Review: Best New Horror 8

Here’s looking at you, kid.

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

After a run of above-average entries in the Best New Horror series it was inevitable we would hit an iffy one, and this is it. The weird thing, though, is there is nothing massively wrong with the book. There are few stinkers to be found here, if any, but then nor are we overly blessed with knockout stories. This instalment therefore scores a fairly average 3/5 from me.

Best New Horror 8 presents twenty-four horror shorts published during 1996, and runs as follows:

 

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

Walking the Dog – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – Steve is hired by the mysterious Mr Stook to walk his dog, which sounds easy enough until Steve finds himself being dragged around some godforsaken craggy moor by the thing each and every night. It’s an arrangement that is every bit as eccentric for our man as it is exhausting, but then nothing quite compares to the weirdness of the “dog” itself. Still, at least the money is good. Now if only Steve can loosen the grip Stook has somehow taken on his life. Or, more accurately, his neck. Who is leading who, exactly? I’d say this was the weakest story of Lamsley’s to appear in Best New Horror. That’s not to say this was poor, rather the least best of a good bunch. The characters are interesting, the setting is suitably creepy, and there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a horror story. Still, you have to wonder how this oddity popped into Lamsley’s head. I’ll have what he’s having, please.)

Also collected in Brite’s “Self-Made Man”

Mussolini and the Axeman’s Jazz – Poppy Z. Brite (3/5 – Another beautifully-written story from Brite, and one that typically doesn’t skimp on the claret. Like The Sixth Sentinel (Best New Horror 5), Brite digs into New Orleans history for inspiration, but falters on this occasion by also attempting to incorporate all of world history into the bargain. (Small exaggeration.) Archduke Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering the Great War. Four years later the Archduke’s ghost turns up in New Orleans, exceedingly pissed off and determined to hunt down and kill a centuries-old Italian occultist called Cagliostro. The Archduke is convinced Cagliostro is guilty of ordering his assassination. He has a plan for revenge. All he needs in an unwitting pawn. Beware, New Orleans, the axeman cometh. This is ambitious and imaginative stuff, but ultimately a rare misfire from Brite. You might have a better time of this than me if you ignore the tone set by the first part of the story and instead strap yourself in for a silly, gory fun ride.)

An Eye for an Eye – Norman Partridge (3/5 – Wanda and Russell are intrigued by a stuffed black cat owned by Wanda’s grandmother, Madame Estrella, not least by how Estrella is somehow able to bring the thing back to life. The cat supposedly once starred in a few golden oldie horror movies, and word has it that a fella of Estrella’s acquaintance has more memorabilia like it stashed away somewhere. Wanda and Russell are keen to plunder this valuable collection. Wanda especially will stop at nothing to get her hands on it. This story was written for a themed anthology and good grief does it show. It’s a fun read, yes, but, like the story preceding it, there’s a lot of wreckage to overlook.)

Also collected in Clegg’s “The Nightmare Chronicles”

Underworld – Douglas Clegg (3/5 – Oliver takes his wife Jenny to an old Chinese restaurant squirrelled away in a run-down New York alley. The wife of the owner correctly guesses Jenny is pregnant and is confident she will give birth to a baby boy. Jenny is tragically murdered, however, and when Oliver returns to the alley sometime later he finds the restaurant has been boarded up. When he looks through a crack in the boards and into the darkened restaurant, he catches a vision of Jenny framed in the glass of the kitchen door. Inevitably, Oliver breaks in to investigate. This was okay, and better than Clegg’s previous entry, Where Flies Are Born (Best New Horror 3), but it felt like a plot outline at times which would have benefitted from a little more flesh on the bones.)

The Curse Of Kali – Cherry Wilder (3/5 – Gwen lodges with the Bentons and their three children. The mother, Rose, works in real estate. Through some prior financial finagling Rose had managed to secure ownership of the house next door, much to the annoyance of the old widow Pallister who lived there. Now, with Mrs Pallister passed away, Gwen watches as the Bentons pick over their acquisition and its exotic chattels. When the youngest Benton fails to return home one evening, Gwen is disturbed to see a shadowy figure lurking at the corner of the Pallister house. This was okay, but, for me, the setup seemed too obviously engineered to deliver the shock Wilder had in mind. I’d have also preferred a little less of the awful Bentons and a little more of the Pallisters, if only to better qualify events later in the story.)

The Film – Richard Christian Matheson (3/5 – A short shocker from Matheson which sees a ragtag bunch of sick and ailing ne’er-do-wells descend on a brutalist movie theatre in some futuristic, eco-apocalyptic shithole. They’re all super-keen to see “The Film”, even if it’s the last thing they do. Another middling story here, but this does at least better Matheson’s previous entry, Ménage à Trois (Best New Horror 6). It’s an entertaining read, and one whose postmodernist leanings lend it a certain freshness for you hep cats, but it won’t be too long after the end before you start picking holes in it.)

Also collected in Constantine’s “The Oracle Lips”

Of a Cat, But Her Skin – Storm Constantine (3/5 – Nina escapes her control-freak other half, Scott, and loses herself for a while in the grounds of Elwood Grange. She happens across a stone monument tucked away in the woods: a wide obelisk carved with assorted arcane texts, atop which sits a sculpture of a cat hunkered down in a hunting pose. Nina is drawn to the monument, and feels it expose a rich seam of confidence within her. This was okay, but it takes a while to get going. While I liked the places the story goes to, I couldn’t help thinking that the fantasy element – I struggle to call this horror – served to undermine Nina; as if she wouldn’t have been capable of achieving what she does within the story without receiving a magical leg-up.)

Also collected in Burleson’s “Wait for the Thunder”

Hopscotch – Donald R. Burleson (3/5 – It’s the dead of night and an old woman revisits the neighbourhood of her youth. Signs of life are thin on the ground. The buildings vary from decrepit to barely inhabitable piles of wire and rubble. The old woman finds a faded hopscotch grid in an enclosed alleyway and recalls the gruesome fate of the intense young girl who painted it. The old woman flips a bottlecap into square one. Game on. Well, you can’t fault Burleson for a lack of effort. He lays on the atmosphere with a trowel in the opening pages and then, when most writers would have given up the story as a bad job, he ploughs on ahead despite having an old woman playing hopscotch, in a dead part of town, in the middle of the night, on her own, and while beset with arthritis. He tries everything to make the story work. To be fair this was okay once it got going, but, let’s be blunt, there’s a lot of bollocks you’re going to need to swallow here. So to speak.)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”. Cover links to Smashwords page.

Ghost In The Machine – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Carter is baffled how the TV is still on with no power running to it. In fact, how can the TV be on at all when he’d already given it to his neighbour? It seems Carter’s mind is in a strange place. Life has not been the same since his mother died. Best get the repairman around to help put things right. Fans of SRT know how strange his stories can get, and this is one of the strangest. In the story’s introduction he describes how it was written at 2am, which sums up its dreamlike quality perfectly.)

The Moon Never Changes – Joel Lane (3/5 – Gareth is a young man who, for the most part, manages to keep hidden the seething frustration he feels for modern life and the state of things. He indulges his bitterness through a number of unhealthy pursuits. He attends meetings of a local fascist group and soaks up their dogma. He broods over photographs of those who’d dumped him. When Lorraine, a work colleague, invites herself around to his place, it seems Gareth has a chance to turn his life around, but is he willing to take it? In the introduction Lane describes the story as being about the psychology of fascism. I don’t doubt this, but by wrapping it in his usual gossamer layers of metaphor and implied meaning, I couldn’t help but feel he’d let his target off the hook.)

Butcher’s Logic – Roberta Lannes (4/5 – We’re in 1950s US of A to witness a slice of familial strife brought on by the eldest daughter’s friendship with a lad called Jesse, a half-Puerto-Rican half-Afro-American boy. Neither of the girl’s parents approve of Jesse, what with this being 1950s US of A and all. Her mother in particular dials up her admonishment of the girl at every opportunity. Tempers boil over when Jesse stands up to the girl’s father during a fractious exchange, causing the old man to accidentally bugger over and hurt himself. Later, on a grocery errand, the girl sees her father’s car parked by the store. The old man is nowhere to be found inside, and the staff seem a little cagey of his whereabouts: the cashier, the bagger… and the butcher. I liked this a lot. Lannes replaces the extreme horror of her previous stories with something more restrained and reaps the rewards as a result.)

Kites and Kisses – D. F. Lewis (3/5 – Clive is a young lad who spends a lot of his time looking out of the window. He often sees another young lad playing outside with a kite. Asking his mother for a kite of his own, Clive is told if he’d wanted one hard enough then he’d have one by now. According to his mother, such twisted logic as this is what helped them become so terribly, terribly wealthy. Clive isn’t so sure about that. It seems every time Mr Court pops round in his dumpster, it’s to seek money that Clive’s mother doesn’t have. This is one of the longer stories of Lewis’s oeuvre, clocking in at a giddy five and a half pages. For the most part it was a fairly straight affair with some nice writerly flourishes, but the jarring switch to Lewis’s usual cryptic style right at the end was more tiresome than intriguing.)

Last Train to Arnos Grove – Marni Griffin (3/5 – It’s approaching midnight and a woman is trying to get home in time to receive a call from her other half. Wouldn’t you know it, her car runs out of petrol just outside Wood Green tube station. Scrabbling together some loose change she buys a ticket for the underground. When she gets on the train, however, she finds there are several more stops before Arnos Grove than were advertised. This was okay, albeit another story that felt overly engineered. Was it really so fantastically important to be home by the stroke of midnight? Wouldn’t her other half have called again a little bit later? Or does he turn into a pumpkin at one-minute-past? And who calls their partner at midnight anyway?)

The King of Rain – Mark Chadbourn (4/5 – Four work colleagues are on a miserable hiking break on the Derbyshire moors: John, the owner of the business; Phil, the office curmudgeon; Gordon, the annoyingly upbeat guy; and young Sam, our narrator. As rain persists and the hike progresses, Gordon and Phil begin exhibiting strange injuries: a large bruise on the arm, a sudden nosebleed. Much to Sam’s unease, John seems to be holding something back about the purpose of their hike. This was a very good story, and one written at a time when insufferable office team-building exercises were all the rage. Coincidence?)

Also collected in Sinclair’s “Slow Chocolate Autopsies”

Hardball – Iain Sinclair (3/5 – For the last three years a young man has been in the employ of The Pole, a crotchety and creatively-sweary drunkard. Along with an unhinged youth known simply as The Kid, the three of them maintain the painted lines of football pitches on Hackney Marshes. It’s a never-ending job, seeing as though there are two hundred of them. To our man’s surprise he finds both The Pole and The Kid sometimes engage in a little extra-curricular activity, taking on football fans in penalty shootouts outside grounds on match days. Our man is invited to play but soon comes to realise there’s a lot more at stake than a couple of quid and a celebratory chug of vodka. This was okay, but it took a second reading for it to improve. Even then I didn’t buy it. I suspect that for every reader who laps up the literary showboating on display here there’ll be a dozen more enduring a story basting indulgently in its own writerly juices.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “The Nightmare Factory”

Gas Station Carnivals – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – This playfully meta story sees a dyspeptic writer sitting in a cabaret club, drinking mint tea and smoking mild cigarettes. He is joined by an arts critic called Quissier who is worried that he’s in dutch with the club’s proprietress after calling her “a deluded no-talent”. Apropos of nothing, Quissier then goes on to relate his childhood experience of the run-down little carnivals that he would sometimes find close to equally run-down gas stations, and of the strange and scary entertainment he would find within them. The writer, seemingly having had enough, stops Quissier halfway through his story with a surprising and revelatory interjection. Ligotti’s stories are in a field of their own, and are often a highlight of the Best New Horror books that feature them. This is no different. Probably my favourite of his appearances thus far.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

Ghost Music: A Memoir By George Beaune – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – Beaune, a music journalist, recounts the strange events surrounding the decline of his composer friend, Eric Stringer. When Stringer is commissioned to write a quartet he moves to London to throw himself fully into his work. Months pass, but, when Stringer eventually exhibits the piece to Beaune, our man is troubled by what he hears. The music into which Stringer had poured so much of himself was undoubtedly beautiful, but it also had the unfortunate distinction of having already been written, note for note, by an obscure composer several years earlier. When Stringer scraps the work and starts afresh, he finds to his horror and shame that the same thing happens again. Could Stringer have been suffering a bizarre episode of writer’s block, or was there a more supernatural explanation? Tessier really knows his stuff when it comes to classical music, it seems, and this had the feel of a story he’d wanted to write for some time. The result is a really good read. Jump in!)

That Blissful Height – Gregory Frost (4/5 – Frost dramatises the story of Professor Robert Hare and his efforts to apply scientific methods to the craft of local spirit mediums in mid-1800s Pennsylvania. He attends a séance with his friend and fellow cynic, John Hazard, noting how the medium often had too much influence on the messages being passed along from the afterlife. Hare endeavours to produce a number of contraptions to create a degree of separation between the medium and the message being delivered. In doing so he finds his long-dead sister, Anna, suddenly keen to have a chat. Hare’s head is turned by this revelation, but Hazard remains unconvinced. Frost’s impeccable writing helps make this one of the strongest stories in the book and is very much worth your time.)

Also collected in Royle’s “Mortality”

Skin Deep – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – Henderson has been enthusiastically boffing Graham Bloor’s wife, Elizabeth, behind the man’s back for some time. When he is invited one day to accompany the Bloors up to the Highlands to help hunt wildcat, Henderson accepts. He is disappointed and slightly alarmed, however, to discover Elizabeth has been unable to make the trip. Cue much tension as the two men head on out for the hunt. This was another story that was jarringly over-engineered. Here’s an example of what I mean. Within the space of the first two pages we establish: 1) that Bloor is being offered two thousand pounds from a taxidermist for each wildcat he bags; 2) that wildcats are “as rare as rocking horse droppings”, and 3) that Bloor is a successful businessman with a big house and a flash car. Ri-i-i-ight, because spending days hunting rare wildcat is just what successful businessmen do for pocket change. I smell droppings here, and they’re not from any rocking horse. The story never really recovers from this clanger, but it does have its moments and Royle does succeed in providing a strong ending.)

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

Hell Hath Enlarged Herself – Michael Marshall Smith (4/5 – An old man drives to a hotel room in a world gone to hell. Along the way he reminisces about an old friend of his, David, and the incredible technological advances they achieved in their youth along with David’s girlfriend, Rebecca. Back then the three of them worked in secret to produce a nanotechnological panacea, a real world-changer in their eyes. But each advance they made in their discoveries would come with an added layer of hubris. As any Outer Limits fan knows, the arrogance of boffins too much in love with their own work never plays out well. This novelette was nominated for a World Fantasy Award at the time and while the futuristic science on display has rusted a bit over the years, the story is still a good one. It does come slightly adrift towards the end, however, when MMS starts spooning in the supernatural.)

Also collected in Fowler’s “Personal Demons”

Unforgotten – Christopher Fowler (3/5 – A ruthless property developer is keen to purchase a knackered old building sitting between two others he owns. The developer wants to knock the whole lot down and parcel the land for development, maximising its value. His right-hand-man, however, sees a certain charm in the old building. He also finds its plans don’t quite add up. Not every square foot of the place seems to be accounted for. Time for a look-see, then. I doubt there are many people who can rival Fowler’s knowledge of London and his passion for the place, but on this occasion it proves his undoing. While he pulls out a decent ending to the story, there’s too much fussing and farting about getting there. A rare misfire for me, sadly. Fowler went on to use elements of this story some years later in his second Bryant & May novel, The Water Room, with broadly similar results.)

Also collected in Edelman’s “These Words Are Haunted”.

A Plague On Both Your Houses – Scott Edelman (3/5 – Five words: “Romeo and Juliet and zombies”. A long-running feud exists between the living and the living dead. Carlo, son of the mayor of living New York City, falls head over heels in love with Delores at a masquerade ball. Unknown to Carlo, Delores is a zombie, and the daughter of Leopold, king of the zombies, no less. Can true love find a way? Edelman presents for the audience’s delectation a five act play written in rhyming couplets. It’s an admirable effort, but it’s telling that Edelman couldn’t find anyone to publish the piece, resorting instead to self-publishing it as a Halloween card. Still, A Plague… eventually bagged a Stoker nomination, so his efforts seem vindicated. For me, though, I’m with the editor who said ‘Sorry, but we don’t like Shakespeare’.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Final Cut – Karl Edward Wagner (4/5 – In what was believed to be Wagner’s last story before his untimely death, Dr Kirby Meredith is a psychiatrist in a large hospital who gets a distressing call from Cousin Bob. Bob, a long-time alcoholic, can’t stop vomiting blood, and so Meredith instructs him to come to the hospital straight away. Bob is stabilised, but finds he needs an operation to save his life. While under the knife, Bob has a strange dream in which he stumbles into a morgue and an ongoing autopsy. Or at least Bob thinks it was a dream. This was a very good story. Though there’s a sense that Wagner, a trained psychiatrist himself, was getting one or two things off his chest, it never strayed into chest-beating polemic.)

