(If you would like to read reviews of previous books in the series, hop on over to my Reviews page.)
Best New Horror 9 contains nineteen horror shorts published during 1997; those halcyon days shortly before the Millennium Bug came along and destroyed everything. In the sand-blasted world in which we now serve Our Beneficent and Most Glorious Robot Overlords, it’s good to look back every once in a while during the generous 90-second breaks afforded us every now and again to imagine, and for some of us to still remember, what life was like back when horror used to be a made-up thing.
In keeping with previous volumes in the series, Best New Horror 9 presents a jumble of the good, the brilliant and a healthy showing of the not-quite-so-good-but-still-okay-I-guess. Overall, it’s a 4/5 from me, but only just. And so, without any further blathering, to the stories:
Dying Words – David J. Schow (4/5 – Schow kicks things off with a knowing, twisty-turny slice of metafiction starring two of his pseudonyms. Oliver Lowenbruck has been commissioned to write a zombie story and he’s getting nowhere. He asks his friend, Chan McConnell, to help him out. Before heading over to Oliver’s place, Chan takes a call from his girlfriend, Michelle, who works at the local hospital. Michelle is seeing a lot of crazed, brain-hungry patients being rushed in all of a sudden. Paging Doctor Irony… This has no right to work as well as it does! It’s over-engineered, it’s disjointed and the characters act wholly in service to the plot. And yet there’s a confidence and irresistible energy to this story that powers it through. Impressive stuff.)
The Windmill – Conrad Williams (4/5 – Claire has taken a week off work to travel around Norfolk with Jonathan, her other half. They stop by a rustic hostelry for a drink and inevitably get weirded out by the locals. It’s an inauspicious start to the holiday, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse. This just about scraped a 4/5 for me. The story shares a few too many genes with several other “holiday horror” tales. Williams seems conscious of this, at least, devoting a significant chunk of story-time to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Claire and the walking bell-end that is Jonathan. It makes for a compelling read, as other people’s break-ups often can be, and carries the story along to a decent if slightly throwaway conclusion.)
The Right Ending – John Burke (3/5 – A mysterious woman approaches Martin Paget, a successful novelist, at his book signing. The woman seems familiar, but Paget cannot place her. She comments that Paget’s latest novel, though convincing, didn’t have the right ending. She promptly vanishes, leaving Paget to wonder what she meant. As far as he was concerned the novel ended just how he wanted, thank you very much. When the woman appears again at Paget’s home, claiming once more that he wrote the wrong ending, it becomes clear she’s not going to let it go. This was okay, delivering some humorous observations from the other side of fandom, but the story was too slight to truly satisfy.)
Swallowing A Dirty Seed – Simon Clark (4/5 – A retired solicitor gets to grips with his new house out in the country. Not least of his troubles is the house’s erratic electricity supply. The moment he finally manages to settle down to an evening meal he is interrupted by a knock at the door. A visibly distressed couple plead for food and shelter, which our man selflessly provides. He grows concerned when he learns there was a third member of their party, however, and his unease deepens when the two refuse to discuss what happened to him. A good one, this, eventually playing out like a modern-day Brothers Grimm tale.)
This Is Your Life (Repressed Memory Remix) – Pat Cadigan (4/5 – Renata returns to the family home following the recent death of her father. She is urged to watch a confessional video of the old man in which he begs her forgiveness for the horrible things he did to her as a child. This is all news to Renata, and she is having none of it. She wants out of the house immediately but the rest of the family have other ideas. This is a disturbing entry that cleverly toys with the reader. The title would suggest that Renata has suppressed awful memories of her childhood, while Cadigan’s introduction – in which she details a tragic, real-life instance of False Memory Syndrome – offers an alternative explanation.)
Christmas Forever – Christopher Fowler (3/5 – A new ice age has dawned (which is a little odd seeing as though we’re technically still in the midst of one… #PedantsYay). Britain is frozen solid. London suffocates under a thick blanket of snow and ice. The winds are fierce, the blizzards are lethal. Kallie is worried about Bennett, who’d left some time ago to get supplies. Fearing Bennett has perished, Kallie goes out to find him. This was originally published in a Sunday newspaper back in the day and is less a story than a “what-if” with some characters thrown in. Kallie has little purpose other than being our eyes and ears as we go gadding about this alien, snow-blasted city. While Fowler succeeds in conjuring up some vivid snowscape scenery in this story, it doesn’t rank among his best.)
Four Famines Ago – Yvonne Navarro (3/5 – Paul is senior vice-president of a media company specialising in producing educational films for high schools. He sends Aisha out to Somalia to obtain more up-to-date footage of the ravages of famine being suffered there, complaining that the footage they have was captured “four famines ago”. Aisha is furious at Paul’s flippant remark but begrudgingly complies. When she returns, Paul notices Aisha has lost some weight. After viewing her footage, Paul soon finds he’s losing weight too. This was okay, but something about the story didn’t sit right with me. Though it obviously meant well, the story presented a number of degrees of separation between the reader and the true horror at its heart – that of the famine itself. The impact of the story was dampened as a result. It’s one of those rare occasions I wished a story was longer, adding, say, a section in which we follow Aisha’s time in Somalia. Could just be me, though.)
