Ellen Datlow, ed., Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Tor, 2007)
I love short story compilations. I've reviewed several of 'em here at GMR, so when Inferno dropped into our in-box, I held out an eager hand. I didn't care about what was in it, not really. Quite honestly, to paraphrase the horribly overused line from Jerry Maguire, they had me at terror. It wasn't until I took a good look at the book itself that I realized that the editor of this collection, Ellen Datlow, is the very same editor that does the honors for the annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I've fallen at her feet before, when reviewing the Years' Best Fantasy and Horror, volume 18, so I snuggled into my favorite corner and got to reading.
Now, even though I adore horror short stories, having grown up reading Charles L. Grant's Shadows series, Metahorror and Night Visions (not to mention a deep and abiding love for Richard Christian Matheson's "Red"), I have a somewhat higher tolerance for what would be considered the truly horrifying, along with a laundry list of outrageously high caliber stories from the masters rattling around in my little brain. In other words, do your worst; even then, I may still end up yawning. Bolstered by the idea of an editor that knows what she's doing, I dug in hoping to get the pants scared off of me. Or at least loosened a little.
This collection starts out, as they all do, with an Introduction by the editor. Her discussion of "short form" horror is well written, interesting and brief, as all intros should be but quite often fail at. She also gives a sort of shout-out to the best of the best in horror short story compilations, and that list of further reading is reason enough for picking up this book. (Though I have just about all of them in on my bookshelves. Almost.) She describes her selection process for the stories in this book as tales that "provide a frisson of shock or a moment of dread so powerful in might cause the reader outright physical discomfort. . . ." Sounds good to me! How did the stories fare?
The first story, "Riding Bitch," by K.W. Jeter, can provide shock aplenty. The situation itself is pretty sick, and if you focus on what the protagonist of the story is doing, you may feel a little queasy. But for me? I moved past that quickly, and found a story that was heartbreaking and strangely beautiful. A twisted tale that quotes the "Song of Solomon" at its climax? A bang-up way to start this collection.
"Misadventure," by Stephen Gallagher is the kind of story that sneaks up on you. I thought I was reading one type of tale, only to have it shift into another type entirely, and back again. A wonderful story about interactions with the dead and how those interactions can lead to gruesome, if necessary, things.
Nathan Ballingrud's "Monsters of Heaven" is a beautifully crafted piece, but so bizarre I just couldn't absorb it all. And I tried, I did. Still, even this story left me with amazing, haunting images that left me unsettled for quite a while after I'd put the book down. Perhaps I'll go back to it again, after the cacophony of other voices from this collection have died down a bit. I'm hopeful the pieces will fit then. Perhaps "The Last," by Conrad Williams, is another one for the "huh?" pile, but Williams pulled me into his story regardless of the fact that I didn't quite follow his ending very well. Maybe I was too focused on the gross-out. That happens with me sometimes.
My two favorite pieces were Christopher Fowler's "The Uninvited" and "Hushabye," by Simon Bestwick. With "The Uninvited," horror is found in the most unlikely place: the Hollywood Hills. Do people truly sell their souls to the devil in those mansions? Or are things more darkly sinister lying in wait? The lead character, an actor who has seen a little too much for his liking, gets a glimpse of true horror, and the shock of the this story's climax threw me for a loop. Needless to say, I loved it.
"Hushabye" deals with horror on its most basic level: there are monsters among us. And they want our children. This story starts at 11 and just keeps going from there. But it does more than offer a Bad Monster Does Bad Things tale. Ideas of vigilante justice -- and all of the moral uncertainty that comes along with it -- also haunts the characters. The ending left me wondering about the future for those that survive, as well as worrying about the horrible creature they encountered. 'Cause you never know what could be lurking. Anywhere. Just sayin'.
In addition, Lee Thomas' "An Apiary of White Bees" is also worth mentioning. A mysterious, hypnotic tale, the pace of which plays in perfectly with the haunted, mesmerized lead character. And I took a total LSD trip with "The Bedroom Light," by Jeffery Ford. Dude, acid is so 20th century. I couldn't shake off the story after I read it, but the imagery was so twisted in on itself that I ended up wondering what the hell it was that had creeped me out.
