July 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Michael Marshall Smith

First, before I get to this month's column, a quick piece of sad news: Hugh B. Cave, one of true masters in the field, passed away in June. He wrote for the pulps during their heyday in the first half of the 20th Century, and found even more success late in life as a horror novelist. He was 94 when he passed, but I don't doubt that he still had great tales to tell (Cemetery Dance Press published a new novel of his as recently as two months ago).

I've dropped the name Michael Marshall Smith a few times since I've been writing for Bookslut. Given two recent publications, it's time to finally devote an entire column to him. Smith, a British author with an amazing talent for capturing American voices, is best known as a science fiction writer, but all of his books (regardless of genre) have a edge to them that few books, even ones much more firmly planted in "traditional" horror, manage.

Smith's debut, Only Forward, is stealthy. At first, it seems like Sci-Fi Lite, as a hard-boiled detective narrator named Stark deals with wacky talking appliances and a futuristic city in which individual blocks have distinct themes. After he tracks down a missing scientist (and thus solves what appears to be the primary mystery) about halfway through the novel, the book takes a sharp right turn into New Wave territory, plunging Stark into a situation in which he's forced to examine and confront his own dreams and history. Ten years after its publication, Only Forward remains the closest anyone has gotten to the feel of Zelazny and Dick. Smith breaks plenty of the established "rules" of writing, shifting from the zany and hardboiled setting to the surreal but much more serious one. The novel is so perfectly constructed that it's hard, even on re-reading, to find any fault with either half of the book.

Smith's next two novels, Spares and One of Us, are equally mind-bending. Spares tells the story of a future in which humans are grown for parts (not a totally unusual concept). Jack, the security guard who eventually decides to free them, is a Hammett-inspired cynical ex-soldier. Instead of taking the standard path examining the nature of humanity, Smith uses the initial plot to launch an exploration of a world gone more than slightly mad, as the ravages of a war come back to haunt Jack. One of Us, perhaps his most straightforward early novel, pulls its concept straight from Dick and Gibson: now that the police can pull memories from people's minds, criminals pay RemTemps to put their guilty memories in someone else's mind for a few hours while they get interrogated. But the lead character ends up with a murder in his head that he can't get the owner to take back, and he's now being hunted as if he's the murderer himself. Both are damned fine psychological novels hidden behind SF packaging.

Smith has released two connected horror novels over the last two years, The Straw Men and The Upright Man (note for American readers: For some odd reason, his publishers felt like repackaging these books under the pseudonymous "Michael Marshall"). These books start in Thomas Harris territory, examining a brutally effective serial killer and those left in his wake. They start as standard thriller/horror fare, but slowly mix in a conspiracy that extends back to the founding of America. He then adds a very nice but subtle element of the supernatural. The books effectively take the thriller genre that folks like Deaver and James Patterson have developed to their horrific conclusion.

Great as Smith is as a novelist, he is possibly the best contemporary writer of terrifying short stories. "More Tomorrow" (also the title of his second collection) is the first story I ever read that effectively used the Internet to enhance fear. It's a brutal tale of a man who discovers something horrible posted anonymously on Usenet, and has, to this day, the most chilling final sentence I've read in a story. His tales run the gamut from stories of atrocious acts committed by seemingly normal people ("A Convenient Arrangement," a short-short that appeared in Cemetery Dance but has not, to my knowledge, been collected, is the wittiest of these), to unique supernatural horror. The latter include unique takes on traditional monsters, like the updated Lovecraftian "To See the Sea" and "Dear Allison," a superb vampire story. It also includes genuinely original horror. "The Man Who Drew Cats," about an artist with a unique gift, is the sort of revenge story that makes you remember how good Stephen King used to be. "When God Lived in Kentish Town" is one of those tales that just defies classification. And "The Dark Land" is possibly the best and scariest dreamworld tale I've ever encountered, perfectly capturing the surreal and horrific nature of dream gone mad.

All of Smith's novels are in print. He's had two short story collections released. His first, What You Make It, was only released in the UK, but is still in print and easy to order online. The second, More Tomorrow and Other Stories, was released as a limited edition by Earthling Publications. It's pricey, but worth every cent. PS Publications, a British Small Press, has just released Michael Marshall Smith: The Annotated Bibliography, which combines complete bibliographic data with notes from Smith himself about the stories and his creative process. I've yet to see the bibliography (which, I'm told, makes a great gift for Bookslut columnists), but I own everything else Smith has published, and if I had my way, his books would be on every shelf in America.