This review original appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees 3.
“What the hell happened to the horror genre?”
With those words, editor Stephen Jones begins his introduction to A Book of Horrors, and posits his argument that the genre has become moribund because of the perceived consumer appetite for—in a term coined by publishers—‘horror-lite.’ These books, Jones states, are not aimed at the traditional horror reader. There is an audience, obviously, for paranormal romance and urban fantasy. The problem, Jones argues, is that there is a veritable glut of disposable volumes appropriating the traditional horror market.
I happen to agree with Jones. It’s one of the chief reasons I started this magazine. There just weren’t that many publications publishing the type of horror that I—and many others, I believe—wanted to read. Whether I’m successful or not is an entirely different matter.
Jones’s stated ambition with this anthology is to reclaim the genre, and titling the anthology A Book of Horrors demonstrates a bravura and confidence that, sadly, many publishers and editors lack these days. But Jones has never lacked confidence. Nor should he. He and Ellen Datlow should be applauded for keeping horror alive and vital in the short form.
Does A Book of Horrors live up to its name? Unreservedly, ‘yes.’
The first tale on offer is “The Little Green God of Agony,” by Stephen King. It’s quite a coup nabbing an original story from King. Unfortunately, this tale of a rich man, a faith-healer, and a sceptical care-giver is a letdown. The tale is well-told, full of King’s folksy charm, but is a bit too preachy and moralistic for my tastes. Not a horrible tale, per se, but certainly the weakest story in an assemblage of excellent tales.
Much better is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint.” A man picks up a hitch-hiker on a lonely desert highway and gets much more than he bargained for—as is wont to happen when you pick up a stranger. But this is anything but cliché. Kiernan is one of the genre’s premiere stylists, and this mythological offering is a vivid and captivating tale about Aiden, a mysterious woman who is drawn to fire like a moth to flame.
These days, Peter Crowther is best-known as a publisher, but he’s also an accomplished writer. His effort here, “Ghosts With Teeth,” is a sharply-observed small-town tale of ‘things not quite right’ that escalates from the mundane and unusual to grim and dark. The overall sense here is that Crowther had a lot of fun writing this. You’ll have fun reading it.
Angela Slatter is a relative newcomer quickly making a name for herself. She’s a terrific writer, but the few tales of hers’ I’ve read have never really stayed with me. Much of her work is retellings of myths and fables, and hews closer to fantasy than horror. I’d also classify her contribution here, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” as fantasy. But, as Jones states in his introduction, his idea of horror is pretty inclusive. The tale revolves around Hepsibah who has taken over the family business from her father. When she is commissioned to make a coffin for a widow, her dead father shows up to mock her, and Hepsibah becomes infatuated with the widow’s daughter. An entertaining and finely-crafted tale.
“Roots and All,” by Brian Hodge is an ambitious tale. Hodge has a knack for tapping into and examining the emotional baggage of people, of stirring and confronting familial secrets. This powerful tale is no different. A brother and sister return to their Grandma’s house to help settle her estate. They discover an awful secret about their Grandma, and, in a way, go about setting things right. This is a raw and powerful treatise on the death of small-town America, and also a glimpse at the power of folk-tales.
Dennis Etchison’s “Tell Me I’ll See You Again” is more melancholic than horrific, but still manages to evoke a sense of quiet dread. Any new Etchison is a treat.
Perhaps an even bigger coup than securing a tale from Stephen King is getting Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s (Let the Right One In) first tale written specifically for an English-language audience. “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” starts off as a traditional ghost story, with a father grieving for his dead wife, and the son retreating to his insular world of computer games. But the rural house they’ve moved into to escape the city and their grief appears to have a piano that plays on its own. The son hears voices of dead children. And something else seems to haunt the house. Lindqvist then twists tradition and gives us a grim and dark ending that will leave even the most jaded ghost-story aficionado chilled. A shocking and potent meditation on grief.
The next two tales, Ramsey Campbell’s “Getting It Wrong,” and Robert Shearman’s “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” share some similarities. Both tales are imbued with a liberal dose of black humour, and both question the status quo in regards to culture and conformity. And there’s the disquieting threat of menace and a feeling of unreality that permeates both stories. These are tales with a strong morality that aren’t nearly as preachy as the King.
Lisa Tuttle contributes “The Man in the Ditch.” A newlywed woman attempts to enjoy her new rural house, even as a sense of unease about her marriage and her surroundings invades her world. A quiet tale that will resonate long after you’ve finished it.
“A Child’s Problem” is another stellar effort from the always reliable Reggie Oliver. Set in nineteenth century England, a young boy is sent to live with his uncle. There he uncovers dark family secrets about race and class. A master of the supernatural tale, Oliver has, in a relatively short time, ascended to the top of his field. Reading this tale, you’ll know why.
A more contemporary writer is Michael Marshall Smith. Like Oliver, Smith rarely disappoints. And he doesn’t here. “Sad, Dark Thing” is, well, a sad, dark thing. Smith is an effortless stylist, and his power is in economy and deftly drawn characters. Miller is an admittedly aimless and lonely man who discovers something terrible and wonderful and life-changing deep in a redwood forest. Sorrow and loneliness are a bitter concoction, but Smith is too skilled a writer to wallow in melancholy.
“Near Zennor,” by Elizabeth Hand is not only the longest tale in the book, but also the finest. As with the Lindqvist and Smith tales, “Near Zennor” features a grieving man. Jeffrey travels from America to the rural English countryside in an attempt to find an elusive children’s author with whom his dead wife had corresponded when she was a teenager. The stark and barren landscape lends a palpable sense of the outré as Jeffrey seeks answers to an evolving mystery about the author and some strange lights seen near the author’s home. It turns out there are no easy answers to the questions he asks. This is a remarkable achievement, highly recommended, and should be on everyone’s ‘Year’s Best’ lists.
Last, but certainly not least, is “Last Words” by Richard Christian Matheson, a master of the short-short. This brief tale is a great counterpoint to the Hand tale, and proves that you can say just as much in the shortest tale in a book as the longest. A perfect end note to a tremendous collection of stories.
Following each tale was a brief note from the author explaining the origins of their story. This is something that editor Jones has done in the past, and I like it quite a lot. It helps us understand the authors, and therefore the stories, on a more humane level. I like that.
With A Book of Horrors Stephen Jones has assembled a superb collection of horror stories. Ideally, some smart publisher would give him free reign to make this an annual event.
“What the hell happened to the horror genre?” Jones asked.
It may have just received a life-saving jolt.
Feature Book Review Copyright © 2012 by Michael Kelly