empty wail that severs Gene from his unconsciousness like sharp teeth. It is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently—falling from a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal. No matter how many times he hears it he jolts up with such images playing in his mind, and he always runs, thumping into the child’s bedroom to find Frankie sitting up in bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open in an oval like a Christmas caroler. Frankie appears to be in a kind of peaceful trance, and if someone took a picture of him he would look like he was waiting to receive a spoonful of ice cream, rather than emitting that horrific sound.

  “Frankie!” Gene will shout, and claps his hands hard in the child’s face. The clapping works well. At this, the scream always stops abruptly, and Frankie opens his eyes, blinking at Gene with vague awareness before settling back down into his pillow, nuzzling a little before growing still. He is sound asleep, he is always sound asleep, though even after months Gene can’t help leaning down and pressing his ear to the child’s chest, to make sure he’s still breathing, his heart is still going. It always is.

  There is no explanation that they can find. In the morning, the child doesn’t remember anything, and on the few occasions that they have managed to wake him in the midst of one of his screaming attacks, he is merely sleepy and irritable. Once, Gene’s wife, Karen, shook him and shook him, until finally he opened his eyes, groggily. “Honey?” she said. “Honey? Did you have a bad dream?” But Frankie only moaned a little. “No,” he said, puzzled and unhappy at being awakened, but nothing more.

  They can find no pattern to it. It can happen any day of the week, any time of the night. It doesn’t seem to be associated with diet, or with his activities during the day, and it doesn’t stem, as far as they can tell, from any sort of psychological unease. During the day, he seems perfectly normal and happy.

  They have taken him several times to the pediatrician, but the doctor seems to have little of use to say. There is nothing wrong with the child physically, Dr. Banerjee says. She advises that such things were not uncommon for children of Frankie’s age group—he is five—and that more often than not, the disturbance simply passes away.

  “He hasn’t experienced any kind of emotional trauma, has he?” the doctor says. “Nothing out of the ordinary at home?”

  “No, no,” they both murmur, together. They shake their heads, and Dr. Banerjee shrugs. “Parents,” she says. “It’s probably nothing to worry about.” She gives them a brief smile. “As difficult as it is, I’d say that you may just have to weather this out.”

  But the doctor has never heard those screams. In the mornings after the “nightmares,” as Karen calls them, Gene feels unnerved, edgy. He works as a driver for the United Parcel Service, and as he moves through the day after a screaming attack, there is a barely perceptible hum at the edge of his hearing, an intent, deliberate static sliding along behind him as he wanders through streets and streets in his van. He stops along the side of the road and listens. The shadows of summer leaves tremble murmurously against the windshield, and cars are accelerating on a nearby road. In the treetops, a cicada makes its trembly, pressure-cooker hiss.

  Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.

  When he comes home at night everything is normal. They live in an old house in the suburbs of Cleveland, and sometimes after dinner they work together in the small patch of garden out in back of the house—tomatoes, zucchini, string beans, cucumbers—while Frankie plays with Legos in the dirt. Or they take walks around the neighborhood, Frankie riding his bike in front of them, his training wheels recently removed. They gather on the couch and watch cartoons together, or play board games, or draw pictures with crayons. After Frankie is asleep, Karen will sit at the kitchen table and study—she is in nursing school—and Gene will sit outside on the porch, flipping through a newsmagazine or a novel, smoking the cigarettes that he has promised Karen he will give up when he turns thirty-five. He is thirty-four now, and Karen is twenty-seven, and he is aware, more and more frequently, that this is not the life that he deserves. He has been incredibly lucky, he thinks. Blessed, as Gene’s favorite cashier at the supermarket always says. “Have a blessed day,” she says, when Gene pays the money and she hands him his receipt, and he feels as if she has sprinkled him with her ordinary, gentle beatitude. It reminds him of long ago, when an old nurse had held his hand in the hospital and said that she was praying for him.

  Sitting out in his lawn chair, drawing smoke out of his cigarette, he thinks about that nurse, even though he doesn’t want to. He thinks of the way she’d leaned over him and brushed his hair as he stared at her, imprisoned in a full body cast, sweating his way through withdrawal and D.T.’s.

  He had been a different person, back then. A drunk, a monster. At nineteen, he’d married the girl he’d gotten pregnant, and then had set about slowly, steadily, ruining all their lives. When he’d abandoned them, his wife and son, back in Nebraska, he had been twenty-four, a danger to himself and others. He’d done them a favor by leaving, he thought, though he still felt guilty when he thought about it. Years later, when he was sober, he’d even tried to contact them. He wanted to own up to his behavior, to pay the back child-support, to apologize. But they were nowhere to be found. Mandy was no longer living in the small Nebraska town where they’d met and married, and there was no forwarding address. Her parents were dead. No one seemed to know where she’d gone.

  Karen didn’t know the full story. She had been, to his relief, uncurious about his previous life, though she knew he had some drinking days, some bad times. She knew that he’d been married before, too, though she didn’t know the extent of it, didn’t know that he had another son, for example, didn’t know that he had left them one night, without even packing a bag, just driving off in the car, a flask tucked between his legs, driving east as far as he could go. She didn’t know about the car crash, the wreck he should have died in. She didn’t know what a bad person he’d been.

  She was a nice lady, Karen. Maybe a little sheltered. And truth to tell, he was ashamed—and even scar
ed—to imagine how she would react to the truth about his past. He didn’t know if she would have ever really trusted him if she’d known the full story, and the longer they knew one another the less inclined he was to reveal it. He’d escaped his old self, he thought, and when Karen got pregnant, shortly before they were married, he told himself that now he had a chance to do things over, to do it better. They had purchased the house together, he and Karen, and now Frankie will be in kindergarten in the fall. He has come full circle, has come exactly to the point when his former life with Mandy and his son, DJ, had completely fallen apart. He looks up as Karen comes to the back door and speaks to him through the screen. “I think it’s time for bed, sweetheart,” she says softly, and he shudders off these thoughts, these memories. He smiles.

  He’s been in a strange frame of mind lately. The months of regular awakenings have been getting to him, and he has a hard time getting back to sleep after an episode with Frankie. When Karen wakes him in the morning, he often feels muffled, sluggish—as if he’s hung over. He doesn’t hear the alarm clock. When he stumbles out of bed, he finds he has a hard time keeping his moodiness in check. He can feel his temper coiling up inside him.

  He isn’t that type of person anymore, and hasn’t been for a long while. Still, he can’t help but worry. They say that there is a second stretch of craving, which sets in after several years of smooth sailing; five or seven years will pass, and then it will come back without warning. He has been thinking of going to A.A. meetings again, though he hasn’t in some time—not since he met Karen.

  It’s not as if he gets trembly every time he passes a liquor store, or even as if he has a problem when he goes out with buddies and spends the evening drinking soda and non-alcoholic beer. No. The trouble comes at night, when he’s asleep.

  He has begun to dream of his first son. DJ. Perhaps it is related to his worries about Frankie, but for several nights in a row the image of DJ—aged about five—has appeared to him. In the dream, Gene is drunk, and playing hide and seek with DJ in the yard behind the Cleveland house where he is now living. There is the thick weeping willow out there, and Gene watches the child appear from behind it and run across the grass, happily, unafraid, the way Frankie would. DJ turns to look over his shoulder and laughs, and Gene stumbles after him, at least a six-pack’s worth of good mood, a goofy, drunken dad. It’s so real that when he wakes, he still feels intoxicated. It takes him a few minutes to shake it.

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