It’s true I’ve gotten a little behind on my reviews lately, so I will try to remedy that from here on out. Which brings me to Ramsey Campbell’s The Hungry Moon. I know Campbell primarily as a short story writer, and in that field very few modern horror writers can touch him. In my review for the horror anthology Cutting Edge, I pointed out that my favorite story in the book was Campbell’s The Hands, where a freaky urban church is the source of the horror. Campbell definitely knows how to tap into the darker side of religion. That is amply demonstrated in The Hungry Moon.
The novel is set in a little British village called Moonwell, so named because it contains an ancient cave said to house a demonic being with some connection to the moon. Long ago local Druids managed to trap the creature in the cave and keep it there with magical rites performed on the same day every year, a tradition that has continued on to present day with nary a problem. Enter Godwin Mann, a young evangelical Christian from California, who has come to Moonwell to win their quaint little British pagan hearts over to his distinctly American brand of Christianity, and he does so by vowing to descend into the cave and confront once and for all whatever satanic presence is lurking down there. The problem is, the being in the cave has absolutely nothing to do with any Christian devils, but is rather something that descended to Earth from the stars many millennia ago, a monstrosity more akin to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones than to anything out of religious lore.
The book sets up Mann as a typical charismatic preacher who manages to whip the town into a religious frenzy, complete with book burning and purging of some of the more liberal elements of the town. That alone would be bad enough, but then Mann makes good on his promise and confronts the thing in the cave . . . which promptly possesses his body, escapes from its long-time prison and proceeds to take advantage of the powerful influence its evangelist host has already established over the townsfolk, mesmerizing and manipulating them for its own ends. By the time the handful of people with the good sense to steer clear of Godwin Mann’s cult realize that something is very, very wrong in Moonwell (I mean, besides the fact that an outsider has come in and turned nearly everyone into Bible-thumpers in no time flat), it’s pretty much too late. The village has been cut off from the outside world, and a permanent darkness has settled over it. With all electricity severed, the only source of light in town is now the Godwin Mann-thing, a sort of giant glowy spider with Mann’s face, and all sorts of weird-ass stuff starts coming out of the woodwork to boot.
One thing I hate with a passion is when horror authors simply substitute gross-out stuff for real horror. Luckily this is something Campbell masterfully steers clear of at every turn, going instead for the slow build-up that’s much more rewarding in the end. And as usual, Ramsey Campbell writes beautifully intricate and thoughtful sentences, which I happen to prefer over Stephen King’s short and choppy point-blank style (your mileage may vary). Campbell’s writing feels baroque and pregnant with dark possibility whereas King tends to just hit you over the head with everything, using his words like a blunt object, which, depending on the story, either works spectacularly or has a flattening effect on the writing, depriving it of much-needed nuance and emotional resonance.
The story also works as an allegory of the destructive power of religious fanaticism, with particular emphasis on the way true believers can be easily manipulated by anyone who wears the mask of a holy man and tells them what they want to hear. Campbell even manages to sprinkle the book with some well-timed humor, a difficult feat in a horror novel, especially one that deals with such a contentious topic. One scene where a couple of stand-up comic’s on-stage personas manifest as actual people in the backseat of a car was especially fun, managing to be both hilarious and creepy as all get-out at the same time. Another tricky issue here is how the author pits a stalwart English spiritual tradition against flashy Hollywood-style American evangelism, making it essentially a tale of conflicting national cultures that could easily have been offensive in the wrong hands. Personally, I’ve seen enough Pat Robertsons, Creflo Dollars and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakkers to know that Godwin Mann is actually pretty restrained as these guys go, and I’ve never been a fan of their type anyway. But it’s clear that Campbell has more in mind here than cheap shots at America. Hell, he even makes his main heroine a transplanted New Yorker just so you can be absolutely sure that this isn’t intended to be anti-Yank.
To be sure, the book is not without its flaws, the main one being that there are a lot of characters in it, and Campbell doesn’t do quite enough to keep them distinct from one another. This is particularly problematic in the early chapters, where I found myself more than once trying to sort out who was who. It does get easier as the book progresses and the various connections between the characters are slowly clarified, but they still could’ve done with more backstory, or just some general fleshing out of their personalities. The other big problem is the resolution, which is just a little too deus ex machina for my taste, not to mention that the way the monster is defeated is laughably absurd and far too wussified for such an awesome antagonist. There are also some subplots that go nowhere, including one in which the creature is planning to gain possession of nuclear weapons stored in a bunker just outside of Moonwell. Too bad this ultimately became little more than a disappointing afterthought. The idea of a Lovecraftian monster taking control of nuclear weapons is a good one.
But even with these problems, The Hungry Moon is measured, cunning and scary enough to entertain most fans of the genre, I think, particularly those who gravitate toward the Lovecraft school of horror literature. It’s not the most original of ideas perhaps, but there’s enough style and Campbellian strangeness here to make for a worthwhile read for hardcore horror buffs and especially Campbell fans.
Truth be told, I’ve actually read several books in between my last review and this one, but somehow a review just never gelled for those other books. First, there was Charles Grant’s Symphony, the first in a tetralogy in which one book each is dedicated to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While I have a weird little anecdote about this novel’s cover design in relation to a dream I had in high school (several years before the book was published), I’ll spare you that and just say that the first volume in the series was a massive letdown, and I likely won’t be reading the rest of them. I have a general rule against reviewing anything that I would rate less than a C- because I hate being mean to writers, knowing as I do exactly how hard it is to write a novel—any novel—much less a good one. And let’s say this book just missed the mark of being review-worthy.
