Monday, November 25, 2013

The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring

Quercus, 2013
522 p


"Do you suppose that those who hunt ghosts are haunted, in turn, by them

Normally a 500+ page book will take a few days to read; once I seriously got into this one,  I had it done in two.  I gave up a lot of sleep to read this novel, and it was totally worth it, in fact, the constant wind I could hear blowing outside provided the perfect ambience. The Ghost Hunters is really several stories meshed into one -- first, there is the story of Sarah Grey, a young woman living with her mother who in this book became confidential secretary to Harry Price, the subject of the second story, a "psychical researcher" and  debunker of fake mediums during a time when spiritualism was at its heyday. The third story focuses on the "most haunted house in England," Borley Rectory.  When I first bought this book I thought I was getting a horror story, and even though it didn't completely turn out that way, I was totally amazed at just how good this book is. Aside from a few parts that verge on melodrama, the novel is highly atmospheric and will definitely send shivers up your spine here and there.

The narrative is related mainly by Sarah Grey, looking back over her life and career from 1955.  Her story begins in 1926, two weeks before she turned 22.  Her widowed mother, having lost her husband during the war, is very much into spiritualism, and on this particular day in January, Sarah is reluctantly accompanying her to the gala opening of Harry Price's new laboratory.   Sarah disapproves of her mother's interest in mediums and seances, thinking spiritualism to be in "poor taste," and also believing that instead of focusing on the dead, people should be thinking about moving on.  The laboratory is paid for by funds from the Society for Psychical Research,  "equipped with the necessary scientific equipment," and is a place where "men and women with open minds can test the mediums unhindered by preconceived prejudices."  On this night, the two women witness the testing of a medium whose powers seem so real, only to be followed by Price's denunciation of her work as a trick.  Price also announces that he does not believe in ghosts, and notes that his "science, psychical research," will leave behind the "cheap mummery of the seance rooms."  His comments are objected to by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, famous  for his belief in spiritualism, making for an exciting evening.  Harry himself is rather at odds with the Society, and makes no bones about his stance on their methods.

Eventually, this gala opening turns into a position for Sarah as Price's confidential secretary, as well as his eventual assistant in his debunking activities.  It isn't long until Sarah comes across a letter from a Dr. David Chipp, who also attended Harry's lab opening, and who finds that his own experiences are "at odds" with what Harry had to say. The letter goes on to tell about several eerie things that happened to him during a visit at the family home of a colleague and friend, Borley Rectory.  After the visit was over, he heard many more stories about Borley Rectory and the things that his friend had witnessed, and while Dr. Chipp was himself looking for a "satisfactory explanation" on the rational side, he could never come up with an explanation.  Chipp tells Harry that perhaps he should investigate the place for himself. Sarah alerts Price, who is not at all interested, and the matter drops until sometime later when a story is written in the newspaper about Borley Rectory and the experiences of the new tenants of the place.  As it turns out, the reporter who wrote the piece, Vernon Wall, is eager for Harry to visit, because he himself had  traveled there and witnessed some things that "confounded all reason."  As Wall states to Sarah,
"In my occupation one is accustomed to discovering facts and reporting them -- accepting them. But when I remember what happened at that house I am unable to explain it to my satisfaction. Either what I saw wasn't real, or the bedrock of modern science is entirely inaccurate...I can't see how it can be otherwise."
Wall invites Harry to go to Borley Rectory to experience the place for himself, but it is only when Harry's  obvious reluctance moves Wall to say that perhaps the Society for Psychical Research might wish to go there that Harry decides he'll take the case.  With Sarah in tow, Harry meets Wall at the rectory, and what happens during this investigation will have an impact on the remainder of Sarah's life.

Borley Rectory, from
 While, as I noted earlier, this isn't a horror story per se, there are some spine-tingling moments in this book that ghost-story aficionados would love.  Mr. Spring details each and every event so well that I got totally immersed in the Borley scenes and didn't want them to end.  The author incorporates actual sources into Sarah's account; in fact, to be really honest, since this was the first time I'd ever heard of Borley Rectory, I thought they were all fake until my post-read curiosity got the better of me and I discovered that there really is a place called Borley Rectory, and that there really was a person named Harry Price; one of the footnotes even directed the reader to a book called Poltergeists Over England that I'd forgotten I actually own.  There is such a fine blending of reality and fiction in this book that it's hard to determine at times where one stops and the other starts.  The book also provides an atmospheric quality that gets under your skin as you read; whether or not you are in the Rectory, you can't help but wait for that next little jolt of fear to hit. But beyond all that, I really liked how the author set up the theme dealing with the costs of deception throughout the story.

When all is said and done, Harry Price turns out to be a character loaded with irony, and the author sets things up so that it isn't up to the last that we discover exactly what that irony entails. The "secret" Sarah carries around with her isn't so earth shattering when revealed (and I figured it out early on), but even with this little bit of drama (a tad bit overdone, imho), she is also an interesting person both with and without Harry Price.  There are many side characters who also come to life here -- most notably, the tenants of Borley Rectory, past and present.

Overall, considering I went into this book with the wrong expectations, I really enjoyed it ... just the perfect thing for a windy/stormy night's read. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stephen King x2: The Shining, and Doctor Sleep

The Shining, by Stephen King
Doubleday, 1977
447 pp

hardcover (first doubleday book club edition)

Continuing on in my month of spooky reads in honor of Halloween, I now come to two books written by the same author. The Shining is a classic horror read, while the latest book by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep,  hones in on the kid from The Shining, Danny Torrance, picking up his story again as a young man. I hadn't planned on reading The Shining again (it made for some freakishly-great entertainment years ago), but because Doctor Sleep builds on Danny's (now Dan) experiences at the Overlook,  I decided to reread The Shining before I started the new one.  To be frank, I liked both books; to be even more truthful, I fell in love with The Shining all over again and found Doctor Sleep to be fun and often suspenseful but not nearly as intense as its predecessor.  More on that later.

Before I try to offer up a synopsis here, let me say this: if you're considering reading Doctor Sleep, the references back to events in The Shining come from the original book -- which is not at all the same as the movie made by Stanley Kubrick.  So if your understanding of things comes from that film, you might be a little lost.

 Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy and their son Danny used to have a good life. He taught at a prep school, he made money from publishing some of his stories, and Wendy did typing part time -- all good enough to where the couple could put money away each month.  Jack is an alcoholic, but had managed to get himself together and keep it under control, but he has temper issues: an assault on one of his students put Jack out of a job and drove Jack and Wendy into financial crisis.  Luckily, one of his former drinking buddies has found him a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains of Colorado.  Jack sees the job as a good opportunity to finish writing a play he's been working on, since the Torrance family will be the only inhabitants there.  The truth is, Jack and Wendy have no choice but to take the job due to extreme financial necessity -- as Jack notes sarcastically some time later in the novel, "A man with his sterling record of alcoholism, student-beating and ghost-chasing would undoubtedly be able to write his own ticket," ending up with a job "swamping out Greyhound buses," or "washing cars in a rubber suit," or even "washing dishes in a diner."  Danny, however, is not so sure -- his "imaginary" friend Tony has been showing him visions of the Overlook in his dreams, and what he sees frightens him. Meeting the hotel's chef, Dick Hallorann, gives Danny the chance to understand why he sees things or knows things that others don't: he has "the shine," an ability shared by the chef.  They both realize it in the other, but as Hallorann explains, Danny has the biggest shine he's ever encountered.   Danny levels with Hallorann that he's frightened, but Hallorann assures him that if he needs him, he only needs to send a mental message to him and he'll come back from his other job in Florida  to help him.  He also warns Danny that places can shine, and as the Torrance family is about to discover, the Overlook is one of those very places.   The hotel is a place where "all the hotel's eras" are together at once, an "inhuman place" that "makes human monsters."