No, I won't review each and every story here; what would that leave for you? The fun part of getting the beejeebers scared out of you is the mystery of it all. So this review will only serve to provide brief flashes of what lurks in the dark here.
Stephen King described the emotions a horror stories stir up -- along with how they rank -- very well in his book Danse Macabre:
"I recognize terror as the finest emotion. . . , and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud" (And god bless him for that.)
But he missed a finer point, at least to my little brain; the creep out. That awful/wonderful feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and the pit of your stomach lurches, only ever so slightly. You're not terrified, not really. You're not exactly horrified either, and you're not quite grossed out. But you can't seem to shake it off, either; the feeling just lingers there. It's a place where shock can just dig a hole straight into your gut, where it'll stay . . . until you decide to turn out the lights.
So all in all? This is a smorgasbord for any horror reader, regardless of where his or her interests may lie; horror, terror or gross out. And a small word of warning, those who are not quite as used to graphic violence as I am may find themselves truly grossed out by a few. But mostly, and more importantly, this book serves up excellent, high-quality creep. That's something anyone can sink their teeth into. Bon appetit!
"Lives," by John Grant, Inferno - a chilling story about a man's growing realisation about his son's ability to survive (or cause?) so many horrible disasters.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Inferno: Twenty Original Tales of Terror, Ellen Datlow, ed.
by Paula Guran / copyright 200
Tor. $25.95 (hardcover)
384 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7653-1558- 8
Seeking a definition of “modern horror” or “literary horror”? Look no further. INFERNO, edited by Ellen Datlow, defines short dark fiction circa 2008 as surely as Kirby McCauley’s DARK FORCES did in 1980.
Despite her eminence as an editor, Ellen Datlow has never — until now — been given the opportunity to compile a nonthemed anthology of original short horror. With INFERNO, she takes her chance and makes the most of it showing, in concrete terms, what modern horror is. Her selections are intended, she writes in the introduction, to provide “the reader with a frisson of shock, or a moment of dread so powerful it might cause the reader outright physical discomfort; or a sensation of fear so palatable the reader feels impelled to turn up the lights…and play music or seek the company of others to dispel the fear; or to linger in the reader’s consciousness…long after the final word is read.”
But the emotion of horror is individual; what makes one person shudder might leave another unshaken. Overall, Datlow has chosen stories that will resonate with any reader who takes the plunge — there’s not a bad story in the bunch — but personal taste will determine individual (and reviewer) preference.
It’s Halloween, see, and a guy walks into a bar with his dead ex-girlfriend strapped to his back…”Riding Bitch” by K.W. Jeter is considerably more effective than his joke of a premise. The stark light of personal philosophy jars the reader more than the special effects.
“Misadventure” by Stephen Gallagher is a ghost story in which the dead are heroes. It has its gross-out urban legend moment involving the discovery of a body, but it is the atmosphere and, again, a view of life that disturbs.
Laird Barron is a master of dread, and “The Forest” provides plenty of it in this tale of the minuteness of humanity. It, too, has its over-the-top moment, but it is rendered in a paragraph of entrancingly beautiful language that rivals Poe.
Two weird sisters are cunningly sympathetic monsters in Elizabeth Bear’s “Inelastic Collisions.” Bear reintroduces Pinky Gilman, an inhuman man of great humanity first seen in her story “Follow Me Light,” a character who provides hints of a far vaster cosmos the author has yet to explore.
Christopher Fowler’s “The Uninvited” relates how close a man comes, in end-of-the-sixties Hollywood, to touching evil. The Twilight Zone-ish tale begs to be translated to the television screen, but there you’d lose the social nuances that make the story work.
