Thursday, February 9, 2012
First Review! The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22, edited by Stephen Jones
As always, Jones's annual anthology is an excellent overview of what was happening in horror this year. This year's crop seemed a little slim when compared to some of the past volumes, but what it loses in quantity it certainly makes up in quality.
A few words about Jones and his yearly summation to begin: it is, simply put, exhaustive. And exhausting. I have no idea how Jones manages to keep up with the myriad of small press releases, but I must give him credit for possessing a fortitude to which mere mortals such as myself couldn't hope to aspire. There's a lot of information to dig through here, and if you're the type of obsessive collector that simply must have everything, it's invaluable. I suspect most of the rest of us will end up skimming large portions. Now on to the meat of the book, and why we're all here. I'll be saying a few words about each story and then offering an overall review at the end, so feel free to skip over any authors who don't interest you.
Scott Edelman- "What Will Come After". I can only speak for myself here, but I'm growing tired of zombie fiction, and zombie media in general. This, however, is a corpse of an altogether different lividity. It's a powerful tale presented in the form of a letter, from a man to his wife (An attempt at reviving epistolaries!? Yes, kids, and it works!), envisioning what may happen after his death and eventual resurrection. It's marvelous stuff, and I feel that Edelman is certainly an adept at this whole living dead thing.
Michael Marshall Smith- "Substitutions". Smith's tale is as impressive as his prior output would indicate. "Substitutions" is a tale of how a seemingly minor incident- in this case, a food delivery mix-up- can rapidly spiral into shattering consequences. One of my favorites of this collection, highly recommended.
Mark Valentine- "A Revelation of Cormorants". A slight story that I was not at all impressed by, aside from the wonderfully evocative title. A pretentious literary scholar finds himself trapped by the rising tide on a sheer cliff, and has various thoughts about his impending demise. Also, there are some cormorants. Go figure. This story felt quite inconsequential.
Garry Kilworth- "Out Back". A clever and classicist story about a writer who rents a cottage in the boondocks and is soon confronted with some rather disturbing events. This one worked like gangbusters for me. There's nothing groundbreaking or overly challenging about it, really, just pure old-fashioned dread of the unknown. Plus, it's fun to try and guess who Kilworth may have intended to be represented by those initials.
Albert E. Cowdrey- "Fort Clay, Lousiana: A Tragical History". In Cowdrey's longer tale, a young photographer and an historian venture into the titular abandoned military base to document the past. Along the way, the historian relates an account of the fort's mysterious past, which quickly becomes all too relevant to the present. To say any more would be spoiling it. Excellent.
Brian Hodge- "Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls". This one has received quite a few accolades, but I must admit I don't entirely agree. Although I usually enjoy Hodge's work, this one struck me as a bit lightweight. Focusing on the friendship between an isolated boy and the girl next door, the two bond and soon find a novel solution to their separate- and shared- problems. Not a bad story by any means, but not quite up to Hodge's normally very high standard.
Mark Morris- "Fallen Boys". I've been a fan of Morris since reading The Immaculate in 1996 or thereabouts, and this tale does not disappoint. It follows a school field trip to an abandoned mine, and some of the lore of said mine. The prose has a very dreamlike and mysterious quality which should be familiar to those versed in Morris's work.
Simon Kurt Unsworth- "The Lemon in the Pool". This is only the second piece of fiction I've read by Unsworth (the first being the justifiably praised "The Church on the Island") and I enjoyed it every bit as much as the first. A British lady retires to sunny Spain and soon finds that her swimming pool has some rather peculiar qualities. This was an extraordinarily creepy work, perhaps due to its seemingly prosaic setting and background. It wouldn't be out of place in a Lovecraftian anthology, I think.
Thana Niveau- "The Pier". I'm sad to say that I had utterly forgotten what this story was even about until I re-read the first couple pages to prepare for writing this review. A man and his wife come upon some obscure and disturbing plaques placed on a pier in Somerset (apparently based on a real location). Underwhelming and overall forgettable, despite the high quality of Niveau's prose. I'll be looking for future work from this author, but this piece was nothing to write home about.
Robert Sherman- "Featherweight". A tale of the afterlife following a car crash. It wasn't great, but the "angels" featured within the tale were extremely disturbing. Worth reading for the imagery surrounding said entities, if nothing else.
Joel Lane- "Black Country". A dark crime story following a rather unsympathetic police detective who investigates incidents of juvenile delinquency in his hometown. I felt it could have used a little more fleshing out, as the detective upon whose character the story hinges feels very loosely sketched. Not bad, however.
Angela Slatter- "Lavender and Lychgates". A dark fantasy that felt more than a little out of place. While an enjoyable read, I couldn't escape the feeling that it was a little too similar to authors like Neil Gaiman or Kelly Link.
Joe R. Lansdale- "Christmas With the Dead". If you know Lansdale, you know what to expect: a balls-out, no holds barred feast of action and grotesquerie. The second zombie tale in this volume, Lansdale mines those sad shamblers for all the chills (and pathos, oddly enough) they're worth. A great read.
Kirstyn McDermott- "We All Fall Down". A lesbian couple suffer an auto accident and find themselves in a very sinister country house. This kind of plot has been done before, but the two women were so wonderfully and sympathetically characterized that I couldn't help but feel shaken by their plight. Tragic and moving.
Christopher Fowler- "Oh, I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside". An opaque tale of juvenile delinquency in a small English seaside town. The conclusion (the entire story, to be quite honest) is rather baffling, but Fowler's prose is a joy to read.
Mark Samuels- "Losenef Express". An author experiences a bizarre altercation outside a pub in the town of Strasgol, and an even stranger train ride follows. I don't feel this story was as strong as some of Samuels's earlier stories (especially "Glyphotech"), but it was well-written and had some genuine creep.
Norman Partridge- "Lesser Demons". A post-apocalyptic tale told from the perspective of a small town American sherriff. I've heard a lot of praise for Partridge, and if this story is in any way indicative of the quality of his work, I'll be hunting down everything I can. Marvelous stuff.
Steve Rasnic Tem- "Telling". Tem's story of of a haunting came to such an abrupt conclusion that at first I thought my Kindle book was badly formatted. If you enjoy Tem's brand of psychological exploration, you'll undoubtedly find this piece interesting, but it left me cold.
Caitlin R. Kiernan- "As Red as Red". The always impressive Kiernan makes her annual contribution with this tale of vampirism. Sort of. As usual, her pyrotechnic command of language and style is transfixing.
Ramsey Campbell- "With the Angels". Campbell is a master in fine form with this tale. His crystalline and hallucinatory prose finds deep dread in the story of a couple of old ladies returning to their childhood home, with grandchildren in tow.
Richard L. Tierney- "Autumn Chill". A prose poem that I found unbearably twee and cute. I'll readily admit that I'm not entirely equipped to criticize poetry, but I found this piece dull and precious. Not recommended.
John Langan- "City of the Dog". Lovecraft's ghouls find a new lease on life, in Albany of all places. This was a great story, quite possibly the best of the book.
Karina Sumner-Smith - "When the Zombies Win". The third zombie tale in this book (fourth if you count "Featherweight"), Sumner-Smith tells us what happens after the zombie apocalypse. It's pretty much as tragic and altogether pointless as you'd expect.
All in all, this was a worthwhile anthology. Although there were a few stories I did not care for, there almost are in an annual collection of this size. Quite worth the read. Hell, "City of the Dog" alone is worth the asking price, in my opinion.
Final Score: 7/10