Monday, October 17, 2011

A Book of Horrors

The new non-theme horror anthology from acclaimed editor Stephen Jones comes with a mission. As Jones' introduction puts it, "the time has come to reclaim the horror genre" from an "avalanche of disposable volume aimed at the middle-of-the-road reader." These disposable volumes, it transpires, are the non-horror monster and supernatural stories that are in vogue at present, which Jones-- sounding, it must be said, too much like a cranky old man-- notes are not your father's Creatures of the Night. Despite the contempt implicit in "middle-of-the-road reader," Jones claims that the popularity of these books would not be a problem, "if publishers and booksellers were not usurping the traditional horror market" with such books.

He never gets around to providing evidence for this usurpation (are major publishers actually releasing less "real" horror than they did before the rise of the horror-lite category? are sales of "real" horror particularly lower than they have been since the collapse of the mainstream horror market in the late 1980s?), simply assuming that the success of these two types of fiction is part of a zero-sum game. The introduction ends with the rather grandiose claim that "if you enjoy the stories assembled within these pages, then you can say you were there when the fight back began." Whether A Book of Horrors will have anything like the success and influence necessary to back up that assertion, it's a very fine anthology, one that will delight readers already acquainted with the genre and give fans of paranormal fiction a sense of what "real" horror has to offer.

It begins with an author who reminds us that some horror fiction, at least, still sells pretty well: Stephen King, whose novels still top the bestseller lists even in the days of Harry Dresden and Sookie Stackhouse. Alas, the most popular author in the anthology turns in its weakest tale. "The Little Green God of Agony" has promising if traditional elements: a billionaire who, in the aftermath of a horrible plane crash, turns away from modern medicine for relief of his unbearable pain. As his skeptical nurse watches, a Christian faith healer explains that the billionaire's pain is not a byproduct of injury, but a force unto itself, and can be removed with the right tools.  As sometimes happens with King's fiction, its sheer earnestness works against it, crushing thematic subtlety. Eventually the nurse delivers an impassioned speech about how some patients flee their pain rather than confront it; this is followed by an impassioned speech from the minister about how some nurses become inured to suffering and lose sight of the pain their patients are in. The learning of lessons is palpable. The story picks up a little near the end, but cuts off just as one senses the potential for something truly interesting, and truly scary.  I admire the intention behind this, but it doesn't really work, and readers hoping for terror of the type for which King is known will be disappointed. Happily, there's another story here that almost out-Kings King, to which we'll come in a moment.

Before that, though, there's CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint." Labelled original to this volume but actually a reprint from Kiernan's Sirenia Digest, this encounter between a mysterious hitchhiker and the young man who picks her up has many hallmarks of its author's work: characters with heavy emotional burdens, evocative use of weird, often Fortean historical or scientific details, and the presence of powerful, ageless forces whose capacity for destruction is somehow awe-inspiring. Kiernan is a writer whose style calls up a weird atmosphere even before inexplicable events occur; there is something in how she casts her sentences that's bewildering and diminishing in just the right way. "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint," devoid of superficially horrific events or images, is a welcome demonstration that supernatural fiction is a broad church, and can disturb its readers on many different levels.

It's "Ghosts with Teeth," by Peter Crowther, that feels very close to something Stephen King might have produced; it's even set in King's (and my) home state of Maine, although King's characters would presumably not use British idioms, and he would know that there is no place in the state that's a half-hour's drive from both Portland and Bangor, unless that drive is undertaken at criminal speed. Nitpicks about the setting aside, "Ghosts with Teeth" is an excellent novella. What begins as a quietly eerie story of  odd behaviors and minor glitches in communication takes a nasty turn, revealing a monster whose lunatic sadism is creepily compelling.  For those who like their horror visceral without being crude, dark without being intrusively psychological, this is a real winner.

"The Coffin-Maker's Daughter," by Angela Slatter, imagines a world where the making of coffins is an art, one whose rituals are the only way to lay the spirits of the dead to rest. After her father's sudden death, the title character takes on his profession, but her commission to build a coffin for a wealthy man is complicated by a flirtation with his daughter, and by her father's mocking ghost. Barely ten pages long, the story conjures a complicated, flawed character, sympathetic yet hard-edged, and the cruel fairy-tale world in which she lives. As with Kiernan's contribution, this is more dark fantasy than horror, and the contrast between their work and the more down-to-earth monsters of King and Crowther increases the effect of all four stories.

In the psychologically harrowing "Roots and All," Brian Hodge uses a rural community devastated by the spread of methamphetamine, a prison guard driven toward extremes of cynicism by his profession, and a legendary creature known as the Woodwalker to explore forms of personal and communal degradation. Lesser writers might have used these elements in a pat, simplistic story of supernatural justice, but Hodge presents no trite resolution, only a sorrowful and pessimistic look at a miserable situation. Dennis Etchison's "Tell Me I'll See You Again," whose young protagonist has a tragic past and a strange gift, is equally harrowing, with the air of the unstated and unexplained that distinguishes the author's stories of solitude, regret, and failure.

