For horror fans who enjoy fiction about fiction, the new anthology from editor and author D. F. Lewis is a rare treat. As its title suggests, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies features stories about volumes that reveal the dark corners of existence. From real titles to invented ones to those that stretch the term in striking ways, the anthologies that drive these twenty tales expose their writers and readers to worlds of confusion, obsession, and terror within their pages. From ghost stories to absurdism to visionary horror, the works selected for inclusion here are as varied as those in an anthology with no theme, let alone a self-referential one, and, though the authors' command of style and subtlety is often limited, the concepts in play are strong enough to sustain the anthology through those rough patches.
Some of the most readable stories feature "anthologies" that collect horrors of a different order. Daniel Ausema's "Tree Ring Anthology" uses the description of the rings on a tree stump to recount a range of ecological nightmares with a science fiction edge, demonstrating again that perspective and voice can lend any subject a strange and disturbing atmosphere. In Colin Insole's "The Apoplexy of Beelzebub," the anthologies also collect fact rather than fiction, the cruelties of a decayed city whose residents keep elaborate records of the nastier aspects of their history. And the haunting "Flowers of the Sea" by Reggie Oliver uses a particularly upsetting homemade anthology to reflect on the ravages of dementia and grief.
Other successful stories use more traditional anthologies. "The Follower" by Tony Lovell traces the melancholy connection between a woman and the stories of "her" anthology from youth to old age. Joel Lane's gift for the evocation of contemporary urban despair and the darkly redemptive promise of the uncanny makes the remembered anthology Midnight Flight powerfully symbolic in a story of the same name. In "The Rediscovery of Death," Mike O'Driscoll adapts the responsibilities and uncertainties of a small press editor and the seductive quality of great fiction to comment on gradual psychological collapse.
At times these symbolically-potent treatments of horror fiction are weakened by prose that, in striving to generate atmosphere, states themes too clearly or disrupts itself through awkwardness. To state tragedy too clearly is to dampen its effect, seeming maudlin rather than insightful, and absurdism demands a greater mastery of style than straightforward realism to avoid an impression of amateurism and immature style. For exaomple, Nick Jackson's "Paper Cuts" has some fine images and a workable concept, but its surreal setting lacks the paradoxical coherence necessary for such a story to succeed. S. D. Tullis' "Horror Planet" attempts an elaborate and compressed prose style that allows for some excellent moments but also falls prey to distracting digression and flashes of awkwardness.
But the thing to take away from my comments on these stories is not that I found the execution awkward but that I liked the ideas involved. In the past I've praised anthologies that included well-written stories I found dull, but more and more I feel inclined to swallow my distaste for unpolished prose in the hope of finding fiction of striking imagination. In that regard, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies delivers. Despite its basic print-on-demand book design (enlivened by Tony Lovell's cover image) and language that is likewise initially unpromising, the anthology provides a satisfying range of thoughtful dark tales.
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