A Book of Horrors

Just finished listening to the most recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast.

Much more interesting than their usual talk about awards. It featured a interview with Elizabeth Hand about her most recent book, Wylding Hall, the influence of Arthur Machen on her and many other writers, and her interest in depicting artists and the numinous in her work.

It’s just possible I’ll give her Cassandra Neary mysteries a try since it sounds like the series will start to involve matters of the arcane, occult, and ancient sort as it progresses.

My exposure to Hand is pretty perfunctory. I found her “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol” pleasant enough, but, not having any childhood memories of a beloved children’s tv show, there was nothing in my background for it to resonate with.

I was unaware, until I looked at her Internet Speculative Fiction database entry, how much critical work she had done since I’m not a regular reader of the Washington Post or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

The only other fiction I’ve read by her is “Near Zemnor” … and that’s why you get a retro review, from September 18, 2012, of the book it appeared in.

Review: A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones, 2012.

Book of HorrorsYou can ignore the short introduction which claims this anthology is out to reclaim the label “horror” for scary stories. Not all the stories here are scary. Some aren’t even dark fantasy. And some left me somewhat unsatisfied.

But they all kept me interested.

Starting things off here is the big name: Stephen King. “The Little God of Agony” is an ok story, actually one of the lesser efforts here. It generated no disgust, revulsion, shock or, in fact, any other emotion in me. I found the biggest point of interest was King playing against type in which character he ultimately chooses to portray sympathetically: billionaire Newsome, who is in pain from an accident and is prepared to retain the strange service of a preacher, or his nurse and physical therapist Kat who thinks Newsome is trying to buy his way out of a situation where money doesn’t work.

The presence of Caitlín Kiernan was the whole reason I read this book. Like some other stories in this book, her “Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint” doesn’t really have much of a payoff in the end. But, if the destination isn’t anything special, the trip there certainly is. And the road trip here involves a mysterious, amnesiac hitchhiker and the boy who picks her up. Sure, as Kiernan admits in the story notes, it’s ultimately an excuse to string together some famous historical fires – like the firebombing of Dresden, the Peshtigo fire contemporaneous to the Great Chicago Fire, and a circus tent fire – in a plot vibrating with mythic resonance. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

Angela Slatter’s “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” is not horrific, but it is an interesting character study set in a Victorianesque world where death rituals are important to prevent the dead from haunting the living. The titular character is, in fact, haunted by such a ghost even as she goes about making a coffin and trying to seduce a widow.

Dennis Etchison’s “Tell Me I’ll See You Again” is a sketchy story about a young boy who likes to play being dead. Or, perhaps, it’s not mere play. He fascinates a young neighbor girl. However, he didn’t fascinate me, and this was my least favorite story.

The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” mixes two horror themes: haunting and, perhaps, demonic possession. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist uses a folkloric concept from his native Sweden to good effect.

Ramsey Campbell’s “Getting It Wrong” is a nasty look at film buffs, quiz shows, and the social isolation of all too many in the modern world. Its protagonist gets some unwanted and unwelcome attention when he’s put on the spot by a co-worker who claims she needs his knowledge of film trivia to avoid something … well, something unpleasant.

Robert Shearman’s “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” is sort of a horror story – the urban horror of the neighbor who plays loud music late at night. But it’s mostly the hilarious and surreal story of how the too calculated, de-sexed and routine lives of a couple are changed by their mysterious tormenters.

The Man in the Ditch” from Lisa Tuttle has a woman haunted by what looks to be a ghost of a Druidic sacrificial victim in the boggy region of England where she and her husband are building a house.

Reggie Oliver’s “A Child’s Problem” has a very Gothic flavor about it with its early 19th century English setting, mysterious structures, and family secrets. A smart, somewhat manipulative, boy is sent to stay on his uncle’s country estate while his parents seek their fortune in India. He finds his uncle testy and fearful of some judgement and given to handing out strange assignments to him to explore the grounds. And there are mysterious figures seen at night, hostile servants, and the mysterious chess game his uncle is playing against some unseen opponent.

Michael Marshall Smith’s “Sad, Dark Thing” is what is truly desired by those who wander aimlessly through life – as the protagonist finds out after he discovers it on an aimless drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

Elizabeth Hand’s “Near Zennor” is a curiosity, a story that may not be fantasy at all. A man, trying to connect once more with the life of his dead wife, comes across an account of a mysterious incident she and her friends experienced in 1971’s Cornwall when they were teenagers. And that incident isn’t the only mystery here. There’s the fantasy writer who inspired the girls to visit Cornwall and the question of whether he was a pedophile. And what explains the varying reactions of the girls to the visit? Is something going on near Zennor? Hand seems to slightly push us towards one interpretation of events, but there are still lingering mysteries. I didn’t find the last mystery all that interesting but, again, this one was another story I eagerly read even at novella length.

Serial killers like their trophies, and the narrator of Richard Christian Matheson’s “Last Words” likes to collect the final remarks of his victims. It’s not the narrator that makes this story disturbing as the almost inevitable banality and predictability of those last words. Matheson mars his short story a bit by evoking the abused child turned serial killer cliché.

Horror is a personal thing. Sometimes a certain image, a certain plot, a certain setting make a horror story burrow into the mind to take up a permanent spot in the memory. It’s an idiosyncratic process, so your level of disquiet may vary, but two stories here fit that requirement.

The wooded, rural setting of Brian Hodge’s “Roots and All” was familiar enough to me to cause an extra resonance in this tale of two cousins cleaning out the house of their beloved – and now dead – grandmother and being appalled at the changes time has wrought in the land they loved as youths. And things are markedly escalated when a new discovery is made about the fate of a family member who disappeared as a teenager.

The stand out story for me was Peter Crowther’s “Ghosts with Teeth”. A couple returns to their Maine town on Halloween to find it isolated by a storm, a possible intruder in their house, voices on the radio babbling about poltergeists, and sudden appearances and disappearances of their neighbors. A once trusted sheriff, now surrounded by a miasma of menace, is literally the stuff of my nightmares – as is the irrationality at the end of the story.

The Crowther, Shearman, and Hand stories by themselves justify buying this book.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

One thought on “A Book of Horrors

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.