on December 20, 2005
Anthologies are a strange breed of book. They can be more anticipated than any single author novel, can hold the potential of worlds in their covers, but the fulfillment of that potential is so rare as to slide it into the realm of pipe dreams. I've sung this song before, I know. If you get two, maybe three memorable reads out of an anthology, it ranks in the upper percentile; that is the Wilson rule of anthologies, and for the most part, it's a safe bet.
Now, stepping with Sherman and Mr. Peabody into my way-back machine ( yes, I'm old ) I make my way to the year 1988. In 1988 I was just starting out as a writer, cutting my teeth as a small press editor, and reading everything in the genre of horror and speculative fiction that I could get my hands on. I was a member of a small group who met at least once a year - a group I believed would comprise the voices of the next generation of the genre - Stephen Mark Rainey, Brian Hodge, Elizabeth Massie ( whose home we met at ) - Yvonne Navarro, Wayne Allen Sallee, and a few others. One place we all came together was the convention NECON. If you are interested in writing, reading, discussing or learning about horror, this is a convention that should be part of your schedule. My life has kept me away for several years, but if I could choose one convention in any given year to attend, it would be NECON without hesitation.
Anyway, in 1987, the year before the fateful aforementioned year, I attended NECON. One of my friends ( another member of that young lions group ) who also attended was Jeff Osier. Many of you will remember Jeff for his collection Driftglider, and his contributions to the magazine Deathrealm. In any case, in 1987, I was walking along a parking lot with Jeff and several others, when a short man with long hair and headphones appeared around a corner, walking the other way. He was very intent on whatever he was listening to, and, being new to things, I had no idea who he was. The man saw us, stopped, and greeted Jeff, pulling him aside.
I thought little of this, at the time, because, as I said, I had no idea who this person was. That person, as it turns out, was Thomas F. Monteleone, author, editor, publisher - though at the time the publishing part of his career was still before him - alien abductee in the minds of the mindless, and all-around talented guy. He had stopped Jeff to inform him that his story, "Oh What a Swell Guy I Am," had been accepted to Borderlands ( then without the I in front of it, being the only Borderlands there was ). This was an incredibly big deal. The anthology paid well, was very much anticipated, and Jeff was the first of us to break the barrier. As it turned out, Beth Massie also broke through that same year with her story "Stephen," which won the Bram Stoker Award for Professional Excellence.
All of that is beside the point, however, and I'll reserve it for later days and other times. The point is this. The last time I read an anthology wherein I literally could point out no story I did not enjoy, was that anthology. Borderlands I. It contains, among other things, my favorite Harlan Ellison tale of latter years, Scartaris, June 28th. Simply put, this was not a cookie cutter themed anthology as so many others had been. If there was a theme, it was a theme of taste and literary quality stemming from the editor himself, and the incredible extra effort he managed to drag from authors who, while always talented and often inspired, went a little further for this book, and this editor. Borderlands I was a marvel.
And now, as I hear the cry of THE POINT, WILSON, WHAT IS THE POINT, MAN? - I will get to the point. The point is Borderlands V. To say that this volume is long-awaited, or that the anticipation ran high, would be about the same as saying the Red Sox and the Cubs are playing for the World Series in a matter-of-fact voice and yawning. This book might have come out, and in a very different form and with different contents, many years back, except that it didn't. Circumstances put the series on hold, and I, along with many other disappointed authors and readers, had become all but resigned to never seeing the Borderlands Series get past number four.
So here we are, fifteen years after the release of the first Borderlands, and I have at last had the chance to read Borderlands V. Cosmetically, the book is a fine thing. Good binding, wonderful paper - a quality book you enjoy holding and turning the pages of, unlike the mass-produced best-sellers that reflect only too-accurately the attitude of the publishing world in general toward readers and authors alike. Again, though, that's another topic for another day.
Borderlands V is bar none the best anthology I have read in five years, and I have read some fine work during that time. When I first read the list of contributors, I was set for the usual ups and downs. There are new names here, and those I had no opinion on. There are names here from which I've seen amazing works, and less amazing works, and even a few names that made me pause and think that I have NEVER read anything they have written that was on the level of what I read in Borderlands I. That said, I was ready to be disappointed, but hopeful of something more.
I could not have hoped for a finer read. As in the first book, the variety is amazing. There are certain themes that permeate the pages of Borderlands, and always have, human pain, deep-rooted emotion, and all the trimmings that come with these. Ghosts haunt the pages, and many of those ghosts stare out at you as if they might have come from closets deep in your own mind.