The Shining has long been one of my all-time favorite horror novels, meriting the switch some time back from mass market paperback to 1st Doubleday hardcover book club edition.  It may not be filled with the kind of horrors seen in the Kubrick film (which I actually loved as well, but in a way not connected to King but to Kubrick's vision and genius here), but it is one of the most intensely cerebral novels of horror I've ever read.  The symbolism of the wasps, for example, is incredibly potent, a thread that runs completely throughout the story and absolutely necessary for understanding what's going on here.  Another point: in Kubrick's film Jack's character comes across as a raving lunatic, while here, it's much easier to see Jack as more of a victim of the hotel itself, allowing the reader to view his character more on the edge of sadness and empathy rather than as a person bent on self destruction and insanity.  If I had to make a top ten list of horror novels, this book would definitely be on it, although considering the horror novels being published today, it may seem relatively tame to modern  readers.  For me though, it is and always will be a classic.


Moving on to Doctor Sleep, 

Scribner, 2013
544 pp


Where The Shining is brimming over with horrific intensity, Dr. Sleep is in part a coming-of-age novel as well as a novel about demons, both internal and external, a bit more relaxed in the telling and well, for me, not nearly as frightening, cerebral or haunting as its predecessor.  That is most definitely NOT to say it's not good; it's just very different.

 The story catches up with Danny (now Dan) Torrance years after events at the Overlook.  He still has "the shine," although after years of alcohol abuse, it's been "tamped down" somewhat.  Dan has been unable to keep a job because of his drinking; at the same time the alcohol helps blot out the visions that continue to haunt him, for example, the "ghostie people" like the woman in room 217 at the Overlook.  He's also learned how to put these visions and his ethereal tormentors away in a mental lockbox, but at some point Dan just hits bottom.  Afterwards, he just wants to get away and make a new start -- after a bus ride into Frazier, New Hampshire, something inside of him realizes that this is where he needs to be.  He takes a job, and his boss ultimately gets him into AA, after which he starts work in a hospice center where he's nicknamed "Doctor Sleep" because of his ability to help the dying pass on while holding their hand.

As Dan is going through his bottoming out and taking steps to become human again, a girl named Abra is born, and as it turns out, she is also gifted with the shine.  With abilities much more powerful that Dan's ever were, she makes contact with him through her mind, and can even switch places via Spock-like mind melding.  But trouble is looming: a group of ancient beings known collectively as "the True Knot" also have powerful psychic abilities, and they actively seek out young people and children who like both Dan and Abra have "the shining," capture and torture them, and then use their psychic essence (which they call "steam")  to sustain themselves and keep themselves young -- psychic vampires, if you will.  The steam of one of their young victims, however, left some of the True Knot's members with a huge problem.  The group has also come across Abra and her potent abilities, which may be stronger than those of the True Knot's leader, Rose, who sends some of her "people" to pick her up, hoping that her "steam" will provide a much-needed solution to the group's problem as well as much-needed sustenance.  Abra reaches out to Dan for help, but he will need to revisit dark parts of his past in order to save her.

There's so much to like about this book which not only has a suspenseful horror story at its center, but also focuses in great detail about addiction. Personally, I enjoyed this facet of the book because it not only keeps in line with The Shining, but given Stephen King's own addiction background, he knows what he's talking about and it makes Dan's character much more credible.  But even if the addiction aspect fails to grab you,  the author has this incredible talent for incorporating the mundane into this story, disguising his dying-breed psychic vampire creatures as denizens of the world of  retired RV ramblers.  As he shifts to the story of the True Knot, he begins his chapter with how very annoying the traveling grannies and grandpas are on the roads in their big Winnebagos or other big vehicles,
"the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what.  They're the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones." 
Seriously, you know exactly who he's talking about because they're everywhere, and I have to admit that these few pages made me laugh out loud in recognition.  Try going down Highway 1 at Big Sur in California  behind a huge RV going 10 miles an hour listening to your otherwise calm husband bitch and moan,  and you'll know that he's described these people to a tee.  Mr. King also manages to toss in a nod to his son's NOS4A2, both in terms of a character mention and a bumper sticker on (where else?) the back of an RV.  Basically the only thing I really did NOT like about how he wrote this novel was that he throws in a major coincidence in the novel that I thought was a cop out (you'll know it when you see it) and made the whole set up kind of cheesy.

One more thing.  In my very humble opinion, readers shouldn't judge this book as a true "sequel" to The Shining.  There are several reviewers who are saying they've been "let down" or have made other negative remarks while trying to compare the two.  My guess is that a) they haven't read The Shining in a while or are going off the Kubrick film as their source or that b) they're so fixated on the idea of this novel as a sequel that they're trying to draw parallels that aren't there.  There are large parts of the The Shining worked into this one, so it works that way, but Doctor Sleep is also a fun read on its own, though less intense and definitely less cerebral than the other.  My advice is to just sit back and read it, and enjoy it for what it is rather than complain about what it isn't.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

*This House is Haunted, by John Boyne

Other Press, 2013
304 pp

arc, thank you, Other Press!

"...any story which concerns itself with the afterlife and with forces that the human mind cannot truly understand risks disquiet for the reader." 

In the spirit of great timing, being released in the US this month is This House is Haunted,  a perfect Halloween read, especially for people who appreciate and enjoy a good ghostly yarn or for those who find happiness in spending a few hours immersed in the supernatural.  It incorporates a number of my favorite components, including a Victorian setting, a governess, an English country home, and of course, a ghost that has the run of the house and goes around scaring people half to death or worse.  As in many well-written ghostly tales, there's also a mystery underlying the source of the haunting.   Done before --  yes, for sure, but not like John Boyne does it here, where he's put together an entertaining ghost story by incorporating elements of various writers of the Victorian era, paying tribute to their works in his own.  And it all starts with Dickens.

In fact, Eliza Caine, 21,  the illustrious heroine of this novel, actually blames Charles Dickens for her father's death, and following that logic, he's also responsible for everything that happens afterward.   It's 1867, London, and Eliza has accompanied her sickly father, "an impassioned reader," to a reading by the author against her better judgment. They had an enjoyable time, but within a day or so her father is dead.  Eliza works as a teacher, but when her father's death leaves her unable the pay the rent on their house, she decides to apply to an advertisement for a governess she's seen in the paper. She is accepted right away and leaves London for the first time in her life, taking the train to Norfolk and Gaudlin Hall, her new home, only to find that there are no parents around, only two young children, Isabella and Eustace Westerley.  It isn't long until she realizes that there is something wrong there, and that she is the victim of a vengeful spirit who frequents the place and makes Eliza's life a living hell. When she appeals for information from the locals, she's met with a wall of silence, but her curiosity on one score leads to information that all of her predecessors have been frightened away or have met terrible ends.  Eliza knows she absolutely must get to the heart of the mystery before she becomes the spirit's next victim and the children are left alone once more.

Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
My guess is that the author had a great time while writing this book. It's a really good one -- a  tale probably best enjoyed on a stormy evening under a blanket with a hot cup of tea.   There are a number of  nods to Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Henry James in this novel as well as  a hint of the gothic.  While some parts come across as a bit tongue-in-cheek, making me think "parody",  the literary elements are very recognizable in terms of tropes, names, and style. Where this book shines  is in its characters, especially that of  Eliza, who is well beyond her timeframe in her thinking.  While she tends to be naive in the face of the supernatural at first,  she is no hands-fluttering  standard Gothic or Victorian heroine who needs rescuing. She is extremely rational, independent, and courageous, but at the same time genuinely nurturing and caring toward her young charges. Taking no for an answer or being brushed off by the male characters (one Mr. Raisin comes to mind, oh! How Dickensian can you get!) who attempt to sweep her under the rug just isn't in her nature, although she is prone to the odd romantic reverie here and there in terms of the men she admires.