Then there was Barbara Kingsolver’s colossal ode to Africa The Poisonwood Bible, about the mostly all-female Price clan, headed by the firebrand Southern preacher Nathan Price, and their adventures as missionaries in the Belgian Congo against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. Here I had the opposite problem: the book was certainly worthy of a review, but I felt that any legitimate criticisms that could be leveled at it would require someone with a far more extensive and nuanced understanding of African history and culture than I happen to possess. Next I tackled the Seventh Annual Edition of Gardner Dozois’ highly regarded anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The failure here for me was in the prodigious diversity of ideas which threatened to overwhelm me (a common issue I have with good science fiction anthologies), and I will need to read it again to properly review it. Finally, I worked William Styron’s short but exemplary meditation on his own clinical depression, Darkness Visible, into my reading schedule, a text that feels holy to those of us who have suffered from the same affliction at some point in our lives, and therefore to review it was, for me, something akin to sacrilege.
Little did I know, reading all of these books was essentially laying the groundwork for reviewing a novel more in my critical wheelhouse: The Book of Strange New Things by Dutch/British author Michel Faber, a book that shares some territory with Mary Doria Russell’s multi-award-winning The Sparrow, in that both are about an idealistic Christian missionary traveling to an alien world to bring the Gospel to the natives, only to face a series of unexpected challenges upon arrival. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas The Sparrow‘s central protagonist is a conservative Jesuit priest from Puerto Rico, that of The Book of Strange New Things is a liberal Protestant minister from Britain. And whereas Russell’s novel tackles the politics of sex and the emotional impact of rape, Faber’s is at heart a love story. And now I promise to stop with the comparisons and just focus on the volume credited in the headline.
From the outset Faber takes pains to establish the depth and vigor of the relationship between Peter and Beatrice Leigh, which is a good thing because he wastes little time in getting the pastor off to the planet Oasis, where USIC (the acronym is never explained, adding to the mega-corp’s highly mysterious nature throughout the story) has established a . . . colony? Base? Neither of these feel quite accurate in describing the setup USIC has created on the planet, where a handful of handpicked humans toil away in the hardscrabble environment of a world that is, impossibly, both wet and dry at the same time, incredibly humid and yet almost desert-like in its sparsity of life and geological features. A world where the nigh incessant rain comes down in rhythmic spirals. The one intelligent species here are humanoid in form, but their faces are maddeningly unfamiliar, devoid of anything even remotely face-like.
When Peter arrives, he finds several facets of this new place both unsettling and fascinating. For one thing, the USIC habitat is engineered to keep its workers satisfied and incurious about everything outside of their jobs, including what’s going on back on Earth. Or rather, especially what’s going on back on Earth. This is problematic for Peter, who initially tries to keep his promise to communicate regularly with Bea via the Shoot (basically an interplanetary email device that allows for near instantaneous communication between Earth and Oasis) but soon his work with the all too amenable Oasans—which includes mastering their bizarre, nearly impervious form of speech and helping them build a proper church in their otherwise insular and conformist community—causes him to slack off on his transmissions. Naturally, being millions of miles away both physically and mentally, Peter begins to grow apart from his wife, who is dealing with some major issues of her own back home, where civilization has fallen into complete chaos as environmental disasters caused by severe climate change have begun to take their toll. But these problems become almost abstract to Peter as he endeavors to understand what motivates the Oasans, not to mention what happened to his predecessor, the original pastor who inspired the natives to take up Christianity so passionately, and who went missing before Peter’s arrival.
Even as Peter and Bea grow apart, Peter finds himself growing closer to Grainger, the colony’s pharmacist, who is battling depression and guilt and wants to go home to visit her estranged father. Soon he develops feelings for her that further threaten his marriage, while on the tumultuous Earth, Bea has seemingly lost her faith in God. Will Peter and Bea’s love survive these setbacks? Could any marriage endure these immense psychic and spatial distances, or these ever-multiplying forms and levels of alienation? This is the central question the book asks, and it is largely left to the reader whether the question is satisfactorily answered or not. Meanwhile, there is a pastoral quality to The Book of Strange New Things, an ease and lightness in its unfolding which expertly belies the gloom gathering just off the horizon. Like the Oasans’ ovoid-bricked homes and the sterile USIC compound, the story itself is meticulously constructed to be nonthreatening, or rather to appear so. But danger lurks in unexpected places, like those challenges to love and faith that often strike us obliquely, out of the blue.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is its restraint. Faber could easily have taken this in a dozen more jarring, gruesome or sensational directions. He could have made it far more confrontational to the those who put their faith in God—or science for that matter—to save us from ourselves. Instead, what he gives us is a soft sell of the very things he seems to castigate, sort of an anti-satire, a thing that comes across ultimately as fresh and original even as it polishes its familiar tropes to a glittering shine, and that is borderline miraculous. He even leaves off in a way that invites a sequel, but if one never materializes the novel will remain nothing less than a holistic and accomplished piece, a fully realized work of science fiction that should be read widely.
In the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.
And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.
In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.
Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!
Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.
And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.
Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.