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

The Break – Terry Lamsley (5/5 – If Walking The Dog was Lamsley’s weakest appearance in the Best New Horror series, then I would say The Break was his strongest. In this superb novelette, Danny accompanies his grandparents on a week’s holiday in the sleepy seaside town of Todley Bay. There he witnesses a number of weird things happening around him, from a man taking days to inch a large heavy box along the jetty, to a huge oily gull stalking him, to a hotel with a shifting number of floors, to a number of people only he seems able to see. Some of these people seem awfully keen to spirit Danny’s senile grandfather away. The lightness of touch that imbues many of Lamsley’s stories is replaced here with sobering observations on the effects of Alzheimers on the sufferer and those who love and care for them, and his story is all the more powerful for it. This was an excellent read. Jones leaves the best story for last in Best New Horror 8.)

And so we reach the end of the review. If you got this far, thanks for reading! I hope there were a few stories here that tickled your fancy. If so, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a second-hand copy of Best New Horror 8 online. Alternatively, you can purchase an eBook copy on most major platforms for a couple of quid. The cover images in the review will take you to the relevant Goodreads page should you want to explore more of the author’s work.

Till book 9, keep well and I’ll see you soon.

LP

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

Review: Best New Horror 6

Seems a bit harsh having “R. Campbell” on the tombstone!

(If you would like a run through the stories found in the first five books of the series, jump over to my Reviews page.)

This sixth entry sees a slimmer volume for the Best New Horror series, and showcases twenty-one stories and a poem, all published during 1994. To be honest the book could have been even slimmer. Like the previous volume, Best New Horror 6 is an uneven read with a number of underwhelming stories littering the first half of the book. Get through that lot and you’ll find the latter half significantly better, evidenced by a glut of award-winners and nominees. Taken as a whole, this makes for a fairly solid 4/5.

This was the first book in the series that was solely edited by Stephen Jones following Ramsey Campbell’s departure. Don’t think you’ve seen the last of Campbell, though, as his stories go on to feature in this and all but one of the next 22 books!

So let’s jump in. The stories you’ll find in Best New Horror 6 are as follows:

Also collected in Watt-Evans’s “Hazmat and Other Toxic Stories”

Dead Babies – Lawrence Watt-Evans (3/5 – Allie’s waters have broken and her husband, Bill, is rushing her to hospital. The baby isn’t hanging around, however, and it soon dawns on Bill that they will never reach the hospital in time. He decides a more sensible idea would be to make a short detour to Dr Everett’s house. They are answered by Dr Everett’s sister, Laura, who ushers them into a small parlour-like room. Everett arrives and sends Bill and Laura out into the hallway while he tends to Allie. As Bill paces the hall he cannot help but notice a dreadful smell in the house, seemingly coming from a nearby room, but he doesn’t question it. When he hears Allie’s anguished screams, Bill finds their worst fears have been realised. But that is only the beginning of the nightmare. This short helping of American gothic was okay, but it goes in the direction you’d expect from one scene to the next. That said, there are some nice touches here and there. The story is told from Bill’s point of view and Watt-Evans does a great job of humanising him with an affectionate Deep South twang.)

Also collected in Ellison’s “Slippage”

Sensible City – Harlan Ellison (4/5 – Gropp is a police lieutenant facing a lengthy prison sentence following the brutal deaths of several inmates at the internment facility he ran. He’s as guilty as all Hell too, thanks to his favourite pastime of smacking prisoners’ heads along the bars of their cells until they pass out. Knowing he’s going down, Gropp jumps bail with his right-hand-man-mountain Mickey Rizzo, who also has blood on his hands. They hightail it in a car with Mickey at the wheel. After a while they find themselves on an unfamiliar Interstate route with no idea where they are or where they are headed. A town called Obedience presents itself in the near distance, a town with an ominous green tinge in the sky. This was a fun short; like a weird mix of The Ant Hill Mob (with Gropp as Clyde and Mickey as Dum Dum) and the old Creepy and Eerie comics of the 60s.)

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

Blade and Bone – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – Ogden is on his bike, taking in and reporting upon the sights of the Peak District for the benefit of his laid-up wife, Poppy. A freak downpour on his travels forces Ogden to urgently seek shelter amid a line of boarded-up houses. Assuming the area to be uninhabited, he smashes open the door of a nearby outhouse. As he barges his way in, Ogden has the uncanny feeling of something brushing past him. Could he have accidentally released something from the outhouse? And if so, what? This was another strong showing from Lamsley, whose Two Returns in Best New Horror 5 was a highlight. This story takes a while to get going but oh my does the ending deliver!)

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

Harvest – Norman Partridge (3/5 – Raphael lives alone in C-Town. His children are dead. His wife is gone. Everyone else in C-Town has either died or fled. The trees are blackened, the river poisoned. The sounds of a weeping woman float through the empty streets. She is La Llarona, the very personification of all that ills C-Town, and she is keen for Raphael to taste her gruesome, fleshy fruit. When Raphael is visited by a succession of people all keen for him to move away from the area, a tragic and significantly more mundane explanation presents itself. But can Raphael accept it? I liked this sad and sombre story up until the ending, which tries to get away without answering anything. I griped first time around that this was weak and it suggested Partridge didn’t know how to finish the story; a feeling that is sadly undiminished following a second reading.)

Sometimes, In The Rain – Charles Grant (4/5 – Len is an old man given to sitting out on the porch in the middle of winter, watching shapes emerge and dissolve in the rain. His younger sister, Gracie, lives with him. Originally this was to help Len around the house, but these days she’s there more to bicker and complain and fuss. In order to escape her, Len goes out drinking with his friend (and Gracie’s ex-husband), the magnificently named Youngman Stevens. But Youngman is a widower with a troubled soul. He is prone to seeing his recently deceased wife Edith in a nearby park. When Len staggers home after another night on the sauce, he catches a glimpse of Edith too. Of Grant’s appearances in Best New Horror, this Stoker-nominated novelette was perhaps his most straightforward story. Nevertheless, it’s wonderfully written, cannily observed and a nice little chiller to boot.)

Ménage à Trois – Richard Christian Matheson (2/5 – A couple get it on. Repeatedly. With a knife. Of course! This short sequence of vignettes was originally published in an anthology of erotic horror called Little Deaths, and clearly the attempt was to evoke a Barkeresque ooh-yeah-baby-cut-me-there-mmm-yeah-peel-my-skin kind of thing, but to be honest it’s about as sexy as finding blood in your stool. I’ve given it one extra star, though, for its unintended comedy value. “Ghastly red licorice” indeed.)

Also collected in Lane’s “The Lost District and Other Stories”

Like Shattered Stone – Joel Lane (4/5 – Peter is a sculptor who suddenly finds he’s creating amazing work while asleep. One morning he wakes up in his studio, naked, tool in hand (stop it), finding he has rendered in granite an extraordinarily vivid forearm of a child reaching up out of the stone. It’s all very nice, but it’s a world away from the smashed-up cars and burnt-out buildings he was intending to sculpt. He wakes up another morning to find a young girl’s head cut from another block of stone. Whatever could any of this mean? Later, one evening, while cutting through a side street to Soho Road, Peter spots a dark sealed-up building. The walls of said building aren’t brick, however. They look somewhat like granite. This was a weirdly playful curiosity from Lane, couched, as ever, in bleak reportage from the Black Country. Echoes of this story can be heard in My Stone Desire, his British Fantasy Award-winning story of 2008.)

Black Sun – Douglas E. Winter (2/5 – In this International Horror Critics Award-winning story we follow an unnamed stranger as he is accompanied by a man called Hagopian through short scenes of post-nuclear holocaust and the slow death of the world. Hagopian has hired the stranger to undertake a horrific mass killing in the neon city, seemingly unaware of his assassin’s true self. Much of this mood piece is open to interpretation, and your enjoyment of it will hinge on how much work you are willing to put into reading it. As I’ve mentioned a few times in these reviews, I have to be in the right frame of mind. I was originally less than enamoured with this story, stating that I’d be happy to live out my days never having to read it again. Well, having read it a second time – as I have with several stories so far in these extended reviews of Best New Horror – I found a story that still exhausted my patience, though it did improve slightly. I’ve upped the score a tad, but I wouldn’t count on a third reading.)

Also collected in Harrison’s “Things That Never Happen”

Isobel Avens Returns To Stepney In The Spring – M. John Harrison (3/5 – In a story that flicks between past and present we follow Mick “China” Rose as he builds up a courier firm servicing a number of medical research companies across Europe. During these halcyon days he falls heavily for the titular Isobel, a waitress who yearns to fly like a bird. Cut to the present day and Isobel seems to have found one such research company that can help her fly, but with distressing, life-changing consequences. I wasn’t keen on this Dr Moreau-esque story the first time around, thanks mostly to the incredibly irritating Avens. Seriously, if she’d exclaimed “China!” one more time I’d have reached into the story and wrung her bloody neck. It’s damn near every other word she says. She even says it to help Harrison break up a few overly long paragraphs. <CynicModeDeactivated> Amazingly, despite everything running against it, Harrison manages to turn this story around in the latter third. For book nerds out there, Harrison later took this story, added Choe Ashton from Anima (his story in Best New Horror 4) and turned it into the British Fantasy Award nominated novel Signs Of Life. I’ll pass, thanks.)

The Dead Orchards – Ian MacLeod (5/5 – Caitlin is a poor girl who finds herself the centre of a rich old man’s attention. He is struck by her astonishing beauty, which is undimmed by her impoverished appearance. He begs her to come visit him, promising her money, a life of pampering and luxury and more besides. Caitlin agrees but is wary. She recalls how her mother disappeared one night long ago when lured to these grounds. She has every right to be wary too, for her host possesses a cruel streak a mile wide and the wealth to feed it. He also has a secret enchanted well tucked away in the bowels of the house. Those who drink of its waters fall into a catatonic state, a quality of which the old man has taken murderous advantage time and again. This was MacLeod’s third appearance in Best New Horror, with each story better than the last. The Dead Orchards is an excellent read; a full-blooded and handsomely written horror story that is chock-full of gothic imagery and which leads to a very satisfying ending. Job done!)

Also collected in Massie’s “Shadow Dreams”

What Happened When Mosby Paulson Had Her Painting Reproduced On The Cover Of The Phone Book – Elizabeth Massie (5/5 – From one excellent story to another. In What Happened… we follow Elliott, a tragic young boy whose wellbeing, confidence and schooling is being routinely destroyed by his dying mother. She is quick to browbeat Elliott, to lay on the emotional blackmail, to do anything to get her own way. Her cold-hearted selfishness has stripped the boy of any sense of ambition, effectively reducing him to her personal dogsbody. One morning Elliott opens the mail and sees a classmate’s painting on the cover of the phone book, which makes him realise how much of his potential he is wasting. He used to get good grades. His artwork was often praised by his teachers. Now look at him. But what can he do to improve his lot? This is a sad story made all the more heartbreaking by the fact Massie drew on her experience as a teacher to write it.)

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

The Alternative – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – Highton returns home one evening to his wife and two kids. Home is a cramped two-bedroom flat in a grotty, run-down estate. Both Highton and his wife, Valerie, have to sleep in the sitting room to give their teenage daughter and junkie son separate rooms. But something weird happens when Highton goes to sleep. When he wakes, he is a successful accountant with a model family and all the trappings of a comfortable lifestyle. So which life is real and which one is the dream? This was okay, but I couldn’t quite shake the notion that Campbell was trying too hard. The Alternative chimes false as a result. List five things you’d expect to find in a stereotypical well-to-do household or rough council estate during the mid-90s and the chances are most of them will show up in this story.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

In The Middle Of A Snow Dream – Karl Edward Wagner (3/5 – Niane Liddell is an exotic dancer with a drug habit and the mental scars of a hard life. She’s had a few brushes with death, the latter brought about through a Demerol overdose. She is sent to a retreat for recovering addicts, but something about the place feels a little off. It seems her fellow patients have all had near-death experiences too. Coincidence? This was one of Wagner’s final stories before he died at the age of 48, and it left me wondering whether this was truly the finished article. The pacing of the story is uneven to say the least. Wagner spends time building up interesting characters in Niane and her fellow exotic dancer girlfriend Navonna, but the moment they both enter the retreat it seems he cannot wait to throw monsters at them and finish the story. Not great, sadly.)

Also collected in McAuley’s “Invisible Country”

The Temptation Of Dr Stein – Paul J. McAuley (4/5 – In an alternative history where Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions have helped transform Florence into a world power, Henry Gorrall and his sometime unofficial assistant Dr Stein investigate the body of a young girl pulled from the Grand Canal. Her body is sent to the city hospital for examination accompanied by two guards. When the guards are mortally attacked and the girl’s body fails to arrive, Gorrall is furious. It seems the girl has been stolen by bodysnatchers. Events take a chilling turn when the girl is subsequently found in the company of a sideshow charlatan calling himself Dr Pretorious. Remarkably, the girl is alive… after a fashion. I didn’t come to this story with high hopes if I’m honest, despite it bagging a British Fantasy Award. While I don’t mind stories set in alternative universes, it didn’t feel right for a horror story for some reason. I needn’t have worried. McAuley wisely keeps the alternate reality stuff squarely in the background and focuses instead on characters, plot and excellent writing. Definitely worth a read.)

Also collected in Kilworth’s “Moby Jack and Other Tall Tales”

Wayang Kulit – Garry Kilworth (4/5 – A man is enjoying the rustic delights of Bali when he is handed an invitation to attend a wayang kulit – a sacred shadow puppet play. He attends the show and is suitably impressed with the skill and artistry on display. Later, while nobody is around, he examines the assorted puppets in the booth, unaware of his shadow falling against the screen. One of the shadow puppets moves, seemingly settling into place, its shadow meeting his. Our man soon senses a growing pain in his shoulders and comes to realise the shadow play isn’t quite finished. I really liked Kilworth’s Inside The Walled City, which was a highlight of Best New Horror 2, and this story is every bit as good.)

The Scent Of Vinegar – Robert Bloch (4/5 – Greg Kolmer is a young man who is keen to locate Kitty Earnshaw’s place. Hers was a fabled house of ill repute from cinema’s golden era, believed to be lost to the years somewhere up in the Hollywood hills. Greg is convinced he will find his fortune there, a treasure trove of dirt on the leading men of the age. Instead what he finds is a golden girl lying in one of the rooms; a girl with sharp teeth who, bizarrely, is able to detach her head from her shoulders. This Stoker-winning story from the author of Psycho is a fun read with a wonderfully satisfying ending.)

The Homecoming – Nicholas Royle (4/5 – Daniela returns to Romania, her homeland, following Ceausescu’s bloody downfall. Upon arriving there she has a feeling that the nightmare isn’t quite over. Bucharest is a wreck, yes, but other than that the city still seems brimming with informers and secret police. Strange dreams and uncomfortable truths come to light when Daniela attempts to find her brother. This World Fantasy Award-nominated story previously appeared in Jones’ Shadows Over Innsmouth anthology, but thankfully this is one of those rare occasions where an author dips his toes lightly into Lovecraft territory and produces superior work. True, the tired Lovecraftian trope of a perpetually fearful protagonist is given an airing here, but the quality of the story makes up for it.)

Also collected in Landis’s “Impact Parameter and Other Quantum Realities”

The Singular Habits Of Wasps – Geoffrey A. Landis (5/5 – There are a few 5-star stories in this volume but this has the beating of them all. In The Singular Habits of Wasps Landis presents an astonishingly good Sherlock Holmes story, albeit perhaps not one for the purists! Doctor Watson is worried for Holmes. The famous detective has recently returned from investigating the disappearance of a mortally wounded farm hand and is exhibiting behaviour that is odd, even for him. With each nightly disappearance of Holmes it seems a lady of the night ends up slaughtered. Holmes couldn’t be the notorious Jack The Ripper, could he? Remember: when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.)

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

To Receive Is Better – Michael Marshall Smith (4/5 – Jack is a man on the run, hiding on a subway train, desperate to avoid drawing attention to himself. But the cards are stacked against him, for Jack has never known the outside world. To make matters worse, he is missing an eye, some fingers and a leg. He has spent his whole life being kept in a tunnel, with all the other “spares” like him. Needless to say, Jack is a more than a little pissed at his lot and is going to do something about it. This World Fantasy Award-nominated story was originally published in another of Jones’s many anthologies, The Mammoth Book Of Frankenstein, and it’s typically brilliant of MMS to find an intriguing twist on the Frankenstein story. He would later take this story and turn it into his second novel, Spares, which I might have to seek out.)

