Shew! Two weeks already? I almost didn't post, thinking next week was the two week mark. I guess I got busy!
I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends, posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) So far, I've reviewed Poppy Z. Brite's Drawing Blood, Robert McCammon's The Wolf's Hour, Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence, Neil Gaiman's Coraline, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Kathe Koja's The Cipher, and Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night. This week I'm reviewing Best New Horror, Volume 1, edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell.
I'm having a little trouble figuring out how to review this one. So I'll just start at the beginning.
First, I love horror anthologies. They're a great way to find the best new horror writers and to sample their writing before purchasing a novel by them (if they're also novelists.) I specifically have several from this particular series, which you can see on this shelf:
This anthology was dedicated to horror published in 1989.
One of the things I also enjoy about this series is the roundup of horror news and publications they do at the beginning of each. It was fun to see what books had come out in 1989. For instance, Stephen King released The Dark Half, Dean R. Koontz released Midnight (one of my favorites of his), and Robert R. McCammon came out with The Wolf's Hour, which you'll see in my intro I already reviewed. They listed collections, anthologies, magazines. Magazines that went down, such as The Horror Show and Twilight Zone Magazine.
Pet Semetary, a movie based on a King novel, was released that year, and did better than any other horror movie released in 1989. Twin Peaks was called out for its sheer awesomeness. Award winners like Peter Straub and Ray Bradbury were mentioned. And a call was put out for horror to enter the mainstream, to dominate, to revive.
I enjoyed the stroll through Horror Memory Lane.
Robert R. McCammon, Pin. In this story we sit inside a man's head as he talks to himself. He's thinking of harming others, but above all, he's thinking of harming himself. The pin of the title is a silver pin he's considering sticking in his eye. Does he? That's part of the horror of the story. You're willing him not to, but since he's a little crazy and seems dangerous, you start to think maybe he should. But no, nobody wants anyone to stick pins in their eyes! Will he?
Cherry Wilder, The House on Cemetery Street. This one was horrifying as it touched on a sensitive subject. Two children return home to Germany after eight years away during the war. While they were away, a Jewish mother and her children had been hidden in the house, but they'd gotten away safely. Or so it was said. A haunting begins to tell a different tale. I found this one more sad than anything else, but there was a certain dawning horror as it was determined what occurred in that house. I thought this one could be better, but the subject was still awful.
Stephen Gallagher, The Horn. This one is a classic creature story. Full of hope and fear. And, of course, isolation, which always lends itself well to a horror setting. Three men are stuck in a snow storm. They abandon their cars on the roadway and find themselves in a shack, stuck together, though they're strangers. There's no heat or power. And then comes a sound. A horn, out in the snowstorm. Is it salvation? This one was scary in an "Ack, run away!" kind of way.
Alex Quiroba, Breaking Up. The first thing I noticed on this one was the intentional abuse of grammar conventions. No apostrophes. Long, run-on sentences. It was obviously done on purpose, and it created a dissonance for me that made me twitchy. The beauty of the story is you have no idea what's really happening and what's being imagined. It's like a dream sequence, where the person wakes up, then wakes up again, each time from a deeper dream. Surreal. Overall, it's about a breakup, but how does it really end?
Ramsey Campbell, It Helps If You Sing. This one starts off strange, establishing a mood that shows us something is off, but there's no clear reason for it. There's a sense of isolation and wrongness. There are fewer people than there should be, less activity. A hymn is sounding from all around the main character, but he can't find the source. Things are wrong in his apartment building. And then he finds two men at his door who are peacefully pushy, like any good peddlers of religion. But what happens next isn't the type of conversion we're used to. I like Ramsey Campbell, but this wasn't my favorite by him. I did think the atmosphere was interesting, and the premise was frightening, especially the hopelessness and isolation.
Laurence Staig, Closed Circuit. This one was very Stepford Wives. A family wins a place in an esteemed Township. There's nothing for the mother to do in this new area, so she takes the kids to The shopping center that she's heard so much about. She's nervous to begin with, but once she's inside it's like a labyrinth that can't be escaped. Inside, it's full of freaky cheerful consumers. Consume, consume, consume. Buy, buy, buy. Zombies for the modern age, but they're fully alive. There must be a way out, but how? This one was freaky courtesy of the fish out of water theme and the pure hopelessness of the situation. It's a commentary on the "hot new deal," "must have" thought process.
Steve Rasnic Tem, Carnal House. This one was dark and disturbing. It starts with a phone call. A woman calling a man. But this man happens to have another woman living with him. Still, he goes. There's something wrong with this other woman, though, a desperation to live, to feel. And this isn't just an affair. There's something so much deeper about this relationship, a meaning you don't consider right away until it comes full circle.
Kim Newman, Twitch Technicolor. This one was odd, and I found it a bit painful to get through. It's about a guy who remixes old movies, adds colors, changes up what happened, puts in voice overs to new scenes, etc. It's a commentary on corporations and corporate espionage, but the danger is played up. It's not just a loss of money, but a loss of life. Mixers like him are being murdered in very specific ways. But then a new detail comes to light. Does life mimic the movies or the other way around? I think someone else might enjoy this more, and the subject is intelligent, but I found the details too painful to get through.
Gregory Frost, Lizaveta. This one was another creature one, and I suspect if I looked up the creature it might be a real story told in Russia. In the midst of violence and carnage, a group of soldiers goes into a poor area to find some female company. A woman presents herself to one of them, but she has a hellish tale to tell, and she's terrified of something that stalks her in the fog. Once a school teacher, now a prostitute, her story gets to him. I enjoyed this one. Things feel safe for her with a soldier there to protect her, but is he safe? You want everything to be okay for her and there's a tension born of that. The supernatural element robs you of that hope, but not completely.
