(If you would like to read reviews of previous books in the Best New Horror series, jump over to my Reviews page for links.)
After a below-par offering last time around, Best New Horror 11 saw in the new millennium with a welcome return to form, evidenced by a number of award-winners and nominees in its pages. It’s a shame then that Robinson’s proofreaders decided to go on strike that year, or so it seems, leaving the book peppered with niggly typos. These don’t factor into my scores, but they did bug me after a while. One would hope the eBook versions offer a cleaner read. In all, Best New Horror 11 is a comfortable 4/5 and worth hunting out.
The stories, all published during 1999, run as follows:
Halloween Street – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Laura is a strange girl. She has a face that’s hard to remember. Her eyes are impossible to describe. She doesn’t play with the other children, preferring instead to sit at her bedroom window, looking out on Halloween Street, a rundown part of town that strikes fear into the hearts of the local kids. Especially feared is the one house on Halloween Street that looks normal. Laura decides to go trick-or-treating one Halloween to the surprised relief of her parents. They hope it’s a sign of her acting like a normal girl at last. If only. This story was nominated for an International Horror Critics Guild award back in the day, but it didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. Sometimes a re-read is needed to open up SRT’s stories a little, but on this occasion even that didn’t help. Laura is presented as someone who is forever doomed to remain othered, but her actions and demeanour in the story do little to engender any sympathy. That said, the story does set the scene rather nicely for the series of vignettes that closes the book.)
Others – James Herbert (3/5 – In an excerpt from Herbert’s novel of the same name, we follow private investigator Nicholas Dismas as he makes his way home from the pub one evening. He chews over a few scraps of evidence in a missing-baby case he recently quit, evidence that questions whether the child existed in the first place. So why does the case continue to play on his mind? Things are not as they first seem, we discover, not least in Dismas himself, nor some of the people he has the misfortune of meeting. Back in Best New Horror 10, Stephen Jones mentioned only two authors had ever refused to have their stories reprinted in his series. Coincidentally they were the two biggest horror authors on either side of the Atlantic. This seemed a bit strange, given that Jones had previously edited a 300-page book on Herbert called By Horror Haunted. Makes you wonder. Anyway, this dig in Herbert’s ribs seemed to do the trick because a quick copy-and-paste later saw him appear in Best New Horror 11. While this excerpt functions as a story in its own right, it never once left my mind that I was reading a 10-page advertisement for someone’s book. The excerpt is well written, yes, and Herbert does a nice job of making Dismas a credible and sympathetic character, but its inclusion here feels unearned.)
Growing Things – T. E. D. Klein (3/5 – Herb is hooked on a bunch of tatty old magazines found stuffed in the attic: decades-old publications such as Practical Gardener, Home Handyman and Country Kitchen. Of particular interest are the letters pages. There Herb finds a short series of letters from someone trying to deal with a lump growing beneath the linoleum floor of their bathroom. Back then Mr Fixit recommended they should pop open the lump and drain whatever gunk was collecting inside. As subsequent letters go on to reveal, this may not have been the best course of action. Sadly, this was another story I wanted to like more than I did. I loved the central idea of the story but was rather less keen on the devices Klein used to tell it. Not that I can think of any better methods myself. Some stories are just plain awkward, I guess.)
Unhasped – David J. Schow (3/5 – Ethan is a married man who likes to reflect on his promiscuous bachelorhood. He keeps a cigar box filled with photographs and mementos of past conquests in his fireproof safe, something to help him remember Valerie. And Silla. And Barbara, and Jennifer, Tokay, Wendy, Shari… Conscious that his wife is heading home, Ethan puts away the cigar box and sets about finding a hidey-hole for his safe key. He finds a suitable location behind some corkboard drywall wherein he spies the faint glint of another key hanging there, a key to another box of memories. I can’t say I was overly keen on this one. The first half of the story felt like a string of writing exercises based on past loves, all stitched together using Ethan as a framing device. Schow threads some foreshadowing and wordplay throughout to show this isn’t the case, but those efforts are largely undone by events going in the direction you’d expect, especially when you consider this was a story written by someone who coined the term “splatterpunk”, was originally published in a themed anthology called White of the Moon: New Tales of Madness and Dread and is reprinted here in a horror anthology.)
