(Before we jump in, if you would like to read reviews of the previous books in the Best New Horror series, you can find links on my Reviews page.)
Best New Horror 10 collects nineteen horror shorts published during 1998. Sadly this tenth anniversary edition of the series represents one of the weakest entries so far. Despite boasting a number of award winners and nominees in its pages, there are only a few stories that stand out from the pack.
Also, don’t let the cover fool you, vamp fans. There are no Goddam Draculas to be found in this book. What is there goes a little like this:
Learning To Let Go – Christopher Fowler (3/5 – Three old friends meet up at the start of a train journey. They drink, they bicker, they tell stories and they invite their fellow travellers to do likewise. Darkness descends and they notice the train slowing to a stop. The heating fails. The lighting too. When they venture outside, it seems their carriage has become uncoupled from the train. Or, having served its useful purpose, did the train simply disappear? This deconstruction of a horror story closes Fowler’s collection Personal Demons and, according to his introduction here, he wrote it as his farewell to the genre. (He’d be back, of course. They always come back…) This heads-up was perhaps key to me enjoying the story more than I would have done had I read it cold. In a way it reminded me of Jonathan Carroll’s The Dead Love You (Best New Horror 2), though, thankfully, Learning To Let Go treats the reader with a little more respect.)
The Wedding Present – Neil Gaiman (3/5 – Gordon and Belinda are writing thank you cards for all the wedding presents they’ve received, when they happen across a strange gift in a manilla envelope. It is a single sheet of paper with a delightful description of their wedding day. When they check the document some time later, however, they find the text has changed, now describing a version of their marriage they cannot quite reconcile. This was pretty good, told in Gaiman’s wonderful story-telling way, until the moment you sense you’ve heard it before. Gaiman acknowledges The Picture of Dorian Gray within the story, but it isn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card he perhaps hoped it would be.)
Adventures In Further Education – Peter Atkins (3/5 – Throughout his life, a man keeps count of the number of times he taps a pen against his desk, believing it will at some point sink straight through the surface and unlock the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Which, of course, happens. Fans of flash fiction might get a kick out of this one, being a mere two pages long. I’ve often found the format a tough sell, and this did nothing to win me over.)
Bondage – Kathe Koja (3/5 – A couple dip their toes into bondage, taking turns to wear a featureless gimp mask while they’re doing the nasty. Turns out they rather like it. Good for them. Not quite sure where the horror lies in this one, if I’m honest. Answers on a stamp-addressed dildo, please.)
The Keys To D’Espérance – Chaz Brenchley (3/5 – A young war veteran reaches his lowest ebb. He settles his affairs and initiates plans for his suicide, but then receives the keys to a large country pile. Upon arriving there he happens across a large disused bathhouse. In the process of bringing it back into operation, he is brought to recall the tragic circumstances surrounding the fates of those he loved. This is one of those tales that favours mood ahead of Telling The Bloody Story. It gets there in the end, but I nearly didn’t. Probably not one for animal lovers either.)
The Song My Sister Sang – Stephen Laws (4/5 – Dean is helping in the aftermath of an oil spill on Tynemouth beach. He spots a seabird struggling in one of the sluices running from a disused open-air swimming pool nearby. It’s a pool that holds tragic memories for Dean, being the place where his little sister drowned as a young girl. Dean finds the pool choking with oil and hundreds of dead birds… and someone seeking his help. Few can match Laws when it comes to building up tension within a story, and there were a couple of terrific scenes here that really set the nerves a-jangling. This story bagged a British Fantasy Award back in the day. I can’t argue with that.)
A Victorian Ghost Story – Kim Newman (4/5 – Within the oak-panelled splendour of a gentlemen’s club, members are taking turns to tell ghost stories over cigars and brandy. Ernest Virtue, fresh from making a killing on the Stock Exchange, relates to the gathering a recent and singular experience of his where a regular London pea-souper opened up to reveal a hidden ghostly world. This is a 4/5 from me, but only just. Though enjoyable, thanks largely to Newman’s exquisite writing, the story didn’t really go anywhere, amounting to little more than “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the…”)
The Dead Boy At Your Window – Bruce Holland Rogers (4/5 – Ah, this is more like it! Set such pesky things as logic and the real world aside for a moment and enjoy a short, bittersweet, Stoker-winning story of a dead little boy who, in the course of being bullied one day, finds a unique calling between this world and the next. It’s all rather lovely.)
