LIVING SHADOWS (Prime, paper, $14.95), is subtitled “Stories: New and Preowned” because much of it has been previously published: some stories in earlier, out-of-print Shirley collections, others in small-press anthologies and obscure magazines. It’s a greatest-hits album spanning a few decades of astonishingly consistent and rigorously horrifying work. In his foreword, Shirley insists that he doesn’t write genre fiction, and although he’s genuinely tough to categorize, all his stories — both the nonsupernatural ones that make up the first half of “Living Shadows” and the more fantastic tales in the second half — give off the chill of top-grade horror. It’s a moral chill, because Shirley’s great subject is the terrible ease with which we modern Americans have learned to look away from pain and suffering. The opening line of his novel “Demons” states the theme succinctly: “It’s amazing what you can get used to.” In “The Sewing Room,” one of the new stories in the present collection, an ordinary woman discovers, to her horror, that her husband is a serial murderer, and we discover, to ours, that she can live with it.
Shirley’s dramatis personae tend to be fairly unpleasant folks: killers, petty criminals, drug dealers, end-of-the-line substance abusers, Hollywood sleazeballs. (He writes screenplays as well as fiction.) And while the matter of his stories is often shocking, his manner is calm, restrained. The prose is attitude-free and precise, its characteristic sound a minor chord of sorrow and banked anger. He writes about sensation unsensationally, with a particular tenderness toward those who manage, against the odds and by whatever means, to feel something.
Maybe the best story in this superb collection is a rapt little piece called “Skeeter Junkie,” in which a young heroin addict first begins to enjoy the feeling of the mosquito feeding on his arm, then starts to identify with it and then, as the drugs ooze through his veins, somehow becomes it and finally uses the “exquisite” flying bloodsucker to transport him to the apartment of his comely but standoffish downstairs neighbor. It’s a horror story, I guess, but it’s also funny, weirdly erotic and, in a way that horror almost never is, tragic.
In the title of Shirley’s collection, there’s a faint, happy echo of the passage from “Biographia Literaria” in which Coleridge coined his famous phrase. Speaking of his contributions to the seminal 1798 volume “Lyrical Ballads,” which included “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the poet wrote: “My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” That’s exactly what good horror writers like Joe Hill and John Shirley do with the shadows of their imagination. And there’s an explanation here, too, of the hope that can keep even the most skeptical, fed-up reader coming back to horror fiction. Watching vampires having sex may not strike you as an adequate reward for suspending disbelief. But the poetry of fear and mortality is worth all the belief you can muster.
Causes John Shirley Supports
Obama for President
The Gurdjieff Foundation