These reviews appeared in Black Static #33:-
Just as editor Ellen Datlow gets round to revealing her picks for 2012, with a fashionable lateness I get round to reviewing her 2011 choices in THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR VOLUME FOUR (Night Shade Books pb, 439pp). As usual this flagship volume opens with a detailed ‘Summation’ of the year in horror, and then follows up with eighteen stories showcasing the work of some of the genre’s finest talents. I’ve already reviewed many of these stories when they originally appeared, and so will concentrate on some of the “new entries”.
Simon Bestwick has the distinction of being represented by two stories. ‘The Moraine’ reads like Tremors transplanted to the Lake District as two walkers get lost in the mist and fall prey to a creature lurking beneath the ground, the menace acting as a catalyst to the emotions of the characters, which in turn elevate a story that otherwise seems rather mundane. Bestwick’s second offering is ‘Dermot’, which first saw print in Black Static and deals in a disturbingly matter of fact manner with themes of pragmatism and compromise. It is a superb story, perhaps the author’s best, one that delivers its surprises with aplomb and poses annoying questions about how far we are prepared to go in sacrificing the one for the sake of the many, with the subtext heartrending.
Hunters assemble to chase the fabled ‘Blackwood’s Baby’ in Laird Barron’s tale, which is among the very best of what is on offer. His characterisation is spot on and the excitement of the hunt and how it turns to horror as they realise what they are actually pursuing is captured with genuine panache. In Priya Sharma’s ‘The Show’ a TV programme featuring a fake medium goes tragically wrong when they enter a building that is genuinely haunted by an evil spirit, the story deftly conflating supernatural terror with the psychic’s inner doubts, the two strands playing off of each other. A man and his cousin return to their childhood home in ‘Roots and All’ by Brian Hodge, where he must confront what is being done to the land by meth dealers and approach a woodland spirit to resurrect his dead sister, the story full of details that bring it to chilling life and with an end twist that is sickening in what it implies.
‘Final Girl Theory’ by A. C. Wise details a man’s fascination with a horror film and what happens when he meets the woman who starred in it, the barrier between fiction and reality neatly dissected by the way in which the story is told, so that at times it almost reads like an essay in film criticism. Glen Hirshberg’s ‘You Become the Neighbourhood’ has a mother and daughter remembering what happened many years ago, an occurrence that upset the sanity of one of them, the story beautifully paced and with terror hiding in the gaps between the events, so that we doubt their account but not that something remarkable did indeed take place. ‘Little Pig’ by Anna Taborska is the shortest story in the book and one of the most shocking, giving us a simple, matter of fact account of a woman doing what was necessary to escape wolves and keep her children alive. There’s nothing supernatural here and yet it chills to the bone.
Finally we have the longest story, Peter Straub’s novella ‘The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine’, which reads like the sequel to Love in the Time of Cholera as written by Ballard and with characters supplied by De Sade. Two lovers with an age gap are passengers on a boat sailing endlessly down the Amazon, indulging their appetites for sex and food, all of their needs catered to by an unseen crew, with the suggestion they are subjects in some experiment of unknown intent. The mysterious and exotic backdrop, Straub’s wordplay and dialogue, the scenes of sex and hints of corruption all combine to present a dazzling performance from one of the true masters of the genre and a fitting end to a volume that confirms the horror genre is in good health.
A FEAST OF FRIGHTS FROM THE HORROR ZINE (The Horror Zine Books pb, 473pp, $16.99) is the offspring of editor Jeani Rector’s website The Horror Zine, and contains a selection of all that the site has to offer and more. It’s a substantial volume, with not just fiction but a varied array of content arranged in themed sections. Regrettably there are no notes to differentiate between original material and that reprised from the website, though a flying visit has confirmed at least some of the stories are viewable online, so if you want a quick taste of what this volume has to offer point your browser at thehorrorzine.com.
After a foreword by Ramsey Campbell, we get straight into the thick of things with a mammoth fiction section containing thirty four stories, an agreeable mix of new voices and seasoned professionals. It’s a daunting number for a reviewer with limited space, so I’ll restrict myself to commenting on personal favourites and/or those by writers with a TTA connection, while observing that the overall standard is middling to high, albeit quite a few of the stories offer competent re-treads of familiar themes and scenarios rather than anything strikingly original.
