Saturday, October 15, 2011

Douglas Clegg, The Nightmare Chronicles (1999)

Clegg, Douglas, The Nightmare Chronicles, New York: Leisure Books, 1999. 360 pages

Overall 8/10
At Goodreads
Douglas Clegg's friendly website.

For some months now I've been wanting to read something by Douglas Clegg, having seen his paperbacks in various bookstores. I picked up this copy of The Nightmare Chronicles a few days ago in a Dubai second hand bookshop called Book World, for 16 dirhams (about 4.50 CAD). The book shop, of moderate size, is stocked full with titles, more than reasonably priced, and you can even return a book in condition and receive 50% of what you paid. Damn good idea, I think. Only problem is Book World deals mainly in bestsellers, mostly recent, so you won't find anything obscure. Also, one of the two employees continuously interrupted me by pushing books under my nose: "How about this, sir?" "You like Dan Brown, sir?" "Lots of people like this author, sir" ("this author" being Sidney Sheldon, who I've never read). The experience was becoming a nightmare chronicle of its own; I like to browse and to be left alone. Especially in a second hand book shop.

Digressions aside, I was truly impressed with this collection, and was not surprised to learn that it received the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection, and the 1999 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

There is not a single story in the collection I did not like, and there are at least three that really stand out. What I like about Clegg, or at least about these stories, is that they are well written, patiently constructed, with a healthy emphasis on characterization. The thirteen stories were published between 1993 and 1999, two of which were original to the collection. The stories are framed by a narrative in which a woman named Alice (a name that is interestingly given to at least three other characters throughout the stories) and her two sons have kidnapped a boy for ransom. It turns out that this boy is not quite of this world, and has the ability to project nightmares onto his captors. The nightmares he projects are the thirteen stories. While the framing narrative is unnecessary, and not as well constructed as the stories themselves, it is still nonetheless interesting.

There are a number of themes & ideas that appear throughout the work. There is emphasis on religion, relationships and skin. Religion appears in various forms, from misled zealots to avenging angel-monsters. Relationships vary throughout, from unfaithful lovers to masculine prison love, and all forms of familial relations, and its the tightness of some of the relationships that makes the threats in the stories all the more frightening. When the horror is endangering someone with whom we've formed an emotional bond, there is more at stake. Finally, skin makes several appearances throughout. Clegg deals frequently with human skin and the strange worlds that we hide underneath. We have skins acting as trophies, metamorphosing, housing other creatures and even embodying strange worlds. We even receive brief lessons regarding insects and exoskeletons, that, unlike us, have their soft spots safely on the inside. Overall, the skins in these stories generated a better framework than the story of Alice and the kidnapped boy-devil, and I enjoyed Clegg's ideas regarding skin so much that I waited for its appearance in each piece.

There is also a nice "Afterword" in which Clegg briefly details the influence for each story. I always appreciate these touches.

Underworld    7/10     (Phantasm #3, 1996, as "Underground")

Aspiring writer Oliver takes his pregnant wife Jenny to a Szechuan restaurant in Palladin Row, a forgotten street in New York City. Shortly thereafter Jenny is murdered, and a year later, still dealing with his grief, Oliver visits the Szechuan restaurant, and looking through its boarded windows he believes he can see his dead wife. The story is written in a distant first person voice which helps us to quickly pass through the details of Jenny's death, which is a good thing since the story is not about her death, but about... something entirely different. Clegg does well in putting the story's necessary details together and delivering a quick read that, while offering nothing straightforwardly shocking, does offer an ending that makes the reader think, considering the implications of what just happened.

Spoiler: Now, learning that the infant spent a year being looked after by an imp or devil of some kind, I wonder how Oliver can integrate it into society. I don't mean psychologically or emotionally, but practically. Will he show up at the hospital and try to explain that he just retrieved his son from hell, and can he please have a birth certificate? And what would later be the birthplace listed on his passport? What would he tell his friends or even his lover? But all this aside, there is a nice ambiguity to the baby's existence since he was fed by hell's minions and we can wonder how he will turn out. Of course, the main point here is that the creatures of hell can be creatures of compassion. Or maybe the kid was just darned cute.

