Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #19 as part of a feature on anthologies:-
AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
The title comes from the introduction to STORIES (Headline hardback, 432pp, £18.99), edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, and for Gaiman it represents the crucial aspect of all good storytelling – if the reader is asking this question then the writer has done his job.
There’s an air of expectation about Stories. In a market climate where short stories are reputedly anathema and horror fiction no longer saleable, the appearance of such a substantial anthology from a major UK publisher – a book in which genre favourites rub shoulders with ‘literary’ heavyweights and all of the fiction is grounded, if not in horror, then in the fantastical – can’t help but seem portentous, and literary haruspices will no doubt pore over its innards in search of signs of things to come. Mere reviewers however may content themselves with saying if they like the book or not.
And there is much to like, or not, between the covers, twenty seven stories in all. Reasons of space dictate that, with this anthology and those that follow, I discuss only a fraction of what’s on offer, and so I shall content myself with itemising the best and the worst, the most representative stories and those with a particular interest because of an authorial connection with Black Static: a sampling then, rather than anything more substantive. I shall however, for the benefit of the completists, post Tables of Contents for all the books reviewed in this issue on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com during the month of October, along with other anthology focused material, so be sure to check it out.
Opening the proceedings is ‘Blood’ by Roddy Doyle, a tale with strong echoes of Romero’s Martin as the protagonist develops a taste for blood which he indulges by biting the head off the neighbour’s chicken. The appetite is strongly conveyed, both in its perversity and the feeling that it is somehow entirely natural, nothing to be ashamed of, simply another fetish, with the reaction of the character’s wife at the end adding a chilling coda. There’s a kind of vampirism too in ‘Fossil-Figures’ by Joyce Carol Oates, with one of twins feeding on the vitality of the other in the womb and after, the story following the unfolding lives of each, all leading up to the inevitable moment of collision. It’s a fascinating tale, with a real sense of something strange and macabre taking place, while at the same time offering nothing that can’t be explained in mundane terms. For a third vampire tale (perhaps the literati haven’t heard how passé vampires are), we get ‘Juvenal Nyx’ by Walter Mosley, with its eponymous hero turned into a bloodsucker and making a life for himself until love comes along to complicate matters. It’s a dazzling display and one that never ceases to hold the attention, with plenty of incident as Nyx turns PI and has to track down a hell beast, and an emotional context that preserves his essential humanity by connecting him to the rest of us. Other famous monsters get a look in too, as with ‘The Stars Are Falling’ which reinvents Sommersby as the zombie story it was always yearning to be but never had the balls for until Joe R. Lansdale dragged it kicking and screaming out of the casket. There’s tenderness here, an exquisite sense of loss and a feeling for the emotions of the characters, but then it all falls apart in savage violence, a comment on war itself.
Psychological horror also has a place. ‘Weights and Measures’ by Jodi Picoult looks at a couple coping with grief after the death of their daughter, the story firmly grounded in an understanding of their relationship and loss, describing in meticulous and compelling detail the unravelling of two lives. ‘Catch and Release’ by Lawrence Block is the clever account of a serial killer who is satisfied by the chase alone. Using fishing as a metaphor it is a chilling monologue that, for all the suggestion of passivity, eventually ends in terrible bloodshed, and is all the more shocking because of the dummy that has been sold to the reader. In ‘Land of the Lost’ by Stewart O’Nan a woman becomes obsessed with finding the body of a killer’s victim, digging up isolated spots late at night. It’s displacement activity for dealing with the emotional turmoil that has swept up her life, and there is a wonderful irony in the last line of the story, with its reverse declaration of sanity.
Urban fantasy plays a part. ‘Wildfire in Manhattan’ by Joanne Harris is a tale of the old gods living inside human bodies, and how an evil force is killing them off. Lighter in tone than many of the stories, this is a concept that Harris has fun with and milks for all its worth, with twists and turns of fortune, and a genuine feeling for the numinous amid the everyday. Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Unbelief’ is an audacious practical joke of a story, with a hired assassin shadowing his target until the moment to strike, after which we get the reveal. Written entirely deadpan, it sucks the reader in before pulling the rug out from under our feet. The immortals of Jeffrey Ford’s ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ seem frozen in a moment that perpetually repeats, and their only wish is to find a way to death and bring this all to an end. The prose and dialogue here is scintillating, a perfect evocation of hedonistic lifestyles, with the reader fed clues until the underlying horror of the situation emerges and the game in which these characters are engaged stands fully revealed.