In less spectacular company, Nathan Balllingrud’s “The Monsters of Heaven” might have shone. Here, its surrealistic trappings don’t quite equal its melancholy tone of loss. A father’s nightmares are somehow tragically reborn in his son in the evocative “13 O’Clock” by Mike O’Driscoll. “Ghorla” by Mark Samuels is gleefully macabre with its Lovecraftian characters. Joyce Carol Oates is always worth reading, and her “Faces” is adequately chilling - it’s simply not her best work. “An Apiary of White Bees” by Lee Thomas captures the imagination with its strange tale of enchanted liqueur, but it is also somewhat weighed down by inevitability.
John Grant’s “Lives” is memorable for its twisted answer to one of those questions you may not want to ask again after you read his story: If there are those who have incredible luck, what might that mean for those around them without it?
The horrors of the holocaust and the necessity of remembering acts of overwhelming evil are the theme of P.D. Cacek’s small gem, “The Keeper.” Paul Finch provides plenty of ambiance in “Bethany’s Wood,” but an unbelievable, unlikable protagonist weakens the story. In Pat Cadigan’s “Stilled Life” everyday life steps into the bizarre and takes you with it.
The core of Lucius Shepard’s “The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast” — the making of a psychopath — conveys violence with impressive force but without overly graphic detail. The framing story of a man passing on his beliefs to his son is, however, even more indelible.
Simon Bestwick’s “Hushabye” depends on shock for its impact, but the quiet determination of its vigilante protagonist stays with you. You suspect (perhaps hope) his act of justice may be just the first in a series.
Conrad Williams turns in a creepy “Perhaps the Last” which starts out with introspection, journeys into suspense, and ends with a gruesome twist. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Bedroom Light” is perhaps the book’s oddest piece and in its strangeness lies the razor edge between the light and the dark.
In the “The Janus Tree,” Glen Hirshberg manages to build a world and draw characters with depth most authors can only accomplish (if they can at all) at novel length. A polluted, decaying mining town provides the background for what seems to be a straightforward, if darkly disturbing, coming of age story. Then, in the last paragraph, Hirshberg brilliantly blindsides you. Once you reach the end, you’ll want to go back and re-read it all from your now-altered perspective.
Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlane” is just as strong, but in an entirely different way. An eager reporter seeking a good story finds a haunted house to explore, a damsel in distress, and an eerie mystery to solve. The solution may surprise you, but the feeling of the story itself is redolent good old-fashioned things that go bump in the night.
And, for all this opinion, only time will tell if the stories that provide the most profound immediate reactions will be the ones that linger the longest and work their way into your psyche.
The two major original anthologies under review this month—Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 1 and Ellen Datlow’s Inferno—rather conveniently together cover the entire SF/fantasy/horror spectrum, allowing some relative assessment of the current states of the genres at short length. Not surprisingly given wider trends, SF, although undimmed in quality, seems in retreat, making up only a third of the volume it shares with fantasy; fantasy itself has an expansive air of health; and horror, generally literate and well-constructed, appears in renascent good shape, though with the limiting provisos of repetitiveness of mood and sometimes obscure surrealism. Both books, more than just being diagnostic tools, are authentically excellent, with barely a weak story between them; acknowledging this, the diagnoses can proceed...
… Ellen Datlow’s anthology Inferno is devoted to original tales “of Terror and the Supernatural”, short works crafted to instil “shock”, “dread”, and “fear” in the reader—horror and ghost stories, in other words. As mentioned above, the quality of the prose is high, and many of the contributions are triumphs of construction, bringing plot and metaphor together in resounding harmony. The impression, to a critic who doesn’t read overmuch horror, is of a genre recovering from its big commercial setbacks and yearning to assume a major market position once more. Whether it will is anyone’s guess, but the creative wherewithal is there...
