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Book Title: Best New Horror 20|
The author of the book: Stephen Jones
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 428 KB
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Reader ratings: 7.6
Edition: Robinson Publishing
Date of issue: September 1st 2009
ISBN 13: 9781845299323
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Another one down - the "Year In" and "Necrology" this time are the usual (as I've said I actually find myself enjoying them more with each edition, and actually reading them - YMMV) with the "soapbox" this time reserved for musing on how few anthology series have ever lasted 20 years. Jones has earned a right to crow...
Without having much to say about that, then, let me use this space instead to gripe about something else. Story introductions - I'm sorry, man, but someone has to say it - an editor should not be slapping up whatever story introduction the author sends back without some thought to how much it blows the actual story it's introducing. I've said it before and I'll say it again - sometimes, with a short story, all you *have* is the surprise of your attack! I don't care that all of these stories are reprints, presumably the majority of them are still new to me, so why allow an author to steal most of his own thunder with a poorly worded introduction when a slight bit if rewriting might still get the point across and keep the mystery intact!?! Here, Peter Crowther tells you the central conceptual hook of "Frontpage McGuffin" while Gary McMahon does the same with "Through The Cracks", and Simon Strantzas lets you in on his (unfortunately superior) inspiration for "It Runs Beneath The Surface" while even Neil Gaiman proceeds his excellent "Feminine Endings" with a strangely disingenuous statement ("Readers have assumed the person writing the letter is a male and they have assumed the person writing the letter is a female. I have been unable to shed any light on the matter" - puh-leeze! So you didn't know it when you were composing the two subtle jokes in the text that only work if the anonymous author is a male? Do you have a bridge to sell me?). There are a few other examples throughout and all I can say is - a little more effort, please...
But what about the stories? This, I will admit, is one of the editions where I actually feel that the accusation that Jones' tastes are a bit dated might have more bite to them. Or perhaps not "dated", exactly, but he has his tastes (most of which I like) and in this batch he seems to indulge some of the more long-winded and weaker examples of same. There's still good stuff here, no doubt, and only 4 stories I felt were below par, but there was a larger amount of "good but flawed" examples than usual, and only 2 or 3 absolute standouts. Eh, you pays your money....
So, below par? Michael Bishop's "The Pile", about a condominium's refuse tip and the unlikely cursed piece of bric-a-brac found therein (replete with echoes of King's excellent "The Monkey") didn't really work at all for me due to the humorous tone. "2:00 P.M.: The Real Estate Agent Arrives" by Steve Rasnic Tem is a perfectly good illustration of my major problem with flash fiction - much of it is unformed story idea or springboard masquerading as story. Someone else on Goodreads points out that Tem's introductions runs longer than the actual "story" - honestly, his story title and author byline runs almost as long as the purported story! "The Place of Waiting" by Brian Lumley has some nice descriptive landscape passages, character voice and details, but I also found the story of painter bedeviled by strange characters on the lonely moors to be long-winded, clunky and ultimately too full of familiar, over-explained concepts. I was actually happy to finally finish it. I also may have to start to admit that I don't seem to have much affinity for the work of Simon Strantzas - who, especially here, strikes me as "Ramsey Campbell-lite", reiterating familiar concepts without adding much or saying it in a distinctive voice. A social worker's cynical and depressed worldview of his city environment begins to be reinforced by strange happenings around him in his fairly by-the-numbers piece of urban horror "It Runs Beneath The Surface," featuring that old standby "scary homeless people." Not terrible, just not terribly impressive either.
