Themed horror anthologies are a dime a dozen. Good ones are a little harder to come by, but one can usually count on editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow to deliver a decent if not always standout anthology. In this case, however, she nails it to the fucking wall. Circuses, fairs and carnivals are certainly fertile territory for horror writers to explore, but the danger of falling into cliched territory here is always lurking somewhere nearby like a drug-addled, urine-soaked clown skulking in the shadows, just waiting to snatch some unsuspecting kiddie off the midway and subject it to horrible acts of depravity . . . like exposing the poor thing to clown “comedy.”
Nightmare Carnival is not the only such anthology to tackle this concept—just in the last few years we’ve also gotten Dark Carnival edited by Jolene Haley, et al, the Amazon-published The Midnight Carnival: One Night Only, the dark urban fantasy collection Carniepunk, John Ledger’s hilariously named horror-humor mashup clownthology series Floppy Shoes Apocalypse (three books and counting), the F. Paul Wilson-curated Freak Show, the massive, multi-volume Carnival of Fear anthology, and probably several others I’m unaware of. For my money though this is one you need to read. Wilson’s Freak Show might give it a run for its money in terms of quality, but it’s less a true anthology than an exquisite corpse-style novel written by various authors, so I’m only half counting it here.
Datlow has been in the short story editing business for decades, and her instincts rarely go askew. She doesn’t just pick out fiction from the hot horror writers of the day, though this particular collection reads like a who’s who of au current dark fiction masters: Stephen Graham Jones, Nick Mamatas, Genevieve Valentine, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford and Livia Llewellyn are all in here. With that level of talent you know you’re not going to get another half-baked monster clown story, and there’s nary a one in the bunch. I’m not saying there aren’t some bad clowns here, but they aren’t Pennywise rehashed, thank fuck. Nothing against Pennywise, mind you, but he’s been done to death, no pun intended.
What you do get is a fairly nice mix of stories ranging from noirish stuff (mostly) rooted in reality (the collection’s bookend stories Scapegoats by N. Lee Wood and Screaming Elk, MT by Laird Barron) to the bleakest of existential surrealism (Glen Hirschberg’s A Small Part in the Pantomime, Robert Shearman’s The Popping Fields and Terry Dowling’s Corpse Rose), and everything in between. Few of these stories go where you expect them to go, which is exactly what you want in a collection like this.
As is generally the case with Datlow’s collections, almost every story in this book is worth reading at least once, and several demand a reread. Priya Sharma’s The Firebrand and A.C. Wise’s And the Carnival Leaves Town are very dark mystery stories with a supernatural twist. Wise’s story in particular, about a detective investigating a family that goes missing after the carnival has moved on, is especially good and still gives me chills when I think about it. I’ll rate it the second-best story in the anthology, and that’s saying a lot. Shearman’s The Popping Fields is one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a morose tale of a balloon animal guy slowly losing touch with reality as he grows older. Undoubtedly, though, the star of this collection is Nathan Ballingrud’s Skullpocket, which reads like Tim Burton filtered through George Romero and is absolutely unforgettable. I read this story online before I bought this book and it was that which prompted me to buy it, as I figured it wouldn’t be there forever and I wanted to read it again. And again. Hell, it might just become a Halloween tradition at my house. Just sayin’.
Moving on, Genevieve Valentine’s The Lion Cage, about a pair of mountain lions that are a little off somehow, feels almost like a throwback to early twentieth century fiction in this vein in that most of the horror is implied rather than spoken, but the story is all the stronger for that. The Hirschberg story also struck just the right tone for me, and clearly owes a debt to Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, in the best of ways. Jeffrey Ford’s fun and audacious Hibbler’s Minions serves up a nice dose of humor with its horror, delving into the hitherto unexplored Lovecraftian implications of a flea circus. The Darkest Part by Stephen Graham Jones, about young men who decide to torture and murder an innocent clown as revenge for some horrific childhood experiences at the hands of another, er, less innocent clown was the grittiest (and bloodiest) story in the anthology but, as one expects from Jones, is at once thoroughly disturbing and entertaining.
In fact, only two stories in Nightmare Carnival fell short for me. Livia Llewellyn’s The Mysteries is just a wee bit too abstract for its own good, though it’s beautifully written and has some nice subtle nods to Clive Barker. I will be reading it again to see if I missed anything, because I feel I did. The other less than stellar entry here was Nick Mamatas’s Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip, about the consequences of a foreign wrestler taking on a gigantic redneck in the Jim Crow-era South. The story again was well-written but the ending left me unsatisfied, and the whole thing was a bit short on the horror, more of a somber human interest piece than anything. Still worth reading. Everything else in this book was just insanely good and more than made up for the moderate imperfections in those two stories. I’ll definitely read the entire collection again at some point.