Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dark Gods

Recently, somewhere or another, I found a list of the "forgotten classics" of speculative fiction. One of the entries on the list was The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein. Intrigued by the description of Klein as Lovecraft with a modern sensibility and knowing my local comic shop owner is a fan of the horror genre, I asked him what he knew. A week or so later, Dark Gods, a collection of novellas and short stories, showed up at the store for me. I would not consider myself a fan of horror, though I have learned to enjoy Lovecraft, dancing as he does on the line between the genres of speculative fiction. So when critics compare an author so favorably to Lovecraft, I'm willing to give it a try, especially when the book is a gift. As it turns out, I'm grateful to have learned of Klein and getting the book. There is a very Lovecraftian sensibility to the stories in Dark Gods (it helps that one of them, "Black Man with a Horn," is narrated by a fictional companion of Lovecraft's). But something about the stories makes Lovecraft's connections to Edgar Allan Poe that much more clear. And anything that evokes Poe and Lovecraft has to be a good thing.

The stories have a tremendous sense of place about them. Klein himself is a New York City native, and his stories are immersed in the detail of life in the city and its environs. Such detail accentuates the grounding of the narrators; these people are not ones prone to anxiety or terror; they are citizen of the city, well-versed in its ways…or so they think. It's when they discover a race of evil near-men in the sewers, seeking out human women to bear their children and rampaging through the night during The Great Blackout ("Children of the Kingdom") that they realize that there is more to the world than they know. Likewise, an upwardly mobile businessman helps write a prog rock anthem to a nether god, then finds that a fan of the song uses his lyrics as instructions to invoke that god ("Nadelman's God"); Nadelman cannot decide if he is a creator or a dubious pawn of higher powers, nor can he believe that his pathetic rhymes are so potent. It is only when the god attempts to find its maker that he believes in, and then ultimately fears, the powers he may unknowingly wield.

After I finished the book, I realized that I wouldn't really call this collection horror, so much as "weird." Unlike Lovecraft's weird, however, the things that go bump in the night for Klein are not extraterrestrial, which is the facet that made me think of Poe. The stories by Klein feel similar to "The Fall of the House of Usher," the narrator often knows that something is wrong, initiating the feeling of dread that underscores the writing, and it is the revelation of the wrongness that forms the climax. And, like Poe, a good deal of the narrative is spent describing the narrator attempting to disprove what they suspect, all the while gathering evidence to the contrary. However, unlike Poe and Lovecraft, Klein is not Victorian in his prose; this is the writing style of the great short story masters like Cheever. While descriptive and invocative, the sentences are spartan and clean, propelling the reader that much more quickly through the narrative.

Unfortunately, Dark Gods is one of only three fiction books Klein has ever published, suffering as he does from what appears to be terminal writer's block. Given the delight I had in reading these stories and thinking about them, I think the horror genre is somewhat diminished by not having more examples of how works can rise above the clich├ęs and become something that reaches out to fans of good writing. I readily admit, I've not read a lot of King or Koontz, and I know their output is prodigious compared to Klein, but I would stack these stories against theirs pretty quickly. I really recommend this book for pure pleasure of the craft, and if you go looking, I wish you luck in finding it.

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