Top positive review
18 people found this helpful
Old monsters, in new light...
on October 30, 2011
... of zombies and vampires and werewolves and ghosts - but with a twist of lemon:
Last year specialist imprint PS Publishing released SCOTT EDELMAN's collected zombie stories, `What Will Come After'. All but the title story were reprints; it is this understated and poignant title story which opens this year's volume. Having said all he thought he had to say about zombies, here Edelman approaches the zombie tale from the only point of view left; that of a character telling of their own mutation into a zombie. The telling is heartbreakingly tied up with thoughts of the protagonist's wife. A subtle but lingering tale.
A few volumes back I enthused that Glen Hirshberg was my favourite short story writer, with seven consecutive appearances (#13 through #19) in Best New Horror, and indeed I eagerly await his forthcoming third collection, `The Janus Tree and Other Stories'. True, he hasn't appeared in Best New Horror for three volumes now, although recent stories have been chosen by Ellen Datlow for all three volumes of Night Shade Books' `The Best Horror of the Year'. However, the current crown for master of the short story goes to MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH. Last year's award-winning "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" was easily that volume's best story and this year's "Substitutions" (from the much lauded `Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror' anthology) marks his 15th appearance in Best New Horror, his debut being 20 years ago in volume 2. What I admire most about Smith is his ability to change his `voice' from story to story. Here we meet a couple who order their groceries online, and when the husband goes through the bags of unfamiliar but enticing offers he soon discovers he's been given someone else's shopping... and just as the supermarket sometimes substitutes one item for another this, too, becomes a question the protagonist must wrestle with - although it is no mere food produce that is at stake.
MARK VALENTINE's "A Revelation of Cormorants" features one William Utter, a scholar with delusions of grandeur who finds himself trapped whilst researching the bird life on a grey and windy Galloway. It should be as much a search for himself but, in the end - when faced with doom - he still feels compelled to scribble his pretentious notes. Like Reggie Oliver, Valentine has a supreme gift for the `old' language of horror, of channelling the ghosts of Machen, James, Aickman, Blackwood and Bierce. His voice is measured, but never dry. His words have the rich refined taste of a premium ale, or a single malt. Like his tale from last year, "The Axholme Toll", this year's is very atmospheric. Alas, for blue collar workers like myself, the reprint pages of `best of' anthologies are about the only places we'll get to read this man's fiction: his short story collections are issued by such über-expensive small press publishers as Ex Occidente and aimed at affluent collectors. Ordinary readers will have to content themselves with the odd enticing tale or two; it's for this reason that we should be thankful to such people as Jones, Datlow and Guran.
GARRY KILWORTH's style can be seen as workmanship, as there is no sleight-of-hand window dressing here - just bare story. His tale of strange goings on at a village cottage, "Out Back", is here reprinted from last year's FantasyCon Souvenir Programme, where he was guest of honour.
ALBERT E. COWDREY feels as if he's appeared in Best New Horror any number of times now, but in fact "Fort Clay, Louisiana: a Tragical History" is only his second since volume 20's "The Overseer". Perhaps it was the richness of detail of that novella that gives the reader the impression that they've read more of him than they actually have. This time it's a novelette - and the writing is no less rich. Again we have a scholar, but the story is told from the point of view of the photographer who accompanies him around the ruins of an old fort. The young lady photographer believes she can use this opportunity to produce a coffee table art book, embellished with the grisly tale of the fort's history which the scholar divulges. And she does, gloating with pride a year later when she presents the finished book to the scholar. But the scholar has a final `gift' of his own...
Here's one for those who think there's no longer any original horror stories: BRIAN HODGE's "Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls" is a superlative example of `dark fantasy'; a masterclass in `magic realism'. About a boy and a girl and their upstairs world. Nextdoor neighhours, their room windows face across a gulf of 12 feet. About how he transports her from her world to his... using just pen and paper. Then, ultimately, hides her from the adults of the downstairs world when they come looking for her. As with last year's triple-anthologized story by Michael Marshall Smith, part of the story's success is in the naturalism of the dialogue, the ease with which it's told. No suspension of disbelief is necessary: you simple believe.
"Fallen Boys" by MARK MORRIS is a tale of comeuppance, of history repeating itself. A school trip to a coal mine museum turns out to be more of an education that anyone suspected.
"The Lemon in the Pool" is SIMON KURT UNSWORTH's 3rd appearance in Best New Horror over the past four years. The title might sound whimsical and slight - but don't be fooled. To be sure, it starts off playfully enough, with various items of fruit inexplicably turning up in the protagonist's pool. Helen's retired, thinking she's escaped the drudgery of England for her sunny villa in Spain. But soon innocuous items of fruit are replaced by other things, and unease is replaced by disquiet. Disquiet by dread...
Selections from editor Charles Black's `The Black Book of Horror' series are starting to become regular features of `best of' collections, and justly so. Yes, they can be uneven anthologies, but even that is in keeping with `The Pan Book of Horror Stories' to which they pay homage. Reading the good and the bad in the context of each given volume, they strike a nice balance, making for joyful, eclectic reading; one really never does know what to expect next. And the joy of "The Pier" by THANA NIVEAU is the layers in which it is built up. To begin with the language is plain, the events ordinary. Gradually both begin to deepen, the words taut as the protagonist descends into the reality of what the pier is. A finely accomplished tale; a writer to watch.
A sequel to his 2001 tale "The Lost District", JOEL LANE's "Black Country" see us returning to the bleak and rundown town of Clayheath which, through council re-zoning, ceased to `exist' years ago. A bleak and enigmatic tale of child crime and the lost of one's self, of identity, the villain is the district itself and the black country which it has caused to grow in the protagonist's soul.
