Two book reviews this time: one old short story collection, one new.
The Mammoth Book of Terror
Edited by Stephen Jones (Carroll & Graf, 1991).
I found this one in a used bookstore, and while the cover is a bit… much, I fell in love with the great dedication on the inside (shown above). The anthology wanders a a bit outside my normal range of reading, as I tend to prefer the quiet, weird and unsettling tale of the macabre to more graphic horror — and some of these got quite graphic, indeed. On the other hand, I’ve had good luck with Stephen Jones anthologies; I even enjoyed his Mammoth Book of Zombies, and I’m not particularly a zombie enthusiast. So I took a chance, and bought it. This is an interesting collection of some fine horror, mostly from the 70’s and 80’s. The styles range from the gothic to the gory.
I got reminded that I’d wandered off my beaten path halfway through the first story, Clive Barker’s “The Last Illusion.” The hard-boiled style occult detective story (featuring Harry D’Amour) was just fine, until I confronted the marching band of demons playing instruments made from the bodies of their human victims — quite vividly described, too. Yeah, not my cup of tea, but I persevered. Overall, I liked the story, in the end; the closing paragraph was rather lovely.
More to my taste, and also in the occult detective genre: Manley Wade Wellman’s Judge Pursuivant story, “The Black Drama,” a fun tale about a lost play by Byron. There are a couple of great tales of the “classic English ghost story” type. The first, Ramsey Campbell’s “Out of Copyright,” has a bit of an M.R. Jamesian vibe. Basil Copper’s “Amber Print,” less so, but it’s a story you will appreciate if you’re a film nerd. Reading it made me want to re-watch The Cabinet of Dr. Mabuse.
I also really liked Dennis Etchison’s “The Late Shift;” you won’t look at the cashiers at the all-night mini-mart or at the gas station the same way again. There’s apparently a short film called Killing Time (1984) based on this story, with Eric Stoltz. I haven’t seen it yet. David Schow’s “Bunny Didn’t Tell Us” is blackly hilarious; I particularly like the ending. Lisa Tuttle’s “The Horse Lord” is unsettling and creepy.
Hugh B. Cave’s “Murgunstrumm” was old school pulp gothic; it feels dated, like watching Bela Lugosi as Dracula, and the plot is a bit contrived, but I enjoyed it, in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Karl Edward Wagner’s “The River of Night’s Dreaming” was, well, new school gothic, inspired by Robert Chamber’s The King in Yellow.
I had been warned about the last story in the collection, Graham Masterton’s “Pig’s Dinner,” written especially for this anthology. Even with the heads-up, I wasn’t prepared. “Shocking” doesn’t begin to describe it — it is stomach-churning.
Overall, a good anthology with a fairly broad range of styles. They weren’t all to my taste, but the ones that I connected with were quite enjoyable, and even the ones that didn’t click for me were often still interesting. Definitely worth picking up.
The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories Volume Two
Edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (Valancourt Books, 2017).
I reviewed the first Valancourt Book of Horror Stories here; I loved it, and I’d really been looking forward to this one. Volume Two didn’t disappoint. The editors use this series to showcase the various authors that Valancourt publishes, and they make a point of finding stories that are rarely re-printed. Several stories in this anthology appear for the first time since their original publication. As with the previous Valncourt anthology, the stories span a couple of centuries, again with quite a few mid-twentieth century works (R. Chetwynd-Hayes and Basil Copper appear both here and in The Mammoth Book of Terror), and there are (of course) a few repeat authors from the last volume.
I admit that I didn’t the same “Wow!” feeling from Volume Two straight off the bat. Part of that was what I’d read immediately before: The Mammoth Book of Terror is quite a different beast than Swan River Press’s Uncertainties anthology. There was a fairly dramatic contrast in mood and tone when going from Uncertainties to Book of Horror that I didn’t experience this time around. Also, I don’t think this anthology started out as strongly as the first volume. Volume Two’s first story, Bernard Taylor’s “Samhain,” is an amusing but fairly light piece about a coven of upper-middle-class suburban witches, while Michael McDowell’s frightening “Miss Mack,” which opened Volume One, was a much stronger, more attention-grabbing entrée.
I didn’t really get into my groove until the fourth story, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Herself,” which features a most interesting kind of haunting. It was more gothic than eerie, with the kind of well-drawn characters that I appreciate from Braddon. I think it’s one of the best of her stories that I’ve read so far. Robert Westall’s “The Creatures in the House” followed: a humorous and rather adorable story about a psychic vampire and cats — eldritch creatures, for sure.
Michael McDowell makes a return appearance in Volume Two. “Halley’s Passing” was absolutely gut-wrenching — Ellen Datlow called it “distressingly violent” when she included it in the 1988 Year’s Best Fantasy. This one disturbed me even more than “Pig’s Dinner” did. McDowell’s rare short stories are intense and amazing, and I can see why he’s one of Valancourt’s most popular mid-century rediscoveries. Isabel Colgate’s excellent “The Nice Boys” was also unsettling and intense.
I think I’d heard of John Buchan’s “The Watcher by the Threshold” before, but this was my first reading. This story of psychological (and possibly supernaturally induced) breakdown has a Poe-like vibe, without Poe’s overwrought prose. Don’t get me wrong, I like Poe, but he can be a bit much sometimes….
Nevil Shute’s “Tudor Windows” and John Metcalfe’s “No Sin” were curious and enigmatic. I preferred “Tudor Windows,” but Metcalfe’s story has a lot of points to ponder. Basil Copper’s “Camera Obsura” is creepy and disquieting in much the same way “Miss Mack” was. The anthology closes with Stephen Gregory’s “The Boys Who Wouldn’t Wake Up,” a lovely Christmas ghost story, published here for the first time.
Overall, a fine successor to the first volume. If you liked the first Valancourt Book of Horror, definitely pick this one up. And if you haven’t read either — pick them both up!