||[Feb. 1st, 2009|12:13 pm]
International Bon Vivant and Raconteur
The horror genre can pretty much be divided into two camps. In the first, and most utilized, horror stories are essentially tales of the status quo under attack from outside forces. Destroy the threat and the status quo is saved. But what if you're what the status quo finds threatening? That brings us to the second camp, the story of the Outsider, the person who doesn't fit into society's self-described norm. There's plenty of terror to be mined from this second kind of horror story, just as much as there is from the first, and frankly I don't know why it isn't utilized more. The horror genre is perfect for exploring Outsider themes.
As you might imagine, Unspeakable Horror, an anthology of queer horror fiction edited by Vince A. Liaguno and Chad Helder, touches on the Outsider theme quite a bit. When society demands you have sex with only one kind of person -- your gender opposite -- sometimes under threat of exile, imprisonment or death, those who are wired for same-sex attraction are the ultimate Outsiders. Unlike criminals, for instance, they didn't get where they are through making bad choices. The persecution stems simply from who they are as people. They are the other, Outsiders, defined as sinners and perverts entirely because of who they love. It would be an almost absurdly laughable science-fictional concept if it weren't true.
Unspeakable Horror explores this and other themes pertaining to queer life in twenty-three stories where the best run the gamut from sexy to disturbing to terrifying. Not every story worked for me, but that's always the case with anthologies. Only one story stood out as completely shitty and unworthy of inclusion, which is actually a pretty good ratio for a small press anthology, and only one story demanded to be skipped entirely because the author is crazy and not worth anyone's time, which believe it or not is also a pretty small number when dealing with small press horror! A few stories didn't resonate with me at all, but even if they didn't grab me most were still pretty accomplished.
Among my favorites: Jude Wright's "Cask," which reworks Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" as a twisted love story between Fortunato and Montressor. Great idea, though I was hoping a little more would be done with the concept than the Tales from the Crypt-style ending. Joy Marchand's "Black Annis" turns the fairy tale concept on its head, painting the fairy here as a monster, though one the protagonist is tempted to employ to kill off his homophobic tormentors. A very accomplished and multilayered story. Michelle Scalise's "I Am the Shadow That Walks There" is a masterpiece of a ghost story involving a shellshocked World War I veteran and his lover who went missing on the battlefield. If this story is indicative of her abilities, I look forward to tracking down more of her work.
I liked Michael Hacker's "Vourdalak" almost in spite of itself. There are a lot of problems with the story, including the fact that none of the main characters are simply human beings, everyone's got a special, eternal magic to them, and the fact that one character kills another's lover doesn't stop the second from seducing the first into bed mere minutes after discovering the crime. And yet, I did enjoy this story, perhaps because of Hacker's ability to write like he's actually in the 1800s, or maybe because of the unrepentant ending. Lee Thomas' "I'm Your Violence" is an exceptional horror story, though oddly it's not that queer in its theme. The police detective protagonist and the man whose death he's investigating are gay, but that sexuality doesn't really come into play, it's there as background instead. Still, it's an outstanding piece.
Livia Llewellyn's "The Engine of Desire" may be my favorite story in the anthology. It's sexy, terrifying, creepy and disturbing. Its theme is one of seduction, not Outsiderness, and that makes it a nice standout from the other stories. Sarah Langan's "The Agathas," the final story in the book, is also one of the best, and the most explicitly Outsider horror of them all. With its exploration of superstition and bigotry in the midst of weird miracles, "The Agathas" is genius and tragic and far more universal than one might expect to find in an anthology devoted to queer themes.
All in all, I found Unspeakable Horror to be quite an accomplished anthology. While some of the authors involved clearly have room to grow when it comes to their control of language or finding the right ending for an otherwise interesting story idea, I found this anthology well worth my time, especially for the stories I mentioned above. Recommended for readers who love horror, fantasy and erotica, and who have a sympathy for the Outsider.