How can a humble reviewer comment upon a reprint anthology edited by
a famous writer assembling what's supposed to be the most representative
horror fiction of the last twenty years or so? To make things harder,
many of the included stories have been awarded or critically acclaimed,
so in the end it's not for me to discuss the merits of the single tales,
but rather the editor's selection in relation to the scope of the book.
The subtitle of which is 'The New Horror', the table of contents featuring
twenty-four stories written by twenty-four writers, of whom only some
are established horror authors. Which means that, with a few exceptions
(the inevitable Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell, to take into consideration
both sides of the ocean) Straub wanted to avoid the obvious.
However, just to give a couple of examples, Dan Chaon ('The Bees') is
hardly a horror writer and Elizabeth Hand ('Cleopatra Brimstone') is
a wonderful fantasist whose work seldom fits into the horror genre.
Thus, here we have two excellent stories (a man haunted by the memories
of his former family, an amateur entomologist turned into a peculiar
serial killer) which represent the occasional journey into horror by
two writers usually dealing with a different type of fiction. Very well.
After all, even authors like Henry James or Charles Dickens, who by
no means can be described as horror or ghost fiction writers would certainly
be included in any anthology of "classic" horror stories.
But if we take into consideration the true horror authors featured in
the anthology, the editor's choices become rather unfathomable.
The reason why among Stephen King's and Ramsey Campbell's prodigious
output of short stories Straub has chosen 'The ballad of the flexible
bullet' and 'The voice on the beach' are beyond my understanding. Nice
stories, to be sure, but hardly representative of the authors' best
work or, more in general, of the new trends in horror fiction.
The same applies to the choice of Straub's own delightful 'Little Red’s
Tango' and to Thomas Ligotti's 'Notes on the writing of horror: A story',
a quite enjoyable piece of (non)-fiction, but not a significant example
of the author's complex and innovative writing style.
Choices... Sometimes, I admit, it's just a matter of taste. Kelly Link's
'Louise ghost' is an entertaining, slightly humorous piece which I feel
doesn’t do justice to this accomplished author and while I wholeheartedly
agree on the inclusion of Glen Hirshberg, I would have chosen the superb
'American morons' instead of the more celebrated, and too often reprinted
'The two Sams'.
On the other hand it's a pleasure to have a chance to read once again
little horror masterpieces like Joe Hill's marvellously creepy '20th
century ghost', 'The kiss' by Tia V Travis ,a beautiful, dark story
of passion, murder and revenge and Jonathan Carroll's 'The sadness of
detail', a cute fairy tale for adults about the possibility of changing
the course of destiny.
Similarly 'The man on the ceiling' by Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem,
a splendid demonstration of how horror can lurk in the very heart of
your home and the allusive, paranoid 'The great God Pan' by M John Harrison
are going to upset and disturb the reader once again.
All those tales truly represent the new horror and so do Thomas Tessier's
'In praise of folly', one of the most terrifying pieces in the book,
where the fate of a man exploring a deserted folly is depicted in a
very elegant horrific style and Neil Gaiman's 'October in the chair',
a quietly upsetting tale imbued with lyricism.
The book has also presented me with a couple of gems I confess I was
not familiar with : the excellent 'Unearthed' by Benjamin Percy, where
father and son sharing the pain for the loss of their wife and mother
get in trouble after stealing an Indian corpse, and the beautiful 'Black
Dust' by Graham Joyce, a moving, solid piece of supernatural fiction
set in the tough world of coal miners.
In short, if you know nothing about horror, I doubt that this anthology,
entertaining as it maybe, will make you realize in depth what the genre
can offer today. If you are a confirmed horror fan, I expect you'll
share my reservations about some of the editor's choices. If you don't
care at all about genre labels and you simply want to read some short
fiction of good quality go ahead and enjoy.