Also collected in Hodge’s “Lies & Ugliness”

The Alchemy Of The Throat – Brian Hodge (5/5 – In this sumptuous Stoker-nominated novelette we follow a modern-day castrato soprano, Giovanni Petrelli, in the months following his auction from a shady conservatory. This is a world in which castrati are still produced, albeit in utter secrecy, and the prices fetched by the most talented castrati are eyewatering. (The ones who don’t make the grade “mysteriously” disappear.) Giovanni is purchased by an incredibly wealthy man called Julius, and is soon put to the task of singing for him. During the many years of his training, Giovanni has heard all the horror stories of his trade, of how the androgynous beauty of the castrati often land them in the beds of their patrons. He is understandably wary of Julius, wondering how long it will be before he too falls foul of his patron’s lusty hands. But it seems Julius is content for Giovanni to merely sing for him. Julius’s debauched friends, on the other hand, are another matter – as Giovanni is about to find out in full. This is a superb story, real genre-elevating stuff. There have been a few erotic horror stories in this and previous volumes of Best New Horror, but Hodge shows them all how it’s done. Unmissable, though you might need some smelling salts while reading it.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Famous Monsters”

Out Of The Night, When The Full Moon Is Bright – Kim Newman (5/5 – This World Fantasy Award-nominated novella sees another mash-up from Newman, his third in as many books. Red Reign, in Best New Horror 4, was a brilliant story which took in Dracula and pretty much everyone of note, both real and fictional, from the Victorian era. The Big Fish, from Best New Horror 5, however, was a largely unsuccessful attempt to shoehorn Chandler into Lovecraft’s universe. This time around Newman clearly thought, “The Legend of Zorro, WITH WEREWOLVES!” And do you know what? He’s only gone and pulled it off. In one half of a dual narrative, we follow a young black novelist, Stuart Finn, as he endures a ride-around from hell courtesy of the LAPD. The whole city is a powder keg, its citizens brazenly taking pot-shots at the police, its gangs seemingly massacring rivals with impunity. Finn is here to develop a screenplay based on a successful novel of his, transplanting it from the UK to the US, but will he survive long enough to do so? On the flipside of the story we follow Diego as he embraces his newfound lycanthropy and cuts a murderously righteous path through a cruel, fledgling America, slaughtering any wrongdoers he senses, carving his zig-zag-zig calling card on each and every one of them. How the two narratives tie together, you’ll have to read for yourself, needless to say it’s very well done. It’s not all wine and roses, however. There is a whiff of stale and faintly Verhoevenian near-futurism to overlook here and there, but do so and you’ll find this a satisfying and bloodthirsty romp. Tuck in!)

Lovers – Esther M. Friesner (4/5 – A young woman awaits her sweetheart who has gone to war. She sends him a letter, promising him her heart, but then finds her love for him wanes in favour of another. Come her wedding day, an unexpected guest arrives, a little worse for wear, letter in hand. An unbroken four-page poem didn’t appeal to me, if I’m honest, but then poetry is often what you make it. Once I’d gotten the cadence down I couldn’t help reading this with the voice of Vincent Price in my head, which worked wonders! (Yes, I’m weird.) Lovers evoked a nice chill down the spine and made for a good closer.)

And so we come to the end of another monster review of Best New Horror. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading! I hope there were a few stories here that tickled your fancy. You shouldn’t have too hard a job tracking down a second-hand copy of this book on eBay or AbeBooks should you fancy a read. Failing that, the eBook version is available to purchase across most platforms. The book covers above will each link to their respective Goodreads pages, which may provide you with other avenues to explore.

I’ll be back with a review of book 7 in a wee while. Do join me, won’t you? Till then, TTFN!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 5

(If you would like an overview of the stories published in the first four books of the series, jump over to my Reviews page for links.)

Best New Horror 5 showcases twenty-nine horror shorts that were published during 1993 and was the last instalment of the series to be edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. As with previous books in the series, Best New Horror 5 is a mixed bag with runs of good stories here and there. A strong finish to the anthology helps push this into 4/5 territory.

As for the stories themselves, let’s take a look:

 

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

Later – Michael Marshall Smith (4/5 – A man watches in horror as his beloved Rachel is cruelly knocked down in a hit-and-run accident. She dies in his arms a moment later. Our man is devastated and tries his best to get through the awful events that must follow, such as informing Rachel’s parents, attending her funeral and wake, and adjusting to living alone in a house still filled with her effects. Soon after the funeral, and unable to face life without her, he goes to macabre lengths to bring Rachel back home. This was a good read with touching and believable expressions of grief, but was spoiled slightly the moment the supernatural was brought in. Slight spoiler – this was originally published in a zombie anthology, so I guess it had to go there, but I reckon Later would have packed a bigger punch had it ended just before the zombie stuff kicked in.)

When The Red Storm Comes – Sarah Smith (4/5 – We’re in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Peace talks are taking place between Russia and Japan, and the town is awash with foreign diplomats and their entourages. Amid the hubbub Susan Wentworth finds herself the subject of Count Ferenc Zohary’s intense interest. He promises to make her a vampire, just like him – if he is indeed what he says he is. Horror veterans will have read umpteen stories of vampire rumpy such as this over the years, but the interesting setting makes this worth a look.)

The Exhibit – Martin Plumbridge (4/5 – Suzie is enduring a succession of drab beach-side attractions with her father, all the while wishing she was somewhere else. When her father suggests they try The Wax Museum, Suzie stays put and sends him in on his own. When he fails to materialise some time later, Suzie and the museum’s attendant head in to investigate. I liked this more than I thought I would, given the setup. The story goes in some unexpected directions, which helps to build a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere.)

Leavings – Kathe Koja (3/5 – Gordon finds he is being haunted by the long choking hair of his dead lover Sophy. He’s pulling hair from the back of his throat, from his food, from his drink, seemingly everywhere. But why is Sophy haunting him so? I wasn’t terribly keen on this the first time around. It’s told in an increasingly cut-up style to give us a sense of the madness taking hold of Gordon, but it didn’t take long for this to get on my nerves. Stories that set themselves up as difficult reads live or die on the willingness of the reader to go along with it, and it soon felt like this was a story that was determined to throw me out. It evidently succeeded as a second reading revealed a wonderfully creepy ending I’d missed the first time around. I’ve therefore upped the score a notch from my original review. Leavings is worth a look if you have the patience for it.)

Originally collected in Bryant’s “Darker Passions”

Human Remains – Edward Bryant (3/5 – A group of women meet at a hotel. They dine together even though they have never met before. They are each survivors of a man recently executed for serial rape and murder, and the women exchange their experiences of him. Vicky shares the story of her narrow escape but leaves out a few crucial details, not least that she secretly wishes to feel the thrill of her near-death experience once more. In her bag is a Barbie doll wrapped in its entirety with fishing wire, seemingly left for her in the ladies’ toilet. A lure, perhaps? I’ve rarely felt as conflicted about a story as I did here. There’s a nasty undercurrent that grows the longer you dwell on it. Scored purely on the unease the story creates, this would be a 5/5, but I can’t say I liked this one.)

Also collected in Royle’s “Mortality”

Flying Into Naples – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – Royle fills the “holiday horror” slot for this particular instalment of Best New Horror with a weird slipstreamy story about a divorcee jetting into Naples in the hope of re-engaging with an old flame, Flavia. On his travels he experiences a bizarre episode, meeting a dying man not unlike himself who tells him where Flavia lives. When he tracks her down our man finds that Flavia only really comes alive when she is in her car. At all other times she is almost grey and lifeless, as if she is gathering a fine layer of dust like everything else around town. Flavia also claims to have been widowed six times, an enigmatic warning our man would do well to heed. I wasn’t overly keen on this story from the outset. My unshakeable impression was that we were on holiday with a stalker, and I’m not entirely convinced that was intentional. The story is rescued somewhat by the impressive sense of place Royle creates, giving us a good flavour of Naples and its surrounding areas.)

Also collected in Brite’s “Swamp Foetus”

The Sixth Sentinel – Poppy Z. Brite (5/5 – In this superb ghost story we are in the company of Jean Lafitte, feared pirate and privateer of New Orleans’ French Quarter during the mid-nineteenth century. Now long dead, he haunts his old stamping grounds. In one such place lives Rosalie Smith, a world-weary twentysomething who strips by night and fills the rest of her waking hours slugging hard liquor. Jean is smitten and is not shy about making himself known to her. Rosalie is unconcerned by his presence, often talking freely with him, but she flatly refuses his offers of undiscovered treasure. She’s not keen on digging stuff up. Keen to ease Rosalie’s mental hurt, Jean enters her dreams to find the source of her pain. But is that his only motivation? If you liked His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood, Brite’s story in Best New Horror 2 (and also collected in Swamp Foetus) then you’ll love this. Unmissable.)

The Brothers – Rick Cadger (4/5 – Ian is driving home with his odious brother-in-law, Neville, who is stopping over for a few days. Home is the picturesque village of Galham with its pair of large serpentine statues erected like bookends on either side: The Brothers Bokovan and Yusenoi. Only those born of Galham can see The Brothers and each Galhamite has allegiance to one or the other. The Brothers quietly bless their subjects with success and longevity in return for their loyalty… and for a once-in-a-lifetime test of their faith. Events take a bizarre turn when, upon arriving home, Ian suddenly finds himself a guest; that somehow his wife is now married to Neville. This story has no right to work as well as it does. For a start it’s written in the second person, a tough sell for me. Not only that, The Brothers operates solely and unapologetically on its own terms and it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. And yet it’s a wonderfully weird read. Definitely worth a look.)

The Owen Street Monster – J. L. Comeau (4/5 – A mean and mighty fine story told entirely as a sequence of phone calls made by Janine, the neighbourhood queen bee, to her closest friends. It seems some of Janine’s friends aren’t coping very well. Some are doubting whether the titular monster they’d killed was a monster at all. To say any more would be to give the game away, suffice to say this is a devilishly fun short.)

Also collected in Klein’s “Reassuring Tales”

One Size Eats All – T. E. D. Klein (4/5 – Continuing the devilish fun is a story in which a young lad, Andy, receives a sleeping bag for Christmas. Both he and his older brother are planning to camp out on Mount Wendigo, so this is all very well. But the packaging seems to contain a misprint, declaring the sleeping bag to be “One Size Eats All”. At least Andy hopes it’s a misprint. Though this story was written for kids, Klein doesn’t shy away from pressing all the scary buttons. A mighty fine way to spend ten minutes.)

Mulligan’s Fence – Donald R. Burleson (4/5 – Kelly returns to the neighbourhood where she grew up. The apartment block in which she lived is long gone, razed to the ground, but old man Mulligan’s fence still stands. Kelly scans the wood, running her fingers over the initials carved there, remembering the names, unaware she is also somehow drawing some of her old childhood friends back to the fence. For the most part this was a straight-up 3/5. As short as the story was, it lingered much too long on a roll call of inconsequential characters from Kelly’s past, but the Tales-From-The-Crypt-style ending just about rescued it.)

How She Dances – Daniel Fox (4/5 – Michael shares a taxi with Alice, who is trying to get home to her baby, Anne-Marie. Michael is wary of Alice from the off. She seems unstable, speaking in halting sentences, struggling to get her meaning across, but one thing becomes clear: Alice didn’t arrange a babysitter. Michael is concerned for Anne-Marie’s welfare but soon comes to regret not leaving well enough alone. Like Kathe Koja’s Impermanent Mercies (featured in Best New Horror 3) this story reminded me of a nightmarish sketch in Chris Morris’s Blue Jam radio show (the sketch with the plumber, he says tiptoeing around spoilers). It’s a good read, though one that is guilty of forever warning the reader of the horror to come, which is a rather cheap way of building tension.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Passages – Karl Edward Wagner (3/5 – Three old friends meet at a school reunion and fall into a conversation detailing their secret horrors. Freddie tells how his sisters and their friends would dress him up in girls clothes. Marcia tells of how she was convinced she had spiders infesting her tight curly hair. Grant, a surgeon, tells of his hatred of needles – and how he managed to overcome his fear. For me, this was a misfire. Wagner does a good job of building up the story, creating a sense of unease as Grant tells his tale, but the payoff is underwhelming.)

Easing The Spring – Sally Roberts Jones (3/5 – A folksy horror tale which sees an environmental campaigner introduced to a young woman called Ceri in a somewhat obvious matchmaking attempt by Ceri’s grandmother. They hit it off, which turns out to be bad news for our man. This was okay, but most readers will be familiar with a number of other stories along these lines, not least of which *cough* a certain cult 1970’s British horror film starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward *cough*. Goodness me, that was a long cough.)

Also collected in the Tems’ “In Concert: The Collected Speculative Fiction”

Safe At Home – Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem (2/5 – Melinda is struggling to cope in her relationship with Charlie. Scenes of her inner conflict, of the horrors she experiences when they become intimate, are intercut with snatches of dialogue from Uncle Pat to his niece, Mandy, and Uncle Pat loves Mandy so very, very much. Boy, did this story piss me off the first time around. The Tems’ attempt to conflate child sex abuse and hairy Lovecraftian squid-sex, real or imagined, later in Mandy/Melinda’s life felt horribly misjudged; an opinion that hasn’t changed after a second reading. The subject matter is bad enough. Tacking monsters onto it serves only to cheapen the real horror at the centre of the story. Worse still, this grubby shocker was originally published in an anthology of erotic horror called Hottest Blood. I’m going to take erotic at its broadest meaning here – that of relating to sexual desire rather than arousing it – because the idea of someone getting their jollies off of this story doesn’t bear thinking about.)

Also collected in Fowler’s “Flesh Wounds”

Mother Of The City – Christopher Fowler (4/5 – Douglas hates London. He hates how his friends have all moved there and made successes of their lives. Perhaps most of all he hates how he has been left behind. After sleepwalking through much of his twenties he suddenly has the good fortune to meet a young advertising executive, Michelle, through a work commission. To Douglas’s surprise, they hit it off. It seems life has turned a corner for our man, but it doesn’t take long for the cracks in their relationship to show. Unlike Douglas, Michelle absolutely adores London and when our man lets slip his true feelings about the place Michelle takes it to heart. After their differences manifest themselves into a full-blown row, Douglas soon regrets his idiocy and begs Michelle for another chance. When she agrees to meet him for dinner on her turf, Douglas finds London doesn’t want to play ball. Another winner from Fowler.)

Also collected in Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill”

Justice – Elizabeth Hand (3/5 – Janet is a journalist who is stranded in a one-horse town after her editor pulls the story she’s working on. She is told to investigate a nearby cattle mutilation instead. Janet is furious, but reluctantly goes along with it. Later, she spies a familiar-looking RV parked in town with what sound like two huge dogs shut up inside. The RV belongs to itinerant lawyer, Irene Kirk, who Janet discovers has her own sense of justice. Hand’s excellent story The Bacchae in Best New Horror 3 was a modern take on Euripides’s tragedy. She dips into Greek mythology again for Justice, but doesn’t quite succeed. The story takes an age to get going, and feels overlong as a result.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Famous Monsters”

The Big Fish – Kim Newman (3/5 – From one author attempting to relive recent glories, it seems, to another. Newman gave us the superb Red Reign in Best New Horror 4, which was a fantastic mash-up of literary and real-life characters set in Victorian London, which then gave rise to his Anno Dracula series. In this novelette he tries another mash-up, this time plonking a Chandleresque private detective into a Lovecraftian world, but on this occasion he comes up short. The near-constant wisecracking of our shamus soon becomes tiresome, and the rather dry roll-call of names and movies dumped into the first half of the story could have been better spent developing some of the characters. In the end I suspect this was a lot more fun for Newman to write than it was for me to read.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

In The Desert Of Deserts – Thomas Tessier (3/5 – A man is crossing the Sahara desert because plot. (I’m not kidding. At no point do we know why he’s doing this, suffice to say that he is and he’s doing it in a Range Rover packed full of – air quotes – expensive equipment. Anyway, back to the plot.) He is advised to only drive at night by the locals, but soon finds this impractical. The roads, or at least what exists of them, are almost impossible for him to follow. He switches to daytime driving, but soon discovers why he was advised to drive at night. The next morning he finds footprints circling his camp, a presence that seems to haunt him every time he stops for the night. This was okay – Tessier’s depiction of the Sahara is a highlight – but the ending is weak.)

Also collected in Lamsley’s “Under The Crust”

Two Returns – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – We’re on the up again now with a wonderful Jamesian ghost story from a writer who would go on to make a number of welcome appearances in Best New Horror. In Two Returns we follow Mr Rudge, an old man who one evening witnesses a caped silhouetted figure standing manfully on a darkened railway platform. Rudge is alarmed to see glimpses of this shadowy figure all the way home. The shadow always seems to stay ahead of him. When Rudge gets in through the front door he finds a decidedly unwelcome cape hanging on his coat-hook. I picked up a copy of Lamsley’s Under The Crust, from which this story is taken, at the most recent World Fantasy Convention. Sadly that was all I did as the thing would have cost me $400 to purchase. Cripes!)

The Moment The Face Falls – Chet Williamson (4/5 – Paul Kenyon is a former screenwriter who knocks out a steady stream of pseudonymous novels to make ends meet. Out of the blue he receives a phone call from a producer who really, really liked that western he wrote decades ago – the one with Jimmy Stewart, the one directed by Anthony Mann – and he wants Kenyon to write the screenplay of a soon-to-be-published nailed-on bestseller. After so long in the wilderness things are finally looking up for Kenyon. What could possibly go wrong? Though not strictly speaking a horror story, it still has a certain Tales Of The Unexpected vibe to it. If you liked that show – and I very much did – then you’ll lap this up.)

Also collected in Somtow’s “The Pavilion of Frozen Women”

Darker Angels – S. P. Somtow (4/5 – This extraordinary story was originally published in an anthology called Confederacy Of The Dead, and it ticks pretty much every box of that premise. We’re witnessing the last dregs of the American Civil War through the eyes of Jimmy Lee, a fourteen-year-old boy left picking his way through a battlefield carpeted with the corpses of Confederate troops. Amid the carnage he meets Old Joseph, a former slave who seems to remember Jimmy from a decade earlier, and who is skilled in magic as old as the rivers and mountains of this young America. This is a terrific story – certainly a highlight of the book – but is sadly let down by an ending which feels at odds with the message it was trying to convey. Somtow would later develop this story into his novel Darker Angels, which I might have to seek out.)