I'm usually not one to complain about familiar horror tropes being given a good airing (in fact, a later story in this book does exactly that and I found it quite enjoyable), but the Strantzas piece and stories like "These Things We Have Always Known" by Lynda E. Rucker and Gary McMahon's "Through The Cracks" seem to suffer from a case of over-thinking on the part of the authors, reading to me as a bit dessicated, lacking some shot of emotional "juice" and instead just willing to play out a concept with little conviction. Both of these latter stories are better than "Runs" (imho) - and we've moved into the category of "good but flawed" pieces in the collection - "Cracks" has a woman revisiting an old flame only to discover his insane fixations have become obsessions (with the completely expected "but was it all true?" ending). "These Things", on the other hand, has inhabitants of a small Georgia town begin exhibiting bizarre behavior or siting ominous warnings that the strangeness they always felt was imminent (and specific to the locale) may finally be reaching fruition. There's some emotionally honest character work but I could have done without the casual mention of quasi-magical artistic powers (fairly non-plot relevant unless I'm missing something) and I would have preferred, beyond the pretty phrasing, a bit more proof or expansion of a late line ("We have nurtured it with our guarded, secret souls, we have made it potent with our lies.")
There are quite a few more "good but flawed" stories here - tales that are well-written and serviceable but lack some extra aspect that lifts them above the mere idea or stylistic skill. "Arkangel" by Christopher Fowler has two young men flee an ugly, violent bar fight in a small Polish town only to catch a night train straight from the town's grim, Holocaust-related past that judge's them accordingly. It was entertaining but also somewhat clumsily written in spots. I've liked other stories by Reggie Oliver but found "A Donkey At The Mysteries", with its academic traveling through the sun-baked isles of Greece (and perhaps its accidental evocation of Daphne du Maurier's "Not After Midnight" and it's Jamesian "antiquarian" - or in this case "classicist" - eye for horror) to be - despite some sharp, lucid writing and scene setting (ruined Greek temples, underground chambers) - ultimately too ambiguous and underwhelming in its final "moment of horror" (the flashback structure probably didn't help either - but extra points for the casket roped with thorny brambles!). "Our Man In The Sudan" by Sarah Pinborough had similar problems. A British Intelligence agent travels to the titular country to investigate the death of a spy cooling his heels there, a man who send some enigmatic coded messages, but instead finds a populace, native and expatriate, who seem to fear the fairly common sandstorms. The writing here is good but the tale ends up being a dull and slightly stiff piece of Graham Greene-style travelogue with some unimpressive supernatural gilding at the climax. Run of the mill.
Ian R. MacLeod's "The Camping Wainwrights" is another story unfortunately undermined a bit by its too-forthcoming introduction. It's an interesting story of a British family who tolerate their father's mad yearly camping mania and crazy, destructive tendencies until one year when the trip goes disastrously wrong. What seemed to be an entertaining story with, perhaps at its core, a somewhat too-glib attitude towards mental illness, redeemed itself somewhat with a nice ambiguous ending. Still, not a "solid connect with the bat", if you get me. "Front Page McGuffin And The Greatest Story Never Told" by Peter Crowther is a perfectly serviceable and heartfelt piece of dark comedic fantasy (somewhat reminiscent of the Tales From Gavagan's Bar stories) about a soul chained by its superstitions - but, honestly not scary (and not trying to scare us) in the least (it even has a comedic punchline ending, along with an oddly intrusive omniscient narrator).
Finally, rounding out the "good but flawed" - a few extra words for "The Oram County Whoosit" by Steve Duffy.- a story I'm torn over simply because of a clash between conception and execution. So, good points first, the story is exceedingly well-written, sketching real characters with real voices in a finely drawn period setting (or two settings, actually). The conception? Well, while I appreciate the inclusion of some classic "Forteana" like the supposed geologic enigma of the "toad in the hole" as a starting point, and while it may be too reductive to say that what the author does here is essentially rewrite the opening segments of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, re-setting them in a Yukon gold-rush camp (and then the mountains of West Virginia)... well, it wouldn't be far off the mark either. This is basically a monster story with one of Lovecraft's barrel-shaped, crinoid "Elder Things" as the monster and, honestly, I find that just a bit too familiar of its model to be wholly supportive of it, as well-written as it is (only the ending flattens a bit as well). Troublesome.