Of course, where there is aspiration there is also overambition. A couple of entries, “Ghorla” by Mark Samuels and “Perhaps the Last” by Conrad Williams, begin well but degenerate into incoherence; and a few others, like “The Uninvited” by Christopher Fowler and “Hushabye “ by Simon Bestwick, are unpretentiously solid but suffer by comparison with the many genuine heights achieved. Those heights are imposing. Laird Barron’s novella “The Forest” is a dark, insinuating narrative of humankind’s extinction—perhaps not far away—an end intimated by scientists studying insect behaviour and apparent signals from the intelligences whose long dominion over the Earth will succeed our own. Barron briefly evokes a brooding far future with the visionary intensity of Wells or Hodgson, and his characters, though well drawn, are dwarfed by its inevitability and immensity. Genuine chills there, and likewise in “Bethany’s Wood” by Paul Finch, another long story dwelling on the chthonic, although in more human terms. Here a young man desires to find again his mother, an author whose alleged death in a car accident fails to convince him; his hunt through a forest in Northern England is simultaneously terrifying and farcical, as the only tracks through the haunted growth are those of shabby automata resembling a range of real people. A fine balance of elements culminates in a revelation calculated to shatter every expectation brought to the tale’s unfolding. K.W. Jeter’s “Riding Bitch” also mixes hilarity very well with horror: a motorcycle rider hired by a funeral contractor to transport his former lover’s body across town—at night for camouflage’s sake—engages in dialogues with mysterious motor mechanics and bartenders, a tapestry of redemptive promises he probably should not trust. “13 O’clock” by Mike O’Driscoll illustrates cogently the continued appeal of the ghost story, producing a memorable twist in the form of a self-haunting, occurring backwards through time. Lee Thomas in “An Apiary of White Bees” brings a phantom of his own to bear, in a swirl of hallucinations and hive-related obsessions overwhelming the mind of an unhappily married hotel owner; Pat Cadigan’s “Stilled Life” proposes that the ability of people to fulfil the role of models implies a dehumanization literally to be realized in the ever-rapacious London of the near future; “The Bedroom Light” by Jeffrey Ford examines the shape of fecundity through a melding of memory and dream (a large cat and peculiar neighbors can sometimes be useful); and Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlene” permits outside intervention to end a selfish curse involving soul traps and territorial prohibitions. These last two tales are perhaps not overtly terrifying, but terror becomes redundant if overindulged, so some relief is justified...
The list of strong stories continues. “Misadventure” by Stephen Gallagher explores hauntings in the context of shady dealings in the gym-renovation trade, a blocked drain becoming the locus for a wide set of assertions regarding the character of ghosts. Glen Hirshberg’s “The Janus Tree” is exceptionally eloquent in its evocation of a dying Montana mining town, where the local magnate’s bid for personal immortality underlies a sequence of violent and morbid events that sums up perfectly all childhood fears while reaching well beyond them. “Lives” by John Grant turns to suspenseful humor in its portrait of a boy with many lives to call upon but one short of the necessary. And Lucius Shepard in “The Ease With Which We Freed The Beast” delineates a future of inexplicable miracles and vile apparitions, a landscape perhaps allegorical, perhaps realistic, and likely a sinister fusion of the two, good territory for a sociopath and multiple murderer to prowl. “Face” by Joyce Carol Oates is truly nightmarish, with its implications of deformity passed down through time by means other than heredity; and “The Keeper” by P.D. Cacek effectively conveys the power of memory to ensure that no perpetrators of atrocities are ever absolved, a process all the more stark for its revelation among children. Inferno delivers in full on its awful premise, and Ellen Datlow stands on the same plinth as Dante, if only in fright-coordinating echo.
More anthologies like Inferno, and its predecessor of a few years ago, The Dark, should be urgent priorities. It’s very clear that horror at short length is poised for a major revival, and the commercial stimulus must, as here, be applied, and on a large scale...
Datlow, Ellen (Editor)
Dec 2007. 384 p. Tor, hardcover, $25.95. (0765315580).