‘Ghost Pit’ by Simon Clark involves a woman archivist getting on a sticky wicket in a mine where a large number of men died and finding that she is a suitable sacrifice to the dead, the story a well written and engaging variation on the themes of madness and spectral revenge. Graham Masterton’s ‘What the Dark Does’ presents the idea of crepuscular animation and has perhaps the best line in the whole book – “And if you see a dressing-gown that looks as if it might come alive, then believe me, it probably will”. The concept is used to explain the murder of the protagonist’s parents when he was a young boy and his recurring fear of the dark, in a story that gives a new and chilling twist on the familiar trope of the bogeyman. ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road’ by Joe R. Lansdale is one of the highlights of the collection, the story having previously been filmed as part of the Masters of Horror TV series. A woman out driving on her own has the bad luck to run into a serial killer, but she has survival skills of her own, bought as the cost of an abusive relationship, and they pay off in a story that is extremely gory and very much in your face, but in a good way.
We get a compelling picture of madness grounded in OCD from Eric J. Guignard in ‘Germ Warfare’, with a man imprisoning others and subjecting them to his ideas of preventative medicine. A man develops a second mouth in the understated and delightful ‘Mouthpiece’ by Mike Goddard, but ironically his attempts to come to terms with this condition and the conviction that he is being victimised only drives others away. Scott Nicholson’s ‘Homecoming’ is a ghost story and has its share of unwelcome revenants, but there’s a bittersweet feel to the narrative as an elderly couple make their peace with the loss of their only son, the horror giving way to a sense of rightness about what is happening.
In ‘The Night Visitor’ by Joe McKinney a policeman relates a harrowing incident from his past by way of explanation for why he is afraid of the dark, the familiar monster here of secondary concern in a story grounded in strong characterisation and a convincing account of police work. ‘Always Say Treat’ by Christopher Nadeau crosses Halloween with Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ to give a hellish version of every horror fan’s favourite festival, one made all the more minatory and disturbing by what is not said or revealed. ‘Impressive Instants’ by David A. Hernandez has a man dumped by his lover trying to find a miracle cure for his subsequent overeating, the story addressing themes of loss and regret, how people can seem to use each other, then wrapping it all up with a Dahlesque final twist.
‘Husks and Formless Ruins’ by Tom Piccirilli is another highlight, with a brutal anti-hero getting sucked into the ceremonies of a group of devil worshippers and showing them the back of his hands and heels, the story full of engaging and larger than life characters, with a vicious streak underneath all the invention. My personal favourite, ‘Scream Queen’ by Ed Gorman has three horror movie fans discovering the fate of one of their favourite leading ladies, who disappeared from the screen several years back, and each in their own way trying to take advantage of the situation. It’s a sad story, one filled with sorrow for the passing of friendships, the loss of childhood dreams and ambitions, and written with a genuine sensitivity for the characters. In ‘The Story of My First Kiss’, Jeff Strand takes an oblique look at a reality in which childhood innocence is given a blackly comedic spin, the story ghoulishly charming.
The non-fiction section is more hit and miss, with fascinating stuff from John Gilmore who details his obsession with the Black Dahlia killing and how that parlayed into a career writing true crime books, but there’s also material that seems lightweight, anecdote rather than essay, and one piece, an article by country singer Kasey Lansdale, that seems completely out of place in a horror publication. The next section is devoted to poetry, and we get samples of the work of eight poets, including Interzone book reviewer Ian Hunter. It’s all of a high standard, but I’ll only mention my personal favourite, Dennis Bagwell’s ‘If Frankenstein’s Monster Were Alive Today’, a wry commentary on reality television and other aspects of modern life.
The artists whose work has illustrated the book also get their own special corner, with potted biographies and samples of their art. And finally the editors of The Horror Zine come out on the stage and do a turn, with stories by Jeani Rector and Dean H. Wild, an apt end to a fine publication and one where the fiction is worth the price of admission alone.
