Friday, March 29, 2013

Lovecraft Unbound -- Ellen Datlow (ed.)

Dark Horse Books, 2009
420 pp


Having just finished four other books edited by Ellen Datlow, I have to say that this one has a wider range of good stories than the previous four volumes of The Best Horror of the Year do individually.  It's still a mixed bag though, with some stories much better than the rest, some following under the category of  "good and I'd probably look for more by their authors," and some that just didn't do it for me. In short, your typical anthology.  If you're considering reading this one,  keep in mind that the book was not intended to be a collection of Lovecraft pastiches but rather a collection of stories inspired by Lovecraft's work.  Even so, it comes out a bit unevenly and while the authors each offer a brief write-up on how Lovecraft inspired their work, some of the stories seem to be a bit off. 

So let's get down to business starting with the table of contents:
  1. “The Crevasse” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud
  2. “The Office of Doom” by Richard Bowes
  3. “Sincerely, Petrified” by Anna Tambour
  4. “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson
  5. “The Tenderness of Jackals” by Amanda Downum
  6. “Sight Unseen” by Joel Lane
  7. “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips
  8. “Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love” by William Browning Spencer
  9. “Houses Under the Sea” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  10. “Machines of Concrete Light and Dark” by Michael Cisco
  11. “Leng” by Marc Laidlaw
  12. “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon
  13. “One Day, Soon” by Lavie Tidhar
  14. “Commencement” by Joyce Carol Oates
  15. “Vernon, Driving” by Simon Kurt Unsworth
  16. “The Recruiter” by Michael Shea
  17. “Marya Nox” by Gemma Files
  18. “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
  19. “Catch Hell” by Laird Barron
  20. “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” by Nick Mamatas
 There are six I really liked and five  that were good, not great, so that accounts for over half of the stories in this book.  The best story in this book is without question Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Houses Under the Sea," set in beautiful Monterey.  The story is seen through the eyes of a narrator who not only has no name but no gender either.  He/She has been assigned to write about Jacova Angevine, his/her former lover, who once had a promising career in academia but later became the head of a cult called "The Open Door," whose members she led into the ocean one day in a mass suicide. It's one a summary doesn't do justice, but my god ... this story is absolutely chilling and probably meets best the Lovecraft-inspiration criteria.   I have to give Ms. Datlow kudos for including it.   "The Crevasse,"  set in the Antarctic is also an excellent, Lovecraft-inspired story but one I've read before; also set in the Antarctic is Holly Phillips' "Cold Water Survival," another previously-read but excellent story.   Also clearly in the Lovecraftian zone is (believe it or not) Michael Chabon's "In the Black Mill," which I found to be outstanding; I did a double take when I got to this author's entry because well, he does horror & dread so nicely -- a side of Chabon I've never seen before!   "Marya Nox" by Gemma Files also caught my eye -- told in more or less epistolary format, it focuses on a strange church in Macedonia that was uncovered after having been purposely buried in its entirety.   "Catch Hell," by Laird Barron isn't exactly Lovecraftian so to speak, but there's definitely evil lurking in the woods around the Black Ram Lodge.  This one I've read before and while I really like this story, its inclusion in this particular volume is kind of a mystery. 

The six that were (imho) good/not great but still deserving of a mention are "The Din of Celestial Birds," by Brian Evenson, “Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love” by William Browning Spencer, "Leng," by Marc Laidlaw -- I'm a total sucker for anything set on the Plateau of Leng, and "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” by Nick Mamatas. This one resonated with the idea that there's nothing one can do when confronted by cosmic forces beyond anyone's control and it appealed. And while  "The Office of Doom" was kind of  playful with its interlibrary loan of the Necronomicon, I'm still not quite sure about it. Ditto for "The Recruiter," which was dark enough for my weird tastes but kind of missing something there.

Obviously anyone reading this collection will have their own personal favorites, since as I've  noted before, horror is definitely in the eye of the beholder.  I'd recommend it -- there are many fine stories here. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four -- (ed.) Ellen Datlow

Night Shade Books, 2012
387 pp


"The details may change. But the fear remains."