Very few reading this will have heard of ANGELA SLATTER - and I envy you that; envy you the delight you're going to experience when you immerse yourself in `The Girl with No Hands & Other Tales' (2010) a remarkable collection of reimagined fairy tales, myths and legends, all prismed through the author's own quirky and eloquent interpretation. This present tale is from her other collection of last year, `Sourdough and Other Stories'. Although told in a more modern style compared to those in `The Girl with...', it nevertheless has that heightened magic realism of Brian Hodge's story. Here we have the tale of a strong mother, a lenient father, a precocious daughter... and a brother who should no longer be. Full of layers and nuanced observations ("... I find my father, his face dark with an anger he so seldom experiences he doesn't seem to know how to wear it"). Yet another terrific writer, along with Margo Lanagan, to emerge from Australia.
One of the things I admire about a Jones anthology is that he knows how to balance the contents. Therefore, as he has pointed out in early editions of Best New Horror, it isn't necessarily the `best of the best' but moreover - and perhaps more importantly - a representation of what horror is doing that particular year. In other words Jones isn't afraid to include a story that, technically, isn't really the best, but does nicely balance out next to the stories on either side of it. So make no mistake (and expect no apology) "Christmas with the Dead" by JOE R. LANSDALE is a bit of knock-about tomfoolery. A lark. There are no deep insights into the human condition here. (In this way Jones's selections are far more eclectic than other `best of' annuals, and certainly far less po-faced and pretentious.) Lansdale - firing on all cylinders - just, well... just let's it all hang out! Sit back and simply let the Terror from Texas take you on a wild zombie ride.
KIRSTYN McDERMOTT is not a writer I've come across before, but certainly one which I'll now be keeping an eye out for; it's what I believe is one of the main pleasures of a `best of' anthology - the thrill of discovering a new writer. Here we have a wonderfully constructed and effecting tale of tragedy. Of Holly trying to help her friend Emma let go of the past... the tragedy being that Emma never knew she had to let go. Keenly written and observed, the story's tone is perfectly balanced. Essential, as the plot could so easily have been rendered trite, even by the most experienced of hands.
CHRISTOPHER FOWLER has a delightful devil-may-care style, like he's simply eaves-dropping on his characters: hey, don't blame me for the outrageous things they say and do, he seems to be saying, I'm simply writing down what happens. "Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside" finds him in fine kinetic form.
"Losenef Express" has echoes of MARK SAMUELS's own earlier tales "The Cannibal King of Horror" and "Destination Nihil by Edmond Bertrand" and features a writer modelled on the great Karl Edward Wagner. Here a writer loses himself on a train journey and ultimately... well, there's a reason why the title sounds like Lose Yourself Express. (Incidentally, this year's 22nd volume of Best New horror now puts the series on a par with the current record-holder for the longest running best-of-horror anthology, DAW Books' `The Year's Best Horror Stories' which ceased publication in 1994 with the tragically young death of its much renowned editor Karl Edward Wagner.)
Last year's tale by Michael Marshall Smith held the distinction of being the only story reprinted in all three `best of' horror anthologies (Datlow, Guran and Jones). Personally, I would like to have seen that honour go to Brian Hodge's wonderful tale this year. Instead it goes to the equally worthy, but completely different, "Lesser Demons" by NORMAN PARTRIDGE (this, too, being a reprint from the earlier mentioned `Black Wings' anthology). This is a visceral tale, following a sheriff and his deputy's run ins with several lesser Lovecraftian demons. Almost hard-boiled in its telling, don't expect much in the way of melancholy here: Sheriff Barnes's existence is a bleak one, the world he lives in rapidly going to south and hell.
"Telling" by Best New Horror regular STEVE RASNIC TEM sees an artist, a painter of houses and the lives of the people that are imbued in those houses.
"Red as Red" by CAITLIN R. KIERNAN tells of a young scholarly woman investigating the myths and legends of New England. And there's another young woman, and her smile, which she frequently sees. Ms Howard's mind spirals into a world her library readings have barely touched on. And of course, that smile hides secrets... This is Kiernan's 10th appearance in Best New Horror and as one would expect from the author of "The Ape's Wife" (#19) and "In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888)" (#12) the language is supple, the telling vivid.
"Autumn Chills" by RICHARD L. TIERNEY is a prose poem (only the second poem to ever be included in this series) and, like the Lansdale tale, its tongue is firmly planted in its cheek. The ending is a groaner, eliciting a wry shake of the head. But - like many of the best tales here - it's the voice that really sells it and seals the deal. Indeed, I urge you to do a web search and you'll be able to hear an audio recording of this very poem, terrifically read by William Hart.
Next JOHN LANGAN gives us "City of the Dog" which, like the Partridge story, sees another kind of demon, in a tale of love, betrayal and sacrifice.
And with the closing tale Jones once again demonstrates just how good he is at sequencing the running order of his anthologies, for "When the Zombies Win" by KARINA SUMNER-SMITH is a brilliant counter point to the book's opening story by Scott Edelman. Jones knows his zombies (in fact, the mosaic novel he created and edited last year, `Zombie Apocalypse', is one of the best in its sub-genre). Smith's tale is short and its message is simple: exactly what would happen if the zombies did win? A sombre and thoughtful note to end on to a great anthology.
Also included are tales by RAMSEY CAMPBELL and ROBERT SHEARMAN reprinted from Jones's wonderful anthology `Visitants: Stories of Fallen Angels & Heavenly Hosts', and my review of it can be found here on Amazon.
[NOTE: this review comes from the UK edition which was released on October 20]