I blame Night Visions 8, but, to be truthful, it was just another in a long line of disappointments. I’ll explain.
I like Joe Lansdale. I took a writer’s workshop at Texas A&M three years ago and hit it off with him right away. Since then, I’ve read a lot of his books and kept in touch. So when I say that Lansdale was the prime cause of my disappointment with Night Visions 8, and the cause of my subsequent reevaluation of why I read horror, I don’t meant that lightly. There was something about Joe’s stories in Night Visions 8 that affected me, but not in the way that Joe wanted them to.
I think Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show” to be one of the best short stories I have ever read–in or out of any genre. It is a perfect story. Two redneck teenagers, likely acting out the biases of their parents and peers, harass one of the few black youths in their small Texas town. While they are doing this, a couple of older rednecks- -their “true” parents or the likely result of such continued bias–catch them, and “harass” them. The statements made in this story are: 1) racial discrimination is propagated through upbringing, and 2) once you can view one “type” of human as unworthy of life, you can easily shift this to other humans. Lansdale accomplishes this in a clever way. The early part of the story is humorous and lightly written, but as the situation becomes darker, the tone becomes darker and you see that what was “funny” earlier was quite “nasty”–just not as nasty as what came later.
Did Lansdale know what he was doing when he wrote “Night They Missed the Horror Show”? I’m not sure, because he’s been trying to recapture that same spirit in most recent stories like the ones in Night Visions 8, and failing. While he retains that inimitable style and the tense description that characterized “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” he has lost sight of what made that story rise about just a disgusting view of racial bigotry. The hidden agenda in “Night They Missed the Horror Show” recalls a title by Robert A. Heinlein: “If This Goes On…” Lansdale’s story, although written well within the horror genre, is actually an SF story.
Is that a revelation for you? It was for me. As soon as I realized that I liked that story not for its horrific elements, but for what it was saying about society, I realized what had been bothering me about this recent spate of horror all along. I took that realization and extended it to works of horror that I had enjoyed in the past:
- Ed Bryant’s “Author’s Notes” — Is it real or is it fiction? A Philip K. Dick version of horror.
- Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” — It’s hard not to identify with the victim or the people who heard and did nothing. And that’s a realization of startling proportions.
- Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs — The hunt for psychokillers, done in the most realistic manner ever conceived on print. An insight into both the psychokiller and the FBI.
- Stephen King’s The Dead Zone — Things that happen may be horrific, but the book is firmly based on what if someone could actually see the future, and the future wasn’t nice.
- Stephen King’s Firestarter — A better version of Carrie, because it shows an entire world that is sick rather than just one tiny high school. And that’s reality, isn’t it?
- Robert McCammon’s “Nightcrawlers” — What if Rambo lived in your brain, and came out when you dreamed? War is hell, and it becomes even more hellish on your home front.
- Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali — “Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist.” And Simmons procedes to show us why. Harrowing.
Off the top of my head, that’s a bunch of stories known as horror, and yet they’re as much SF (that is, Speculative Fiction) as horrific. Although they all do not harbor a hidden meaning like Lansdale’s story, they do all have a message for the reader. Just as horror can be seen as SF, vice versa, as evidenced by the inclusion of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books. I’m not saying that horror must contain a hidden agenda to be good. I have enjoyed pure action, “gross out” horror in my time, in novels like Stephen King’s ‘Salems Lot. But just as I avoid adventure SF, now I avoid it in my horror reading. I just don’t enjoy it as much as fiction that raises an issue or shows me something new about life. And life is just too short to waste on things that aren’t enjoyable.
[Finished 7 December 1991]