Book: Vile Things: Extreme Deviations of Horror
Author: Various, edited by Cheryl Mullenax
Type of Book: Extreme horror, short story collection, fiction
Why I Considered This Book Odd: My arbitrary criteria tells me that I need to review and discuss extreme horror over here. And extreme horror does often fall under the auspices of what is odd because true foulness is often very weird.
Availability: Published by Comet Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I don’t know. Extreme horror just isn’t that extreme for me anymore except in what seems like the pervasive poverty of concept. I’m unsure if I’ve just read so much real extreme horror, meaning nastiness with a real plot and real characterization, and splatter, which makes no pretense about being simply an attempt to gross-out, that it takes a lot to move me. Perhaps I just lucked out in the beginning of my literary life and read good horror, good extreme horror and now little measures up. I mean, you have writers out there like Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee, who write hard content in the course of telling one mean story. The horrific content happens because the tale itself is horrific but you get a plot, you get characters you give a damn about, you get a tight story that draws you in even as it appalls you. Then you have collections like Excitable Boys that are meant to be grotesque and nothing else and present no pretense otherwise. And then you have collections like this, wherein the stories which were meant to be actual stories were poorly written vehicles in which to deliver a gross-out, and not very gross gross-outs at that.
I know, I know, some are going to be tempted to say, “Look, Sugarpants, you just don’t get extreme horror. It’s not meant to be good fiction.” To which I say, “Feh.” Too many writers manage to get it right, marrying excellent story-telling and fabulous gore, for this argument to hold water. Accepting the mediocre because it is gross demeans the whole genre. This collection was neither good stories with extreme content nor a straightforward nausea-fest and as neither fish nor foul, it occupies an uneasy nether land, all the more uneasy because the stories were so… nothing. Nothing to them. It never bodes well when after reading a collection of short stories, I find myself rereading the whole thing because I can’t remember it. Sometimes you need a refresher when you want to discuss a story. You can jog your memory by reading a few lines. Not here. I had to reread entire chunks of many of these stories to recall what they were about, so unimpressive were they as a lot. A few were decent, three were quite good, but the rest were terrible and one so bad I could not get past the first few paragraphs.
It is not too much to ask that a story decide what it wants to be. Be a good tale with nastiness or nothing but nastiness but don’t waste the reader’s time with poorly constructed drek passed off as characterization and plot so you can include some cannibalism or butt-related content. Write something a person can remember after reading it, dammit.
“The Fisherman” by Brian Rosenberger was a middling story. A fisherman discovers the real reasons his rival manages to catch so many fish. It was entertaining enough, there was some gore and some might find it extreme, but largely the story was not inventive or interesting enough to really feel strongly about it. Also, I am unsure why I find the “bad man assumes the habits of worse man in a sort of gotcha ending” trope so tiresome, but I do.
Randy Chandler’s “Fungoid” wasn’t too bad, actually. Sort of foul, somewhat interesting, I didn’t feel cheated at the end and in a collection this mediocre, you take what you can get. A man down on his luck cleaning homes in a doomed neighborhood finds himself victim of a natural horror. There’s something old school about this story that I have a hard time putting my finger on. It has a sort of 1950s horror mag feel about it that made me nostalgic for the time when I first discovered Stephen King (and maybe it reminded me a little of poor Jordy Verrill).
“Tenant’s Rights” by Sean Logan was a story about a demented roommate whose egoist roommate is edging him out of his rented room, and how he does his best to sabotage the attempt. The characters were caricatures – slimy boyfriend, crazy roommate, senile grandparents, dopey girlfriend. This story was not particularly clever, and the gross-out was not worth reading through what one has to read to get to it. The lack of subtlety in this one was stark. Itch powder in the crotch goes horribly wrong. Sigh…
Ramsey Campbell’s “Again” was one of three highlights in the book. A creepy, demented woman lures a helpful man into a situation he almost cannot get out of, a vague description but since this story was quite good, I don’t want to give away the essential plot. Unlike some of the other stories where crotches dissolve and women have things shoved up their vaginas, this story was genuinely uncomfortable. Campbell set a scene that made my skin crawl in a story that blended the grotesque and the gross and wove it into a gripping narrative. As I read the story, I almost hoped it would not be as well-crafted as it was because it is almost a ringer to love Campbell in this collection. But the man is a pro and a well-loved pro for a reason.
Tim Curran’s “Maggots” was the second shining star in this collection. Again, the difference boils down into merging the horrific details with a fine story, setting scene and creating characters as opposed to slinging words around some foul scenarios and calling it a story. A French soldier survives Napoleon’s failed invasion in Russia via cannibalism and picks up an obsession he cannot shake. This is one of the best stories involving a realistic ghoul that I have ever read. The mental anguish the protagonist experiences, the visceral nature of his obsession – it was a perfect marriage of extreme horror and fine writing.
Stefan Pearson’s story, “Going Green” missed the mark. A loathsome man creates “green” energy using the undead. The story was okay, but it was predictable, a cat gets killed (a completely personal note, but animal death in a story has to be really justified for me or I get annoyed and we already knew the protagonist in this piece was a complete bag o’ shite before the cat killing), the smell of human rot is a punchline (lol dead woman with so many air fresheners around her neck she looks like Mr. T – I actually groaned when I read that line) and the protagonist was utterly one-dimensional.