The Timbrel Sound Of Darkness – Kathe Koja & Barry N. Malzberg (2/5 – The ghost of Jack the Ripper (or Springheel Jack, take your pick) takes to haunting Sir Arthur Sullivan (one half of Gilbert & Sullivan). Well, “haunting” is perhaps a bit strong. “Floats about telling Sullivan how shit and worthless his work is and will be in the fullness of time” may be a better description. A bit like me with this pointless story, I guess.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Tsalal – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – The exhausted people of Moxton are desperate to leave town but find their every effort to escape is thwarted. Something is repelling them. Something is sucking the life out of Moxton, its people and seemingly all existence itself. The only one not affected is Andrew Maness, a man who possesses a book of knowledge called The Tsalal. This is another Lovecraftian effort from Ligotti, who seems here to have shifted from his usual lush storytelling style to the kind of stale, overly-verbose and hopelessly tangled prose you’d normally expect of H.P. himself. It’s a shame because, once you have hacked your way through the turgid first half of the story, The Tsalal really comes alive. Not his best, but worth sticking with.)

In The Still, Small Hours – Charles Grant (4/5 – Lucas is unable to accept that his other half, Joan, has perished in an air crash. He haunts the observation deck of a mostly empty airport nearly every week in the still, small hours. He watches as the last few planes descend and land, waiting for her. There he meets a mysterious man called Daryl, who Lucas assumes has recently landed. It seems Daryl knows a lot about the airport and its workings. Incredibly he also seems to know something about Joan. This was a fine ghost story that was initially a little slow but came to life once Daryl entered the scene. Grant also has some fun messing with your head: not every ghost in this airport is necessarily a person, for example. It’s an effective diversion. Just when you’re mentally separating the real from the ethereal, Grant slots in another of his wonderfully chill endings.)

Also collected in SRT’s “The Far Side Of The Lake”

Ice House Pond – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Bear with me here a moment, folks. Some of you might remember a while ago when TV executives hit upon a weird little phenomena: slow TV. Whether it was two hours of unbroken footage taken from the driver’s seat of a train, or an unhurried and voiceover-free look at someone blowing glass, these shows succeeded in finding a steady audience. This novella is like that, and it absolutely works. The story focuses on Rudy Green as he seeks to rebuild his life following the death of his wife and unborn child. Rudy purchases a rundown house isolated in its own winter wonderland and begins to clear it out. A large frozen pond dominates the immediate landscape, its thick ice a shifting swirling grey. A channel of near-black water runs from the lake to the ice house adjoining the residence. When a neighbour swings by suggesting Rudy harvest the ice, to restock the ice house and to restart an old tradition of building a house of ice with the excess, Rudy agrees. After the horror show of Safe At Home, earlier in the book, this is a much better offering from SRT. Very much worth your time.)

Also collected in Etchison’s “The Death Artist”

The Dog Park – Dennis Etchison (4/5 – This British Fantasy Award-winning short finds a writer called Manning visiting the local dog park on the off-chance he’ll find his lost pooch. The park itself is a thinly-veiled cover for the movers and shakers of the TV and movie industry to gather and network, a scene Manning is all too happy to quit. The local homeowners overlooking the park from their expensive designer pads are keen to close the whole thing down, and they’re certainly not the kind of people to worry about the occasional dog being snatched by the park’s wilder animals. This was a good story but I was surprised to learn it was an award winner.)

 

 

Also collected in Wilson’s “The Cleft and Other Odd Tales”

The Marble Boy – Gahan Wilson (5/5 – Two boys break into a graveyard for a ruddy good rummage about the place. They soon find a life-size marble statue of a boy encased in glass. They assume the statue is of a boy buried nearby, a boy in a grave whose stone lid appears to have split in two. Much to George’s horror Andy levers the halves of the stone lid apart and reaches inside the grave. Bad, bad move. This is an excellent horror short that delivers with every paragraph, building up the atmosphere and tension wonderfully before delivering a truly spine-chilling climax.)

 

 

Also collected in Ellison’s “Slippage”

Mephisto In Onyx – Harlan Ellison (5/5 – As with the previous book, Best New Horror 5 closes with a barnstorming award-winning novella from a seasoned pro who really knew what he was doing. Rudy Pairis is a mindreader who is asked by Ally, a long-time friend, to help her acquit a convicted mass-murderer, Henry Lake Spanning. Ally confesses she is in love with Spanning, which Rudy finds utterly bizarre given how Ally was the prosecuting attorney who built the case against him in the first place. With only days to go before Spanning’s execution, Rudy very reluctantly agrees to visit him, and so a deadly game commences. Ellison’s writing positively crackles in this twisty-turny tale. Rudy is a great character armed with a number of laugh-out-loud opinions, descriptions and turns of phrase. (A security guard being “seven foot in any direction”, is a personal favourite.) It’s worth seeking out a copy of Best New Horror 5 for this story alone.)

And so we reach the end of another mega review of Best New Horror. Thanks for reading! If the stories take your fancy then you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a second-hand copy of the book on the interwebs, failing that you should be able to find an eBook copy on all the major platforms.

All being well, I’ll see you soon with a run-through of book 6. TTFN!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 4

Nom, nom, nom!

(If you would like a run-through the stories found in the first three volumes of Best New Horror, jump over to my Reviews page for links.)

Best New Horror continues into a fourth volume showcasing twenty-four of the best horror shorts published during 1992. Well, twentyish may be a more accurate description. Not for the first time, the editors have padded the book with a few not-terribly-horrific pretenders, especially in the latter half. Thankfully, the quality of these pretenders helps elevate the book into 4/5 territory.

As to the stories, let’s take a look.

Also collected in Edelman’s “These Words Are Haunted”. Cool cover, taking detail from Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Eating His Son”. Nom, nom, nom! (Again.)

The Suicide Artist – Scott Edelman (3/5 – A man reluctantly tells the reader of a horrible experience of his, aged just six, when a stranger led him away from school. He would like to end the story there but, of course, you, the reader, want to know more. So he continues: detailing the murderous lengths he went to in order to survive the stranger’s clutches; about the tragedy that had seen him left alone at the school gates in the first place; and, a short time later, how he stumbled upon his father’s appalling abuse of Kate, his older sister. The more that is revealed, the greater the bitterness and hostility the narrator feels about it. How dare you want to know more! But you can’t help it, can you? You just won’t let him stop, not unless… I admire what Edelman was trying to do here, exploring how characters in a horror story would feel to have the worst moments of their lives written up for the entertainment of others, and how the permeance of the fourth wall could present an opportunity for a little payback. In Edelman’s introduction, he describes the unease the story would create in his audience whenever he performed a reading of it, and I can fully believe it. This is a piece that begs to be read aloud. On paper, however, its power is lessened. In my case it allowed me to dwell upon on plot weaknesses. Rather than feeling shame at wanting to know more of the story, or quivering in fear of what the narrator might have in store for me, I spent the latter half thinking, “Wow, you were one unexpectedly strong and fiendishly devious six-year old boy, weren’t you?”)

Dancing On A Blade Of Dreams – Roberta Lannes (3/5 – The evil that men do carries over into this sexually-charged story of a juror, Patty, during a kidnapping-rape-murder trial. In the dock sits Garrick, an incredibly handsome man who claims to have been set up by a former friend. One night, as the trial nears its climax, Patty dreams of being driven – shackled, bruised and bloody – to a pristine hotel room where she is chained to a bathtub by her ex-husband, Michael. There she is abused by her ex, all the while craving the smallest morsel of his love. When Patty eventually awakens, she feels incredibly uncomfortable about the dream, for Michael had never once been violent during their marriage. Patty’s stomach sinks when the trial moves onto an eerily-familiar hotel room in which one of the victims was believed to have been held captive. It seems Patty is experiencing the horrific final days of Garrick’s victims in her dreams and, worse still, Garrick knows it. This was okay, and noticeably better than Apostate In Denim, Lannes’ controversial entry in Best New Horror 2. Lannes works some vivid and gruesomely effective imagery into her story, but the ending felt a little tacked-on and didn’t work the more I thought about it.)

Also collected in “The Essential Clive Barker”

The Departed – Clive Barker (5/5 – A short and sweet story in which Hermione, a recently-departed ghost, seeks to connect with her young son one last time. Under the counsel of an experienced old ghost called Rice, the two devise a plan to visit upon the boy while he is out trick-or-treating. Barker works real magic in this story. There can be no other explanation. In the space of a few pages he masterfully creates a pair of wonderful characters in Hermione and especially Rice, and imbues them with a winning chemistry from the off. By the ending – because of the ending – I wanted to know so much more about them. An excellent read.)

 

Also collected in Brite’s “Swamp Foetus”

How To Get Ahead In New York – Poppy Z. Brite (4/5 – Steve and Ghost (from Brite’s novel Lost Souls) are booked to play a gig in New York’s East Village. It’s four in the morning and they step off a Greyhound and into a daunting Port Authority bus terminal. It doesn’t take long for them to get lost in a building seemingly designed to confuse out-of-towners, and they soon fall prey to a resident army of mindless vagrants. So begins a typically strange morning in New York. I liked this story a lot, despite not having read Lost Souls. Brite maintains a light and affectionate touch throughout much of the story, wrapping a rich human zoo around Steve and Ghost as they sample much of the weirdness New York has to offer.)

Also collected in Brunner’s “The Man Who Was Secrett and Other Stories”

They Take – John Brunner (4/5 – Ann and her husband Carlo are summoned to Bolsevieto, a small rural Italian village, to inspect a nearby house and some accompanying land, both of which had been left to Ann by her late aunt. They are unimpressed by what they find. They are keen to leave the village and to sell the place as soon as possible, until Ann spots some unusual tomb-like structures squatting on her land. They should have listened to their instincts. There’s a great sense of place in this story, helped in no small part by Brunner’s command of all things Italian. Horror stalwarts will probably find the bones of this story in numerous others they read, but, all things considered, this is a good substitute for the “dumped on a remote Greek island” story found in the previous three books.)

Replacements – Lisa Tuttle (4/5 – Stuart is horrified by the sight of a wingless bat-like creature shuffling pathetically amid the pavement trash. He instinctively stamps it to death, repulsed, but soon finds another crawling along the kerbside. It’s clear there are more of the hideous little critters out there. Tensions mount when his wife, Jenny, brings one of the creatures home as a pet, seemingly in thrall of it. This story did a decent job of making my skin crawl but was somewhat offset by Stuart being a complete and utter wet blanket. Throughout the story he tells precisely nobody about his predicament, which takes some swallowing.)

Also collected in “25 Years in the Word Mines – The Best Short Fiction of Graham Joyce”

Under The Pylon – Graham Joyce (4/5 – A bunch of kids play beneath a neighbourhood pylon, paying no heed to the warning signs and in spite of the discarded bricks and five-foot-high nettles growing there. Big School is fast approaching for all of them, bringing with it the end of childhood innocence and the onset of puberty, and it seems the pylon is sensitive to the changes playing out below. There’s something about Joyce’s style that never fails to draw me in, a raw honesty perhaps. I loved The Year of the Ladybird (a.k.a. The Man in the Electric Blue Suit in the US), a review of which you can read here, and I really liked this.)

 

Collected in Ligotti’s “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”

The Glamour – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – A man is drawn to a movie theatre one night while walking through an unfamiliar part of town. Being the kind of man who likes visiting movie theatres in the dead of night, this seems rather a fortuitous find. The front of the movie theatre is dilapidated and boarded up, and yet a poorly-lit notice advertises tonight’s attraction: “The Glamour”. When his attention is drawn to an alternative side-entrance to the building further along a darkened alleyway, the man is helpless to resist taking a look. This story has appeared in a few “Best of…” anthologies over the years but was a bit of a misfire for me, sadly, even after a reread. Ligotti’s lush writing is present, certainly, but in places it felt like he was trying too hard. His use of repetition, often a successful and hypnotic trait of his other works, feels a little overdone here, likewise a visceral atmosphere he doesn’t so much accumulate as heap upon the reader once our man enters the movie theatre. Could just be me, though.)

Also collected in Gordon’s “The Burning Baby and Other Ghosts”

Under The Ice – John Gordon (4/5 – Rupert invites his schoolfriend, David, to come skating on the frozen fens near his parent’s farm. David is a little suspicious of the boy’s motives. It’s as if Rupert has an answer to every excuse of David’s for not going. Eventually David gives in and they are picked up by Rupert’s father. David soon finds that Rupert’s parents weren’t expecting company, making him feel even less comfortable. He senses a great unspoken tragedy hanging over the family: conversation with Rupert’s father is practically non-existent, while Rupert’s mother is a shadow of her former vibrant self. To David’s relief, Rupert pulls him away from the house and out onto the ice. With the daylight quickly fading, the boy is keen to show David something out there; something under the ice. Like They Take a little earlier in the book, this story will have a familiar ring to it for seasoned horror fans, but is no less of a good read because of it. Worth a look.)

Collected in Lane’s “The Earthwire and Other Stories”

And Some Are Missing – Joel Lane (4/5 – David is adjusting to life alone following a split from his long-term boyfriend, Alan. A chance intervention outside his new digs introduces David to the shadowy antipeople, and they are not exactly friendly. I mentioned in my review of Best New Horror 3, which featured Lane’s story Power Cut, how I often have to read his stories a couple of times before I get a whiff of what’s really going on. This was one of those stories, due mainly to a final sentence that forced me to reassess everything I’d just read. After a re-read, I’m fairly certain it was thrown in there for precisely that purpose, but your reading of it may differ. Either way, it is still worth a read.)

The Little Green Ones – Les Daniels (3/5 – An American writer takes time out from a convention to explore a nearby London cemetery where he is creeped out by a pair of lifelike statues: one of a little girl, the other a little boy. Both are completely covered with an unusually green lichen, a colour that begins to haunt him as he returns home. In the editors’ introduction they explain how this story was inspired by the author’s attendance at a recent World Fantasy Convention held in London. I rather wished they’d hadn’t mentioned this, to be honest, because it made The Little Green Ones less of a horror story and more a six-page gripe about the shitty time he had there. This was an okay read, to be fair, but how this was nominated for a World Fantasy Award back in the day is a mystery.)

Also collected in SRT’s “The Far Side Of The Lake”

Mirror Man – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Jeff is a man staring old age in the face, quite literally. He regularly checks his appearance in the mirror for fresh signs of his inevitable decrepitude, unable to help himself. His marriage to Liz has long been a loveless endeavour, but Jeff is determined not to let the same happen with Susan, their eleven-year-old daughter. In fact, to help him feel better about the white hairs poking out of his ears, he decides it would be a fine idea to take his daughter for a long drive to Providence and to a college reunion due to take place there. There he can show Susan off to all his old friends. Wouldn’t that be fun? (…?) The longer the drive drags on, and the closer they get to Providence, the more it seems Susan is slipping away from him. On the Steve Rasnic Tem Weird-O-Meter™, this story ranks a respectable “Pretty Strange”. Sadly, it doesn’t rank among his best. It’s not for a lack of effort, but it seems my Lovecraftian maxim holds true once more: that when an author dabbles in Lovecraft’s world, they often produce inferior work. Indeed, in the introduction to this story, we learn SRT had a hard time selling it for publication precisely due to its Lovecraftian angle, eventually finding succour in a dedicated Lovecraftian press.)

Mothmusic – Sarah Ash (4/5 – Astar Taziel is a physician who witnesses the devastating effects of boskh – a substance yielded from the dust of a moonmoth’s wings. Boskh has wonderful medicinal qualities when taken in moderation, but beyond that addiction lies. To Taziel’s growing horror, it soon becomes clear that boskh has a payload much more serious than mere dependency. This is a fantasy yarn, traveller, so steel yonself for A Story Of A Hundred And One Spurious Names. Stick with this one, though, because there is a satisfying seam of horror running throughout.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Did They Get You To Trade? – Karl Edward Wagner (5/5 – Another winner from Wagner sees Ryan Chase, a successful portrait artist, seeking inspiration over a few alfresco pints one fine sunny afternoon in London. A homeless man approaches Chase’s table and begs a few coins for a meal. Chase sees something in the man that could inspire a future work and so he buys a round of drinks to get to know him a little more. To his surprise Chase discovers the derelict was once a punk hero of his: the mighty Nemo Skagg of the trailblazing punk band Needle, a man who once had the world at his feet, but is now on his uppers. What could have happened to Skagg for him to end up in this state? Over the course of a staggering amount of drink, we are about to find out. This was nominated for a Stoker award back in the day, but, even after a reread, I fail to see the horror here. Urban fantasy, absolutely. Horror, no. Not that any of that matters because, whatever the genre, this story is a solid-gold treat from beginning to end. Put simply, Nemo Skagg is a magnificent creation. In Skagg, Wagner perfectly captures an angry punk spark and fierce intelligence that can never be fully extinguished by the booze, but in the end it’s Skagg’s humanity that shines through. The final revelation of what happened to the last of Skagg’s money is bittersweet and devastating. I can’t pretend to have read Wagner’s entire output, but I’d be astonished if he had written many things better than this. A reread sees this score upped from a 4/5 to 5/5.)