The Emperor’s Old Bones – Gemma Files (5/5 – A harsh and inequitable partnership is struck in wartime Shanghai between Tim, a ten-year-old boy, and Ellis, a ruthless, streetwise young woman. Tim was abandoned by his parents in their doomed attempts to flee the country, ultimately putting him in Ellis’s path. Ellis sees in Tim her ticket out of Shanghai and soon the boy discovers just how little value she places on human life. Ellis is not above slashing a throat or two if it benefits her, nor is she slow to sell Tim’s body for sex when the money is right. As Tim gets to know Ellis and sees glimpses of her tender side, a grudging respect slowly builds between the two – a respect that is sorely tested the moment Ellis is tasked to provide for a speciality dish called The Emperor’s Old Bones, a dish that is said to extend the lives of those who eat it. This story bagged the International Horror Critics Guild short fiction gong back in the day (ahead of SRT’s Halloween Street, incidentally) and with good reason. It’s brilliant. The setting feels fresh and exciting, the horror is properly holy-shiiiiit horrific, and, best of all, Files creates in Tim and Ellis two monstrously fascinating characters. Make no mistake, these are bad people – they are like the opposite edges of the same razor blade – and Files works wonders in turning them into relatable, believable and immensely readable characters. This was a superb read. Seek it out.)
The Entertainment – Ramsey Campbell (5/5 – In this Stoker-nominated story we follow Shone, a nursery schoolteacher, as he drives around Westingsea in the pouring rain looking for a place to stay for the night. He eventually settles on a leafy old hotel, parks up and knocks on the door. An old woman answers him, asking, “Are you the entertainment?” She promises him food and a room for the night, and so, perhaps against Shone’s better judgement, he says “I’ll have a stab.” After a mixed bag of Campbell stories dotted throughout previous volumes of Best New Horror, The Entertainment sees him at the top of his game and was a pleasure to read from beginning to end. Slip in a few jokes and this would have made a great Inside No 9 episode. I might be a little biased here because I absolutely love Robert Aickman’s The Hospice (similarities to which Campbell acknowledges in his introduction), but Campbell’s story stands alone once he softens and picks away at Shone’s sanity. Excellent stuff.)
Harlequin Valentine – Neil Gaiman (4/5 – It’s Valentine’s Day and impish, naughty, mischievous Harlequin is in love. The object of his desire is a young woman called Missy, a former mortuary lab technician. In a macabre demonstration of his love, Harlequin pins his heart to her front door, then promptly vanishes from sight to observe what follows. But has Harlequin given his heart away too easily? If fans of genre fiction were to read all of the stories in this book blind of their authors and were then asked to identify the story that was written by Neil Gaiman, literally everyone would pick this. It’s very Gaiman. Happily, it’s also a fine read. The story has a lively feel to it, as if it came to Gaiman quickly, and there are a number of delightfully weird little turns to enjoy. A brief exchange between Harlequin and a mortuary corpse was wonderfully played, for example, as was the ending.)
The Stunted House – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – Lamsley fills the semi-regular Holiday Horror slot in Best New Horror with another quality offering. In it we follow Ambrose and Mel as they take a trip out to the coast. On their travels they discover the titular house situated a short distance from a cliff edge. The house is a little rundown and seemingly abandoned. A balcony floor provides an ideal spot for them to set up a picnic and to take in spectacular views of the secluded beach below. When Ambrose wakes from a post-prandial nap to find Mel nowhere to be found, he goes off to find her. First stop: a look inside the stunted house. This wouldn’t have been out of place in a show like Tales of the Unexpected, which is a thumbs-up from me. A fine way to while away the time.)