As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies is not a horror novel, but it certainly covered some horrific ground. Did I mention I also enjoy reading bildungsroman novels, especially ones that are fabulously written?
MacDonald’s second novel (after Fall on Your Knees) follows the life of eight-year-old Madeleine McCarthy, the daughter of Jack McCarthy, a high-ranking officer at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia, Ontario, Canada in the early sixties. Newly arrived after a long stint in Germany (where Madeleine was born), the family quickly adapts to life in a new part of the world, at least for Madeleine. Everything is off to a roaring start until she experiences unexpected trouble at school in the form of her abusive teacher Mr. March, who chooses a handful of girls to remain a few minutes after school for his personal pleasure, of which Madeleine is one. Tough subject matter to address in and of itself, but the bleakness level shifts into overdrive after Claire, an American classmate whose dad is stationed at the base for reasons known only to Madeleine’s father, is raped and murdered off-base and a beloved teenage neighbor, Ricky Froelich, becomes the state’s prime suspect, an easy scapegoat when the local authorities want to close this horrendous case quickly, and do so with the help of two of Madeleine’s classmates . . . who also happen to be members of the “after-three” club.
Is that dark enough for you? No? Well then, toss in the fact that the reason Claire’s father is stationed at the base is to smuggle a Nazi war criminal into the United States to serve as an assistant to Wernher von Braun as part of America’s plan to make sure it gets to the moon before those pesky Commies do, and that Madeleine’s father is a willing participant in this scheme, and that the teenager is the adopted son of Henry Froelich, a Jewish man who happened to be a prisoner at Mittelbau-Dora and knew the Nazi scientist who Jack secretly has holed up in a nearby town, only waiting for his order to brief Claire’s father and get the Nazi packing to the US. Jack also happens to be an important witness who could potentially vindicate Ricky’s innocence, but in doing so he would have to blow open the secret mission his own government has him participating in. Wait, even more issues come steadily down the pike with each new chapter, such as the fact that Madeleine is dealing with her burgeoning homosexuality, and her beloved older brother Mike is later sent to Vietnam. And, and . . .
If this plot seems over-complicated and a little too ‘just so’ to swallow, perhaps, but it should be noted that all of its various components were born from real-life events. Madeleine’s life is in part autobiographical, and the main plot point, the murder of Claire McCarroll, is based on the case of Steven Truscott. Of course, the Nazi war criminal being smuggled into Canada, and then into the US, is also modeled on historical precedent, namely Operation Paperclip. May be all of these events converging is one of those one-in-a-million things that sometimes do happen. It’s still pushing it, though MacDonald’s writing is so natural and self-assured that nothing ever feels forced, and the characters are sufficiently well-drawn that their respective motivations are perfectly understandable. Thus, it all feels too much like destiny about mid way through, a depressing conclusion indeed. Yet, somehow, amidst this carefully constructed fatalism, just when you think you have everything worked out and know how the story will end, the final piece is dropped into place, and it’s more shocking than you could ever have imagined.
The Way the Crow Flies, published in 2003, was a well-deserving contender for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Lambda Literary Award, though it ultimately won neither. That’s unfortunate. It’s a beautifully written novel that bounces back and forth between the two major p.o.v. characters, Madeleine and Jack, and spans around thirty years, as the adult Madeleine deals with the fallout from her own childhood abuse as well as watching a dear friend get sent up the river for crimes she knows he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, Jack’s big secret and the guilt that results from it is taking a toll on his health, which in turn is adding more stress to Madeleine’s life, and on it goes, until things finally come to a head and both Jack and Madeleine are forced to deal with their past. MacDonald perfectly captures the tone and details of life on a Canadian air force base in 1963, and weaves the various strands of her intricate and involving tale in such a way that they feel consistent and complimentary, which by all rights they shouldn’t.
That said, the novel is not without its flaws. Mr. March, the pedophile teacher, is perhaps too clichéd and one-dimensional to be perfectly believable. There’s also the matter of conflating homosexuality with being sexually abused, and though the novel goes out of its way to disassociate the two, it ultimately reinforces the stereotype by putting the central protagonist in both categories. The story would’ve been better served by not adding this additional wrinkle to an already complicated plot. And then there’s what becomes of Madeleine’s brother Mike, which does feel gratuitous. With all the stuff Madeleine goes through, it’s understandable that she’s a mess. In fact, it’s fairly startling that she isn’t more messed up than she is.
But these are fairly minor problems in the scheme of things. For the most part Madeleine McCarthy is that rarest of literary treasures, a believable child character, and a charming one at that. Part of her ability to cope comes down to the fact that she’s always been a natural comedian even as a little girl. Indeed, she will eventually choose to go into comedy as a career. In line with that aspect of her personality, one of the things that makes eight-year-old Madeleine such a lovable and well-rounded child character is her tendency to constantly mimic her favorite Warner Brothers cartoons. This is so exceedingly spot on that I wish I’d thought of it. And the story itself is a murder mystery of the most fascinating kind: one that is viewed through the eyes of a protagonist who isn’t particularly interested in solving it, while the investigating cops here are more like antiheroes, as they just want the case resolved quickly and efficiently at the expense of good police work, resulting in a clear miscarriage of justice. With respect to the guilt or innocence of Steven Truscott, the model for Ricky Froelich in the book, I’d say it’s pretty clear where Ms. MacDonald comes down. Having now read some of the details of the Truscott case myself, I’m still on the fence, though leaning in the direction of innocence.