Night Shift Sister – Nicholas Royle (4/5 – Carl is a record shop owner with a huge record collection, an even bigger crush on Siouxsie Sioux and a photocopied map of somewhere he cannot place. The latter intrigues him. There are no street names to speak of and none of the landmarks are labelled, so where could the map have come from? Wait, there’s a Siouxsie Sioux lookalike over there. Perhaps she will know something. Yeah, the jumps of logic in this story take some getting over, but to be fair this is the best Royle story I’ve read in Best New Horror so far, and it bagged a British Fantasy Award at the time. It was also weirdly fun counting all the spiral motifs Royle stuffed into the story.)

The Dead – Simon Ings & M. John Harrison (2/5 – Echoes of the old New Wave movement can be heard in a story where a woman discovers through her childhood and young womanhood an unwanted and unpleasant rebirthing role she must fulfil. My original review of this story was a single word “Nope” – not entirely helpful, but it rather summed up my thoughts at the time. Nothing in the story quite matches the creep factor of two blokes, however well-respected, hunched over their respective keyboards writing this particular literary gem:

It helps to lick your finger and wet yourself between the legs.

Riiiiiight, thanks fellas. The piece improves upon a second reading, but not enough to improve its score. If you are a fan of fiction from out of the left-field then you might have a better time of The Dead than me. That said, when this story was republished in Interzone magazine back in January 1993 – a publication not entirely unfamiliar with weird fiction – it sank without a trace in its annual Readers Poll. Next story please!)

Also collected in Fowler’s “Uncut”

Norman Wisdom And The Angel Of Death – Christopher Fowler (4/5 – Stanley is a desperately boring man charged with brightening up the days of those patients at his local hospital with no family or friends to visit them. And how better to entertain the lonely sick than a meticulous run-through of every Norman Wisdom movie, line by line, scene by scene? Just don’t switch off whatever you do, otherwise it might be the end of you! When budget cuts create a bed shortage at the hospital, Stanley is asked to take in a wheelchair-bound patient, Saskia. They instantly hit it off, with Stanley finding in Saskia a tonic to his own loneliness. To top it all, she is a fan of Our Norman. How fortunate is that! Could Stanley be about to turn his life around? What do you reckon? Fowler expertly crafts an engaging and hyperreal villain in Stanley in an entertaining story that is only one contrivance short of perfection.)

Red Reign – Kim Newman (5/5 – This is the novella that inspired Newman’s Anno Dracula series of books, and it’s a corker. I had avoided the Anno Dracula series till now because “vampires, meh…” but I might have to rethink all that. This is Victorian London, but not as we know it. Dracula is Prince Regent, vampirism is spreading unchecked across the land, and a certain Dr Seward is secretly taking it upon himself to despatch vampish ladies of the night. The murders are sending ripples across the warms (humans) and new-borns (vampires) alike. Something must be done. Centuries-old vampire Genevieve Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of The Diogenes Club must work together to root out this so-called “Jack The Ripper”. This brilliant story is worth the entrance fee on its own.)

Also collected in Atkins’ “The Wishmaster and Other Stories”

Aviatrix – Peter Atkins (3/5 – Jonathan Dyson is a nervous flyer. He’s fine once he’s up in the air, but the take-off? Forget about it. To help him get through his latest trip he sinks a Valium pre-flight, secures himself in his seat, and finds himself slipping into a vivid dream world. In it he meets the titular aviatrix who takes him out in her open-top biplane across increasingly strange lands and seas. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jonathan is surprised to find he is able to re-enter his dream where he left off. This was okay, with some great little touches here and there, particularly when Jonathan slips into the dream world for the first time, but let’s be honest – the moment you saw he was a nervous flyer you probably guessed how the story turns out.)

Also collected in MacLeod’s “Past Magic”

Snodgrass – Ian R. MacLeod (4/5 – A smart alternative history that follows John Lennon as he bums around Birmingham thirty years after he walked out The Beatles. His whole selfish existence has been spent living from one moment to the next. His friends and acquaintances are little more than a means to an end, which, for “Dr Winston O’Boogie”, is usually to get pissed and get high. Now, with Lennon squarely in his fifties, The Beatles are back in town and Macca would like to see the good doctor again. I liked this a lot more than 1/72nd Scale, MacLeod’s previous story in Best New Horror 2. His Lennon is a wonderfully gobby character: coarse and witty and, despite his many, many flaws, unmistakeably human. This is an engrossing and entertaining read, certainly, but it has found its way into a horror anthology on the thinnest of premises.)

Also collected in Wilhelm’s “And the Angels Sing”

The Day Of The Sharks – Kate Wilhelm (3/5 – Gary and Veronica are heading on holiday to Grand Bahama, stopping over at Bill and Shar’s luxury house on the way. Their hosts are preparing for a party that evening, to which Gary and Veronica are cordially invited. The shindig is self-serving, of course. Gary is an investment councillor and he knows it won’t take long for Bill’s wealthy business-owning guests to learn of the fact and to start tapping him up. Meanwhile Veronica is a woman on the edge of madness. She struggles to hold herself together with tranquilisers after an incident in which she set fire to her workplace. Gary cares little for her these days. He’s playing down time before they can separate. Gary’s much keener to bump uglies with Shar again. Events take a metaphorically gruesome turn the morning after the party. This was okay but, as you may have detected, a lack of likeable characters made it difficult to care what was happening to anybody.)

Also collected in Harrison’s “Travel Arrangements”

Anima – M. John Harrison (3/5 – A writer makes the acquaintance of a curious fella called Choe Ashton, who proceeds to drift in and out of his life. Ashton is an enigma: giddy and in love with the world one moment, then surly and abusive the next. He is, however, never less than interesting. It’s impossible to see the whole of him without parts of one’s vision blurring, for instance. Ashton is prone to disappearing for weeks and months without notice only to reappear as if nothing had happened, and our man is unable to resist his call every time. The anima is another name for the soul and Harrison deftly personifies through Ashton the changeable and restless bugger sitting behind the wheel in all of us. It’s an okay read – less a story than it is a character study – but quite what qualified this for inclusion in a horror anthology is beyond me.)

Bright Lights, Big Zombie – Douglas E. Winter (3/5 – In this Stoker-nominated story, zombies are a thing, New York is struggling to cope with its returning dead and society has banned all video nasties as part of its response. Blurry umpteenth-generation copies of notorious old gore flicks such as Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig become valuable contraband, and an opportunity presents itself to exploit this demand by producing real-life zombie movies. The story is told in second-person (as fans of Bright Lights, Big City might suspect). Usually this is a red flag for me, but Winter’s playful inventiveness made this one of the better examples.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Magic Terror”

The Ghost Village – Peter Straub (5/5 – This superb novella expands on Straub’s novel Koko and is an early and condensed version of The Throat, the concluding part of his Blue Rose trilogy. We’re back in the heat of the Vietnamese jungle. Death is only a sniper’s bullet away. Tim Underhill and Mike Poole explore a chamber dug beneath a hut in an abandoned village. Something bad happened here, something bad enough to keep the VC away. Text lines the walls and ceiling of the chamber, old rust-coloured blood stains much of the floor and ominous-looking manacles hang limp. A chance meeting in an illegal bar reveals the horrific truth of the place. Like Koko before it, The Ghost Village bagged a World Fantasy Award, and is a terrific closer to this book.)

 

And so ends another monster review of Best New Horror. Thanks for getting this far. I hope you enjoyed it. Sadly, PS Publishing’s anniversary editions of Best New Horror seem to have stopped at book three with little sign of the series continuing. They continue to publish new volumes of the series, however, with book twenty-nine (yes, twenty-nine!) coming in the next month or so. That said, you shouldn’t have too much trouble sourcing a second-hand copy of this book from Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks should you desire, and, as ever, you’ll find eBook editions available across all main platforms.

And so onto book five!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 3

The cover is a bit naff, yes, but it seems the image was heavily altered prior to publication. Could just be me, though.

After the relative disappointment of Best New Horror 2 compared to the first volume, it’s pleasing to see a noticeable improvement in this third outing. Out go the sci-fi pretenders and bloodless time-wasters of book two to be replaced by some notably darker material – this was the year American Psycho hit the bookshelves, after all. Overall, then, this book scores a fairly solid 4/5.

Best New Horror 3 collects twenty-nine of the best horror shorts published during 1991, and goes a little something like this:

True Love – K. W. Jeter (4/5 – In this pitch-black opener we follow a disturbed woman as she lures a young boy to her house. We discover through frequent flashbacks that she suffered greatly at the hands of her father, satisfying his sexual urges from an early age and weathering his physical and psychological abuse. Now, in her middle-age, her father is little more than a dried-up husk, shut away in a spare bedroom upstairs. It’s a wonder he’s still alive. Perhaps it has something to do with the children his daughter keeps bringing home. This is a story that is unafraid to visit some truly dark places and I was surprised to find it just as horrific on a second readthrough. And yet Jeter never lets the story veer too far into gratuitousness. Instead he infuses the piece with a cold disconnectedness I found almost as unsettling as the plot. In short, this story perfectly sets up the darker tone of this book, though I’d be happy to not read it a third time.)

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

The Same In Any Language – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – In another of those “dumped on a Greek island” stories – the third in as many books – we find Hugh, a bookish ten-year-old boy, enduring a Greek holiday from hell with his boorish father. All Hugh wants out of the holiday is to explore the uninhabited island of Spinalonga and to soak up its history. All Hugh’s dad wants is to drink, to piss off Johnny Foreigner and to screw around with Kate, his newfound holiday shag. Worse still, as the days roll on, Kate is trying to act more like a mum to Hugh. Eventually the adults accede to Hugh’s request and they all take a boat trip out to Spinalonga – a former leper colony – as the sun sets in the distance. This was okay, with some interesting and believable relationships developing between the characters, but things went awry the moment Campbell tried to spoon in the horror. The moment his characters stepped onto the island was the moment I started seeing the author’s hand at work, nudging his characters along, making them say and do things that felt a little out of whack, as if he was in a hurry to finish. The story soon feels over-engineered, a bit like Hugh’s dad, and isn’t helped by an unfunny joke ending.)

Impermanent Mercies – Kathe Koja (4/5 – Ellis is a photographer with a mercenary streak. He doesn’t care too much for the subjects on the other side of the lens so long as they can score him the perfect shot. For one such picture, Ellis lines up a young boy, Andy, and his dog, True, between a pair of train tracks. Moments later the hound is tragically killed beneath the wheels of a train. Ellis is later horrified to find that the boy has kept the dog’s head in a box. And that the head can talk. This starts off weird and then gets weirder and darker with each passing paragraph. This reminded me somewhat of the deeply strange and disturbing monologues in Chris Morris’s Blue Jam radio series from the late 1990s (several years after this was published, I should add). I loved Blue Jam back then and I really liked this.)

Collected in Brennert’s “Mai Qui and Other Phantoms”, which you’ll do well to find.

Ma Qui – Alan Brennert (4/5 – Collins is an American soldier trying to come to terms with his violent death out in the Vietnamese jungle. He is not the only one. A few of his squad mates haunt the area as well, having met their ends in the same bloody skirmish. The ghosts of the Vietcong also sit among the trees, a number of them weeping. When a recovery chopper arrives to repatriate the remains of his squad mates, Collins suddenly finds himself alone. Convinced the VC has stolen his body, Collins sets out to find it. He encounters the ghost of a fellow soldier suspended helplessly over a nearby river. In rescuing him, Collins learns of the terrible role he now must fulfil in the afterlife. This is a really good and absorbing read which bagged a Nebula award back in the day.)

Originally published in the shared-world anthology “Under the Fang”

The Miracle Mile – Robert R. McCammon (4/5 – In this bleak tale, which was written as a scene-setter for a post-vampire-apocalypse-themed anthology edited by McCammon, we follow a family as they pick their way through a storm-ravaged American wasteland on the way to Perdido Beach. Kyle and Allie have been coming to the beach every year since they’d hitched up together, years before the world went to hell. For their twelve-year-old son, Tommy, summer has always meant a trip to the place. It’s something they’ve always done. But is this particular pilgrimage being undertaken through sheer bloody-mindedness or is there a darker purpose? What happens when you run out of road in a world full of predators? For the most part this story was fairly standard end-of-the-world fare, being competent and readable but hardly ground-breaking. There then came a moment which genuinely had me saying “Whoa!”, which doesn’t happen very often. For that, an extra point.)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”.

Taking Down The Tree – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Christmas has come and gone for Nick and his family. It’s time for the kids to stop playing with their toys and help their father take down the tree, the cards, the decorations and a whole lot more besides. A short and effective shocker from SRT, and another one that genuinely surprised me on a first read. Good stuff!)

 

 

 

Also collected in Clegg’s “Lights Out”

Where Flies Are Born – Douglas Clegg (3/5 – Ellen is on the run with her young son, Joey. They are both escaping the violent clutches of Frank: Ellen’s other half and Joey’s father. When their train breaks down and a lengthy delay looks inevitable, Ellen and Joey accept an offer of accommodation from Mama and Papa Neeson. On their way to the Neeson farmhouse the old couple talk of their little ones. Ellen is sceptical, as the Neesons look much too old to have young children. During the night, on the way to the bathroom, Ellen sees one of the little ones in the hallway: a bruised and filthy girl with a large fly crawling over her face. This was okay, with some really creepy imagery, but I didn’t buy into Papa Neeson’s explain-all, nor did I buy into the ending, which felt rather tacked-on.)

Collected in Johnson’s “In The Night In The Dark”

Love, Death and the Maiden – Roger Johnson (3/5 – It’s the late 1930’s and Europe teeters on the brink of war. A man is introduced to a playwright, Margaret, and her attractive assistant, Valerie. For her next work, Margaret wishes to base a play around Elisabeth Bathory and sends Valerie on a trip across an increasingly volatile Eastern Europe to dig up research on the notorious countess. Valerie writes often to our man, describing her travels, but her correspondence soon darkens as her quest develops into a hunt for Bathory’s iron maiden. Though the setup of the story was hopelessly overengineered, once it got going it was a shoo-in for a solid 4/5. Johnson intercuts his story with gruesomely interesting factoids about Bathory’s insane and murderous excess, and the device works surprisingly well. The denouement, however, spoiled it all, coming across as silly and, unfortunately, in a weird way, reminded me of the Fembots from the Austin Powers movies. Not groovy, baby.)

Also collected in Somtow’s “The Pavilion of Frozen Women”

Chui Chai – S. P. Somtow (4/5 – Russell Liebowitz is an oversexed yuppie earning obscene amounts of cash by day and feeding his assorted vices by night. One night in Bangkok (forgive me, I could not resist) he meets up with Dr Stone in Club Pagoda to discuss some business. Stone seeks an investment of several millions of dollars into her medical research programme. Liebowitz is wise to her programme, however, and its notoriety. Stone is equally wise to Liebowitz, knowing exactly how to press his buttons. A beautiful woman takes to the stage of Club Pagoda to perform the titular dance, and our man is hopeless to resist her. Too late, Liebowitz realises he’s been set up. This is quite the mirror opposite of the previous story, in that it was a solid 3/5 until the ending, which was wonderfully bonkers.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Famous Monsters”

The Snow Sculptures of Xanadu – Kim Newman (1/5 – Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and the horror genre is given another airing in this short piece of pseudofiction. Orson Welles rocks up to a dilapidated Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s mansion. There he meets Dr Montague and his team of paranormal investigators. After suiting up seemingly for a blizzard, they step inside. That’s about it, really. The vast majority of the “story” is little more than indulgent showboating from Newman as he sets about blurring real life and several fictitious worlds with dizzying abandon. (You might recognise Dr Montague and his team from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for example.) Cinephiles may get a kick out of this effort, but many others – myself included – will find it the longest four-page story they’d ever read. An argument could be made that this piece – despite its lack of popularity (it was voted one of the worst stories published in Interzone magazine that year) – was necessary, for Newman would soon go on to fuse real life and fictitious worlds with much greater success in later works. More on that in my review of Best New Horror 4.)

Colder Than Hell – Edward Bryant (4/5 – In turn-of-the-century Wyoming, Logan and his wife, Opal, make the best of a bad situation while a long and bitterly cold winter storm rages outside their remote farmhouse. With the blizzard reducing visibility to mere feet, stepping outside for firewood presents a major operation for Logan. Yet Opal seems to have nowhere near as much trouble when it’s her turn. As the storm continues to strengthen so too does Logan’s suspicion of Opal. Was this really the woman he married all those years ago? How can she remain so calm when all hell is breaking loose outside? This was a good story touching on the feelings of an old married couple who were never able to produce children, and how a small germ of resentment spinning from that could develop into something bigger, given the right circumstances – in this case a relentless and oppressive snowstorm. If I had one complaint, it was Bryant’s attempt to hang the horror element of his story on a somewhat artificial-sounding phrase Opal uses whenever Logan sneezes. There are sound historical reasons why people say something like “gesundheit” or “your health” (to ward off disease) or “bless you” (to ward off evil spirits). I can’t imagine why anyone would say “company’s coming”.)

Also collected in Collins’s “Knuckles and Tales”

Raymond – Nancy A. Collins (4/5 – Darryl is intrigued by a new starter in his class: a nervous and scrawny little boy called Raymond. The boy is dropped off by his abusive, man-mountain-like father in a beat-up pickup truck held together “by a length of baling wire, spit, and a prayer”. Raymond doesn’t really engage with the rest of the class and is largely left alone to do his own thing. The boy’s simple nature, bandaged head and gloved hands mark him out for special attention by the school bully, who soon finds to his cost that Raymond has a limit to the abuse he can take. This is a werewolf story (so much is revealed in the editor’s introduction), but one that is ahead of the pack, so to speak.)