High fantasy abounds. Neil Gaiman’s fable ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ is a slowly unfolding tale of revenge delayed, with all the moment and impact of a Greek tragedy. Easygoing at first it soon becomes chilling, as things and people are revealed to be other than first presented, and the truth is more terrible than we could have envisaged. Michael Swanwick’s Cabellesque fantasy ‘Goblin Lake’ explores the boundaries between fiction and reality, with an evocative account of a character who must choose whether to live in one or the other. There’s a lovely picaresque feel to the story as it unfolds, but Swanwick brings it home with a metafictional twist that undercuts so much of what has gone before and poses the question of whether the very real potentials of the daily grind are preferable to imaginary happiness.
Disappointment is found in unexpected places. Peter Straub’s ‘Mallon the Guru’ went right over my head; detailing a brief encounter between a disciple and the master he yearns for, it was all a little too enigmatic for its own good. The punning title ‘Leif in the Wind’ sets the tone for Gene Wolfe’s story of astronauts who are infected by an alien life form or may simply have gone mad due to the length of their mission. Either way it’s not a particularly gripping story, with ideas that have been dealt with before and more substantially. For Wolfe this was very much a routine tale. ‘Let the Past Begin’ by Jonathan Carroll is all over place, a jigsaw puzzle story whose pieces don’t quite fit, ostensibly about the working out of a curse. Many of Carroll’s traits are recognisable in the text, but the narrative just doesn’t seem to be as focused as in his best fiction.
The book ends with a high three. ‘Stories’ by Michael Moorcock reads like a history of New Worlds and its times, with only the names changed to protect the not so innocent. It’s a compelling and completely absorbing character study come history lesson, one which doesn’t really go anywhere in plot terms and yet has a feeling of containment about it, and of course reading Moorcock is always going to be fun, as the guy seems incapable of bad writing or dull storytelling. Longest story in the book, Elizabeth Hand’s ‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon’ is also one of the best, as three slackers come together to recreate a moment in aviation history for a friend dying of cancer. With some delicious characterisation and dialogue, it builds perfectly to the moment of revelation, where an outré event is sidelined in favour of more humanitarian needs. The story is shot through with mystery, but Hand prefers to place compassion and human feeling in the foreground. Last of all we have ‘The Devil on the Staircase’ by Joe Hill, innovatively written in the form of a staircase. A young man commits murder, but thanks to the help of the Devil’s son he manages to escape the consequences of his actions and prosper. The story holds the attention all the way, with some excellent touches of colour and detail, and in the end it offers a denouement which holds terrible implications for all of mankind, not just the story’s protagonist. It is the ideal note on which to end a substantial anthology and one that speaks to the robust good health of the short form in these challenging times.
Joe Hill also provides the last story in ZOMBIE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE UNDEAD (Piatkus paperback, 500pp, £9.99) edited by Christopher Golden, a house brick of an anthology with nineteen stories which attempt to put a different spin on the subject of everybody’s favourite brain munching monster, and generally succeed.
Dawning of the living dead. The short opening story by John Connolly puts a different slant on the tale of ‘Lazarus’, with the man Jesus brought back from the dead finding that nothing is quite how it should be and people won’t accept him. It captures perfectly the plight of someone who is dying but not dead, a living source of decay. Stephen R. Bissette’s ‘Copper’ is written from the viewpoint of a zombie, a war veteran leading a gang of ex-soldiers who survive off the things society no longer has any use for. I found the method of telling aggravating at first, but the story grew on me, with the repetition and short sentences used to portray the zombie’s mental state working well. One of the highlights of the collection, ‘In the Dust’ by Tim Lebbon has the few survivors of a zombiefied community quarantined from the outside world. It is, like much of Lebbon’s work, a singularly bleak tale, with a bad situation getting even worse, but beautifully written and showing a keen sensitivity in describing the emotional landscape of these trapped people.