But one thing is perfectly clear to me: MacDonald needs to keep writing. She not only manages to address issues like sexual abuse and moral panic in a sensitive and compelling way, she shines a light on one of the darker chapters of the space race and the development of the Saturn V rocket. The ghastly twist ending is just icing on the cake.
Many horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre. If not, they should give this book a try. Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best. Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that. These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here. Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.
The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave. Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.
But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time. Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could. Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic. But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it. Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.
A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that. The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet? And perhaps that was the point. That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this. Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion. Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal. And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.
Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume. The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky. And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise. Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read. These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others. But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular. If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!
In the late eighties and early nineties, horror anthologies were being released (or re-released, as the case may be) right and left, and having only recently discovered my love of the genre, I picked up several of them. One of my acquisitions of this period was Cutting Edge, edited by Dennis Etchison, who went on a few years after this was published to become president of the Horror Writers Association. Well, I have decided to re-read these anthologies—at least the ones I’ve kept—and review them for the blog, beginning with this one.
As is customary with these anthologies, Etchison offers an introduction, wherein he laments the sorry state of the genre during the seventies and early eighties. But horror fiction was definitely beginning to mature by this period, and volumes such as this one are the proof. Specialty markets like Cemetery Dance were still largely on the horizon, but the new wave of horror had arrived, ushered in by the advent of splatterpunk and by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, who would drop his atom bomb of a novel It the same year that Cutting Edge was published: 1986.
This book is broken into four loosely-connected sections: Bringing It All Back Home, They’re Coming for You, Walking the Headlights and Dying All the Time. The first section opens with Peter Straub’s Blue Rose, the first piece in what would ultimately become an intricately connected universe spanning several novels, novellas and short stories, anchored by the Blue Rose Trilogy of novels—Koko, Mystery and The Throat. One of the themes that runs through the Blue Rose stuff is child abuse, and that is true in this story as well, though here it’s about the assorted cruelties siblings can inflict on each other when left with little parental guidance. Harry Beevers is a nine-year-old child who enjoys tormenting his younger brother, but it’s clear that it’s cyclical, as Harry’s older brother abuses him, and on up the line. When Harry discovers a book on hypnotic suggestion and finds his little brother to be the perfect guinea pig, his experiments become more and more sinister and send him on a path that will culminate in the vile acts he commits during the Vietnam War, well-documented in the novel Koko. This is unquestionably one of the best pieces in the anthology, and a great choice to set the tone for the rest of the book.
Unfortunately, the other two stories under this heading, Joe Haldeman’s The Monster and Karl Edward Wagner’s Lacunae, are among the weakest entries in Cutting Edge. The Monster is another comment on the atrocities of Vietnam wherein the author plays with the concept of split personality, and it not only doesn’t work as horror but feels dated and borderline racist, while Wagner’s Lacunae offers an interesting premise but ultimately fails to deliver on it.
They’re Coming for You begins with W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Pale Trembling Youth, a punk ghost story that’s moderately better than the two stories preceding it, though it could’ve done with some fleshing out. Marc Laidlaw’s Muzak for Torso Murders steps it up a couple of notches with a darkly funny tale of a serial killer outdone by dear old mom. Roberta Lannes’s Goodbye, Dark Love is one of those stories where the twist at the end inspires you to read it again with the new knowledge in mind (like how you search for all the clues with a second viewing of The Sixth Sense) though the subject matter may put some readers off from another reading. Definitely one of the more disturbing stories, and quite graphic, but all-in-all a solid entry. Charles L. Grant’s Out There is a quietly metaphorical tale of body horror, while Steve Rasnic Tem gives us one the book’s best offerings in Little Cruelties, in which the narrator notes how the city inflicts its little cruelties on him . . . with a heavy dose of irony. In George Clayton Johnson’s beautifully written piece The Man with the Hoe, the narrator justifies his brutality against the neighborhood cats by meditating on Charles Markham’s titular poem. They’re Coming for You is rounded out by Les Daniels’ story of the same name, another piece of black humor in which a man who fears vengeance from the spirits of his murdered wife and her lover gets something far worse instead.
The opening piece of the third section (Walking the Headlights) is Richard Christian Matheson’s Vampire, and it can be classified as either a poem or a story, though in the end it has little to recommend it beyond that novelty. At least it’s brief; I’m not sure I could’ve taken more than a couple of pages of it. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Lapses is also structurally innovative—not to the extent of Matheson’s piece, but it’s far more successful with what it does. Yarbro explores the terror of memory lapses that grow ever more pronounced, drawing them out to their inevitable conclusion. William F. Nolan’s The Final Stone is a modern-incarnation-of-Jack-the-Ripper story that starts off with a good dose of humor but quickly veers off into standard territory.
Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle (whose work I’ve never encountered outside of this collection) is the winner here for sheer suspense, as it follows a teen boy who trails after his girlfriend into her creepy old school building one night in the hopes of losing his virginity and encounters something quite disturbing there. But it’s the next piece, Ramsey Campbell’s The Hands, that wound up being my favorite story in the book. A man decides to take refuge from the rain in an unassuming city church one day, but things immediately take a turn for the surreal, and it only gets weirder . . . and darker . . . from there. This is how you handle religious-themed horror, folks. Campbell is a true master of the genre, arguably the best living horror author produced by Britain, and that’s saying a lot. This story is one of his masterpieces. He makes this stuff look effortless. I recently picked up a collection of Campbell’s short stories called Dark Companions, which just got bumped to the front of my reading pile thanks to this story.