Also collected in Grant’s “Scream Quietly”

One Life, In An Hourglass – Charles L. Grant (4/5 – A spot of fan fiction takes us into the world of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. A middle-aged woman named Cora returns to Green Town, the sometime venue of Cooger & Dark’s travelling carnival. Teenage memories of Mr Dark flood Cora’s mind and the plans she had of leaving Green Town with him, and how those plans were thwarted by her mother. But that was then. Cora can feel the carnival returning, and this time she is sure of it. The storm clouds that once foreshadowed the carnival are gathering once more. I’m not usually a fan of stories that come with prerequisites, but this was pretty good, helped by a wonderfully chill ending. It also prompted me to read Bradbury’s novel beforehand, which had been on my to-be-read pile for years.)

Also collected in Morrison’s “Lovely Biscuits”

The Braille Encyclopedia – Grant Morrison (4/5 – Morrison goes all Clive Barker in this Stoker-nominated short as a young blind woman is recruited into a world of sadism and exquisite pain, of abused angels and human books scarred with forbidden knowledge. Dark stuff indeed, but a good read if you have the constitution for it. I bet this is exactly what Louis Braille had in mind back in the 1800’s when he was putting his alphabet together, the grubby bugger.)

 

Also collected in Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill”

The Bacchae – Elizabeth Hand (5/5 – The ozone layer is knackered, and a large-scale project is underway to place mesh-like shielding into orbit to help combat the damage. Everything takes on a sepia tint, which does a lot more than muddy everyone’s vision. Amid mounting stories of women attacking and killing men, Gordon begins to see a threatening change in the women around him, not least in his other half, Olivia. Walking back together from seeing a production of Euripides’ The Bacchae, Olivia seems irritated by everything Gordon says or does. When they are set upon by three male muggers, Gordon is horrified by Olivia’s explosive response. Some (male) readers back in the day passionately decried this as little more than a misandrous gorefest. It is not. Instead this is a smart riff on Euripides’ tragedy, with women all round the world driven to brutal maenadic fervour thanks to a few too many man-made environmental disasters. What results is one of the best stories in the book and reminded me of Raccoona Sheldon (aka Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree Jnr)’s The Screwfly Solution, but with the genders reversed. The story was republished a few years ago in Nightmare Magazine, and you can read it here: http://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/the-bacchae)

Busted In Buttown – David J. Schow (4/5 – A short shocker from Schow which sees Mex, a no-nonsense burglar, escaping the attentions of the LAPD only to find the tables turned on him in an unforeseen and gruesome way. Another winner.)

Subway Story – Russell Flinn (2/5 – A grumpy old fusspot called Whittle harbours a serious grudge against Daniel, a younger work colleague, going so far as to write an incendiary letter to the local newspaper about the youth of today. Yep, that kind of guy. Anyway, when he’s not looking down his nose on society and all within it, Whittle can often be found getting freaked out by the coven of bag ladies hanging around the entrance to his local subway. When Whittle suspects Daniel is following him around outside of work, he leads the lad into the subway. The next morning, Daniel doesn’t show up to work. This was a real curiosity. My original review of this (which I’ve left up on Goodreads) feels like an entirely different story now that I’ve read it a second time. Sadly, this was not to the story’s benefit, as Flinn’s awkward writing style served only to push me further out of his story. (It could be written in character; I haven’t read any other of Flinn’s stuff.) There are still some lovely turns of phrase to be had, but blimey this was a struggle to get through a second time. A rare downgraded score from me.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Medusa – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – Lucian Dregler is a man obsessed with all things Medusa: her mythology, her influence on culture throughout the ages, even the question of her very existence. Dregler is called to a club where he is given a fresh Medusan lead to follow by a friend, not realising it’s a hoax. Or is it? This really ought to be a straight 3/5, but once again I’m won over by Ligotti’s writing, especially in the first half of the story. He is sometimes guilty of creating main characters who are too laser-focused on their interests and are prone to over-philosophising about them – as is the case here – but where he absolutely nails it in The Medusa is in the locations. Within the space of a page I wanted to kick back with a large brandy and a newspaper in the aforementioned club, while his description of a bookshop Dregler later visits almost had me never wanting to leave the place.)

Also collected in Lane’s “The Terrible Changes”. Good luck finding a copy.

Power Cut – Joel Lane (4/5 – A politician called Lake escapes the loneliness of his constituency flat and hits the town for a bit of rough. Lake hooks up with a moody fella called Gary and they head back to Gary’s place. It’s a squalid, bare-bones studio flat littered with newspaper cuttings. The cuttings cover the walls too, and Lake makes the horrible mistake of reading them. Joel Lane’s stories were often good but would require a re-read or two to fully appreciate what was going on, for me at least. This earlyish effort is comparatively straightforward, however, and reads like a pleasingly short Robert Aickman story. Good stuff.)

Moving Out – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – Nick is an arsehole who likes to play pranks on his other half. So much so, it seems, that she eventually moves away – seventy miles away. She refuses Nick’s help, refuses to acknowledge his offer, even his very existence. Now why would she do a thing like that? This was okay – and better than Royle’s previous entries in the Best New Horror series – but two things held it back: 1) I’d guessed what was going on by the end of page one, and 2) Nick really, really is a proper arsehole!)

Also collected in Partridge’s “Bad Intentions”. Love the cover!

Guignoir – Norman Partridge (4/5 – Frank and Larry are twin brothers working a grim carnival attraction called the Death Car: the very vehicle a murderer, Hank Caul, once used to drive his victims to their slaughter. The car is owned by their father, a man with as much business prowess as a bucket of cold piss. When the Death Car’s fortunes start to wane, Pa decides to bring the car back to the town where Caul carried out his horrific murderers, regardless of how the locals may feel about it. The twins witness Pa handing over a suitcase of money – their life savings – over to a few locals in exchange for a smaller briefcase. The old man believes the case contains the skin of Caul, a sure-fire way of reigniting interest in the Death Car. When Pa realises he has been conned, and that Larry hasn’t returned from getting his end away the night before, and that the Death Car has also gone missing… well, that’s enough to get Frank good and mad and out for answers. This was a rollicking, full-blooded story that packed a whole lot of goings-on into its 8000-ish words, but I wonder if it would have worked even better in a longer form.)

Blood Sky – William F. Nolan (4/5 – Ed hits it off with Lorry, a rodeo waitress, and for the first time in his life it feels like he has found true love. Conversation with her is easy, the sex is great and Lorry’s free spirit holds rather a lot of appeal for Ed. It seems they were made for each other. She jacks in her job and they hit the road together, but it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show. Unknown to Lorry, Ed is the notorious Big Sky Strangler, and his past crimes are beginning to catch up with him. As Ed is increasingly reminded of his true nature, the compulsion within him to kill begins to grow again. I liked this a lot, which was helped no end by Nolan’s easy style and the superb characters he creates. The unpleasant nightmares Ed experiences at the beginning of the story are also a real highlight of the piece.)

Ready – David Starkey (no, not the historian) (4/5 – Mike is deeply disturbed by the sounds coming from the flat next door. It sounds like his neighbour is beating a dog, and at length. This goes on night after night until Mike finally snaps and confronts his neighbour, whereupon Mike is invited in to have a go himself. A deliciously dark story, this, though probably not one for animal lovers.)

Also collected in “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 2”

The Slug – Karl Edward Wagner (5/5 – Martine is forced to set aside her sculpting for a moment to hear a sorry story from a fellow creative (and keen alcoholic), Keenan Bauduret. It seems that Keenan made the mistake of letting a fellow writer, Casper Crowley, into his life only to find the man won’t let go of him. Keenan’s creativity stalls, deadlines slip, alcohol mounts, work dries up, and so Keenan feels compelled to take drastic action and wrench his life back. This is an excellent read, helped immeasurably by Wagner’s superb afterword. To quote: “The imaginative is the choice prey of the banal, and uncounted works of excellence have died stillborn thanks to junk phone calls and visits from bored associates.” I’m putting that on my gravestone!)

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

The Dark Land – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – Michael is a young man who lives with his parents. One morning, with the house to himself, Michael sets about rearranging his bedroom, tiring himself in the process. When he wakes from a short nap he finds himself trapped in a waking nightmare of creeping wood-panelling, of a kitchen that accumulates filth and rotting rubbish at an alarming rate, and of two unpleasant men in suits who seem super-keen to smash their way in through the back door. The front door offers salvation of sorts. Now, if only Michael could reach it. This was a funny one to score, even after a re-read. MMS absolutely nails that uneasy, shifting, segueing experience of dreaming, and this story is undoubtedly well-written, but The Dark Land feels overlong for what it is and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. Still, the story bagged a British Fantasy Award back in the day, so what do I know?)

Also collected in Etchison’s “The Death Artist”

When They Gave Us Memory – Dennis Etchison (4/5 – A successful actor attempts to reconnect with his parents at their coastal home. He finds the old family home empty, up for sale and in a sorry state of repair. The latter of these strikes him as odd, as his parents had always kept a presentable home. Perhaps they had grown too frail to continue living there. It’s been a while since they last talked, what with his work, his lifestyle and myriad other excuses. He finally finds ma and pa living in a cramped mobile home, where he’s alarmed to find he’s not quite the son they think he is. I liked this story a lot, which is saying something considering the god-sized deus ex machina Etchison employs, and despite my twigging what was going on a little ahead of schedule. Definitely worth checking out.)

Taking Care Of Michael – J. L. Comeau (4/5 – An effective flash fiction shocker as a woman takes care of her disabled brother… badly.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

The Dreams Of Dr Ladybank – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – Dr Ian Ladybank finds he can exercise psychic control over two people. One is Snake, a low-ranking biker and wannabe pimp; the husband of one of Ladybank’s patients. The other is a transvestite hooker called Tony, assigned to Ladybank following Tony’s arrest. Ladybank wastes no time in using his newfound power to make both men’s lives a living hell. Matters take a twisted turn when Snake meets up with a hooker called Toni, and tries to coerce her into working for him. This is comfortably the longest story in the book, as long as the three next longest stories combined. Is it worth it? Yes indeed. It’s certainly not afraid to go there, let’s put it that way. But this novella is not without its flaws. Snake is a cookie-cutter badass with some truly cringeworthy dialogue, though maybe this was intentional. My biggest problem, however, lies in Tony. He sure doesn’t talk, act, dress, whore, drive, drink or keep a home like you’d think a sixteen-year-old would. I’ve no idea why Tessier felt the need to make Tony so young, other than an attempt to increase the shock value. Trust me, the story doesn’t need it! Still a good read, all the same.)

Zits – Nina Kiriki Hoffman (2/5 – Another flash fiction shocker as a sexually-abused teenage girl contemplates what to do with the big zit growing inside of her. This didn’t work for me. It seemed to be trying way too hard to be nasty, as if the subject matter wasn’t nasty enough. In their introduction to this story the editors lament the amount of child abuse stories in horror, so it seems bizarre for them to end the book on one.)

Phew! A fair few stories to tuck into there. Well done for getting to the end of this review! If you are tempted to give the book a whirl then PS Publishing can fix you up with a swanky paperback edition, otherwise you should be able to source a second-hand copy or an eBook version somewhere across the World Wide Internets. If you’d like a whizz through the stories found in books one and two, head over to my Reviews page for links.

In the meantime, on with book four!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 2

“Hello, cheeky!”

Best New Horror 2 was published back in 1991 and showcased twenty-eight tales of horror, the supernatural and the weird, all published during the previous year. As with the first volume, this edition was edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. Interestingly, the original release of this book was stripped of its intended opening story after the publishers got cold feet, fearing that the inclusion of a splatterpunk story would risk the book being pulled from store shelves. The offending story, Roberta Lannes’ Apostate in Denim, was reinstated in PS Publishing’s recent anniversary edition of Best New Horror 2, and is covered below.

Sadly, on the evidence presented in this volume, 1990 was a dry year for quality horror shorts. It’s telling that a number of the stories were pulled from the pages of science fiction publications with only the merest nod to horror. Overall, then, Best New Horror 2 is a straightforward 3/5.

Despite the dip in quality from book one, there are still a few stories that are well worth your time. Here is a rundown of what you can expect to find inside.

Also collected in Lannes’ “The Mirror of Night”

Apostate In Denim – Roberta Lannes (3/5 – A young man called Barry Boag peers through the gaps of Mr Hardesty’s shack, transfixed in a state of sexual excitement as he watches the man cruelly and methodically torture a small boy. When Barry’s voyeurism is eventually discovered by Hardesty, he finds the man quite untroubled by it all. In fact, Hardesty invites Barry around for a more intimate look. This was okay, but it felt as if Lannes was being too eager to shock the reader at times, as if this was the only way to hold their attention. Yes, this is splatterpunk, but, consonant with a number of other works in this subgenre, the shock tactics undermine the story. If I’m honest I found Lannes’ assertion in her introduction (that she did not set out to write a splatterpunk story) got under my skin more than the story itself. Apostate… was published at a time when splatterpunk was all the rage, so don’t give me that.)

The First Time – K. W. Jeter (4/5 – An adolescent boy is invited along on a trip to a Mexican border town with his father, his Uncle Tommy and a few of their friends. It’s a trip the men have taken several times already, often making a weekend of it, and the boy nervously agrees to go along. When they arrive in town, they all crowd into a bar to drink beers and goof off. The boy notices the men disappearing one at a time to a curtained area away from the main bar, returning a short time later reeking of sweat and acting a little differently. When there’s suddenly no room for the boy to sit with his father and his friends, the lad queasily realises he’s up next. This didn’t work for me the first time around as I felt the premise was too far-fetched – I couldn’t accept how the men could keep shtum around the boy regarding the WHAAAAAAA…?!!? that goes on beyond the curtain. Contrary to my initial impressions, however, The First Time did actually improve the second time around.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Houses Without Doors”

A Short Guide To The City – Peter Straub (2/5 – In this mock travelogue we are guided around a nameless north-midwestern city in the US, its districts and demographics, its cultures and landmarks, expressed at times through the flavours and degrees of violence executed therein, and how they may or may not relate to the local Viaduct Killer, whoever he – or they – may be. The literary fireworks in Straub’s long fiction often show he’s an author who is not afraid to experiment. This firework, for me at least, was a dud.)

 

 

Also collected in Massie’s “The Fear Report”

Stephen – Elizabeth Massie (4/5 – Anne is an emotionally and physically scarred woman who volunteers at a rehabilitation centre to help severely disabled patients study and train for life in the outside world. One of her charges, Michael, is a charismatic guy who has no legs, no left arm and whose right arm is missing below the elbow. Michael’s silent roommate, Stephen, has an even tougher time of it. This was one of the better stories in the book and bagged a Stoker Award back in the day along with a World Fantasy Award nomination. I’m not going to go too much into this one as it would rob the story of some of its impact, suffice to say that, me being the sick puppy I am, I couldn’t quite get that scene from Reanimator out of my head while reading this. Also, I couldn’t help but cast Noel Fielding in my head as the titular Stephen, which I fully admit is a bit weird.)

Also collected in Carroll’s “The Panic Hand”

The Dead Love You – Jonathan Carroll (2/5 – Anthea Powell is a woman with a successful career and a heart condition. When she is forced to swerve to avoid hitting a cyclist, she accidentally runs her car into another driver’s vehicle. The owner, an albino by the name of Bruce Beetz, is furious and, after getting short thrift from the police officer handling the incident, Bruce decides to take revenge. When Anthea falls asleep in a hot bath, Bruce leaves a toy car floating in the water. When she wakes one morning she finds a children’s book on her bed called I’M COMING TO GET YOU. Anthea is afraid but also intrigued, for in her dreams she’s discovered Bruce isn’t exactly the guy he makes out to be. A much bigger surprise lies in store for “Bruce”. In my original review of this story, I called it “less a horror story than a fuck-you to the reader”, and, to be honest, after a reread, my opinion of it hasn’t changed. It still reeks of a writer being asked to produce a story for an anthology (which was the case here), picking up some half-finished effort and welding a jarringly different ending to it. This is a bit of a Carroll trope, it seems. I’ll pass on more, thanks.)

Also collected in Ellison’s “Slippage”

Jane Doe #112 – Harlan Ellison (3/5 – Ben Laborde is a man on the run, not from the police but from a small group of translucent people, each of whom were cut off in their prime before they had a chance to live their lives. Tired of being hunted for so long, Ben stops and confronts his pursuers, at which point he learns an unusual truth about himself. When he was on form, Ellison could be a blinding supernova of creativity. This story doesn’t reach those giddy heights, thanks in part to a jarring plot convenience, but there is still more invention on display here than half the other stories in this book put together. Pity it’s not a horror story, really.)

 

Also collected in Garton’s “Methods of Madness”

Shock Radio – Ray Garton (4/5The Arthur Colton Jr. Show is a late-night talk radio sensation thanks to its obnoxious and unabashedly right-wing, pro-male, pro-life (and pseudonymous) host. Fronting the show is a man called Andy Craig. He doesn’t share his alter-ego’s views, and is frequently astonished at how his audience and innumerable critics can take Colton seriously. Can’t they see it’s all just an act? Apparently not. The frequent exchanges between Colton and his more rational callers make this an engrossing read, and depressingly demonstrate how little things have changed in the near-thirty years since this was originally published. Though Shock Radio isn’t perfect – Andy isn’t a terribly convincing character, and you’ll likely see the ending coming – I suspect this will be one of the stories in the book that will stick in your mind for a while to come.)