Perhaps the ghost story is not as frightening as others I've read, although the ending is downright chilling, but for me what makes a tale of the supernatural work best  is the aura of atmosphere that an author can produce and sustain throughout  his/her story. That's definitely part and parcel of this novel, as the author sets the tension level on high  with the villagers' silence,  the servants who appear and disappear quietly, the house and the untended children, creepy happenings and the procession of governesses to name only a few things. To his credit, he doesn't let the backstory out all at once either, allowing his readers to pick up a little bit at a time until the whole mystery behind the haunting is revealed. This House is Haunted is perfect for people who enjoy a good ghost story once in a while.  If you're thinking that you're going to get gore and splatter here, move along.  It's not that kind of book.  My advice -- go grab a copy and just have fun with it!

Monday, September 30, 2013

*The Yellow Sign and Other Stories: The Complete Weird Tales of Robert W. Chambers, S.T. Joshi, ed.

Chaosium, 2000
643 pp


The other night I picked up Joseph Pulver's A Season in Carcosa, read the intro and then realized I'd never read The King In Yellow, so I probably needed to hold off for a bit. When I finished The Yellow Sign and Other Stories, I realized that Chambers had borrowed Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" so I guess I have to go grab The Heritage of Hastur to read that one.  Lucky for me,  I own a LOT of  Chaosium volumes.  
This collection is a mixed bag of tales ranging from the best of the weird to eerie to fun and then downright silly.  The first group of stories in this book come from Chambers' The King in Yellow, featuring "The Repairer of Reputations,"  "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon" "The Yellow Sign" "The Demoiselle d'Ys" and "The Prophet's Paradise."  For my money, these are the best and the most intensely weird stories in the entire book, and as weird goes, they just don't get better. In fact, these are some of the best weird stories I've ever read, period.   The next stories, "The Maker of Moons" and "A Pleasant Evening,"  come from The Maker of Moons, two more excellent pieces with perhaps a bit less weirdish intensity than the King in Yellow selections, but are still guaranteed to induce a sense of dread.  "The Maker of Moons" wins my vote in this section, although the supernatural tones of  "A Pleasant Evening"  had a shocker of an ending that really grabbed me.  The third group of stories is The Mystery of Choice; one of the best supernatural stories I've ever read is found here in "The Messenger." I also loved the Bretonne setting and the local legends and customs that have much to do with the stories in this section.  In Search of the Unknown features stories focusing on the exploits of a zoologist who is sent here and there to verify discoveries of strange creatures.  While these tales are highly entertaining, they fall less into the weird zone and more into the realm of strange adventure.  Skipping ahead, the same is true for Police!!!, although with the exception of "The Third Eye,"  these little episodes have more of a cheesy-slash-silly edge, especially in "The Immortal," featuring a bunch of cave-dwelling women in the Florida Everglades. The chapters excerpted  from  The Tracer of Lost Persons left me wanting more, especially if the rest of that particular book is as good is what's here.  Egyptian hieroglyphics, a hidden chamber and a body turned to dust all had my complete attention for the duration. Finally, The Tree of Heaven is a decent mix of stories that run a good spectrum ranging from strange to eerie, but not anywhere near the quality of  The King in Yellow or The Maker of Moons. 

While all of these collected tales may not suit everyone, as is generally the case with an anthology, the book is  well worth reading if for nothing else, the chapters from the first three titles The King in Yellow, The Maker of Moons, and The Mystery of Choice.   Even the cheesy stories might produce a laugh now and then, but definitely, if you're at all into weird fiction and you haven't read Chambers' work yet, you really don't want to miss this book.  Now I can go read  A Season in Carcosa and not feel stupid or that I missed anything!

// *** \\
There's another review at SF Site  by Georges T. Dodds  that goes into a little more detail about the stories than I have, you can take a look here .

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and other stories, by Laird Barron

Night Shade Books, 2013
276 pp


John Langan notes on the back cover of this book that he "can't sum up Laird Barron in a single, pithy sentence," and neither can I. If you've read his work, you already know that he is one of the best horror/weird fiction writers out there; if you haven't, then you seriously don't know what you're missing.  I don't actually remember how I got started reading his stuff, but now I'm hooked. He's an author I prefer to read late at night, when all is quiet, and if I'm really lucky,  when there's a raging thunderstorm outside. I've also come to realize that when horror/weird fiction/the supernatural is done right, it is just as good as any work of "literary" fiction out there -- and Laird Barron definitely does it right. If you're considering this author's work, go find his story "Strappado." I guarantee you'll come back for more.

and now, without further ado...the stories.

  • Blackwood’s Baby” -- I've already read this story in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four (Ellen Datlow, ed.)earlier this year, and it was just as creepy this time around. Set in Washington state, the story begins as hunter Luke Honey has been invited to join a hunting party at the Black Ram Lodge in the forest of Ransom Hollow. As owner Liam Welloc explains, there are "plenty of deer and boar on this preserve," but the real prize is the "great stag known as Blackwood's Baby."  It is not only "the equal of any beast" that any of those present have ever hunted, but also the subject of  darkest legend in these parts.  Deliciously creepy -- 
  •  “The Redfield Girls” --  For the past ten years, a group of friends, all teachers from the same school,  have all come together for a road trip "along the hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest."  It's a girls' weekend away, where they spend time playing cribbage, drinking wine, reading -- anything to unwind before school starts up again.  This year the women are off to a cabin at Lake Crescent, located on the Olympic Peninsula,  complete with legendary past: it is rumored to be "full of demons"  who would drag trespassers down to the bottom.    Just before the trip is set to get underway, one of the women (Bernice)  receives a surprise visit from her niece, who ends up being number eleven on the trip. Her arrival coincides with a number of strange dreams Bernice has been having, but Bernice passes off the timing as "bizarre" and "too eerie for coincidence."  Off they go, and during a stormy night, the lake's freaky history becomes a topic of conversation to pass the time.  Later on, after a hike, the women decide to test the waters, so to speak -- and the reader is left to wonder if  the supernatural is at work here of if it's just, as Lemony Snicket would say, a series of unfortunate incidents.   Excellent story -- worth it just for the atmosphere alone! 
  •  “Hand of Glory” -- The narrator of this story, Johnny Cope,  tells his tale in hardboiled mode, which is not strange since he has become a hitman for a local tough-guy gangster. Things start going south when a couple of men try to kill him, and he finds a name, Conrad Paxton,  written on the back of a card in a wallet belonging to one of the gunmen.  His boss pays for him to take a "vacation," and sends a couple of guys to take care of him.  As he's about to set on the trail of who was responsible for sending the two killers, he gets a call from someone purporting to be an old friend of his father's, who gives him the name of the man who killed his father.   Never one to sit idly, he makes his way toward his father's killer, and unable to control his destructive urges, steps into something way over his head.   The hardboiled tone in this story blends perfectly with eerie black magic, some freakishly strange sisters,  and a maker of bizarre films to create a flawless, frightening tale.
  • "The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” takes place in Poger Rock, pop. 190, in yet another cabin in the woods.  The remoteness of the location is by choice, since a woman, Lorna,  who has been a constant victim of abuse by her husband,  takes up shelter there.  Her lover, Miranda, was able to get the cabin, and it is the perfect spot to hide, waiting for Lorna's "soon to be ex" to be put in jail.  The combination of local lore about the cabin and its original owner, a chance discovery, and Lorna's growing paranoia all bleed together to ratchet up the uneasiness in this tale, as the women soon discover that perhaps those old legends may have some merit. 
  • The Siphon” --  The NSA sets the proverbial "honey trap" for a man named Lancaster,  a normally coolly-detached sociopath, and forces him into service spying for them.  He has another job, where it seems a few of his colleagues also provide "eyes everywhere the US needed them."  After six months of not being needed at the NSA, he gets a call to provide some intelligence about a certain Dr. Christou, who is hosting a foreign national who just happens to have business with Lancaster's company. It is a job Lancaster feels is "menial" and "mindless,"  but things start getting out of hand when the good doctor becomes the focus of a strange couple who are part of a gathering the company has put together.
  • The Jaws of Saturn” -- The Broadsword Hotel, which I first came across in Barron's collection Occultation, is the venue once again for yet another hitman story, one with a surreal, horrific twist.  The magician from "Hand of Glory" reappears, this time years later under his real name, as a hypnotist who is helping the hitman's girlfriend Carol,  who is trying to quit smoking. She's gone down to half a pack, but suffers from terrible dreams.  Franco, the hitman, doesn't understand the strange changes taking place in Carol, so decides to pay the hypnotist a visit, to have a little chat with him. He is refused an audience, so has to force his way in, and in return, is made to watch the hypnotist's session with Carol. It is, as Franco will later say, an "apocalyptic visit."
  •  “Vastation” is quite different than Barron's usual fare, but takes as its subject the "only human being on the planet", who made himself and then broke the mold, with the other "carbon-based sapient life forms" existing as merely props, "grist for the mill." This entire story is a monologue, featuring someone who's evolved into a kind of superbeing who has mastered a third of the layers of space and time, with the power to make and remake his own existence, only to discover that he's bored with himself and his life. As he notes, "the Universe stretches to a smear and cycles like a slinky reversing through its own spine. No matter what I do, stuff keeps happening in an uninterruptible stream."  The title "Vastation"  is appropriate not just in terms of this story, but in terms of the number of ideas contained within these few pages, with the futility of it all as a centerpiece.
  • The Men From Porlock”-- Back in the past once again (1923), back deep in the woods of Washington State, an ex-Marine named Miller now works at the Slango Logging Camp. The superintendent's foreman tags Miller and other men to go into the woods and snag a couple of good-sized bucks for the upcoming visit of a photographer.  Sitting around the fire the loggers start telling stories "bout these parts," one of them punctuating his tales with a strange map  taken out of one of his grandpappy's books. The map is of Mystery Mountain and  the stories tell of ghosts, evil spirits and demons living in holes in the ground and in trees and rocks.  All is well until "at the very edge of perception," Miller begins to hear some very strange music...
  • Last, but definitely not least comes “More Dark” --  within which is the source of the novel's title, where  an author with a suicide bent attends an event where the main attraction is a reclusive horror writer who, on stage, shows up like death dressed in red and lets a puppet do his speaking for him. There are a wide variety of horror writers mentioned in this little meta piece, but I'm not sure if this one is written for horror fans or for other writers of the genre. Either way, it's quite good and it's funny.  
 As a whole, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All managed to bring on a stomach-knotting sense of unease in nearly every story. It is a nice mix of weird, Lovecraft-style cosmic horror and more supernatural type fright, both of which work blended well in my mind and kept me at a high tension level throughout the book. There is a lot going thematically and psychologically here, and there is also a lot of interweaving of past stories into this collection as well -- for example, the map of Mystery Mountain in  "The Men From Porlock" came into play in Barron's "Mysterium Tremendum," the Broadsword Hotel has also made previous appearances, and The Black Ram Lodge has appeared more than once I love how he does this -- it's like being back on familiar ground, yet different.  Once again, Laird Barron has woven his magic, making me a very happy reader. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

