A BOOK OF HORRORS ed. Stephen Jones (St. Martin’s Griffin; 2012)
“What the hell happened to the horror genre?” Stephen Jones asks first thing in his introduction to A Book of Horrors, wondering what happened to the iconic figures of the ghost, mummy, vampire, wolfman and man-made monster who once upon a time were objects of fear but now are likely to be seen sipping tea or pina colada’s while chasing a social agenda or, maybe, crooks. But this is mostly a rhetorical flourish; while Jones is dismissive of “horror-lite” – which he defines as paranormal romance and even steampunk – he doesn’t declare war. No, his point is to say there is still an audience for the horror story, an audience not being served by the paranormal romance, and that is the audience he intends to entertain with this anthology.
I still have six stories to read, but the first eight pretty much fulfill Jones’ stated intention to bring the scare back to horror. No mummies or werewolves so far, but there are some ghosts and at least one thing that I’d call a vampire, and they are by and large nasty critters.
“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King opens the anthology and is as strong as any short story I’ve read by him, introducing a sort of faith healer who may or may not be preying on a wealthy man’s agony.
One of my favorites is Brian Hodge’s “Roots and All,” which introduces a higher justice carried out by something outside our usual avenues of justice. Hodge does a nice job of extrapolating a horror story from the current state of parts of our rural areas. This is a strong example of noir-ish horror.
Dennis Etchison’s “Tell Me I’ll See You Again,” concerns a young boy’s grief. I found it a little opaque, but thought-provoking; it should repay re-reading.
In Ramsey Campbell’s “Getting it Wrong” a radio quiz show’s penalties for wrong answers are extreme and it’s criteria for contestants leave no room for one to demur.
In “John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” a recent widower and his son come across the music of the title character, music which affects them strangely.
The story I enjoyed least is Peter Crowther’s “Ghosts with Teeth.” Crowther establishes place and character well enough, but I felt like I was walking a path worn deep by Stephen King, and the story takes a fairly conventional tack so I could see the ending coming. It is suitably nasty, fitting Jones’ stated intentions, but I found it a bit of a slog. Perhaps oddly, and in spite of a rather gruesome ending, I thought this could make an effective movie.
Jones doesn’t neglect the weird story: Caitlin Kiernan’s “Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint” is a tight, direct story that still manages to establish a mood and convey a sense of something nasty imminent; the ending surprised me a little and, in retrospect, fits neatly with what Kiernan sets up early on. Also, weird, and my favorite story so far is Angela Slatter’s “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter.” Crisply and clearly Slatter establishes her setting, an alternate past, in which Hepsibah is a coffin-maker where coffin-makers are important for keeping the dead in their grave. I hope to read more by Slatter.
And speaking of great short stories …
HOLIDAY by M. Rickert (Golden Gryphon Press, 2010. Nominated for World Fantasy Award for a collection.)
While I enjoyed A Book of Horrors, if the choice was to purchase and read that anthology or this collection, I’d strongly urge you to go with Holiday.
As with Caitlin Kiernan’s To Charles Fort, With Love, I’m not sure I can do this collection justice. Holiday is characterized by a fine, supple, flowing prose in the service of heart-breaking and wonderful stories. The stories are arranged by and take place on holidays including New Years, Christmas and, of course, Halloween. While one story is arguably s. f. the rest deal with personal and frequently subjective accounts of ghosts and faerie, and those times when another world peeps into ours or we peep into another world, when the supernatural mixes with our wants, needs and desires. Like Glen Hirshberg, Rickert is an artist of the melancholy and these stories all deal with those melancholy shadings and shadows around other emotions; these stories also serve as strong examples of what we mean when we say, "dark fantasy."
None of the stories in this collection are weak, but I do have favorites:
A young man tries to cope with his family’s past while dealing with an addict brother who just doesn’t understand. Or just might understand too well. A ghost story examining grief and fear, hopes for redemption and, maybe, self-delusion. This is a strong first story, and one of the most affecting in the collection.
“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”
The world has changed and this young woman feels betrayed that her mother left her. As you read her account of her mother’s betrayal and the world in which she has been left, you begin to realize the situation isn’t quite what you thought and her mother may not be all she has lost.
“Was She Wicked? Was She Good?”
Their little girl is beautiful, happy, always singing and smiling, and her ability to see what others cannot and her consequent actions terrifies them. How do parents protect their child? How can you teach such a young child about the consequences of actions?
“War is Beautiful”
Rickert masterfully plays with perspective. Saying more might be to say too much.
“The Christmas Witch”
The hope to be found in this collection is spare and bleak, and so it seems initially with this story, but then, maybe hope isn’t always grey.
This is only the second book by Rickert. The first, Map of Dreams, was nominated for an International Horror Guild best collection award (losing to Glen Hirshberg’s American Morons) and won the World Fantasy Award for a collection in 2006. With this collection, Rickert has become a writer I’ll buy on sight.
I don't normally comment on packaging, but the cover and illustrations by Thomas Canty for this book are extraordinary, appropriately macabre or nostalgic for the given story, and elegant throughout. Canty has been a favorite of mine since the first time I saw his covers for the Datlow/Windling year's best fantasy and horror anthologies, and I cannot think of a better example than this book to … er … illustrate why.
Other melancholy short dark fantasy/horror:
Glen Hirshberg: The Two Sams & American Morons
Sarah Monette: The Bone Key
Holly Phillips: In the Palace of Repose