Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best New Horror; Not-so-good Old Horror

Best New Horror 25 (2013/Published 2014): edited by Stephen Jones, containing the following fiction: "Who Dares Wins," Kim Newman; "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," Neil Gaiman; "Dead End," Nicholas Royle; "Isaac's Room," Daniel Mills; "The Burning Circus," Angela Slatter; "Holes for Faces," Ramsey Campbell; "By Night He Could Not See," Joel Lane; . "Come Into My Parlour," Reggie Oliver; "The Middle Park," Michael Chislett; "Into the Water," Simon Kurt Unsworth; "The Burned House," Lynda Rucker; "What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Z------," Lavie Tidhar; "Fishfly Season," Halli Villegas; "Doll Re Mi," Tanith Lee; "A Night's Work," Clive Barker; "The Sixteenth Step," Robert Shearman; "Stemming the Tide," Simon Strantzas; "The Gist," Michael Marshall Smith; "Guinea Pig Girl," Thana Niveau; "Miss Baltimore Crabs," Kim Newman; and Whitstable by Stephen Volk.

Another year, another solid Best New Horror anthology from editor Stephen Jones. The 25th such annual anthology, as it turns out. Besides the stories, the lengthy sections devoted to works that came out in 2013 are excellent, as is the sad-making Necrology of deaths of people connected in some way to the horror genre.

The anthology is book-ended on the fiction side of things by two standalone sections from Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series. They're enjoyable and deeply metafictional and possess horrifying elements, though they're not particularly horrifying. Neil Gaiman's short-short story, "Click-Clack the Rattlebag," apparently wows when read aloud by the author. On the page, it's the slightest of slight jaunts.

My favourite stories herein include "Holes for Faces" by Ramsey Campbell, a mournful look at the inner life of an endlessly put-upon child; "The Gist" by Michael Marshall Smith, a sad look at a wasted life; and "Isaac's Room" by Daniel Mills, an effective tale of an Internet-augmented haunting that gains a lot of effectiveness from its low-key, under-stated nature. 

Joel Lane's "By Night He Could Not See" is a poetic and ultimately twisty tale of revenge from beyond the grave, while "Come Into My Parlour" by Reggie Oliver deals with a child's much-disliked aunt in another of Oliver's excellent riffs on the classic English ghost story epitomized by the stories of M.R. James.

Stephen Volk's short novel Whitstable also stands out. It's far and away the longest tale in the anthology. It's also one of the two or three best, and well worth the length. Volk takes the germ of a concept from Fright Night, among other works, in this story of a boy who comes to Peter Cushing for help because the boy's soon-to-be-stepfather is a vampire. 

The story goes off in a completely different direction that what one might expect from this beginning. It's a deeply researched look at Peter Cushing's life, set in the months after his beloved wife died of emphysema in the early 1970's. It makes Cushing a sympathetic character, but it also extends some level of pity to the monster he chooses to pursue. It's really lovely writing.

All in all, a solid year for Best New Horror. Highly recommended.

The Hell of Mirrors (1965): edited by Peter Haining, containing the following stories: The Werewolf (1839) by Frederick Marryat (excerpt: chapter 39 of The Phantom Ship)); Ligeia (1838) by Edgar Allan Poe; The Black Cat (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe; Young Goodman Brown (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Schalken the Painter (1835) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; The Damned Thing (1893) by Ambrose Bierce; The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1890) by Ambrose Bierce; The Squaw (1893) by Bram Stoker; Who Knows? (1890) by Guy de Maupassant; The Drowned Man (1888) by Guy de Maupassant; The Caterpillar (1929) by Edogawa Rampo; The Hell of Mirrors (1926) by Edogawa Rampo; The Knocking in the Castle (1964) by Henry Slesar; The Fanatic (1964) by Arthur Porges.

Extraordinarily odd anthology is really only noteworthy as being prolific anthologist Peter Haining's first editorial work. And he would put together many volumes superior to this one. But we've all got to start somewhere.

Why is it odd? More than half the book consists of out-of-copyright stories, many of them classics. But The Hell of Mirrors doubles up on entries by several authors. Then we jump from the 1890's to two weird tales in translation from Japanese fantasist Edogawa Rampo. The we jump another 35 years to two solid but undistinguished stories from the same science-fiction magazine, both released the year before this anthology came out. It looks like a job of selection that must have taken about an afternoon, with no apparatus other than a brief introduction to explain to us who the writers are and why these particular stories are important.

If you came across this for a couple of bucks in a used bookstore somewhere and hadn't been exposed to the stories by Poe, Bierce, and Le Fanu, then I suppose it would be worth the purchase. But for the most part, the best stories are much-anthologized and the lesser stories by Slesar and Porges, while mildly enjoyable, can easily be skipped. Not recommended.

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