October 2008

Books to make you shiver

By Leslie S. Klinger
By Peter Straub
By Robert E. Howard
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Leslie S. Klinger's great virtue as an editor is his sublimely willful and scrupulous disregard for the boundary between historical fact and literary falsehood. In The New Annotated Dracula, he reprises the same "gentle fiction" (as he calls it) of his earlier annotated Sherlock Holmes, treating Stoker's novel as nonfiction: real events happening to real persons.

After a brief preface in which he explains his trick, Klinger's edition becomes a surreal treat, exploiting the "real-life" flavor of the book's succession of journal entries and letters. The horror of Stoker's deathless chronicle radiates into the margins, where Klinger's copious and deadpan efforts to elucidate the narrative's context and complexity ring with the authority of a Talmudic commentary on this unholiest of scriptures.

So many commentators on Dracula (whom Klinger, with his comprehensive knowledge of the literature, gratefully cites) have marveled over and tried to explain the book's peculiar power and endurance in our culture, all the more bewildering in light of its author's absolute mediocrity in every one of his other publications. For the subsequent history of horror fiction, one of the most influential aspects of Stoker's work must be its thrilling psychological insight into our fear of the Other.

The undisputed king of pulp fiction, Robert E. Howard spawned far too many inferior imitators—that is to say, almost every teenaged, middle-class American boy throughout the latter decades of the 20th century. This was the dreadful literary legacy Peter Straub had to overcome when he and his fellow horror writers of higher, Edgar-Allan-Poetic ambition took the field about 25 years ago.

Poe's Children: The New Horror celebrates their collective achievement. "Literary horror" may be an oxymoron, but Straub & co. have the stalwart heart—and the creeping heartlessness—to care not a whit. In composing the dooms of their hapless characters in such memorable cadences, the authors in this anthology thumb noses and other bleeding appendages at all the nabobs of the literary establishment who would consign horror fiction forever to the hell of the genre shelves. The works of Elizabeth Hand, Kelly Link, Jonathan Carroll, the incomparable John Crowley and the terrific new kid on the block Joe Hill (who comes right after his dad Stephen King in this collection), prove that the very worst things imaginable invariably demand the very best style in the telling of them.

Straub complains bitterly in his introduction about publishers who will do anything to sell their new horror books, including the unforgivable sin of placing clich

The beloved American writer Robert E. Howard ran amok with the theme of "the other" in his many horror stories of the 1930s, gathered in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, the latest installment in the Robert E. Howard Library from Del Rey, with startling illustrations by graphic artist Greg Staples. Inspired by his matchless contemporary H.P. Lovecraft, Howard created an entire cosmology of a horrific Outside impinging upon our world, waiting for our merest transgression to come hurtling through to kill us, or worse, torment us for eternity. We can never know for sure the reasons for his suicide in 1936, but it surely cannot have been easy for Howard to live in a universe crowded with horrors he believed in with enough conviction to body them forth with ghastly imaginative force, in tale after grisly tale.

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