5 is my lucky number, but not so much this time. The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Five, Ellen Datlow (ed.)

Night Shade Books, 2013
406 pp


"We all of us have a chapter like that. A black chapter. Sometimes you write it yourself. Sometimes some bastard writes it for you."
-- Conrad Williams, The Pike 

I'll just be blunt here. There were very few stories in this collection that stopped time for me, drew me in so that nothing else existed outside of the book, or god forbid, actually scared me or gave me any sense of the willies whatsoever -- you know, the things that tell me that I've just read an insanely good book of horror tales.  I know that everyone has different ideas about what good horror should be, and I've seen that  a couple of  goodreads readers have given this book 5-star reviews.  But taking this collection as a whole, I  think  it's a lot more "weird" than frightening. When I read horror, I want chills creeping up along my spine; I want to feel the "shivering dread" noted on the back cover blurb. Sorry, but I just didn't get a lot of that here.  Of course, as China Miéville notes in his "afterweird" of The Weird (VanderMeer and VanderMeer eds),

"We don't fray the world quite the same..."

so this is a book in which you should judge the horror factor for yourself.

Now, let's explore, shall we? After all, I did find a few that were nice and squirmworthy (*).

1. "Nikishi,"  by Lucy Taylor:  A good, unsettling choice for a first story, in which a shipwrecked thief finds refuge, a young girl, and nasty hyenas  in a deserted African village, but it slid into predictability after a while. 
2. “Little America” by Dan Chaon:  Some time in the near and dystopic future, a man is a traveling to Salt Lake City with a young boy who he ties up when they stay at motels.  Turns out he's not a kidnapper, but a man on a special mission.  I'd label this one more "weird" than I would "horror". 

3. “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford:  This one I loved -- extremely squirmworthy.  Set in Japan, a bar hostess meets a guy who promises her a "field trip" to a private onsen (hot springs) "out in the woods on a mountainside, hidden and very old-fashioned, no frills."  He keeps his promise, and gets more than he'd ever bargained for.    One of my favorites in the entire book. *

4. “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson -- I don't get why this is considered horror at all, except for the opening line by John Wyndham: "As for the insects, their lives are sustained only by intricate processes of fantastic horror."  If you're interested in knowing how many ways a "mantis woman" can kill her husband, then you'll like it. I didn't.

5. “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski:  A woman who became infected with a zombie virus is now cured, but some people are not so forgiving of what the "Zombie chick" did before.  I'm not a zombie person, but maybe others will like this story. 

6. “The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell:  Here, the tension and uneasiness slowly builds, as good horror should.  A young boy staying with his grandparents decides to go to a movie, but can't get in. Neither can the other two teens standing in line, and they take it very personally.  The boy runs to his grandmother's bingo game, and well, let's just say that if you're a regular bingo player, you may never want to play again after reading this story.  Another good one.  *

7. “Two poems for Hill House” by Kevin McCann:  Hmmm. The second of the two is better. That's all I will say.

8 “Mariner’s Round” by Terry Dowling: There's an old saying about how revenge is a dish best served cold.  That's definitely the case here, where three boys get into a scuffle that leaves a scar on one of them who never forgets. I liked this one until the ending, which was kind of silly, killing the edginess.

9. “Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files If you have sex with a stranger, don't rifle through the stuff in her house afterwards. Especially if she has a demonic governess watching over her. This one was just bizarre, but not in a good way.

10. “The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir: This one could have been good -- a young girl (13) starts her very difficult magician's training under a master, who insists that she also continue her school studies as well. Let's just say they both end up with perverse appetites.  It wasn't so bad, except for the whole pedophilia thing á la Lolita going on here. Ick.

11. “Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon: I probably wouldn't have called this one "horror" either -- it's more of a story about a guy who sees monsters in everyone everywhere.  Well written, definitely weird due to the man's psychosis, but not creepy, scary horror.  

12. “The House on Ashley Avenue” by Ian Rogers: Okay, I liked this one -- I am a total sucker for a good haunted house story.  Here,  a couple buy a house they shouldn't have bought, and die the next day. When two psychic investigators come in, they find out why.*

13. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn:  More zombies. I hate zombies, although I have to admit that I actually liked this tale, because of the good writing and slow unraveling of the story within the story. 

14. “Sleeping, I Was Beauty” by Sandi Leibowitz: Another poem. 

15. “Bajazzle” by Margo LanaganThe main character in this one is going through some sort of midlife crisis -- his wife has decided to become fit and trim, and he liked her old body better.  Not only that, but she's decided that she's not buying into his problems any more.  At a party he runs into an attractive woman -- and the rest is just plain weird. Pages filled with nothing but strange sex -- no.  Another I think more weird than frightening.

16. “The Pike” by Conrad Williams  -- Here's another one that didn't really inspire the creepies, but it's a very well-written story about how one's past can leave scars, mental and physical.  

