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The Better to Scare You With

The Agony Column for April 25, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Poppy Z. Brite's 'Drawing Blood' gets the nod as the Last Big Thing.

After a nearly a month of reading nothing but science fiction, I decided I needed a change of pace. Usually I force a change of pace, but various column ideas and new novels derailed by normal reading pattern, which is to alternate genres. Now, of course my science fiction reading was pretty out-there. John Shirley, Kim Newman, Neal Asher and Jon Courtenay Grimwood all have aspects of horror inextricably woven into the science fiction. But I was more than ready for something firmly lodged in the horror genre. It was suggested in a Usenet Newsgroup that Poppy Z. Brite's 1993 debut 'Drawing Blood' be used to demarcate the line for the last Big Thing to hit the horror world. That's fair. She's burst on the scene and has managed to stay there. She has an individual style and a growing catalog of well-liked horror that has earned the respect of readers for a good reason. She takes chances. Since then, who has made that kind of 'It-writer' mark in the horror field? Who can we accuse of being 'the next big thing'? Whose books should go straight to the auto-buy list?

Horror's "It Girl" Poppy Z. Brite.

Most importantly, what do I have in the 'Inbox' that's unread? They say that fortune favors the well prepared, and when it comes to having good books sitting around waiting to be read, I am extremely well prepared. For example, even as I type, crawling their way to me are several new books. In one package, I've got 'Rumpole Rests His Case', the latest, uh, Rumpole book from John Mortimer. Yep, I'm a Rumpole fan, both the books and the adaptations. It's just great stuff. I seem to remember that Mortimer swore the character off after his last outing (as did Leo McKern [Number 2], alas!), but I'm glad Mortimer recanted. I can only hope that McKern will as well. While I typically don't read short stories, I'll probably make an exception for Rumpole.

Where else but in the Agony Column do you go from Poppy Z. Brite to Rumpole?

Also on the way is 'The Resurrectionists' by Kim Wilkins. Don't know oodly-doodly about her. It's called impulse buying or chance taking. Sometimes you end up with a Christopher Brookmyre, and sometimes you end up with V. C. Andrews. If it looks or reads really, really bad, then it will be put into a book pile from which it may never escape. I can also file Steve Cockayne's 'Wanderers and Islanders' under 'chance taking'. I do get a good vibe from these books, but there are no guarantees that they'll ever escape the piles. .

Another fabulous guess-buy. I get a decent vibe from this book, but I've been wrong in the past.

This writer's name is probably illegal in many portions of the American South.

I've got Tim Lebbon's 'The Nature of Balance' from Prime Books and Mark Morris' (writing as J. M. Morris) 'Fiddleback' also on their way. The Mark Morris novel is his attempt to get the reading audience that he deserves, by going the old 'almost my name' route and switching genres to 'suspense' as opposed to horror. I've read and enjoyed every novel written by Morris and I'm confident I'll enjoy this one. Of course, there is by default a certain amount of suspicion directed at novels in the 'genre switch' mold. Morris has done enough great work to get near the top of the queue. Read his incredible novel 'Toady' and see if you don't agree.

Fighting the good fight by supporting the authors we like and purchasing their MMPB's. The Prime Books HC has not yet arrived.

I actually already have copy of 'The Nature of Balance', the Leisure Books edition, because we need to support our favorite writers by purchasing their MMPB's. That said, I liked the cover and I liked the first graphs I read, but given that I already know a limited edition was coming out, I of course canted towards reading that edition. I will admit to being of the age where big print has a real attraction.

Tim Lebbon's first novel wsa based on an image he read about.

'Faith in the Flesh' is a distrurbing surreal novella.

But already in the queue and waiting to be read was Lebbon's Cemetery Dance volume, 'Until She Sleeps'. And looking back, Lebbon seems like an excellent pick for a current horror 'It-writer'. I've followed Lebbon pretty closely. I managed to miss 'Mesmer' on the initial release, but caught up with it later. The image that Lebbon describes as the core -- an image of a wall with human faces embedded in it, trapped, screaming, hoping to escape, is an image that has haunted me since childhood. I have a vivid memory of seeing a black and white science fiction film where some alien or spaceship is hidden in a cave. When hapless victims stray into rage, a white beam shoots out at the victim, then at a hidden wall in the cave. Their face appears in the rock of the cave, trapped, screaming, unable to escape. So there was a reason why 'Mesmer' appealed to me. But first I had to find the Razorblade Press release of 'Faith in the Flesh/The First Law'. Razorblade Press has a lot of excellent titles -- since getting this one, I've obtained every other, and been satisfied every time. 'Faith in the Flesh' has a surreal, Sfnal tone. Men arrive from a shipwreck on an island. Things are weird there, bad. There are monsters. Lebbon revels in the prose; he unravels reality and his characters right before your eyes. It's a wonderful, unexpected even stunning piece of work. It can't be pigeonholed as horror, SF or anything else. It uses the tools of one genre to generate the effects of another.