"Underworld," under its original title "Underground," was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best Horror: Volume Eight, edited by Stephen Jones, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1997.

White Chapel     7/10     (Love in Vein: Twenty Original Tales of Vampiric Erotica, edited by Poppy Z. Brite and Martin Harry Greenberg, New York: HarperPrism, November 1994)
Journalist Jane Boone has been conducting research on the elusive killer Nathan Meritt, "The White Devil," or otherwise known as "The Hero Who Skinned A Thousand Faces." She has travelled with her photographer Rex and two wealthy tourists to a secluded region of India where she believes he has taken refuge, a place called "White Chapel," where the jealous Monkey God resides.

Among the horror sub-genres that tend to bore me (usually because so many are so alike) is that of the ancient gods and their spells that still linger in the modern world. Yet Clegg has managed to put together a dark fantasy that works beyond the stereotypes of the sub-genre, that has little to do with silly mortals seeking fortune only to fall under a spell they are too rational to believe in. For one thing, the god is nearly mortal and hence more accessible (especially compared to the run of tales that appeared in the 1930s and 40s). "White Chapel" touches on notions of the inner self in conflict with the public self, and the negligible difference between pleasure and pain. With a mostly straightforward telling, a foreign land imbued with its smells and sights, along with its well-drawn characters (though the dialogue and accents did at times distract), Clegg's modern version of the ancient gods tale, with its modern horror inclinations (the references to serial killing and child abuse) is well worth a read.

O, Rare and Most Exquisite     7/10     (Lethal Kisses, ed. Ellen Datlow, Millennium, 1996.)
In the nursing facility of a retirement home, a seventeen year-old boy meets Gus, a sickly retired gardener. From a tin box filled with sand, the old man produces a withered flower, and recounts his woeful tale of love for his former employer, and of the strange woman who loved him and gave him the rarest and most beautiful of flowers.

A strange and strangely touching story, I wonder only how someone as enchanting as Moira can love someone as bitter and selfish as Gus. It is certainly, among other things, a story of misplaced affections and , aside from Moira, the consequences of selfish desire.

Only Connect. (The Conspiracy Files, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Scott H. Urban, NY: DAW Books, August 1998) 7/10
Jim sells train tickets at a small Connecticut railway station, and the night the train derails, killing seventy-nine, Jim is struck with an incredible headache and hallucinatory visions. The visions continue to strike at different points, transporting him into the body of Mrs. Catherine Earnshaw, a middle-aged resident of an English hospital. The name Catherine Earnshaw is of course a nod to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Among the most straightforwardly suspenseful stories of the collection, due to the mystery of its premise. "Only Connect" is reminiscent of some of Philip K. Dick's work, like Time Out of Joint (1959), as well as the excellent The Outer Limits episode "Tempests," (1997) as we try to figure out which reality is the "real" thing. A strong story, I found it slightly weakened by the bookend paragraphs, the cautionary framing voice that detracts from the story's focus. I wonder if this were an afterthought, or something requested by the editors.

The Fruit of Her Womb     6/10     (Phantoms of the Night, edited by Richard Gilliam and Martin H. Greenberg, NY: DAW Books, June 1996)
Retired high school teacher James Richter and his wife Jackie move into an isolated California home to enjoy a peaceful final decade. They soon learn, however, that a previous owner of their new home, Joe Redlander, murdered his entire family. Rather than being disturbed, Richter is intrigued and his interest in the mystery soon turns to an obsession.

Not an original idea by any stretch, the story is nonetheless well written, and the strong characterization of James, Jackie and their relationship salvage this otherwise weaker story. The problem is that it ends as one would expect such a story to end, and that the Egyptology and Persephone myths seemed glossed over, as though mere excuses for the supernatural occurrences; though the ambiguity with the supernatural works well. The story also features the visuals and scents that help make Clegg's stories so concrete.

The Rendering Man     8/10     (Cemetery Dance #19, Volume 6, No. 1, edited by Richard T. Chizmar, Winter 1994. pp 37-47)
In 1934 Oklahoma, eleven year-old Thalia Inez Canty and her big brother Lucius take care of the family farm while their parents are away at work. When they find the corpse of their sow rotting in the dirt, they take it to the Rendering Man, for he pays well for dead things, skilled at finding a use for their different parts.