We start out with one of the finest stories I've ever read. Gary Braunbeck's Rami Temporalis starts out slow, like most great stories, and draws you into a surreal little world, tagging along in the head of his protagonist who has one of those faces you can just trust. You know them, though you likely could not draw one, or describe it accurately to a police sketch artist. Where this leads is down a road that could have come off trite and contrived, but instead leaves you sitting, staring at the wall and wondering. In my own, honest opinion, that is the greatest gift an author can give a reader. They can make him think.
John Platt, who many will know as a driving force Behind the NECON of old, delivers a very odd little tale about hands. While this isn't a high-tension, nail-biter ( no pun intended ) it leaves the lingering thought of, well, HANDS in your mind, makes you think about different hands, what you use them for, what you have touched and will touch. All Hands is a story you might pass over too quickly, then think about at odd moments.
Holly Newstein's tale, Faith Will Make You Free, visits some very familiar territory for speculative fiction fans, but still manages to pull in some new elements, and new blends of old elements, that are powerful and compelling. Hassidic thought coupled with the pain and sorrow of war, The Nazi concentration camps and the moral compass that leads a man through his life on an odd, disjointed path. While the story itself isn't terribly original, the narrative voice, and the insight into the characters thoughts and perceptions of things we should never let slip far from our minds lend it strength.
Then you get a surprise. This is the beauty of a non-themed anthology. The jarring change that is possible, and even likely, from one author to the next. Straight out of Holly Newstein's fairly traditional ghost story, you run headlong into Adam Corbin Fusco and NOO72-JKI. This is a stylistic piece written in journal-entry format. A study in laughter response. Again, the Nazis rear their ugly, world-defacing heads, and you will come away with a wary, distrustful attitude toward large-eyed cartoon characters, and a lot of questions you did not start out with. This is a very disturbing piece.
Barry Hoffman drags us out of the laughter pit and back onto more traditional ground with Time For Me. This is a particularly poignant sliding into madness tale. The power of this story is that you see a man who has slipped beyond the years where he feels the importance of his life, and given insights into his mind, while at the same time shown the reactions and perceptions his inner turmoil garner from the "real" world around him. These drive home the desperation of the tale, and give it s slow-boiling power that you don't expect at the beginning of the tale itself. Very well-crafted.
The Growing of Alan Ashley is brought to us by up-and-comer Bill Gauthier. Prior to reading thie book, Bill's is one of the names I saw and frowned, thought about, and then wondered. Until Borderlands V hit my hands, I'd never read a story by Bill, and it may be that I've missed out. Tom and Elizabeth claim Bill as their own discovery, and if this is true, they have discovered a gem. This story could be about so many people, people with potential they feel, but never express. People in dead-end jobs with Route 66 dreams, to coin an awful phrase. This is a tale of inner conflict and resolution, and very entertainingly wrought.
The Goat by Whitt Pond, is a holdover. I believe, if I read the introduction to the tale properly, that it was to be printed in Borderlands V in its previous incarnation, before the series was put on hold. If so, it has held up miraculously. (There is a pun, and it IS intended, but you'll need to read the story to appreciate it). This is a story of mis-placed faith and stubborn religious paranoia. It is also the story of two brothers, and of courage. There is enough of the real churches of the world in the tale to lend it a hint of reality, and enough of reality to leave a sour taste of fear in your mouth after reading it, because the characters are too close to men and women you might meet.
The next story, Prisoner 392 by Jon F. Merz, is one of the finest in the book. This has a really old-school feel, sort of like something Fyodor Dostoyevsky might have written, foreign lands, prison blocks, but with the sociopath of modern thrillers as protagonist. It is a dip into the madness that accompanies solitary punishment, and into the depths a man might reach from sheer desperation.
The Food Processor, I agree with the Monteleones, is one of the strangest tales to be encountered with the pages of Borderlands, and I would include all of the previous four volumes in that statement. More of a fable than a pure story, this tale tackles the age old issues that arise between hard-headed fathers, mothers who kowtow to those fathers, and children with imaginations. I won't say it's "delightful," because, as many of the original fables and fairy tales did, it disturbed me, as it will you. Still, there are smiles to be had.
It isn't a particularly new concept that Psychiatrists, and therapists, have their own perception of reality, or that they are prone to pushing said perceptions off onto their patients. The recent movie GOTHIKA is a good example of this concept seen through a creative lens. John Farris offers us another in his tale Story Time With the Bluefield Strangler. Nothing in this story is quite what it seems, and even when you seem to be getting insights, be careful which character's viewpoint you opt for as the truth...this one will surprise you.