Tim Lebbon's novella for Andy Fairclough's Masters of Terror Press won a British Fantasy Award.

This novella is a wonderful coming-of-age story in a world bedeviled by the living dead -- plants and animals as well as people.

From then on, it was only upwards and award-wards for Lebbon. 'White', his novella for Andy Fairclough's 'Masters of Terror' press, was nominated for multiple awards and came home with the British Fantasy Award. Peter Crowther at PS Publishing popped for 'Naming of Parts', an evocative and beautifully imagined novella set in a world of the living dead. With Gavin Williams, he co-authored 'Hush', for the Razorblade Press, a big-screen novel of Lovecraftian terror. From the esteemed Night Shade Books, a collection of short stories titled 'As The Sun Goes Down', got a slot on the bedside stand. 'Face', also from Night Shade, is an effective departure, an almost Jamesian thriller. And finally, from CD, 'Until She Sleeps', a full-on popular-horror novel. He stepped into Stephen King country.

Lovecraftian wide screen terror is to be found in 'Hush'.

Short stories to stay awake by in Night Shade Press release 'As the Sun Goes Down'.

Henry James style psychological horror with lots of violence in 'Face'.

Was it worth the wait? Yes. Does it live up to expectations? Beyond. Is it perfect in all aspects? Not quite. You've made it past the skinny. Here's the real story. 'Until She Sleeps' does something that is quite interesting with the typical horror novel format. It eviscerates about 2/3 of the pages. Instead of focusing on enough people to staff an accounting department at a mid-size company, it bears down on like, one character. Now, that character is straight out of about three hundred horror titles, the pre-teen/near-teen boy. Were I to be reading what I've just written before having read the book, I would be alarmed. The signs are not good. Lebbon seems to have boxed himself in. How do you escape a clever trap like this?

By great writing, that's how. Not all the signs were bad after all. By cutting out the excess fat and focusing on his main character, Lebbon gives himself a lot of room to do one thing really well. He writes a scary story, with all his patented surreal imagery. In his introduction to 'The Five Quarters', Steve Duffy mentions how every great horror story that he's read has a single, disturbing image that gets stuck in the reader's head. Dan Simmons mentioned this when he spoke at a signing as well. Both have those kinds of images in their work. Lebbon manages at least two in 'Until She Sleeps'. It's that "great writing" tool he uses. It's almost as if he's borrowing images from the Lebbon who wrote 'Faith in the Flesh'.

Lebbon also excels at characterization, particular of the pre/adolescent male. Those who enjoyed that aspect of McCammon's 'A Boy's Life' or Bradbury's work would be well advised to pick up this book to see how it's done. He doesn't overdo the sugary sentimental side, nor does he overdo the gross-out. It's a razor thin line and he hits on every cylinder. The only parts of the novel that did not peg the meter were those dictated by the plot and structure of the 'Stephen King Country' novel -- the crowd scenes. His imagery was great, but a "familiar from the template" scene slightly detracted from the total flowing originality of what proceeded. It's excellently executed, but I'd have preferred a deviation from the usual script. That's what happens when you read as fanatically as I do.

Popular horror gets the surreal Tim Lebbon treatment.

'Until She Sleeps' also benefits from a rather nice price for a signed, limited edition -- $40, and wonderful binding and printing. If you're looking for a book that's easy to read in all senses of the word then this is it. And, it's a good argument that Lebbon is the 'It-writer' for the horror genre these days. What he needs to cement this is an appropriate follow-up. And he has it planned, from Night Shade books, a fantasy duology titled 'The Dead of Night'. Two books are planned 'Dusk', for sometime next year, and 'Dawn' for early 2004. On his author website (which is very nice and very informative), he promises "It'll be a huge-ranging, big-scale fantasy - very, very dark - with monstrous magicians and natural disasters and wraiths and Red Monks and tumblers and massive battles and zombies.."

Thus far, Lebbon has escaped the kind of publicity that backfired so disastrously on Clive Barker. He's also managed to escape the big name hardcover publishing deal Clive snagged as well, and that's a shame. To my mind -- and other reviewers have commented on this as well -- he does display some of the elements found in the 'Books of Blood' that made Barker so appealing. A movie deal is in the offing for 'White', though, from where I sit, that simply means that the deserving writer was paid a decent bonus (probably not enough if the movie gets made and made well) to have his book discussed by numerous producers who manage to read about the first chapter or so. If that. And there are already other successors to the 'It-throne' lined up. There's every chance that Lebbon will simply have to keep writing great fiction for his readers. And that will suit his readers just fine.




Rick Kleffel