Among the strongest stories of the collection, "The Rendering Man" is very well written, revealing itself patiently through well-rounded scenes and strong characters. The story contains some rewarding surprises, and a great connection between internationally and historically significant atrocities, and the atrocities humans are capable of on a quieter scale, closer to home. More allusions to skin and our inability to hide from who we are.

The Night Before Alec Got Married     8/10     (Palace Corbie #5, Vol. 3, No. 1, edited by Wayne Edwards & Helen Homan, Lincoln NE: Merrimack Books, 1994)
Among a preppy crowd of socially hungry twenty-somethings, a couple of guys search the streets for the perfect prostitute for their most popular friend's bachelor party.

The story is narrated by one friend to another, so there is an interesting mix of first and second person narratives that is unusual and refreshing. The second person "you" is inherently aimed at both the intended, unnamed character and the reader, yet since the unnamed character is such an immature buffoon, the fact that we the reader is included in the "you" adds an element of humour, especially when we're told early on that we managed to get two of our fingers shot off. The humour helps highlight the notions of human relationships, particularly the trappings of social acceptance and how one's entourage defines one's self. The narrator's focus on homo-eroticism is a fitting detail. Beyond this there is, of course, a truly creepy element that is revealed only at the end.

The Ripening Sweetness of Late Afternoon     7/10     (Dante's Disciples, edited by Peter Crowther & Edward E. Kramer, White Wolf, 1996)
Travelling preacher Roy Shadiak returns to his hometown of Sunland City hoping to atone for a double murder he committed many years before. In the meantime, however, Sunland City has been plagued by monstrous angels who swoop down at midday to carry off any townspeople who may be wandering outdoors.

A compelling story with a truly disturbing idea and a good ending. I felt the story did take time getting to its core, a feeling I shared with three stories in this collection; the preamble of Shadiak's wanderings and the slow-paced return could possibly have been shortened. I was also caught by the grammatical ambiguity of the opening: "Sunland City was the last place in the world Jesus was ever going to come looking for Roy Shadiak. // He returned to his hometown in his fortieth year..." The "He" can be either Roy or that other person, but of course it's referring to Roy.

Chosen     8/10     (The Nightmare Chronicles, NY: Leisure Books, 1999)
Rob Arlington lives alone in an over-priced, roach-infested apartment building in New York City. One night as he's doing laundry in the basement, he discovers something truly horrific in one of the garbage disposal shafts, which soon paves the way for something even more disturbing.

My synopsis is vague since I don't want to reveal even the slightest plot point of a truly creepy story. "Chosen" is not only disturbing, but featuring yet another patiently-told tale with solid characters and atmosphere. Moreover, the story is well focused, and though a little longer than most, it never feels overly-long. The second of my three favourite stories in the collection. Interestingly, protagonist Rob has turned forty, the same age as Clegg, assuming he wrote it the year before the story first saw print in the collection.

"The Little Mermaid"     6/10     (The Nightmare Chronicles, NY: Leisure Books, 1999)
Divorced middle-aged Alice lives by the beach. She has been noticing an old man collecting shells, and when she sprains her ankle he quickly comes to her aid. As they talk he mentions that when he was a boy he believed in mermaids, and now that he is growing old his youthful beliefs are returning.

The second story to first see print in the collection, it is not as engaging as "Chosen" but is nonetheless a good read. Disturbing, certainly, but I seem to prefer Clegg's work to be a little longer, since I enjoy his attention to detail and characterization.

Damned if You Do     7/10     (Cemetery Dance #16, Volume 5, No. 2, edited by Richard T. Chizmar, Spring 1993. pp 4-11)
A sixty-three year-old man is burying his wife in his yard. I won't expand so as not to ruin any surprises. A good read, it manages to garner sympathy for the elderly killer.