The Bell, Ray Russell’s take on ye olde pact-with-the-devil tale, is modest and mostly forgettable, while Lost Souls gives us an all-too-short episode in the ongoing saga of Clive Barker’s supernatural detective Harry D’Amour. It feels pleasantly anti-Hollywood and down-to-earth, or as down-to-earth as a story about a demon-hunting detective can be. I really wish the author would give us more Harry D’Amour stories like this one; this awesome character is criminally underused.
The last section of the book, Dying All the Time, like the first section, consists of only three stories, of which Robert Bloch’s Reaper is the best of the three. Bloch manages to capture just the right balance of humor and horror in this tragicomic parable of an old man who strikes a deal with the Grim Reaper to postpone his own demise with predictably horrible results; the twist at the end is note-perfect. However, Edward Bryant’s The Transfer—about a woman with an unusual power (I think)—has an alluring premise but ultimately was confusing and unsatisfying. Which brings me to the final story, Whitley Strieber’s Pain. Strieber claims this was the last thing he wrote before he became aware of his repressed memories of alien encounters. Okay. Starting off like the darker side of your uncle’s wacko conspiracy theories (the Vril Society gets a shout-out), it then shifts 180 degrees and becomes a lesson in just how relative pleasure and pain can be, as a beautiful young woman who may or may not be an incarnation of Death introduces the protagonist to an experiment that teaches him to see his dreary life in a whole new light. It’s a surprisingly emotional story that, against all odds, somehow succeeds in landing its message.
Overall, this collection was not as strong as I remembered. Funny how one can experience the same stories very differently twenty-five years later. I did recall the Campbell story being one of the better ones in the book, and that turned out to be the standout here. Straub’s story too had an impact on me when I read it as a teen; indeed, it was this piece, along with the novel Ghost Story, that made me a lifelong fan of this author, and it’s easily my second favorite story in Cutting Age, followed by Nicholas Royle’s Irrelativity, for me the scariest story of the bunch if not necessarily the most disturbing. Beyond that, there are about six or seven really good stories, most of which can probably be found in better anthologies or collections. Severalofthem can also be found online now. Etchison’s intro is interesting but not particularly enlightening, and it comes off a little whiny. Unless you’re a completist, I would pass over this in favor of better anthologies of the same era, like Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces or David G. Hartwell’s The Color of Evil, as well as the collected works of the authors themselves.
Anne Rice—she of the famous Vampire Chronicles—had only recently returned to her beloved New Orleans when she began writing The Witching Hour, which is, among other things, a love letter to the Big Easy. Her descriptions of the city are gem-like in their clarity and beauty, as is much of Rice’s writing here. Perhaps more than anything else she’s written in this particular setting, The Witching Hour perfectly captures the tone of the city itself, with its languid pace and its positively baroque level of detail. Whatever you think of her, one thing you can always count on Anne Rice for is sumptuous writing.
Yet sumptuous writing alone cannot sustain a story, especially one of this length. So, is the story itself any good? We shall see. The first book of Rice’s second epic series (and it is epic, covering around three hundred years of European and American history) follows the long line of the Mayfairs, a family of witches who trace their origins back to Renaissance-era Scotland and a witch named Deborah, the first to summon the dark spirit Lasher, who subsequently haunts and torments each of Deborah’s descendants in turn. But what does Lasher ultimately want from the Mayfairs? That mystery is the heart of the novel’s plot, and it becomes clearer and clearer as the legend of the Mayfair witches unfolds, much of it told in epistolary form as collected by the Talamasca, a sort of early supernatural investigation team that watches and keeps tabs on the Mayfairs but tries not to directly interfere. Despite their best attempts to keep their distance, however, the Talamasca becomes fatefully intertwined with the family as one of their agents becomes sire of an important branch of the Mayfair clan.
All of this is framed by the story of the present-day Mayfairs, particularly Rowan Mayfair, a young doctor who was whisked away from New Orleans as an infant and taken to California for initially unclear reasons, so she has never really known her family. Into Rowan’s life comes Michael Curry, an architect with his own ties to New Orleans who nearly drowns and is rescued by Rowan. As the two become lovers, Rowan seems fated to return to the city of her birth, where she will finally confront the dark mysteries of the Mayfair clan and her own nebulous past once and for all.
At nearly one thousand pages (in the Knopf hardback), it is a massive tome, and with a large part of it being essentially exposition, some readers are going to be put off by the saggy middle of the novel. Personally, I found the history of the Mayfairs to be fascinating, and I almost wish each of the legacy Mayfairs, or at least the more interesting ones, had gotten their own book. Especially those who lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. To be sure, there are a lot of family members covered here—indeed, the book would’ve benefited from some sort of timeline chart or family tree to refer back to. Perhaps future runs of the novel will remedy that. As for the Mayfairs whose lives are presented in The Witching Hour, each one feels more decadent than the last. There’s enough drama and suspense in the Mayfair histories for three soap operas: wealth, murder, incest, madness, kidnapping, incest, violence, dark secrets, incest . . . it’s all here.
