Book Review: Reading a White Whale, Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein

You know, I really like being the guy who knows everything. The stake in the heart of this affinity, when it comes to hobbies, is having to be restless and humble for a very long time. When it comes to horror lit, I don’t know everything—but I am driven to consume, consume, and consume until my gorging allows me to begin more sentences with, “Well—actually.”

That’s why, in the wake of Paperbacks From Hell, I started looking into the glorious world of forgotten favorites. Harvest HomeThe Cipher, The Happy ManBlackwater—great books, that for whatever reason never became CarrieGhost Story, or Hell House. But more than just a veritable host of books that didn’t make it, these were widely considered great—well loved and adored—by the voracious readers who can trace horror literature from the early myths to the present day. In other words, these were the books beloved by the folks who know everything. In my search for these great books, for the books written by writer’s-writers for reader’s-readers, there was one I couldn’t avoid. Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein, a white whale.

Klein is known for three things really. One: his tenure as editor of Twilight Zone Magazine. Two: his novel The Ceremonies. And three: his collection of four novellas, Dark Gods. Despite his relatively limited output, Klein has cemented his status in horror literature, thanks largely to the devoted following those two books generated. As these things go: readers become fans, and fans become authors, and it was one Laird Barron—for me, the most obvious disciple of Klein—that first brought Dark Gods (via his semi-active reddit account) to my attention as a sort of forgotten classic in the genre. I spent some time hemming, and a little time hawing, but eventually I came around and paid twenty-five bucks for a used mass market paperback.

In finally reading this white whale, I discovered that there was indeed something special about Klein. I found the early stages of horror today, the building blocks of which were laid all the way back in 1985.

“Children of the Kingdom” is the first of the novellas and one of the strongest. In it, we have a retelling of the 1977 New York City blackout—which plays as the backdrop to religious revisionism, a lost race, and the horrors that lurk in the sewers. In a lot of ways, this story typifies a lot of the great things Klein did for the genre. This story has a great hook on it, as all of his stories do, and the way he layers detail upon unsettling detail creates an atmosphere of building dread. Klein had a hand in defining the parameters of what modern literary horror could be, but to call his stories literary might be misleading. These are classically entertaining horror stories, the kind of stuff you’d find in Tales From the Crypt or Twilight Zone, written at a level they’d never been written at before.

With “Petey,” this is a double-edged sword. For the worst story in the collection, it might capture some of Klein’s best writing as he inhabits the lame dinner party repartee of his guests. The dialog crackles on the page and as before, details and ephemera accrue until we’re left with a diabolical little concept that no ending can satisfy. “Petey” might be too well told for its own good, and by the end, the only logical conclusion just isn’t enough.

The last two stories of the collection are the real meat, and the first of them, “Black Man with a Horn,” is an exceptional story for any era. It wears its influences on its sleeve, with a protagonist who was a disciple of Lovecraft who grew into a writer doomed to live in his shadow. If there is one movement in horror literature that I would credit Klein’s hand in popularizing (alongside Ramsey Campbell), it would be the Return of the Cosmic. With stories like “Black Man with a Horn,” Klein laid the gauntlet down, encouraging greater depth of storytelling and to this day authors are still answering the challenge. The other interesting component of this story in regards to Lovecraft is that the story acknowledges Lovecraft as a master of horror, even incorporating him into its lore—this, to me, signifies a certain distance from his work. It’s the difference between a contemporary and a classic, and whether by design or not, “Black Man with a Horn” establishes Lovecraft as canon.

The final novella is also Dark Gods at its finest. “Nadleman’s God” might be one of the best horror stories I’ve ever read, and it achieves this through Klein’s relatable, deft portrait of his protagonist Nadleman. As said before, Klein’s hooks are juicy, and this might be his juiciest yet: young Nadelman, an angry young man in college, writes a protest poem full of over-the-top macabre imagery that depicts a rival god of death, destruction, and sadism. An anti-god. Years later, his old editor is a record producer and pitches the poem as lyrics to a young heavy metal band. Nadleman is bemused at the prospect, but becomes disturbed when he starts receiving fan mail from a young man who has taken it upon himself to follow the instructions in the poem—instructions to build a sort of garbage golem, instructions to build Nadleman’s god. The story unfolds at a perfect pace, pulling the reader in deeper with each new unsettling occurrence. It prods at the uncomfortable notion that serves as the heart of a lot of horror fiction: that there are people who will do bad. It coalesces into a meditation on what really fuels the creative muse, as well as the nature and temperament of something as unknowable as a deity. “Nadleman’s God” isn’t just Klein at his finest, it’s horror at its finest.

Dark Gods is a missing link between where horror was and where it is today. It’s executed with the panache of a master, at once literary and old school, but always with sights set to scare. These are good stories, well told—pushing the genre to new expanses by exhuming the old and refracting it through a new lens. And over thirty years later, as I can attest, still making new readers shift uncomfortably in their seat—a testament to the strength of Klein’s craft as well as the foresight that became his influence. Thirty years later, and I can finally join the chorus: we are all children of Dark Gods.

Dark Gods is out of print but you can find a used copy on Amazon.

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