Just Like Eddy – Kim Newman (5/5 – Newman does a wonderfully pompous turn as Edgar Poe as the man unspools a tale of tragedy and madness, all centred around his troublesome middle name. The name Allan serves as a constant reminder to Poe of his enormously wealthy stepfather, John Allan, and the cold-hearted way the man would toy with Poe during the poet’s all-too-frequent times of need. Then, as Poe finds his work in print, his loathsome middle name takes on a further aspect of his displeasure in how often it is misspelled: viz, Edgar Allen Poe. As time passes, Poe grows convinced that Edgar Allen is something more than a mere typo, that he is in fact a doppelganger hellbent on destroying Poe’s life, his family and his reputation, and that Poe is doomed forever to trail in his wake, picking up the pieces. Written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Poe’s death, this is a rare example of showboating that absolutely works. This is a stonking story from Newman – another one! – and one in which he doesn’t shy away from Poe’s myriad faults.)
The Long Hall on the Top Floor – Caitlin R. Kiernan (3/5 – Deacon Silvey settles down on a park bench one evening to quietly sup a bottle of cheap gin and read one of his battered old paperbacks. He is interrupted by skater-boi Soda, who enquires upon a rumour that Deacon possesses psychic abilities. Turns out Soda was asking for a friend, Sadie, who is keen to show Deacon something in the long hall on the top floor of an abandoned building. Aggrieved at having the peace of his evening ruined, Deacon reluctantly agrees to take a look. In all the 200-odd stories I’ve covered so far in Best New Horror, this is the only one that completely escaped my memory within a few weeks of its reading. I could remember literally nothing about it. Even halfway through a reread I struggled to remember how it ended. The reason for this is simple. There is barely a story here. The writing is stylish and pops throughout its runtime, and the characters Kiernan draws together are interesting from the get-go, but there’s precious little for them to do. Like Unhasped, earlier, this is another story that feels like a writing exercise.)
Lulu – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – A man pieces together the story of how his grandfather, Leon Kuhn, came to know (real-life writer) Joseph Roth during the man’s final months. Europe stands on the cusp of another Great War and both Kuhn and Roth have holed up in Paris, each having fled an increasingly intolerant Germany. Roth is a tortured genius, alternating between days of feverish working and days of prodigious drinking, while Kuhn is a writer of relatively little renown. A friendship of sorts strikes up between the two men as they frequent Paris’s bars. Kuhn is soon enchanted by Sonja, a woman he assumes to be Roth’s lover or muse. When Kuhn and Sonja fall into bed together, it marks the beginning of a strange symbiotic relationship between the three. Another impressive story from Tessier, whose Ghost Music in Best New Horror 8 was a highlight. As with that story, Lulu showcases in Tessier a writer who knows his material inside-out. It’s seriously impressive stuff, but is let down a smidge by an unnecessary twist ending. Worth seeking out all the same.)
The Ballyhooly Boy – Graham Masterton (3/5 – Jerry Flynn inherits a rundown terraced house in Ballyhooly from Margaret Devlin, a woman he claims not to have known. The house is cold and grubby and sparsely furnished, with ripped carpets and strange scratches gouged in the ceiling. Jerry eyes the house for a quick sale, having no intention of living there. He is soon accosted by a neighbour who tells him of the screams she’s heard from the supposedly empty house, claims that are soon backed up by others in town. Events take a chilling turn when Jerry stumbles across a few of the house’s chattels, among them a yearbook from his old junior school, and a sullen ghostly boy sitting quietly on the stairs. For the most part this is a fine read. Masterton succeeds in fleshing out an affecting backstory for Jerry and builds a chilling sense of dread as the main story goes on, but the moment the story required a victim and the true monster of the piece was revealed, things started to come apart for me.)
Welcome – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – MMS finds inspiration in his home computer once more, this time a computer file with an impossible timestamp. In Welcome, Paul witnesses such a file on his PC, allegedly created on Monday, September 9 1957. He puzzles over this while grinding through tiresome commutes to and from a job he hates. On one such train ride home, Paul wakes to find a strange newspaper by his side. Except it’s not a newspaper at all. The title, for example, is Welcome, and the newsprint is nothing more than pages and pages of people’s names. Why would that be? This is one of those stories where the journey is more important than the destination. Or, put another way, a story which tantalises the reader throughout its runtime without resolving anything at the end. For me, such stories have to work a damn-sight harder than most to warrant my time reading them, and, sadly, on this occasion, MMS doesn’t deliver.)
