It’s a rare treat these days to get a brand-new horror anthology with top-notch authors and all never-before-published stories, but that’s exactly what master anthologist Stephen Jones delivers. After a short introduction in which Jones laments the rise of paranormal romance and similar fiction, the collection offers fifteen all-new stories. I’ll provide brief descriptions and impressions of each tale.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
Stephen King, “The Little Green God of Agony”: A nice little Stephen King short story that showcases King’s abundant talents, but is ultimately a little forgettable, and therefore just a middling kind of story for the likes of King. He clearly writes from the heart on this one: it’s the story of rich man who can buy anything but relief from the chronic pain he suffers. He’s tried everything to end his pain, except do the years of intensive physical therapy his doctors recommend. He finally calls in a different kind of pain relief specialist. An interesting look at the nature of pain from someone who’s certainly experienced a lot of it. Recommended.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, “Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint”: I hesitate to say much about this one, lest I ruin the fun. Suffice it to say, this is a story about a hitchhiker who is more than she appears to be, and a driver who picks up a hitchhiker who is also more than he appears. And fire. Fire is the essential element here. Kiernan’s writing is very evocative, using deep mythological and historical themes to paint a dark picture without directly depicting any actual blood, death, terror, etc. That takes real talent. Very well done.
Peter Crowther, “Ghosts with Teeth”: I’m just going to say it – I didn’t like this one. It’s a ghost story (I guess, though maybe it’s a story of spirit/demonic possession?), but it’s one of those horror stories that plays it so coyly with the reader that you can never tell what’s actually going on. There are some interesting elements, but in general, I’m not entirely sure I know what happened in the story, so I can’t recommend it.
Angela Slatter, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter”: A very nice piece about a female coffin-maker in a world where coffin-making is both artistic and necessary to ensure that the dead stay dead. The protagonist is tormented by the ghost of her dead father – or is she? – and both she and her client have ulterior motives, which provides some interesting conflict to drive the story. I’d actually have liked to see Slatter do a little more with differentiating her setting from our own world’s historical past, but this is a short piece, so I understand why that additional fleshing-out of the setting may not have been possible. It’s well done though.
Brian Hodge, “Roots and All”: Take a modern-day rural community that’s been overrun by meth producers and sellers and add in some creepy, old-fashioned folktales and local legends. Ends on a dark note, with no easy answers. This was a nice long story, and one of my favorites in the collection.
Dennis Etchison, “Tell Me I’ll See You Again”: Very short piece about a group of children who fake elaborate deaths. Unfortunately pretty forgettable.
John Ajvide Lindqvist, “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer”: The first piece I’ve read from the Swedish creator of Let the Right One In, but I’m looking forward to reading more from him. Dark and moody story – and I think a uniquely Scandinavian one – about a widower and his son who move into a new home while dealing with their grief. It’s a story about their broken, distant relationship as much as it is about a murderous ghost. Very good stuff.
Ramsey Campbell, “Getting It Wrong”: Eric Edgeworth is not a very nice man. Sure, he may know a lot about films (though clearly not as much as he thinks he does), but he’s not the guy you want to call for help if you’re a participant on a quiz show. Campbell is nearly always reliable, and this story is no exception: nicely dark, though subtlely so, with a definite sardonic humor about it. Lots of fun.
Robert Shearman, “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet”: A bizarre little tale about some creepy new neighbors who move in next door and start causing problems, despite the fact that they’re never seen. Vaguely amusing, and I got what Shearman was going for here, but not one of my favorites in this very strong collection.
Lisa Tuttle, “The Man in the Ditch”: A young couple with a troubled past move into an isolated home in a rural area. It’s a simple enough ghost story, but surprisingly effective. Extremely spooky with a great ending.
Reggie Oliver, “A Child’s Problem”: Take a moment and Google the 1857 painting entitled “The Child’s Problem” by Patrice Richard Dadd. Pretty creepy image, right? That’s a pivotal scene in this novella. In many ways, this story is constructed as a kind of backstory for that painting. The story of a young aristocratic British boy sent to live with his emotionally distant, unpleasant uncle on an old estate where mysterious happenings abound. Oliver shows himself to be an outstanding writer, and is certainly a worthy successor of authors like M. R. James and others who wrote nineteenth-century antiquarian ghost stories. Extremely well done and enjoyable, even if you think you don’t like nineteenth-century ghost stories.
Michael Marshall Smith, “Sad, Dark Thing”: A man without much reason to go on living happens upon a “sad, dark thing” (that I won’t, and can’t, reveal). Sorry for the enigmatic description, but it’s better I not reveal too much. A bit more characterization could have made this even stronger, but I thought Smith did a superb job with this under-stated premise.
Elizabeth Hand, “Near Zennor”: Probably the longest tale in the collection, and certainly one of the strongest. An architect, grieving over the death of his wife, returns to the rural area where his wife grew up to find out more about her childhood after discovering some odd letters she wrote to a children’s book author as a young girl. Extremely evocative and hinting at a great deal – certainly one of those occasions in which the story is immeasurably strengthened by the fact that the reader (and protagonist) don’t actually know exactly what is going on. A real sense of dread and foreboding throughout. This story was sufficiently strong that it made me seek out other work by Elizabeth Hand.
Richard Christian Matheson, “Last Words”: Nice, short, haunting little closing story about a serial killer and the people he has killed. I don’t want to say more so as to not spoil it for you. A great piece, and a great way to close the anthology.
All in all, despite a couple misses – almost inevitable in an ambitious collection like this one – this is book that’s a must-read for fans of horror, especially those interested in horror fiction that’s neither paranormal romance nor torture porn. I also like that the collection includes brief afterwords by the authors reflecting on their stories; those are all-too-uncommon these days, and I appreciate it when an editor takes the time to solicit commentary from authors. The stories by King, Kiernan, Hodge, Oliver, Hand, and Matheson make this one a must-read. Several additional stories come close to hitting this very high bar. You simply must pick up a copy of A Book Of Horrors.