When dark fantasy fell out of fashion in the early Nineties, more and more horror authors chose to concentrate on "realistic" tales of psychological terror. Now the pendulum may be swinging back the other way, if the new novels by Andrew Klavan, Thomas Tessier and Graham Joyce are any indication.
In his last novel, "True Crime," Andrew Klavan, author of "The Animal Hour" and "Don't Say a Word," re-invented the "race against the deathclock" thriller, constructing a nail-baiter to rival the best of Cornell Woolrich. With "The Uncanny" (Crown; 352 pages; $25), he turns his attention to a tradition from the other side of the Atlantic and attempts to modernize the classic British ghost story.
Horror film producer Richard Storm has abandoned his Hollywood career and fled to England to investigate real tales of the paranormal. By assisting Harper Albright, the eccentric, pipe-smoking old women who edits "Bizarre!", Storm hopes to find evidence of life after death. What he finds instead is an unexpected romance with an emotionally distraught young woman named Sophia Endering and a fight for his life against a near-immortal murderer who calls himself Saint Iago.
"The Uncanny" is a very slick piece of entertainment, full of quirky characters, neat plot reversals and punchy writing. It plays with the conventions of the traditional ghost story and up-ends a lot of them. In the end, however, it proves too clever for its own good. Except for one grueling scene of premature internment, "The Uncanny" just isn't very scary. Klavan makes the romance between Storm and Endering heartbreakingly believable, but he overplays his hand when it comes to depicting the truly uncanny.
Thomas Tessier, author of "Rapture" and "Finishing Touches," takes a more oblique approach to the occult in his new supernatural thriller, "Fogheart" (St. Martin's Press; 320 pages; $22.95).
The novel features two married couples and a pair of odd sisters, joined by their need to contact the spirit world. Oliver and Carrie enjoy a jet-setting lifestyle, but Carrie has begun to experience spectral visits from her long-dead father while her huband is away on business and entertaining other lovers. Charley, an itinerant, alcoholic academic, and his wife Jan still grieve the death of their infant daughter, and they have quite different reactions when they learn that she may be trying to communicate with them from beyond the grave. Oona is the medium with a genuine psychic gift, Roz acts as her manager, and both share a terribler secret from their childhood in Ireland.
Tessier keeps his narrative shuttling between locales and viewpoint characters, weaving a web of tanglwed motives and creepy coincidences. As in many great ghost stories, such as Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," the best effects are produced through implication and misdirection. The meaning of the novel's climax is almost frustratingly ambiguous, but there's no denying the haunting power of "Fogheart."
In his new novel, "The Tooth Fairy" (Tor; 320 pages; $22.95), Graham Joyce, author of "House of Lost Dreams" and "Dark Sister," leaves the reader plenty of room to decide whether the title character is real or not. In any case, Sam, the adolescent protagonist, has more than the usual load of teeange problems as he comes of age in a working-class English town during the Sixties.
One night, after placing a tooth beneath his pillow without telling his parents about it, Sam wakes up to find a disheveled stranger sitting on the edge of the bed, the Tooth Fairy itself. That single glimpse of the forbidden is enough to cast a shadow over Sam's young life. Just as the gender of the Fairy seems mutable, so do its intentions. Although it helps Sam save the life of one of his friends, the Fairy seems to relish blighting the fortunes of others.
"The Tooth Fairy" recently won the British Fantasy Award, and it is easy to see why. Joyce ably captures the turmoil of late childhood without sentimentalizing it. Sam and his buddies learn harsh lessons about love, sex and friendship in unpredictable, yet completely credible, ways. "Requiem," Joyce's first novel to be published in the U.S., marked him as a writer to watch. "The Tooth Fairy" confirms him as a talent to be reckoned with.
Although Bradley Denton, author of "Lunatics" and "Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede," possesses a distinctively American voice and sensibility, his new collection of short stories, "One Day Close to Death" (St. Martin's Press; 352 pages; $23.95), also has its fair share of ghosts and revenants.
In "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians," Lenny Bruce awakens from his fatal overdose to find himself in a halfway house where dirty words are not allowed and laughs are hard to come by. The narrator of "Skidmore" gives a lift to a murdered town bully and contemplates his own plans for revenge. The father and son of "Killing Weeds" encounter strange intruders in their bean field.
The highlight of "One Day Closer to Death" is "Blackburn Bakes Cookies," a coda to Denton's remarkable serial killer novel, "Blackburn." Even though her older brother Jimmy was executed for his crimes years ago, Jasmine still thinks of him frequently. Now a madman has begun calling her up and demanding that she surrender Jimmy's ashes to him. When he threatens her mother's life, Jasmine is forced to look to dead Jimmy for spiritual guidance.
Denton is remarkable talent, eager to address a wide variety of styles and subjects. As demonstrated by the eight stories in "One Day Closer to Death," what remains constant is his high level of craftsmanship.
"Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street" Helix/DC Comics; 72 pages; $7.95), written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, presents a tale of cyberpunk gonzo journalism, a kind of "Fear and Loathing in the 21st Century."
Having spent five years secluded in the wilderness but needing to fulfill two long-overdue book contracts, journalist Spider Jerusalem returns to The City, a place he professes to loathe. A lot has changed in town since he left, including an increase in the population of "transients," humans who have swapped DNA with an alien race and wear their hybrid features as a kind of radical fashion statement. By investigating the transients' sleazy leader, Jerusalem learns how every society requires its scapegoats, often with tragic results.
DC Comics launched its Helix line a few years ago to present comics that take a serious approach to science fiction, with no spandex-clad superheroes anywhere to be found. Ellis and Robertson's effort is an intricate piece of futuristic world-building, simultaneously strange and familar.
Cynical, sardonic and dangerous, Spider Jerusalem is singularly original science fictional anti-hero It's too bad this first collection of "Transmetropolitan" includes only three issues of the monthly series. It definitely leaves one hankering for the next episode.
(c) 1998 by Michael Berry