On 3 November 2013, PS Publishing’s Postscripts #28/29: Exotic Gothic 4 won this year’s World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology.
The Gothic Imagination asked the anthology’s editor of new fiction, University of Stirling research postgraduate Danel Olson, how he chose the stories that went in.
DO: Selection for this volume of twenty-five original neo-Gothic stories rested on five factors. First, I wanted to feature more voices that had never appeared in the series before, along with new countries as settings. Beyond that, I wanted more women to enter the series, because study after study shows they are under-represented in dark genre anthologies. Fourth, I wanted the stories to experiment with the Gothic form, to let other genres to make incursions into what we think as the Gothic. Lastly, I wanted the emotional resonance from the stories to trouble or mystify readers, a resonance detectable from the first lines.
GI: Can you give us some examples from well-known Gothic works of such intense, Gothic mood-setting first lines?
DO: The potency of the initial sentences is huge, and can explain why they are almost invariably analyzed in the fiction classes I take. On my mind at the moment is a novel that we carefully analyzed in Prof. Scott Brewster’s postgraduate Gothic seminar some days ago at University of Stirling, Rebecca (1938). These beginning lines of du Maurier’s novel are among the most beckoning I can think of right now, in part because they come from the language of dream. Many of the Gothic Imagination’s readers I’m sure could almost chant them as I write them down,
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.
Why does that opening cast the spell (even if we had never heard Joan Fontaine’s haunting voiceover from the film)? There is an incantatory rhythm, clause building upon clause that takes us to another realm, as explored carefully in Prof. Dale Townshend’s Gothic seminars, particularly in books like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (1996). There are images of barrier, struggle, and resistance, locks and gates that immediately pull us into a struggle to get inside. There is then the gliding movement encountered only in the motion of dreams. In later sentences, despite the floating capability of the dreamer, there are archetypal natural or synthetic objects weighing upon the dreamer with all their freighted symbolic accretions: spreading, thrusting “monstrous shrubs and plants,” the manor, and the forbidding stones. In six sentences, du Maurier has us become the dreamer, struggle for a way in, and suggest memories that quicken under moonlight.
My hope is to choose stories that, like dreams, resurface long after our first experience with them, and often an indication of that power manifests in the images, rhythms, struggles, and secret identifications within the opening paragraph.
GI: As a last question, could you share what first lines made a favourable Gothic impression on you in selection Exotic Gothic 4?
DO: All the following first five lines from the twenty-five stories the anthology featured (titles and authors are shown) had something I could not forget. Say it was mystery, masking, mystification, or loneliness. Call it apprehension, nightmare, scandal, madness. Or maybe it was exhilaration or discovery. Possibly, the openings made some memories quicken for me upon the sound of the words alone.
‘. . . lost his mind,’ Megan is saying. ‘But gradually. Nobody noticed at first. His wife told the cops all he did last week was sit in the Jacuzzi and read Teen People.’
Down in the Valley Joseph Bruchac
Bones, Theo Buck had told him. That was all they found. Sucked clean of every bit of flesh. So white they mistook them for ice when they saw them and the bottom of the stream that led down into the cedar swamp.
How many went missing?
So there was this girl. Young but not too young. A face as unformed as an egg, so that one could not tell if she would turn out to be fair or astonishingly ugly. She came to the city as a visitor, sent by a mother in the process of divorcing a father. By them both, in fact, for the one thing they could agree upon was that the girl should not be exposed to the violence they meant to commit on their life.
The flight to Tokyo had taken more than nine hours, without a chance for a cigarette, and the bus ride from the airport to the hotel took another two, through a mostly grey landscape under a low grey sky. Wilson had to walk the last few blocks in the rain, because the shuttle didn’t go to his hotel, only to a more expensive one nearby. The lift groaned and shuddered as it took him up to his room, and the ride up to the thirteenth floor seemed to take as long as his flight. After shutting the door behind him and dropping his pack on the floor of the tiny room, he prised off his shoes and collapsed on the bed, face up. He drew a deep breath, then lit a cigarette and lay there for a few minutes, just reminding himself how it felt to be horizontal and motionless.
It started small, as these things do, with a cheap glass jewel pried from the rump of a genuine Charles Carmel merry-go-round horse at Sydney’s Luna Park one cool autumn evening in 1977. A blue glass jewel set into a gold-painted wooden harness, many faceted, the size of a king’s thumbnail, a queen’s ransom, big enough to be easily visible and look so precious to kids watching the carousel turn.
Easy to pry off, too, in a small enough act of vandalism by one of three fourteen-year-old schoolboys on a cool, just past summer evening.
Davey Renford wanted it, yearned for it, loved the idea of having a precious blue-glass jewel from the haunch of the magnificent white wooden horse he’d chosen. Lysander, the chest blazon said, and it was on the outermost of the three rings, a smooth-turning stander, not like the favoured lift-and-fall jumpers on the two inner rings that most boys preferred.