Burden – Michael Marano (4/5 – A gay man is haunted by the ghosts of several friends, each of whom succumbed to the AIDS virus. They linger in plain sight as he cruises the bars with what remains of his friends, bumping into other men on the scene, some of whom resemble walking ghosts themselves. But our man is also haunted by the fact he recently had unprotected sex; a night of passion he might now come to regret. Marano’s full-on film reviews in Cemetery Dance are one of two columns I always seek out whenever they appear. His reviews are unapologetic and in-your-face and guaranteed to be free of bullshit, which gives you a flavour of this story. The gay scene Marano presents here is 100% meat market. There’s no room for love, it’s just men out to fuck other men, night after night. It’s bleak and nihilistic, but the writing really pops and draws you in, a fact made more impressive considering it’s written in the second person, which is usually a tough sell for me.)
Naming the Dead – Paul J. McAuley (4/5 – In this World Fantasy Award-nominated story we are introduced to Mr Carlyle, psychic detective. His is a world in which imps and beasties cling invisibly to people, filling them with doubt and anxiety; a world where diminished ancient river gods can rise up through plugholes to parley, and Carlyle can see them all. When Mrs Stokes drops by to employ Carlyle’s services in tracking down Robert Summers, a convicted murderer recently released from prison, Carlyle reluctantly agrees to help. The plot thickens when Mrs Stokes is slaughtered in her hotel room shortly after their meeting. When two heavies are put onto Carlyle it seems someone, or something, doesn’t want Summers to be found. This was an enjoyably imaginative read. McAuley creates in the space of twenty pages a vibrant world for Carlyle that I’d happily revisit. In his introduction, McAuley expresses his desire to pair Carlyle with another of his characters in a story called Doctor Pretorius and the Lost Island, which appears later in Best New Horror 14. (Rubs hands together expectantly.))
Aftershock – F. Paul Wilson (4/5 – F. comes up with the goods again in a Stoker-winning story centred on Joe Glyer, a doctor who takes an extracurricular interest in a lightning strike survivor. To his surprise, Kim, having just recovered from the strike in question, is determined to head straight back out to find another storm. She claims each time she is struck by lightning she gains a fleeting moment with her dead son, a claim Glyer has a hard time believing until he too is struck by lightning. F. is as readable as ever, though this is a story that hasn’t aged quite as well as its peers. If you can get past Kim’s lovely breasts, and how frequently they pop out for a bit of fresh air, then an entertaining read awaits you.)
A Fish Story – Gene Wolfe (4/5 – A quick in-and-out from Wolfe, presenting in barely four pages a story within a story within a story. Now that’s some editing! In A Fish Story, a writer recounts a fishing trip he once took with his buddies Rab and Bruce. When they start telling ghost stories to one another around the campfire, Rab reluctantly tells of a strange episode he experienced while visiting his dying Aunt Elspeth in hospital, an episode that evidently left its mark on the man. This is another story that raises more questions than it cares to answer but is helped along by its brevity. Worth a five-minute look.)
Jimmy – David Case (3/5 – The sleepy mountain town of Bleekerville is threatened by the emergence of a violent attacker with long nails, a mask-like face with sulphuric eyes and a rapacious passion for teenage girls. Elsewhere, a father sits and frets about his daughter, Rebecca, from whom he has not heard for some months. All he knows is that Rebecca last took up residence in Bleekerville. Meanwhile, an old couple agonise over their teenage son, Jimmy, who has been missing for a few days now. Ethel and Homer fear for Jimmy’s safety, that others in town won’t understand how Jimmy is different from all the other boys. You could chart my enjoyment of this story as a 4/5 gently declining to a 3. It’s is a shame, as Case’s writing for the most part has a brilliant folksy feel to it, riffing on every backwater police station you’ve ever seen in American movies and TV shows. But this folksiness sits uncomfortably in a story about a teenage monster attacking and raping women and teenage girls. This comes to a head, if you’ll forgive the expression, in a scene late in the story which unwisely veers into pornography, a genre in which Case has also been published. Needless to say, this, along with an oh-please ending, made for another story that hasn’t aged well.)
