Review: Best New Horror 11

He looks a friendly soul, doesn’t he!

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

After a below-par offering last time around, Best New Horror 11 saw in the new millennium with a welcome return to form, evidenced by a number of award-winners and nominees in its pages. It’s a shame then that Robinson’s proofreaders decided to go on strike that year, or so it seems, leaving the book peppered with niggly typos. These don’t factor into my scores, but they did bug me after a while. One would hope the eBook versions offer a cleaner read. In all, Best New Horror 11 is a comfortable 4/5 and worth hunting out.

The stories, all published during 1999, run as follows:

Also collected in SRT’s “Celestial Inventories”

Halloween Street – Steve Rasnic Tem (3/5 – Laura is a strange girl. She has a face that’s hard to remember. Her eyes are impossible to describe. She doesn’t play with the other children, preferring instead to sit at her bedroom window, looking out on Halloween Street, a rundown part of town that strikes fear into the hearts of the local kids. Especially feared is the one house on Halloween Street that looks normal. Laura decides to go trick-or-treating one Halloween to the surprised relief of her parents. They hope it’s a sign of her acting like a normal girl at last. If only. This story was nominated for an International Horror Critics Guild award back in the day, but it didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. Sometimes a re-read is needed to open up SRT’s stories a little, but on this occasion even that didn’t help. Laura is presented as someone who is forever doomed to remain othered, but her actions and demeanour in the story do little to engender any sympathy. That said, the story does set the scene rather nicely for the series of vignettes that closes the book.)

Except taken from Herbert’s novel “Others”

Others – James Herbert (3/5 – In an excerpt from Herbert’s novel of the same name, we follow private investigator Nicholas Dismas as he makes his way home from the pub one evening. He chews over a few scraps of evidence in a missing-baby case he recently quit, evidence that questions whether the child existed in the first place. So why does the case continue to play on his mind? Things are not as they first seem, we discover, not least in Dismas himself, nor some of the people he has the misfortune of meeting. Back in Best New Horror 10, Stephen Jones mentioned only two authors had ever refused to have their stories reprinted in his series. Coincidentally they were the two biggest horror authors on either side of the Atlantic. This seemed a bit strange, given that Jones had previously edited a 300-page book on Herbert called By Horror Haunted. Makes you wonder. Anyway, this dig in Herbert’s ribs seemed to do the trick because a quick copy-and-paste later saw him appear in Best New Horror 11. While this excerpt functions as a story in its own right, it never once left my mind that I was reading a 10-page advertisement for someone’s book. The excerpt is well written, yes, and Herbert does a nice job of making Dismas a credible and sympathetic character, but its inclusion here feels unearned.)

Also collected in Klein’s “Reassuring Tales”

Growing Things – T. E. D. Klein (3/5 – Herb is hooked on a bunch of tatty old magazines found stuffed in the attic: decades-old publications such as Practical Gardener, Home Handyman and Country Kitchen. Of particular interest are the letters pages. There Herb finds a short series of letters from someone trying to deal with a lump growing beneath the linoleum floor of their bathroom. Back then Mr Fixit recommended they should pop open the lump and drain whatever gunk was collecting inside. As subsequent letters go on to reveal, this may not have been the best course of action. Sadly, this was another story I wanted to like more than I did. I loved the central idea of the story but was rather less keen on the devices Klein used to tell it. Not that I can think of any better methods myself. Some stories are just plain awkward, I guess.)

Also collected in Schow’s “Eye”

Unhasped – David J. Schow (3/5 – Ethan is a married man who likes to reflect on his promiscuous bachelorhood. He keeps a cigar box filled with photographs and mementos of past conquests in his fireproof safe, something to help him remember Valerie. And Silla. And Barbara, and Jennifer, Tokay, Wendy, Shari… Conscious that his wife is heading home, Ethan puts away the cigar box and sets about finding a hidey-hole for his safe key. He finds a suitable location behind some corkboard drywall wherein he spies the faint glint of another key hanging there, a key to another box of memories. I can’t say I was overly keen on this one. The first half of the story felt like a string of writing exercises based on past loves, all stitched together using Ethan as a framing device. Schow threads some foreshadowing and wordplay throughout to show this isn’t the case, but those efforts are largely undone by events going in the direction you’d expect, especially when you consider this was a story written by someone who coined the term “splatterpunk”, was originally published in a themed anthology called White of the Moon: New Tales of Madness and Dread and is reprinted here in a horror anthology.)

Also collected in Files’ “The Worm In Every Heart”

The Emperor’s Old Bones – Gemma Files (5/5 – A harsh and inequitable partnership is struck in wartime Shanghai between Tim, a ten-year-old boy, and Ellis, a ruthless, streetwise young woman. Tim was abandoned by his parents in their doomed attempts to flee the country, ultimately putting him in Ellis’s path. Ellis sees in Tim her ticket out of Shanghai and soon the boy discovers just how little value she places on human life. Ellis is not above slashing a throat or two if it benefits her, nor is she slow to sell Tim’s body for sex when the money is right. As Tim gets to know Ellis and sees glimpses of her tender side, a grudging respect slowly builds between the two – a respect that is sorely tested the moment Ellis is tasked to provide for a speciality dish called The Emperor’s Old Bones, a dish that is said to extend the lives of those who eat it. This story bagged the International Horror Critics Guild short fiction gong back in the day (ahead of SRT’s Halloween Street, incidentally) and with good reason. It’s brilliant. The setting feels fresh and exciting, the horror is properly holy-shiiiiit horrific, and, best of all, Files creates in Tim and Ellis two monstrously fascinating characters. Make no mistake, these are bad people – they are like the opposite edges of the same razor blade – and Files works wonders in turning them into relatable, believable and immensely readable characters. This was a superb read. Seek it out.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Told By The Dead”

The Entertainment – Ramsey Campbell (5/5 – In this Stoker-nominated story we follow Shone, a nursery schoolteacher, as he drives around Westingsea in the pouring rain looking for a place to stay for the night. He eventually settles on a leafy old hotel, parks up and knocks on the door. An old woman answers him, asking, “Are you the entertainment?” She promises him food and a room for the night, and so, perhaps against Shone’s better judgement, he says “I’ll have a stab.” After a mixed bag of Campbell stories dotted throughout previous volumes of Best New Horror, The Entertainment sees him at the top of his game and was a pleasure to read from beginning to end. Slip in a few jokes and this would have made a great Inside No 9 episode. I might be a little biased here because I absolutely love Robert Aickman’s The Hospice (similarities to which Campbell acknowledges in his introduction), but Campbell’s story stands alone once he softens and picks away at Shone’s sanity. Excellent stuff.)