Brian Freeman gives us a twist on the ghost story in Answering the Call. This started out by surprising me with a description of a service that probably exists, but that I'd never considered. Soon after, though, it draws the readers focus to the dead, what they left behind, what they left undone, and what we do about them. It would be nice to believe in the story, because at least some of this would be answered, but what you end up with is the concept, and the reality that there is no such person, or probably not . . . and again, starting at the wall and thinking.
Dominick Concilla's story, Smooth Operator, is one of a type that I love. The concept that every life is an island unto itself, a tiny world that, while shared with others externally, is very personal and unique within, is set into stark clarity in this disturbing tale of obsession. It's one thing to be faced with someone who is obsessed, but quite another to be on the periphery and then to have your life shattered by an obsession that you were integral to and absolutely unaware of. This is a deeply disturbing story.
Father Bob and Bobby hits the familiar ground of Catholic Priests, sexual obsession, sin and guilt. There is a fundamental corruption that seeps forth from certain aspects of Catholicism that authors and artists seem unable to deny. This tale wanders between this world, this reality, and others nearby. It handles issues of faith, lost and found. It is not the sort of tale I expected to receive from the pen of Whitley Streiber, but on reflection, the surprise evaporates in the heat of the prose. A very thought-provoking addition to the book, and a finely crafted story.
Barbara Malenky's A Thing is a quiet tale. It is also one of the more hopeful of those between the pages of Borderlands V. We all have our unbeatable foes, but what if they weren't? What if a few were chosen to win, despite the odds? This is more of a character piece, delving into the mind of the protagonist and seeing the situation from that perspective, but it is well conceived.
Bentley Little is an author who has been providing fiction with a cutting-edge, warped appeal for a long time now. Back in those days I spoke of at the beginning of this review, Bentley was writing for Grue and other publications. I still remember a story about a creature and a toilet seat, but I won't get into that. What we have in The Planting is a blasphemous sort of parable, a protagonist very straight and true to his purpose, which, given rational thought, appears more madness than wisdom. We venture into God's house, though what God it might be, in the end, I'd hesitate to guess. It's also a romance of the most disturbing kind. You won't easily forget this one.
John McIlveen gives us INFLICTION, which is among the most emotionally disturbing of the pieces in this book. It is a tale of loss, of wallowing in self-pity and addiction, and then, it starts to be a tale of redemption. Pretty standard stuff, except, you don't expect to find that the redemption you seek has become the greatest pain of your existence, or that scars no only never fully heal - they multiply. There is something of Katherine Dunn in this story - reminisces of Geek Love. Very strong imagery, and an all-to-believable protagonist lend this power and that quality that drives a story like a stake into your gut and leaves it there, long after the words have run their course.
Darren O. Godfrey's DYSFUNCTION is a story about family ties gone horribly knotted. It brings to life some of those images that occur when you look at your parents and wonder what your children will do to you, how they will do it, and why. It is a story about repression and release. And, as the editors point out, it is once again, as Godfrey's tale in Borderlands 2, inhabited by one of the strangest child characters I've run across. This story might make parents want to hug their children, and children call their parents, wishing they were closer; or it might just hurt.
The Thing Too Hideous To Describe is David Schow's entry into this anthology, and it is the bright spot of humor in the book. The elements of this one are the human desire to have a nasty evil thing to blame for all of their own shortcomings, and the same group of humans' obsession with understanding, categorizing, and trying to make people SEE the former obsession. Sort of a fable for the ages, this one left me chuckling for quite a while when I had finished it.
SLIPKNOT by Brett Alexander Savory is another of those introspective character driven tales that have been the core of Borderlands since inception. There is a creature in the story, yes, but you always have some sense that this creature is a product of the malfunctions or dysfunctions of the minds involved. It is a tale of hereditary madness, and supernatural slavery. It might make you glance at that spot in the upper corner of your bathroom mirror more than once, just to make SURE it's a long-distance toothpaste splatter. A great effort by one of the strongest young voices in horror fiction.
Gene O'Neill's story, Magic Numbers, keeps seeming to be a normal, psycho-killer tale, numbers and voices in the head, obsession and a meddling mother. But it is more, and the shift is a subtle one. You are seeing things, you see, through the mind of the protagonist, who may, or may not be seeing things as they are, and the numbers are counting down. This is a very cleverly wrought tale that shows a lot of forethought and insight.
Lon Prater's Head Music again twists us toward the supernatural side of horror. This is a poignant tale of epic sadness. The protagonist is run through a gamut of emotions, from confusion, to awe, to sadness, and then to resolve. Some secrets are too precious to share, some mysteries deserve to be just what they are. This is one of the most emotionally touching stories in this volume, and a wonderful beginning for a newer voice in fiction.