Disappointments of the dead. I’m a big fan of Brian Keene, but ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ didn’t work for me. An odd couple wonder if their relationship can survive, when she becomes a zombie and he becomes a ghost, but the story doesn’t have much to offer beyond this polarity. The shortest story in the book, it’s more idea than plot. ‘My Dolly’ by Derek Nikitas is another weak effort, with its hero saving one zombie girl at the cost of the lives of several living men, no real rhyme or reason to what goes on and the first half of the story seeming very much like padding
Dead but still kicking. ‘Delice’ by Holly Newstein is a poignant tale of voodoo in old New Orleans, with a dead girl’s body being taken over by a spirit to wreak vengeance on the girl’s killers. Time and setting are perfectly realised, with gore in the story offering us the pleasures of seeing bad lots get their just desserts. Mike Carey’s ‘Second Wind’ has a zombie financier taking steps to preserve his existence after death, only to find that one of the living has the ability to touch him. The subtext of the story seems to be that the protagonist has never really connected with other human beings until now, when being dead has made such a thing possible for him, but at the same time he still manages to reject what is offered in a poignant end twist.
Dignity in death. ‘Family Business’ by Jonathan Maberry is set in a future where zombies roam wild and the living exist in walled communities. The family business of the title is killing zombies and Benny wants to follow in the footsteps of his brother Tom, but first he must be educated into what the job really entails. The longest story in the book, this offers a striking alternative to the usual zombie horror MO, where shooting them up is the be all and end all, instead positing the idea of allowing the undead some dignity in their demise, following the logistics of the zombie plague. ‘Closure, Limited’ by Max Brooks is coming from a similar place to the Maberry, but from an entirely different direction, with zombies altered to resemble loved ones of those who then get to kill them. It’s a good idea, and Brooks plays it close to his chest, so that you can’t really be sure where the story is going until the final twist.
Delights of the living dead. ‘Among Us’ by Aimee Bender is a social satire of sorts, several incidents intercut in such a way as to show that zombie and human behaviour are often identical. The point is made with wit and insight, and the story has grown on me since I read it, and I’m a lot more aware of Bender’s novel lurking in the TBR pile. From James A. Moore we get the grim ‘Kids and Their Toys’, in which a group of boys take delight in tormenting a zombie, and one of their number learns that you either join the gang or become its victim. Like Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door this story offers a disturbing master class in our capacity for cruelty and self-delusion. And then there’s that final offering from Joe Hill, ‘Twittering from the Circus of the Dead’, with the story told in the form of twitter posts, something I thought of initially as a gimmick but which with hindsight works perfectly for the story Hill has to tell. A young girl on a cross country trip with her family twitters to her friends when they stop off at a circus where the performers pretend to be zombies and the audience become prey, only nobody is pretending. It’s a striking blend of redneck horror and teen angst, with some delicious imagery and a tone just right for the material, and it provides the perfect end to a generally strong collection.
Of course where there are zombies, vampires won’t be far behind, and we have two anthologies stuffed with stories about bloodsuckers. EVOLVE: VAMPIRE STORIES OF THE NEW UNDEAD (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing paperback, 283pp, $16.95) edited by Nancy Kilpatrick contains twenty four stories by Canadian writers that aim to put a new spin on the vampire archetype, to provide a ‘twenty-first century vampire’. Despite that tease, I would say that there’s nothing radically different on offer here, but the book does provide a lot of clever and intriguing variations on a theme.