Next is Let the Right One In author Karl Ajvide Lindqvist's first short story written for an English-language market, "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer." At first it seems that the title has given too much away, removing any suspense from a traditional story of good and evil ghosts in a haunted house. But the trouble that ensues when a widower encourages his distant, computer-addicted son to take up the piano is no safely familiar story of restless spirits: it turns unexpectedly into a dark meditation on obsession and the lengths to which people will go to escape their grief, not unlike Lindqvist's novel Harbor, but even more morally ambiguous and forceful, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Another horror master, Ramsey Campbell, shows that his talent hasn't ebbed in the course of a nearly fifty-year career, with a grim morality play about the consequences of "Getting it Wrong." Mr Edgeworth is a friendless middle-aged man, using his DVDs of classic films to escape a dull, dispiriting job at a modern megaplex. When a co-worker phones to get his help with a radio quiz show, he suspects a practical joke, but what he can't see may very well hurt both of them. Edgeworth at first seems an arrogant old coot, but like most of Cambell's protagonists, he's soon in so far over his head that pity becomes the more appropriate response. It's never quite clear what the consequences of a wrong answer are, but Campbell's occasional hints are more sardonically upsetting than straightforward description could be.

Like all Robert Shearman's stories, "Alice Through the Plastic Sheet" begins as a surreal dark comedy whose universal emotional themes become newly affecting through the bizarre narratives in which they're contained. But, fittingly for this anthology, the darkness eventually overwhelms the comedy in this unexpectedly upsetting story of new neighbors, very loud Christmas music, a sick dog, and the perils of social conformity. Shearman may satirize the hapless Alan, his assertive wife Alice, and their his suburban existence, but underneath is his usual sympathy for those who can no longer navigate the bewildering regulations of contemporary life.

Lisa Tuttle's contribution is one whose resolution provides that sense of grim supernatural logic, of cause and effect being twisted according to some dark design, that distinguishes a particular variety of strange story. A young wife uncertain about the future of her marriage to a loving but easily angered husband tries to enjoy her new house, but the experience is spoiled by a sense of something looming over the desolate landscape, a sense that began on the journey to the house, when she was sure she saw the corpse of "The Man in the Ditch." A visit to a psychic whose enigmatic pronouncements signal the psychological undercurrents at work is a highlight of this uncanny tale.

Set on a nineteenth-century English estate, Reggie Oliver's "A Child's Problem" may generate expectations of a pastiche of the antiquarian ghost story, a form Oliver has several times shown his mastery of. But "A Child's Problem" is, like "The Look" from his recent collection Mrs Midnight, so much a story of human evil, of the eccentricities that guilt and fear breed, that the eventual emergence of explicit supernatural vengeance is practically beside the point. The heart of the story is the coming of age of its young protagonist as he discovers the secrets of the ill-tempered uncle with whom he has been forced to live, and learns unpleasant but useful lessons about human relationships and their hierarchies. Like much of his recent work, this novella shows Oliver, always a skillful horror writer, evolving into a "literary" writer of great subtlety and complexity.

The two penultimate stories in A Book of Horrors deal with grieving husbands. The one in Michael Marshall Smith's "Sad, Dark Thing" is drifting through pointless days and nights after being abandoned by his wife and daughter, until a drive through the woods leads him down a side road toward a tiny tourist attraction that will bring about a permanent change. The story reaches for a deep melancholy, but despite Smith's effective prose the protagonist isn't well-drawn enough for his suffering to have much weight, and on the whole the story is overshadowed by Elizabeth Hand's "Near Zennor." Here the husband has suddenly become a widower, and while going through his wife's things he finds a series of letters she once wrote to a beloved children's author, whose books were "like Narnia, only much scarier". Feeling compelled to investigate this mysterious one-sided correspondence, he plans a visit to an old friend of his wife, and winds up exploring the title locale, a ruin-littered countryside where time moves oddly and technology fails. Reminiscent of the classical weird tales of Sarban and Machen, this novella is redolent of the uncertainty of liminal states both physical and emotional, and of the powerful atmosphere of its isolated rural fields and valleys.

Following "Near Zennor," the longest story in the anthology, is "Last Words," its shortest. As a rule ending an anthology with a long story and then a short one is a bad idea; the two can mutually overshadow each other and end the volume with a whimper. Here, though, master of very short horror fiction Richard Christian Matheson crafts a story of madness that, in its vastly different way, has as much impact as the novella that preceded it. Capturing the voice of insanity and arranging his simple plot in just the right way, Matheson gives readers a profound chill that ends the anthology on an intense note, reminding the reader of just how scary, in a variety of ways, all the stories have been. Loss and loneliness, whether brought on by death, disappearance, abandonment, rural life, or the rejection of society, link most or all of them, a reflection perhaps of the fact that the primal fear, one that drives many others, is the fear of being alone; but the forms this fear takes are countless, and Stephen Jones' authors explore fourteen of them without any sense of overlap or repetition.

Back at the beginning of this review, untold paragraphs ago, I took issue with the editor's implication that paranormal romances, mysteries, and thrillers have somehow usurped the market that belongs to horror fiction. But whatever the cause, I agree that horror, once too big for its own good, is now depressingly small, too much a market of small presses whose books go unnoticed and quickly become unavailable. Major writers and editors can still get horror released by large presses, but surnames other than King and Hill have less luck, especially when it comes to short fiction. I'm not sure there's any solution to this problem, but a top-notch anthology with contributions from a variety of major names can hardly hurt. A couple are less powerful than others, but most of the stories in A Book of Horrors would be standouts if they were scattered across lesser anthologies. Together, they show those who might have been inclined to doubt that, whatever its market share, horror fiction is as robust and vibrant now as at any point in its long history.

A Book of Horrors hasn't been released in the U.S. yet that I know of, but you can buy the Kindle edition from (linked below), or import the UK hardcover from a site like The Book Depository.

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