Well, maybe not so much.

I'll just come right out and say it. So far, I haven't been duly impressed with this series.  Now and then the editor has selected some impressive entries that have managed to produce that little frisson of nerve tingle, but on the whole, there hasn't been much in the way of stalking dread or nightmare-quality horror in any of these books.  Now having said that, I did see another improvement leap from the previous volume in this series to this one, with five decent stories.  I don't know why anyone else reads horror, but for me it's the challenge of finding stories that send shivers of fright up and down my spine and discovering authors whose writing is so good that I'm actually creeped out for a good long while.  That is what I look for when I pick up a horror tome -- and while things are much better than in the last book,  as an oeuvre, this series has been somewhat disappointing.

There were a few stories in this installment that I felt were beyond good. There are 18 total (* indicates the ones I thought were better than others):

1. The Little Green God of Agony, by Stephen King
2. Stay, by  Leah Bobet
3. *The Moraine, by Simon Bestwick
4. *Blackwood’s Baby, by Laird Barron
5. Looker, by David Nickle
6. * The Show, by Priya Sharma
7. Mulberry Boys, by  Margo Lanagan
8. Roots and All, by  Brian Hodge
9. Final Girl Theory, by  A. C. Wise
10. Omphalos, by  Livia Llewellyn
11. Dermot, by Simon Bestwick
12. Black Feathers, by Alison Littlewood
13. *Final Verse, by  Chet Williamson
14. In the Absence of Murdock, by  Terry Lamsley
15. You Become the Neighborhood, by  Glen Hirshberg
16. In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos, by  John Langan
17. *Little Pig, by Anna Taborska
18. The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine, by  Peter Straub

Five stories worth recommending -- for these books, that's a good number.

Beginning with Simon Bestwick's "The Moraine," a married couple whose relationship is well, shall we say, on the rocks takes a trip to the crags of England's Lake District.  The white mist rolls in, obscuring the steep path, so they choose an alternate way to hopefully bring them down safely.  Soon they begin to realize that they are not alone. While this story is not my favorite entry of the book, it's very well written with good pacing, but my first thought after finishing it was that it  reminded me in spots of Scott Smith's The Ruins.  
In Laird Barron's "Blackwood’s Baby",  a hunting party is organized at the Black Ram Lodge, a locale familiar to readers of the author's story "Catch Hell," which I read in  OccultationLike that story, "Blackwood's Baby" is more on the occult side than most of his works, but it's still quite good. Hunter  Luke Honey, currently in Africa,  receives an invitation to join an exclusive hunting party at the Black Ram Lodge. Luke is already a tormented soul when we first meet him, a man with a troubled, dark past, and he accepts the invitation but wonders why he's been included.  This is no ordinary hunt -- the target is a stag that is purportedly the progeny of Satan himself. 

A fake medium on a tv "reality" show finds out the hard way that she has a true gift when it comes to the psychic arts in "The Show," by Priya Sharma.  The revelation, however, comes at a very bad time and at great cost.  This story was very well crafted, perfectly timed and on the money for a good scare.

 "Final Verse" by Chet Williamson, another story  I really liked, finds a once-popular bluegrass singer whose career is fading on the hunt for the missing last verse to a traditional Appalachian folksong called "Mother Come Quickly."  A bit of detective work leads him and a friend to an old house in the woods -- where they find much more than they bargained for.  This story is not only very well written -- it's incredibly creepy as well.

The last pick in my top five is "Little Pig," by Anna Taborska which is horrifying in the truest sense of the word.  At Heathrow, a woman arriving to stay with family slips, laughs hysterically, drops and breaks her glasses and mutters the words "little pig." The rest of the story takes the reader back in time to explain what it means.  To say more would be to wreck it. 