Did I mention there was incest? Yeah, there’s a lot of that. The thing is, there’s a pretty important reason for it, and it rarely feels gratuitous or exploitative the way it can in the works of, say, V.C. Andrews. But if incest bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Despite their almost cliched level of gentility and charm, a goodly number of the Mayfair witches are not nice people. What? Bad witches? Whodathunkit? Of course, the aptly-named Lasher is often the driving force behind their wickedness. The Witching Hour is Southern Gothic writ large, and it mostly works. Still, it all unfolds at a pace many fans of more traditional horror fiction will find tedious at the very least, if not outright plodding. But the family is colorful and eccentric enough to be engaging even without the more horrific elements, which really don’t pop up until near the very end of the book. But when they do . . . hoo boy. As someone who grew up in a traditional Southern clan, with a grandmother who canned her own fruits and veggies, there’s one freaky revelation that felt so spot on that it was a pretty solid icicle to the heart of this reader.
Bottom line: This is quintessential Anne Rice. People either tend to love or hate her style. Some may feel it is precious and overwrought. For me, as an admirer of elegant, poetic writing, I could probably read a set of VCR instructions penned by her from cover to cover and be perfectly convinced by the end of it that I had read something amazing. That said, when you dispassionately separate Rice’s writing ability from her storytelling, you may realize that the latter doesn’t always live up to the former. Here, it comes close but falls a wee bit short. There’s a lot of information stuffed into the exposition, and it can be difficult to keep all of these Mayfair women separate in one’s mind. Moreover, given her resolve throughout the majority of the novel, Rowan’s sudden turn near the end feels more than a little forced. Finally, without giving anything away, let me just say that the ending is likely to drive some readers absolutely bonkers. But if you’re willing to follow Rice on this long and often torpid journey, you may be rewarded with some dazzling sights, sounds and smells along the way, and even a well-honed fright or two.
Well, I did one of these things for Hyperion, the first book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, back in May. I haven’t done much on this blog as of late, but this has been brewing for a while. I’m going to bypass The Fall of Hyperion, the second book in the series, as it would basically have exactly the same cast as the first film, only slightly older. I suppose I could’ve included the second book with the first one, the way I’m doing with the third and fourth books here, but I didn’t, so . . .
Raul Endymion (Zachary Quinto)
So basically, Raul Endymion is your standard old-fashioned, two-fisted, smartass action hero–a little bit Han Solo, a little bit Snake Plissken. Quinto may seem like an odd choice for this role, but with his Italian and Irish heritage, you know he’s got some tough guy in him to spare. Raul is not just some brawler either; he’s smart, resourceful, quick on his feet. Can Quinto pull that off? You bet! This guy is Spock in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise after all. Sure, Quinto hasn’t really had a chance to show off his action chops quite yet, so this would be the perfect vehicle for him to do that. And besides, just look at that big hunk of man-meat. Holy Mother of God, he was born for this role.
When we first meet Aenea in Endymion, she’s a feisty, sensitive, precocious 12-year-old girl. It’s a role that would require a child actress with some depth and real talent, and I think Ms. Rogers has what it takes. She really impressed me last spring as Minx Lawrence in the first season of The Whispers, particularly the season finale episode. I would love to see more of her work, and I think she’d be a knockout as young Aenea. Of course, as with any role for a child, she is bound to outgrow it soon, so in a year or two my answer is subject to change.
Some fans might balk at having Chris Hemsworth shave off his lovely golden locks and paint himself blue, but not me. I would love to see the MCU’s Thor take on the role of A. Bettik, Raul and Aenea’s faithful android companion. A. Bettik is super-strong, super-loyal and built to last, so basically he’s a balder, bluer Thor, right? Okay, not really, but I still think Hemsworth would be fantastic in the role.
Father-Captain Federico de Soya (Javier Bardem)
As the primary antagonist and one of the most complex characters in Endymion, Father-Captain Federico de Soya needs to be portrayed by someone with the ability to project all kinds of emotional complexity, a villain that one both fears and respects. As such, I can hardly think of a better person for the role than Javier Bardem, who was absolutely chilling as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, for which he won several awards, including an Oscar. Like Chiguhr, de Soya is unceasing in his pursuit, seemingly unflappable and incredibly thorough. But unlike Chigurh, he is a man of conscience, which ultimately changes the course of his destiny. Added bonus: Bardem is from Spain, and de Soya is of Spanish descent, hailing from a backwater desert planet called Madrededios. So the accent would totally work with this character!
Cardinal Lourdusamy (Simon Fisher-Becker)
Cardinal Simon Augustino Lourdusamy is a very powerful man in the Catholic church of Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, second only to Pope Julius IV (later Urban XVI) in official rank. He’s a shrewd and conniving fellow who plots to replace the reigning pope, and Simmons describes him a very, very large man. Initially I pictured James Earl Jones in the role, but I don’t think Jones has nearly enough bulk. John Goodman was my second choice, but I already cast him as Baron Harkonnen in my Dune film, and I don’t want to always rely on Goodman to play an overweight villain. Thus, I arrived at Fisher-Becker, who is best known for portraying another blue-skinned bald man (sci-fi is full of them), Dorium Maldovar in Doctor Who, as well as the Fat Friar in the first Harry Potter film.