With more than two-dozen anthologies under her belt, Datlow is one of the horror genre’s most influential editors. To distinguish this from her previous collections, the only underlying theme Datlow insisted on when soliciting these never-before-published tales was “a frisson of shock or a moment of dread.” Her repute with leading masters of the macabre has made for an all-star contributor lineup, including genre specialists Lucius Shepard and Terry Dowling as well as the pangeneric Joyce Carol Oates. In Stephen Gallagher’s “Misadventure,” a mischievous boy suffers a head injury that allows him a fleeting glimpse into the world of spirits. John Grant’s “Lives” describes an attorney’s growing realization that his suspiciously accident-prone son may actually be immortal. Oates’ tale reveals the fate of a girl who stares too long at a growth on an old woman’s neck. Eschewing many of the horror genre’s common motifs, the stories here achieve unsettling effects with less mayhem and more pure craftsmanship, so that this is one of the best recent collections of horror as literature.
Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Ellen Datlow
All stories in Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural had to conform to one requirement, editor Ellen Datlow (who says she’s not prolific, but she’s just being modest) says in the preface: They had to cause the reader “a sensation of fear so palpable that [he or she] feels impelled to turn up the lights very bright and play music or seek the company of others to dispel that fear.” Whether the pieces in Inferno will freak you out depends on your receptivity to horror and supernatural fiction in general, but they are, for the most part, strongly written and highly memorable.
K. W. Jeter gives us a fiery start with “Riding Bitch,” in which the protagonist finds himself riding his motorcycle with the corpse of his dead girlfriend bound to him by handcuffs. The naked speed of the motorcycle and the fierce grip of his dead lover enact obvious metaphors for the uncontrollable speed and clinging persistence of heavy grief, but I don’t mind obvious metaphors when handled with the hallucinogenic agility of Jeter’s prose. Shreds of zombie stories, fairy tales, and maybe even a bit of absurdism (especially in the roundabout conversations where the characters try to be profound and expressive but hit the frail limits of human expression instead) mix in “Riding Bitch,” drive to a poetic and inevitable crescendo, then explode in a radiant moment of transcendence. The intertwining of sex and death—or, rather, love and self-destruction—doesn’t seem like a Freudian cliché; Jeter uses the subjects to brilliantly portray the altered state of mind of grief. It’s always a hard act to follow in an anthology with such a kick-ass story as its first.
In contrast to “Riding Bitch,” Stephen Gallagher’s “Misadventure” appears kind of flat. Workmen repairing a decrepit gym does not seem like a riveting subject. But when you have a protagonist who’s constantly bugged by ghosts no one else can see, and some of the workmen swear that strange shadows shift in the bottom of the swimming pool, things get more interesting. The aforesaid comparative “flatness” is actually a clever device on Gallagher’s part, an affected calmness of the main character, whose understated, realistic descriptions of events make the unexplained shadows even creepier. Though the protagonist does solve the mystery of the pool haunting, “Misadventure” expands its scope beyond a detective story to explore how the main character makes his peace with the spirits in his life. A melancholy character study, quieter than “Riding Bitch,” but ultimately still as powerful.
In “The Forest” by Laird Barron, Partridge and former associates of Renaissance man and scientist, Toshi Ryoko, gather at Ryoko’s rural New England estate to hear about his latest experimentations with cutting-edge technology. Cockroaches, satellites listening for UFOs, and an eerily preserved ghost town are all involved, as is Partridge’s old flame, Nadine. As Partridge tries to figure out exactly what Ryoko’s goals are, he realizes that he may be able to rescue himself or Nadine from the sinister proceedings, but not both. Luxurious and slow in spreading his backstory, Barron writes in measured, sensual prose that smells of Lovecraft with the sense of ancient, shambling horror. Predictable, but also delicious and satisfying.
Amy and Brian’s young son is missing. The silence of regret and blame settles in their house. Then angels (?) begin falling from the skies and dying, and perhaps things are looking up. Like “Misadventure” and many other stories in this anthology, “The Monsters of Heaven” by Nathan Ballingrud is obsessed with lost chances and absent children, both of which are frail, insubstantial, but which bear huge burdens of meaning. The trite treatment of Amy’s affair aside (”You cold bitch!”/”You passive little shit…You let it happen”), Ballingrud successfully depicts the tragedy of two empty suburban hearts and the seductive, savage narcotic of grief.
