OR: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #14

A review that probably appeared in The Third Alternative #37 (my records aren’t entirely clear):-


Robinson pb, 590pp, £7.99

Twenty stories make the cut in this latest annual volume from the prolific Jones, a pleasing mixture of old names and new faces.

‘October in the Chair’ by Neil Gaiman is a moody and effective fable, with delightful touches of humour, in which the twelve months (each one of them a singularly cranky individual) sit around and regale each other with ghost stories. In contrast the superbly creepy ‘Details’ by China Mieville is an oblique story of a young girl’s relationship with an old woman, excellent in its use of suggestion and leaving the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks. Don Tumason’s ‘The Wretched Thicket of Thorns’ is more standard Horror fare, with a married couple travelling out to a remote Greek island and falling foul of the local monster, again relying heavily on suggestion and creating a compelling mood of dread. ‘The Absolute Last of the Ultra-Spooky, Super-Scary Hallowe’en Horror Nights’ by David J. Schow is a tongue in cheek piece set in a rather special theme park where the locals grow restless and teach some interlopers a hard lesson, a story that is great fun to read but not believable for a single minute. ‘Standard Gauge’ is typical Nicholas Royle if there is such a thing, with the narrator encountering a madman and unwittingly assisting him in making his plans real, an intriguing study of aberrant psychology. ‘Little Dead Girl Singing’ by Stephen Gallagher is an elegiac piece taking a hard look at the competitiveness of adults and childhood lost, while Brian Hodge’s ‘Nesting Instincts’ has an X-Files feel to it as a boy sees his mother fall under the spell of a man who transforms her life, and not for the better, the mundane slowly and convincingly giving way to the outré and macabre. Glen Hirshberg’s ‘The Two Sams’ is a curious mixture of grimness and hope, as a man is haunted by the ghosts of his stillborn children, one of the finest and most moving stories in the collection. ‘Hides’ by Jay Russell puts Robert Louis Stevenson down in the middle of the Old West and brings him into contact with a cannibal, a spellbinding slice of historical recreation that holds the attention from first word to last. Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Unbeheld’ is the story of a man’s life unravelling, as unsettling and dramatic as watching a road traffic accident unfold in slow motion, touching on such contemporary themes as our fear of paedophiles, while Basil Copper’s ‘Ill Met by Daylight’ is as near as it gets to a Jamesian ghost story, with an incident of Cathedral history uncovered to the detriment of all, a cleverly crafted story from a master of the form.

Kelly Link’s ‘Catskin’ is arguably the best thing here, a beautifully written and fabulist account of what happens when a witch dies and her son must take revenge, remarkable for Link’s endless invention and prose contortions, the metafictional asides that permeate the text like strands of gold in solid bedrock. At the opposite end of the spectrum and just as fine is ‘20th Century Ghost’ by Joe Hill, the moving story of a young woman who haunts an old cinema, appearing only to special customers, chilling in its build- up and marred only slightly by an overly sentimental ending. Kim Newman’s ‘Egyptian Avenue’ is a wonderfully wry and cheeky story of mad publishing magnates and ghostly servants while in the gripping ‘The Boy Behind the Gate’ James van Pelt gives us the moving account of two fathers separated by decades in time but with similar problems, both forced to confront the unthinkable and make terrible choices, a dilemma with which many will identify. In ‘Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan a haunted house serves as the focus for the anxieties of two women in a gay relationship back in the 1950s, the dynamics of their relationship explored with understated prose and a feel for the subtler shades of emotion, that which is never put into words. Graham Joyce’s vivid and moving tale ‘The Coventry Boy’ has a young girl with psychic powers helping others during the bombing of Coventry in WWII, including a ghost move on, and contains a powerful evocation of the perils of wartime and the fortitude of the human spirit. ‘The Prospect Cards’, the second story by Don Tumason, is a wonderfully oblique piece, with a set of postcards used to tell the story, the pictures and snippets of narrative they contain suggesting something almost too terrible for words. ‘The Cage’ is set in Jeff Vandermeer’s fantastical realm of Ambergris, with a collector of antiques and curios acquiring a bird cage that contains a creature he cannot perceive, so that as fantastical details are piled one atop another a cumulative sense of dread drives the narrative on. Finally Paul McAuley’s ‘Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple’ has loads of fun with the story of a ghost catcher in the employ of Isambard Kingdom Brunel tackling an evil magician.

Best Horror is what it says on the cover and best Horror is what we get. Though some readers will disagree about individual selections, there are no bad stories here, simply some which are better than others, and taken as a whole they provide indisputable proof of the Horror genre’s wide range and continued good state of health. Book ending the fiction are Jones’ usual state of the genre address, as comprehensive as ever, and a Necrology (compiled with Kim Newman) naming those who passed away during the course of the year, and the litany of familiar names and deaths from cancer, car accidents, drug overdoses, complications after an operation etc, add a chilling counterpoint to the fiction, a reminder that whatever we can imagine nature has thought of something yet more terrible, and that if Horror fiction has any redemptive value it lies in its ability to help us make sense of such things.

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