Pope Julius IV / Urban XVI (David Tennant)
And speaking of Doctor Who alumni, we already established back in the Hyperion dream cast post that the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, would be ideal for Father Hoyt, the weaselly priest who went on the Shrike Pilgrimage with the others in the first book. Since Hoyt eventually becomes the pope in this universe, we have to stick to our guns here. But seriously, who wouldn’t want to see David Tennant play an evil, half-mad pope? I mean, come on, that would be amazing.
Sergeant Gregorius (Terry Crews)
There are three elite soldiers who accompany Father-Captain de Soya in his pursuit of Aenea and friends across the galaxy, and arguably the most badass of them is Sgt. Gregorius, who originates from a warrior culture where everyone starts out with seven “weakness names” and one “strength name” and only survivors of a series of seven deadly trials get to slowly strip away their weakness names. Only after they’ve survived all the trials are they left a single name: their strength name. Yeah. So, Gregorius (and that’s it, folks) not only made it through all of that, he moved up the ranks of the Pax to become a sergeant in the Swiss Guard, the crème de la crème of an already elite class of warriors. So who do you get to play such a massively awesome specimen of humanity? Why, none other than Terry Crews, of course! Who else?
I’m giving you a two-fer here. In addition to Sergeant Gregorius, two other highly trained soldiers, both of them members of the Swiss Guard, accompany Father-Captain de Soya as he flies across the galaxy trying to catch up with Aenea. They are Corporal Bassin Kee and Lancer Rettig. Kee is described as a small man of Asian descent, while Rettig is, if I recall correctly, a taller man of Native American origin (though the surname is actually Germanic, as it turns out–yes, I looked it up). My choices are Steven Yeun, who is of course familiar to all of Nerddom as Glenn from The Walking Dead, and as it so happens, his schedule has recently become clear. (Thanks for killing him off, TWD!) Gordon is probably most recognizable as one of the werewolves in The Twilight Saga films, though for my money, he did his best work in the more grounded thriller An Act of War.
Rhadamanth Nemes (Deepika Padukone)
So, as badass as Francisco de Soya and his crew are, the real threat to Aenea is this TechnoCore-created monster in the guise of an Indian woman. She’s basically the Terminator, only she can stop and start time at will. She even temporarily put the Shrike out of commission! Yeah. To portray her, we can’t just have any ol’ Indian actress. No, we need Deepika Padukone, who is a Bollywood phenomenon in her own country. Although mostly known for comedies and romantic films, I have no doubt Padukone could not only pull off this role as the TechnoCore’s deadliest creation, she could be epic.
Father Glaucus (Michael Caine)
Father Glaucus is a blind, independent priest who Aenea, Raul and A. Bettik encounter on the frozen world of Sol Draconi Septem (which is one of the most harrowing parts of the book, incidentally). He resisted accepting the cruciform and as a result of this heresy and his admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, he is exiled to the inhospitable, high-gravity, ice-covered hell that is Sol Draconi Septem. It proves to be an important meeting for Aenea, as she learns about de Chardin’s teachings, and her own philosophy ultimately grows out of these teachings. I would love to see Sir Michael Caine, who was absolutely amazing as Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, take on the part of this stubborn but kindly old priest.
Consul’s Ship (Jim Parsons)
It’s a sleek spaceship designed to look like the classic rocketships of ’50s and ’60s cinema and pulp magazine covers, it’s expensive as hell, and by the time of Endymion, there are no others like it in existence. It’s the Consul’s ship, which Raul and co. use to escape the Pax. It also has a unique semi-sentient AI (since the Catholic church has officially banned all true AIs from Pax space) running its on-board computers and regulating the ship. Although the ship doesn’t make the whole journey through the book, part of its AI does in the form of a com bracelet worn by Raul. Simmons describes the male voice of the computer as pleasant but a little prissy, and I couldn’t help imagining Sheldon Cooper as the AI’s voice, which would no doubt please Sheldon immensely. So naturally, Jim Parsons has to be the voice of the ship in any film version I okay.
Who do you get to play the preternaturally intelligent, charismatic and super-talented teenage girl we encounter in the early part of The Rise of Endymion? I can think of no better choice than Miss Elle Fanning, who has blown me away as a child actress in such roles as Phoebe Lichten in Phoebe in Wonderland, Alice Dainard in Super 8, and Winnie Portley-Rind in The Boxtrolls. Though she is only in the book briefly, the 16-year-old Aenea is tormented as she struggles with the first pangs of love and the agony of sending Raul away on what for her (thanks to time dilation) will be a years-long mission to retrieve the ship from the primitive world they left it on. You need a top-caliber teen actress to pull this off, and Elle fits the bill. Besides, she has a long history of playing the younger version of characters her sister plays. I think you can see where this is going . . .
Aenea [age 21] (Dakota Fanning)
I’m not even going to try to be impartial here. Dakota has been one of my favorite young actresses for forever, having first won my heart in her role as Allie in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi miniseries Taken. There has always been something eerily precocious and poised about Dakota, even when she was a young whippersnapper just starting out. I know I often say that such-and-such an actor was born for a role, but um . . . Dakota was born for this role. Aenea is not simply a genius; she’s something more than human, as her father was a John Keats cybrid who introduced her to the AI Beyond when she was still in her mother’s womb. Dakota has the acting chops for this part in spades, but more than that, she has a gravitas that few young actors, male or female, have at her young age. This will be important, since she has a romantic relationship with the middle-aged Raul, and we don’t want it to seem creepy or exploitative. She has to be convincing as someone wise beyond her years, and since Dakota already has that quality . . .
