A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-
POE edited by Ellen Datlow
January 19 this year saw the bi-centennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, arguably the greatest and most influential figure in the Horror genre. To mark the occasion, multiple award winning editor Ellen Datlow invited some of her favourite writers to produce work of their own inspired by that of the master, and the end result was Poe (Solaris paperback, 525pp, £7.99). Each of the 19 tales contained within its pages comes with an introduction to the author and an afterword in which they reveal their Poe template and talk briefly of the how and why behind their tale, and for the Poe aficionado guessing which work they are riffing on is all part of the fun.
Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain” is the perfect introduction to the collection, containing as it does plot summations of several Poe masterworks. Newman doesn’t focus on a particular story or poem, instead delivering a marvellously tongue in cheek tale in which Roger Corman’s success at adapting Poe for the silver screen sees society infected with a creeping Poe virus of sorts, so that every film produced, every song and book, every new fashion, reflects the influence of EAP, regardless of the creators’ intentions. By way of explanation, Newman pitches the idea of Poe’s revenge, his spirit reaching out from beyond the grave to seize a fame he was denied in life, but it’s simply a hook on which to hang a joyous barrage of in-jokes and Poe trivia, to poke fun at the derivative and hack cultural ethos of Hollywood, and even comment on how the artist can come to feel constrained by his creation. It’s Newman doing what he does best, having fun and dazzling us all with his erudition at the same time.
Melanie Tem’s “The Pickers” is a sinister variation on The Raven, and a much quieter piece than the Newman. A grieving woman’s life is invaded by a group of scavengers, the pickers of the title, who may or may not be human. She resists at first, but also establishes a rapport with the leader of the pack, only as the story progresses things grow increasingly sinister, with the woman stripped of everything, even her existence. The story can be read on two levels, with the character of Toni both a victim of rapacious home invaders, but also somebody who has given up on life, whose grief causes her to abandon the things she should hold dear. Tem’s sharply focused writing puts over both the emotional dilemma of the character, and the horror that attends her dissolution, with an ending that will haunt the reader. Less successful is E. Catherine Tobler’s “Beyond Porch and Portal”, which takes as its point of departure the mystery of Poe’s last days, when he turned up drunk and in strange clothes, with no memory of where he had been, dying shortly after. Tobler provides an otherworldly explanation, with Poe tripping to another dimension where time is somewhat different, and also gives us the inspiration for much of his work. The whole thing seems rather forced though, with the characters enigmatic in lieu of being interesting or engaging, and while the alien environ provided an intriguing backdrop the story simply didn’t grip me, seeming more like the deathbed dream of a deluded man than something that could actually have taken place. In a word, it lacked verisimilitude.
Laird Barron is a writer whose work, what little I’ve seen of it, I find very hit and miss, with “Strappado” firmly in the former category. Kenshi and Swayne are part of a group of spoiled and wealthy aesthetes who are lured to a remote destination where they are promised a part in the latest performance work by a renegade artist whose oeuvre borders on cultural terrorism. The plot trajectory shouldn’t surprise anyone, but Barron builds the story credibly, his observation of tiny details reinforcing our sense of dread, and regardless of how much we expect it, the denouement when it comes is devastatingly matter of fact and brutal. And the consequences are not just physical: the events resonate and take an emotional toll on those who survive. In contrast, there’s an elegiac quality to “The Mountain House” by Sharyn McCrumb, a restrained and charming conflation of NASCAR and Poe’s “The Haunted Palace”. The widow of a stock car racing champion retires to the mountains where she is granted a peek into the afterlife, the chance to see that her loved one is happy and doing what he is best at. This should be a silly story, overripe with sentimentality, but it’s not. McCrumb captures perfectly the emotions of the character, making us feel with her and share the uplift of the ending.
Delia Sherman’s “The Red Piano” is the closest this collection comes to a genuine Gothic chiller, and for its inspiration takes Poe’s heroines, Ligeia and Lenore, Berenice and Madeline Usher, with their ability to reach out from beyond the grave and touch the lives of those remaining. A university professor moves into an old house, and is warned never to play the red piano which stands in one of the rooms, but sometimes she hears a piano playing in the house next door. Her neighbour, named Roderick of course, sets out to court her, but he has a dark secret in his past, one related to his dead wife and the red piano. With its elegant prose, understated characterisation and beautifully paced plot, this is the story that seems most akin to Poe’s own work, though informed with a modern sensibility and a somewhat less romanticised view of undead femme fatales.
