Review: Best New Horror 7

(If you would like to read reviews of the previous Best New Horror books, jump over to my Reviews page for links.)

After the rather slim volume 6 comes a significantly chunkier entry in Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror series. While previous entries had been a tad uneven in terms of quality, volume 7 is pretty good throughout, with only a handful of stories I’d skip through on a reread. As you will see below, a number of stories suffer from weak or unsatisfying endings, but these are often due to the ending being overshadowed an interesting premise or strong opening. So, predictably, this is another 4/5 from me.

Best New Horror 7 comprises twenty-five stories and a poem which mark the best horror shorts published during 1995, and runs as follows:

Also collected in MacLeod’s “Voyages by Starlight”

Tirkiluk – Ian R. MacLeod (3/5 – Science Officer Seymour takes a stint manning an Arctic weather station. As winter takes hold, he finds a scavenger nearby. Her name is Tirkiluk and she is an outcast from a nearby eskimo settlement. When Seymour discovers Tirkiluk is heavily pregnant, he lets her stay with him in the rather cramped confines of his hut. Things go south, however, when Seymour accidentally starts a fire that endangers all their lives. This was okay, but the diary format of the story made me feel little more than a witness to a sequence of events, which robbed the story of emotional impact. Also, unless I missed a paragraph somewhere, no reason was given or intimated for Seymour’s decline. Was it supernatural? Was Seymour merely going a bit doolally? It’s as if the story says, “Ehhhh, who cares? Move along, please.” So I will.)

Also collected in Fowler’s “Uncut”

The Most Boring Woman In The World – Christopher Fowler (4/5 – The ever-reliable Fowler scores another winner. If you only know Fowler through his Bryant & May books, then stop right now and seek out a collection or two of his short fiction. You won’t be disappointed. Anyway, here a housewife tells us of her crushingly boring existence, and how she’s having to perk things up here and there to keep herself from going mad. She starts out with little acts of rebellion, but then oh my do things escalate! As a side note, it’s an interesting editorial choice of Jones to open Best New Horror 7 with a story that keeps the reader at arm’s length in Tirkiluk, and then juxtapose it with one that directly engages the reader. I’m not saying it works perfectly, it’s just… interesting.)

Also collected in Hodge’s “The Convulsion Factory”

Extinctions In Paradise – Brian Hodge (4/5 – Hodge follows up his excellent The Alchemy Of The Throat (featured in Best New Horror 6) with a very good story which sees Robert, a former journalist, trying to rebuild his life in Mexico following the horrific loss of his wife and children. Now in his adopted homeland, Robert has a new family of sorts in the numerous street kids who scrape a living in and around the neighbourhood. His kindness stands him in good stead too, because it seems these kids have developed a novel – some would say murderous – way to survive on the streets. Dammit, this story was so close to being another 5/5 for Hodge, but was let down by a final act that felt a little tacked on and created a jarring sense of “Whaaaaaaaa…?!!?”. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean. The fact Hodge specifically mentions in his introduction how he came to write those last few pages suggests he knew this and was trying to justify it in some way.)

Also collected in Tuttle’s “Ghosts and Other Lovers”

Food Man – Lisa Tuttle (4/5 – An anorexic teenager hides food under her bed, much preferring to live with the stench of rotting food in her room than to risk putting on weight. Things take a turn for the bizarre when, late one night, a figure emerges out from under her bed. It’s a man, made of food! So what’s a girl to do? Get jiggy with it, of course! If the premise sounds too far-fetched, don’t worry – you are not alone. But let’s cut the author some slack and pretend the girl’s parents and brother are ardent 120-a-day smokers of Woodbines whose sense of smell died long ago, and that, in psychosis, food can be seen to coalesce into the shape of a man and… er… rise up, so to speak. Even so, I would love to know what was in Tuttle’s head when she wrote this. “Okay, yeah, I’ve got this girl, right, and… er… she… er… well, she gets fucked by a man made of food.” Most bizarre of all is that she makes this ludicrous story work, and manages to steer things toward a spine-tingling climax, if you’ll forgive the expression. Pretty impressive, all said.)