Ra*e – Ramsey Campbell (4/5 – Another good showing from Campbell in a novelette that explores the fallout following the rape and murder of a teenage girl, and the rage that builds within the victim’s mother as the police fail to unearth any clues. Campbell assembles a cast of mostly unlikeable characters around the victim, leaving the reader in no doubt where their sympathies should lie. Despite this, and some clunky dialogue, the story still succeeds.)
Upstairs – Lawrence Watt-Evans (3/5 – The upstairs neighbours are making an awful racket, so Jack goes up to have a word. It doesn’t end well for him. Another piece of flash fiction that failed to win me over.)
Postcards From The Prince Of Tides – Caitlín R. Kiernan (3/5 – Three twentysomethings are travelling back from Seattle along Highway 101 when their car breaks down. While Tam seeks to have the car repaired, Lark and Crispin go wandering. They find billboards for a nearby attraction promising wonderful sights of mermaids and sea serpents and more besides. Hoping for use of a phone, Lark and Crispin seek the place out. This was okay, with some great descriptive touches as we visit through each of the Lovecraftian exhibits. The strange geometry at play within the trailer housing all of the beasties was another pleasingly subtle nod. But Kiernan overuses wordwank concatenation to the pointmoment it soswiftbecomes bastarddistracting. On top of that, if I was Tam, I’d have probably drowned both Lark and Crispin in Lake Union and travelled back alone. #MisanthropyYay)
Everybody Goes – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – Three boys are gadding about in the summer sun, much like how kids used to before Fortnite came along and enslaved them all. Jim keeps catching glimpses of a man watching them from afar. When Jim gets home, the man approaches and introduces himself. This was another readable story from MMS, as they so often are, but this time the payoff was weak.)
Yellow And Red – Tanith Lee (5/5 – Gordon Martyce is a middle-age fuddy-duddy who inherits an old house away from the hustle and bustle of London. His Uncle William was the last occupier of the house, passing away some three months ago. Indeed, it seems the house has been unkind to all the Martyces who have lived there, each suffering and eventually succumbing to ill health. While poring over some old photographs in the house, Gordon accidentally splashes some whisky onto the images, spoiling them with splodges of yellow and red. When Gordon checks the photographs again, he finds a chilling truth developing in those colourful splodges. In her introduction to this story, Lee cites M.R. James as an influence she felt was perhaps only evident to herself. Ehhhhh, no. This is a story that would quickly fill any Jamesean bingo card. It reminded me a little of The Mezzotint, which was no bad thing. Either way, this was an excellent read. Comfortably one of the best stories in the book.)
What Slips Away – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Taylor is working on home improvements and has been for quite some time. In fact, this near-Sisyphean task has consumed his money, his marriage, every scrap of his time and that of his father and his father’s father before him. Not that anyone would notice. The place still seems an unfinished wreck. It’s a stinking hot summer outside, certainly not the kind of weather to be hefting and humping hardware around the house. Indeed, it seems several of his fellow Do-It-Yourselfers have Overdone-It-Themselves and gone to the great hardware store in the sky. Maybe Taylor should ease up a bit and take stock of things. This is one of SRT’s straighter stories and a good one at that. Any story that uses a murderous shade to reinforce my belief that DIY should be left strictly to the pros gets a thumbs-up from me.)
Inside The Cackle Factory – Dennis Etchison (3/5 – Lisa Anne has recently started working at a research firm that gauges the reactions of test audiences to TV programme pilots. It is her job to help shepherd audience members to where they need to be. She tries her best to inveigle herself into the affections of Marty, her manager, impressing him with her knack for thinking up anagrams of TV shows and people’s names. But to what end? Why is Lisa Anne so keen to entrench herself into the company? And why does the company seem to take a heavy-handed approach to any unwelcome outsiders? The answers, frankly, are barely worth the effort. This was nominated for an International Horror Critics Guild award back in the day, but I fail to see the merit. This was one of those stories that seemed panel-beaten to deliver the ending the writer had in mind. In other words, it was as over-engineered as Lisa Anne’s tiresome anagram schtick. Eminently skippable.)
