June 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor


For a change of pace, this month's column will consist of short news and commentary:

First, Charles L. Grant, one of the great writers in the field, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease earlier this year, and will have to spend the rest of his life relying on bottled oxygen to live. He's also only just been released from a trip to the ICU, and is still recovering. Like most writers, Grant was without insurance, and the Horror Writers Association has been running a charity auction on eBay to raise money for Grant and his family. Although most of the auctions will be over by the time this column sees print, a few may still be going on (some run through the second week of June). If you want to see what's available, head to the auction. You can also head to Grant's home page for updates on his status.

I first became a fan of Grant when I was a kid, and I discovered his pseudonymously-penned light fantasy works, written under the name "Lionel Fenn." I didn't realize that the fantasy author I read when I was younger was the same man who'd put together the seminal Shadows anthologies, some of the best horror and dark fantasy collections of the '80s. Although too many people probably best know him as a writer of X-Files novels, he's written dozens of original horror books, and his collection Nightmare Seasons remains one of my favorite collections of stories. As with too many horror authors, almost all his work is out of print, but anything with his name (or any of his pen names) on it is worth seeking out.

Last year, I wrote a column on alternatives to the ever-growing string of crap churned out by Anne Rice and Laurell K Hamilton. I'm pleased to say that two of those series have been updated in recent weeks.

Charlaine Harris has made the leap to original hardcovers with the fourth book in the Southern Vampire series, Dead to the World. Continuing to follow the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, Harris keeps this book mostly in the same small town Louisiana setting of the first novel. Sookie, a waitress who is telepathic, continues to get embroiled in the various political machinations of her vampire neighbor, Bill, and the other supernatural creatures that Sookie meets in the series. Like Hamilton, Harris continues to expand the pantheon of creatures to include weres, witches, and the fae, but unlike Hamilton, Harris somehow successfully juggles the potentially confusing political situations without letting a ball drop. She also, unlike Hamilton, seems to be writing more than a personal stroke novel here. That's not to say that there isn't a steamy scene or three, but Harris doesn't appear to be stroking as she's writing.

Pulling the storyline back into tiny Bon Temps, LA, has nicely tightened the focus back onto Sookie's struggles with her powers, and the duel between the desire to be "normal" and the knowledge that she's too deeply entangled with her vampire and werewolf acquaintances (as well as her telepathic powers) to ever truly be "normal" again. The plot of Dead to the World centers on a curse placed on Eric (the vampire boss of Bill), as well as the disappearance of Sookie's brother, Jason, shortly after he dated a werewolf. It's a tightly-woven book, nicely mixing romance, horror, and mystery into a fun (but never silly) story. Harris, with her background as a mystery writer, was already a talented writer when this series began, but she's gotten better over the last four years.

I wasn't surprised that Harris released a new book, but after Tanya Huff swore that she wasn't going to write any more Blood books again, I was pleasantly surprised to see Smoke and Shadows on the store shelves. Huff doesn't get enough credit as a horror author, but her Keeper's Chronicles books are quite possibly the best humorous horror published this side of Good Omens, and the Blood series, following detective Victoria Nelson, are solid hard-boiled takes on vampire mythology. When that series ended, Huff said that she'd told all the stories she needed to about these characters. And, in a way, she has, as the latest book focuses primarily on Tony Foster, a former supporting character, and Vicky's vampiric ex-lover, Henry Fitzroy, leaving the Toronto cast behind.

Alas, it's not Huff's best effort. The first half of the book is spent mostly rehashing tired Hollywood and TV behind-the-scenes cliches. It's not that Huff doesn't nail her targets well, but these are targets that have been nailed many times before. It's nice, granted, to play up the cliches in Vancouver (where so many syndicated horror and sci-fi shows are filmed), but that's not enough to make the pages of satire worthwhile. Once the horror plot gets going (an invasion from another dimension by a shadow wizard), the book is certainly readable, but too many of the minor characters are interchangeable and unmemorable, making their fates simply uninteresting.Tony and Henry simply don't have the interesting chemistry that Vicky, Henry, and Mike Celluci had in the early books. That said, bad Tanya Huff is still better than much of the stuff that winds up on store shelves, and the book has enough interesting twists and subtle jokes to make for a nice beach or airplane read.

As I finished writing this column, this year's Stoker awards were announced. You can find the results at Horror.org. No real complaints about them this year -- it's hard to get upset when Neil Gaiman wins an award for the second year running, and Jack Ketchum walks away with two trophies. I'll ignore the lifetime achievement award for Anne Rice for the time being.

Finally, one of my favorite crossover genres, horror westerns, is getting a nice push. Steve Niles (the talented, if overhyped, writer of such projects as 30 Days of Night) is launching a comic book anthology title called Western Tales of Terror. Joe Lansdale, of course, is one of the true masters of this genre, with his Dead in the West, as well as the Jonah Hex books he and Tim Truman did for Vertigo. If the new series is a tenth as good as anything Lansdale has done, it'll be high on my to-read list.