Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book-A_Day 2018 #319: Ghastly Beyond Belief by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

Every time I do a Book-A-Day run, there's at least one Bad Day. That's a day when I'm just too busy to read a book, or write about one, depending on what my rubric is that time around. Some years have more of them, some have less -- some bad days are minor, some are major. But it's impossible to avoid Bad Days entirely.

Today, I'm sorry to say, is probably my worst Bad Day in the history of this blog. I'm down in Austin, Texas for the amazing annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel. (As I write this: I'm so far ahead that you won't read it for over three weeks. But the whole point of Book-A-Day is to get it done that day.) Today is Monday. Saturday I got up at 5 AM, flew here from Newark, and then worked seven or eight hours setting up a booth. Yesterday was another twelve-hour day, finishing setup, doing normal work, and overseeing the opening reception. Today I was over in the exhibit hall at 8 AM and stayed there until it closed at 7 PM, went to a cocktail hour with a lot of other TR employees and then a dinner with just a few of them. I finally got back to my room at 11 PM, after what I count as a 15-hour day. (I might have also had a couple of whiskey sours during the cocktail hour that I'm surprised to still feel three hours later: I'm not as young as I used to be, but still young enough to keep being surprised at how not-young I am.)

When I got back here to my hotel room [1], I hadn't finished a book, and I certainly hadn't written anything. That is as close to a Platonic Bad Day as I can imagine.

Luckily, I had an out. I'd been reading Ghastly Beyond Belief -- a collection of quotes from SF and horror novels and movies that are more entertaining than good -- for a while this year in a desultory way, starting with my last business trip. Between that, and a couple of hundred words of bullshit about how busy my last few days have been (woe is me!), I could bash out a not-totally-horrible blog post by midnight and redeem myself.

How well did that work? Well, I finished Ghastly and got this far, and it's now 11:40. So I'm pretty sure I can make it, though I do need to apologize for anyone still reading for the toxic levels of self-indulgence at play here. I sincerely hope this post will never be anyone's first impression of Antick Musings -- really, I'm not usually this lousy, I promise.

(How lousy am I usually? Further deponent sayeth not.)

So: Ghastly Beyond Belief. Published in 1985 in the UK by Arrow Books. Inspired (I assume) by Bill Pronzini's masterful Gun in Cheek from 1982, the first of two amazing collections of "differently good" writing from the mystery-novel world. Collated by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman, when both were still young and grabbing for any opportunity to be in print and get paid for it.

I'm sorry to say that Ghastly is not as good as the Gun in Cheek books. I don't think that's because there is less bad writing in SF/horror -- I might be tempted to argue the opposite, actually. But Gaiman and Newman, even working in tandem, did not have the encyclopedic overview of horrible writing in their fields, the single-minded focus to gather it all and put it on the page, and the gleeful joy in calling out every last cliche that Pronzini brought to the task. Maybe that's because SF is more collegial than mystery, maybe our editors were younger than Pronzini was and thus less steeped in the culture of the bad stuff, maybe they weren't as obsessed with old lousy stories, maybe the yoking of books and movies was an unfortunate choice -- maybe your own maybes here.

Ghastly is fun, certainly. It's somewhat outdated, thirty years later, and feels less focused since it's divided in half: Gaiman apparently tackled the prose in the front half, and Newman the cinema in the back half. There are a lot of really horrible quotes in it. (Even if I think picking bad quotes from lousy horror movies is like shooting fish in a barrel: of course they're lousy!)

This book has been long out of print; it's hard to find and very expensive when you do find it. Gaiman had a fundraising thing a year or so back -- I forget, now, exactly what good cause it was for -- and this was one of a host of minor and/or old Gaiman books thrown in for the backers at whatever level. (That's how I got it, and how practically anyone reading it these days got it. If you missed that and really want to read Ghastly: sorry, but sucks to be you.)

So I guess my point is: this book that you probably can't find is fun, but not as good as you hope it is. Go read the Pronzini if you like that sort of thing, since it's easier to find and somewhat better. And know that Bad Days, however they manifest in your life, can always be overcome as long as you define the rules for "overcoming."

[1] Not to be That Guy, but my hotel is about a mile from the convention center, and I threw out my back crawling around on the floor on setup day. So I'm not just still mildly drunk and deeply tired, but in minor pain as well. Truly I am an Hemingwayesque figure, what?

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