Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror
Ellen Datlow, Editor

Tachyon Publications
Trade Paperback, 424 pages, $15.95
Review by Sheila Merritt

The heavyweights of dark fiction are represented in Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. King, Barker, Straub, Gaiman, Oates, Campbell and other prestigious authors’ works comprise this compilation of previously published tales. It gathers some of the finest horror fiction written between 1984 and 2005. The twenty-five stories assembled in the volume deliver what is expected from this illustrious list of writers: Potent terror; executed with precision.

In “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” Clive Barker takes a look at female empowerment in hyperdrive. Here is a deftly disturbing example: “The tear began at the bridge of his nose and ran up, across his brow, and down, bisecting his lips and his chin, then his neck and chest. In a matter of seconds his shirt was dyed red, his dark suit darkening further, his cuffs and trouser-legs pouring blood. The skin flew off his hands like gloves off a surgeon, and two rings of scarlet tissue lolled down to either side of his flayed face like the ears of an elephant.”

Less visceral and violent verbiage is available in Elizabeth Hand’s “The Erl King:” “His mouth was slightly ajar. That face hung as though in a fog of black, and drawn up against his breast were his hands, knotted together like an old man’s – huge hands like a clutch of parsnips, waxy and swollen.” “The Erl King” is a splendid blend of the diabolical deal conceit melded with a grim fairy tale sensibility.

Childhood abuse is addressed by several authors: Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, and Terry Dowling employ the repressed memories of their protagonists to propel their respective narratives. The ensuing trauma is handled in unique ways by each writer; all are powerful and perturbing.

A different kind of traumatic event drives Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Heat.” A woman, suffering the loss of her husband and son in a plane crash, desperately tries to cope. One of the techniques she uses is focusing on numbers and statistics: “Sometimes knowing the facts and figures make what we fear seem more comprehensible. They present the possibility that this might, after all, be dealt with.” Psychologically wise, yet packed with emotion, Tem’s tale is stunning.

Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror is an excellent anthology. It brings together a superlative roster of writers, and demonstrates the wonder of their words.

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