“Truth and Bone” by Pat Cadigan brings to mind not so much the work of Poe, but Ray Bradbury stories like Uncle Einar and The April Witch. As in those tales we are introduced to a family who have special abilities, mostly useful but sometimes more of a curse than boon. Teen Hannah is just coming into her ‘power’, but it’s one of those curse ones, knowing how and when people are going to die. She tries to prevent a tragedy, only to have things go hideously wrong and create a greater mess than the one she was trying to avoid. The characters are everything as far as this story is concerned, with Hannah afraid of what she has become, how her family will feel about her, and at the same time manipulating others to achieve her goals. Cadigan gives the impression of knowing far more about them than she reveals, and her use of dialogue helps to add depth, while the compassion underlying the story is a big part of what makes it special. A surface reading works just fine, but there are all sorts of subtexts waiting to be stumbled upon, to do with growing up and the angst of being a teenager and special.
“Flitting Away” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the most powerful piece in the collection, and one which I defy any reader to experience without being moved and horrified. There isn’t any supernatural element; what Rusch gives us is far more chilling. The story tells of the dilemma of a woman who is raped and left for dead, the account disturbingly matter of fact and shot through with tiny details that make it all so terribly real and heartrendingly sad in what it reveals to us of man’s inhumanity. The woman dreams of ‘flitting away’ to escape the horror of what has happened to her, but there is no escape, and so she is plunged back into a world of pain and terror, where nobody can be trusted and justice is not to be expected, and at the end of it all reader and character alike are reduced to screaming ‘Why? Why?’ Of course there is no answer, just the possibility of communicating the victim’s agony in the hope that it might make a difference.
In the awkwardly titled “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” Lucius Shepard dispatches a team of academics to a site in the jungle formerly occupied by a cult and now abandoned. There are echoes of Lovecraft in the mysterious buildings with their unusual architecture and statuary suggestive of an alien presence. But Shepard is thoroughly modern, placing the emphasis on the tension between the characters, two of whom have a ‘past’ and are not above hanging their dirty washing out to dry with some firecracker dialogue, the undercurrent of sexual tension obvious. This makes them easy prey for the alien virus they unwittingly set free, a life form that infests humans with the urge to fuck relentlessly and without emotion. Isolated incidents of sexual congress between unlikely partners clue the characters in to what is happening, but cannot prevent the cluster fuck that is to follow, with people reduced to channels for animal lust, and nothing more than that. The story grips with some vivid descriptive writing and solid characterisation, and Shepard nails it down with a bittersweet codicil that, in the best horror genre tradition, hints things are not really over.
The last two stories in the collection are inspired by The Masque of the Red Death, and they are among the best that it has to offer. “Lowland Sea” is set in the near future and tells the story of a media mogul who retires with his entourage to an isolated stronghold, where they pull up the drawbridge and prepare to sit it out while the plague rages outside. Author Suzy McKee Charnas doesn’t do much with Poe’s plot other than change the names to indict the guilty, with the strength of the story in the bleak, dystopian future that it portrays, where slavery has been repackaged and the wealthy don’t even need to keep their jackboots in the closet. Added to that there’s the undeniable satisfaction of seeing it all come undone for the smug idiot cast in the role of Prince Prospero.
John Langan’s “Technicolor” is remarkable for the cleverness of the telling and the, possibly mock, erudition that informs the text. Tone of voice is everything here, as a disagreeably self-satisfied academic lectures his pupils on Poe’s classic The Masque of the Red Death, and Langan gets it pitch perfect. A discussion on the colour scheme in the rooms of Prospero’s dwelling place diverts into the pathways of secret knowledge, and brings the revelation that the narrator has something on his mind other than Literary Criticism 101. It’s a story that holds the reader every bit as spellbound as the pupils in the classroom, though not with the same results, Langan building his case with remarkable skill, confidence and audacity, luring us in before delivering the killer stroke at the finale. It’s a marvellous note on which to end this striking collection, a volume that for breadth and diversity, not to mention the sheer quality on offer, aptly celebrates the birth of one of the horror genre’s greatest practitioners.