The predatory beings of “Inelastic Collisions” lurk beneath the disguises of human women, stalking their prey through a seemingly innocent challenge to a game of pool. Everything goes well until the predators meet a man who won’t submit easily to them. Elizabeth Bear takes the tired conceit of the tragically fallen angel and revives it with sharp prose that revels in the literal grittiness of the human world and its revolting foreignness to the protagonists.
“The Uninvited” by Christopher Fowler is about a sinister kind of groupie shadowing the edges of glittering Hollywood high life. Julius observes that whenever these uninvited guests crash a party, bad things inevitably happen. He begins trailing them slowly throughout the years, trying to find out more about their methods and their purpose. Fowler’s story, largely in summary, spans many decades and attempts to be a world-weary indictment of the evil, the corruption that society lets in its doors without realizing it. However, given little opportunity to invest in the main character (who never confronts any real challenges or has any particularly significant emotional responses) or to take the uninvited guests seriously (sure they kill people, but they also prance around wearing “Satanic death symbols,” which seems rather stereotypical), I found the story lackluster.
Lost children resurface again in Inferno with Mike O’Driscoll’s “13 O’Clock.” A father, Caleb, becomes obsessed with son Jack’s night terrors. The persistence of Jack’s bad dreams turns into an obsession for Caleb and then, inevitably, Caleb himself finds himself trapped in a nightmare. O’Driscoll grounds his characters in thoroughly believable motives—a child’s panic over what he can’t control, a parent’s desire to defend his child against all harm—and then extends circumstances to terrifying extremes to test the characters. The realistic grounding makes Caleb’s irrational obsession understandable, even sympathetic, and, while we are wondering how Caleb will ever save his kid, Caleb’s own damnation sneaks up on us. We swallow the supernatural elements quickly as we fly by on O’Driscoll’s tender, delicate words to reach the inevitable end. Because it can work on both a literal level and a more figurative, symbolic level, O’Driscoll’s investigation of parental instincts is particularly effective and memorable, one of the best in the book.
Death happens whenever Christopher is near. Or, more specifically, Christopher brings death and disaster, but he himself always escapes it. Accidents, disasters, and tragedies consume his family members, but he remains unscathed. His father, the one telling this story in “Lives” by John Grant, becomes increasingly disturbed by Christopher’s continuing unbreakability. Perhaps the two are more similar than the father cares to admit? Grant weaves a suspenseful story about the double-edged sword of superpowers, which bring great good fortune and great loneliness simultaneously, and he successfully balances the portrayal of Christopher so you’re not quite sure if this kid is intentionally destructive. At the same time, the melancholy undercurrent of the father seeing himself in his son’s character gives “Lives” a philosophical and poignant ring.
An odious bibliophile, aptly named Staines (ewww), pries into the hideout of pulp novelist Julius Ghorla, now inhabited by the paranormally obsessed novelist’s ancient sister. Both Staines and rival researcher, Cooper, are competing for little-known information about Ghorla’s weird theories, but Staines arrives at Ghorla’s sister’s house first. Horror befalls him! Author Mark Samuels builds the creeping tension, the damp oppressive atmosphere, and the relentless weirdness of the aforementioned crazy cat lady in “Ghorla” well, but then he reduces the power of these elements in the end. In order to truly appreciate the conclusion’s punch, we should have greater inklings about the eldritch details of Ghorla’s theories. We do not get such details until an inconvenient data dump via diary about two-thirds of the way through the story. By spelling out practically everything, Samuels stops the story’s forward momentum and much of the reader’s interest as well. Even though the crazy cat lady does blab her secrets directly to her diary and thus to you, you should read to the end anyway for a neat conclusion tying all plot elements together and giving Staines a deserved comeuppance for being so annoying.
Joyce Carol Oates contributes a short entitled “Face” to this anthology. It seems to be a stream-of-consciousness, from the viewpoint of a young girl, of a local townswoman who has a “thing” (tumor? deformity?) growing from the side of her neck. The young girl and other kids think that the old woman’s deformity is another head, another face. The possibility that the old woman is a two-faced witch frightens and fascinates the kids and eventually…Well, we’ll just say that it gets under the girl’s skin. Oates uses the framework of an urban legend to tell a tale that’s not so much scary as it is a clear depiction of the way unusual people or things fasten onto us and refuse to let go. Oates’s fluid pacing recalls the ripples and cycles of obsessive thought so well that her story itself becomes as unforgettable as the subject matter.