I was also entranced at first with Peter Straub's The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine, with its quirky kind of "deja vu" experiences aboard a strange yacht on the Amazon, but the story seemed to fall apart at the end.   It had me going for a while, though, so I'm mentioning it here. All in all, Volume Four had some really bad stories, some mediocre, and some that really caught my attention, and this installment was heads and shoulders above Volume Three.  Let's hope this trend continues.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Three -- Ellen Datlow, ed

Night Shade Books, 2011
361 pp


On the back-cover blurb it says the following:

"What causes that delicious shiver of fear to travel the length of our spines?...Every year the bar is raised; the screw is tightened.  Ellen Datlow knows what scares us..."

Well, evidently she doesn't know what scares me because once again (after having read the first two volumes in this series), I'm left wondering about that "delicious shiver of fear," which, with a few exceptions, just didn't materialize over the course of this book.  Still, I keep hoping, meaning I've got Volume Four on my nightstand, ready to go, and I've already pre-ordered Volume Five, which according to Amazon, is expected to be out in June of this year.  I think that what keeps me coming back is that when I find a story that actually sends that chill down my spine, I want to find more work by the author who actually managed to pleasantly provide me with a few downright creepy moments . That reasoning has not only led me to some particularly good writers, but also has started to fill out my horror collection, a definite plus for sleepless nights.   So, for anyone who may be wondering why I continue to buy these books when I haven't yet been totally satisfied, you now have an answer.  That's how I discovered Laird Barron -- who is probably my favorite horror writer -- by picking up different horror anthologies here and there.

Let me start out by saying that my expressed hope for the forward movement of improvement (referring to the big difference between volumes one and two of this series) was a bit dashed in this installment, but there are a handful of stories that I actually like. The usual inclusion of the editor's summation of books, stories, etc. from 2010 is also much appreciated, with some books once again making my wishlist and some actually finding their way to my house.   Volume Three has 21 stories (* indicates the ones I really enjoyed):

1. At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow
2. Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver
3. City of the Dog by John Langan
4. *Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls by Brian Hodge
5. *Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge
6. When the Zombies Win by Karina Sumner-Smith
7. *-30-by Laird Barron
8. Fallen Boys by Mark Morris
9. Was She Wicked? Was She Good? by M. Rickert
10. The Fear by Richard Harland
11. Till the Morning Comes by Stephen Graham Jones
12. Shomer by Glen Hirshberg
13. Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside by Christopher Fowler
14. The Obscure Bird by Nicholas Royle
15. Transfiguration by Richard Christian Matheson
16. The Days of Flaming Motorcycles by Catherynne M. Valente
17. The Folding Man Joe R. Lansdale
18. Just Another Desert Night With Blood by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.
19. *Black and White Sky by Tanith Lee
20. At Night When the Demons Come by Ray Cluley
21. The Revel by John Langan

Tallying the number of stars produces four stories I'd recommend. In Volume One I found three, Volume Two indicated a marked improvement with five, and now we've gone down a notch to four.

Laird Barron's  "--30'--"  is one  I've read before in his excellent collection OccultationI love the opening words in this little gem: "You know how this is going to end."  It is an excellent story of two scientists isolated in the desert of Washington state,  and true to form, Barron builds the layers of terror ever so slowly.  Another reread is Norman Partridge's "Lesser Demons,"  a near-perfect blend of hardboiled hero & downright horror. I didn't realize until now that he has a book by the same name ... on the wishlist it goes.  Of the two new to me, the best read was "Black and White Sky" by Tanith Lee,  one of the most bizarre tales I've read in quite a while.  Quiet life in the British Isles is shaken by upward-moving magpies, a strange phenomenon that leads to a terrifying and atmospherically-creepy conclusion. This one is really good, definitely not to be missed. I read this one twice and both times it produced that lovely spine tingle I look for. "Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls," by Brian Hodge is also a winner -- a boy meets a new neighbor next door, and a friendship begins, but it may only bring trouble since the boy has been locked up for the safety of others. There's definitely  a good reason behind it all, which will come as a bit of a shock.
I'd also like to point out Cody Goodfellow's story "At the Riding School," a bit on the violent side for my tastes but very well written; "The Fear,"  by Richard Harland was another one that  had me going up until the end when it frustratingly petered out.

