Saturday, October 22, 2011


When my copy of this new ghost story anthology arrived, I showed it to my mother, who reads Stephen King and likes a good ghost story but otherwise isn't much interested in horror. She promptly laid claim to it, and because I already had enough horror piled up to be getting on with, I let her take it. I share this domestic interlude not because I've mistaken this review for a LiveJournal entry but because my mother's perspective on the anthology is quite different from mine, making me wonder if my standards are too exacting. Whatever the reasons, she liked every story in the roughly half the anthology she read before I borrowed it back, while I, having read the whole thing, find it decidedly uneven, with a number of dated or uninspired stories. There are enough worthy reprints and original gems to earn the anthology a hesitant recommendation for adherents of the ghost story, but its frustrating variations in quality prevent Haunts from creating the consistent atmosphere of unease that permeates a truly successful horror anthology.

After a striking reprinted poem by Richard L. Tierney, the anthology's first story is its only famous reprint: the M. R. James classic "A Warning to the Curious." I've recently written about some of the reasons this story works so well; a one-line summary might be that James' prose is deceptively simple, disguising a mastery of voice behind a unstylish exterior. There are, unfortunately, a couple stories in Haunts that show what you get when such methods are used by writers with less of a gift for them. R. Chetwynd-Hayes' "The Door" and Basil Copper's "Ill Met By Daylight" both use antiquarian narrative devices reminiscent of James, but their language is less simple than crude, utterly failing to create the crescendo of terror on which his brand of subtlety depended. These stories, while satisfying on a basic level, lack both the spark of originality that memorable fiction generally requires and the excellence of style that can sometimes stand in for originality.

If there's a consistent problem in Haunts, it's that lack of ambition.  Too many entries build on the tropes of the ghost story, offering at most a single insignificant twist on old formulas, or seem content only to elicit a mild scare rather than true terror or a more complicated response.  Reggie Oliver's recent stories have built on his interest in human psychology and its moral consequences, but "Hand to Mouth" is a thoroughly traditional Gothic ghost story. Its account of a haunted chateau and a narrow escape is successful enough on those terms, but its horrors are fairly superficial. Another original, Christopher Fowler's "Poison Pen," feels like a leftover from the era of EC Comics. The freakish deaths of a wealthy man's boorish relatives as they greedily squabble over his will are not a subject that allows for much nuance, and the story's morality is heavy-handed and rather cruel in the way that supernatural revenge stories can be if their authors take them too seriously. The final sequence, while ludicrous, is at least unexpected, and thereby more powerful than anything that has preceded it.

The logic behind editor Stephen Jones' decisions on which stories to reprint escapes me. Again, there's nothing outright bad, but given the 40-year span on which he draws, it's hard to believe there wasn't anything more substantial. Stories like Richard Matheson's "Two O'Clock Session" and John Gordon's "The Place" are so slight that despite being well-crafted they rapidly fade from the mind. No one could accuse Karl Edward Wagner's novella "Blue Lady, Come Back" of being insubstantial, but that's only because it's a rambling, unfocused piece whose ghost story elements are dwarfed by uninsightful descriptions of the protagonists' hard-drinking lifestyle.

Two of the reprints that do work well are baffling because they're recent stories that have already been reprinted in very visible anthologies. "The Mystery," a Peter Atkins story that by declining to explain itself gives its traditional concept a genuinely uncanny spin, was reprinted in the 2010 Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, while John Gaskin's "Party Talk," rendered eerie by style in a different but equally powerful way, appeared in Jones' own Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21. Obviously not all readers of Haunts will be familiar with those anthologies, but are there really so few recent ghost stories worth reprinting that these two had to be chosen?

Other stories, both reprints and originals, deserve unambiguous praise. Kim Newman's "Is There Anybody There?" from 2000 at first seems to have nothing to go on but an inventive high concept, but it develops in an unexpectedly dark direction, and its different take on the ghost is welcome after so many traditional stories. In  the 2005 story "City of Dreams," Richard Christian Matheson enlivens a Hollywood ghost story with a compelling narrative voice that's wry yet wounded and yearning. The two best stories here, both originals, are Conrad Williams' "Wait" and Robert Shearman's "Good Grief," very different takes on husbands in freefall after the sudden deaths of their wives. Shearman offers his usual brand of very dark comedy, which in this case is simultaneously creepy and laugh-out-loud funny, while Williams brings to the table a reality-breaking psychological surrealism similar to that of Steve Rasnic Tem. The weirdness, in all sense of the word, of these two stories provides a powerful contrast to the classical ghostliness of many other selections, and makes them stand out from those surrounding efforts.

To return to my original question: am I underwhelmed by so many of these stories, including several I haven't mentioned because I can find absolutely nothing to say about them, because I've read too many ghost stories for my own good, gotten used to demanding too much? Perhaps. But I'm hardly alone in that. Every form has its borderline-snobby connoisseurs. I admire ghost stories that innovate, that pursue intensity of effect, that explore the ambiguous depths of the human mind. Some of the tales in Haunts have that level of ambition, but most are more direct. If you're like my mother and can wholeheartedly enjoy that approach, then by all means give this anthology a spin. If you're more like me, you might want to be more cautious about investing your time and money, but there's still plenty here to enjoy.

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