Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ghost Music: Probably not a good introduction to Graham Masterton

Ghost MusicI know I’ve read some of Graham Masterton's short stories; I just can’t remember which, where, or when.  I do know that Ghost Music is the first of his novels I’ve read, and it probably wasn't a good place to start.

Ghost Music’s protagonist, Gideon Lake, is a successful composer of advertising jingles, who moves into a Greenwich Village apartment and begins an affair with the mysterious Kate, his downstairs neighbor.  She has a crass and menacing real estate agent husband, Victor, is consistently described as cold and bony, shatters glass with her screams when she climaxes, and continually dodges Gideon’s questions.  Nonetheless, he’s infatuated; Masterton tells us this, but he doesn’t show us – there’s an odd lack of real emotion in the relationship. 

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Kate’s a ghost, since Masterton makes it abundantly clear to the reader; this makes the reader want to smack the dull and unquestioning Gideon for having no clue until Ghost Music’s finale.  As Kate sends him tickets and keys to the houses of her friends in Stockholm, London, and Venice, Gideon very slowly begins to realize that he has a “resonance” that allows him to see dead people.  But what are they trying to tell him? And how are Kate and Victor involved?

Much like Gideon and Kate’s relationship, the whole novel seems lacking in emotion, hastily tacked together for the sake of convenience.  There’s nothing of the lyrical infatuation of, say, Richard Adams’ The Girl in the Swing, and there’s nothing to raise the short hairs on the back of your neck, either.  The dialogue is mostly flat and unconvincing, and, like Ramsey Campbell in The Grin of the Dark, Masterton seems to have trouble making his American characters sound American – Britishisms sneak in (Gideon repeatedly refers to his “beezer” after getting punched in the nose).  Add a stereotypical gangster henchman who says “dollface” sixty years too late, Gideon’s lovingly clichéd description of Kate’s “dew-soaked lily petals”, and a hastily tacked-on bit about shady organ transplants before the disappointed ending, and the whole thing ends up seeming weak and a little silly. 

Despite this disappointment, it’s too early to give up on Graham Masterton; he's a prolific writer and perhaps Ghost Music just wasn't his best effort.  I need to check out some of his earlier novels like The Manitou and see if they have more to offer.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Anthology Review: The Museum of Horrors

The Museum of HorrorsAnthologies are a great way to discover writers.  As a youngster, I expanded my horror horizons by reading Marvin Kaye anthologies like Devils & Demons, encountering for the first time a whole host of great writers from W.W. Jacobs to Tanith Lee.  Kaye did have the unfortunate habit of adding a lot of stories by his friends, and sometimes by himself, which were of lesser quality.  As a rule, though, it’s rare to find an anthology with strong stories throughout (except for The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, which was just about perfect).

I recently read The Museum of Horrors, which is no exception to the usual unevenness.  It’s an eclectic 18-story collection edited by Dennis Etchison, who received a World Fantasy Award for his efforts.  At first I assumed the anthology had the theme suggested by the title, especially with the Joyce Carol Oates opener “The Museum of Dr. Moses”, in which the titular character, a retired coroner, shows off his museum of medical specimens to his wary stepdaughter.  I’m not a huge fan of Oates, and found this story too lengthy for what it was.  Only one other story, Charles L. Grant’s forgettable “Whose Ghosts These Are” really touches on the theme, although S.P. Somtow’s exotic, genre-transcending “The Bird Catcher” sort of brushes against it.  It might have been a constricting theme anyway.

Highlights from The Museum of Horrors include a solid Ramsey Campbell contribution, “Worse than Bones”, about a particularly nasty ghost who communicates via notes in the margins of a book of ghost stories.  Tom Piccirilli’s “Those Vanished I Recognize” is memorable and dreamlike, and Conrad Williams’ “Imbroglio” is the tale of a serial killer’s depredations from a young boy’s perspective.  Another serial killer tale, “Hammerhead”, comes from the late Richard Laymon; it’s enjoyable if your tastes run towards the graphic and nasty.  Robert Devereaux’s Judas story, “Apologia”, isn’t horror, but it is well-written and entertaining.

Some of the other stories, like Susan Fry’s “The Impressionists in Winter” are horror and well-written, but not very memorable.  Gordon Linzner’s “Author, Author” is clichéd, and Peter Atkins’ “King of Outer Space” seems out of place.  Melanie Tem’s fantasy “Piano Bar Blues” is lackluster.

The biggest disappointment, however, comes from Peter Straub.  For unknown reasons (although perhaps to display Straub’s name prominently on the cover), Etchison included a near 50-page fragment by Straub called “Perdido”.  A tale of a fantastic mountain resort, it is only a fragment, and a boring one at that.  Straub sees fit to end it with a note about how he dreamed the story and then never had time to finish it, putting it in a binder.  It should have stayed there, as it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. 

Straub’s fragment and some of the complete stories make The Museum of Horrors a little more uneven than most anthologies, but the highlights make it worth a look.