“Coquettrice” by Angel Leigh McCoy… I can’t even tell you my opinion because this story resonated with me so poorly that to remember any of it would have required a complete, word for word, second reading. Skimming through it, it was as if I had never before read it. And I refuse to read it a second time. It could be amazing and I blanked (which seldom happens when I read anything amazing but never say never), or it could be an enormous waste of time. I can’t tell you. I simply don’t remember and do not want to invest any more time.
“The Fear in the Waiting” by C.J. Henderson was another that did not have the power after a three week respite to cause me to recall much more than it was a Lovecraft homage. Again, could have been great, could have been terrible – I simply do not remember and skimming does not jog my memory. I suspect that having zero memory of something after you read it when you are known as a relatively careful reader is a clue.
“The Worm” by John Bruni was the best of the midding stories, approaching quite good. The content is horrific, but none of it matches the sheer horror of being in one’s 30s and living with one’s alcoholic mother. The incestuous part of the story was… nauseating? Grotesque? Call it what you want but the characterization and use of the taboo gave this story real tension. The foulness was just a nice bonus.
“Sepsis” by Graham Masterson was not too bad, either. Again with the dead cats, but this one was a little easier on my cat-woman psyche. A man and a woman become so enmeshed with one another that they find a way to remain together forever. I think this one suffered a bit from too much story – had some of the story outside the two lovers been trimmed down (the attempted intervention by the coach comes to mind), this story would have benefited, but given the company this story keeps, that’s a minor criticism indeed. The gore was extreme, especially at the end, but there was enough unsettling action – the way the lovers interact – that this story could stand alone without the gore, but Masterson used such details deftly.
“What You Wish For” by Garry Bushell was predictable. Nasty harridan who hits upon a gold mine gets hoist by her own petard. The only thing extreme about this story was how predictable it is. It wasn’t a fabulous story and the gore was restrained – nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to write home about either.
“The Devil Lives in New Jersey” by C.F. Kilgore also mined a predictable trope – police chief down on his luck moves to a small town only to find the case that haunted him moved with him. This story set my teeth on edge for a number of reasons. First, it suffered from the syndrome that plagues many secondary Stephen King characters. King is one of the finest writers today, genre be damned, but some of the dialogue and characteristics he gives to women grate. Kilgore’s teen girl giggles, she uses the word “Sweetie” when addressing her boyfriend, she gags when she is confronted by merely the idea of something gross, she gets sexually demeaned (evidently she swallows a lot of semen and her boyfriend feels okay bringing this up in the middle of raising the devil, as you do) and of course, she ends up dead with foreign objects shoved up her vagina. Then there is the whole topic of Satanism. It feels like this was written in 1985 because the story reads like a Satanic Panic description of devil worship. Because the protagonist is an expert on Satanism, when his son decides he wants to go to a supposed gateway to Hell, he pilfers a book from his father’s collection and has in a bag black candles, chalices, a small sword – you know, all the things that you’d expect to see in a Hammer movie. It annoys me that this story annoyed me so much (yeah, that’s a mangled sentence) because the story itself was interesting once you got past the initial predictability. The depth of the gore was balanced by a pretty decent story that only kicks in about half-way through. Overall, the piece suffered from its flaws too much to be a good story.
“Rat King” by Jeffrey King continued in the trend of mining predictable veins: Concentration camp guard gets what is coming to him with bonus homosexuality, which seems to be the trend whenever Nazis are used in fiction. But overall, this story was entertaining and while the horror of it didn’t really work out on paper for me, this is not a math equation and if you can look at the human rat king in the story with the spirit intended, it is pretty disgusting and repellent. But the pathos needed for me to give a crap about any of the characters was missing.
“The Caterpillar” by C. Dennis Moore was another of the top stories in this collection. It’s a tale of supernatural body horror that still remains grounded enough for the reader to experience the horror in a visceral manner. The characterization was top notch and the plot had an emotional level in it that is often missing in horror stories. I was unfamiliar with Moore until I read this story and intend to visit his site to see what else he has out there to read.
“‘Poor Brother Ed’ or The Man Who Visited” by Ralph Greco, Jr is the story I quit reading on the second page. I’m unsure if I had fatigue from the entire collection, or if it was the fact that five, possibly six characters were tossed at me casually in the first ten paragraphs. I twice tried to make myself read it but the onslaught of countrified characters made me stop both times. I can stomach such tactics in novels because I know I will be able to sort it out as the novel unfolds, but that is not a luxury one has in a short story. When I am reading and realize that even though the character is called Ed in the title but is Joshua in the story and I am having difficulty knowing if Mama Lee and Mama Bell are the same person, it’s time to throw in the towel.
So here you are: Three good stories, four decent enough, two stories so unremarkable I cannot recall them three weeks out, five stories that were overall not very good, and one so bad I could not even finish it. This is not a collection I would recommend, though as I said, I definitely plan to see what else C. Dennis Moore has to say. The only reason I don’t wholly regret reading this collection is because I sense a very good writer has now come across my radar.