Edited by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. A SEASON IN CARCOSA (Miskatonic Press Pb, 282pp, $19.99) is an anthology inspired by the work of Robert W. Chambers. A popular and successful author of romantic fiction in his day, Chambers (1865 – 1933) is now best known for his weird story collection The King in Yellow (1895), which was highly praised by Lovecraft and others, and whose concepts have been picked up on by many writers since, perhaps most famously by Karl Edward Wagner with his story ‘The River of Night’s Dreaming’. Connecting the stories in TKiY is the central idea of a cursed play, which has the power to unhinge minds, with the infamous Yellow Sign, the dread city of Carcosa and the King himself all part of the mix. I’ve read the book but a long, long time ago, and so there are probably aspects of these stories the significance of which will have passed me by, but as with all good fiction they can be enjoyed on their own terms, and no more than a cursory acquaintance with Chambers’ oeuvre is necessary.
Before we get to the good stuff though, a caveat. A Season in Carcosa is let down by poor proofreading. When the editor refers to “Chamers” in the second paragraph of his introduction you expect the worst, and several writers follow in Pulver’s footsteps, with Don Webb the biggest offender, his nine page story containing more errors than I’ve seen in some fantasy trilogies, to the point that at one stage I was writing them down in the hope they might spell out a secret message.
Joel Lane raises the curtain with ‘My Voice is Dead’, in which a man riddled with cancer and disillusioned with the Catholic Church connects with a cult worshipping the Yellow King, their version of Carcosa an isolated religious commune. The story hints at far greater terrors than those laid out on the page, with the prevailing mood one of bitterness and regret, anger at betrayal, Lane deftly leading us into an examination of the need for certainty felt by many. ‘Beyond the Banks of the River Seine’ by Simon Strantzas has a music student discovering a copy of the play and subsequently composing the masterpiece he has always dreamed of, but the act takes a terrible toll in a story which addresses the thin line between madness and genius, showing how obsession and ambition can undermine the best of intentions. Daniel Mills pays lip service to the forms of weird fiction, but turns everything on its head with ‘MS Found in a Chicago Hotel Room’, whose protagonist visits an unusual brothel and becomes the target of a gangster called King when he visits with moll Camilla, the story covered in a patina of weirdness, so that criminality and the outré are blurred into each other.
Gary McMahon writes ‘it sees me when I’m not looking’ in a gritty, streetwise style, with a hedonistic poet encountering a cursed manuscript and deciding that discretion is the better part of valour when the world is at stake, the story reminiscent of Miller and the Beats in its descriptions, but with a macabre slant to events. Edward Morris gives us ‘The Theatre and its Double’, possibly channelling how the playwright and surrealist Antonin Artaud might have staged The King in Yellow, a firecracker of a story featuring a welter of masterly prose effect that blurs the lines between fact and fiction with a gleeful malice. Intercutting journal entries and snippets from a production of the play, he strips away the layers of a disintegrating psyche, coming close to attaining Artaud’s vision of actors and audiences as “victims burnt at the stake, signalling through the flames”.
With the possible exception of the Morris, ‘Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars’ by Gemma Files was my favourite story, detailing the discoveries of a team of forensic experts on an isolated island digging up a mass grave, with hints of sacrifice to an unseen deity over many years, and ultimately their interference leads to the release of something terrible. Everything about this was perfect, from the characterisation through to the hints of the numinous in the text, all combining to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. A mad Camilla goes on the rampage in Kristin Prevallet’s ‘Whose Hearts are Pure Gold’, a wacky story of a stranger in a strange land, one where the plot keeps twisting and always has the reader off balance. Think After Hours with a borderline sociopathic female lead and a macabre slant. From Richard A. Lupoff we have the delightful tall story that is ‘April Dawn’ with a performance of the play bringing the house down, much of the work’s appeal residing in the incidental invention and the wry humour with which Lupoff paints his characters, a supernatural sleuth of sorts and his amanuensis.
Cody Goodfellow’s ‘Wishing Well’ deals with an unusual children’s TV programme and the fabled King in Yellow episode, which was never broadcast. At its heart is the idea of ritual as a path to power and a subtext on how our actions as children inform what we become in later life, though again, it could all be down to the protagonist being bonkers – you decide. Another highlight of the collection, ‘Sweetums’ by John Langan tells of an actress sent off to a warehouse to take part in a shoot by an out of favour director, with the various random acts accumulating to produce something truly unsettling.