Also collected in Gaiman’s “Fragile Things”

Harlequin Valentine – Neil Gaiman (4/5 – It’s Valentine’s Day and impish, naughty, mischievous Harlequin is in love. The object of his desire is a young woman called Missy, a former mortuary lab technician. In a macabre demonstration of his love, Harlequin pins his heart to her front door, then promptly vanishes from sight to observe what follows. But has Harlequin given his heart away too easily? If fans of genre fiction were to read all of the stories in this book blind of their authors and were then asked to identify the story that was written by Neil Gaiman, literally everyone would pick this. It’s very Gaiman. Happily, it’s also a fine read. The story has a lively feel to it, as if it came to Gaiman quickly, and there are a number of delightfully weird little turns to enjoy. A brief exchange between Harlequin and a mortuary corpse was wonderfully played, for example, as was the ending.)

Also collected in Lamsley’s “Dark Matters”

The Stunted House – Terry Lamsley (4/5 – Lamsley fills the semi-regular Holiday Horror slot in Best New Horror with another quality offering. In it we follow Ambrose and Mel as they take a trip out to the coast. On their travels they discover the titular house situated a short distance from a cliff edge. The house is a little rundown and seemingly abandoned. A balcony floor provides an ideal spot for them to set up a picnic and to take in spectacular views of the secluded beach below. When Ambrose wakes from a post-prandial nap to find Mel nowhere to be found, he goes off to find her. First stop: a look inside the stunted house. This wouldn’t have been out of place in a show like Tales of the Unexpected, which is a thumbs-up from me. A fine way to while away the time.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Unforgivable Stories”

Just Like Eddy – Kim Newman (5/5 – Newman does a wonderfully pompous turn as Edgar Poe as the man unspools a tale of tragedy and madness, all centred around his troublesome middle name. The name Allan serves as a constant reminder to Poe of his enormously wealthy stepfather, John Allan, and the cold-hearted way the man would toy with Poe during the poet’s all-too-frequent times of need. Then, as Poe finds his work in print, his loathsome middle name takes on a further aspect of his displeasure in how often it is misspelled: viz, Edgar Allen Poe. As time passes, Poe grows convinced that Edgar Allen is something more than a mere typo, that he is in fact a doppelganger hellbent on destroying Poe’s life, his family and his reputation, and that Poe is doomed forever to trail in his wake, picking up the pieces. Written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Poe’s death, this is a rare example of showboating that absolutely works. This is a stonking story from Newman – another one! – and one in which he doesn’t shy away from Poe’s myriad faults.)

Also collected in Kiernan’s “Tales of Pain and Wonder”

The Long Hall on the Top Floor – Caitlin R. Kiernan (3/5 – Deacon Silvey settles down on a park bench one evening to quietly sup a bottle of cheap gin and read one of his battered old paperbacks. He is interrupted by skater-boi Soda, who enquires upon a rumour that Deacon possesses psychic abilities. Turns out Soda was asking for a friend, Sadie, who is keen to show Deacon something in the long hall on the top floor of an abandoned building. Aggrieved at having the peace of his evening ruined, Deacon reluctantly agrees to take a look. In all the 200-odd stories I’ve covered so far in Best New Horror, this is the only one that completely escaped my memory within a few weeks of its reading. I could remember literally nothing about it. Even halfway through a reread I struggled to remember how it ended. The reason for this is simple. There is barely a story here. The writing is stylish and pops throughout its runtime, and the characters Kiernan draws together are interesting from the get-go, but there’s precious little for them to do. Like Unhasped, earlier, this is another story that feels like a writing exercise.)

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

Lulu – Thomas Tessier (4/5 – A man pieces together the story of how his grandfather, Leon Kuhn, came to know (real-life writer) Joseph Roth during the man’s final months. Europe stands on the cusp of another Great War and both Kuhn and Roth have holed up in Paris, each having fled an increasingly intolerant Germany. Roth is a tortured genius, alternating between days of feverish working and days of prodigious drinking, while Kuhn is a writer of relatively little renown. A friendship of sorts strikes up between the two men as they frequent Paris’s bars. Kuhn is soon enchanted by Sonja, a woman he assumes to be Roth’s lover or muse. When Kuhn and Sonja fall into bed together, it marks the beginning of a strange symbiotic relationship between the three. Another impressive story from Tessier, whose Ghost Music in Best New Horror 8 was a highlight. As with that story, Lulu showcases in Tessier a writer who knows his material inside-out. It’s seriously impressive stuff, but is let down a smidge by an unnecessary twist ending. Worth seeking out all the same.)

Also collected in Masterton’s “Feelings of Fear”

The Ballyhooly Boy – Graham Masterton (3/5 – Jerry Flynn inherits a rundown terraced house in Ballyhooly from Margaret Devlin, a woman he claims not to have known. The house is cold and grubby and sparsely furnished, with ripped carpets and strange scratches gouged in the ceiling. Jerry eyes the house for a quick sale, having no intention of living there. He is soon accosted by a neighbour who tells him of the screams she’s heard from the supposedly empty house, claims that are soon backed up by others in town. Events take a chilling turn when Jerry stumbles across a few of the house’s chattels, among them a yearbook from his old junior school, and a sullen ghostly boy sitting quietly on the stairs. For the most part this is a fine read. Masterton succeeds in fleshing out an affecting backstory for Jerry and builds a chilling sense of dread as the main story goes on, but the moment the story required a victim and the true monster of the piece was revealed, things started to come apart for me.)

Welcome – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – MMS finds inspiration in his home computer once more, this time a computer file with an impossible timestamp. In Welcome, Paul witnesses such a file on his PC, allegedly created on Monday, September 9 1957. He puzzles over this while grinding through tiresome commutes to and from a job he hates. On one such train ride home, Paul wakes to find a strange newspaper by his side. Except it’s not a newspaper at all. The title, for example, is Welcome, and the newsprint is nothing more than pages and pages of people’s names. Why would that be? This is one of those stories where the journey is more important than the destination. Or, put another way, a story which tantalises the reader throughout its runtime without resolving anything at the end. For me, such stories have to work a damn-sight harder than most to warrant my time reading them, and, sadly, on this occasion, MMS doesn’t deliver.)

