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Thursday, November 1, 2012

31 Days of Horror: Day 32? A Not Quite Horror Post Script

John Skipp is a legend in the world of horror.  Back in the 1980s he helped to found the graphic, frenetic splatterpunk style of the genre.  But in the 21st century, he has made his name as a collector of stories old and new.

Specifically, he has been working with Black Dog to edit a line of anthologies.  His previous ones were on Demons, Zombies, and Werewolves-- all traditional, otherworldly horror monsters.

This time he keeps the scary coming, but it is the human monster he is concerning himself with.  Like the other books in the series, in Psychos, Skipp gathers stories by classic authors all the way up through brand new stories.  He also adds essays about the appeal of the monsters in his collection.

As a group, these collections are a very good choice for public libraries.  The essays explain to librarians and readers why these monsters continue to entrance readers, while the stories present a cannon for the topic.  There are so many great older stories that get lost over time, but in these collections they continue to live and give readers the scares they are looking for.  Having them paired with newer stories is a testament to the enduring power of the scary tale.

After I take some time off after this grueling month, I will be back with a review of Psychos as well as 2 more horror novels I read this month, but left out of the 31 Days marathon in favor of allowing you to hear from more authors.

But until then, here is Skipp writing an open letter to us librarians asking us to keep anthologies on the shelves.



 by John Skipp

Dear Librarians --

THANK YOU SO MUCH! Because you’ve devoted your lives to it, you probably have an inkling as to how important it is.

But seriously? YOU HAVE NO IDEA!

Evidently, I was born to love books, too.

According to my older sister Linda, I memorized them before I could actually read them, telling my mom and sisters what was on the next page before they even turned it, because they’d read it to me the day before, and I’d hung on every word.

The first and greatest books I remember actually reading myself -- deciphering and internalizing those little black hieroglyphs -- were all by Dr. Seuss. Fantastic stories, with fantastic pictures, and wordplay that taught me the invaluable truth that words and ideas are fun to play with. A lesson I have stuck with ever since.

The ones that stuck with me hardest -- and have persisted, to this day -- were Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories and The Sneetches and Other Stories.

Without a doubt, the words and Other Stories were part of what made those books most memorable to me.

Because it wasn’t just how great it was to watch Yertle’s fall from power, lording it over all those turtles he stacked beneath him just to be all high and mighty. And it wasn’t just about whether it was better to be a Star-Bellied Sneetch or a Sneetch with no stars upon thars, and how stupid that whole status conflict was.

It was also the fact that there were all these other great stories, sitting right there, for me to read. IN ONE BOOK! There was the story of the haunted pants, with no one inside ‘em, who turned out to be just as scared as you. There was the story of the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax,
who had a whole world to move around in, but refused to get out of each other’s way. There was ‘‘The Big Brag’’. There was ‘‘Too Many Daves’’. It was crazy, how many stories he had!

It was a natural leap to Edgar Allan Poe, who in one book -- Tales of Mystery and Imagination -- managed to tell me dozens of astonishing stories, each one wilder and more haunting than the last.

So now I’d found two authors I dearly loved.

And that was where anthologies came in.

Living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at nine years old in 1966, I had a choice of the books in my school’s well-stocked library, the U.S. Embassy’s commissary, and the more-than-occasional English-language books hanging from clips on sidewalk stands. This is how I stumbled across the British publishers Pan and Fontana, who were both putting out their own takes on what they regarded as the Greatest Horror Stories.

And then there was Alfred Hitchcock, whose films I’d never seen. But boy, did that guy know how to pick ‘em! He’d walk in with a droll, funny intro, and then unleash a dozen crazed tales or more. My favorite was Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV, which first introduced me to the provocative notion that there were stories other people didn’t want you to hear.

Between Pan, Fontana, and Sir Alfred himself, I was introduced to the early cream of the dark literary crop. What we refer to as the classics. It was my formal introduction to the genre. And it utterly changed my life.