I may be pickier than most readers in terms of horror reading, but the thing is, I am really looking for stories that send that "delicious shiver of fear" down my spine and so far in this series, there have only been a few meeting this description.  That's kind of a shame, but I can only  hope for better in the next volume.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2, ed. Ellen Datlow

Night Shade Books, 2010
308 pp


After the previous volume of this series turned out to be not so hot,  I had a few concerns on my end about continuing to Volume 2. While I won't say that this book inspired many terror-producing moments, it is definitely an improvement over the first collection.

The book opens once more with a summation of books, stories, etc. from 2009, some of which have already gone on my wishlist.  It is followed by 17 stories (* indicates the ones I really enjoyed):

1. "Lowland Sea," by Suzy McKee Charnas
2. "The End of Everything," by Steve Eller
*3. "Mrs. Midnight," by Reggie Oliver
*4. "each thing I show you is a piece of my death," by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
5. The Nimble Men, by Glen Hirshberg
6. What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night," by Michael Marshall Smith
7. "Wendigo", by Micaela Morrissette
8. "In the Porches of My Ears," by Norman Prentiss
9. "Lonegan's Luck," by Stephen Graham Jones
*10. "The Crevasse," by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud
11. "The Lion's Den," by Steve Duffy
12. "Lotophagi," by Edward Morris
13. "The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall," by Kaaron Warren
14. "Dead Loss," by Carole Johnstone
*15. "Strappado," by Laird Barron
16. "The Lammas Worm," by Nina Allan
*17. "Technicolor," by John Langan

Note the number of asterisks -- when I read Volume 1, I noted three standouts -- now we're up to five!  So, not counting "Strappado," by Laird Barron (which I've already read and which is one of my favorite stories by him), that leaves four that are new to me. Hands down, the best story of this group is "each thing I show you is a piece of my death," which is related through a mishmash of different media forms. It is built around the idea of "the background man," who begins to show up embedded within a number of television shows, movies, etc., with no explanation for his presence. "Mrs. Midnight" spans two worlds -- London of the present, and the same city during the time of Jack the Ripper, with a theater connecting the two. "The Crevasse" would have been a perfect fit for Robert M. Price's The Antarktos Cycle, with its Lovecraftian style and Antarctic exploration theme.  "Technicolor" took me totally by surprise, but I've come to expect good things from John Langan.  A college professor takes his students through Poe's inspiration for "Masque of the Red Death," building the suspense until the very last moment. 

While this anthology was not great, it's much better than the first volume of this series.  Between the two, the stories that were standouts for me in this book were of much higher quality and had a better creep factor going on.  Now on to Volume 3 -- hopefully the momentum of improvement will not flag. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Best Horror of the Year, by Ellen Datlow

Night Shade Books, 2009
321 pp
(read in February)

To be perfectly blunt, if this was a selection of the best horror of the year 2008, either I must have missed something or horror writing was at an ebb that year.  Out of 21 stories, there were three that were relatively creepy, and out of those, I'd already read one.   To be sure, I know that anthologies are pretty iffy, but in the world of hit or miss, this book takes the prize for most misses.  I hate being so negative, but jeez -- there's just no other way to say it.

There are, as mentioned above, 21 stories that make up this anthology (* indicates the ones I actually liked):

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer
Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg
*The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald
*The Lagerstätte by Laird Barron
Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey
Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz
The Rising River by Daniel Kaysen
Sweeney Among the Straight Razors by JoSelle Vanderhooft
*Loup-garou by R. B. Russell
Girl in Pieces by Graham Edwards
It Washed Up by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thirteenth Hell by Mike Allen
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Beach Head by Daniel LeMoal
The Man from the Peak by Adam Golaski
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick

The tale I liked the best was "The Lagerstätte," by Laird Barron, which I read a couple of months back  in his most exquisite horror collection Occultation.   Moving on to number two is "The Hodag" by Trent Hergenrader, a creepy little story set in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

a hodag

The third entry is "Loup-garou," by R.B. Russell, about a man whose world changes after viewing a film called Loup-garou.  It's not so much a story of hair-raising terror, but it was unsettling enough at the end that I had to read it twice.

