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Sunday, October 13, 2013

BOOK OF HORRORS edited by Stephen Jones

BOOK OF HORRORS edited by Stephen Jones
Review by Gary Fry

In his introduction to this book, Stephen Jones leaves himself a lot to live up, suggesting that the horror anthology has been sorely lacking lately and that his book is an attempt to address this problem. Well, how did he do?

Let me take each tale at a time.

The book kicks off with Stephen King’s ‘The Little Green God of Agony’. Despite hearing from others that this tale was King-lite, I rather enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s particularly frightening, but it has fun with issues of faith, medicine and money – the three peaks of US politics at the moment. A solid start.

I enjoyed Caitlan Kiernan’s ‘Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint’ a great deal, with its incendiary central character and powerful allusions to various forms of “Armageddon”. Like a Poe prose-poem with erotic undergirdings. A fine piece.

Peter Crowther is next, with his Bradburyesque small-town tale ‘Ghosts with Teeth’. The prose is quite cute, and not everybody digs that, but there’s no denying the power of some of the imagery (especially the cellar scene) and its headlong storytelling never lets up. I really enjoyed it.

‘The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter’ by Angela Slatter wasn’t really my kind of thing, but it was likeable enough. I don’t really feel qualified to comment here, so will restrict my words to these.

‘Roots and All’ by Brian Hodge is a powerful novella, with all kinds of hints and allusions and garish pagan moments. I really enjoyed it. The subplot involving meth was pungent.

Dennis Etchison is next with ‘Tell Me I’ll See You Again’. Nice to see the old master back with new fiction, every word of which is essential to the telling. And while the overall effect was slightly lost on me, I appreciated the economy of the prose and punchy, dark sentiment.

I first read John Ajvide Lindqvuist’s ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ in Best New Horror and quite enjoyed it. I felt perhaps it tried to pack too many strange episodes into its medium length, and as a result, its overall impact was diminished by a certain thinness in the writing and characterisation. It reminded me of Jonathan Aycliffe’s work (remember him, folks?) and it was solid enough.

Next up is Ramsey Campbell’s creepy, arch ‘Getting It Wrong’. Some wonderful writing here, as usual, and a semi-comic, semi-horrific story set very much in our modern cultural world. Few do it better, and this is another fine example. Frugo!

Then we have the weird and wonderful ‘Alice Through the Plastic Sheet’ by Robert Shearman. I loved this a compelling, comical, genuinely strange story. I’m a big Ayckbourn fan, and I can detect the old master’s approach deep in Shearman’s prose, but that’s all to the good. How they both demolition Mr. Everyday’s pretensions and long may they continue to do so.

‘The Man in the Ditch’ by Lisa Tuttle didn’t feel like her best work. Again there’s a sense of too much crammed into too little space, and the overall impact isn’t particularly powerful.

Reggie Oliver’s ‘A Child’s Problem’ is a fine novella, very traditional, but building to a suitably grisly Jamesian conclusion with added psychological resonance for good measure. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then we reach the jewels in the crown of this particular book: Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ and Elizabeth Hand’s ‘Near Zennor’. Both are incredible pieces of fiction that will live with me for years, the reason I continue reading all this stuff. Smith’s tale is genuinely pungent and frightening, with the dark void at its heart resonating in a way nothing tangible ever could. Similarly, Hand’s Aickmanian mystery possesses an accumulative power that leaves you thinking with that deep-rooted tingling in the gut, which every fan of classic weird fiction will recognise. Marvellous stuff, both.

Richard Christian Matheson wraps things up with the tart, punchy ‘Last Words’, a real chiller that sticks around only long enough to break a bone or two. Nice way to end the antho.

So, did Jones set out to achieve what he pledges to in the intro? I’d say it was a qualified success. The book no way has the scope and depth of, say, Dark Forces, but at its best, it contains fiction good enough to appear in any great collection. In all, I’d give it a solid 8 out of 10, elevated to that on the strength of the Smith and the Hand, with sterling supporting performances put in by Kiernan, Crowther, Hodge, Campbell, Shearman and Oliver.

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