Filler content with anthologies – Part 3

Following on from my 8 June blog entry, here is the final part of the feature on anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #19:-

AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? (continued)

NULL IMMORTALIS: NEMONYMOUS TEN (Megazanthus Press paperback, 330pp, £11) edited by Des Lewis is to be the final volume in this anthology series, which has made a virtue out of doing things differently. In previous volumes stories were published independently of the authors’ bylines, but not this time around. Editor Des Lewis still has some moves though. Each story includes a character called Tullis (the winner of a competition run in the last volume) and is inspired by the phrase ‘null immortalis’. My impression is that Lewis puts a premium on lateral thinking and high concept over plot, which can be something of a mixed blessing. There are stories among the twenty six in this book that are the rival of nearly anything found in the other anthologies here, but also a number that are slight, little more than brief word pictures, and some that don’t invite the question ‘And then what happened?’ so much as ‘What just happened?’

Case in point, ‘Turn Again’ by William Meikle, in which Tullis is an enigmatic stranger who comforts a grieving woman with talk of how nothing is ever lost and Zen. It’s engagingly written and at only four pages doesn’t outstay its welcome, and as an appetiser for what follows works well enough, but all the same I can’t muster up much enthusiasm beyond a shrug.

Let’s talk about some of the ones I can get enthusiastic about, and three stories stand out in particular. ‘Lucien’s Menagerie’ by David M. Fitzpatrick, a tale that has echoes of House on Haunted Hill’ in the plight of a woman bequeathed her family mansion by her wealthy ex, but only if she spends a night there, and dotted about the house are stuffed animals that are intended to drive her over the edge into madness. It’s a marvellous piece, full of incident and rich in detail, with tongue in cheek dialogue and a megalomaniac character who must surely have been inspired by Vincent Price at his most insidious, and easily my favourite of what’s on offer. Reggie Oliver’s ‘You Have Nothing to Fear’ provides a look into the lives of the upper classes, detailing the abusive relationship between an aristocratic photographer and his model, and then how the tables are turned on the man. A delight to read from first word to last, the story is a subtle supernatural piece in which a frisson of fear runs through the narrative, but with events always so off kilter that the reader can feel free to ignore it completely. Stephen Bacon is a writer who is growing in stature (I’d say we were overdue a collection of his stories) and ‘The Toymaker of Bremen’ doesn’t disappoint. A young boy finds himself abandoned by his parents and falls into the care of an elderly man with a large family of children, but as the plot unfolds the boy comes to realise that something far more sinister is going on. Bacon hits entirely the right note here, with the boy’s feelings of estrangement and his happiness at how he is treated put over well, but never so well as to obscure the fact that something is very awry, all priming us for the final plot twist with its unsettling revelation.

Writing itself is central in some of the stories, as with ‘Apotheosis’ by D. P. Watt in which Tullis is the most successful writer in the world, though his nature seems to be more that of hive mind or collective than an actual individual. Another writer is drawn into the Tullis web as part of his own shot at immortality by proxy, the story cleverly playing with the themes of the book and the competition. Joel Lane’s ‘The Drowned Market’ is perhaps a metaphor for the end of publishing as we know it, with hints of murder/suicide along the way as an author and his manuscript undergo changes until they disappear altogether, and the final image of the blank page eclipsing reality itself. It seems churlish not to mention the story by S. D. Tullis given his lynch pin status, but “The Return” was not one of my favourites. After having gone missing for nearly two years, a young girl returns home but will not speak. The story holds the attention, with a minutely detailed description of events unfolding and responses to them, but the metamorphosis of the final section, with hints of something rotten in the family fold, doesn’t quite work, seems to be offering strangeness for its own sake rather than as a means to reveal the truth of this situation.

Some of the shorter pieces work, usually those with a humorous side. Rachel Kendall’s ‘Holesale’ takes a play on words and fashions it into a slight but eminently enjoyable tale about a man who sells black holes for use as storage space, and how those holes might be put to use. ‘Fire’ by Roy Gray gives us the meditations of a condemned man in the moments before he is killed by firing squad, a neat and clever piece with a sting in the tail. Bob Lock knows how to pander to the vanity of editors, with not only Tullis but Lewis himself as a character in ‘Haven’t You Ever Wondered?’ and the whole Nemonymous project reified as a matter of multiversal importance in a witty and cheekily audacious story that delights with its playfulness.