Also collected in Marano’s “Stories from the Plague Years”

Burden – Michael Marano (4/5 – A gay man is haunted by the ghosts of several friends, each of whom succumbed to the AIDS virus. They linger in plain sight as he cruises the bars with what remains of his friends, bumping into other men on the scene, some of whom resemble walking ghosts themselves. But our man is also haunted by the fact he recently had unprotected sex; a night of passion he might now come to regret. Marano’s full-on film reviews in Cemetery Dance are one of two columns I always seek out whenever they appear. His reviews are unapologetic and in-your-face and guaranteed to be free of bullshit, which gives you a flavour of this story. The gay scene Marano presents here is 100% meat market. There’s no room for love, it’s just men out to fuck other men, night after night. It’s bleak and nihilistic, but the writing really pops and draws you in, a fact made more impressive considering it’s written in the second person, which is usually a tough sell for me.)

Naming the Dead – Paul J. McAuley (4/5 – In this World Fantasy Award-nominated story we are introduced to Mr Carlyle, psychic detective. His is a world in which imps and beasties cling invisibly to people, filling them with doubt and anxiety; a world where diminished ancient river gods can rise up through plugholes to parley, and Carlyle can see them all. When Mrs Stokes drops by to employ Carlyle’s services in tracking down Robert Summers, a convicted murderer recently released from prison, Carlyle reluctantly agrees to help. The plot thickens when Mrs Stokes is slaughtered in her hotel room shortly after their meeting. When two heavies are put onto Carlyle it seems someone, or something, doesn’t want Summers to be found. This was an enjoyably imaginative read. McAuley creates in the space of twenty pages a vibrant world for Carlyle that I’d happily revisit. In his introduction, McAuley expresses his desire to pair Carlyle with another of his characters in a story called Doctor Pretorius and the Lost Island, which appears later in Best New Horror 14. (Rubs hands together expectantly.))

Also collected in Wilson’s “Aftershock & Others”

Aftershock – F. Paul Wilson (4/5 – F. comes up with the goods again in a Stoker-winning story centred on Joe Glyer, a doctor who takes an extracurricular interest in a lightning strike survivor. To his surprise, Kim, having just recovered from the strike in question, is determined to head straight back out to find another storm. She claims each time she is struck by lightning she gains a fleeting moment with her dead son, a claim Glyer has a hard time believing until he too is struck by lightning. F. is as readable as ever, though this is a story that hasn’t aged quite as well as its peers. If you can get past Kim’s lovely breasts, and how frequently they pop out for a bit of fresh air, then an entertaining read awaits you.)

Also collected in Wolfe’s “Innocents Aboard”

A Fish Story – Gene Wolfe (4/5 – A quick in-and-out from Wolfe, presenting in barely four pages a story within a story within a story. Now that’s some editing! In A Fish Story, a writer recounts a fishing trip he once took with his buddies Rab and Bruce. When they start telling ghost stories to one another around the campfire, Rab reluctantly tells of a strange episode he experienced while visiting his dying Aunt Elspeth in hospital, an episode that evidently left its mark on the man. This is another story that raises more questions than it cares to answer but is helped along by its brevity. Worth a five-minute look.)

Originally collected in Case’s “Brotherly Love & Other Tales of Faith and Knowledge”

Jimmy – David Case (3/5 – The sleepy mountain town of Bleekerville is threatened by the emergence of a violent attacker with long nails, a mask-like face with sulphuric eyes and a rapacious passion for teenage girls. Elsewhere, a father sits and frets about his daughter, Rebecca, from whom he has not heard for some months. All he knows is that Rebecca last took up residence in Bleekerville. Meanwhile, an old couple agonise over their teenage son, Jimmy, who has been missing for a few days now. Ethel and Homer fear for Jimmy’s safety, that others in town won’t understand how Jimmy is different from all the other boys. You could chart my enjoyment of this story as a 4/5 gently declining to a 3. It’s is a shame, as Case’s writing for the most part has a brilliant folksy feel to it, riffing on every backwater police station you’ve ever seen in American movies and TV shows. But this folksiness sits uncomfortably in a story about a teenage monster attacking and raping women and teenage girls. This comes to a head, if you’ll forgive the expression, in a scene late in the story which unwisely veers into pornography, a genre in which Case has also been published. Needless to say, this, along with an oh-please ending, made for another story that hasn’t aged well.)

Also collected in Lebbon’s “Fears Unnamed”

White – Tim Lebbon (4/5 – The world is knackered. A gruesome virus has devastated the global population, and the resulting imbalance of power has seen nations merrily knocking seven bells out of each other. A harsh winter has descended, hitting the UK hard, smothering everything in a deep cover of snow. A group of survivors hunker down in a large manor house by the coast, hoping they can see out the worst of the weather. But as the snow continues to fall and the drifts continue to deepen, a more immediate threat emerges from out of the wilds, an otherworldly threat that is as bloodthirsty and vicious as it is cunning and cruel. This story impressed a few people back in the day, bagging a British Fantasy Award and an International Horror Critics Guild nomination, and it’s not hard to see why. This is great story from beginning to… well, till about the three-quarter mark. Like The Ballyhooly Boy earlier, this is a story that doesn’t quite survive the reveal of its monsters, but don’t let that put you off, as the ride up to that point is top-notch. Lebbon creates a real sense of a world dying one snow-blasted day at a time, and the way he strips away layers of hope from our protagonists until there is nothing left but a will to survive is masterful.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Magic Terror”