The Crawl – Stephen Laws (4/5 – It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – ever! – until you are dead! “Aha!” you cry. “That’s off of The Terminator, that is!” And you’d be right. It’s also a fitting description of this story, and perhaps a few hundred thousand slasher films besides. And yet, despite the overly familiar… well, everything about this story, Laws succeeds by ramping up the tension from the get-go and never letting up. In The Crawl, Gill and Paul are a quarrelling couple driving home when their car is attacked by a sickle-wielding nutcase. Gill struggles to maintain control of the car, bringing it to a shuddering, screeching halt. Paul heads out to give the idiot a piece of his mind but instantly regrets it when said idiot heads his way, full of murderous intent. Gill drives Paul away from danger, but finds she cannot get the car out of first gear. And so a slow relentless chase begins. It’s fun and engaging stuff, though Laws is guilty of using a cheap trick right at the start to generate a good chunk of the tension.)
Serpent Eggs – David Langford (2/5 – Langford catches an unfortunate dose of Lovecraft in a tale which sees Robert, a UFOlogist, stay at a commune up on Drotch Skerry, an island on the edge of the Shetlands. It is said that things have fallen from the sky there. Hmm, maybe. All Robert knows is that the islanders are a balding and pallid-looking lot. Has a sickness befallen the commune, or could there be something extra-terrestrial at work? According to his introduction, Langford made several attempts at writing this story over the course of twenty years, eventually changing the tone, changing the main character and changing the ending. If only he’d changed the style too. A pity, as I’m often drawn to his amusing Ansible Link columns in Interzone magazine. The story can be found in Langford’s collection, Irrational Numbers, published by Necronomicon Press, though you might have a job hunting down a copy.)
No One You Know – Dennis Etchison (3/5 – Jeannie receives a phone call from her ex, Michael, and gives him hell for cheating on her. Michael responds by threatening to kill himself, and Jeannie hears him fill up the chambers of his handgun one by one. Jeannie hangs up and calls her best friend Mara, doubting her resolve in ditching his ass. Mara tells Jeannie to forget about him, and in no uncertain terms. But then Mara also receives a call from Michael… This was okay, but, for me, the changes of personality we witness in both Jeannie and Mara were the most unsettling thing about the story, and I’m not entirely sure that was intentional.)
The Dripping Of Sundered Wineskins – Brian Hodge (5/5 – Hodge follows his excellent The Alchemy Of The Throat (featured in Best New Horror 6) with another superb novella that deservedly bagged a World Fantasy Award nomination at the time. In Dripping… we follow the life of Patrick Kieran Malone from a young Irish lad who survives a bomb blast, though his troubled time spent as a true stigmatic among the monks and friars of the local Franciscan order, and finally onto his awakening at the hands of his apostate Uncle Brendan and three mysterious goddesses of the land. To go into any more detail would be to rob the story of its impact, suffice to say its middle section, set in the Franciscan order, is astonishing in more than one sense of the word. If you were to read only one story from Best New Horror 9, set an hour aside for this one. Unmissable.)
The Bells Will Sound Forever – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – A man called Crumm takes lodgings at Mrs Pyk’s large and mostly unoccupied hostel. Mrs Pyk places Crumm high up in the house, and on the way up Crumm hears a faint jangle of bells. As he makes himself comfortable, Crumm’s attention is drawn to the door opposite his. It’s a door that leads up to the attic. Perhaps the sound of bells came from up there? This is another story that just scrapes a 4/5 from me, but is boosted by Ligotti’s hypnotic writing. It perhaps didn’t help that certain parts of the story immediately brought to mind Timothy Claypole from an old BBC kid’s TV show called Rentaghost. No bad thing, perhaps, but I doubt that was Ligotti’s intention. It’s worth a read, but in a toss up between this and, say, Roald Dahl’s The Landlady, I’d go for the Dahl every time.)
The Word – Ramsey Campbell (4/5 – Given that Campbell appears in nearly every volume of Best New Horror, I knew we would get to a good story of his sooner or later, and here it is! In this Stoker-nominated tale, Jeremy is an embittered genre fiction fan who interviews a writer, Jess Kray, for his fanzine, and is less than flattering in his opinions. Kray shrugs it off, perfectly pleasant, no sweat. Jeremy then witnesses, aghast, the stellar rise of Kray upon the publication of his new doorstopper, “The Word”. It soon takes the world by storm. Everyone is reading it. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone seems to smugly espouse its wisdom. But what is “The Word”? How can nobody pin down exactly what the book is about? What power does it hold over those who read it? There’s only one way for Jeremy to find out, but will it cost him more than his personal pride to read the thing? What could have been a thinly-veiled dig at organised religion and the snarkier elements of fandom is made much more interesting in Campbell’s hands. Good stuff!)