Also collected in MMS’s “More Tomorrow and Other Stories”

More Tomorrow – Michael Marshall Smith (5/5 – An IT contractor gets chummy with a young colleague, Jeanette, but finds his chances of romance gutter and die when he meets her boyfriend. Straight away our man knows something is off, and his suspicions are all but confirmed when he finds a recent image of Jeanette posted online, then another, and another. Each image is more revealing and more disturbing than the last, and each image is cheered on by a nameless, faceless audience. MMS absolutely nails it in this British Fantasy Award winner; a story that puts an arm over your shoulder, has a laugh and a joke with you and then stabs you in the gut. This story also perfectly illustrates how we have always had a dark side to the internet, as we have had with any creative technology. Finally, as this story was written shortly before the advent of search engines and web browsers, there’s also a certain nostalgic quality for ageing nerds to enjoy. Ah, the days!)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Ghosts & Grisly Things”

Going Under – Ramsey Campbell (2/5 – Steve Blythe is queueing for a rare chance to walk through the Mersey Tunnels, along with half of Merseyside it seems. Blythe is one of those fellas who is welded to his mobile phone, much to the annoyance of everyone around him. (This was 1995, kids. People were weird back then.) He is undergoing an acrimonious divorce and is keen for his new squeeze to post off the latest maintenance payment to his ex in order to avoid a legal bollocking. But Val isn’t picking up his calls. Blythe only ever gets his answerphone. When he is harangued and pressed into entering the tunnel by his fellow walkers, Blythe finds he has a more urgent need to make a phone call. Good grief, even after a second read this was a chore to get through. Nearly everything about this story got up my nose, from the hopelessly over-engineered premise and how teeth-grindingly overwritten it was, through to the largely fake, annoying and unfunny characters. At times I swear I was reading a Fat Slags cartoon. Surprisingly, despite all this, Going Under isn’t a total bust. Campbell succeeds in creating a sweaty sense of claustrophobia once the story gets going, but that’s about all to commend it. This is one of those stories you suspect only got published because of the name behind it, and only made it into this book due to a spot of cronyism.)

Also collected in Smeds’s “Embracing the Starlight”

Survivor – Dave Smeds (4/5 – It’s 1967 and Troy Chesley is due to return to Vietnam for another tour of duty. He gets a tattoo to commemorate this and asks the artist to draw him a seriously ripped unicorn. Yes, a unicorn. The artist agrees, but only if Troy has the tattoo over his heart. When Troy returns to the conflict he finds his tattoo is somehow keeping him from harm, but at what cost? This is a really good story that explores a few interesting themes, from living someone else’s life to the effects of time-dilation on Troy and those around him, and just when you start wondering where Smeds is going with all this, he pulls out a superb ending. Recommended.)

The Stones – Patrick Thompson (4/5 – Neil and Jane are holidaying in Cornwall, attempting to locate sites of ancient standing stones. While Cornwall is very nice and all, it seems Jane isn’t getting much of a mystical tingle from anything they’ve found so far. An old man they meet suggests a nearby beach, but there doesn’t seem to be much there, least of all anything living. Now why would that be? This was a story I was looking forward to re-reading for these extended reviews of Best New Horror because, when I’d read it originally, and despite enjoying the pleasingly chill Aickmanesque atmosphere it generated, there was something about the story that didn’t quite click. A second read happily sorted all that out. On the evidence of this story, I might have to seek out a couple of dark comedy thrillers he later wrote, Seeing The Wires and Execution Plan – assuming it’s the same bloke.)

Back Of Beyond – Cherry Wilder (3/5 – The Mandevilles are tempted out of retirement to help Mary Boyd, a wealthy woman who is desperate to locate her missing son. Vivien Mandeville is a sensitive, capable of reading an incredible amount of detail and history from the objects she handles. Her husband, Albert, acts as her straight-man. When the Mandevilles reach the Boyd residence, they find themselves stalked from afar, and are given an ominous warning by an old Aboriginal to let sleeping dogs lie. This was okay, with Wilder creating a great double act in the Mandevilles, but the ending disappointed.)