And this was the thing: suddenly, I was meeting waves of writers through their stories. The slow nightmare unearthliness of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The wry creepiness of Saki, John Collier, Joan Aiken, and Roald Dahl. The more muscular dread of early Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Anthony Boucher.

So many great writers. So many incredible stories. Such a universe, opening wide.

All seemingly aimed directly at me.

Now let’s fast-forward more than 40-some years. And suddenly, I’m the guy who gets to share stories.

Have you ever made a mix CD for someone you love, where you sat down with all of your favorite songs and assembled a playlist that rocked and flowed, taking your intended on a guided trip down a path paved with nothing but astonishing gems from all up and down the spectrum, in the hope that they’ll be as blown away as you are, and be rendered aglow because they know that you made it just for them?

That’s pretty much how I look at editing anthologies.

In so many ways, short stories are like songs. They step up, immediately lay down a mood and a rhythm and a voice. Take you succinctly where they’re going. And drop you off, neat and complete, at the end.

A great short story crystallizes life’s enormity into a handful of pages, bringing everything that matters (for the purpose of the tale) into sharp experiential focus. It can be fast, slow, funny, sad, shocking, haunting, blunt, or piercing. It can be unspeakably beautiful, or uglier than sin.

It can do anything it wants, so long as it does it right.

When I edit an anthology like PSYCHOS -- or the previous Black Dog volumes, ZOMBIES, DEMONS, and WEREWOLVES AND SHAPESHIFTERS -- my mandate is clear.

1) To find definitive classics that helped lay down the foundation of the genre. (Largely dating from the late 1800s to, let’s say, the 1960s.)

2) To bring in the equally-pivotal works of the 1970s and 80s -- when all the walls came down -- up till now.

3) To present original stories from this booming-as-we-speak Golden Age, in which some of the best short fiction I’ve ever read is currently being produced.

4) To put it all in context, for a modern audience. Draw the lines from here to there, pointing arrows into the future.

So yes, the little kid inside of me can’t believe that he’s been able to assemble vintage Poe, Lovecraft, Saki, de
Maupassant, Bradbury, Bloch, Sturgeon, ‘‘The Monkey’s Paw’’, ‘‘The Most Dangerous Game’’, and ‘‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’’ into his mix. All the stories I grew up on. It’s a staggering thrill.

Add to that a pop culture A-list of titans -- Thomas Harris, William Peter Blatty, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Max Brooks, Lawrence Block, Chuck Palahniuk, Charlaine Harris, and Stephen King -- and my hit list goes through the roof.

On the literary end, there’s Angela Carter, Leonid Andreyev, George Saunders, William Gay, Jim Shepard, and Christopher Coake. All spectacular. All blowing past the narrow parameters of genre.

Stir in the amazing authors who came of age with me, in the 80s and 90s: Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, Robert McCammon, David J. Schow, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, Robert Devereaux, Elizabeth Massie, Adam-Troy Castro, Steve Rasnic Tem, Francesca Lia Block, Bentley Little, Brian Hodge, Karl Edward Wagner, Douglas E. Winter, and Richard Christian Matheson, just for starters. Smashing through the barriers of what genre could be.

Only then do I get to the astounding new voices, as yet unsung, that are helping define this fresh century’s promise of further ground-breaking excellence: Cody Goodfellow, Laura Lee Bahr, Amelia Beamer, Carlton Mellick III, Mehitobel Wilson, Mercedes M. Yardley, Eric Shapiro, Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio, Nick Mamatas, John Gorumba, Ed Kurtz, Tessa Gratton, Weston Ochse, J. David Osborne, Violet LeVoit, Jeremy Robert Johnson, and so many, many more that I only wish I could list them all.

My goal as an editor is to cherry-pick the great stuff, give you only the best of the best. Or, at the very least, present to you my personal favorites, in a way that both satisfies and flows.

Taking you on a series of epic trips. And thereby letting you know I love you.

Because that’s what those early anthologies did for me.

In closing: PLEASE KEEP OUR BOOKS ON YOUR SHELVES FOREVER, OKAY? Because that’s how we keep the torch alight.

And thank you thank you thank you.

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