17. “The Crying Child” by Bruce McAllister:  O mio dio! This story sucked me in and held me until the end. There's something appealing to me about horror stories where kids get caught up in situations well beyond their control or understanding, and this was a good one. Set in Italy during the cold war years, a village filled with people who paint hammers and sickles on their doors is well avoided by the locals because they think they're communists.  A group of boys, however, decide to take a closer look at the doors when they hear the ongoing cries of a single baby -- and one of them returns in the dead of night. *

18. “This Circus the World” by Amber Sparks: mercifully short, and that's all I'm going to say. No horror to see here, move along.

19. “Some Pictures in An Album” by Gary McMahon: Another story just filled with creeping dread that really did hold me until the finish, and then afterwards.  An album of old photos is the centerpiece in this tale where a man looks back through strange pictures of his childhood after the death of his father.*

20. “Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud.  I liked this one too, although it's more of a picture of a man's complete deterioration in the aftermath of  a terrible event renders him powerless and unable to help his friends.  This one is much more psychological, but very well done.  

21. “Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg:  Yawn. Sorry to be so blunt, but well, there it is.

22. “None So Blind” by Stephen Bacon -- Another very nicely-written tale, again not so much horror oriented as psychological.  Two people meet in a coffee shop after the man has been watching the blind woman for a while to get to know her habits, and strike up a conversation about how she came to be in her current predicament. The man already knows, but he asks anyway.  Absolutely stunning tale. 

23. “The Ballad of Boomtown” by Priya Sharma: Bad spirits abound in this one but it's kind of all over the map and not one of my favorite stories. 

24. “Pig Thing” by Adam Nevill: Another deliciously creepy story, but then again Adam Nevill is one of my favorite horror writers ever. A family transplanted to New Zealand from England and living in the middle of an  preserve in the middle of nowhere have nowhere to turn when strange things start happening at their home.  The horror of this one crept up ever so slowly and hung there until the end.*

25. “The Word-Made Flesh” by Richard Gavin :  Loss and its ensuing grief make people do the strangest things, but probably not as strange as what happens to the narrator's good friend in this story after he loses his wife and child.  A tarot card out of nowhere starts his nightmare, which leads him to an old, abandoned silo where he used to play as a child. *

26. “Into the Penny Arcade” by Claire Massey:  A girl trying to escape a fight is offered safety by a truck driver, who takes her into the trailer where he has some arcade machines from yesteryear that he insists she try out.  Awesome story, it reminded very much of Ray Bradbury's writing.*

27. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy Snyder.  Yes, this story got rave reviews, but it's not my cuppa. Recommended for people who like the combination of  viruses, sex and brain devouring, with a mention of the old gods in "their thrones in the dark spaces between the stars"  thrown in at the end. Hmm.
28. “Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron.  In my top tier of weird fiction/horror writers, Laird Barron offers a story here based on the myth of the Wild Hunt.  As the main character is racing in the Iditarod, he comes into the path of the Hunt and disturbs the Huntsman, even tries to kill it.  Not a good idea.  He then becomes the prey, and races toward what he hopes is safety.  This story is good and disturbing, but the end is sort of silly which takes away its edge. 

In summary: out of 28 stories, there are eight  total that I'd consider creepy horror:

"A Natural History of Autumn," by Jeffrey Ford
"The Callers," by Ramsey Campbell
"The House on Ashley Avenue," by Ian Rogers
"The Crying Child," by Bruce McAllister 
“Some Pictures in An Album” by Gary McMahon
" Pig Thing” by Adam Nevill
"The Word Made Flesh," by Richard Gavin
" Into the Penny Arcade," by Claire Massey

of the 19 that are left,  a few deserve honorable mention: they weren't terribly scary, but they were very well written. They were also incredibly weird (on the good side):

" Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon
"Dead Song," by Jay Wilburn
"The Pike," by Conrad Williams
"Wild Acre," by Nathan Ballingrud
"None So Blind," by Stephen Bacon

and finally, even though the endings fizzled, kudos for weirdness to

Terry Dowling, for "Mariners' Round"
Laird Barron for "Frontier Death Song"

I will say that for the most part, I had a lot of fun with this collection, and that the very nature of anthologies is taking the good along with the not so hot.  I read them to discover new authors, and in that sense, this book is a success.  This installment # 5 of Datlow's Best Horror of the Year is one you have to judge for yourself in terms of what you consider horror or not. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.

Tor, 2012
1152 pp

hard cover
"These are strange aeons. These texts, dead and/or not burrow, and we cannot predict everything they will infect or eat their path through. But certainly your brain, and they will eat the books you read from today on, too. That is how the Weird recruits.
This is a worm farm. These stories are worms." 
 --- China Miéville, "Afterweird"

Massive shrieks of delight!! As far as a humongous collection of weird tales, it just don't get better than this, folks. Seriously.  Even considering the 1152 double-columned pages, its heft (not at all comfortable for reading in bed) and the couple of months it took me to get through this weighty tome, it was all worth it.  While every anthology has a few stories that a reader's not going to like, overall this one is a 5/5 star collection, worth every moment it took to read and certainly worth every penny I spent on it. That was last year, when you could actually still buy one new -- now if you want the hardcover edition, it's in the hands of secondhand sellers. Luckily there are now both paperback editions and one for the e-readerIt's monumental, it's epic and well, it's the ultimate weird collection!!

My copy ... so you can get an idea of its sheer heft

China Miéville writes in the book's "afterweird" that
"In this book is a Weird Canon. It is not exactly yours -- how could it be? We don't fray the world quite the same, and different things watch each of us...Weird travels with us, each reader a Typhoid Mary in every library."
He's so right. My cup of tea in terms of the weird may not be someone else's, but in this book, there's a wide enough of a variety that will show you, when all is said and done, just which waters of the weird you'd like to continue to navigate.  For me, there are only a handful that weren't really up my alley -- mainly (but not limited to) the ones with more of a "weird science" edge.   Below is the table of contents, with my absolute favorites double asterisked (**); the other stories I liked but a little less are asterisked (*).  There are a number of stories that any long-term reader of weird fiction (or supernatural fiction in general) will have probably already read; considering the stories all date from the turn of the 20th century onward, that shouldn't be surprising. While not all may be the bone-chilling kind of weird, the stories are deliciously creepy and reading them will maybe make you a little more conscious of the late-night noises in your house or give you the urge to go to the front door to check the locks now and then. I couldn't help getting the feeling that someone or something was watching me...

So now, without further ado, here is the table of contents in its entirety --

Alfred Kubin, “The Other Side”  *  --  an incredibly surreal tale set in the dream city of Pearl -- sadly, this was an excerpt from the story so we only get a part of  this story about a town where everyone seems to be suffering from some kind of strange sleeping sickness. While it's highly atmospheric, some of the ending oomph gets lost in the process, but the surreality of it all makes for a good read. 
F. Marion Crawford, “The Screaming Skull” (previously read) * -- A man lives to regret the day he tells a friend about a most heinous murder.  This one is pure atmosphere and very well done.  
Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows” (previously read)* -- two men decide to take a canoe down the Danube and stop at an island filled with willows.  They're warned off by another river farer, but fail to take heed, much to their detriment. I like this one a LOT!
Saki, “Sredni Vashtar” * -- a very creepy story about a boy who starts worshiping his ferret -- and while it may sound rather silly, it gets freaky very quickly. 
 M.R. James, “Casting the Runes” ** -- a personal favorite, but then again, I pretty much love anything written by M.R. James.  An alchemist named Karswell has had his paper turned down by a society of fellows; he spends a great deal of effort trying to figure out who exactly vetoed his presentation.  That would be Mr. Dunning, who thinks Karswell has a screw or two loose.  After some very bizarre things start happening to Dunning, he discovers that some time back, a guy who gave Karswell's book a bad review had met an untimely death. Now it's Dunning's turn -- and he needs to figure out how to protect himself.
Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art Upon the Gnoles”  * In which we discover that even seasoned jewel thieves are careful when dealing with the Gnoles. 
 Gustav Meyrink, “The Man in the Bottle”** -- one of the creepiest revenge tales I've ever read, a masquerade is the setting for a strange entertainment, in which a man is placed into a giant bottle.  Weird is not a deep enough describer of this story.  I loved it.