A Hundred Little Wicked Witches – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Jack sees witches everywhere. They judge him, criticise him, mock him. When they are not expressing seemingly every aspect of his life, they are controlling it. When Jack meets Marsha, he is astonished to find that she wants to get to know him and seems willing look past all the witches he sees. But can he? This is a playful short from SRT “witches” spoiled only by an ending that felt abrupt and overly harsh.)

The Finger Of Halugra – Manly Wade Wellman (4/5 – You might wonder how a posthumous entry from an author who had passed away nearly a decade earlier could make it into a book called Best New Horror, but who cares about such trifling technicalities when the story is this good? The improbably named Sugg Harpole is hired by an unsavoury sort called The Greek to locate and retrieve the titular finger. The statue of Halugra is to be found somewhere up in the mountains, and the neighbouring Native Americans believe its finger has remarkable healing qualities. Turns out it does, but it seems the statue is rather attached to it. While this story was predictable, it was also a lot of fun, reading like an old horror comic strip from a bygone age.)

Also collected in Lamsley’s “Conference with the Dead”

The Toddler – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – Haddon Hall is a place with a dark history. Centuries ago the monstrous Sir Rufford De Quintz resided there and took delight in abusing the staff in every terrible way. He sired a daughter by one of the young maids and, unusually for De Quintz, he let the child live. The toddler was subsequently tolerated but despised throughout the house. Fast forward to 1995 and Myra Cooper is spearheading the renovation of Haddon Hall. She is called to investigate a gruesome discovery bricked up in one of the walls. This was another winner from Lamsley, who is somehow able to document the most horrific things with an astonishing lightness of touch. This was the mirror opposite of his previous entry, Blade and Bone (Best New Horror 6) in that the build-up throughout this story was terrific, but was let down by the ending.)

Also collected in Gallagher’s “Out of his Mind”

Not Here, Not Now – Stephen Gallagher (4/5 – A quick in-and-out from Gallagher which sees a hit-and-run driver get his comeuppance in a suitably ironic way. There’s no messing about with this one.)

 

 

 

 

 

Also collected in Ligotti’s “The Nightmare Factory”

The Bungalow House – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – A return to form for Ligotti in a Stoker-nominated story where a man is enchanted by an installation at his local grotty art gallery. The artwork takes the form of an audio recording describing in striking detail a dream of the artist in which he is trapped inside an unlit bungalow house in the dead of night while all kinds of weird and horrible vermin lie dead or dying at his feet. The imagery the recording creates in our man is so vivid that he simply must know more about the artist responsible, as much as it may bother Dahla, the gallery’s owner. The prose is as lush and the plot is as weird as ever. The story is perhaps let down by two things: first, Dahla’s character often spills over caricature and into parody; second, I saw the twist coming. Still a good read, though.)

Cradle – Alan Brennert (4/5 – Marguerite wants to have a baby, but her vampirism has made her sterile. She uses the wealth she has accrued over the years (and years and years) to hire a surrogate, Sondra, and a team of doctors to handle all the fiddly DNA-imprinting science stuff necessary for the pregnancy to be viable. (Who knew?) The pregnancy starts out normally, but, once junior develops a heartbeat, Sondra finds that her body is having a hard time keeping up with the little bugger’s needs. This is an interesting what-if story, but I suspect the ending will divide opinion between those who consider it a neat twist on vampire myth and those who will groan and move on. I’m in the “neat twist” camp, for what it’s worth.)

Also collected in Rice’s “The Idol of the Flies”

The Sixth Dog – Jane Rice (3/5 – A veterinarian is creeped out by the Clanton brothers living next door. The Clantons mostly keep to themselves, which creates fertile ground for the town’s rumourmongers. Bizarrely, it is suggested the brothers are attempting to create something that could replace food. Our man isn’t convinced about that. All he knows is that the Clantons are dwindling one by one, and the burial plots out the back of their house are increasing in number. This was okay, but it’s one of those stories where the protagonist is almost entirely passive, which made him a hard person to get behind. There were other niggles too, but are probably down to my personal taste, such as dialog written as it is spoken (which I find rarely works), quirkiness replacing humour rather than complementing it, etc.)