Pork Pie Hat – Peter Straub (4/5 – A postgrad student secures a private interview with an ailing jazz musician, the eponymous Hat. Our man aims to sell the interview to a magazine with the hope of bringing Hat to the attention of a wider audience. But Hat is a sick man. A life spent playing three sets a night has taken its toll on him, and shortly after the interview Hat passes away. The interview is published, save for one part: a lengthy account of a disturbing incident one Halloween night in Hat’s childhood, his last proper Halloween. In it lie the seeds of Hat’s hard life, and perhaps why, in the run-up to his death, he wouldn’t venture out on Halloween night. I’d been looking forward to reading this ever since devouring Straub’s brilliant Ghost Story a few years ago. Having been partial to a spot of jazz over the past fumfty years, I’d purposely avoided all descriptions of Pork Pie Hat so I could soak up and savour every word Straub had for me. Imagine my slight disappointment, then, when I found this, like Ghost Story, was another story-within-a-story, and one that was not so much concerned with smoky bars and the hard lives that were writ large on tiny stages. Both the inner and outer stories of Pork Pie Hat are great, don’t get me wrong, and Straub knocks it out of the park when it comes to generating tension – the moment our young Hat is on the run and cornered at knifepoint is damn near heart-stopping – but I had hoped for something else. That’s on me, really, so no harm etc. There are a few other niggles, however, that are on Straub. Within the inner story, for example, Hat and his friend Dee are keen to spice up their last proper Halloween by sneaking around The Backs, a shack-strewn bad side of town set in the woods, around which much of the inner story is centred, but too long is spent getting them there, and, when they finally arrive, Straub takes an almost obsessive interest in manoeuvring them through The Backs like chess pieces. And the fact that they wear ghostly white sheets for most of the time feels a bit weird when they’re trying to sneak about in the night. This is also another story that hasn’t aged well since it was published. If you are triggered by use of the word “coloured”, then you might find this one a troubling read. If you can accept that, however, then this is still a mighty fine read.)

Tricks & Treats One Night on Halloween Street – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – After SRT opened the book with Halloween Street, he closes the book with this, a series of flash fiction vignettes all connected in some way to the titular street. As with any collection of short stories, they’re a mixed bag, and flash fiction is often a tough sell for me, but one story stands out a mile: that of a boy, Ronald, who answers the door on Halloween to a trick-or-treater who is wearing a mask of his face. Ronald demands to know from whom or where the boy has gotten a mask of his face, but the boy runs off. What happens next is downright eerie and brilliant. In all, this Stoker-nominated “story” is a good and natural closer to the book.

And so ends another lengthy review of Best New Horror. As ever, if you’ve gotten this far, then thanks for reading! I hope you found something of interest. If you fancy a read of Best New Horror 11 then you should be able to find a second-hand copy on Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks without too much hassle. Alternatively, if eBooks are your thing, then you’ll find the book available across all major platforms. Finally, the book images in this review will take you to their respective pages on Goodreads should you wish to explore an author’s work further.

Once again, thank you for reading. I hope you’ll pop by again for another review of Best New Horror.

Till then, TTFN!

LP

Review: Best New Horror 10

(Before we jump in, if you would like to read reviews of the previous books in the Best New Horror series, you can find links on my Reviews page.)

Best New Horror 10 collects nineteen horror shorts published during 1998. Sadly this tenth anniversary edition of the series represents one of the weakest entries so far. Despite boasting a number of award winners and nominees in its pages, there are only a few stories that stand out from the pack.

Also, don’t let the cover fool you, vamp fans. There are no Goddam Draculas to be found in this book. What is there goes a little like this:

Also collected in Fowler’s “Personal Demons”

Learning To Let Go – Christopher Fowler (3/5 – Three old friends meet up at the start of a train journey. They drink, they bicker, they tell stories and they invite their fellow travellers to do likewise. Darkness descends and they notice the train slowing to a stop. The heating fails. The lighting too. When they venture outside, it seems their carriage has become uncoupled from the train. Or, having served its useful purpose, did the train simply disappear? This deconstruction of a horror story closes Fowler’s collection Personal Demons and, according to his introduction here, he wrote it as his farewell to the genre. (He’d be back, of course. They always come back…) This heads-up was perhaps key to me enjoying the story more than I would have done had I read it cold. In a way it reminded me of Jonathan Carroll’s The Dead Love You (Best New Horror 2), though, thankfully, Learning To Let Go treats the reader with a little more respect.)

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

The Wedding Present – Neil Gaiman (3/5 – Gordon and Belinda are writing thank you cards for all the wedding presents they’ve received, when they happen across a strange gift in a manilla envelope. It is a single sheet of paper with a delightful description of their wedding day. When they check the document some time later, however, they find the text has changed, now describing a version of their marriage they cannot quite reconcile. This was pretty good, told in Gaiman’s wonderful story-telling way, until the moment you sense you’ve heard it before. Gaiman acknowledges The Picture of Dorian Gray within the story, but it isn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card he perhaps hoped it would be.)

 

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

Adventures In Further Education – Peter Atkins (3/5 – Throughout his life, a man keeps count of the number of times he taps a pen against his desk, believing it will at some point sink straight through the surface and unlock the metaphysical secrets of the universe. Which, of course, happens. Fans of flash fiction might get a kick out of this one, being a mere two pages long. I’ve often found the format a tough sell, and this did nothing to win me over.)

 

 

 

 

 

Also collected in Koja’s “Extremities”

Bondage – Kathe Koja (3/5 – A couple dip their toes into bondage, taking turns to wear a featureless gimp mask while they’re doing the nasty. Turns out they rather like it. Good for them. Not quite sure where the horror lies in this one, if I’m honest. Answers on a stamp-addressed dildo, please.)

The Keys To D’Espérance – Chaz Brenchley (3/5 – A young war veteran reaches his lowest ebb. He settles his affairs and initiates plans for his suicide, but then receives the keys to a large country pile. Upon arriving there he happens across a large disused bathhouse. In the process of bringing it back into operation, he is brought to recall the tragic circumstances surrounding the fates of those he loved. This is one of those tales that favours mood ahead of Telling The Bloody Story. It gets there in the end, but I nearly didn’t. Probably not one for animal lovers either.)

Also collected in Laws’ “The Midnight Man”

The Song My Sister Sang – Stephen Laws (4/5 – Dean is helping in the aftermath of an oil spill on Tynemouth beach. He spots a seabird struggling in one of the sluices running from a disused open-air swimming pool nearby. It’s a pool that holds tragic memories for Dean, being the place where his little sister drowned as a young girl. Dean finds the pool choking with oil and hundreds of dead birds… and someone seeking his help. Few can match Laws when it comes to building up tension within a story, and there were a couple of terrific scenes here that really set the nerves a-jangling. This story bagged a British Fantasy Award back in the day. I can’t argue with that.)

