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The Dark Descent Hardcover – October, 1987
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If you could have only one anthology of dark stories, this would be the one to have. Having observed that "fans of horror fiction most often restrict their reading to books and stories given a horror category label, thus missing some of the finest pleasures in that fictional mode," David G. Hartwell assembles here 56 important tales within an insightful critical framework; his purpose is to "clear the air and broaden future considerations of horror." Several well-known classics are included, but there are also dozens of lesser-known horror tales, including many by science fiction and literary writers. Get one copy for yourself. Get another for that friend or relative who doesn't understand why you like to read horror. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
“A gigantic, superlatively edited historical overview of horror fiction.” ―Chicago Sun-Times
“For a sample of the current excellence and variety of horror, one could do no better.” ―New York Newsday
“An important work which belongs in every library.” ―The West Coast Review of Books--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is not just modern gore and sex horror. Victorian stories such as The New Mother show just how frightening a tale told with restraint. Clive Barker's Dread, perhaps his best short work, may have you sleeping with the lights on. The three Stephen King pieces are all career highlights, especially the Lovecraftian Crouch End.
I can't tell you how many marvellous writers I discovered in this collection. Robert Aickman, Oliver Onions, Robert W. Chambers, Russell Kirk. In some cases, this is the best source of fiction by these writers, as most of their work is out of print.
My edition clocks in at just over 1000 pages. That's 1000 pages of pure enjoyment. Not bad for the price.
Forced to haul one single volume off your horror shelf before you pack everything into the heavily armored civvie Hum-Vee, I would choose David G. Hartwell's masterful compilation "The Dark Descent." This Leviathan of a book is chock-full of more than one-thousand pages of the best horror ever written by some of the Grand-Masters of the genre (H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Stephen King, M.R. James) and some of their lesser known adepts and apprentices. For such a modest price, having this much shivery, ghoulish goodness stuffed between the covers is nearly an embarrassment of riches.
Anthologies are often treacherous ground, and success hinges on an editor's style and judgment. Hartwell demonstrates his impeccable taste and considerable acuity in the selections he makes; best of all he begins the collection with a remarkably astute, entertaining---and mercifully concise---little essay tracing the evolution of the terror and horror tale. Certainly we are treated to the seminal classics of the genre, and a few of the tales are overly represented in many other collections---but as horror crown jewels, they have their place here. H.P. Lovecraft is represented by two ensanguined ambassadors: "The Call of Cthulhu", a sweeping account of global panic, terror and slaughter spread by the resurgence of a primitive cult of an obscure Squid-God, and the Poe-esque "The Rats in the Walls". M.R. James has a less auspicious presence, "The Ash-Tree" being one of his less powerful works and an inadequate introduction to the Master.
Hartwell's King selections are slightly puzzling; "The Reach" is too languid for its own good, while "The Monkey" is tacky and underawing---but then Hartwell knocks it out of the ballfield with the relatively rare Lovecraftian "Crouch End" which, serves up a viciously psychedelic and very different side of King, to say nothing of providing a little side-trip to a part of London (thankfully) not on any map.
Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" presages by a quarter-century the discovery of liches in the woods by "Blair Witch"'s unlucky film students, Clive Barker details an experiment in mortal terror gone horribly awry in "Dread", Joyce Carol Oates proves there is a fate worse than Death in "Night-Side", and Lucy Clifford chronicles what happens to naughty little children in "The New Mother".
There are at least ten riveting tales of vintage dread here, any one of which justifies the price of admission. If you haven't met late British terror-writer Robert Aickman, you have three opportunities in "Dark Descent", although "The Hospice" is by far the most ambiguous---and disquieting. "Seven American Nights", an apocalyptic travelogue written by a young Turkish man traveling through a wasted and genetically twisted future America, is by turns terrifying, acutely repulsive, and melancholy, a peculiarly potent spiked little horror-potion cloaked as travelogue by fantasy master Gene Wolfe. Taken together with Thomas Disch's disorienting "The Asian Shore", they might make you rethink getting away from the tour group the next time you spelunk through a strange land.
Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" conjures up the horror of the spheres that's moved its haunts to remote islands in the Danube; Walter de la Mare's "Seaton's Aunt" is a rich, deliciously unhinged little crawlfest instantly recognizable to anyone who has forced himself through an unpleasant evening with an unctuous, intimidating in-law.
Hartwell includes a number of authors who rarely ventured into the horror genre: William Faulkner does Southern Gothic proud in "A Rose for Emily", Flannery O'Connor demonstrates the wisdom of never judging a book---even a Bible---by its cover in "Good Country People", and Edith Wharton whips up a kind of delayed-blast spook in "Afteward"---to say nothing of writing one of the finest ghost tales of all time.
Hartwell makes some missteps, perhaps unavoidable in such a massive collection. Bishop's "Within the Walls of Tyre" is pretentious and dull, and "The Roaches", "If Damon Comes", and Philip K. Dick's time-twisting "Little Something for us Tempunauts" may give you chills, but they left me cold and bored. But these are forgivable lapses in a collection so varied and rich.
One story in particular that I can't stop thinking about is Michael Shea's unexpected, grisly little delight "The Autopsy", about an aging, cancerous coroner called to a remote mountain town to conduct autopsies on the bodies of miners killed in a mysterious mine explosion---and who rapidly, terrifyingly shifts roles from examiner to subject. It's not a perfect story---not in style, nor even in its final revelation---but that said it's nasty, and remorselessly surgical, and you'll never forget it. Like most of the darksome little nuggets of terror in this vast volume, it's like a tooth you've had removed---you can't stop yourself from digging your tongue into the raw, fleshy gap.
So remember---as civilization collapses and the howls of the mutated and deranged grow closer to your hideaway, throw the bolts, load the rifle, and tuck yourself in with "The Dark Descent"---at least you'll have the ultimate grimoire containing the very finest tales of terror until those crafty army scientists come up with a solution to save the day. And if they don't? Well, you *do* have 1,000 pages to tide you over.