Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Horror versus Europe, Part 1.

Everywhere I go, everyone asks me the same question: "Should I read the classic horror fiction anthologies Dark Forces and The Best of Shadows, or should I instead read Best European Fiction 2010?" I'm always embarrassed to admit that I've never read any of them... until now.

Dark Forces. A classic anthology of horror fiction from 1980, edited by Kirby McCauley.

The Best of Shadows, another anthology of horror stories, this one edited by Charles L. Grant.

Best European Fiction 2010. Another anthology, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. 

Here's the deal: the 2 horror collections, combined, have roughly the same number of stories as the European Fiction 2010 anthology. I'm going to read through the books, and pair one horror story with one European story, giving a post to each pairing. The first story from Dark Forces gets paired with the first story from BEF 2010, then the second story from DF with the second from BEF 2010, etc.

First up: The Late Shift by Dennis Etchison Vs. The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi.

Late Shift: a (presumably white) guy and his Native American friend (who, like all Native Americans in supernatural stories, is mystically plugged in to relevant lore) bump into an acquaintance who is now working the late shift at a crummy convenience store and seems really confused by life. The protagonists do some sniffing around and discover that someone is using dead bodies, between death and burial, to do a little extra zombie slave labor in... crummy third shift jobs. The conspiracy doesn't want word to get out.

Etchison's interest in the unglamourous side of modern American life is intriguing in a Denis Johnsonish way, and his use of the zombie trope as a tool for interrogating labor exploitation (not for nothing is the zombie friend Latino) is clever, but Etchison shifts from the horror of dead-end employment to pro forma thriller stuff. If only he'd seen his better ideas through instead of coasting into routine cat and mouse claptrap. 

In one odd scene, a villain witnesses for Christianity to another villain. In some writer's hands this would just be a cheap swipe at religious hypocrisy, but Etchison seems to understand the way people who do bad things try to maintain some faith in their own goodness... as well as a religious sense of meaning to justify exploitation.

Fun bit from Etchison's bio: "He is also keenly interested in screen writing..." That's one way to hang out your shingle.



The Country Where No One Ever Dies: A confessional tale with the feel of a fable. People in Albania are too tough to die, especially mean aunts who keep picking on you about how you're gonna grow up to be a slut because your mom's beautiful and your dad left. Without being a horror tale, this is full of ambiguous intimations of death, along with youthful worries about sexuality, and ironic scrutiny of social expectations in conservative cultures. Where Late Shift plays on the alienation of modern society, The Country Where No One Ever Dies plays on the tight, tight bonds and binds of a family-rooted culture that is always watching and judging. 

Compare/Contrast: Both stories suggest a culture that has a lot of activity but that regulates that activity with constrictive boundaries and a lot of nasty dead ends. Both use understated comic hyperbole to emphasize their angry satirical points. (I insist on the validity of the word pairing "understated hyperbole").

Verdict: Etchison lets thriller rigamarole dissipate the more interesting elements of his story. Vorpsi stays locked in to her real subject, and her story stays powerful all the way through.

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