Saturday, July 14, 2012
Feesters in the Lake & Other Stories by Bob Leman
Put simply, Bob Leman's Feesters in the Lake is one of the best collections I've ever read. What Bob Leman did with the weird tale is, I think, unsurpassed in its long history, a history that includes such well-known writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Karl Edward Wagner, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and on and on. All of these writers have profoundly influenced (are profoundly influencing) both horror and fantasy writing. Some, such as Lovecraft, Blackwood, and Machen, have an influence so great that echoes of their words and stories can still be heard, often to the point of reckless and ill-advised parroting (or homage, if I'm being kind), but when done well, it can be seen in subtler ways in the writings of many of today's best, among them Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, and Peter Straub. Bob Leman doesn't have that reputation, but why? He deserves it. This collection proves it. Both he and T.E.D. Klein deserve an acceptance by the literary mainstream (or as mainstream as fans of weird fiction are) that they do not have. Both of these men wrote stories that were either perfect or verging on perfection again and again; so why aren't they recognized? Why aren't their names known, held up with Lovecraft and King? Is it because of their output--Klein released 16 stories, a novel, and a collection of novellas, and all 15 of Leman's stories are in this book? If so, that's a shame. Quality should always prevail over quantity. In 100 years people will not read all 60 of Stephen King's novels, nor all 400 of his stories. They will read a select few, the best of them. Leman and Klein took the time and care to make every story a "best." Now, does that mean that I'm calling them better than King (as I'm sure someone will note)? No. It does not. King's best is a blend of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and literary writing that is unsurpassed by any (save Dickens) in its characterization. At his best, he is deserving of all of his accolades. My argument is that Leman and Klein are deserving of the same, which for whatever reason has been denied them.
Reading Feesters, I couldn't help but draw a parallel. You see, Leman is a smart writer. He takes tropes and readers expectations and he turns them on their head. He gives the reader not only powerful stories, but unexpected stories, new stories, stories that reinvent not only what has become cliche, but the expected, and the story itself. In this way he was very similar to a modern science fiction writer, also underappreciated, Daryl Gregory. Daryl does the same, but in sci-fi as opposed to the weird tale, and like Leman and Klein, all of his writing is perfect or nearly so, but also like them he takes a long time between projects. In the first 14 years of his career, Daryl published 7 stories. One every two years, the same pace as Klein for much of his career, and a bit faster than Leman. At that pace, especially in today's immediate world, it's understandable that their names would be passed by, forgotten, not branded the way that Brian Keene's is or another similarly prolific writer, but that doesn't make them any less valuable, and I think time will show that. Eventually, when the dust settles and people look back, I think the value of writers like Leman, Klein, and Gregory will be known. It's just unfortunate that they don't get to see it.
Now to the stories:
"Window" begins the collection, and it has become my favorite story by any writer in any genre, ever. In it, a house appears, but not just any house. This house is idyllic, as is the family in it, and seemingly from another time. Echoing Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven," the scientists can see, but they cannot enter. They, however, find a way in. Every few hours a window opens for five seconds. This is the first story in a long time to make me gasp. It had me. What happened was so unexpected, but also so perfect. And set up perfectly, and the ending, the echoes are brilliant.
"The Tehama" takes Native American folklore and man's thirst for revenge and twists them. This is a story worthy of the Twilight Zone, as so many of these are, but thoroughly modern and with a bite that Serling never had.
"Industrial Complex" plays with sanity like Philip K. Dick, but like Philip K. Dick at his best.
"The Pilgrimage of Clifford M." completely reinvents the vampire in a startling and satisfying way. I'm surprised that I haven't seen it reprinted more often.
"Change of Address" takes the alien abduction completely internal. Brilliant.
"Skirmish on Bastable Street" A demon (genie) story that becomes something else.
"Olida" take small town horror to a new place, with a mix of love, betrayal, and everything else.
"How Dobbstown was Saved" is a love letter to great B-Movies.
"The Time of the Worm" brings Lovecraftian horror to the family.
"Bait" is a smart story about a salesman, inter-dimensional travel, long life, with a twist worthy of Ambrose Bierce.
"Loob" is about a boy who unwittingly controls the world, and history, and a man in his time through a man a century gone by.
"Unlawful Possession" pits a witch against a demon with a great twist ending.
"Come Where my Love lies Dreaming" is my second favorite story of the collection. It's about a house haunted with love. This tale completely flips the haunted house expectations, but with a no less monstrous and disastrous result.
"Instructions" is structurally unique and unsettling and a firecracker of tension and imagination.
Finally, "Feesters in the Lake" takes Lovecraftian horrors, but turns the insanity on the monsters themselves.
If you can find a copy of this book, I'd recommend picking it up (it's worth it, despite the cost). Otherwise, look for some of these stories in back issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where all but two were published. This is the good stuff. This is speculative fiction that is literature. This is the stuff that'll last. This is the stuff that needs to be read.