The Map To The Homes To The Stars – Andy Duncan (3/5 – Tom and Jack are teenagers with a car and a route around town that lets them check on all the girls they fancy. Creepy, right? Their classmate Anna certainly seems to think so, and wastes no time in telling them. The pair offer Anna a lift, which she accepts. Relegated to the back seat, and giving Anna a neck rub, Jack senses something isn’t quite right. This was okay, but I didn’t really buy into it. The moment Anna’s “erotic” neck rub was clumsily conflated with Jack’s increasingly speedy and erratic driving, the wheels fell off for me.)
Emptiness Spoke Eloquent – Caitlín R Kiernan (3/5 – A spot of fan fiction from Kiernan as she takes Stoker’s Dracula and, through Mina Harker, explores the lives of its characters in the decades following the end of the book. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’m not a huge fan of stories that come with prerequisites – and this is most definitely one – but Emptiness… gets a pass for prompting me to fill an embarrassing gap in my reading. It’s an interesting story, and beautifully written, but it didn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps, in a weird way, that was the point. The title is taken from the climax of the novel, where [DRACULA SPOILERS AHEAD] Van Helsing locates Dracula’s vast and empty tomb, buggers about with it to stop Dracs from kipping there, and then proceeds to butcher his brides. In Emptiness… we witness Mina’s life being similarly hollowed out, albeit gradually, as war, time and even love conspires to leave her alone in the world. Of course, I could be overthinking it.)
Save As… – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – A man walks out from hospital, stunned, leaving behind the bodies of his wife and child following a horrific car crash. He checks into Same Again, a super-hush-hush facility out in a nondescript part of town. It seems the agency’s roof has sprung a leak, but that’s the least of our man’s concerns. All he wants is to revert to a previous backup of his life. But can anything ever be as simple and so free of consequence? Being a fully paid-up nerd, I wanted to like this story more than I actually did. Switch off your logic circuits for half an hour and you might have a better time of it.)
Coppola’s Dracula – Kim Newman (5/5 – More fan fiction this time as Newman flexes his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema to produce a hugely imaginative novella set in his Anno Dracula universe, speculating what Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula could have been like had he filmed it instead of Apocalypse Now, deep in the darkest part of Ceausescu’s Romania. It’s another story that comes with a string of prerequisites, and I’m not the greatest fan of Apocalypse Now, but I have to doff my stovepipe to Newman for his ambition and skill in putting this together. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and rightly bagged a string of award nominations at the time (Stoker, World Fantasy and International Horror Critics Guild, the latter of which it won.) Amazingly, it doesn’t seem as if this story has been collected anywhere other than here and Jones’s The Mammoth Book of Dracula, in which it originally appeared. Go seek it out!)
Grazing The Long Acre – Gwyneth Jones (4/5 – A free-spirited young woman takes to the roads of Poland, travelling with whoever will have her (often in more than one sense of the word). Riding along a particular stretch of motorway she notices a string of prostitutes lining the road. Her companion remarks how a large number have been murdered or have gone missing, leaving behind only bundles of dirty clothing. When they stop at a roadside diner she grows concerned that her companion is trying to offload her onto someone else, and decides to bail. But has she merely jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire? This is a good read, with an unsettling sense of moral ambiguity, but it takes a while to get going. Also, if you read this story in Best New Horror 9, I’d recommend reading it ahead of the author’s spoilerific introduction.)
The Zombies Of Madison County – Douglas E. Winter (3/5 – Having started with a spot of metafiction, Jones ends volume 9 with another, and a novella that bagged nominations for a World Fantasy Award and a Stoker no less. A pity then that it nearly left me as cold as the titular zombies. Winter drops a version of himself into a story within a story: a story of love, loss and a very peculiar love regained. When Douglas Winter’s childhood sweetheart Stacie dumps Douglas Winter while pregnant with someone else’s baby, Douglas Winter is heartbroken but goes off and lives Douglas Winter’s life like a good Douglas Winter does. But when the inevitable zombie apocalypse happens, and trainloads of zombies are shipped off to Madison County to be incinerated, Douglas Winter feels something calling him back home. There Douglas Winter finds a zombified Stacie, trapped in a crowded holding pen, and so begins a bizarre (and gruesome) rekindling of love through the barricades. I imagine your enjoyment of this will depend on your take on supposed Great American Novels. If boggy, overwrought prose does it for you every time then you’ll probably have a better time of this than me. It only just scrapes a 3/5 thanks to a superior framing story.)
Necrology: 1997 – Now, I don’t normally mention the review of horror or the Necrology sections of these books, but an exception is warranted this time around. For those who don’t know, the Necrology is a roll call of those who passed away during the year who had a link, however tenuous, to the horror field, and is compiled each year by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. This entry drew my interest: “Executive producer/financier Dodi Fayed was killed with his girlfriend in a car crash in Paris on 31 August, aged 42.” Some interesting phrasing there: “…with his girlfriend…” Sounds like someone wasn’t a Princess Di fan.
And so concludes another review of Best New Horror. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading! I hope you’ll pop by for another review soon. In the meantime, if you are tempted to read Best New Horror 9, you should be able to find a second-hand copy on Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks without too much trouble. Alternatively, eBook copies should be available on all major platforms. The book images above will link to their respective Goodreads pages should you want to explore an author’s work further.
Thanks again for reading. All being well, I’ll see you soon in another review.