Georg Heym, “The Dissection” * -- super bizarre story about a man's thoughts while he's being dissected. 

Hanns Heinz Ewers, “The Spider”** -- Three men stay at a room in a boarding house, and each one ends up hanging himself.  The narrator of the story decides it's time once and for all to figure out why. 
 Rabindranath Tagore, “The Hungry Stones” * -- A deserted palace, once magnificent but now a place where thieves won't even go after dark  becomes the home of a tax collector, and soon he begins to understand why everyone avoids the place.  A wonderful story, this one's all about language and atmosphere.

Luigi Ugolini, “The Vegetable Man” * -- A botanist in the Amazon discovers a new species of plant, picks it, and takes some leaves & flowers from it.  The natives tell him to stay away from it, but it's too late...  
 A. Merritt, “The People of the Pit”** --This story starts with a couple of adventurers on their way to seeking gold in some legendary mountains up toward the Yukon.  While they're camped, they watch a brilliant light show in the direction of where they're headed, and a man comes crawling into their camp, literally on his last legs. The story he tells is the stuff of nightmares.  This is my first Merritt story -- definitely not my last. 

 Ryunosuke Akutagawa, "The Hell Screen" ** -- In which a Japanese lord commissions an artist with a beautiful daughter to paint a scene from hell on a screen -- and the artist finds the ultimate inspiration for his work.  This story defines the word freaky!

  Francis Stevens, “Unseen—Unfeared”** -- A man with an impending sense of evil happens upon an exhibit of strange photography and discovers "horror too great for bearing." Amazing. 

 Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”  (previously read) ** -- An officer's strange devotion to an even stranger apparatus, now being put out of use,  is at the heart of this story in a penal colony where "Guilt is always beyond a doubt." I love this story, absolutely love it. It's beyond weird. 
 Stefan Grabinski, “The White Wyrak” * -- Chimney sweepers start disappearing in this tale, and will make you think twice about how to handle leftover soot in your fireplace.  More on the monster side, but still good in the telling.
 H.F. Arnold, “The Night Wire”  (previously read) ** -- The horror builds slowly in this little gem about an operator in a newsroom receiving strange news about a creeping mist in a town his companion's never heard of.  Perhaps the technology is outmoded, but it doesn't dampen the creep factor. 

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror” (previously read) ** -- What can I say about this wonderful piece by HPL? If you haven't read anything by Lovecraft, the story of the Whateley family in Dunwich, MA, who try to bring in "a kind of force that doesn't belong in our part of space" is a great starting point.  
 Margaret Irwin, “The Book”**  -- An old book "speaks" to its owner, who feels he must carry out the tome's orders, to a point.  Deliciously creepy, the horror building slowly in this one.

Jean Ray, “The Mainz Psalter”** -- A schoolmaster sets up an expedition sailing from Glasgow -- after a while at sea,  it becomes apparent to the crew that something is dreadfully amiss. 
 Jean Ray, “The Shadowy Street”** -- Another favorite story, told from a French translation and a German one about strange events in a town where a man discovers a street no one else can see.  
 Clark Ashton Smith, “Genius Loci”  ** -- Clark Ashton Smith could write cereal box copy and I'd still read it with as much enthusiasm as I do all of his stories.  Here, a man entertains an artist friend for a few days, to discover that his friend is completely fascinated with a particular meadow.

Hagiwara Sakutoro, “The Town of Cats”** -- a wandering man with a poor sense of direction wanders into a strange town, and his tale is met with the reaction that it is the "demented illusion of a poet." But is it?
 Hugh Walpole, “The Tarn” * -- A bad house guest starts getting on his host's nerves, and the host acts on his feelings, with some pretty serious consequences.  

Bruno Schulz, “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass” ** -- One of the ultimate best stories in this volume,  totally surreal, in which a man goes to visit his father at a sanatorium and ends up in a place of converging possibilities.  I have to buy the book of all of Schulz's stories now.
 Robert Barbour Johnson, “Far Below” ** -- While the average Joe may worry about what's happening on the streets of New York,  even greater dangers live below. Luckily, there are people down there taking care of things -- but there is a catch.  Super story. 

Fritz Leiber, “Smoke Ghost”(previously read) * -- A man discovers exactly what the "ghost of our time" would like, and tries his best to avoid it.  This story is a great commentary on American metropolitan concerns during the early 1940s.
Leonora Carrington, “White Rabbits-- not one of my favorites, and a really gross tale about a woman with carnivorous rabbits.  The discovery made in the penultimate paragraph almost made me hurl. 

Donald Wollheim, “Mimic” -- another one that I wasn't really fond of, one that involves a lot of insects. This is the basis of the movie of the same name; luckily, the story is very short. 
 Ray Bradbury, “The Crowd”  ** -- Another wonderful story honing in on 20th century angst in a weird way.  A man is hurt in an accident, and a crowd closes in. But something is really wrong here and it leads him to start noticing weird coincidences afterwards.  

William Sansom, “The Long Sheet”  ** -- In terms of "weird," this one may just take the prize. A group of prisoners are given an odd condition for earning their freedom.  This story is an excellent study of human nature and it's so strange I had to read it twice. 
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph" (previously read)  ** -- a wonderful story in which a poet shows a friend of his cousin's the "inconceivable universe" in the cellar of his home.  This story is just sheer genius.
 Olympe Bhely-Quenum, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”  ** -- A child's uncle takes him deep into a forest in Africa, and tells him to wait and not to move.  Instead, the child wanders into a place he should not be.  Very cool.

Shirley Jackson, “The Summer People”** -- Since it's Shirley Jackson, you already know it's going to be great. A couple who normally stay at their summer home until Labor Day decide to stay on past the holiday -- and it's probably not a good decision on their part.  The scare creeps up on you very slowly and the end, well, it's Shirley Jackson.
 Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” -- another one I must confess that I wasn't so fond of,  deriving from Dunsany's Gnoles story above. 

Robert Bloch, “The Hungry House”  ** -- A man and his wife take on life in a truly haunted home in this story -- the backstory of how it got that way raises the bar for creepiness. Really good story.

Amos Tutuola, “The Complete Gentleman” * -- Another story set in Africa -- this time, a woman follows a "perfect gentleman" into a market and beyond, then disappears. Her father hires "Father of gods who could do anything in this world" to find her, making for a strange but very cool tale.
 Jerome Bixby, “It’s a Good Life” ** (this one was turned into 1) an original Twilight Zone episode and 2) a part of the later Twilight Zone movie.  In this story, a little boy named Anthony can read thoughts -- if he likes you, he might try to help you, and if not, well, things could be downright horrible. Ask his family and the other residents of the town of Peaksville, population 46.   Smile.   One of my favorites. 

Augusto Monterroso, "Mister Taylor" * --  A sudden craze for shrunken heads is at the root of this story -- with some freaky consequences for everyone in a particular area of the Amazon.  Another good one that will chill.

Julio Cortazar, “Axolotl”-- An aquarium in Paris is the setting for this strange little tale, about a guy becoming obsessed with an axolotl, sort of reminiscent of Zhuangzi's butterfly dream substituted with reptiles.

William Sansom, “A Woman Seldom Found” -- It seems that a man visiting Rome finds his perfect encounter in the shape of a veiled woman who invites him for a walk -- or does he? 
 Charles Beaumont, “The Howling Man” ** -- I'm a sucker for any story set in an old Abbey, and this one did not disappoint.  A tourist from New England decides to see Europe by bicycle and ends up in a "bosky wood" in Germany. After an accident he is taken in by the good brothers at the Abbey of St. Wulfran's, where he starts hearing screams that no one else seems to hear.  I loved this one.
 Mervyn Peake, “Same Time, Same Place” *  -- Seeking respite from his boring parents, a young man needs an escape and sets off to Picadilly Circus, where he meets a woman and it's love at first sight. She wants to meet tomorrow, same time, same place. From there, it just gets more bizarre. Another fine entry in this book.