Also collected in Newman’s “Unforgiveable Stories”

A Victorian Ghost Story – Kim Newman (4/5 – Within the oak-panelled splendour of a gentlemen’s club, members are taking turns to tell ghost stories over cigars and brandy. Ernest Virtue, fresh from making a killing on the Stock Exchange, relates to the gathering a recent and singular experience of his where a regular London pea-souper opened up to reveal a hidden ghostly world. This is a 4/5 from me, but only just. Though enjoyable, thanks largely to Newman’s exquisite writing, the story didn’t really go anywhere, amounting to little more than “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the…”)

Also collected in Rogers’ “Wind Over Heaven and Other Dark Tales”

The Dead Boy At Your Window – Bruce Holland Rogers (4/5 – Ah, this is more like it! Set such pesky things as logic and the real world aside for a moment and enjoy a short, bittersweet, Stoker-winning story of a dead little boy who, in the course of being bullied one day, finds a unique calling between this world and the next. It’s all rather lovely.)

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

Ra*e – Ramsey Campbell (4/5 – Another good showing from Campbell in a novelette that explores the fallout following the rape and murder of a teenage girl, and the rage that builds within the victim’s mother as the police fail to unearth any clues. Campbell assembles a cast of mostly unlikeable characters around the victim, leaving the reader in no doubt where their sympathies should lie. Despite this, and some clunky dialogue, the story still succeeds.)

 

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

Upstairs – Lawrence Watt-Evans (3/5 – The upstairs neighbours are making an awful racket, so Jack goes up to have a word. It doesn’t end well for him. Another piece of flash fiction that failed to win me over.)

 

Also collected in Kiernan’s “Two Worlds and In Between”

Postcards From The Prince Of Tides – Caitlín R. Kiernan (3/5 – Three twentysomethings are travelling back from Seattle along Highway 101 when their car breaks down. While Tam seeks to have the car repaired, Lark and Crispin go wandering. They find billboards for a nearby attraction promising wonderful sights of mermaids and sea serpents and more besides. Hoping for use of a phone, Lark and Crispin seek the place out. This was okay, with some great descriptive touches as we visit through each of the Lovecraftian exhibits. The strange geometry at play within the trailer housing all of the beasties was another pleasingly subtle nod. But Kiernan overuses wordwank concatenation to the pointmoment it soswiftbecomes bastarddistracting. On top of that, if I was Tam, I’d have probably drowned both Lark and Crispin in Lake Union and travelled back alone. #MisanthropyYay)

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

Everybody Goes – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – Three boys are gadding about in the summer sun, much like how kids used to before Fortnite came along and enslaved them all. Jim keeps catching glimpses of a man watching them from afar. When Jim gets home, the man approaches and introduces himself. This was another readable story from MMS, as they so often are, but this time the payoff was weak.)

Yellow And Red – Tanith Lee (5/5 – Gordon Martyce is a middle-age fuddy-duddy who inherits an old house away from the hustle and bustle of London. His Uncle William was the last occupier of the house, passing away some three months ago. Indeed, it seems the house has been unkind to all the Martyces who have lived there, each suffering and eventually succumbing to ill health. While poring over some old photographs in the house, Gordon accidentally splashes some whisky onto the images, spoiling them with splodges of yellow and red. When Gordon checks the photographs again, he finds a chilling truth developing in those colourful splodges. In her introduction to this story, Lee cites M.R. James as an influence she felt was perhaps only evident to herself. Ehhhhh, no. This is a story that would quickly fill any Jamesean bingo card. It reminded me a little of The Mezzotint, which was no bad thing. Either way, this was an excellent read. Comfortably one of the best stories in the book.)

Also collected in SRT’s “Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors”

What Slips Away – Steve Rasnic Tem (4/5 – Taylor is working on home improvements and has been for quite some time. In fact, this near-Sisyphean task has consumed his money, his marriage, every scrap of his time and that of his father and his father’s father before him. Not that anyone would notice. The place still seems an unfinished wreck. It’s a stinking hot summer outside, certainly not the kind of weather to be hefting and humping hardware around the house. Indeed, it seems several of his fellow Do-It-Yourselfers have Overdone-It-Themselves and gone to the great hardware store in the sky. Maybe Taylor should ease up a bit and take stock of things. This is one of SRT’s straighter stories and a good one at that. Any story that uses a murderous shade to reinforce my belief that DIY should be left strictly to the pros gets a thumbs-up from me.)

Also collected in Etchison’s “The Death Artist”

Inside The Cackle Factory – Dennis Etchison (3/5 – Lisa Anne has recently started working at a research firm that gauges the reactions of test audiences to TV programme pilots. It is her job to help shepherd audience members to where they need to be. She tries her best to inveigle herself into the affections of Marty, her manager, impressing him with her knack for thinking up anagrams of TV shows and people’s names. But to what end? Why is Lisa Anne so keen to entrench herself into the company? And why does the company seem to take a heavy-handed approach to any unwelcome outsiders? The answers, frankly, are barely worth the effort. This was nominated for an International Horror Critics Guild award back in the day, but I fail to see the merit. This was one of those stories that seemed panel-beaten to deliver the ending the writer had in mind. In other words, it was as over-engineered as Lisa Anne’s tiresome anagram schtick. Eminently skippable.)

Also collected in Link’s “Pretty Monsters”

The Specialist’s Hat – Kelly Link (3/5 – Claire and Samantha are twins who discover that their babysitter used to live in their big rattly old house. The babysitter professes to know a good deal of the house’s secrets: of its little cubbyholes and hiding places, of its large attic space, and of the creepy teeth-covered Specialist’s Hat that hangs up there, waiting for them. I wanted to like this rather more than I did. The cut-up structure of the story was refreshing, and the little asides into rhyme added to the eerie atmosphere rather nicely, but the nebulous ending was a let-down. That said, this story bagged a World Fantasy Award at the time so we’ll perhaps chalk this up as one that simply wasn’t for me.)

The Boss In The Wall: A Treatise On The House Devil – Avram Davidson & Grania Davis (2/5A Précis On The House Devil may have been a more appropriate subtitle, given that this 70-odd page novella was originally a 600+ page manuscript that Davidson struggled to sell. Sadly, it shows. Worse still, the story has barely survived Davis’s heavy cutting. It’s a shame as the story starts off rather well. We are introduced to a clandestine network of academics who all share a desire to capture, study and understand the revenant-like “Paper-Men” that live in the walls of old houses across the US. We witness an attack on a family by one such creature. And then, for the remaining 60 pages, we are mostly subjected to lots of people stroking their chins and discussing Paper-Men as if they’re all Sir David Bloody Attenborough. Then, three pages before the end, a limp climax is sticky-taped to the whole affair. But the horrors don’t end there. Despite Davis hacking away 85% of the original novel she retains far too many incidental characters, each starved of story-time and whose opinions, comments and actions feel shallow and unearned. Then are there are passages that often read like screenplay outlines, juxtaposed, bizarrely, with lengthy tracts of mostly pointless info-dumping. All of which makes for a frustrating and uneven read. But perhaps the real tragedy here is that The Boss… smacks of a writer having a great idea but never quite figuring out how to turn it into a great story.)