Also collected in Dowling’s “The Man Who Lost Red”

Scaring The Train – Terry Dowling (3/5 – It’s 1962 and Paul and Max spend their school holidays creating and executing ever more elaborate stunts to scare the living crap out of train drivers. They observe the fruits of their endeavours each time from a safe enough distance to avoid detection. After a particularly daring prank, the pair witness a man examining the offending trackside area. The man homes in on their position with uncanny speed and precision and offers them a wave. Paul and Max are spooked by this but decide to press on with their most daring stunt yet – a final hurrah before the school holidays are through. Big mistake. This was okay, but the first half of the story – concerning events in Paul and Max’s childhood – rather outshines the second half, where they return to their old stomping ground some years later.)

Also collected in Sutton’s “Clinically Dead & Other Tales of the Supernatural”

La Serenissima – David Sutton (4/5 – Euphrosyne and Polyhymnia are identical twins who have been trusted in Venice to the care of their guardians, the Fortescues – their parents being much too rich to be bothering with such piffling inconveniences as parenthood. Polyhymnia is horrified to find Rudolf Fortescue laying a hand on Euphrosyne in a most inappropriate manner and is further appalled to see not only Miranda Fortescue turning a blind eye to it, but also that Euphrosyne is quite enjoying Rudolph’s attentions. To top it all, things are not as they seem in this crumbling and rotting Venice, and a clue to it all may be found in a painting called La Serenissima. This is a very nicely written story, a significant improvement on Sutton’s previous entry, Those of Rhenea (Best New Horror 2). Euphrosyne and Polyhymnia are engaging characters, identical twins yet polar opposites, and we get a good sense of the sights, sounds and smells of Venice and its grotty underbelly. And yet, in keeping with several stories in this volume, it’s the ending that disappoints, feeling a tad throwaway. Worth a look, all the same.)

Also collected in Partridge’s “The Man with the Barbed Wire Fists”

The Bars On Satan’s Jailhouse – Norman Partridge (4/5 – Partridge serves up a bizarre and meaty slab of Wild West gothic in a tale which sees a Chinese girl, Lie, being sold by her father to a brutal and notorious criminal, Midas Gerlach. Midas’s ranch sits within a large amount of land, and he isn’t above slaughtering any government officials who come sniffing around his patch. Lie is being delivered to Midas courtesy of a large black man wearing strange boots made of fur, bone and razor-sharp teeth. It doesn’t turn out well for either of them. Perhaps both Lie and her courier should have heeded the warnings of the strange gun-toting coyote-man they met along the way. This weird western nabbed an International Horror Critics Guild Award back in the day. It’s grubby and clearly off its nut, but certainly worth a read. If you liked this, check out Partridge’s Guignoir (Best New Horror 3), which is another gritty treat of his.)

Also collected in VanderMeer’s “Secret Life”

The Bone-Carver’s Tale – Jeff VanderMeer (3/5 – Sajit is an ageing bone-carver of great renown who is captivated by the music of a serunai player he hears drifting from a nearby village. The serunai player is a woman called Prei Chen, and the two accomplished artists finally meet when Prei seeks Sajit at his home. But Sajit finds the artist pales against the beauty of her art and so sends Prei away in tears. It is a decision he comes to regret. This was okay – VanderMeer really knows his stuff when it comes to Southeast Asian history – but the richness and sense of place he gives this story is undermined by its linearity. This may have been intentional, an attempt to give it an ancient legend vibe, but this also meant the story didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped it would.)

Also collected in Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions”

Queen Of Knives – Neil Gaiman (3/5 – In this poem, a child and his grandparents attend a variety show. The star act is a magician, and Grandad, thinking he knows it all, attempts to explain (often incorrectly) how each trick is done. For his next trick the magician picks Grandma from the crowd and rolls out a large cabinet. Once Grandma is secured inside the cabinet, out come the knives. This does the business but doesn’t cover any new ground.

Also, if poems
with seemingly random line
breaks leave you cold and bemused,
this probably isn’t going to turn you a-
-round.)