White – Tim Lebbon (4/5 – The world is knackered. A gruesome virus has devastated the global population, and the resulting imbalance of power has seen nations merrily knocking seven bells out of each other. A harsh winter has descended, hitting the UK hard, smothering everything in a deep cover of snow. A group of survivors hunker down in a large manor house by the coast, hoping they can see out the worst of the weather. But as the snow continues to fall and the drifts continue to deepen, a more immediate threat emerges from out of the wilds, an otherworldly threat that is as bloodthirsty and vicious as it is cunning and cruel. This story impressed a few people back in the day, bagging a British Fantasy Award and an International Horror Critics Guild nomination, and it’s not hard to see why. This is great story from beginning to… well, till about the three-quarter mark. Like The Ballyhooly Boy earlier, this is a story that doesn’t quite survive the reveal of its monsters, but don’t let that put you off, as the ride up to that point is top-notch. Lebbon creates a real sense of a world dying one snow-blasted day at a time, and the way he strips away layers of hope from our protagonists until there is nothing left but a will to survive is masterful.)
Pork Pie Hat – Peter Straub (4/5 – A postgrad student secures a private interview with an ailing jazz musician, the eponymous Hat. Our man aims to sell the interview to a magazine with the hope of bringing Hat to the attention of a wider audience. But Hat is a sick man. A life spent playing three sets a night has taken its toll on him, and shortly after the interview Hat passes away. The interview is published, save for one part: a lengthy account of a disturbing incident one Halloween night in Hat’s childhood, his last proper Halloween. In it lie the seeds of Hat’s hard life, and perhaps why, in the run-up to his death, he wouldn’t venture out on Halloween night. I’d been looking forward to reading this ever since devouring Straub’s brilliant Ghost Story a few years ago. Having been partial to a spot of jazz over the past fumfty years, I’d purposely avoided all descriptions of Pork Pie Hat so I could soak up and savour every word Straub had for me. Imagine my slight disappointment, then, when I found this, like Ghost Story, was another story-within-a-story, and one that was not so much concerned with smoky bars and the hard lives that were writ large on tiny stages. Both the inner and outer stories of Pork Pie Hat are great, don’t get me wrong, and Straub knocks it out of the park when it comes to generating tension – the moment our young Hat is on the run and cornered at knifepoint is damn near heart-stopping – but I had hoped for something else. That’s on me, really, so no harm etc. There are a few other niggles, however, that are on Straub. Within the inner story, for example, Hat and his friend Dee are keen to spice up their last proper Halloween by sneaking around The Backs, a shack-strewn bad side of town set in the woods, around which much of the inner story is centred, but too long is spent getting them there, and, when they finally arrive, Straub takes an almost obsessive interest in manoeuvring them through The Backs like chess pieces. And the fact that they wear ghostly white sheets for most of the time feels a bit weird when they’re trying to sneak about in the night. This is also another story that hasn’t aged well since it was published. If you are triggered by use of the word “coloured”, then you might find this one a troubling read. If you can accept that, however, then this is still a mighty fine read.)
Tricks & Treats One Night on Halloween Street – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – After SRT opened the book with Halloween Street, he closes the book with this, a series of flash fiction vignettes all connected in some way to the titular street. As with any collection of short stories, they’re a mixed bag, and flash fiction is often a tough sell for me, but one story stands out a mile: that of a boy, Ronald, who answers the door on Halloween to a trick-or-treater who is wearing a mask of his face. Ronald demands to know from whom or where the boy has gotten a mask of his face, but the boy runs off. What happens next is downright eerie and brilliant. In all, this Stoker-nominated “story” is a good and natural closer to the book.
And so ends another lengthy review of Best New Horror. As ever, if you’ve gotten this far, then thanks for reading! I hope you found something of interest. If you fancy a read of Best New Horror 11 then you should be able to find a second-hand copy on Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks without too much hassle. Alternatively, if eBooks are your thing, then you’ll find the book available across all major platforms. Finally, the book images in this review will take you to their respective pages on Goodreads should you wish to explore an author’s work further.
Once again, thank you for reading. I hope you’ll pop by again for another review of Best New Horror.
Till then, TTFN!