I'd also like to mention "Beach Head," by Daniel Le Moal.  There is a line at which horror becomes no  longer fun for me -- and this story crossed it.  In the strictest sense of the word, I was indeed horrified, but this one went well beyond my comfort zone and actually kept me awake all night.  Three smugglers wake up one day to find themselves buried up to their heads in sand on a beach somewhere.  After thinking over their situation and how they must have ended up there, things proceed to go from very bad to the worst possible scenario ever.  I give much credit to the writer: the images his writing conjured were extremely vivid, but downright depressing and I hope to god I never see another story like this one again.  I won't deny that the story was very well written, but there are just some things I don't want to see in my head.

I've got Best Horror of the Year volumes 2 (2009)  and 3 (2010) sitting here, so I hope the quality of writing picked up after 2008.  There is a bonus in Volume 1 that I haven't yet mentioned: the editor has put together a 33-page "Summation" of the horror writing of the year, including "Notable Novels," "Anthologies," "Mixed-Genre Anthologies," etc., offering the reader a wide selection of stories and books for further perusal.  This is probably my least favorite anthology of my reading experience, but I suppose horror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Last Days, by Adam Nevill

St. Martin's Griffin, 2013
531 pp
trade paper ed.

(read in February)

 When I read horror, I tend to be happiest with short stories or novellas, but after reading Adam Nevill's  Banquet For the Damned, I know he is a writer I can trust to keep that fear factor going, no matter how many pages he needs to tell his story.  Here, he's integrated seriously creepy, sustained hair-raising horror with a story about a particularly bizarre apocalyptic cult, and the result is one very intense tale that kept me on the edge throughout.

Kyle Freeman is an independent guerrilla film-maker (think Paranormal Activity) who has sold a few projects but still has yet to hit the big time.  He's behind in his rent, owes money here and there, and as the story begins, he's been contacted by Max Solomon, CEO of Revelation Productions  to film a documentary.  The subject Max proposes is the strange apocalyptic cult known as The Temple of Last Days, which got its start in London but met its end in a horrific bloodbath in an abandoned copper mine in the Arizona desert. As Max explains,  the cult was
"A well-intentioned concept quickly usurped by a female sociopath and criminal elements. In London it was known as The Last Gathering. It became The Temple of the Last Days in France, during a schism in 1969.  At a farm in Normandy where they nearly starved to death. The remnants migrated to America, under the same management.  Where they self-destructed in Arizona. 1975."
While the Temple of the Last Days has already been the subject of four documentaries and four feature films, Max wants something different.  He wants Kyle to go beyond the work of  mainstream film-makers. His interests lie in trying to discover whether Last Days' leader, Sister Katherine, was able to "achieve something extraordinary" in the group's "mystical and occult interests," and wants to explore the "paranormal aspects of the organization."   Max has already made arrangements for Kyle to speak to a handful of survivors of the cult, everything is paid for, strings have been pulled, and Kyle will receive enough money to keep him afloat. He is also going to have complete creative control, a film-maker's dream.  Enlisting the help of his friend Dan, the two start their project in the original cult headquarters in London and soon come to realize that they've taken on much more than they bargained for.

Nevill is a master of atmosphere, edge and full-on dread in this story, leaving me with a case of the willies the entire way through. Centering his book around this disturbing cult was genius, and he paced his story perfectly.  The way he depicts the inner workings of this group is grim enough to begin with, but he unleashes the terror of it all piece by piece, steadily ratcheting up the shock so that as you're reading, you start to wonder how things could get any worse -- but they do. And all along, he contemplates the question of why people would be compelled to not only join this group, but even more, why they would stay in the face of such unspeakable horrors.  It's also obvious that he's put in a lot of time researching his subject -- this is no fly-by-night re-imagining.  The only thing I disliked in this otherwise deliciously-eerie  novel is his choice to include a gun-happy character at the end who came across as caricaturish, ruining the spell that held me throughout the novel, but thankfully his appearance is rather brief. 

There's much more I could say but my advice is to go get a copy, curl up under your covers and read it in the dark of night. Super book -- recommended to readers who like their horror on a more cerebral level.