‘Love is the Drug’ by Andrew Hook steps into a world where emotions are sold by drug dealers, and a man is given love but it destroys the feeling he already has for his wife and children. The story is cleverly told, with Tullis being interrogated by people who ostensibly want to help him, but underlying that is a subtext about our emotional states and how fragile they are, often the result of conditioning and socialisation rather than the profound feelings we believe them to be. ‘The Scream’ by Tim Casson is an enigmatic story of kebabs and property booms and busts, of strange illnesses and fractured relationships. Propping up the narrative is a metaphor in which the spread of fast food outlets becomes emblematic of the commodification of people and society, and the poison seeping into our lives. Tullis in Gary Fry’s ‘Strings Attached’ is an entrepreneur planning to open a fast food outlet at a sedate seaside resort and against the will of the residents, but the abandoned ticket office chosen for his premises might not be the best of locations. Fry is adept at creating a sense of urban unease while never revealing too much, with corrupt council officials, hostile locals and a ghostly spectre all helping in the measured unravelling of his central character. With powerful writing and a narrative device that put me in mind of Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘The Green Dog’ chronicled the relationship between dog and man in the latter’s dying days, with identities seeming to merge, the naturalness of one contrasting with the artificiality of the other, their shared concerns.

The last story in the anthology is also the longest, Tim Nickels’ novella ‘Supermarine’ which reads somewhat like Catch-22 if it had been written by Michael Moorcock and he’d used the family Cornelius for his dramatis personae. Mostly it was a fun read, with some tasty prose, larger than life characters and oblique invention, but at the end I didn’t have the feeling that the various episodes formed something greater than the sum of their parts, enjoyable as they were in isolation. At the end of the story is the legend NEMONYMOUS 2001 – 2010. It will be missed.

As I said in reference to Stephen Jones above, when it comes to ‘year best’ volumes reviewers are often little more than rubber stamps. What I won’t rubber stamp are the typos in the ‘Summation 2009’ section of THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR VOLUME 2 (Night Shade Books paperback, 308pp, $15.95) edited by Ellen Datlow. With close to forty errors in thirty pages, there’s something seriously awry here. Names are misspelled (Jane Austen is Austin, Stephenie Meyer is Myers, John Langan is Lanagan, Steve Redwood is Redmond etc), commas are misplaced and words appear to be missing, and we get such howlers as ‘low budge movies’ and ‘lessons the impact’. I’ve read plenty of summations and introductions by Ellen Datlow over the years and can’t recall ever seeing enough typos for it to be an issue before, and fortunately the malaise hasn’t spread to the rest of the book, but Night Shade obviously need to take a hard look at whatever proofreading procedures they have in place.

There are seventeen stories in the anthology, and while I might quibble about some of the choices Datlow is experienced enough and has sufficient critical acumen to not inflict any stories on us that don’t earn their place. For purposes of this review I shall ignore those stories I’ve written about before (the Duffy, Langan, Barron etc) and comment on some of the ones that are new to me.

The opening story, Steve Eller’s ‘The End of Everything’, is a grim account of a man’s life in a world overrun by zombies, and his own feelings of isolation given that he needs to kill others and they are nearly all dead. It’s a keenly felt piece, one in which the subtle shades of emotion dominate. ‘Mrs Midnight’ by Reggie Oliver is a traditionally slanted piece in the Jamesian vein, with a celebrity who gets involved in the campaign to save a dilapidated theatre learning rather more than is good for him about a vaudevillian of yesteryear. The story is beautifully paced, the character’s obsession taking root and signified by numerous tiny touches of detail before the inevitable denouement. The influence of Ringu is obvious in ‘Each Thing I Show You is a Piece of My Death’ by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, with film makers discovering what appears to be a suicide or murder tape and the transferral of a mystery figure to all video, even television programmes. Written in a variety of forms, including interviews, memorandum, correspondence etc, this is an intriguing story with a wealth of detail and invention, and at its heart the fear of what our modern communication media may be doing to us, both their ability to shock and also to insulate and deaden our emotions. Technically the most ambitious of the stories, with the exception of John Langan’s marvellous ‘Technicolor’ (which I considered when reviewing the anthology Poe) I’d rate this the absolute best of what’s on offer here.

