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Archive for the ‘Horror’ Category

coralineOkay, here’s the thing: I’ve never believed a single word Neil Gaiman has written.

Wow.

I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.

I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.

Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.

All to the good.

And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?

And therein lies the problem.

That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.

Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?

While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.

Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)

Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.

Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.

It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).

But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.

Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.

That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.

Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.

It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.

People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.

figure

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Dore1

Reprisal

 

An intimacy only death allows.

 

Forced into close alignment to conserve space.

 

A press of upturned faces.

 

Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.

 

Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.

 

In defiance of this latest atrocity.

 

 

 * * *

 

Dore3

The Last Room

 

Is someone there?

 

Why don’t you come nearer?

 

Step into the light…

 

I can barely see you.

 

There’s so little time.

 

Please, show yourself.

 

I don’t want to be alone.

 

Approach, stranger:

 

Take pity on my penitent soul.

 

* * *

stadium2

Chase Scene

 

—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.

 

“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”

 

Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.

 

The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.

 

Oh, Christ!  Oh, Jesus, help me—“

 

The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…

 

* * *

stadium1Sheep

 

Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.

 

Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.

 

Exhausted and compliant.

 

A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.

 

Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.

 

The gates are closing

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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dore2“The fuck is this?”

 

“That’s him. That’s our guy.”

 

“You kidding? You’re taking the piss, right?”

 

“Look, I’ve been up all night, you wanted to see what I got, this is it.”

 

“But what is it?”

 
“It’s a, waddaya call it, a screen capture.”

 

“A what?”

 

“Like they take a picture, a still frame. Enhanced all to fuck but that’s what they came up with. There’s your perp.”

 

“I still don’t get it. You’re saying that’s taken from the hallway camera—”

 

“Yeah. What you’re looking at is, like, a single fucking frame. That new guy, Panda or Pandra, whatever the fuck, he spotted it. And, man, how he managed it, I’ll never know.”

 

“So he’s zipping through the footage and something clicks and he goes back and slows everything down—”

 

“Right, exactly. And this thing is there for a flash, right outside the fucking door, and then it’s gone.”

 

“Time frame?”

 

“Fits.”

 

“Fuck that. Nothing fits. This is a locked door mystery and the two of us are hanging out to dry here. In less than an hour I gotta go upstairs, smile ever so nice and show them…what exactly? This? This fucking—”

 

“It’s all we got.”

 

“Nine of our best standing around with their thumbs up their arses while the guy we were supposed to be babysitting—“

 

“No one got in or out. You said so yourself.”

 

“No one but this guy. That’s what you’re telling me, right?”

 

”The question is, what are you going to tell them.”

 

“I’m not going to tell them anything. I’m just going to show them this. The best evidence we have.”

 

“And then?”

 

“Then? Then it doesn’t matter. Because it won’t be my problem any more…”

 

 

© Copyright, 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

 

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My pal, award-winning Brit science fiction author Ian Sales, posted this Tweet after somehow securing a copy of my first book. I only printed 500 copies back in 1990 and they all sold out in less than five months.

Almost impossible to find my Sex collection—which is why I’ll be publishing a 25th anniversary edition in 2015.

Picture 1

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Photo: Sam Burns

Photo: Sam Burns

My chum Yury Sabinin has been very busy of late.

If you recall, he’s the chap who has taken it upon himself to translate some of my best stories into Russian. Originally, he set himself the task because he had a acquaintance back in Russia (Yury currently resides in B.C.) who he thought might appreciate my work. But she spoke no English so he very magnanimously decided to do the translations himself—he got in touch with me to secure my permission for the endeavor and I was genuinely touched by his devotion to his friend.

Here are his translations of two of my most well-known short stories, “The Hibakusha” and “Cattletruck”. Both are post-apocalypse tales from my very first collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination (1990)…but they couldn’t be more different. You’ll find the original English versions on my Novels & Stories page. Meanwhile, for those of you fluent in Russian, check out Yury’s translations. Click on the PDFs below and away you go:

 

CliffBurnsСкотовоз

CliffBurnsХибакуся

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

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