Also collected in Ellison’s “Can & Can’tankerous”

Objects Of Desire In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear – Harlan Ellison (3/5 – Lieutenant Francine Jacobs is investigating the death of an old man and the bizarre circumstances in which he was found: shoeless, his throat cut so severely he was almost beheaded, and surrounded by three supermodels dressed up to the nines, each wailing to the darkening skies. The riddle of the old man’s lack of shoes is soon solved. The fact that he was over a hundred years old, possessed of two sets of organs within his body, both male and female, and was pregnant at the time of his death… well, that might take some explaining. This was okay. Ellison is as readable as ever, and, as you can see, he certainly wasn’t wanting for ideas, but the twist in the tale was weak and unearned, and felt somewhat tacked-on.)

Also collected in Straub’s “Magic Terror”

Mr Clubb And Mr Cuff – Peter Straub (4/5 – Straub closes another volume of Best New Horror with an award-winning novella; one that nabbed a Stoker, an International Horror Critics Guild award and a World Fantasy Award nomination back in the day. So, as you can imagine, it’s pretty bloody good. In Mr Clubb… we visit upon a wealthy businessman as he hires Messrs Clubb and Cuff – Private Detectives Extraordinaire – to punish his wife and lover after receiving evidence of their affair. What our man doesn’t count on are the detectives’ deeply unusual if not downright intrusive and consumptive working methods. Mr Clubb… sees Straub in an unhurried mood. The story is the literary equivalent of a seven course meal followed by a seat by the fire with cognac and fine cigars. Every aspect is given ample time to help flesh out the tale, and Straub brilliantly keeps the reader gripped throughout. Ultimately it’s Straub’s unhurried approach that begins to unsettle you. He makes no secret that Clubb and Cuff are bad men, and it’s clear something awful is going to happen. It must therefore follow that Straub is going to be equally unhurried and expansive in telling us all about it. If I had one quibble it would be with the ending, but then, in a way, it did rather suit the hyperreality of what went before. Either way, Mr Clubb… is definitely worth a read and made for a great closer to the book.)

And that concludes another review of Best New Horror. You should be able to find second-hand copies of the book on eBay, Amazon and the like should you fancy a look. You can also purchase the book on most eBook platforms if you prefer to keep things digital. The book images above will link to their respective pages on Goodreads, should you want to explore an author’s work a little more.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll pop by later for another.

LP

Review: Best New Horror 9

(If you would like to read reviews of previous books in the series, hop on over to my Reviews page.)

Best New Horror 9 contains nineteen horror shorts published during 1997; those halcyon days shortly before the Millennium Bug came along and destroyed everything. In the sand-blasted world in which we now serve Our Beneficent and Most Glorious Robot Overlords, it’s good to look back every once in a while during the generous 90-second breaks afforded us every now and again to imagine, and for some of us to still remember, what life was like back when horror used to be a made-up thing.

In keeping with previous volumes in the series, Best New Horror 9 presents a jumble of the good, the brilliant and a healthy showing of the not-quite-so-good-but-still-okay-I-guess. Overall, it’s a 4/5 from me, but only just. And so, without any further blathering, to the stories:

Also collected in Schow’s “Zombie Jam”. Love the cover!

Dying Words – David J. Schow (4/5 – Schow kicks things off with a knowing, twisty-turny slice of metafiction starring two of his pseudonyms. Oliver Lowenbruck has been commissioned to write a zombie story and he’s getting nowhere. He asks his friend, Chan McConnell, to help him out. Before heading over to Oliver’s place, Chan takes a call from his girlfriend, Michelle, who works at the local hospital. Michelle is seeing a lot of crazed, brain-hungry patients being rushed in all of a sudden. Paging Doctor Irony… This has no right to work as well as it does! It’s over-engineered, it’s disjointed and the characters act wholly in service to the plot. And yet there’s a confidence and irresistible energy to this story that powers it through. Impressive stuff.)

Also collected in Williams’s “Use Once, Then Destroy”

The Windmill – Conrad Williams (4/5 – Claire has taken a week off work to travel around Norfolk with Jonathan, her other half. They stop by a rustic hostelry for a drink and inevitably get weirded out by the locals. It’s an inauspicious start to the holiday, and it’s about to get a whole lot worse. This just about scraped a 4/5 for me. The story shares a few too many genes with several other “holiday horror” tales. Williams seems conscious of this, at least, devoting a significant chunk of story-time to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Claire and the walking bell-end that is Jonathan. It makes for a compelling read, as other people’s break-ups often can be, and carries the story along to a decent if slightly throwaway conclusion.)

Also collected in Burke’s “We’ve Been Waiting For You and Other Tales of Unease”

The Right Ending – John Burke (3/5 – A mysterious woman approaches Martin Paget, a successful novelist, at his book signing. The woman seems familiar, but Paget cannot place her. She comments that Paget’s latest novel, though convincing, didn’t have the right ending. She promptly vanishes, leaving Paget to wonder what she meant. As far as he was concerned the novel ended just how he wanted, thank you very much. When the woman appears again at Paget’s home, claiming once more that he wrote the wrong ending, it becomes clear she’s not going to let it go. This was okay, delivering some humorous observations from the other side of fandom, but the story was too slight to truly satisfy.)

 

Also collected in Clark’s “Salt Snake and Other Bloody Cuts”

Swallowing A Dirty Seed – Simon Clark (4/5 – A retired solicitor gets to grips with his new house out in the country. Not least of his troubles is the house’s erratic electricity supply. The moment he finally manages to settle down to an evening meal he is interrupted by a knock at the door. A visibly distressed couple plead for food and shelter, which our man selflessly provides. He grows concerned when he learns there was a third member of their party, however, and his unease deepens when the two refuse to discuss what happened to him. A good one, this, eventually playing out like a modern-day Brothers Grimm tale.)

