Reading The Dark

As promised, the conclusion of my Peril the Third for the Readers Imbibing Peril reading event: The Dark: New Ghost Stories. The collection won Best Anthology of The Year from the International Horror Guild in 2003.


I liked this collection, but there is a caveat. The editor, Ellen Datlow, writes in her introduction that she wanted an anthology exclusively of scary ghost stories: “nothing heartwarming.” I don’t think she achieved that, and if you look at the reviews at the Amazon link above, you’ll see that most readers thought the same thing. So if you are looking for straightforward spooky horror stories, this is not the collection for you.

On the other hand, if you are open to ghost-related stories that are unsettling, and not always because of their supernatural elements, then you might like this as much as I did. I previously posted about the last story in the collection, “Dancing Men,” which is a good example of this. Several other stories in the collection are likewise also about non-supernatural themes — letting go of loved ones, the inability to trust, father figures and life lessons — with supernatural elements serving as metaphors for the main theme.

Of the sixteen stories, there are three, maybe four, that I would count as horror stories: the stories from Ramsey Campbell, Terry Dowling, Daniel Abraham, and maybe Lucius Shepard. There are are a couple of old-fashioned hauntings, and a few newfangled hauntings. Most of the others don’t fit as well into the standard idea of a ghost story, and you will probably like some of them and dislike others.

I didn’t care for “One Thing About the Night” — the overly expository writing style, I think. “Velocity” was interesting, but not in a way that engaged me. I wanted to like “Feeling Remains,” but in the end I wasn’t satisfied. I’m on the fence about “The Hortlak,” and “Brownie, and Me.” The other stories were all pretty good, each in their separate ways.

Verdict: Recommended, if you are open to ghost stories where ghosts aren’t always the central point, and that experiment with more “literary” writing styles. But if you want stories to keep you up at night, sweating while the floor creaks, pass it by.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

The Trentino Kid (Jeffrey Ford): The narrator remembers his youth as a clammer in New England, just as the big fishing concerns are coming in and putting the little guys out of business. He doesn’t have the will to get out of his dead-end job, until his encounter with the ghost of a drowned teenager. I liked this one a lot.

The Ghost of the Clock (Tanith Lee): A penniless orphaned young woman has no choice but to live with an aunt in the English countryside whom she detests. The dislike is mutual; Auntie puts her in the room next to the house’s infamous haunted clock…

One Thing About the Night (Terry Dowling): A man goes to investigate a psychomantium, a mirrored room intended to scry the souls of the dead.

M.R. James disliked stories full of the technical trappings of the occult; he would have hated this story. I didn’t like it much, either.

The Silence of the Falling Stars (Mike O’Driscoll): A park ranger in Death Valley, a loner. His job is an excuse to hide from humanity. Then he meets a British tourist’s wife, and the two feel a strong attraction.

I liked this story; the writing is beautiful, and the protagonist’s character is well drawn. Still, I have to say that the supernatural elements seem to be only decoration, in a Twin Peaks kind of way. Effectively used decoration, though. The narrative seems non-linear, though it isn’t. I had to read it twice to figure it out. That’s not a bad thing, though.

The Dead Ghost (Gahan Wilson): A man in the hospital encounters the ghost of a corpse. Lightweight, short and pleasantly gruesome, rather like Wilson’s New Yorker drawings.

Seven Sisters (Jack Cady): The Seven Sisters are the ruins of seven Victorian mansions on the edge of a dying small town in coastal Washington state. They were built by “King Julie” Babcock, a larger than life figure from the town’s turn-of-the-twentieth century history. He was obsessed with immortality. Three elderly residents of the town are the last people in town who remember him.

All of Jack Cady’s writing is about history. Ghosts, to him, are physical manifestations of history. This story is a good example of that idea, though it’s not my favorite Cady piece. It meanders — a lot of his stories do. If you come into it expecting the usual structure of a story (“exposition, complication, rising action, crisis, climax, resolution”), you’ll be disappointed.

Subway (Joyce Carol Oates): A young woman cruises the subway, looking for love and companionship.

Doctor Hood (Stephen Gallagher): Dr. Hood is a famous and respected physicist who suddenly becomes interested in paranormal investigation. He begins “borrowing” expensive equipment from his university lab to set up ghost detectors in his home. He tells his adult daughter that he has felt the presence of her recently deceased mother in the house. Naturally, his daughter thinks he’s having a mental breakdown. Lovely story.

An Amicable Divorce (Daniel Abraham): Ian’s ex-wife — with whom he still hopes to reconcile — is being harassed by something evil, something that killed her cat. Horror story with a nasty little twist at the end.

Feeling Remains (Ramsey Campbell): Jeremy is a teenager with a socially conscious but inattentive-to-her-family mother and a father who just wants to stay out of his wife’s way. He used to look in on the old Mrs. Hammond across the street, who had a strange fear of reflective surfaces. After she dies, Jeremy finds himself with Mrs. Hammond’s photo album. This turns out to be a bad thing.

Another horror story. I didn’t really find a theme in this one. Most of the story has to do with Jeremy’s family life, and I’m not really sure what the horrible thing at the end of the story has to do with the family situation, or even with Mrs. Hammond’s fear of mirrors.

The Gallows Necklace (Sharyn McCrumb): Classic ghost story, set in Oxford, England during the period between the two World Wars. I liked the story well enough, but I wish that Ms. McCrumb had written a ghost story in the Appalachian setting for which she is known.

Brownie, and Me (Charles L. Grant): A lonely, retired railroad inspector begins to see the ghost of a man he used to work with.

Velocity (Kathe Koja): A prominent artist inherits The Red House, which had been designed and inhabited by his father, a famous architect. Apparently the two didn’t get along.

The story switches back and forth between a third person omniscient narrator, and the transcript of an interview with the artist. It’s easy enough to figure out what happened, but not why. I got no sense of motivation from any of the characters.

Limbo (Lucius Shepard): Gangster/Ghost Noir. An ex-thief on the run from the mob hides out in a lakefront fishing cabin in upper Michigan during the off-season. He falls in love with the wife of the man who runs the local general store. Things are never what they seem. Good story, nice twist at the end.

The Hortlak (Kelly Link): “Hortlak” is Turkish for ghost. An all-night convenience store on the edge of chasm full of zombies. Ghost dogs, a love-struck young man, Turkish lessons and CIA pajamas. Weird little story, and fun to read, though at the end, I wasn’t quite sure what the point was supposed to be. Maybe that’s okay — not everything has to have a point.

Dancing Men (Glen Hirshberg): Loved this story. See my review here.

That’s it. What do you think? Will you give it a try?

4 thoughts on “Reading The Dark

  1. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, though I really enjoyed reading your review. I thought some of them sounded much like some of the Murukami stories I’ve read.

    1. Gory horror isn’t to my taste either, though I love a good ghost story. Murukami has a definite “weird tale” vibe in many of his stories, so I can see that some of his themes might be similar to the ones in this collection.

  2. Subtle horror is typical of Ellen Datlow. I’ve got quite a few volumes of Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series; so I understand why The Dark isn’t gory. While I like Datlow’s brand of horror, gory stuff can be fun too if it’s something like a well written werewolf story.

    1. I have Datlow’s Supernatural Noir collection, which is also low on the gore and fairly high on the “atypical for the genre” style of writing (less so than The Dark).

      Most of it works, some of it doesn’t. I’m less about the gore, personally, so I would be quite happy to read more of her collections. I think she and the VanderMeers are becoming my favorite anthology editors.

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