Edited by Ellen Datlow
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
It is always fun to receive one of Ellen Datlow’s anthologies to review. From past experience, I know that I can anticipate a range of tales within the given theme and that I will enjoy many if not most of them. Not all, perhaps. But that is to be expected when dealing with four-hundred-page assemblages of stories.
Hauntings did not disappoint. The collection of twenty-four tales takes as its starting point, as the title clearly and directly indicates, that moment…those moments, when the uncanny inserts itself into what we like to think of as reality and reminds us that there are more things out there than we perhaps can dream of. All of the stories are well-written, carefully considered excursions into the uncanny; the table of contents reads almost like the beginning of a Who’s Who in Horror: Nail Gaimon, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Jonathan Carroll, F. Paul Wilson, James P. Blaylock, Elizabeth Hand, Lucius Shepherd, and more. The narratives range from a few pages, powerful in their conciseness and focus, to longer, near-novella lengths that allow the luxury of slower, more meticulous development.
The mode of storytelling shifts with each tale. Some—admittedly the minority—are up-front, in-your-face ghost stories, although occasionally it is difficult to tell precisely who is the ghost; several of these are framed stories, including an excellent entry into the sub-category of the Gentlemen’s Club Tales…ghost stories recounted by relative strangers in the latest hours of the evening. Another is told by a rather coarse, uneducated woman as she peddles her line of skin-care products; at one point, she becomes so entranced in her story that she inadvertently burns a customer…but not even that can distract her from regaling her audience with details about Him and His mysterious Cadillac. Others approach the topic with greater indirection, occasionally leaving the reader to wonder—again—who is the apparition and who is the reality. Several address the subjectivity of the paranormal from a (seemingly) objective viewpoint: one is composed, in fact, of static descriptions of photographs ostensibly capturing ectoplasmic intruders, while the accompanying comments and footnotes gradually reveal a story of blood and murder.
Few of the stories are so direct as to telegraph their endings, always a danger in writing about the uncanny and the supernatural. In fact, several clearly establish obvious directions…then silently, quietly subvert those expectations to present an entirely different conclusion. And even those that do seem to follow a straight-forward path—including one about a deserted restaurant that may be haunted…or that may indeed be the monster—do so carefully enough that they increase suspense rather than dissipating it.
I think that what pleased me most in reading Hauntings was the fact that the majority of the stories retained the sense of the uncanny almost until the end. For most of the time, I was presented with alternatives and possibilities: is there something there, or is there not? That delicious sense of tantalization, of maybe and what if, impelled me through page after page, encountering intriguing characters, spine-shivering settings, and bits and pieces (sometimes literally…of corpses) that challenged presuppositions.
And above all, after finishing it, I had learned one signal lesson:
The Haunter may also be the Haunted.