Friday, May 20, 2011

Bite Sized Horror

For more proof, if more were needed, that the horror genre is doing just fine, one need only turn to Bite Sized Horror.  This miniature anthology, the first volume in the Obverse Quarterly, a new venture somewhere between a book and a magazine, contains only six stories and runs less than 100 pages, but there's enough variety here to please almost any reader, whether her taste runs to subtle ghost stories, supernatural revenge, zombies, or the truly unclassifiable.  Although the quality of the prose is uneven and not all the stories deliver, most do, making an enjoyable evening's reading for the horror fan.

The opening story, Reggie Oliver's "The Brighton Redemption," offers echoes of two famous British crimes, but you don't have to be a devotee of the history of murder to appreciate this quietly disturbing nineteenth-century story of misplaced passion, unjustifiable enthusiasm, and disturbing fascination.  The diary entries of a reforming rector's new curate reveal strange events in Brighton.  As ever, Oliver is a master of period voice and understated terror, and the story is psychologically well-observed as well as chilling.

Paul Kane's "The Between" starts off a little roughly, with a portrait of a betrayed and bewildered husband's divorce proceedings so one-dimensional that the attempt to make him sympathetic backfires, but once the horror kicks in, the story proves to be a gripping, well-choreographed action-horror story of people thrown together in baffling circumstances, reminiscent of some of Stephen King's best work, with some appropriate grue.  The ending is a little abrupt and self-consciously poetic for my taste-- something earthier might have worked better-- but basically satisfying.

"His Pale Blue Eyes" is a zombie story, more or less, but as with all the best zombie stories, it's as much about humans as it is about the walking dead.  A young girl, drilled in the art of survival by her parents, goes out looking for them when they fail to return from the everyday peril of a run to an abandoned grocery store.  As her journey progresses, what seems like it might be a maudlin tale of tragedy and survival becomes something unexpected and harsher.  David A. Riley delivers a taut, surprising story with a credible child protagonist.

At one point in "The Unquiet Bones" by Marie O'Regan, a character thinks, "All we need is lightning and we’re in a horror movie!"  Unfortunately, she's right; the story is too dependent on the tropes of mid-century horror flicks-- broken-down car, mysterious dwelling, eccentric monks, something in the shadows, a strained coincidence passed off as fate-- and never offers enough depth of character or intensity of prose to overcome that limitation.  It's not quite a bad story, but not quite a good one either.

Editor Johnny Mains contributes the anthology's shortest story, "The Rookery."  It takes a certain sensibility to call a story "pleasantly bleak," but anyone who shares that sensibility will know what is meant, and "The Rookery" has an ambiguous grimness about it that works very well.  There's another divorced husband here, but comparisons to "The Between" are beside the point: this one has a thoroughly different direction.

The anthology goes out on a high note with Conrad Williams' "The Carbon Heart."  At first, its narrator's clipped ruminations feel somewhat forced, but as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that such a voice is perfect for this mysterious, elegiac detective story about regret and loss.  The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallaj√∂kull serves as a perfect metaphor for the isolation, entropy, and apathy of the characters.

Williams and Oliver are deft stylists, while the anthology's other contributors offer more straightforward prose, with occasional moments of awkwardness that distract without quite detracting from the overall experience.  Bite Sized Horror may not be the most polished horror anthology ever, but it delivers enough unease, terror, horror, and revulsion-- the full range of unpleasant sensations associated with dark fiction-- to please most readers.

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