Outsiders, edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick (Roc Books, 2005), is one of the best anthologies of short fiction to come out of the genre in some time. In fact, I would go so far as to call it pioneering, because it redraws the boundaries of the horror genre in a very successful way, in addition to being packed with excellent scary stories. It doesn’t call itself a horror anthology (instead, it is billed as “22 All New Stories from the Edge”), but if it were published in 1989, it certainly would broadcast its status as one. Virtually all the contributors (Bentley Little, Poppy Z. Brite, and Jack Ketchum, to name just three of the twenty-two) have been called “horror” writers or are still considered such by the public, so I find this book foremost an interesting commentary on the status of the horror genre. Essentially, horror authors have become “outsiders” to — and alienated by — mainstream publishing, which these days tends to eschew horror (not as a genre, per se, but as a marketing label or categorical “index”). Look at how the introduction dances around categories in poetic and fashionable terms, carving an identity in relation to dark fantasy: “Come with us and explore strange new worlds through stories that investigate the darkest of fantasies: a New Weird bathed in classic Gothic eeriness and touched by metaphors of human darkness.” These are perfectly legitimate terms for describing this “type” of fiction, but one can’t help but notice how unsettled it all is about the terminology. Just look at all the synonyms that Holder and Kilpatrick masterfully employ: strange, dark fantasy, New Weird, Gothic, eerie, dark. There’s almost an obvert attempt to disavow the term “horror” in all of this. But no matter how you slice it, it’s scary.
I’m not suggesting that this book is only so much traditional horror fiction repackaged to placate perceived trends in the market. It’s actually very contemporary and boundary-blurring. But there is a way in which the horror genre is the unnameable creature lurking beneath it all. Not outside, but in. And I like that. It’s subversive. I think it’s kind of neat that this book is virtually a horror compilation camouflaged as a collection of “edge” fiction. The best horror often subversively lurks in the clean and carpeted bookstores of America, waiting to surprise its reader when he or she cracks open the covers and the jack springs from its box. It’s when what’s outside one’s expectations crashes in that the horror erupts.
And maybe horror fiction ought to have been called “outsider” fiction all along, anyway: stories that explore unreality and the secret truths one can discover only by rejecting the mainstream realities that are handed to us, whether through the occult means of the supernatural story or the psychosis of the serial killer. Of course, “fantasy” is itself an alternate reality, so “dark fantasy” would be just as good a term. But fifty years ago, Colin Wilson wrote one of the defining books on such “existentialist” issues in fiction, called The Outsider, which deepens a reading of the Holder and Kilpatrick collection. The Outsider, Wilson argues, is a type of thinker akin to the doomed hero in H.G. Wells’ story, “The Country of the Blind”: he is the one man able to see the truth. As Wilson puts it: “To the objection that he is unhealthy and neurotic, [the Outsider] replies: ‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.’ His case, in fact, is that he is the one man who knows he is sick in a civilization that doesn’t know it is sick…even further…it is human nature that is sick, and the Outsider is the man who faces this unpleasant fact…a negative position which the Outsider declares to be the essence of the world as he sees it.” The revelation of this truth is the moment of horror. And this, I think, is what Robert Bloch meant when he proclaimed that “horror is the removal of masks.” Good dark fiction unmasks conventional reality to show another layer lurking beneath the surface, one often initially perceived as “sick” or “diseased.”
What was great about horror in its heyday was that it could take this status of “outsiderness” for granted, and cut a layer deeper. I’m not so sure that today’s fiction can go there, because the reader’s unreality, in some ways, has become so conventionalized under the onus of the unrealities of today’s media culture. The unreal is as close to us as our TV sets and computer monitors. And perhaps that’s what makes this collection so interesting to me. I suggested earlier that Outsiders could just have well have been published twenty years ago and that it’s exploring themes that are at least fifty — if not a hundred — years old. I’m tempted to say that horror fiction always points back to the old and the universal realities lurking under the surface of the new. But that isn’t quite fair because there is certainly a twenty-first century sense of alienation that is being explored here.
Take David J. Schow’s excellent contribution, “Expanding Your Capabilities Using Frame/Shift Mode” — a story about a DVD pirate who discovers a particularly bizarre effect on the “Frame/Shift” button on his remote control. The button allows him to manipulate objects on screen so that he can, for example, peel off layers of the actors clothing with it. It explores the assumption we have that “you just have to know the code; which buttons to push” in order to control our universe. And, if you know your Schow, you know that he will explore the fetishism of media technology by “pushing the buttons” all the way to the extreme. Inevitably, the character with his remote is not only voyeuristically getting off on undressing actresses on the screen, but also removing their skin. Literally, Schow is “removing the mask” of not only the screen image but also our relation to such things; and the protagonist of this story not only excessively gets off on watching, say, skeletons having sex, he explores home movies and considers starting a variation on the porn business…until things take a surprising turn. This is a horror story in the traditional sense. About a lonely outsider. And yet it is also about today’s fantasies, today’s social relations, today’s media technology fetishism. It reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Fermata, in its representation of a “control fantasy.” And it’s one of my favorites in the collection.
Also excellent is Steve Rasnic Tem’s opening story, “The Company You Keep” (which is as surrealist in its method as a painting by Magritte) about a “nowhere man” so lonely, he somehow finds himself surrounded by a pack of others who are exactly like him, all of them making the same exact gestures and expressions. This “legion” of mirror-image figures becomes almost a herd, and soon we uncover Tem’s wry comment on our culture: that we are all so utterly alone, and yet ironically bonded by our alienation. In that, we find community as “outsiders.” But Tem takes a horrifying turn when he reveals that this alienation can coldly lead to our self-destruction. It’s one of Tem’s best stories ever, and a perfect “opener” to this book — which raises the issue regarding the human condition today in a stunning manner. It’s quite a brilliant allegory.
And there’s much more. While a few of the stories in Outsiders don’t quite match the caliber of Tem’s brilliance or the level of Schow’s darkness, the book as a whole is definitely a work of excellence and an example of the best horror fiction being written today, even if it doesn’t call itself such. The stories by Kathe Koja, Michael Marano, Bentley Little, Brian Hodge, Elizabeth Engstrom, Eliabeth Massie and Joe Lansdale are all outstanding because they are intelligent and sophisticated — and offering up comments on what it means to be alienated in today’s unreal wold. This collection is worthy of acclaim.
Also worth acclaim: half of the contributors to Outsiders are women and the book is edited by two women. That’s remarkable, I think. And perhaps even a retroactively ironic statement on what the “insiders” of the horror trade may have neglected and marginalized in the heyday of the genre at their own peril: inclusiveness.
Outsiders is a $14.95 trade paperback available from Roc Books. A must read. (So is H.G. Wells’ story, which you can find in a book that would make a good compliment to this one, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, edited by Italo Calvino).