‘The Nimble Men’ by Glen Hirshberg concerns a strange incident at an isolated airport, with the crew of a plane perplexed by incidents on the field. The beauty and strength of the story lies in the fact that nothing is stated: we simply get an existential sense of dread and the growing feeling of unease, even though nothing actually happens to threaten the characters, at least not until they step out of the plane. But even then group hallucination brought on by dread anticipation is an option. ‘Wendigo’ by Micaela Morrissette is an obliquely written piece, the story’s heroine getting drawn into the world of a secret group of cannibals, or worse, and consuming her own flesh. There are elements of the story that feel fairy tale like crossed with a heady sense of decadence, as if Angela Carter had written the script to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and underlying it all awareness that the narrator, in love and in flight from her everyday life, may not be as reliable as we could wish.

‘The Porches of My Ears’ by Norman Prentiss is a keenly felt tale of loss, with the man whose wife is dead from cancer looking back to happier times and trying to pin down the moment when it all went wrong, and finding that moment in a chance encounter at the cinema. The strength of the story lies in the way in which ordinary events are reified, so that what may be no more than simple rudeness is given a horrific, premonitory quality. ‘Lonegan’s Luck’ by Stephen Graham Jones concerns a snake oil salesman who moves from town to town poisoning the inhabitants, only this time he gets the tables turned on him. Heavy on dialogue, it’s a fast paced story with plenty of twists and turns and a gratifying final twist of the tale as the man’s mule comes into its own, with my only complaint that there wasn’t enough explanation for the title character’s actions.

A maritime tale with a touch of Hodgson about it, Carole Johnstone’s ‘Dead Loss’ has a Scottish trawler and its crew running foul of sea creatures. So much here seems to be rooted in the psyche of the fishermen, with conflicts between them, that the idea of monsters from the id presents itself, and though at the end Johnstone eschews that possibility in favour of something more concrete at a stretch it’s possible to read this story as both creature feature and psychological horror. Like ‘Wendigo’, ‘The Lammas Worm’ by Nina Allan put me in mind of the work of Angela Carter, and also of the film Freak as the members of a travelling circus encounter and take in a strange young woman who acts as crowbar to lever apart the close knit group, turning them against each other. There’s a subtle undercurrent of menace here, the sense of far more going on off the page than we read on it, with some excellent imagery to accompany the story and evocative descriptive writing.

These stories and the eight I haven’t commented on provide a snapshot of the horror genre and its current state of health, which on the evidence presented seems to very robust indeed. But of course for such a statement we need context and for that we turn to DARKNESS: TWO DECADES OF MODERN HORROR (Tachyon paperback, 470pp, $15.95) edited by Ellen Datlow, a volume that has a similar agenda but different timescale to the Jones Best of the Best reviewed above. Darkness opens with a foreword by Stefan Dziemianowicz charting changes in horror fiction during the period 1984 to 2005, and that’s followed by twenty five of the best stories published during that period (none of which overlap with the Jones volume, so there’s a case for acquiring both), providing an overview of the genre, its major players and the themes that have preoccupied them.

‘Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament’ is a fine example of how marvellous Clive Barker was in his prime, an account of a woman with the power to transform living flesh and how she uses that talent, both for sex and murder. The writing is powerful and provocative, with Barker eschewing moral judgements and easy targets in favour of delving deep into personal obsessions, as his various characters seek out their sordid destinies. One of the longer pieces, ‘The Pear-Shaped Man’ by George R. R. Martin is the superbly disturbing story of a young woman moving into a new flat and the man in the basement who she finds so intimidating that his presence invades her reality. This is a story of the type where only the victim knows the truth of what is happening with everyone else dismissing their fears as irrational, and Martin handles this familiar device with skill and aplomb, weaving small notes of unease into his narrative and making ordinary events seem sinister simply through their juxtaposition.