‘Salvation in Yellow’ by Robin Spriggs is a powerful account of an abusive father daughter relationship, with an outré element intruding to offer the daughter an escape route, albeit into madness, with even the language of the tale disintegrating as it rushes to its finale. Last but not least is Allyson Bird’s ‘The Beat Hotel’, an impressionistic rendition of ‘Pickman’s Model’, with an artist taking the King in Yellow as her subject matter rather than some random ghoul, stirring art and history and literature into the mix, freedom and sexual politics, coating it all with a tainted romanticism for things lost and those who are never found.
Not everything hits the spot, as with editor Pulver’s ‘Not Enough Hope’, which was a little too hallucinatory and experimental for my taste, and Anna Tambour’s ‘King Wolf’, which felt overlong and slightly out of place with its strange children and references to Narnia. Overall though, this is a rewarding anthology for the lover of weird fiction, one that gratifyingly looks further afield than the Poe and Lovecraft templates that seem to have cornered the tribute anthology market.
Talking of which, enter from stage left S. T. Joshi with BLACK WINGS II (PS Publishing hb, 331pp, £24.99) containing eighteen stories billed as “New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror”. Again, typos are a problem, at least in the review PDF sent to me, though not so much as in the previous volume, with Webb again and Donald Tyson the culprits.
John Shirley leads off with ‘When Death Wakes Me to Myself’, in which a psychiatrist finds that his patient has past memories of living as Lovecraft and the house in which his office is located had connections with the writer, but after a fascinating build-up Shirley delivers a body blow reversal of fortune, one that questions who is sane in this scenario and who is mad. Tom Fletcher’s short ‘View’ is an elegantly creepy account of a house viewing, ordinary at first and then increasingly sinister as the couple climb up into ever higher levels of the house and gaze on strange vistas. Cultists try to evoke the ‘Houndwife’ in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s story, the narrative a celebration of the urge for something greater than ourselves, whether it be love, literature or the outré, and with beautifully judged conflicting realities, told in a kaleidoscopic effect.
The most poignant piece in the anthology, ‘Dahlias’ by Melanie Tem records the indifference of the universe to human suffering, as a busy young woman spends time with her grandmother, not realising that her life is soon to end, this indifference symbolised by the dahlias of the title. Typos aside, Don Webb’s ‘Casting Call’ is an inventive tale about a Mexican actor on the make who tries to get a spot on The Twilight Zone by dressing up as a ghoul and performing a magic ritual on set, but it all goes horribly wrong, fiction merging with reality, makeup metamorphosing into monster in a story that pokes satirical fun at both Hollyweird and white peoples’ appetite for ethnic wisdom, with a walk on from the great Forry Ackerman.
A man becomes displaced in his own life one morning in Nicholas Royle’s subtle ‘The Other Man ‘, his dissatisfaction giving way to acceptance, the story surreal and unsettling with its rendition of the doppelganger archetype. Walker is ‘Waiting at the Crossroads Motel’ in Steve Rasnic Tem’s story, the question being what is he waiting for and the answer a solution to the puzzle of his own tormented humanity, the gap he feels between himself and others.
‘Correlated Discontents’ by Rick Dakan is one of the highlights of the anthology, with a computer programme that enables a student to channel Lovecraft allowing others to address his racism, the tale eschewing the supernatural in favour of the equally unsettling spectres of prejudice. Donald Tyson’s ‘The Skinless Face’ concerns the discovery of a buried statue in the Gobi Desert resulting in madness and murder, the story gripping, with well-drawn characters who convincingly become unhinged and a trajectory that is satisfying even though predictable, underlying all that the concept of an alien virus preserved in stone and which, thanks to modern technology, can now be spread to all corners of the earth.
Closing the book is ‘Appointed’ by Chet Williamson, a bittersweet and sad account of faded movie stars attempting to make a living by peddling their wares and trading on past fame at horror conventions, and into this scenario the author injects a King in Yellow figure, with subtle hints that something far stranger is going on beyond the doors of the convention hotel. It’s a good end to a strong anthology, one that ably demonstrates there’s still plenty of untapped potential in the progeny of dear old Howard Phillips.