Dino Buzzati, “The Colomber” * -- A ship captain is thrilled that his son wants to grow up to be just like him and spend his life on the sea, until one day the boy sees a strange fish.  His father his horrified, and quickly discourages him from ever going to sea again. But after dad dies, the boy decides to take to the ships.  This one has an ending I never saw coming.  Good. 

Michel Bernanos, “The Other Side of the Mountain”** -- A strange sea voyage leaves two crew members shipwrecked and stranded on an even stranger shore. The only hope for survival is to get to the other side of the mountain -- maybe.  Very well written, with a horrific ending that will send a shiver down your spine. 

Merce Rodoreda, “The Salamander”-- An affair with a married man leads to a woman's bizarre transformation in this story, which admittedly, just wasn't up there in my list of favorites.  

Claude Seignolle, “The Ghoulbird”* -- if you're out in the marsh of Gobble-Ox, and you hear the call of the Ghoulbird, run.  Lock your doors, put your hands over your ears and try not listen.  This is another one where the creepies slowly seep into your veins.
 Gahan Wilson, “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be”-- Here's another one I wasn't too fond of, where a group of friends decide to have some fun on the beach -- and then things get really crazy. A play on Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter," it does have some very weird moments. 
 Daphne Du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now”  ** -- Simply stunning, one of my favorite pieces in the entire book, but then again I'm a huge DuMaurier fan and have been for years.  Here, a couple getting over the death of their daughter decide to vacation in Italy, where they meet two sisters.  The vacation takes some decidedly strange turns afterwards.  Excellent. 

Robert Aickman, “The Hospice”** -- A lost driver on his way home stops in a forest, and looking for shelter, runs across a sign for "The Hospice." There's a recipe for the weird right there, but it gets even stranger as his time goes on.  
 Dennis Etchison, “It Only Comes Out at Night” * -- Driving through the desert of the American southwest and getting tired, a man decides to stop at a rest area late at night.  It might just be the worst idea he's ever had. Good.

James Tiptree Jr.,  “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Terrible Things to Rats” -- I'm not a huge Tiptree fan to begin with, but this story just seemed sort of out of place here to me.  I read about half, and skipped the rest. 
 Eric Basso, “The Beak Doctor” * -- Perfectly atmospheric, it is the story of a masked man who makes his way through a town shrouded in fog while people fall prey to a strange sleeping sickness.  This story stands out because the writing creates such a claustrophobic setting that you have to take a breather before it's all finished.   
Jamaica Kincaid, “Mother”-- I'm sure a lot of people liked this story, but it just wasn't one I really got into. Another story of transformation that just didn't do it for me.
George R.R. Martin, “Sandkings”** -- One of the freakiest, creepiest stories in this book,  a collector of strange creatures takes home a species called Sandkings, who provide his friends with entertainment at first, then become much more than the collector bargained for.  This one just really creeped me out, causing me to be afraid to pick up the book dor a day or two. 
Bob Leman, “Window” ** -- When  a building and everything in it, including a researcher, disappears, something is left in its place -- a house with a lovely family right out of a Victorian painting, visible through a window on the past.  Another really good one.