At age thirteen, shortly after his father’s death from tuberculosis and his mother’s removal to the state facility for the insane seventy miles away, Bernt was given to his grandmother. His mother, he knew, wouldn’t have wanted this—she had always done her best to keep him away from his grandmother, who she described as not-just-right, though without ever explaining what made her so. But his mother, straitjacketed, was not given a choice, was perhaps not even told: Bernt’s court-appointed temporary guardian decided this was the option that best suited the state. It will be, the guardian declared, the best for you as well.
The sky was lead grey. Steady rain was falling and, though it was only September, the air was cool and rank with autumnal decay. On the first cockcrow, the barrack yard was empty. By the third, it was stirring to life. The execution detail filed out from the blockhouse and took their place on the concrete parade area.
Marissa stepped into the air-conditioned charter, the heat and humidity of Mexico clinging to her bones. She strapped herself into her seat beside a young couple returning home after an all-inclusive holiday, the girl’s hair in corn braids, the boy’s muscle shirt damp against his chest. All around her, revelers whooped and laughed, bodies squeezed into halters and bikini tops, shorts and sandals, as if they were flying to another tropical destination, instead of to Vancouver in January.
The plane taxied along the shoreline, and Marissa stared out the window at the white sand of Playa de Oro and the treacherous ocean waves where, according to the onboard magazine ¡Fiesta!, in 1862, a ship carrying gold coins had burned, and over two-hundred of its passengers and crew had drowned trying to get to shore. She clasped her hands together on her lap.
In the Village of Setang
I was nineteen when my mother died of fever which she contracted after her labours in the paddy fields. Soon after her white shroud was swallowed by the crumbling earth, I received word that Mak Ina, my aunt, wanted me to move to Setang, the village where our territorial chief resided. Mak Ina worked as his head cook in what she called his ‘palace’ and, as she was already seventy, she needed help in her daily duties.
Setang was half-a-day’s walk from the village of my birth, but because of my club foot, it took all day to get there as I hobbled down the track between jungle, gambier plantations and tin mines dotted about the scared limestone hills. I arrived with my body aching, staggering with my bundle of clothes just as the insect voices mounted a shrilling octave.
Escena de un Asesinato
‘Buy a photo?’ I say without hope, talking to a rotund man in a business suit. He’s stopped to check out the prints stuck on my tatty pin-board, which leans uncertainly on the wall next to me.
‘I don’t think so,’ he mutters, on the verge of turning away. But something in the photographs keeps him standing there.
Blooding the Bride
Love began between them. Loriane watched it grow, as perhaps her own child would grow one day. Before she met Lucas, she had resolved not to bear children; she must never subject another to the terrifying mysteries and abandonments of childhood. But now this resolution, along with others born of her old fears, dissolved and fell away. It was possible, suddenly, for children to be a joy—Lucas’s children, her sons and daughters by Lucas. What a good father, what a good grandfather Lucas would make!
Such a Man I Would Have Become
E. Michael Lewis
The Rainier Club
Seattle, April 1905
‘Uncle Henry,’ cried Edward (Neddy) Holten James, ‘I do hope our little soiree didn’t bore you.’
Henry James frowned at his warm brandy as he swirled it around the snifter. ‘No no,’ he said with an air of fatigue. ‘Dining with a few rustic companions is infinitely better than a banquet in your honor attended by women who remember you only as the author of Daisy Miller.’
Neddy laughed and sat in the forest green wingback chair next to his uncle, sipping his own brandy. Before them, the fire roared.
Adam L G Nevill
Darkness they could taste and smell and feel came inside the house. Peaty and dewy with wet fern, it came in damp and cool as the black earth shielded by the canopy of the mighty Kauri trees, as if rising upwards from the land, rather than descending from a sinking sun. The branches in the forest surrounding the bungalow became skeletal at dusk, before these silhouettes also vanished into the black of a moonless country night. Had they still been living in England, it would have been an evening when bonfires were lit. And to the three children, although these nights were frightening, they had a tinge of enchantment in them too, and were never that bad when their parents were inside the house.
Three weeks after I had arrived in Nairobi in January 1976 my father wrote to me. I took it to be a sign that he was reconciled to the fact that his only son had decided to join a theatre company in what he called ‘the back of beyond.’ ‘It won’t even advance your theatrical career,’ he had told me in England before I went, the emphasis implying that he had still not lost hope that another ‘proper’ career might be pursued. But I was young enough to believe that adventure should take precedence over career considerations; and of course I was right.
In the last paragraph of his letter he wrote: ‘I’ve just discovered that an old friend of mine lives in your present part of the world.