Another highlight, ‘The Juniper Tree’ by Peter Straub is a tale of childhood abuse remembered in adulthood, the train of events sucking the reader in and the moment of ‘seduction’ truly squirm inducing. And yet there is also the sense that the victim is somehow complicit in what is happening to him, that he acts in such a way as to bring it about. Straub solicits the reader’s sympathy but at the same time he raises questions about the nature of the abuse taking place and how it fits into the larger picture of the protagonist’s life. Pat Cadigan’s ‘The Power and the Passion’ combines two tropes of the horror genre, with a ruthless serial killer who gets to indulge himself by murdering vampires at the government’s behest. It’s an intriguing idea, here given a novel twist, and reading the story the squirrelly nastiness of the character comes over well, the sense that this is really an animal we are reading about, a predator who allows others to live only because he has no choice about it. There’s a similar feel to ‘The Phone Woman’ by Joe R. Lansdale, in which a writer is drawn to the plight of a neighbourhood character who keeps attempting suicide, finally helping her to completion and realising that there is something terrible in his own nature. The story grabs the attention right from the start, the reader identifying with the protagonist, who is pissed off at first by this disturbance to his routine, but then finds that something about it attracts him, so that in the end we are asked questions about our own culpability, if we too have this dark side in our natures.

Any overview of horror fiction since the eighties has to take on board the colossus that is Stephen King, but I’m not convinced that ‘Chattery Teeth’ serves the maestro well. The idea is a simple one – a driver is saved from a psycho hitchhiker by the chattery teeth he purchased at an isolated store but the story is too long for its own good. All of King’s traits are in evidence, with an eminently readable narrative couched in that ‘just us folks’ tone he does so well, memorable characters and plenty of incident, but also the leaning to literary elephantiasis, the feeling that we’re getting the economy size version of a story that really would have worked much better at less length. ‘A Little Night Music’ by Lucius Shepard has a music critic detailing his reaction to a zombie band, but this is only distraction activity from his broken marriage and the wife who wants a separation. Beautifully written the story succeeds in cataloguing emotional detachment, the failure to connect, that of both the zombies and the protagonist. ‘Calcutta, Lord of Nerves’ is one of Poppy Z. Brite’s very best stories, a grim tale of zombies running rampant in the Indian city, where the poor and the sick are so populous the zombies are really nothing much to worry about, and presiding over it all is the scarlet goddess Kali. The vivid descriptions here, the ripe sense of place, are almost overpowering at times, while the subtext about the thin line between living and dead seems even more apposite nowadays.

Elizabeth Hand’s ‘The Erl-King’ is a deal with the devil tale, deftly weaving together strands of fairy tales, Warhol’s Factory years, rock music and the lust for fame, all in a tale where two young girls are beguiled by the fallen rock star who lives next door. There’s a lush feel to this, an entirely natural story that has so much that is beautiful and strange within its narrative, a miscellany of objects that delight as much as the story itself. Dennis Etchison’s ‘The Dog Park’ looks at the brutalising effects of the Hollywood system, with dogs becoming fashion accessories in the climb to the top of the pile, and a man who has lost his dog thrown into a suicidal funk. Obliquely written, the story suggests so much more than is conveyed, with subtle shifts of emphasis and nuances that hint at a subtext of emotional vacuity, of gladiatorial contests for the amusement of the hierarchy even. ‘Heat’ by Steve Rasnic Tem didn’t work for me. A rather wordy account of a woman fascinated by fire and ultimately immolating herself it never came alive until the closing scene.

Ramsey Campbell’s ‘No Strings’ has a man bewitched by a street musician who lures him into a building where tramps hide and in which he will become a sacrifice, but as with the Tem the story seemed rather slight, an assemblage of effects rather than anything more substantial. In other company it might have stood out, but not here. ‘Stitch’ by Terry Dowling sees a young woman confront her childhood fear of a sampler in her grandparents’ bathroom, which is tied up with an incident of abuse, only at the end she has her own agenda, rooted in horror. The story builds well and even though it seems predictable with hindsight the ending is shocking in its abruptness. Finally we have ‘My Father’s Mask’ by Joe Hill, in which a trip away to an isolated holiday home becomes fraught with menace, and the sense of secrets revealing themselves as events from different times overlap. There’s dazzling imagery, a keen sense of youthful angst, and the story has a strong end, with echoes of Oedipus in the resolution. It’s a good note on which to end this volume, and now all we need to ask is…

And then what happened?

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