'The Picador Book of the New Gothic', ed. by Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow
For the second month running I have been disappointed by a short story collection that I had hoped would be interesting and contained at least one story which I found so unpleasant that I decided to throw the book away rather than pass it on to someone else as I usually do. This book is in large part an artificial creation and demonstrates that when it was published in 1991, it would have been wrong to have spoken of the 'New Gothic' if this is what it consists of. The reviews and introduction speak of this genre as being about terror in the mind more than physical fears, though also suggests that the stories will often occur in traditional Gothic contexts. In fact the collection falls down on both accounts.
'Ovando' by Jamaica Kincaid is an engaging story of the rise of a demon to great power in the world and is quite lyrical though rather too sweeping a subject for a short story. 'Horrorday' is an extract from 'London Fields' by Martin Amis (1989) with 'horror' appended to words in a story about an ordinary man involved in quite mundane activities and some violence in London and comes over as very artificial. 'Newton' by Jeanette Winterson is a strange story, with a reasonably unnerving edge, about a seemingly unconventional man in suburban USA that does not really develop. 'Banquo and the Black Banana' by Paul West is a rambling story about a ghost viewing various developments through history and with more coherence would have been an interesting story. 'Freniere' by Anne Rice is an extract from her novel 'Interview with the Vampire' (1976) which was dated even when this book was produced but I suppose fitted the rediscovery of vampires in the 1990s and is a decent enough story in itself, though of course by now looks doubly tired.
'Blood' by Janice Galloway, apart from the title, does not belong in this collection. It is a mundane story about a girl whose mouth is bleeding when she has a tooth extracted who returns to school to do some piano practice and seems to have no connection with any era of Gothic. 'Didn't She Know' by Scott Bradfield perhaps comes close to what you could define as 'New Gothic' featuring a lower middle class woman exploiting her friendship with elderly men of various degrees of wealth for financial gain. It has that kind of amorality and almost predestined outcome that is at least characteristic of film noir and probably a form of Gothic. 'Regulus and Maximus' by John Hawkes almost comes over as some kind of strange parable and only seems to be featured because it is about monks. Two sets are fleeing from monasteries running contrasting regimes.
'A Dead Summer' by Lynne Tillman consists of a series of fragments from the viewpoint of a girl/woman over a period of time. This disjuncture and the things she sees actually make this worthy of being in this collection. If there is one common theme in this book, it is how unpleasant suburban life, especially in the USA can be, and how unpleasantness is most unsettling when it is mundane. This is sustained in 'Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time' by Joyce Carol Oates about a girl making a night-time visit to her grandmother's house and finding her not to be the woman she thought she was. This reminded me of the style of Roald Dahl 'Tales of the Unexpected' stories and better than some of the others which have a child's perspective show that the adult world is difficult to judge and that its unfamiliarity can in itself seem sinister, but that does not mean that it is not indeed genuinely threatening or dangerous.
'The Dead Queen' by Robert Coover is a modern seeing of the Snow White fairy story and so of course now reminds me of the television series 'Once Upon A Time'. It is decent, but probably does not exploit the actual Gothic aspects of fairy tales to the extent that it could have done. 'The Merchant of Shadows' by Angela Carter exploits that dark aspect of Hollywood cross-fertilised by European Expressionist cinema and if this story was made into a television drama Mark Gatiss would be involved. It rather does not know how to end and the twist is rather too telegraphed. However, compared to some of the other stories in the collection it seems to fit the 'New Gothic' designation. 'The Road to Nadeja' by Bradford Morrow, is another which is not stunning but not appalling. It is about a kleptomaniac stealing from and deceiving her friend and reminded me of the movie 'Heavenly Creatures' (1994). 'For Dear Life' by Ruth Rendell is an extract from her novel 'King Solomon's Carpet' (1991) and is about a spoilt wealthy young woman dying on the underground really because she cannot simply cope with being so close to ordinary people. Rendell is pretty good at dark contemporary tales such as 'A Fatal Inversion' (1987) and 'Gallowglass' (1990) and probably could be ascribed to 'New Gothic'. Unfortunately in this story you care too little about the central character to feel any of her fear, with someone less privileged the story would have been more effective. In fact by the end you are quite glad to see the back of her and that reduces the potential to scare.
'Rigor Beach' by Emma Tennent is an account of a few hours in a beach house with a man and a woman. It is well described but very little happens. It is more a setting for a story than the story itself. 'The Smell' by Patrick McGrath, whilst again reminding me of Dahl, but maybe that is inevitable with edgy short stories, is probably the one story that deserves the 'New Gothic' tag and combines that terror from the mundane suburban life with the macabre. 'The Kingdom of Heaven' by Peter Straub, is an extract from his novel 'Throat'. He produced a novel called the 'The Throat' but that was not published until 1993, so this may have been a preceding shorter story; that is supposedly a successful horror book, but those elements seem to be missing from this extract. Fine as it is, a well described story of US unit in the Vietnam War charged with collecting corpses of fallen soldiers. The individuals and the scenes are well described, but it is too clinical for Gothic, it lacks that unearthliness, whether implied or exposed that is necessary for the Gothic sense. 'Fever' by John Edgar Wideman is pretty much the same, a good description of a black man in 18th century America dealing with the spread of disease and the racism he faces. It describes these things well as a historical story, but lacks any Gothicism.
'J' by Kathy Acker is a waste of space, simply 'dropping the c bomb' as I have heard it described, using offensive words for the sake of it, rambling on about AIDS incoherently. This certainly has no relevance to this book and is why I cannot send it to a charity shop. Yes, AIDS is a terror of our time and there are effective stories using it as a horrific threat, involving deception and modern versions of Gothic settings and yet this story does not put such aspects to any effective use. It revels in simply tossing these words around and in that way is no more impacting than a child waggling its tongue at you.
'The Grave of Lost Stories' by William T. Vollmann is clever, exploring what happens to those stories and the characters in them that authors do not complete. It is whimsical rather than frightening but a good antidote to Acker's stuff. Again if intended to be more Gothic, it would have portrayed the characters as being more threatening to the author's sanity.
Whilst there are some stories which are reasonable and many more which are poor, many of them have simply been cobbled into this collection without bearing much relevance to the theme. Obscenity is not horror, to be genuinely frightening that has to be far more subtle, upfront, aggressive abuse is not that, it is too explicit to really terrify. On the evidence of this book, I conclude that aside from some disparate writings there certainly was not a 'New Gothic' genre in the early 1990s.