Filler content that is not Dan Brown

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #10:-

INFERNO edited by Ellen Datlow

Reviewing Inferno (Tor paperback, 384pp, $15.95) feels very much like a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Originally issued in hardback in 2007, and billed as ‘New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural’, the anthology has snapped up the International Horror Guild Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, which should tell you more about the quality of work it contains than anything I can say, but I’ll venture a few words anyway.

Opening tale “Riding Bitch” is doubly welcome in that, while I’ve read several of his novels, this is the first time I’ve sampled K. W. Jeter’s work in the short form, and it’s an impressive, not to say off the wall, appetiser. The biker protagonist is given the task of transporting his dead ex-girlfriend to the undertakers by tying her to his own body. The black comedy element is obvious enough, given such a premise, but Jeter elevates it above this to deliver an almost visionary tale of love lost and renewal.

Stephen Gallagher’s “Misadventure” lacks the originality of the Jeter and has a by the numbers feel. It concerns a haunting at a swimming pool, with a ‘sensitive’ workman setting things to rights. Gallagher’s telling is as assured as we’d expect from him, and with its quiet effects and well drawn characters it does the job of holding the reader’s interest, but all the same there’s a distinct sense that this is something we have all seen before, and the author has nothing new to offer.

“The Monsters of Heaven” by Nathan Ballingrud deals with the case of a couple whose child has gone missing and the strain that places on their relationship, as each looks for someone to blame, but then they find a child substitute of sorts when they take in one of the damaged angels that has fallen to earth and attempt to nurse it back to health. The emotions here are keenly felt, with the hurt and grief of the characters in the foreground, and there’s a fine sense of ambiguity at the back of it all, with no attempt to explain or make credible the existence of the angel, except the vaguest suggestion that it is their guardian angel, meeting this couple’s need for someone or something to care for and fill the void in their lives. There are also angels in Elizabeth Bear’s “Inelastic Collisions”, but they dwell on earth by feeding on humans and so have a vampiric dimension to them. It takes another of the fallen to show them that there is a better way in a story that reminded me strongly of an episode of old TV series The Hunger. Bear makes the idea her own though by placing the emphasis squarely on the friction between an angelic being and the coarseness of our own reality, with barbed prose that makes not her angels, but their whole situation, seem monstrous.

“The Uninvited” by Christopher Fowler casts a wry eye over Hollywood fun and games, with the story of a satanic clique who attend studio parties specifically to bring about the death of their designated victim for the night. Reminiscent of Bradbury’s The Crowd crossed with The Player, the story is well told, with a finely developed mood of menace and sense of place, the superficiality of the Hollywood scene captured perfectly, even if ultimately the ending is predictable. Mike O’Driscoll’s “13 O’Clock” sees a father’s anguish for his nightmare haunted son taking a turn for the worse in a story that is filled with genuine emotion and develops at a convincing pace, with its picture of love turned sour, of loving too much, and the terror that can bring. There’s another father and son relationship at the centre of “Lives” by John Grant, a fascinating piece about a young man who cannot be killed, though all around him are going down like flies. The idea here holds the attention all the way, the possibilities inherent in being the one who always survives, and the anguish that causes for both the character and those in his life.

Lee Thomas’ “An Apiary of White Bees” is one of the most substantial stories in the collection, with a discovery at an opulent hotel leading to an invasion from the past. The details are built up with compelling authority and the character of the marriage challenged and repressed gay hotelier is totally convincing, while the touches of horror are all the more effective for being so muted, with rich language and imagery throughout, and an ending redolent of ambiguity. In “The Keeper” by P. D. Cacek a young girl who has survived the Holocaust inflicts her memories on the family who have taken her in, with tragic results, a story that is moving and authentically told. “Bethany’s Wood” by Paul Finch sees Mark go looking for his mother, thought dead many years ago but actually revealed to be living in isolation with her goddess worshipping girlfriend. The story has some intriguing elements to it, the suggestion of something outré occurring, but these are all in the nature of red herrings and with hindsight there really doesn’t seem to be much point to it, just an overlong and unwieldy set up for a nasty end twist, while the viewpoint character’s borderline misogyny does not make him a sympathetic voice (this is almost certainly intended, but a miscalculation on the author’s part).

Lucius Shepard’s “The Ease with Which We Feed the Beast” is a compelling character study that provides an unsettling snapshot of a psycho who murders his friends but manages to translate these events into mythic terms, abdicating responsibility for his own actions along the way. “Perhaps the Last” by Conrad Williams has a museum guard falling prey to the imaginary girlfriend he invents for himself, a tale where elegant language is put to good effect in embodying the protagonist’s loneliness. Pat Cadigan’s “Stilled Life” features a woman whose ambition in life is to succeed as a living statue, but she can only attain this goal at a huge cost, a fate from which her friend tries to save her, the story building assuredly and offering insights into a strange mindset, while at back of it all is the hint of some much more substantial terror.

Glen Hirshberg’s “The Janus Tree” is the longest story and also the finest, a tale of possession, though that is only apparent at the very end, presented as a minutely detailed account of childhood bullying and love gone wrong, the sadness of the protagonist echoing off of the page, with a claustrophobic backdrop of small town desuetude. “The Bedroom Light” by Jeffrey Ford is odd and delightfully quirky, just a man and woman in bed and talking about things, their weird neighbours and the possibility that the house is haunted, all of it beautifully crafted and with humour bubbling away in the background, so it doesn’t matter that there is no real narrative drive or any obvious point to it all, one simply enjoys being regaled by an amiable raconteur. Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlene” closes out the collection, an entertaining ghost story, with iron suits, tormented souls, a mad old lady and a fallen meteor, all elements that should be clichéd but which Dowling makes seem as fresh as yesterday’s morning dew. It has a traditional feel to it, but at the same time demonstrates there is still plenty of mileage in the old tropes of the genre, that we can look forward to many more ‘new tales of terror and the supernatural’

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