Ramsey Campbell, “The Brood”  * -- A man who enjoys watching "the local characters" notices one of them missing -- a  woman who takes in strays. On edge, he decides to go and take a look when he hears something from inside her abandoned house.  Very bad idea.
Michael Shea, “The Autopsy” ** -- A dying doctor is called in to perform autopsies on people who were killed in a mine explosion.  His findings reveal something bizarre, but that's nothing compared to what happens when one of the bodies starts talking to him.  The end of this one may be one of the strangest endings I've ever read. 
William Gibson/John Shirley, “The Belonging Kind”  ** -- When a loner who doesn't belong anywhere falls for a girl he sees at a bar, he follows her -- and his life is literally transformed forever.  Yes! This is a really weird one.
M. John Harrison, “Egnaro”** -- This story touches on the madness of  a man's obsession about a country no one's ever heard of.  It's one of the best in the collection, extremely well written and just downright strange.
Joanna Russ, “The Little Dirty Girl” -- I was really into this tale about a little girl who keeps showing up -- but then it just sort of fizzled out for me.
M. John Harrison, “The New Rays”-- again, not one of the best, but still intriguing.  A strange clinic affords a patient the chance at being better -- but the cure might just be worse than being sick.  Very strange.
Premendra Mitra, “The Discovery of Telenapota”-- A story about leaving the "familiar" world and crossing into another.  So-so, not really one of the best.
F. Paul Wilson, “Soft” * -- Some sort of virus has spread and those who've survived are left with horrible aftereffects. At  least they're alive -- for now. But one man wonders about what the future might bring in this eerie and distressing tale.
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” -- Another one not to my taste -- more scifi than I enjoy in my weird fiction.  This story reveals a strange relationship between humans and a race of strange beings that use the humans for a strange purpose.
Clive Barker, “In the Hills, the Cities”  ** -- Oh lordy, I really loved this story. of two people traveling  through Yugoslavia exactly at the wrong time, when two towns engage in a bizarre competition.  I swear, this is one I'll never forget.
Leena Krohn, “Tainaron”-- another scifi-oriented tale, structured as a series of letters from a woman who has come to live in a city of insects. This one, although praised by critics, just didn't find an appreciative audience in me. 
Garry Kilworth, “Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands”-- An old woman who recently lost her pet decides she wants another.  She has parts of her body removed to create companions. Not a good idea.  Not bad, but definitely among the best in the book.
Lucius Shepard, “Shades”  ** -- A Vietnam vet returns to Vietnam to take part in a strange experiment and ends up dealing with a ghost from his past.  Excellent story, and a really good commentary on the war.
Harlan Ellison, “The Function of Dream Sleep”  ** -- Awakening from a grotesque dream, a man who's suffered a lot of loss in the recent past visits a group whose  members share his problem. Wildly weird and unsettling.
Ben Okri, “Worlds That Flourish”  * -- Trying to escape from a city under a dictatorship where people are disappearing, a man drives out into the forests, where he is advised not to head in the direction he is going.  But the nature of this story decrees, of course, that he doesn't listen.  Very good tale, kind of eerie as well as strange.
Elizabeth Hand, “The Boy in the Tree” * -- A young woman in an institution  is programmed to penetrate dreams through empathic powers, but these same abilities lead her into another woman's particular obsession. Very good, but I would expect nothing less from this author, who is one of my favorites.
Joyce Carol Oates, “Family” -- a family survives an apocalypse in all kinds of strange ways, but I wasn't very impressed by this story.
Poppy Z Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood”** -- a most excellent story by one of my favorite writers, where two young men, bored with their lives, go well beyond the mundane into the world of graverobbing, with unforeseen consequences.  One of my favorite stories ever, and one of the best atmospheric tales out there.
Michal Ajvaz, “The End of the Garden”-- surreal isn't the word for this tale that begins with a fight between a woman and a Komodo dragon.  It just gets more bizarre from there.
Karen Joy Fowler, “The Dark”   **-- What do a wild boy found in a coyote burrow in Yosemite and a tunnel rat in Vietnam have in common? A researcher of the plague thinks he knows in this appropriately-titled story that creeped me through to the marrow. 
Kathe Koja, “Angels in Love”   *  -- Strange, but enjoyable story about a woman who can't help but overhear her neighbor having sex through the wall and decides she wants whatever her neighbor's having. While kind of silly, still some good shock value here.
Haruki Murakami, “The Ice Man" ** -- In my opinion, this is one of the best stories in the entire collection.  A woman meets and falls in love with an Ice Man -- a man made of ice.  They are very much in love, and everything is cool (no pun intended) until she decides they should take a vacation. This is Murakami at his very weird best.
Lisa Tuttle, “Replacements,"  * -- Another pet story in which women find strange creatures much more comforting than their men.  It is okay, with building creepiness and a lot of weirdness.
Marc Laidlaw, “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” -- When a suicide occurs, a police inspector arrives to take photographs -- and it changes him, but not nearly as much as a midnight visit with an anonymous caller who claims to have photographed the suicide itself.  Weird, but not quite up to speed with the others in this book.
Steven Utley, “The Country Doctor”  ** -- Returning to the hometown of generations of his family,a man runs into some archaeologists doing their work prior to the graves being moved.  Together they come across something incredibly strange that may explain particular family traits.  This one is just a great story all around.
William Browning Spenser, “The Ocean and All Its Devices”   ** -- Weirder than a number of stories in this book, an odd  family returns to an oceanside motel every year.  This  year's visit is full of surprises for everyone. I loved, absolutely loved this story. 
Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate” -- Disguised and at a spa, an entity goes around sucking the lives out of people. Now, having read other reviews of this story, I feel bad that I wasn't impressed, but well, there it is.
Martin Simpson, “Last Rites and Resurrections”  * -- an ode to grief and loss, a man begins to hear the voices of dead animals. Poignant, and at times funny, I liked this one.
Stephen King, “The Man in the Black Suit” -- Why the editors chose to include this story, which is not one of King's best short works, is beyond me. A boy goes fishing and becomes bait for the devil.
Angela Carter, “The Snow Pavilion”  ** -- Stuck in the snow and sneaking shelter, the narrator of this story goes into a grand house and enters a nightmare.  Talk about atmospheric! Loved this one.
Craig Padawer, “The Meat Garden* -- at war with vegans whose ammo causes strange effects -- now there's a very weird concept. This one's good...
Stepan Chapman, “The Stiff and the Stile” -- an odd riff on an old nursery tale, which I remember as "The Old Woman and Her Pig" or something like that, now it's a corpse that won't go over the stile. Weird, but seems sort of out of place here.
Tanith Lee, “Yellow and Red”  * -- A modern and rather haunting ghost story in which a man goes to take care of business and close up the old family home which he starts hating not long after he arrives.  It reminds me a lot of  an updated M.R. James story.  Really good.
Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat”  * -- Twin girls and their workaholic dad are spending the summer together in an old house called Eight Chimneys.  When dad decides to go out, the babysitter, who says she used to live in the house  arrives, and the three play some very odd games.  Another tale with slowly building horror that just creeps up your spine.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, “A Redress for Andromeda”  ** -- It's Halloween and a young woman is invited to a party at a remote house where, before the night is over, she realizes she's there for a specific reason.  I LOVED this story, and Kiernan is one of my all-time favorite writers. 
Michael Chabon, “The God of Dark Laughter”  * -- A DA investigates a bizarre murder of man dressed in a clown suit, and the case leads him to quit his job after stumbling upon a battle between two strange cults. The blurb prior to the story mentions "references to Lovecraft" (check) and "a nod to the work of Edgar Allan Poe" (check again).  Good story.
China Mieville, “Details”  **  (previously read) -- I really love this story, where a boy's mother makes him visit a woman in a yellow house, and he discovers that "the devil is in the details." The first time I read this I was deliciously on edge; time and a reread has changed nothing.
Michael Cisco, “The Genius of Assassins”  * -- Murderers reveal their stories in this floaty, surreal tale, which is truly full-blown weird.  
Neil Gaiman, “Feeders and Eaters”  ** -- Waiting in an all-night cafe, a guy meets up with an old friend who tells him an amazing story about when he was living in the attic of a home and a woman he met there.  Amazingly good.
Jeff VanderMeer, “The Cage”  ** -- Okay -- I have to say here and now that this is the first story by Jeff VanderMeer I've ever read. Now that I've read it, I will be reading more.  When a man at a sale picks up a cage and brings it to his shop, strange things start happening all around him.  It's a travesty that I'm only giving small descriptions here, because this story is one of the weirdest ever.  Excellent.
Jeffrey Ford, “The Beautiful Gelreesh” *-- "The world is a ball of shit adrift in a sea of sin and the sooner one passed to heaven the better," is a life lesson the creature of the title came to live by.  He spends his life "curing" people of their depression.  Creepy.
Thomas Ligotti, “The Town Manager”  ** -- Another one I absolutely loved, "The Town Manager" may be weird, but it's also an excellent satirical piece as well.  A town goes through a series of changes, depending on who the town manager might be -- and every time, no one knows what's coming.  Simply superb.
Brian Evenson, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”  ** -- Another really bizarre but excellent story which the crime-fiction reader in me loved.  It's noirish in tone, really, as a poor guy who just wants to be left alone after a strange incident causes him to lose a hand is sought out for his heroism after cauterizing his own wound -- then dragged into a strange murder case as a detective.
Mark Samuels, “The White Hands” ** -- A professor at Oxford loses his job due to his strange teaching style, and spends his now leisure time studying a now-dead author of ghost stories named Lilith Blake.  He is, in fact, an expert on the woman.  An author, who plans to write about Blake in a piece about supernatural writers meets up with the professor, undoubtedly a meeting that will change his life and the world as he knows it forever.  Very nicely done, very creepy.
Daniel Abraham, “Flat Diana”  * -- The story obviously builds from the Flat Stanley craze; here a man makes a "Flat Diana" of his daughter and starts sending it around to relatives to take their photos with.  A good dad, the man just wants his little girl to know that there are people all over who love and care about her.  But evidently, along with the "Flat Diana," he sends along something unexpected.  Good story.
Margo Lanagan, “Singing My Sister Down”  * -- A family comes out to watch the death of a daughter in this beyond strange tale.  Delightfully eerie and morbid.
T.M. Wright, “The People on the Island”  ** -- You'll be shaking your head while you read this one, where a couple is alone on the island except for a few "friends."  Isolation can really get to people.  Loved it.
Laird Barron, “The Forest”  ** -- I love Laird Barron, and I really like this story that I first read in  Occultation. A cinematographer  is invited to what will become both a reunion and a goodbye in the New England woods, hosted by a filmmaker  into  "untangling the enigmas of evolutionary origins and ultimate destination."  The cinematographer definitely finds out the ultimate destination for one of his friends, in this eerie tale.
Liz Williams, “The Hide”  * -- Two sisters Claire and Jude, along with Claire's boyfriend Richard, discover a bird hide on an old causeway along an estuary, and while they're watching the wildlife, they glimpse two birds, the likes of which none of them have ever seen before.  The experience will change them all.  Very good story.
Reza Negarestani, “The Dust Enforcer” * -- Very weird, with drawings -- this piece reads like an encyclopedia entry about the demon of epidemics.  I really need to get the book it came from, Cyclonopedia.  Cool.
Micaela Morrissette, “The Familiars”  * -- You might wish to read this story especially if your child has an imaginary friend.  In this little tale, a boy whose best friend is his mom comes up with an imaginary playmate.  All is well for a while, until it's time for school to start.  Creepifying and very strange, but also good.
Steve Duffy, “In the Lion’s Den”  (previously read) *  -- I read this in Datlow's Best Horror of the Year Volume 2, a dark tale about what really goes on among the animals in the zoo that no one really notices until someone goes into the lion's den.  Eerie.
Stephen Graham Jones, “Little Lambs” ** -- In the middle of nowhere in a Wyoming desert, an isolated crew of men are on duty guarding an odd structure that seems to be the "metal guts of a prison built in West Virginia in 1918." The building had collapsed killing everyone in it some 8 plus years earlier, but there were strange tales of an ex-lumberjack who may have had something to do with the collapse. The building is also moving.   Here, the sheer isolation of it all after 96 months of watching is the real star in this tale -- I really, really liked this one.
K.J. Bishop, “Saving the Gleeful Horse” -- A giant trader of flotsam who works under a bridge comes across a little striped horse that the trader names the Gleeful Horse, which is in reality "a treasure animal." While I enjoyed the story, I just didn't think it had as weird of a feel as most of the other tales in this volume.

WHEW!  I'm giving myself pats on the back not only for finishing this book, but for finishing this post!