Donald R. Burleson, Snow Cancellations. I liked this one. It even gave me a story idea, partially because I thought the story was going somewhere, and it turned out it wasn't at all, but then I had that idea to explore. What if? A boy is left home alone when a snow day is declared. He keeps the radio on, listening to the radio announcer as he announces each new set of cancellations. Eventually, it becomes clear that these closures aren't the usual kind, and something lurks outside in the snow. Something that is usually a joy for kids becomes a thing of terror. And that terror is so discordant with the soft, fluffy white peace one experiences during a good snow. Well set up and played out, it turns our childhoods on us.
Nicholas Royle, Archway. A woman gets a new flat. It's not great, but it's all she can afford, and it will take her. Flats are in demand, with too few for the number of people in need, so you take what you can get. But there's something wrong. Sounds, cracks that change, a black viscous nothing that infiltrates the flat. She loses her job, and her world begins shrinking in on her. Someone is watching her, a face she sees around her at various places. Who or what is it, and what are they trying to do? This one was gritty.
Thomas Ligotti, The Strange Design of Master Rignolo. In this one, two men have the opportunity to see into the mind of a abstract artist. The story is almost as abstract as the artist's work. There's something unreal about his artwork, something mysterious and dark. I didn't really get this one in its entirety. I was left sort of indifferent, though there were definitely interesting elements.
Chet Williamson, ...To Feel Another's Woe. This one is set in the world of starving artists--actors. The main character tries out for a play, but the woman he's playing opposite has an unusual way to grow her prowess as an actress. I wasn't scared by this one, but it was a compelling idea. How do the strongest actors produce those strong emotions that pull us in? And who pays that price?
Robert Westall, The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux. The title's misleading, though I won't tell you why. This story follows a young school teacher and an antiquer who gets involved with her and her class. When they visit a church only to find out later that a grave has been defaced, the children are blamed. In the course of figuring out why graves are continuing to be defaced, Miss Molyneaux may be in danger, and there's only one person who can figure out what's happening. A mystery with a dark, paranormal twist.
Brian Lumley, No Sharks in the Med. This was one of my favorites. There was nothing supernatural about this one. The terror of the story was all too human, and frighteningly possible. A young newlywed couple heads to a small town in Greece (IIRC), where they are led into a dangerous situation. This is another story that derives part of the tension from isolation, but not the usual kind. Instead of dark and enclosed, they are trapped somewhere open, sunny, idyllic, but a place they can't escape, nonetheless. Sometimes when you get a bad vibe off someone, there's a good reason for it.
D.F. Lewis, Mort au Monde. This one was super short. A couple on a ship are in cabins separated by chaperones. But these chaperones are not what they seem. I had to read it again, because I didn't remember it when I sat down to write this.
Thomas Tessier, Blanca. A travel writer journeys to a bland town to escape. He sets out to explore, but finds little to interest him. In town, he makes a friend, another man from out of town. A series of realistic nightmares puts him on edge, especially when his friend disappears and he finds his nightmares aren't just figments of his imagination. This is another fish out of water tale. A stranger in a strange land. But the fear and discomfort that come with that aren't without reason in this one. The fright is the fact that this could happen to anyone.
Ian Watson, The Eye of the Ayatollah. This is another sensitive topic, but in a different way from The House on Cemetery Street. This one involves the Middle East. An injured soldier returns to his little town, the Ayatollah having been killed. In a moment of religious fervor, he rips an eye from the Ayatollah before his burial, having lost his own in the war, and is able to use it to track a mortal enemy.
Karl Edward Wagner, At First Just Ghostly. An author who has suffered a loss heads to Europe for a writers conference. There, he sinks into a liquor-filled depression, and is drawn into a supernatural battle that involves Kane, a man who pretends to be an editor who's interested in his books. This one really seemed more urban fantasy than horror to me. And it was a bit long for me.
Richard Laymon, Bad News. The simple act of getting the daily paper turns into a fearsome ordeal for a family when something crawls out of it. Something unkillable, unstoppable, and vicious. And they're not the only ones under attack. No one can help them. This was a classic, though more in the fashion of movies I've seen than stories I've read. Under siege by a frightening and unknown creature. Is it alien or something else?
Another consistent feature of these books is the Necrology at the end, where the deaths of famous folks, whether actor, writer, or other, are noted. A few deaths of note were Salvador Dali, Daphne Du Maurier, and Lucille Ball. There were a ton more, though.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. There were few stories that didn't interest me. Really, even the ones that just weren't to my taste had redeeming qualities. Which makes sense, since these are supposed to be the best short horror fiction of the year. Many of these authors have been frequent inhabitants of the Best New Horror series. The ones that stood out to me most were Pin, Carnal House, Lizaveta, Snow Cancellations, and No Sharks in the Med. None of them made my skin crawl or made me check the locks, but they were good, solid stories with interesting characters, atmosphere, and settings. I recommend the series to anyone who enjoys horror, whether this one or more recent ones.
The next book I'll be reading is Berserk, by Tim Lebbon.
Have you read any of the Best New Horror collections? Do you prefer horror in novel form or short form, or does it matter? Any of these authors familiar to you? Which do you recommend? And what books of theirs?
May you find your Muse.