The Specialist’s Hat – Kelly Link (3/5 – Claire and Samantha are twins who discover that their babysitter used to live in their big rattly old house. The babysitter professes to know a good deal of the house’s secrets: of its little cubbyholes and hiding places, of its large attic space, and of the creepy teeth-covered Specialist’s Hat that hangs up there, waiting for them. I wanted to like this rather more than I did. The cut-up structure of the story was refreshing, and the little asides into rhyme added to the eerie atmosphere rather nicely, but the nebulous ending was a let-down. That said, this story bagged a World Fantasy Award at the time so we’ll perhaps chalk this up as one that simply wasn’t for me.)
The Boss In The Wall: A Treatise On The House Devil – Avram Davidson & Grania Davis (2/5 – A Précis On The House Devil may have been a more appropriate subtitle, given that this 70-odd page novella was originally a 600+ page manuscript that Davidson struggled to sell. Sadly, it shows. Worse still, the story has barely survived Davis’s heavy cutting. It’s a shame as the story starts off rather well. We are introduced to a clandestine network of academics who all share a desire to capture, study and understand the revenant-like “Paper-Men” that live in the walls of old houses across the US. We witness an attack on a family by one such creature. And then, for the remaining 60 pages, we are mostly subjected to lots of people stroking their chins and discussing Paper-Men as if they’re all Sir David Bloody Attenborough. Then, three pages before the end, a limp climax is sticky-taped to the whole affair. But the horrors don’t end there. Despite Davis hacking away 85% of the original novel she retains far too many incidental characters, each starved of story-time and whose opinions, comments and actions feel shallow and unearned. Then are there are passages that often read like screenplay outlines, juxtaposed, bizarrely, with lengthy tracts of mostly pointless info-dumping. All of which makes for a frustrating and uneven read. But perhaps the real tragedy here is that The Boss… smacks of a writer having a great idea but never quite figuring out how to turn it into a great story.)
Objects Of Desire In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear – Harlan Ellison (3/5 – Lieutenant Francine Jacobs is investigating the death of an old man and the bizarre circumstances in which he was found: shoeless, his throat cut so severely he was almost beheaded, and surrounded by three supermodels dressed up to the nines, each wailing to the darkening skies. The riddle of the old man’s lack of shoes is soon solved. The fact that he was over a hundred years old, possessed of two sets of organs within his body, both male and female, and was pregnant at the time of his death… well, that might take some explaining. This was okay. Ellison is as readable as ever, and, as you can see, he certainly wasn’t wanting for ideas, but the twist in the tale was weak and unearned, and felt somewhat tacked-on.)
Mr Clubb And Mr Cuff – Peter Straub (4/5 – Straub closes another volume of Best New Horror with an award-winning novella; one that nabbed a Stoker, an International Horror Critics Guild award and a World Fantasy Award nomination back in the day. So, as you can imagine, it’s pretty bloody good. In Mr Clubb… we visit upon a wealthy businessman as he hires Messrs Clubb and Cuff – Private Detectives Extraordinaire – to punish his wife and lover after receiving evidence of their affair. What our man doesn’t count on are the detectives’ deeply unusual if not downright intrusive and consumptive working methods. Mr Clubb… sees Straub in an unhurried mood. The story is the literary equivalent of a seven course meal followed by a seat by the fire with cognac and fine cigars. Every aspect is given ample time to help flesh out the tale, and Straub brilliantly keeps the reader gripped throughout. Ultimately it’s Straub’s unhurried approach that begins to unsettle you. He makes no secret that Clubb and Cuff are bad men, and it’s clear something awful is going to happen. It must therefore follow that Straub is going to be equally unhurried and expansive in telling us all about it. If I had one quibble it would be with the ending, but then, in a way, it did rather suit the hyperreality of what went before. Either way, Mr Clubb… is definitely worth a read and made for a great closer to the book.)
And that concludes another review of Best New Horror. You should be able to find second-hand copies of the book on eBay, Amazon and the like should you fancy a look. You can also purchase the book on most eBook platforms if you prefer to keep things digital. The book images above will link to their respective pages on Goodreads, should you want to explore an author’s work a little more.
Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll pop by later for another.