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

The Man Who Drew Cats – Michael Marshall Smith (5/5 – An old man recounts a long, hot summer some years ago when a tall and intense stranger came to the small town of Kingstown. By day Tom would sit out on the town square creating incredibly realistic paintings of animals, keeping the neighbourhood kids rapt as he worked. Come the evening, he would sit and drink with the old boys of town and sometimes open up a little about the tragedies of his past. One day Tom notices one of the children, Billy, is noticeably sadder than the others, and before long he is introduced to the boy’s mother, Mary, and, by extension, her abusive drunk of a husband, Sam. When Tom can no longer stand to witness the effects of Sam’s bloody and bruising violence upon Mary and Billy, the tall and intense stranger acts in the only way he knows how: he paints Sam a picture. This powerful and wonderfully-spun debut from MMS nailed a British Fantasy Award back in the day and is by far and away the best story in Best New Horror 2. Absolutely unmissable. In fact, you should stop reading this and read that instead.)

Also collected in Tem’s “The Ice Downstream and Other Stories”

The Co-op – Melanie Tem (4/5 – In this strange and disturbing slice of life we watch as a young mother, Julie, plays hostess to an assortment of other mothers from around the neighbourhood. As potato salad is messily consumed and as their kids all argue among themselves down in the basement, the group discuss the ups and downs of parenthood. Oh, wait. Did I say “ups”? Sunshine and lollipops this most certainly is not, and the finale will linger long after the reading.)

 

 

 

Also collected in Royle’s “Mortality”

Negatives – Nicolas Royle (3/5 – Brian Linden is driving at night, maintaining a steady seventy on the motorway, bored out of his gourd. He is on the way to meet his other half, Melanie, at a cottage for the weekend. When Brian looks to the passenger seat, he sees Melanie fast asleep beside him. Confused? In order to find out more we wind back a couple of weeks to when Brian’s odd visions began, back when he was made to use an old office computer with a green screen. Though this is a tad dated, a smattering of cool imagery and some neat ideas help make this a better story than Archway (Royle’s entry in book one). The story is guilty of being over-engineered, however, evidenced by a weak ending that doesn’t really work.)

Collected in Ligotti’s “Grimscribe: His Lives and Works”

The Last Feast of Harlequin – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – In this World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novelette Ligotti turns his hand to a spot of Lovecraft. An academic (and keen clown fanatic) arrives in the remote American town of Mirocaw, eager to learn more about the “Fool’s Feast” that takes place there during the winter solstice. Mirocaw is a strange town set in a bowl whose odd topography makes it seem like the houses overlap one another. The citizens too seem to overlap: alongside people going about their daily lives our man sees several strange and scruffy others vacantly shuffling about the place largely unseen, one of whom bears a noticeable likeness for an old professor of his. Whenever an author dips their toes in Lovecraft they nearly always come a cropper (and I include Lovecraft himself in that). Ligotti wobbles a bit here and there but ultimately turns in a story that manages to retain much of the good stuff found in Lovecraft’s work while at the same time jettisoning an awful lot of the rubbish. In all, a good ‘un, this.)

Also collected in MacLeod’s “Voyages by Starlight”

1/72nd Scale – Ian R. MacLeod (3/5 – A family tries to move on from the eldest son Simon’s accidental death. Younger son David inherits Simon’s room and its effects, including a number of meticulously constructed model aircraft. When David’s father hands him a large model aircraft kit of his own to assemble, David is daunted by the task. It’s the last thing he needs amid the constant reminders from all around that he is not his elder brother and can never hope to be. Spoilers ahoy, folks, but I can’t help it on this occasion. This Nebula-nominated novelette starts off beautifully and then… well… hmm. It may have been better if I could have bought into the premise of a model aeroplane coming to life, attacking David and… (sigh…) still somehow living after being burned to a charred and plasticky crisp. Nope. Sorry. Even after a second read this came across as silly when it really didn’t intend to be.)

Also collected in “Masters of the Weird Tale: Karl Edward Wagner”

Cedar Lane – Karl Edward Wagner (3/5 – In this short and curious what-if, multiple versions of the same man recall their childhood at a house on Cedar Lane, each often smelling the stench of burning leaves or experiencing a sharp agonising pain immediately before… well, to say any more would be to give the game away. Here we have another story that is a hundred parts science fiction infused with a tiny soupçon of horror. Even on its own terms, the story is merely okay. A shame, really, as I rather enjoyed At First Just Ghostly, Wagner’s story in the first book.)

 

 

Also released as its own separate eBook (links to Amazon)

At A Window Facing West – Kim Antieau (3/5 – Maggie is a fearless journalist on vacation in Mexico with her other half, Peter, and his brother, Rich. The holiday has thus far been dictated by what Rich doesn’t want to do, which causes friction between the three of them. After a row with Peter, Maggie is woken from her sleep by a scream from outside. She sees two policemen carrying away a woman who is crying for help, but Maggie feels powerless to do anything. Upon their return from hols, the guilt Maggie feels about the episode eats away at her until she can take it no longer. Compelled to investigate, she returns to Mexico. Bad move. This story shares a few genes with Thomas Tessier’s Blanca, published in the first book, and was okay, but you’ll have probably already guessed the ending.)

Also collected in “The Best Short Stories of Garry Kilworth”

Inside the Walled City – Garry Kilworth (4/5 – A journalist in Hong Kong follows hifalutin cop John Speakman, his guide and two junior police officers into a vast makeshift building called the Walled City. The slum had once teemed with tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s poor, but now it lies empty, awaiting demolition. Speakman’s job is to chase out any stragglers. Once inside, our man grows convinced that Speakman has evil in mind for him, but that’s nothing compared to what the building has in store for them all. This is another one sharing a couple of genes with a story from the first book, this time Laurence Staig’s Closed Circuit, which was set in an inescapable shopping mall. I liked this a lot, even if the characters largely played second fiddle to the real star of the piece, the Walled City itself. Kilworth has a whale of a time describing its fetid and labyrinthine – and lethal – innards. Good gory fun.)

On The Wing – Jean-Daniel Breque (3/5 – Robin is a twelve year old boy who takes a solitary swim at an abandoned quarry. He reflects on two close friends of his, and slowly comes to realise they may not be friends at all. They never seem to come to the quarry any more, and back when they did they would play all kinds of mean tricks on him. When Robin learns that his friends may have taken to visiting the quarry after dark, he sneaks out for a midnight dip, where things take a sinister turn. This was okay, but I found some of the passages clunky (possibly lost in translation). The story also felt rather mechanical, with several scenes existing mostly to set up the next scene rather than to tell a bit more of the story, a bit like a train laying down its own tracks. That said, the ending, however disconnected it felt from the rest of the story, is wonderfully creepy.)

Firebird – J. L. Comeau (4/5 – By day Julianna is part of a tight-knit police team jokingly named “The Nut Squad” on account of the dangerous whack-jobs they so often have to take down. In the evenings she maintains a rigorous ballet regime to help keep her mind and body sharp. By night she is haunted in her sleep by the horrifying events of her first assignment. When, one evening, at the end of their shift, the squad are sent to join other teams at an incident in progress, they are all immediately set on edge. They arrive at a tenement block where a number of officers struggle to hold back a thoroughly freaked-out crowd. When Julianna looks up to one of the upper windows she sees the lunatic from her first assignment – a man she had gunned down and killed. This full-blooded story rattles along at a fair old pace, almost like a Kathryn Bigelow movie from back in the day, and it’s a belter. In the space of 10,000 words you have damn near everything you would get from a novel ten times the length, and Comeau doesn’t pull any punches. Definitely worth a read. In fact, you can read the full thing for free on Comeau’s website: http://www.countgore.com/Firebird.htm)

Also collected in Schow’s “Seeing Red”

Incident on a Rainy Night in Beverly Hills – David J. Schow (4/5 – Jonathan Brill is a wealthy psychiatrist to the stars, taking in a stormy evening from the safety of his study. He is visited upon by a panicked old friend, Haskell Hammer, who begs for shelter not just from the storm outside but the men in white vans too – never a good sign. Haskell soon spins a strange and possibly deluded story of how he got to be in this position; a story of what it really takes to make it in Hollywood. In my original review of this story I said I liked it a lot up until the cheap-ass ending. Weirdly on a second reading the ending felt a little better – if still rather unearned – but I found it was the middle that sagged. It’s still worth a read, either way, scraping a 4/5.)

Also collected in Brite’s “Swamp Foetus”

His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood – Poppy Z. Brite (4/5 – Howard and Louis are two young men living in modern-day gothic splendour who devote every living moment seeking something – anything – that can truly satisfy them. From hard drink to strange drugs, from degrading beautiful women to bedding androgynous young men and eventually each other – nothing fills the void. In their pursuit of ever-newer and evermore-debauched experiences they take to robbing graves and raiding mausoleums, acts that eventually draw them closer to what they crave the most. But at what cost? This story has become a modern horror classic since its first publication, and who am I to argue? Brite’s elegant writing and pitch-black humour elevates this above most stories in the book.)

Also collected in Newman’s “The Original Dr Shade and Other Stories”

The Original Dr Shade – Kim Newman (4/5 – Greg Daniels is an illustrator hired to help resurrect the old Dr Shade character for the launch of the Argus, a new hard-right British newspaper. He is introduced to Harry Lipman, an elderly man who last wrote the character back in the 1950s. The men soon hit it off, developing a Dr Shade more suited for the modern era while at the same time honouring the derring-do stories of yesteryear. But Greg and Harry fail to recognise the changing mood of the country. A new fascism is fast taking hold, catalysed by the upcoming launch of the Argus and the seeming resurgence of the original Dr Shade – a brutal and significantly more controversial iteration of the character. Within the first page of this story I knew this was going to be a winner. I loved the British comics scene back in my younger years. If it had panels and speech bubbles, I was all over it. This is a mighty fine and uncompromising read, and definitely one you should seek out.)

Madge – D. F. Lewis (2/5 – In a story barely ten words longer than this mini-review, Lewis sketches out the titular Madge, whose gift of song holds the locals of a fishing village in her thrall. But on this particular storm-laden evening she carries her song into new and unheard verses, crooning of the one she loved. After taking one of the local men to her bed she explains the unsettling purpose of her song. Lewis is remarkable in the field for having comfortably over 1,000 of his stories published, the majority being short shorts like this. I’m not the greatest fan of flash-fiction-length stories, however, as I seldom find them a satisfying read. Despite the quality of the writing, this one didn’t sway me.)

Alive in Venice – Cherry Wilder (3/5 – Following a family misfortune a young teenage girl, Susan, accompanies her brother and sister-in-law on their honeymoon in Venice. She knows enough to give the newlyweds some space, and thus spends a lot of her time in a writing room of the house. A large tapestry hangs in the room, behind which Susan finds a large door. A key hangs on a hook nearby. When a strange series of items are left in the room beneath a decorative ventilator, Susan grows convinced there may be someone behind the door beckoning her through. Wilder’s The House On Cemetery Street was probably the best story in the first book, but here she stumbles. This story was okay, but it felt more like a series of things happening than anything you could get emotionally involved in.)

Also collected in Frost’s “Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories”

Divertimento – Gregory Frost (3/5 – Teenagers Peter and Susanne are brother and sister, with Peter the eldest by a couple of years. Not that you’d believe it, for Susanne looks to be in her eighties while Peter is rocking a mid-forties look. A timebomb had once detonated in the family home, killing their parents in the blast, ageing them to dust in an instant, while also greatly ageing the two siblings. The bomb left behind a unique temporal rift allowing the children to look back through time to witness a previous occupant of the house: one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This story was okay with some really cool ideas, but let’s be honest – it’s another science fiction story that has been crowbarred into a horror anthology on the thinnest of premises.)

Also collected in Wilson’s “The Barrens and Others”

Pelts – F. Paul Wilson (4/5 – A poacher and his son strike it lucky when they find their traps have snared several large raccoons, each possessing the thickest and most luxurious coats they have ever seen. The poachers brutally kill the poor animals still clinging to life before bagging them all up and taking their prizes home. After a hard slog skinning and preparing the pelts, Pa leaves his son to clean up. The lad catches movement in the corner of his eye. Did one of the pelts move just then? In this Stoker-nominated story, F. shows everyone here how horror is done. This is a bloody good read and was made into an episode of Masters of Horror some years later.)

 

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

Those of Rhenea – David Sutton (3/5 – Elizabeth is holidaying in Greece, soaking up the sun and taking in the sights. Though promising herself no romantic entanglements, she finds herself knocking around keen photographer and fellow holidaymaker, Steve Convenient-Infodump. They break away from an island tour of Demos to do their own bit of exploring, but end up missing the boat back to the mainland. Darkness falls, and the two discover why no-one ever stays on Demos overnight. This was okay, but seasoned horror fans will have seen the skeleton of this story in a hundred others before it. The story is so flat that when the horror eventually makes itself known you are almost numb to it.)

 

Also collected in Wolfe’s “Starwater Strains”

Lord of the Land – Gene Wolfe (2/5 – A man known as The Nebraskan rocks up to a rickety farmhouse to chat with an old timer about, among other things, a dark shape the old boy saw once aways down the road; an emanation he calls a soul-sucker. The old timer’s granddaughter, Sarah serves them lemonade as a means to loiter nearby and listen in. Later, when The Nebraskan agrees to stay the night, Sarah passes him a note warning him not to utter a word of the old timer’s stories to her father. This was Wolfe’s tribute to Lovecraft, so it should come as no surprise that he produces inferior work as a result. Originally, this hot mess had me nodding off several times. On a reread, things don’t improve any. The story is uneven to say the least, and hits so many bum notes (dull backgrounding; dialog written as it is spoken, and, of course, Sarah simply has to make a pass at our man) it becomes a real chore to get through – and it’s only 14 pages long. Of course, your mileage may vary, as you can see in a relatively recent discussion of this story on Tor.com: https://www.tor.com/2017/02/22/urban-legends-of-ancient-egypt-gene-wolfes-lord-of-the-land/)

Also collected in SRT’s “The Far Side Of The Lake”

Aquarium – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Michael is hired by Victor Montgomery to catalogue the chattels of his hotel. As he works through the many artworks and items of furniture, Michael is reminded of the childhood he spent in an orphanage. His mind starts to deteriorate and hints of darker memories begin to surface when Michael finds certain items of furniture with strange and unsettling adornments. This was okay, but I’ve read better from SRT. Here it felt as if he was trying too hard to keep things weird, from a rather unnecessary attempt to wrongfoot the reader about Michael’s age, to how Victor looks more like a baby in a suit the more he talks, to, most obviously, SRT’s frequent attempts to relate things to an aquarium.)

 

Also collected in Wilson’s “The Cleft and Other Odd Tales”

Mister Ice Cold – Gahan Wilson (4/5 – Mister Ice Cold is doing the rounds, the chimes of his ice cream truck sending children into a frenzy with the promise of iced confections to come. While Mister Ice Cold is busy serving the ranks of children queueing outside, a young boy sneaks into his van and makes the mistake of looking in the one compartment Mister Ice Cold never seems to open. Gahan Wilson is a creative polymath; he is perhaps better known as a cartoonist, with a long career contributing to publications such as The New Yorker, but he is also a very good short story writer. Though you could accuse this short short of being a little predictable, you cannot question Wilson’s masterful delivery. Mister Ice Cold has only one line in the story, and it is brilliantly chilling. If you’ll pardon the pun.)

Also collected in Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill”

On The Town Route – Elizabeth Hand (4/5 – Continuing the ice cream theme, this story sees Julie slumming it in her digs, having given up on her studies and seemingly the whole concept of going outside. Her boyfriend, Cass, drags her out to ride along with him in his knackered old ice cream van. Along the route, she watches the urban landscape give way to nature and the houses become more ramshackle. She meets all of Cass’s regulars, including a headstrong young girl called Little Eva, and Maidie and Sam, her somewhat unusual parents. When tragedy strikes on the way back home, Maidie unexpectedly intervenes. I liked this story a lot, even if Julie has little other role than to be our eyes and ears. There’s a slacker vibe to the story that I loved, and Hand creates a wonderful sense of a hazy countryside summer. A really good read, though I would argue Mister Ice Cold would have been a better closer to the book.)

And that wraps up this monster review of Best New Horror 2. Thanks for getting this far! If any of these stories float your boat then PS Publishing offers a chunky 25th Anniversary edition of the book, otherwise it shouldn’t be too hard finding a second-hand copy on the interwebs. You can also find Best New Horror 2 for purchase on most popular eBook platforms.

Till book three, then – TTFN!

LP

Review: Best New Horror

The long-running reprint anthology series Best New Horror was launched in 1990 with this book, edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. It followed the launch of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s successful series Demons & Dreams: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror a few years earlier, and, in much the same vein, aimed to present a comprehensive overview of the horror genre during the previous year.