 

Also collected in McAuley’s “The Invisible Country”

The True History Of Dr Pretorius – Paul J. McAuley (3/5 – Larry Cochrane is a celebrated journalist of the “attack dog” variety, and he’s got the notorious Dr Pretorius in his sights. Cochrane knows Pretorius possesses the secret to near-immortality and is determined to coerce it from him, no matter what it takes. The only problem is Pretorius seems quite comfortable admitting to the misdeeds of his past – well, most of them anyway. This was okay, but not as good as The Temptation of Dr Stein, McAuley’s previous Pretorius story from Best New Horror 6. It’s hard to know what McAuley was trying to achieve here. I’m willing to believe he’s merely having a lot of fun with the mad scientist genre, but by name-dropping nearly every fictional mad scientist in literature as either a friend or understudy of Pretorius, the story comes across a bit “me too”. Cochrane is also too much of a bad guy, bordering on pantomime at times.)

The Grey Madonna – Graham Masterton (4/5 – Shades of Don’t Look Now abound as Dean, a wealthy American tourist, returns to Bruges three years after his wife, Karen, was found dead there with a broken neck. A sole witness recalls how Karen was arguing with a nun shortly before her death, and that the nun was wearing a light grey habit at the time. Dean is determined to track down the nun. He finds he doesn’t have far to look. While predictable, this still delivered a satisfying tingle down the spine.)

Loop – Douglas E. Winter (4/5 – In this International Horror Critics Guild Award winner we observe legal eagle and keen dick-flick enthusiast Delacorte’s growing obsession for a porn actress. Initially he sees her only briefly at the end of a looped movie in a pay-as-you-go porn booth. As her porn career takes off, so does Delacorte’s and he spunks a lot of time and money collecting everything she has starred in. Every last bit of it. This was good, comfortably the author’s best story in Best New Horror, but you’ll probably spend the first three-quarters of this wondering when Winter is going to get his hands out of his pants and get on with telling the story. Also, the regular switching between second and third person is a flimsy attempt to make the reader feel complicit in Delacorte’s hairy-palmed hobby. Sorry, Doug, you’re on your own there.)

The Hunger And Ecstasy Of Vampires – Brian Stableford (3/5 – Edward Copplestone is an ageing adventurer who gathers an eccentric gaggle of real-life and fictional nineteenth century minds to hear and perchance discuss an in-depth account of his latest expedition: a drug-induced step… INTO THE FUTUUUUUURRRRE!!! Across three separate visions, Copplestone recounts increasingly advanced and fantastic futures, but they are all based upon one uncomfortable fact: that it’s vampires that take civilisation forward, not mankind. Which is music to the ears of a certain Count Lugard in attendance. This short novel is comfortably the longest story in the book, but it doesn’t quite earn its page count. It’s not a bad story by any means. I liked a good chunk of what it was trying to do, but the moment each guest – and I mean each and every one of them – began rubbing their chin and offering their take upon what they had heard, that was about the moment I began wishing the story would end. Interestingly, this story looks to have fallen victim to an extension of copyright periods in the UK during the mid-90s, in that every mention of a certain consulting detective and sidekick in the story had to be shown as S******k H***** and Doctor W*****. (Their names are intact in the issues of Interzone that featured this story originally.) Hats off to Jones for keeping this in the book, though, when it would have been a lot easier to drop it.)

Lacuna – Nicolas Royle (4/5 – After a 30-odd-thousand-word monster, we close the book on a one-pager, and a rare thing indeed: a mood piece that works, and not only that but one told in the second person! If you’ve ever missed an hour or two while in the house or have ever sensed there’s someone “other” keeping you company, then this one is for you.)

And so we reach the end of another Best New Horror review. Thanks for reading! If you are tempted by any of the stories then you should be able to find a second-hand copy of Best New Horror 7 on the interwebs without too much trouble. Alternatively, most eBook outlets will have a crisp, digital copy awaiting your purchase. The cover images in the above review will take you over to Goodreads, where you might find further avenues to explore.

Thanks again for reading. I’ll see you later for a whizz through book 8.

LP

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