‘Chrysalis’ by Ronald Hore is the story of a vampire coming of age, a young teenager who thinks her parents are down on her and who is bullied at school, but who then comes to the realisation that she has a great power. In a way the story celebrates the idea of the outsider, the alienated adolescent, whose fantasies of power and revenge are given tangible form. Jennifer Greylyn’s ‘Mother of Miscreants’ puts a different slant on the whole ‘interview’ thing, with a vampire writing her confessions so that others of her kind will realise their true potential instead of being swayed by the images of vampires in popular culture. It’s a clever piece, with the showdown between mother and one of her offspring put over well. ‘Resonance’ by Mary E. Choo takes a look at the vampire society, and how they punish their own if vampire secrecy is put at risk. The story is well written, with a heroine whose plight – wanting to help humans and keeping her family property – is one most of us will identify with, particularly given the whiff of corruption coming off the vampires at the top of the food chain. My only reservation is that the resolution all seems a bit pat, with the all-powerful overlords vanquished pretty much ‘just like that’. Rebecca Bradley’s ‘The New Forty’ depicts the fate of a vampire shunned by others of her kind because she was turned in old age, but who now finds that in the modern world age is not such a big issue. It deftly takes a human situation and shows how vampires might similarly be affected.
The least interesting stories are those that feel underdeveloped, of which there are something like half a dozen. For example, ‘Red Blues’ by Michael Skeet is a night in the life snapshot of a vampire jazz musician, but has little to offer beyond the observation that vampires are like musicians. Victoria Fisher’s ‘The Drinker’ is similarly slight, a man who is given a taste by a vampire, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or have anything much to offer. Heather Clitheroe’s ‘Come to Me’ is a tale of vampirism set in Japan, with a woman lured into the forest by a predator, but foreign setting aside there is little originality to the story. ‘Alia’s Angel’ by Rhea Rose was all a bit too vague for me, set in an oblique world and with characters whose motivations I could never quite get a hold on.
This is a book however in which the good outnumber the indifferent by a considerable margin, with a satisfying amount of stories that put moral dilemmas at their centre. ‘An Ember Amongst the Fallen’ by Colleen Anderson is one of the highlights of the collection. The story is set in a world of vampires, where humans are cattle and their masters discuss if they are capable of intelligent thought and feeling, and the worst crime is for a vampire to have sex with one of the beasts. It’s a clever reversal of traditional stereotypes, reminiscent in a way of Planet of the Apes, with a subtext about racism and the story brutal enough in places to horrify, both on the visceral level and intellectually. In ‘All You Can Eat, All the Time’ by Claude Lalumiere a woman falls under the spell of a vampire, one who seems to be protecting humans, but she is tricked when he takes over her body. It’s a thoroughly engaging story, one where the writing fizzes and the character of Jenny comes alive on the page, so that we care about what happens to her, even while knowing that it’s all destined to end in tears. ‘When I’m Armouring My Belly’ by Gemma Files features a young man who whores himself out to vampire clans, but eventually they always reject him, until finally he realises his true nature and becomes a predator. The story is, at bottom, about a submissive who makes the transition to master, and we manage to identify with Vic even as he is humiliated and suborned, the grittiness and need coming off the page in waves of raw emotion.
‘How Magnificent is the Universal Donor’ by Jerome Stueart has a future in which vampires have come out of the shadows and are helping humans with a deadly blood disease, only they need the pure blood of one man to aid them in their fight, and his partner attempts to rescue the guy before he can be drained. While there’s some superficiality to the writing, this ‘doctors wear scarlet’ story addresses universal concerns, with the idea of sacrificing an individual for the greater good central. It invites readers to take sides, and curiously enough I chose the opposite side to the characters. In the last story, Tanya Huff’s ‘Quid Pro Quo’, the vampire partner of a human detective is coerced by a billionaire who wants her to change him. It’s a fast paced action adventure piece with likable characters and some engaging twists along the way to a gratifying finale, a light hearted but not lightweight end to a collection that adequately draws new blood from old skins.
With seventeen ‘all new tales of vampiric horror’, THE BITTEN WORD (Newcon Press paperback, 317pp, £9.99) edited by Ian Whates has a more traditional feel about it, and one might even go so far as to identify a leaning towards the romanticised end of the vampire spectrum in some of these stories.