Lee Thomas, author of “An Apiary of White Bees,” knows that we react to bees the same way that we react to fire. Both bees and fire are pretty to look at, so lively and flashing; both benefit us with their sensual products, either honey or heat. At the same time, both bees and fire never escape being wholly evil, which is to say that they can kill you if you’re not careful. Protagonist Oliver discovers the seductive, dangerous appeal of bees when he unearths some curious casks of a strange honeyed wine from the cellars of an old estate. Visions of the wine’s source bring him insight, hallucination, and power, which lead to a violent, exquisite climax when others refuse to respect Oliver. Thomas writes deeply, lavishly mixing metaphors of drunkenness, sweetness, sexual release, and stings without ever being trite or overdone. He transmutes our instinctive vision of bees=bad, creepy bugs into one of strikingly sensual beauty. (In an added bonus, it’s nice to see a story about a gay character who is not defined by, suffering because of, or limited to his sexual orientation, just as it’s nice, in “Inelastic Collisions” to see a wheelchair-using character who is not defined by, suffering because of, or limited to his wheelchair.)
P. D. Cacek takes a little girl’s perspective in “The Keeper,” wherein Sarah’s family welcomes silent, depressed, skeletal cousin Janna, a survivor of the concentration camps. It’s not just the usual posttraumatic stress disorder haunting Sarah’s cousin. It’s something more vivid….Okay, actually, Cacek would like you to believe that Janna’s condition is more than usual PTSD, but I had a hard time buying it. It looked pretty similar to me, even in the way that her memories ate her from the inside out, consumed her, and even leaked over to mess up Sarah’s life. In fact, despite the subject matter, I didn’t find anything particularly disturbing, horrific, or significant about this story or anything original, unusual, twisty, or metaphorical about the way in which it was told. This is not to say that Cacek writes poorly, just that the story laid all its cards on the table quickly:
“There was a girl who came to live with us, and she was haunted by the Holocaust, and then I was too”
And then just left them there. In the end, I was much more interested in Sarah’s boisterous, chattering, argumentative relatives than in the tragic, but flatly described, Janna.
Paul Finch enters “Bethany’s Wood” following Terri and Mark on their way to visit a New Age author. Mark is convinced that the reclusive writer is actually his mom, who went off the map years ago after leaving Mark’s dad for a woman. As they approach the manse in Bethany’s Wood, Mark and Terri glimpse artistic, robot-like creatures that strangely resemble Mark and Terri themselves. What’s going on here? In a word: misogyny. I really have nothing against stories about insane, control-freaky lesbians per se, but they have to be done well and provide some sort of spin or rumination other than the fact that insane, control-freaky lesbians are bad news. However, Mark’s mom and her partner are dully stereotypical, Goddess-worshipping man-haters, and the story’s only perspective on them is Mark’s—who hates them with a venomous passion. Thus the story sounds a single note of shrill hatred for women that overbears any other elements in it.
We’ve all got a beast inside us, made of animal appetites and deadly sins. Some of us keep it caged, but it’s so simple to let it out, as the characters of “The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast” by Lucius Shepard discover. They are drugged-up teenagers who, in their boredom, let loose a vicious monster, but that’s not the source of horror. No, the horror comes from the main character and his relationship, part predator, part prey, with the beast. Shepard starts off “The Ease…” in a loose, rambly way, appropriate to his stoned protagonist, but the harshness of the boy’s barely concealed brutality pokes through, chilling you. Scenes become tighter, faster, and shorter as the story goes on, building to a conclusion that comments on not just societal ills, but also on the way violence creeps through familial lines.
