Monday, June 29, 2015

Dark Gods Looming

Dark Gods (1985) by T.E.D. Klein, containing the following stories: Children of the Kingdom (1980); Petey (1979); Black Man with a Horn (1980); and Nadelman's God (1985): Despite his relatively small output, especially over the 30 years since this collection appeared, T.E.D. Klein remains one of our greatest living horror writers thanks to the novellas collected in Dark Gods, the early 1970's novella "The Events at Poroth Farm," and the epic 1984 horror novel The Ceremonies. One lives in hope that the second novel announced as being in progress in the mid-1980's will some day appear.

The novellas collected here are meticulous and cosmic, witty and horrifying, closely observed and broad in their ramifications. "Petey" is perhaps the most traditional horror work, a story about something wicked this way coming to a secluded house in the countryside. But it melds that horror with a conversational view of the upper middle class that owes more to writers that include John Updike and John Cheever than to H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe. The monster is coming -- to a house-warming party. 

Meanwhile, the house's previous owner gets more and more agitated in his new home at a psychiatric institution as the night goes on. It's a brilliant piece of work that rewards multiple readings (well, all four novellas reward multiple readings). There's something very droll yet grounded in the way that the horror gradually manifests itself, in the back-and-forth of the sometimes envious, often drunken conversations the guests have.

"Black Man with a Horn" is a triumphant piece of meta-Cthulhuiana, narrated by an elderly and somewhat self-pitying horror writer who still chafes at his description in genre circles as a "disciple of H.P. Lovecraft." It's 1980 and H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for 43 years. And then our narrator, mournful and sardonic, stumbles into what he ultimately realizes is a real-world equivalent of an H.P. Lovecraft story. The irony of being trapped in someone else's story doesn't escape him -- indeed, the horror of the situation lies partially in the fact that his literary fate of being subsumed into Lovecraftiana has now been replicated by his actual life's story being similarly removed from his own hands. 

"Children of the Kingdom" densely and deftly explores racism and urban decay in the rundown New York of the late 1970's. As with "Black Man with a Horn," this novella riffs on Lovecraft, though in a much more subtle fashion: blink and you'll miss the revelation of just what Lovecraftian race the strange, seldom-glimpsed underground invaders of Manhattan are based on. 

Klein's attention to an accumulation of telling, quasi-journalistic information as a means to create horror also owes a debt to Lovecraft (though HPL certainly didn't originate this sort of story-telling in horror circles). Klein, though, is a much better writer of normative characters than Lovecraft was (or intended to be). Here, as in all the novellas, cosmic horror infects the closely observed and described world of the ordinary.

Finally, there's "Nadelman's God." Klein makes brilliant use of the late 1970's and early 1980's media frenzy that hyped fears of Satanic rock bands and backwards-masked Satanic chants hidden on KISS albums. A comfortably numb New York advertising executive (pretty much all Klein's characters live in or near New York) finds himself pulled into the increasingly dire fantasies of a middle-aged heavy-metal fan who believes he can invoke the avatar of the true, malign God that rules the world. 

And that invocation lies within a poem written and published by the executive when he was in college, a poem a former friend of the executive handed over to the rock band (Jizzmo!) he manages when they needed a song to finish their recent album (royalties, of course, were paid, though the executive didn't know of the adaptation until after its release). So that avatar the fan constructs out of garbage and broken glass, that's just a pile of garbage. Right? 

But the executive, who has aged cynically out of all the things he once believed -- whether Judaism or marital fidelity or writing poetry -- is about to be forcibly reconnected with his past. It's like a tour down Memory Lane if Memory Lane led to Hell and involved a horrifying, ancient, cosmic evil that occasionally got its kicks from calling you on the telephone late at night.

Well, they're all brilliant novellas, aren't they? And it would be nice to have Dark Gods back in print after nearly 30 years, perhaps with "The Events at Poroth Farm" added to the roster. New novellas and novels would also be nice, but even if they never arrive, Klein has already established himself, permanently, in the first ranks of writers of horror. Highly recommended.

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