 

This Is Your Life (Repressed Memory Remix) – Pat Cadigan (4/5 – Renata returns to the family home following the recent death of her father. She is urged to watch a confessional video of the old man in which he begs her forgiveness for the horrible things he did to her as a child. This is all news to Renata, and she is having none of it. She wants out of the house immediately but the rest of the family have other ideas. This is a disturbing entry that cleverly toys with the reader. The title would suggest that Renata has suppressed awful memories of her childhood, while Cadigan’s introduction – in which she details a tragic, real-life instance of False Memory Syndrome – offers an alternative explanation.)

Christmas Forever – Christopher Fowler (3/5 – A new ice age has dawned (which is a little odd seeing as though we’re technically still in the midst of one… #PedantsYay). Britain is frozen solid. London suffocates under a thick blanket of snow and ice. The winds are fierce, the blizzards are lethal. Kallie is worried about Bennett, who’d left some time ago to get supplies. Fearing Bennett has perished, Kallie goes out to find him. This was originally published in a Sunday newspaper back in the day and is less a story than a “what-if” with some characters thrown in. Kallie has little purpose other than being our eyes and ears as we go gadding about this alien, snow-blasted city. While Fowler succeeds in conjuring up some vivid snowscape scenery in this story, it doesn’t rank among his best.)

Four Famines Ago – Yvonne Navarro (3/5 – Paul is senior vice-president of a media company specialising in producing educational films for high schools. He sends Aisha out to Somalia to obtain more up-to-date footage of the ravages of famine being suffered there, complaining that the footage they have was captured “four famines ago”. Aisha is furious at Paul’s flippant remark but begrudgingly complies. When she returns, Paul notices Aisha has lost some weight. After viewing her footage, Paul soon finds he’s losing weight too. This was okay, but something about the story didn’t sit right with me. Though it obviously meant well, the story presented a number of degrees of separation between the reader and the true horror at its heart – that of the famine itself. The impact of the story was dampened as a result. It’s one of those rare occasions I wished a story was longer, adding, say, a section in which we follow Aisha’s time in Somalia. Could just be me, though.)

Also collected in Laws’ “The Midnight Man”

The Crawl – Stephen Laws (4/5It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – ever! – until you are dead! “Aha!” you cry. “That’s off of The Terminator, that is!” And you’d be right. It’s also a fitting description of this story, and perhaps a few hundred thousand slasher films besides. And yet, despite the overly familiar… well, everything about this story, Laws succeeds by ramping up the tension from the get-go and never letting up. In The Crawl, Gill and Paul are a quarrelling couple driving home when their car is attacked by a sickle-wielding nutcase. Gill struggles to maintain control of the car, bringing it to a shuddering, screeching halt. Paul heads out to give the idiot a piece of his mind but instantly regrets it when said idiot heads his way, full of murderous intent. Gill drives Paul away from danger, but finds she cannot get the car out of first gear. And so a slow relentless chase begins. It’s fun and engaging stuff, though Laws is guilty of using a cheap trick right at the start to generate a good chunk of the tension.)

Serpent Eggs – David Langford (2/5 – Langford catches an unfortunate dose of Lovecraft in a tale which sees Robert, a UFOlogist, stay at a commune up on Drotch Skerry, an island on the edge of the Shetlands. It is said that things have fallen from the sky there. Hmm, maybe. All Robert knows is that the islanders are a balding and pallid-looking lot. Has a sickness befallen the commune, or could there be something extra-terrestrial at work? According to his introduction, Langford made several attempts at writing this story over the course of twenty years, eventually changing the tone, changing the main character and changing the ending. If only he’d changed the style too. A pity, as I’m often drawn to his amusing Ansible Link columns in Interzone magazine. The story can be found in Langford’s collection, Irrational Numbers, published by Necronomicon Press, though you might have a job hunting down a copy.)

Also collected in Etchison’s “The Death Artist”

No One You Know – Dennis Etchison (3/5 – Jeannie receives a phone call from her ex, Michael, and gives him hell for cheating on her. Michael responds by threatening to kill himself, and Jeannie hears him fill up the chambers of his handgun one by one. Jeannie hangs up and calls her best friend Mara, doubting her resolve in ditching his ass. Mara tells Jeannie to forget about him, and in no uncertain terms. But then Mara also receives a call from Michael… This was okay, but, for me, the changes of personality we witness in both Jeannie and Mara were the most unsettling thing about the story, and I’m not entirely sure that was intentional.)

 

 

Also collected in Hodge’s “Falling Idols”

The Dripping Of Sundered Wineskins – Brian Hodge (5/5 – Hodge follows his excellent The Alchemy Of The Throat (featured in Best New Horror 6) with another superb novella that deservedly bagged a World Fantasy Award nomination at the time. In Dripping… we follow the life of Patrick Kieran Malone from a young Irish lad who survives a bomb blast, though his troubled time spent as a true stigmatic among the monks and friars of the local Franciscan order, and finally onto his awakening at the hands of his apostate Uncle Brendan and three mysterious goddesses of the land. To go into any more detail would be to rob the story of its impact, suffice to say its middle section, set in the Franciscan order, is astonishing in more than one sense of the word. If you were to read only one story from Best New Horror 9, set an hour aside for this one. Unmissable.)

Also collected in Ligotti’s “Teatro Grottesco”

The Bells Will Sound Forever – Thomas Ligotti (4/5 – A man called Crumm takes lodgings at Mrs Pyk’s large and mostly unoccupied hostel. Mrs Pyk places Crumm high up in the house, and on the way up Crumm hears a faint jangle of bells. As he makes himself comfortable, Crumm’s attention is drawn to the door opposite his. It’s a door that leads up to the attic. Perhaps the sound of bells came from up there? This is another story that just scrapes a 4/5 from me, but is boosted by Ligotti’s hypnotic writing. It perhaps didn’t help that certain parts of the story immediately brought to mind Timothy Claypole from an old BBC kid’s TV show called Rentaghost. No bad thing, perhaps, but I doubt that was Ligotti’s intention. It’s worth a read, but in a toss up between this and, say, Roald Dahl’s The Landlady, I’d go for the Dahl every time.)