This inaugural volume sets the mould for all subsequent entries in the series. It opens with a short summary of the book, movie, magazine and comic book releases during the previous year, as well as an appraisal of the health of the horror genre. (These summaries would soon lengthen with each successive book in the series, sufficient to consistently earn negative reviews from some readers miffed at having 60-80 pages “stolen” from the book they’d just bought. Personally, I don’t mind these summaries, though I agree they make for rather dry reading. I tend to skim over them to reach Jones’s closing comments, which are always worth a read.) This is followed by the main attraction: a line-up of the best horror stories published during the previous year – twenty on this occasion. To round off the book there is a necrology to remember those we lost from the realms of horror fiction, film and all the media in between.

I’ll ignore the opening and closing sections of the book and focus instead on the stories. That’s why we’re here, after all. As any seasoned reader knows, short story anthologies can be something of a curate’s egg, but there are a number of stories here which make Best New Horror worth a read and just about secures a 4/5 score.

These stories were all published in 1989 and run as follows:

Also collected in McCammon’s “Blue World”.

Pin – Robert R McCammon (3/5 – McCammon takes us inside the mind of Joey Shatterley as he psyches himself up to give the world exactly what for in the only way he knows how… by shooting up a local McDonalds. Tsk, nutters, eh? But before he can proceed with this most vital work Joey must first prove himself ready. For that he needs a pin and a certain part of his anatomy… and a whole lot of nerve. A short, sharp shock to open proceedings. Icky, but a bit by-the-numbers.)

The House on Cemetery Street – Cherry Wilder (5/5 – Lucy and Joachim are teenage siblings returning to Germany from America shortly after the end of the Second World War. They arrive at their old house and reacquaint themselves with the family elders they had left behind. They are a proud lot despite the relative poverty, tragedy and guilt that had befallen their lives. When Lucy starts seeing a dark-clothed figure among the tombstones of the neighbouring graveyard, it triggers a series of other visions and bizarre noises throughout the house. It seems the house wants rid of its darkest secret. This story takes a while getting there, but the ending will stick in your mind for a long time to come. Probably the best story in the book.)

Also collected in Gallagher’s “Out Of His Mind”

The Horn – Stephen Gallagher (4/5 – Three stranded drivers hunker down in an abandoned roadside recovery hut, sheltering as best they can against an increasingly bitter snowstorm. The snow is thigh-deep outside and rising, the wind is merciless and visibility is almost zero. The phone is out, and the electricity supply soon follows suit. It becomes obvious they cannot remain in the hut, and so one of them agrees to venture out to a jack-knifed road train further up the motorway. From there he will sound a horn for the others to follow. If only it was that simple. I loved reading Gallagher’s stuff when I was in my teens – around the same time that his TV mini-series Chimera was successfully scaring the bejabbers out of me – and he remains immensely readable nearly thirty years on. Good gory fun!)

Breaking Up – Alex Quiroba (4/5 – In this dark and sexually-charged story we closely follow Max Griffin, who is dumped by his girlfriend, Nancy, and whose mind immediately starts to unravel, taking him further and further down a succession of rabbit holes before snapping him back to reality: he slashes Nancy’s throat and watches her struggle to stem the bleeding; he takes his car for a spin and crashes and burns; he attends a porno theatre and unwillingly becomes the main attraction… all ridiculous flights of fantasy, of course. Right? There have been a fair few stories with unreliable main characters or narrators over the years, but this is one of the better ones, helped somewhat by its short running time – it’s in and out before its Cormac-McCarthy-wannabe lack of punctuation begins to annoy.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Waking Nightmares”

It Helps If You Sing – Ramsey Campbell (3/5 – From the window of his high-rise flat an old man called Bright observes the neighbouring blocks and how they are growing increasingly dark, as if fewer and fewer people are living there. He hears the muffled strains of a hymn here and there, always the same one, playing at different times of the day, sometimes overlapping. When Bright arrives home one day to find two androgynous religious zealots waiting for him by his front door it seems he’s about to discover the truth for himself. This was a disappointing show, sadly. Though there were some nice touches in places, the story was slight and came across as having been written after Campbell had closed the door on the umpteenth Jehovah’s Witness that week.)

Also collected in Staig’s “Dark Toys and Consumer Goods”, though hard to find

Closed Circuit – Laurence Staig (4/5 – In a twisted future (at least from the perspective of 1989) Mrs Anderson and her two young children park up at the Consumer Comfort Shopping Mall in order to get some shopping done. Once inside they find other shoppers in the mall fervently keen – some might say insanely keen – on doing likewise. When the high-pressure selling gets a bit too much for the kids to handle, Mrs Anderson tries to hustle them away without buying anything, which proves a mite trickier than it sounds. There’s a strong whiff of The Twilight Zone about this story… no bad thing in my eyes. Hmm, an inescapable nightmare set in an endlessly huge building… I can’t imagine for a second why this one resonated with me!)

Also collected in SRT’s “City Fishing”.

Carnal House – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Another dark and sexually-charged story which sees a man called Gene receive a phone call from Ruth, an old friend from college. She wants Gene to come over, which he does, like he does every time Ruth calls, leaving his seriously-ill junkie girlfriend, Jennie, once more to fester in front of the TV. Ruth is forever hungry for Gene to make love to her, not for his affection but simply to feel something… it’s been such a long time since she’s felt anything at all. When I first read this I wasn’t overly impressed. I generally like SRT’s work – even when he goes full-weird – but something about this didn’t click. I can only imagine I was tired or not quite paying attention, because the story was noticeably better upon a second read.)

Also collected in Newman’s “The Original Dr Shade and Other Stories”

Twitch Technicolor – Kim Newman (3/5 – Michaelis Monte is an artist who makes a living remixing old movies for his clients, not only colourising them but outright altering entire scenes, updating them with gore enough for modern audiences, even editing in actors who were never in the film to begin with. The wonders of future-modern technology! Monte has been losing staff (and rivals) hand over fist, often in gruesome ways ironic to the movie they were working on. He hasn’t given much thought to why this would be. Perhaps he should. As will often be noted during his appearances in the Best New Horror series, Newman has an oceans-deep knowledge of everything cinema, which is rivalled perhaps only by his enthusiasm for the medium. It’s not for nothing that he co-edits the Necrology section in each book with Jones. But sometimes this can be his undoing, and this, for me, was one of those times. Perhaps the story read better back in 1989 than it does today.)

Also collected in Frost’s “Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories”

Lizaveta – Gregory Frost (3/5 – In the searing heat and amid the brutal pogroms of early-twentieth-century Russia, Lizaveta Ostrov tells a soldier a disturbing tale of her life before becoming a whore. Lizaveta had once been a schoolteacher, and had taken up a post in a small village near the Kazakh border. Her predecessor had done a poor job of educating the children of the village, and had mysteriously left without a word. Given the baleful presence of one particular child in her class, perhaps Lizaveta should have done the same. The build-up of this story is really good, and rather reminded me of one of the stories-within-a-story found in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but Frost throws it away at the end. It’s almost as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. A shame.)

Snow Cancellations – Donald R Burleson (4/5 – Jamie listens to the radio as he watches the snow fall outside. He’s nine years old and he’s waiting to see whether school will be cancelled that morning – which obviously happens. When his mother fails to secure a sitter for him, Jamie is entrusted to look after the house while she’s at work. Jamie calls his schoolfriend, Kevin, and together they listen as the snowstorm claims one place after another. A fun read.)

Archway – Nicholas Royle (3/5 – In this unrelenting misery-fest we follow a near-destitute Bella as she loses her job and, not long after that, her marbles. She repeatedly hears laughter from all angles, sees cracks in her walls that seep pure blackness into the room, and, in pretty much every other sentence, she glimpses a menacing figure wearing a grinning white triangular mask. Not the best form to go tackling a labyrinthine social security system then. This seemed less a horror story than a rant about how shitty life was on the breadline in late-80s Britain, and the ending was nasty purely for the sake of it. Not great. Thankfully, Royle’s subsequent entries in the Best New Horror series greatly improve on this first appearance.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Noctuary”

The Strange Design of Master Rignolo – Thomas Ligotti (3/5 – Messrs Nolon and Grissul meet one night at a park bench. Grissul is keen to show Nolon a most peculiar and unearthly thing he’s seen in a nearby field. Nolon, on the other hand, is more keen to take Rignolo up on a rare invitation to view the reality-bending artworks the master artist has spent so long perfecting. Little do they suspect the two may be linked. I love reading Ligotti’s work. The dreamlike quality of his writing and the impasto-thick atmosphere he builds; the offbeat characters he creates and the utterly odd situations he places them in – they all mark Ligotti as a true one-off, but this rather slight story left me wanting to like it more than I did.)

…To Feel Another’s Woe – Chet Williamson (3/5 – Adams is an actor auditioning for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. While he and his fellow New Yorker luvvies await being called, he is warned to stay clear of a fellow hopeful, Sheila Remarque. It seems while her star shines ever-brighter, her previous squeezes have all come away from their relationships with her a shadow of their former selves. This was okay, offering a decent sense of the actor scene, but this deliberately bloodless vampire story didn’t stick in my mind for long, even after a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Robert Westall Volume One: Demons and Shadows”

The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux – Robert Westall (5/5 – Geoff Ashden is an antiques dealer who also sits on the board of a local school. When the upper-crust Miss Molyneaux applies for the job of teaching the notorious class 4C, Geoff casts the deciding vote to hire her, mainly because he fancies her. Miss Molyneaux soon has class 4C wrapped around her little finger with her practical, unvarnished teaching style. When a school outing to a largely abandoned church results in some unusual graffiti, the schoolchildren are immediately blamed, but the unsettling sight of a bald-headed man loitering in the background suggests all may not be what it seems. Westall was a celebrated children’s author back in the day and it’s no surprise that the schoolchildren here get all the best lines. The Last Day… is genuinely funny, it’s scary when it needs to be, and it closes with the best line I’ve read in years. This is a superb read.)

Also collected in Lumley’s “No Sharks in the Med and Other Stories”

No Sharks In The Med – Brian Lumley (3/5 – Geoff and Gwen are newlyweds holidaying in coastal Greece. They are driven from the airport by a man called Spiros, who is less-than-shy in his affections for Gwen. As the holiday progresses, so too do Spiros’s attempts to wangle himself into Gwen’s pants. When a drunken confrontation sees Spiros go too far, he apologies and offers the newlyweds a trip out on his boat to a small secluded island a few miles from the shore. Nothing wrong with that, right? This comparatively lengthy tale could have made a half-decent mid-80’s Tales of the Unexpected, but I struggle to call it horror.)

 

Also collected in Lewis’s “The Last Balcony”

Mort au Monde – D. F. Lewis (2/5 – David wakes in a state of confusion to find the door to his room open and a sense of searing red eyes watching him. His beloved Marianne sleeps a few occupied rooms further down the hall, and when David checks in on her, her red eyes and a disturbing grunt from elsewhere in the room send him scurrying back to bed. Perhaps the intervening rooms are no longer as quite occupied as he first believed. Lewis was a highly prolific writer at the time, mainly writing hundreds (and hundreds) of moody ambiguous shorts like this. Though this was well-written, I can’t count myself a fan. I have to be in the right frame of mind for things like this, and that doesn’t come around very often.)

Also collected in Tessier’s “Ghost Music and Other Tales”

Blanca – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – A burnt-out American travel writer arrives in the titular (fictitious) region with the express intention to kick back and relax with a Maigret novel or two. This is a region with a heavy police presence, mostly plain-clothed, but he’s comfortable with that. He makes the acquaintance of a local man, Basma, a Lebanese immigrant, who shows him around town. That night our man experiences a vivid dream in which he looks out from his hotel room and witnesses an indiscriminate round-up of terrified citizens by soldiers on horseback. The next night he witnesses the same scene, only fully awake. Is he experiencing a series of timeslips, or is something more sinister going on? This was another story that left me a little flat the first time around but improved on a second read.)

Also collected in “The Best of Ian Watson”

The Eye of the Ayatollah – Ian Watson (3/5 – The Muslim world is in uproar. Death to the Satan-author, they cry, wherever he is hiding! Immediately following the chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah, an injured soldier, Ali, is shocked to find he carries the cleric’s eyeball in his hand, optic nerve and all. Even weirder, the eye is still infused with life. It seems the eye of the Ayatollah retains a keen desire to hunt out the Satan-author. This story was published shortly after the genuinely chaotic funeral of the Ayatollah Khomeini and does a good job of conveying the carnage that took place. From then on, however, the story gets a bit too silly to be taken seriously. Perhaps this read better back in 1989 amid the hullaballoo surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, but in 2019 it’s a little jarring.)

Also collected in Wagner’s “Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane”

At First Just Ghostly – Karl Edward Wagner (4/5 – Cody Lennox is a best-selling horror author who is visiting Britain partially to attend a writer’s convention, but mainly to drink himself into oblivion. Lennox soon catches up with a few fellow professionals, who ably assist him in this regard. But during this, his latest visit to Blighty, things take a very peculiar turn. Lennox finds calling cards dotted around the place, his luck is in time and again on the fruit machines, and it seems a whole other, seemingly supernatural, side of London seeks his acquaintance – not least a legendary figure calling himself Kane. This novella was nominated for a Stoker award back in the day, and it’s not hard to see why. There is a broad seam of humour running throughout this story which makes it immensely readable. Though this was a Kane story, you don’t need to be too familiar with the character to enjoy it. (I hadn’t read any of Wagner’s Kane stories before this.) The one thing that held the story back is something it genuinely cannot help. Lennox is a thinly-veiled version of Wagner himself, and shares the author’s prodigious capacity for drink. Wagner died five years after this was published, due largely to complications brought about by his alcohol consumption. He was 48 years old. It’s hard to read a character express concern about Lennox’s wellbeing in this story and not feel this was the author’s inner voice speaking. Such a shame.)

Bad News – Richard Laymon (5/5 – When Paul retrieves his morning paper and leaves it lying on the coffee table, the last thing he expects is for a disgusting creature to worm its way out from the folds and to chase him all round the house trying to eat him and his family. For as much as Laymon divides opinion among the horror community – I’m in the “like” camp, for my sins – I’m sure everyone can get behind this one. It’s funny, the horror starts almost immediately, it escalates rapidly and it never, ever lets up! As a closer to the book, this is an absolute scream.)

And that concludes this review of Best New Horror. If any of these stories whet your appetite then you should be able to find a second-hand copy of this book without too much difficultly. If you’d prefer a nice clean copy then PS Publishing offer a swanky 25th Anniversary edition. Finally, if digital is your thing, then you can find Best New Horror for purchase on several popular eBook platforms.

Till the next one – TTFN!

LP

Reading Best New Horror

If, like me, you are partial to a spot of short horror fiction, then the chances are you’ll have come across Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror series.

Launched in 1990 by Robinson Publishing in the UK and Carrol & Graf in the US, and continued in recent years by PS Publishing, this long-running reprint anthology series presents an annual selection of the best short horror fiction published during the previous year.

The Best New Horror family photo. I really ought to buy some bookshelves…

Each volume opens with a detailed summary of all things horror released during the year and finishes with a necrology that honours those the genre lost. In the three-to-four-hundred pages in between, Jones showcases a broad variety of stories, written by old hands and future stars of the genre, frequently demonstrating that there’s much more to horror fiction than mere zombies and werewolves and vampires (though they do inevitably get a look-in every now and again). No one subgenre or theme is allowed to dominate, and it’s arguably this tight editorial control that has played a large part in the series’ success, particularly considering the horror genre’s poor health throughout the decades.

Some time ago I undertook to complete my collection of Best New Horror with an aim to eventually reading them all in sequence and perhaps get a sense of how the horror genre has changed over the last three decades (albeit through one editor’s eyes). Thanks to some second-hand bookdealers and the power of the internet, this proved neither too tricky nor too expensive. So long as you are willing to take a chance on quality, you shouldn’t struggle getting a copy of each volume.

If the thought of holding a book that may have once been owned by someone who habitually forgets to wash their hands after going to the toilet horrifies you, then you should be able to find eBook editions across a variety of platforms, usually priced between £2.50 and £4.00 each. If you’d prefer to hold a crisp clean copy in your hands, then PS Publishing have selected volumes of the series available in a variety of formats from around £12 each.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll review each book in sequence, offering up a brief summary and mini-review of the stories found therein. I’ll also provide links where I can to author’s collections in which you can also find the story. Over time this should build a pretty comprehensive overview of the several hundred stories published across Best New Horror for anyone who may be tempted to dip into the series.

Before we begin, here’s a brief overview of how I score things in my reviews:

1/5 – The story had nothing going for it, or it wasted my time, or it pissed me off, or all of the above. Few stories earn this score as I can usually find something in a poor story that partially redeems it;

2/5 – Overall the story was a disappointment because it was weak or too clichéd, or it was blatantly over-engineered, or – worse still – it wasted the potential of a great idea or central character;

3/5 – The story didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but nor did it leave me feeling like I’d wasted my time. On occasion this score might also indicate a story that had some great points but also some equally naff ones;

4/5 – The story left me feeling entertained or enlightened in some way or impressed by a certain aspect of it. There may have been the odd fly in the ointment here and there, but the overall quality of the story made up for it;

5/5 – I don’t often score things a 5/5, but every now and again there will be a story where the quality of the writing is extraordinary, where a real sense of place is achieved, where meticulous attention to detail has really paid off, or, generally, where I get to the end and can’t help but say “that was bloody brilliant!” When that happens, 5/5s follow.

To keep things simple, the average score across each story in a book will decide its overall score. Will there be a book that scores 5/5, I wonder?

Let’s begin with book one and find out, shall we?

LP