Haunted Legends by Ellen Datlow

Haunted Legends by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, eds.
Tor Hardcover
347 pages

Summer is over and the nights are getting longer and colder. While for some this is cause for melancholy, there is one consolation: Halloween is right around the corner. Like many of my fellow SFFWorld community members, the approach of All Hallows’ Eve puts me in the mood for stories that chill the bones. So when I had a chance at snagging a review copy of Haunted Legends, Ellen Datlow (The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) and Nick Mamatas’s (Clarkesworld) new anthology of brand new tales inspired by ghost stories and local legends, you better believe I jumped at it.

What struck me most as I read Haunted Legends were its dual themes: after all, ghost stories and local legends, while often overlapping, are nonetheless two different types of tales. Although Haunted Legends mixes things up a bit, for the most part the first half of the book contains ghost stories and the second half contains local legends, and this grouping, whether intentional or not, really highlights the differences between the two genres.

The ghosts in ghost stories frequently haunt not just places, but people, serving as metaphoric projections of the main characters’ memories, guilts, fears, and hopes. I have a great affection for the genre of the psychological ghost story, with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House ranking among my favorites. Haunted Legends features several stories of this type, including Richard Bowes’s “Knickerbocker Holiday,” Kit Reed’s “Akbar,” Ekaterina Sedia’s “Tin Cans,” John Mantooth’s “Shoebox Train Wreck,” Carolyn Turgeon’s “La Llorona,” Gary A. Braunbeck’s “Return to Mariabronn,” and M.K. Hobson’s “Oaks Park.” Not a bad story in the lot, with the right kind of eeriness that is scary and beautiful at the same time. Yet I have to admit that the sheer number of tales employing this motif not only undermined the effectiveness of the stories as a whole but also made them too predictable. Only a few paragraphs into a new tale I could ask myself, “What’s the ghost now?” A mother’s misery over the loss of her child? an old man’s guilt over someone he killed? and find that this was indeed the case. Stories that meet my expectations might make me feel smart, but stories that confound my expectations are the truly memorable ones, and not enough of the psychological ghost stories in this collection confounded expectations.

A ghost story in Haunted Legends notable for departing from this convention is Stephen Dedman’s “For Those in Peril on the Sea,” which is a promising take on the ghost ship and paranormal investigator (kinda – the tale’s characters are contestants in a Fear Factor type show) genres but feels incomplete, as if Mr. Dedman had the makings of a novella but chose to end it after twenty pages. The virtues and shortcomings of these stories reveals a kind of catch twenty-two for the genre in short story format: Mr. Dedman’s type of story is more effective in the longer form, I think, because it affords the author sufficient time to develop the characters and explore the haunted space, whereas the psychological ghost story, by focusing mainly on a single haunted character, can accomplish all it needs in fewer words, but when bundled with several stories of a similar vein, comes across as formulaic.
Fortunately Datlow and Mamatas mix things up a bit by adding tales inspired by local legend; these were the stories that I ended up enjoying most in Haunted Legends. Many local legends are ghost stories, but unlike the ghost stories created within a single author’s imagination, their genesis is often fragmentary and obscure, and they typically involve supernatural creatures of inhuman aspect, making them less prone to being reduced to a psychological metaphor. If anything, local legends confound more than they explain. Historians and folklorists, such as the narrator in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s excellent vampire tale “As Red as Red,” research these legends and offer theories to explain their origins and staying power, but nonetheless something inexplicable remains. I mean, what the heck is the Jersey Devil or the Big Bird of Texas, anyway?

The authors in this collection who draw upon local legends succeed because they do not try to demystify them, but instead use them as inspiration for tales of peoples’ reactions to encounters with the truly strange, and I believe this strategy offers them a greater amount of freedom to exercise their imaginations, providing a much more diverse array of tales. Carrie Laben’s “Face Like a Monkey,” Jeffrey Ford’s “Down Atsion Road,” and the four stories that close the collection, Laird Barron’s “The Redfield Girls” (perhaps my favorite in the book, an atmospheric tale about a haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest), Pat Cadigan’s “Between Heaven and Hull” (a darkly humorous phantom hitchhiker tale that focuses more on the local legend aspect than the psychological ghost story aspect), Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes to Liverpool” (which has more of the cautionary qualities of an urban legend than your typical local legend), and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Folding Man” (a black horse/carriage/car/van legend that is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Lansdale’s “Bubba Ho-Tep”) are one-of-a-kind tales that I suspect will haunt me for some time to come.

The remaining tales, including “That Girl” by Kaaron Warren, “The Spring Heel” by Steven Pirie, “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” by Catherynne M. Valente, “Following Double-Face Woman” by Erzebet YellowBoy, and “The Foxes” by Lily Hoang, tend to walk the line between the two genres, generally channeling local legends through the psyches of the stories’ central characters. While I found these meldings to be interesting, the psychological element tended to dominate the narrative so much they were virtually indistinguishable from many of the ghost stories.

The bottom line? Haunted Legends is an entertaining collection of stories from an impressive list of authors worth checking out if you enjoy a creepy tale during the reaping season. I recommend it, but add this caveat: this is a collection that is probably best savored in bits and pieces, because if you just read straight through it like I did, the sameness of many of the earlier tales may reduce your overall appreciation of them.

© 2010 Arthur Bangs

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