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.