I shall make myself a roomful of carvings. It will not be difficult. Cousin Pao who works the Cat Street market can carve anything; he takes lumps of old misshapen redwood, rejected by the carpenters, and then tourists buy all his buddhas, sleeping lions, elephants with flattened ears. But then, Cousin Pao is not suffused with rage. He and I met last night, as we often do, near Luk Fu Street, where there are still a couple of banyan trees and the stink of the urinals in the public square makes you feel you are drowning. We ate, to the clink of mahjong pieces.
Ivan Sechenov probed the brain of a frog stretched out in a metal pan, weak and pale as veal, with his finger. It was amazing to him how the change of scenery made everything seem so unreal: back in St. Petersburg now, in his own laboratory at the University, there was no reason that his experiments wouldn’t work as well as in Germany. And yet it felt futile, as if a memory of a dream, an impotent copy of itself.
He dropped another crystal of salt onto the brain quivering in its brain pan, and stimulated the nerve with a gentle pinch of his forceps. It was starting to drizzle outside, and the room turned gray.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
–Shakespeare, The Tempest
I always loved Shakespeare at school. Never went on to college. I guess the possibility just didn’t figure on anybody’s radar. Once I turned sixteen and school was over, I went straight back to work on my parents’ farm. But I didn’t stop reading.
Seasick and shivering, Thomas Blacksburg peered out from beneath the orange life boat canopy, watching helplessly as the powerful Benguela current swept him north up the coast of Namibia. For hours, he’d been within sight of the Skeleton Coast, that savage, wave-battered portion of the west African shore stretching between Angola to the north and Swakopmund to the south.
Through ghostly filaments of fog that drifted around the boat, Blacksburg could make out the distant shore and the camel’s back outline of towering, buff-colored dunes. To his horror, the land appeared to be receding.
The Old Man Beset By Demons
Steve Rasnic Tem
An unfocused growling came from somewhere below Josiah’s wreck of a chair. He’d always been cursed with poor health, but in the year since Hannah’s death he’d faced a gradual loss of control over his shameful suit of fatty meat. Could there be anything worse? Hannah, with her delicate nature, had found that part of her illness almost unbearable during her final terrible weeks.
They’d moved back to Abaco after his retirement because that’s what she’d so desperately wanted, into her family’s old cotton candy-coloured house she’d had such fond memories of, even though to his eye it was like most poor Bahamian homes, a jumble of weathered wood plastered together with stucco, painted over in some festive pastel, the whole mess served up on a concrete slab.
The Unfinished Book
Massachusetts, 18th Century
What shall I tell? The whole of it? And who would believe if I did? Where then to start? A winter, all but lost, far from the calendar now, a remembrance like a spider’s thread glittering alone in a vast, shaded wood.
The Fourth Horse
Simon Kurt Unsworth
‘Hey, stop!’ Atkins called, and started across the road towards the battered Land Rover. Although the driver’s window was open, the crook of a tanned and brawny arm showing, the vehicle didn’t slow down and Atkins had to run to catch it as it moved away from the kerb. He came up alongside the horsebox and was going to bang on the side when he saw, lost in the African shadows of its interior, a large chestnut horse. Not wanting to startle the animal, he jogged faster, the sweat trickling down his brow.
The Lighthouse Keepers’ Club
On Peter’s list of what to take to the lighthouse, he had ‘magazines’. It meant a certain kind of magazine, the sort you wouldn’t necessarily want your mum sending you. He packed the few he had and planned to buy some new ones. Really he only did it to feel part of the team. Mostly he read music magazines like Composer’s Monthly.
Fermin could feel the moisture evaporating from his skin, as salt crystals grew in his pores. Even his eyes felt like they were drying out and turning into raisins. And he had just gotten down from the truck.
He tied a bandana around his forehead to soak up sweat and pulled a cowboy hat down low over his eyes. It was cold, maybe five degrees above freezing, especially up here in the altiplano, but the sun was fierce, a ball of burning ice that looked like it would never set.
I had a strange dream that I gave birth to twins. Not sure of their sex; the subject never came up and I didn’t think to ask. Besides the nurse wasn’t very attentive. She couldn’t have had many other things to do, though. The hospital was hopelessly Dickensian, cold and drippy and dark and full of clutter thrown into corners–nightgowns, eyeglasses, old newspapers and empty cigarette packages, but not another person in sight.
In my mind the gap was non-existent between falling asleep and waking up, but of course weeks had gone by. Obviously. There were many procedures to be done and one had to be recovered from, and stabilized, groggily, still under, before the next began. I had no idea of the doctors taking over in shifts, or working in tandem, to achieve the program-makers’ aims. I was out of it.
Hornsea-based PS Publishing owners Peter and Nicky Crowther showing two 2013 World Fantasy Awards for PS titles, including Exotic Gothic 4.
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