Leading off is Simon Clark with ‘Vampithecus’, a story with an Indiana Jones sensibility to it, at least initially as a zeppelin party of explorers unearth a cave in which bodies are mysteriously preserved, and fall prey to the vampires they awaken (while entirely earthbound, the story also put me very much in mind of Lifeforce). The wide open spaces of the desert are brought to vivid life, and the attendant sense of wonder felt by the archaeologists, the story ending with a note of pathos as the main protagonist prepares to be reunited with his wife, but at a terrible cost to his humanity.
There’s a similar old fashioned feel to Chaz Brenchley’s ‘Hothouse Flowers’, as a gentleman of substance returns home after many years abroad to find his family residence rented out to a vampire who keeps his personal food supply of young boys close to hand. It’s an engaging story, one that draws the reader in, with Brenchley not setting a foot wrong, the time and place and characters all just right, and several images that revolt thrown in for good measure. Freda Warrington has fun with the tropes of the subgenre in ‘The Fall of the House of Blackwater’, as an age old vampire returns to torment the current residents of his ancestral home, masquerading as a ghost, only to have the tables turned on him. It’s vampire fiction as Oscar Wilde might have written it, knowingly amused at its own audacity and playing jokes on the reader.
At the fabulist end of the scale we have Sarah Singleton’s beautifully written ‘A Winter’s Tale’, which tells of a vampire girl who arrives on a block of ice and her relationship with an infatuated artist, the story shot through with a brooding feel of obsession and conveying a sense of decadence. In ‘Where the Vampires Live’ by Storm Constantine the main thrust of the story is in the relationship between two sisters, and how this is changed by the arrival in their house of a strange girl who turns out to be part of a vampire family. The artful writing, highly charged air of eroticism and subtle characterisation kept me turning the pages, albeit there were places where the story felt slightly forced. ‘Taken at His Word’ by Tanith Lee has failed writer and scholar Olvero unwittingly unleashing a vampire on the city where he lives. The story is beautifully paced and keeps its twists and turns out of sight of the reader until the appropriate moment of revelation, playing games with the idea of fiction made flesh.
Not everything worked for me. John Kaiine’s ‘English Spoken’ had some lush imagery, but the tale of a Passenger in search of something that remains just out of reach never quite grabbed me and I came away from it with no feeling that the story amounted to something more than the sum of its parts. In ‘Wuthering Bites’ Bronte’s tale is vampirised by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, but he does it no favours. The writing is competent, as you’d expect from JCG, but otherwise the exercise seemed as pointless as most other ‘mash-ups’.
‘Those Damned Kids’ is the one thoroughly modern story in the anthology, and is typical of Gary McMahon’s oeuvre, delivering up a bleak and repellent depiction of urban blight, with communities dying on their feet, and the hoodie clad teens who personify this decay, only to then turn the tables on reader and renegades alike. There’s a grittiness to the language, an underlying awareness of social substrata and the very real horrors that give us all sleepless nights, the whole mulched up in a welter of blood and tears, and with an ending where only the monsters can offer hope. And ‘Coldrush’ by Kari Sperring is the most futuristic piece, set in a reality where a spacefaring insect civilisation falls prey to a vampiric black hole, though you can’t entirely dismiss the idea that all the SF stuff is a ruse and actually Sperring is writing about insects in their own terms. It’s the most original piece in the book, though to my mind doesn’t quite fit with the company it’s keeping.
Donna Scott takes the vampire back to its Victorian roots with ‘Lord of the Lyceum’, a story in which Bram Stoker has a role to play and a vampire tackles Jack the Ripper. Filled with tiny touches of detail that help to bring the age to life, with some fascinating characters and charged interplay, this was one of my favourites. Saucy Jack also features in ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Sam Stone, a well written tale that provides one of the most original takes on vampires and the Ripper that I can recall seeing. Finally in ‘Vanities’ by Gail Z. Martin two vampire thieves are part of an organisation that protects the world from far greater evil. The story is a Machiavellian treat, with two parts rip roaring adventure to one part horror, and brings down the curtain on this production with considerable panache.
(TO BE CONTINUED)