In “Hushabye,” you can’t defeat the vampires with a well-placed karate kick or a stake. They’re tougher than the creatures of recent TV fame…more perverted too. The one that Poole is tracking in Simon Bestwick’s tale is more like a pederast, feeding on kids. This is a stark, sharp vengeance story with appropriately horrific monsters and appropriately jaded, morally ambiguous cops and a nice splattery ending. Yum.
“Perhaps the Last” by Conrad Williams centers on Garner, museum guard on the night watch in a museum full of clocks. To pass the time, he imagines himself an inamorata, chatting regularly to her so that she develops into a robust character. But then she seems to be developing a life of her own, and all those ticking, ticking timepieces drive Garner to morbid thoughts of mortality. An odd, somewhat confusing tale, “Perhaps the Last” recalls the hectic, lugubrious paranoia of some of Poe’s shorts. Also, as with Poe, however, I think I need an annotated guide to discern what Williams’s compelling, yet also murky, tangle of images (in which a heart is “a twitching fist of meat that clung to her chest”—awesome!) signifies.
Next we’ve got “Stilled Life” by Pat Cadigan, in which forty-something Lee befriends a high-school-dropout, Sophie. Sophie performs as a living statue in the parks, which seems okay to Lee until Sophie starts appearing more stone-like and less life-like, and she’s got this new greasy manager guy who seems to be driving her to an eating disorder. Nice concept, but “Stilled Life” drags in the middle, as Lee is slow on the uptake to realize that something is really wrong with Sophie. Furthermore, since both Lee and Sophie are rather unlikable—Lee maternal and micromanaging, Sophie solipsistic and self-abnegating—I cared more about what drew the two together in their dysfunctional friendship in the first place than the fact that Sophie’s statue work was becoming pathological. I would have cared more about the horror elements if the characters had a convincing psychological framework upon which to develop said horror. But, because they didn’t, I was too distracted by their lack of convincingness to pay attention to much else.
Glen Hirshberg has a wonderful setting for “The Janus Tree,” which takes place in Silver City, Montana. Formerly a boom town, but not quite a ghost town, Silver City is more like a bust town, a declining city scarred physically and internally by the mining that once drove its economy. In the same way that Silver City is haunted by the mines, so main character Teddy is haunted by the silent, grim Matt, son of the local business tycoon. In high school English class, Teddy competes with Matt for the affections of Jill, but Matt grows increasingly violent and meets an end more tragic than scary, although it is scary in that existential way when you reflect how the despair of a city can get into your soul, how your family’s demands can dog you, possess you…. This is a story with a very long, slow-burning fuse that gathers its menacing detail bit by bit so that you barely notice when you slip over from your average horrors of high school to something more sinister. The climax explodes so quickly that it’s difficult to appreciate what’s going on, but read this one again, and savor the dense character study.
“The Bedroom Light” is really funny. In this story by Jeffrey Ford, Bill and Allison can’t sleep because something always makes too much noise or otherwise distracts them. In their insomnia, they bitch about their possibly haunted house and their nutso neighbors, then gradually switch to reminiscences, bad dreams, and their symbolism, and now the cat’s acting deranged…I seriously couldn’t find any plot or point or anything remotely chilling, suspenseful, supernatural, and/or horrific about this, but I went along with it because it was a fast-moving sketch of two fully fleshed, charming people whose conversations seemed like real ones, transcribed, even though they were stylized, clenched, and honed through Ford’s enviable skill.
Meteors, suits of armor, an accidental death of a child, and a long-lived desire for vengeance come together in Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlene.” On the trail of the fabled Pratican Star meteor, reporter Neville investigates its disappearance with townie Gilly, who grew up with stories of the Star. They’re not supposed to poke around the Pratican estate after dark, but, when they do, they learn that grudges and their effects can last long after a person is dead, and Nev and Gilly have to clean it up. This surprisingly sprightly story tweaks the conventions of a Horrific Discovery trope a bit, but mostly it’s a solid, entertaining entry in that subgenre, distinguished by careful consideration of character.
Publisher: Tor Books (December 2007)
Hardcover: 384 pages