Cardinal Mustafa (John Turturro)
Cardinal John Domenico Mustafa is the Grand Inquisitor of the Holy Office, and that means he tortures people for a living. But he also plays a key role in investigating some strange goings-on on the planet Mars, formerly the home base and training ground for FORCE, the Hegemony-era military. He is a cruel and devious man, but not a stupid one. Who can play this part with the nuance it so desperately needs? Why, John Turturro! Let’s just say it up front: over the last decade or so, Turturro has been stuck with a lot of crap roles, which is unfortunate because this is the guy who played Heinz Zabantino in Five Corners, Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink in the film of the same name. He deserves better. I really want to see him channel his inner sadist! Who’s with me?
Kenzo Isozaki (George Takei)
Chairman Kenzo Isozaki is the CEO of the Pax Mercantilus, the official trade wing of the new Catholic empire. He’s a shrewd man with larger aspirations, but he isn’t nearly as corrupt as those in the Vatican. He will eventually be a key player in filling the void left by the collapse of the Pax, but throughout the last book he mostly gets in over his head with the TechnoCore, in the process revealing the true depth of the danger humanity faces from the AI collective. I like the idea of having sci-fi veterans performing in major sci-fi films, and as they go, George Takei is one of my faves. It’s okay to be Takei, and it’s better than okay to have him in the Hyperion Cantos!
Lhomo Dondrub (Jackie Chan)
Lhomo Dondrub is not a major character, but the few places where he does show up in the book he’s easily the most awesome person in the room (and that includes when Raul and Aenea are around). Tien Shan is a mountain world where the ground level is covered with a toxic fog and the mountains are steep and ragged, so survival at those high altitudes requires some finesse. Dondrub is a hang glider pilot and all-around acrobat with some mad skills, yo. And who could knock that one out of the park? You know who. There’s no question that the only guy to play Lhomo Dondrub is Jackie Chan. It’s not even a contest.
I picked this hardcover anthology up at my local Goodwill store for a song, and what a fantastic bargain! The twenty-two stories in editor Michele Slung’s compendium are, as the cover suggests, thematically linked by the broad concepts of sex and horror, which so often go hand-in-hand anyway. As she points out in the book’s preface, pretty much every horror story is ultimately about sex in one sense or another, and I think she’s spot on there. But in the case of these tales, the relationship between the two is made mostly overt.
Generally these anthologies tend to be full of contemporary work, but Slung draws from every era of horror and suspense fiction from the late Victorian on, a rich well indeed, and with casting such a wide temporal net, she could easily have filled a hundred such volumes with quality fiction. What a job it must’ve been to boil her choices down to a little over twenty stories (though ultimately there was a sequel, I believe). But nearly every piece here is a gratifying read.
The earliest story in the collection, R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Basilisk, is not so much horror as dark Symbolist myth, so drenched in the poetic language of the era that it feels more like a somber dream than a cohesive story, but it works nonetheless. A more traditional piece from roughly the same era is Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea, wherein a dispassionate man of science finds himself the object of a lascivious spirit’s attentions. The most disturbing story for me was Christopher Fowler’s The Master Builder, which reads like Peter Straub at his best and takes the concept of stalking to a whole new level. Robert Aickman, one of my favorite short story authors, can always be relied on to creep me the hell out, and his contribution, The Swords, is certainly no exception. Another highlight, Hugh B. Cave’s Ladies in Waiting, starts out as a haunted house tale but becomes something far worse by the end.
Some pieces (Michael Blumlein’s Keeping House especially) are morbidly melancholy. Others, like Thomas M. Disch’s Death and the Single Girl, are humorously cynical. A few are uncomfortably erotic (T.L. Parkinson’s The Tiger Returns to the Mountain; Harriet Zinnes’s Wings; Carolyn Banks’s Salon Satin). The rest of the collection is sandwiched between stories by two of horror fiction’s living legends, Stephen King and Clive Barker. Of the two, it is Barker’s story, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, that I most enjoyed. Longtime fans of Barker will almost certainly have read this already in his Books of Blood, as I did, but I was quite young when I first read it and remember it being one of my least favorite stories of his. With time I have come to appreciate its true horror, seeing it essentially as the story of a female supervillain with the ability to manipulate human flesh with her mind, a power she utilizes in some creatively awful ways. King’s story too is about a woman with psychic powers, though hers is the more traditional (less interesting) power of telepathy; it’s still a wonderfully entertaining story though, accessible and funny.
Not every piece is wildly successful though. Valerie Martin’s Sea Lovers, her dark answer to the Little Mermaid, doesn’t quite feel fleshed out, May Sinclair’s The Villa Désiréé feels as dated as it is, and Ruth Rendell’s A Glowing Future feels like a rejected Robert Bloch story. Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Conqueror Worm divides its loyalties between humor and horror but ultimately achieves neither, and Angela Carter’s Master, while conceptually intriguing, offers us a cliched and unnuanced antagonist. Still, none of the stories are outright awful, and all but a couple are at least decent enough that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time. A solid majority of these stories are real gems. All in all, a dynamite anthology that any horror aficionado should be pleased with.