The first part of a feature on anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow that originally appeared in Black Static #45:-
ELLEN DATLOW ANTHOLOGIES
You wait for an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow to get reviewed in the pages of Black Static, and you wait and you wait, and then suddenly there are three of them getting reviewed in the same issue. It’s like I plan this stuff.
First up we have THE CUTTING ROOM (Tachyon pb, 384pp, $16.95) and, with one exception, the contents of this film based anthology are reprints. After introductions by Genevieve Valentine and the editor expounding on our love of films and why they are such excellent subjects for horror stories, we get right into it with ‘The Cutter’ by Edward Bryant. It’s told from the viewpoint of a man looking back on his childhood when he worked in a movie theatre and the owner claimed to have cut various films so that they were different from how the director intended, this leading into a tragic and fatal attempt to edit life itself. A sad story and rich in nostalgia, it’s a piece that plays games with memory and reality, the interface between the two serving as a touchstone for the narrative, ending on a bittersweet note that makes you wonder if somebody is possessed of a secret power or simply insane.
Steve Nagy’s ‘The Hanged Man of Oz’ begins with the possibly apocryphal story of a man who hanged himself on the set of the Judy Garland movie and who can be viewed in one of the scenes if you look closely, then seguing into madness as the Wicked Witch infests the life of the character, the tale chilling in its subversion of one of the tropes of childhood, if not of western culture itself. There’s a surreal feel to ‘Deadspace’ by Dennis Etchison with a producer on the make at a hotel while waiting for a call from the star he hopes to sign for his picture getting drawn into the orbit of a strange family. Lynchian would probably be the word to best describe this tale, with personal priorities and then reality itself gradually shifting away from some consensus base line, and each step in the process minutely detailed. From F. Paul Wilson we get more traditional horror fare with ‘Cuts’ in which film director Milo finds that he has outraged a writer by taking liberties when adapting his book, and that writer is a practitioner of voodoo, with the nature of how he is being hurt given an intriguing twist. Along the way the story touches on issues of artistic integrity, and the degree to which a director should be allowed to meddle with his source material.
Peter Straub presents us with an examination of the tropes or clichés of a genre in the oblique ‘Lapland, or Film Noir’, the story fascinating and compellingly written, giving the reader much food for thought about the cultural fodder we consume. In ‘The Thousand Cuts’ by Ian Watson a TV producer and his crew deduce that reality itself is being edited by a superior power and decide to make a programme about it with unforeseen consequences. The idea is an intriguing one and Watson’s execution is superb, with vivid characterisation and a metaphysical subtext. From Howard Waldrop we get ‘Occam’s Ducks’, a story which is pretty much all over the map, celebrating the race films that were popular in America in the first half of the twentieth century, taking in premonitions via dreams and various straight razor variations, with a plethora of red herrings and misdirection in the plot, but never less than entertaining.
David Morrell’s ‘Dead Image’ has a writer/director finding his meal ticket in a young actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to a dead star of the past, only to find that despite all his best efforts history has a tendency to repeat itself. In the story the character is called James Deacon, but it’s obvious James Dean is the prototype, the narrative veering off into the idea of method acting taken a tad too far, and ending with a note of bittersweet irony that will resound all the more with those in the know. The short ‘The Constantinople Archives’ by Robert Shearman is an off the wall story that offers us an alternative history in which a director makes films against the backdrop of the Turkish siege of Constantinople, the piece played deadpan and all the more effective for it, reading like something Borges might have produced in his prime. In ‘The Pied Piper of Hammersmith’ by Nicholas Royle a man becomes obsessed with film, allowing it to infect and distort his life in terrible ways, the story holding the interest with the unusual and oblique strategies it uses to move the narrative along, culminating in a final, shocking act of violence.
Warhol’s fifteen minutes, or some derivation thereof, seems to be at the heart of Garry Kilworth’s ‘Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo’ with the fourth wall thoroughly demolished when a film distributor learns of the story behind the filming and then himself becomes part of the story, the narrative packed with sudden twists and visceral jolts that cause the reader to reinterpret the action. In ‘Onlookers’ by Gary A. Braunbeck a childhood encounter with Buster Keaton leaves a man with an awareness of the true nature of reality, one that he wishes that he could un-see and that is something he finds a drastic solution to in a story that is rather reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick in its skewed vision of reality. Lucy A. Snyder’s ‘Recreation’ is a poem that elegantly and cleverly converts a couple’s relationship into Hitchcockian terms. ‘Bright Lights, Big Zombie’ by Douglas E. Winter is set in world in which the zombie apocalypse has taken place and examines how this affects our engagement with horror films. The protagonist of the story is a writer for a horror magazine, remembering the past and how things came to this pass, willing to do anything to feed his personal addiction and eventually placing his humanity in jeopardy. The story is tersely written with a vivid almost cinematic style to the helter skelter of events, one that elevates it above the material.
In ‘She Drives the Men to Crimes of Passion’ by Genevieve Valentine a director finds out that the star he discovered has the ability to transform into a flock of hummingbirds, but turns nasty when she refuses to allow him to exploit this talent. While ostensibly a story about the miraculous, the real thrust of the tale lies in the way in which this just becomes another trick to make money out of, with the man’s willingness to exploit someone who has trusted him with her secret emblematic of the nature of the Hollywood beast, and perhaps even a comment on commercialism and/or gender politics in the wider culture. In Joel Lane’s ‘Even the Pawn’ a man who makes a documentary about a dead prostitute faces the wrath of a punter who feels he has exploited her memory, the story a typical Lane vehicle with gritty action, bleak settings and shop soiled characters towards whom we can nevertheless feel something akin to compassion.
The one original story in the book, ‘Tenderizer’ by Stephen Graham Jones presents an overview of the career of a controversial film maker and then focuses on his latest project, deftly treading the line between audience expectation and artistic motivation, blurring the barrier between fact and fiction. Ultimately it’s a piece that examines not just the motivation of the character, but also our own as consumers and readers, the documentary style adding to this feeling that something more than a story is being offered. ‘Ardor’ is the title of a film, a porn version of Dracula, and the protagonist of Laird Barron’s story is hired to learn the fate of an actress who disappeared after starring in it, but what he learns leads to madness and death. It’s a convoluted and clever story, one in which ancient myth and the occult blend together and play off of each other, adding juice to what would otherwise be a routine detective story with hard boiled undertones. ‘Final Girl II: the Frame’ is a poem by Daphne Gottlieb expounding the role of the final girl and with asides on how to survive a horror movie, cleverly sending up the conventions of the genre.
In addition to those discussed here, the anthology also contains excellent stories by A. C. Wise, Gemma Files & Stephen J. Barringer, Gary McMahon, and Kim Newman, which I have omitted as I already reviewed them when they first appeared in other publications.
(TO BE CONTINUED)