Filler content whistling in the dark

Here’s something from The Third Alternative #37:-


Tor hb, 381pp, $25.95

In her introduction to this collection of sixteen stories Ellen Datlow states ‘I wanted to edit a new ghost story anthology that was filled exclusively with scary ghost stories.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to claim it succeeds in that regard, but certainly The Dark contains some very fine writing, a sample of the best the Horror genre has to offer, and should challenge those dullards who still insist that it isn’t on a par with the finest literature.

Jeffrey Ford’s ‘The Trentino Kid’ kicks off, the story of a young man haunted by the ghost of boy lost at sea and imploring him to bring the corpse to land, a story that is in many ways a eulogy for all the illusions of youth, both disturbing and at the same time containing a note of sympathy for the human condition as the protagonist is led to examine his own situation. ‘The Ghost of the Clock’ by Tanith Lee is a more traditional piece, though with a modern twist, as a spiteful aunt tries to scare her niece with an invented ghost story only to have her creation take on a little more reality than she bargained for, a masterly slice of storytelling that deftly draws the reader in as the writer piles one detail on top of another, binging to mind the old masters of the form, such as M. R. James. Terry Dowling’s ‘One Thing About the Night’ is one of the best stories in the collection, with two modern day ‘antiquarians’ falling foul of a mirrored room, a totally absorbing piece of fiction that is enriched by occult underpinnings and excellent characterisation, while the nebulous nature of the menace only makes it even more sinister, leaving the reader totally unprepared for the final and shocking revelation. Mike O’Driscoll touches on strange events in the region of Death Valley with ‘The Silence of the Falling Stars’, as a park ranger becomes fascinated by a family group, a story that is compelling to read but perhaps loses focus a bit towards the end, suggesting that so much could be taking place inside the narrator’s head.

Gahan Wilson’s ‘The Dead Ghost’ is insubstantial, the slight story of a man who is haunted by a corpse in a hospital, doing little with this scenario except to offer it up for the reader’s approval. ‘Seven Sisters’ by Jack Cady is a haunted house story with a twist, featuring a town that is dying and people being used by the spirit of a dead magician, a tale that in its somewhat wistful and nostalgic dwelling on past glory and through the quality of the writing, vivid and full of beauty, brought to mind the work of Bradbury in his heyday. ‘Subway’ by Joyce Carol Oates is another weak link, a rather slight tale of a woman searching for Mr Right on the subway, an endless quest as she appears to be dead, and while Oates’ evocation of this can’t be faulted, full of quiet desperation and bitter irony, there is a feeling that something more is required in the plot department. Stephen Gallagher excels with ‘Dr Hood’, another story that is rich in incidental detail, as a famous physicist grieving for his wife tries to subject supernatural phenomenon to scientific method. This one pleases with its ambiguity, the suggestion that the physicist may be losing his mind, and in the meticulously detailed and wholly credible relationship between father and daughter, while the ghost hunting methods bear the undeniable stamp of authenticity.

In ‘An Amicable Divorce’ Daniel Abraham depicts a husband and wife driven apart by guilt over the death of their son, full of wonderful touches of emotional subtlety culminating in a truly savage ending and bringing to mind Don’t Look Now, though with the roles reversed. Ramsey Campbell is on top form with ‘Feeling Remains’, in which a young boy falls foul of an old lady’s restless spirit. Campbell’s tongue in cheek portrayal of a painfully PC family and its dysfunctional opposite is a certain delight for the reader. Sharyn McCrumb’s ‘The Gallows Necklace’ is another traditional piece, with a man finally putting to rest his guilt over events that took place sixty years earlier, a story that would not have looked out of place in a collection from the Victorian age, full of telling detail and understated prose. ‘Brownie, and Me’ by Charles L. Grant is a quiet, moody story, with a man seeing a ghost as the first sign of how his world has changed and can never be put back together again, a subtle piece that engages the emotions to both alarm and sadden.

In ‘Velocity’ Kathe Koja gives us the story of an artist whose every new creation reprises the death of his architect father, told in the form of an interview for a magazine intercut with unsettling descriptions of the unusual house in which events take place, an oblique and ultimately moving account of madness, possession and the power of grief. ‘Limbo’ by Lucius Shepard is the longest story here, a novella about a criminal in hiding who falls for an abused woman, only to discover she is someone other than she claims to be, and that he has been lured into an other-dimensional trap. This is beautifully written and packed to the gills with believable characterisation and fascinating ideas, not least in its depiction of Limbo itself which has echoes of Black House and House of Leaves. Kelly Link’s ‘The Hortlak’ is slightly disappointing, an absurdist melodrama that exists within its own warped logic, as Eric and Batu try to revolutionise the retail industry, catering to zombies and other strangers, while the girl Charley rides by in her car full of dead dogs, or something like that. It was… different, and while enthralled by the off the wall quality of the story I wasn’t really satisfied by it. Lastly there’s ‘Dancing Men’ by Glen Hirshberg, a writer I am coming to greatly admire, in which a Jewish teacher is reminded of a childhood rite of passage by his visit to the ruins of a concentration camp, a strange and unnerving slice of fiction.

As counterpoint to their own stories each writer is asked to name their own favourite ghost story and say why, a revealing exercise that adds a novel touch to one of the finest collections of short fiction the Horror genre has seen in recent times.

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