‘Cutting Edge’ – A Review

IX-cutting-edgeIn 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 EdgeThe 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.  Several of them 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.

Grade: C+     

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