Friday, October 14, 2011

House of Fear

The new haunted house anthology by Jonathan Oliver has an uninspiring title: the hopelessly generic House of Fear, which sounds like it ought to be attached to a bad 1980s horror flick. (It doesn't help that the title is printed in a red-orange font that likewise belongs on a movie poster, or that the back cover, in the same font, offers what could be that movie's tagline: HOME IS WHERE THE HORROR IS.) But issues of presentation aside, this is a very strong anthology in which major names offer a variety of spins on the haunted house. None of the stories are less than solid, and while a few have minor imperfections that limit their effect, another few are top-notch, making on the whole a very readable set of tales.

Mark Twain once observed that "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Small differences can also have major consequences for the ghost story, in which the creation of atmosphere and other effects is a perilously delicate process.  Stories that fall short in these mild ways are by no means bad; it's only that they bring on a sense of "Almost..." that can, in the moment, be as frustrating as larger failure. It is in that spirit that most of my quibbles with various stories in House of Fear are offered.

Stephen Volk's "Pied-a-terre," for example, about a real estate showing in which events take an unexpected turn, does a fine job of generating unease through the very claustrophobia and unattractiveness of the house, enhanced by small moments of oddness. But the story's thematic point, intended to be subtle, is made too blatant by a characterization that, while far from crude, is nonetheless easy to interpret given how familiar it is.  Adam L.G. Nevill's "Florrie," in which an apartment has an unusual effect on its new resident, has a similar problem: the changes in the protagonist aren't gradual enough to build an eerie mood or keep the reader from guessing right away what's happening, and the power of everything that follows, including an excellent final image, is diminished.

It's the story's final moment that's the problem in Christopher Fowler's otherwise excellent "An Injustice," where amateur ghost hunters, including an obnoxious buffet-style student activist, find something more than they bargained for in an abandoned London house. The final line disrupts what has been a suggestive atmosphere and a subtly-made point with an unnecessary bluntness that's a distraction rather than a capper. The distraction in Terry Lamsley's strange story "In the Absence of Murdock" is wooden dialogue that turns its characters into ciphers, while in Garry Kilworth's "Moretta" the language has a directness that's more appropriate to a story for preteens than one aimed at adults.

Other stories struck me as more roundly successful, with flaws that mattered less in the scheme of things. Rebecca Levene's "The Windmill" describes its prison milieu and the drug dealer who moves smoothly within it with such effortless, unsensational realism that its supernatural manifestation has an added impact, and even the conventional explanation that follows can't diminish it. Another unnecessary explanation, which reaches for emotion but doesn't achieve it, follows the haunting faced by a college student in an abandoned farmhouse in Joe R. Lansdale's "What Happened to Me."  This story is more Lovecraftian than ghostly, but for sheer terror nothing else in the anthology can match it. Another real chiller is Weston Ochse's "Driving the Milky Way," in which the lengths to which a lonely man will go to find the friends he lost decades before add a definite jolt to what has been a gently nostalgic story.

Three great stories come in a row near the middle of the anthology. Chaz Brenchley's "Hortus Conclusus" has a simple concept, but the gift for achingly melancholy language demonstrated in Brenchley's other ghost stories makes its haunted garden a genuinely tragic one. There's also a garden in Robert Shearman's "The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World," but it's the Garden of Eden... more or less. This time the residents are Cindy and Steve, and God is given to speaking in long monologues that Shearman brings off with a delightful comic flair. Like much of the author's work, "The Dark Space..." is an ironic and moving dark fantasy in which bizarre events symbolize the pain of ordinary life. The editor's introduction to "The Muse of Copenhagen" by Nina Allan correctly observes that it has something of the flavor of Robert Aickman; its skewed suggestiveness and mysterious femme fatale could have come from several of his stories.

There are other striking stories in the anthology, including Nicholas Royle's surreal "Inside/Out," in which an unrequited crush and the social isolation of a Briton in Japan are abstractly linked to a mysterious house. In fact, none of the stories are poorly written or utterly without interest, which is enough of a rarity in the world of the horror anthology to make House of Fear worth a recommendation on that point alone. That several of the stories are brilliant only reinforces that recommendation. Jonathan Oliver may not (yet) have the profile of major horror editors like Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones, but he's produced an anthology that's on par with their work, and shouldn't be missed by their readers.

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