Friday, September 14, 2012

A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones

St. Martin's Griffin
first US edition, September 2012
448 pp
(published previously in the UK, Quercus, 2011)
advanced reader copy (thank you, LibraryThing early reviewers program!)

 oh's been a while since I've read any horror/sci-fi/fantasy or other novels in the strange/weird zone, but I've recently finished A Book of Horrors, a new volume of horror edited by Stephen Jones, who has edited a number of books I have in my library.   The problem with anthologies is that you have some pieces that are really, really good, some that are sort of so-so, and some that you just plain don't like, and this book pretty much follows the same pattern.  On to the book discussion now.

In the introduction to this book, editor Stephen Jones notes that "The time has come to reclaim the horror genre for those who understand and appreciate the worth and impact of a scary story."  Lamenting the fact that the traditional horror market is being "usurped" by publishers and booksellers who are aiming "horror-lite" fiction at the "middle-of-the-road reader," -- including   'paranormal romance', 'urban fantasy', 'literary mash-up' or even 'steampunk' in that category -- he offers this collection of stories as a return to the scary.

Personally I think it's entirely possible to enjoy both "horror-lite" and  the really creepy, hair-standing-on-end type of horror that Jones is talking about.  Take me as an example.  I can scare myself wide awake with a Lovecraft story or something totally evil from Ramsay Campbell [horror] while enjoying a  laugh at the further adventures of Bob Howard in the Laundry Files by Charles Stross [horror lite].  While I don't care for paranormal romance, undercover werewolves or zombies, let's don't be slamming the "middle-of-the-road reader" or people who really love that stuff --  if it weren't for  all of the people who love  "horror lite" and buy the books that keep the bookstores open and the publishers in business, well, enough said;  it's also sort of demeaning to turn up one's nose at others' reading choices.

Now having got that out of the way, there are a number of stories in this collection that are pretty creepy and edgy, as well as some that are just kind of so-so, and all of the stories in A Book of Horrors include a short piece by each author where he or she talks about the inspirations behind his/her work.   There are five which managed to give me a case of the willies and produced that growing sense of agitation and unease while I read them:

Ramsey Campbell's "Getting It Wrong",  the tale of a mysterious radio quiz show, where a contestant  on this bizarre show reaches out for a help from a co-worker by phone, à la "Who Wants to be a Millionaire,"  but as it turns out, the contestant's need for a   "lifeline" is not just for help winning money;

John Ajvide Lindqvist's "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer," seriously creeped me out.  It's about a father and son who live in an isolated house in the woods and accidentally summon something that threatens to tear them apart;

"The Man in the Ditch" by Lisa Tuttle (who is an excellent storyteller, by the way) is one of those story where the sense of unease starts at the beginning and doesn't let up.  A woman's visions and feelings of apprehension are ignored by her husband and build to a crescendo as they move into a house in the Norfolk countryside that the wife is positive is the site of a long-ago sacrifice;

and finally, "A Child's Problem" by Reggie Oliver and "Near Zennor," by Elizabeth Hand, which might just be the best stories in the entire collection. In Oliver's gothic-styled story set in the early 1800s, a boy is left with a wealthy uncle by his parents on a grand estate.  He is lonely and wants the company of his uncle, and his interest is piqued by the uncle's chessboard.  When he asks if the uncle would consider playing chess with him, the uncle instead sends him on some mysterious riddle-solving quests.  As the boy roams the grounds in search of the answer, he uncovers something  horrific connected to his uncle's past.  "Near Zennor" takes place mostly in Cornwall, and also deals with the revelation of past secrets that reach out into the present in a most creepy, eerie and extremely satisfying way.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed here; out of fourteen short stories only five managed to actually get under my skin in any significant way, but then again, that's the nature of the beast when you're dealing with anthologies.  As far as recommending it -- well, everyone has their own idea of what's scary, so I'd say if you're a horror fan of the type who likes the feel of the hackles going up on the back of your neck, give it a try.