Fedogan & Bremer, 2014
"There are hidden pockets on this globe, sinister and uninhabited. How one thrills to find them, to listen to their sinister secrets whispered to one's imagination."
--- W.H. Pugmire, "An Element of Nightmare
According to Joshi's introduction to this book, once a reader picks up this book, he or she can look forward to discovering the "weirdness of landscape," "the careful etching of the complexities of human character," and the "evocation of terror in a multiplicity of themes, motifs and images" that run through this story collection. He also states that "readers will find themselves inexorably becoming the denizens of bizarre realms of fantasy and terror beyond anything they could have envisioned." The "weirdness of landscape" is well represented here, for the most part; as for the rest, well, not so much. Out of the twenty-one stories in this volume, I really struggled to find more than a handful that evoked the promised terror beyond anything I could have envisioned. I truly do not like being a negative nellie, but it's unavoidable here.
Here's the post-introduction table of contents:
"Iced In" by Melanie Tem
"At Home with Azathoth" by John Shirley
"The Girl Between the Slats" by Michael Aronovitz
"The Patter of Tiny Feet" by Richard Gavin
"At Lorn Hall" by Ramsey Campbell
"Blind Fish" by Caitlín R. Kiernan
"An Element of Nightmare" by W. H. Pugmire
"The Reeds" by Gary Fry
"Crawldaddies" by Steve Rasnic Tem
"Three Dreams of Ys" by Jonathan Thomas
"Willie the Protector" by Lois H. Gresh
"Miranda’s Tree" by Hannes Bok
"The Beautiful Fog Ascending" by Simon Strantzas
" Exit Through the Gift Shop" by Nick Mamatas
"Going to Ground" by Darrell Schweitzer
"Dark Equinox" by Ann K. Schwader
"Et in Arcadia Ego" by Brian Stableford
"The Shadow of Heaven" by Jason V. Brock
"Flesh and Bones" by Nancy Kilpatrick
"The Sculptures in the House" by John D. Haefele
"Ice Fishing" by Donald Tyson
I won't go through every story here but instead just make a few observations. First and foremost, my feeling is that when an editor compiles a horror anthology, he/she should make sure that the terror is laid on thick right out of the gate, and that's just not the case here. If I'm not even mildly creeped after the first story, it's sort of a signal of what lies ahead. Second: if he/she is going to bring in Lovecraftian-type stories, do it right and leave out the pastiches. Third: when description takes over the story, it's not scary - it's skimworthy.
With my biggest complaints out of the way, there are a few stories that I actually liked in this book: Richard Gavin's "The Patter of Tiny Feet" delivers on not only the landscape end, but also the horror side. "Blind Fish" by Caitlin Kiernan, set in the future, was incredibly disquieting the entire way through. "The Beautiful Fog Ascending" wasn't so horrifying in a creep-filled way, but it was positively eerie considering what's happening here. Another one that had a nice twist at the end was Darrell Schweitzer's "Going to Ground." It wasn't all that frightening, but that twist made me gasp out loud. I liked Ann K. Schwader's "Dark Equinox" very much -- it is positively dark, is very much reflective of the "weird landscape theme," and it made me want to read more of her work. She does slow horror buildup very nicely.
So, that's five, with two honorable mentions: first Campbell's "At Lorn Hall" for constant racheting of my curiosity level, but in the end I just didn't find it all that frightening. Second, "The Shadow of Heaven" by Jason V. Brock also managed to give me a chill, even though I read something sort of similar earlier. Sadly, the stomach knots really began at the end of the story with (trust me, this is no spoiler here) a ship captain's realization of the horrors that are about to be unleashed on the world.
I always expect to find a mix of good and not-so-good stories in an anthology, but with this one, I remember thinking "when is something frightening going to happen?" If readers are promised that they will be sucked into "terror beyond anything they could have envisioned," the editor should absolutely deliver. And that just didn't happen.