Also collected in Campbell’s “Told By The Dead”

The Word – Ramsey Campbell (4/5 – Given that Campbell appears in nearly every volume of Best New Horror, I knew we would get to a good story of his sooner or later, and here it is! In this Stoker-nominated tale, Jeremy is an embittered genre fiction fan who interviews a writer, Jess Kray, for his fanzine, and is less than flattering in his opinions. Kray shrugs it off, perfectly pleasant, no sweat. Jeremy then witnesses, aghast, the stellar rise of Kray upon the publication of his new doorstopper, “The Word”. It soon takes the world by storm. Everyone is reading it. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone seems to smugly espouse its wisdom. But what is “The Word”? How can nobody pin down exactly what the book is about? What power does it hold over those who read it? There’s only one way for Jeremy to find out, but will it cost him more than his personal pride to read the thing? What could have been a thinly-veiled dig at organised religion and the snarkier elements of fandom is made much more interesting in Campbell’s hands. Good stuff!)

Also collected in Duncan’s “An Agent of Utopia”

The Map To The Homes To The Stars – Andy Duncan (3/5 – Tom and Jack are teenagers with a car and a route around town that lets them check on all the girls they fancy. Creepy, right? Their classmate Anna certainly seems to think so, and wastes no time in telling them. The pair offer Anna a lift, which she accepts. Relegated to the back seat, and giving Anna a neck rub, Jack senses something isn’t quite right. This was okay, but I didn’t really buy into it. The moment Anna’s “erotic” neck rub was clumsily conflated with Jack’s increasingly speedy and erratic driving, the wheels fell off for me.)

 

 

Also collected in Kiernan’s “Two Worlds and In Between”

Emptiness Spoke Eloquent – Caitlín R Kiernan (3/5 – A spot of fan fiction from Kiernan as she takes Stoker’s Dracula and, through Mina Harker, explores the lives of its characters in the decades following the end of the book. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’m not a huge fan of stories that come with prerequisites – and this is most definitely one – but Emptiness… gets a pass for prompting me to fill an embarrassing gap in my reading. It’s an interesting story, and beautifully written, but it didn’t really go anywhere. Perhaps, in a weird way, that was the point. The title is taken from the climax of the novel, where [DRACULA SPOILERS AHEAD] Van Helsing locates Dracula’s vast and empty tomb, buggers about with it to stop Dracs from kipping there, and then proceeds to butcher his brides. In Emptiness… we witness Mina’s life being similarly hollowed out, albeit gradually, as war, time and even love conspires to leave her alone in the world. Of course, I could be overthinking it.)

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

Save As… – Michael Marshall Smith (3/5 – A man walks out from hospital, stunned, leaving behind the bodies of his wife and child following a horrific car crash. He checks into Same Again, a super-hush-hush facility out in a nondescript part of town. It seems the agency’s roof has sprung a leak, but that’s the least of our man’s concerns. All he wants is to revert to a previous backup of his life. But can anything ever be as simple and so free of consequence? Being a fully paid-up nerd, I wanted to like this story more than I actually did. Switch off your logic circuits for half an hour and you might have a better time of it.)

Coppola’s Dracula – Kim Newman (5/5 – More fan fiction this time as Newman flexes his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema to produce a hugely imaginative novella set in his Anno Dracula universe, speculating what Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula could have been like had he filmed it instead of Apocalypse Now, deep in the darkest part of Ceausescu’s Romania. It’s another story that comes with a string of prerequisites, and I’m not the greatest fan of Apocalypse Now, but I have to doff my stovepipe to Newman for his ambition and skill in putting this together. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and rightly bagged a string of award nominations at the time (Stoker, World Fantasy and International Horror Critics Guild, the latter of which it won.) Amazingly, it doesn’t seem as if this story has been collected anywhere other than here and Jones’s The Mammoth Book of Dracula, in which it originally appeared. Go seek it out!)

Also collected in Jones’s “Grazing The Long Acre”

Grazing The Long Acre – Gwyneth Jones (4/5 – A free-spirited young woman takes to the roads of Poland, travelling with whoever will have her (often in more than one sense of the word). Riding along a particular stretch of motorway she notices a string of prostitutes lining the road. Her companion remarks how a large number have been murdered or have gone missing, leaving behind only bundles of dirty clothing. When they stop at a roadside diner she grows concerned that her companion is trying to offload her onto someone else, and decides to bail. But has she merely jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire? This is a good read, with an unsettling sense of moral ambiguity, but it takes a while to get going. Also, if you read this story in Best New Horror 9, I’d recommend reading it ahead of the author’s spoilerific introduction.)

The Zombies Of Madison County – Douglas E. Winter (3/5 – Having started with a spot of metafiction, Jones ends volume 9 with another, and a novella that bagged nominations for a World Fantasy Award and a Stoker no less. A pity then that it nearly left me as cold as the titular zombies. Winter drops a version of himself into a story within a story: a story of love, loss and a very peculiar love regained. When Douglas Winter’s childhood sweetheart Stacie dumps Douglas Winter while pregnant with someone else’s baby, Douglas Winter is heartbroken but goes off and lives Douglas Winter’s life like a good Douglas Winter does. But when the inevitable zombie apocalypse happens, and trainloads of zombies are shipped off to Madison County to be incinerated, Douglas Winter feels something calling him back home. There Douglas Winter finds a zombified Stacie, trapped in a crowded holding pen, and so begins a bizarre (and gruesome) rekindling of love through the barricades. I imagine your enjoyment of this will depend on your take on supposed Great American Novels. If boggy, overwrought prose does it for you every time then you’ll probably have a better time of this than me. It only just scrapes a 3/5 thanks to a superior framing story.)

Necrology: 1997 – Now, I don’t normally mention the review of horror or the Necrology sections of these books, but an exception is warranted this time around. For those who don’t know, the Necrology is a roll call of those who passed away during the year who had a link, however tenuous, to the horror field, and is compiled each year by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. This entry drew my interest: “Executive producer/financier Dodi Fayed was killed with his girlfriend in a car crash in Paris on 31 August, aged 42.” Some interesting phrasing there: “…with his girlfriend…” Sounds like someone wasn’t a Princess Di fan.

And so concludes another review of Best New Horror. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading! I hope you’ll pop by for another review soon. In the meantime, if you are tempted to read Best New Horror 9, you should be able to find a second-hand copy on Amazon, eBay or AbeBooks without too much trouble. Alternatively, eBook copies should be available on all major platforms. The book images above will link to their respective Goodreads pages should you want to explore an author’s work further.

Thanks again for reading. All being well, I’ll see you soon in another review.

LP

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