The Hurting Season     7/10     (Deathrealm, edited by Mark Rainey, Fall 1993. pp 7-10)
Theron wonders why his father has to hurt. Living completely isolated across from Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, has made his family notorious for their differences. When a Yankee reporter 's car breaks down nearby, Theron sees it as an opportunity to stop his father from hurting. Another story with a slow start, but again it's well written and the reporter's appearance alters the pace and builds to a great climax. A story of the middle-of-nowhere outcasts along the lines of Deliverance, but nothing like James Dickey's novel; this story is told from the point of view of the member of the outcast family rather than the civilized outsider. Theron, however, is only partly an outsider as he questions the family traditions. He is, however, inevitably fated to follow those traditions. How touching.

I Am Infinite: I Contain Multitudes     8/10     (Palace Corbie 7, eds. Wayne Edwards and John Marshall, Lincoln, NE: Merrimack Books, 1997)
A man in prison is given the opportunity to escape by a wizened inmate who everyone believes is God. An incredible story, deserving of the recognition it has received. I've always liked prison stories, and not only is the concept of this one, along with its fantastic ending, highly original, Clegg's emphasis on relationships and basic human needs is well characterized and well written.

Nominated for the 1997 Bram Stoker Award, Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, and included in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling), July 1998. Hopefully it will find its way into a popular anthology.


Douglas Clegg said...

First, thank you for reading my first collection of stories. You've written a remarkable critique/opinion, and it's refreshing for me to read this after all these years being apart from those stories.

Any flaws or issues in the stories were directly from me. No editor ever suggested anything -- thus, with "Only Connect," it was all my intention, for better or worse.

In terms of Gus, in O, Rare and Most Exquisite -- given that he, himself, is telling the tale, well, perhaps he has grown bitter over the years and paints himself as this monstrous lover when in fact, his age and loss of love made him self-loathing and monstrous and that dried flower is the one eternal thing that he can't deny: someone once loved him when he was young. And he probably messed it up.

I don't know for sure, since Gus never told me anything else, and I had to get out of that room fast...

Regarding the title of "Underworld" versus "Underground," -- when the story was originally published, I titled it "Underworld." But the editor at the time mistyped this as "Underground." (Or he saw it as "Underground" in his head.) He was -- and is -- a good, conscientious person but everyone mistypes something now and then, and I didn't catch the mistype until after the story was originally published.

When it was bought for inclusion in a "year's best," anthology later, I just let it go. This nagged at me a bit, as I felt "Underworld" was more accurate in terms of the intended glimpse in the story -- which is a sympathy for the devil (or, perhaps, from the devil) tale. So, I returned to the original title.

As a spoiler: my take was that his wife -- who slept with others -- had given birth to the devil's child (because she'd had a fling with him, no doubt), which is why the baby was suckled in hell (how often do you get to say or write that phrase in life?) and now, Oliver is going to raise the boy. A further aside, I named the characters Oliver and Jenny as a homage to the husband and wife in the once-popular novel and movie, Love Story.

Again, thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful reading of my stories. I'm glad Dubai's secondhand store had the book. What would we all do -- as readers -- without secondhand book shops?

Casual Debris said...

Thank you so much for responding to my review. I enjoyed the collection tremendously & even sent you a link to the review on Goodreads.

I always appreciate additional background information. This is likely from a background in literary study & my penchant for anecdotal reference, rather than from being a writer. The mind becomes trained, and alas...

I agree that "Underworld" is a better title, though I read the story slightly differently. Not that Jenny had relations with a demon, but that the the denizens of hell somehow accrued sympathy for this child that did not belong where the mother had taken it (hell). Ambiguities in short stories add greater dimensions, & I think it's best to have these interpretations, especially since Oliver himself will never know the truth, & he's the direct link to the writer.

The bookends in "Only Connect" is a minor detail, though when re-reading later on (a frequent habit) I'll try to avoid them & see if the story's impact is affected.

The name "Clegg" had been in the background of my mind for some time (though I can't recall who recommended your work), & during my two weeks in Dubai I had a lot of free time to read. I was glued & read the collection quite quickly. When I get through my current stack of reading I'll certainly head to the book store for more of your work.

All the best.

Douglas Clegg said...

I like your take on Underworld. The kindness of demons should never be underestimated.

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