Now on to the solidly "good" stories, starting with some old hands! Stephen King finally makes it into the BNH series with "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates" (the title is just obliquely related to the story, unless I'm missing some implied hideous truth about corporate phone-advertising and the afterlife) which is an effective, if perhaps the slightest bit slight, tale of a woman who gets an important phone call two weeks after her husband dies in a plane crash. Melancholy and human. Meanwhile, "The Long Way" by Ramsey Campbell is told in first person by a boy (perhaps the slightest bit too articulate for his age, but then what do I know?) who is becoming increasingly wary of passing by a derelict, vandalized house on an abandoned block of flats during his walk to care for his partially crippled relative. It's Campbell doing his familiar (but effective) commingling of urban fright and psychological landscape - family dynamics of over-controlling parents who play the boy off each other, adolescent fears of aging and disability linked to the paralysis of fear - physical, mental and emotional, etc. - all tied up in a vague and horrific stilted figure. Tim Lebbon's "Falling Off The World" is such an entertaining read that I'll forgive it the fact that it didn't become the uber-cool re-invention of a forgotten monster type that I had predicted it would be. I still might have desired a different ending for this tale of a small girl entangled in a large balloon and borne aloft into the fantastic realms of the stratosphere - something a little less ambiguous/symbolic, but its a perfectly reasonable way to end such a scenario and the details along the way are well conveyed.
Those who like old style, historically-set "supernatural tales" ("ghost story" might be a bit too reductive, and this is very Ambrose Bierce-Americana psychological horror, as opposed to a classic British ghost story model) will enjoy "The Overseer" which Albert E. Cowdrey unfurls here at novella length for your delectation. Set in the pre and post Civil War South, it follows a man who's downward moral spiral of life is haunted by the image/ghost/figure/demon of his plantation family's slave Overseer - a cruel, vindictive man who makes a strong impression on the main character as a boy and whose image/influence he can't seem to shake as he matures. As I said, very Bierce at times, playing with our perceptions as to the actual reality of the figure or its origins as a guilt-inspired phantasm as we follow the history of the narrator through flashbacks, tracing a life filled with violence, thievery, war, injury, racial strife, drug addiction and murder. A nice slice of Southern Gothic with some fine writing and beautiful passages, it doesn't surprise but it solidly entertains. Those who do not cotton to the form need not apply...
And then there's "The Beginnings of Sorrow" by Pinckney Benedict. One might presume that stories of talking dogs are inherently comical but this (well received on Goodreads) tale proves that presumption a falsity. When a rural couple's hunting dog begins to talk (as in a lot of speaking animal stories, it's first word is a refusal) and then slowly begins to take on more human aspects, the couple and their entire world (literally) begins to come apart. A disturbing and (literally) apocalyptic tale that keeps opening up the range of scale on its horror element, this was a pleasure to read.
I also enjoyed three stories which hewed pretty closely to familiar tropes and so may seem too "old hat" for those that demand endless invention in their fiction (but you too shall tire of that at some point, trust me...). Mark Samuels writes in a decidedly European dark-fantastique mode in "'Destination Nihil' by Edmund Bertrand" - a macabre tone poem about an amnesiac awaking on a dark, seemingly aimless train whose contents and passenger become more disturbing the more he investigates. A nicely symbolic sketch of futility and despair. Tanith Lee's "Under Fog" is that old familiar standby - ironic just desserts for unscrupulous men, but I still enjoyed her solid little dark fantasy tale of a small coastal village who survive by deliberately wrecking passing ships, and their inevitable comeuppance (even if the form of that comeuppance is the slightest bit underwhelming). While the also-familiar "The Old Traditions Are Best" seems to have seriously bent someone's nose out of joint here on Goodreads (a bit of projection?), Paul Finch tells a nice little story of a punk teen on furlough detention stuck in a coastal Cornwall town celebrating an ancient festival - an opportunity for some juvey crime, he thinks, but there's still the fiercely judgmental local folklore creature, 'Obby 'Orse, to deal with. As I said, familiar, but I don't usually judge that a fault if there's either invention or just good old enjoyable writing on hand, and here there's the latter - nice place description as well - and I liked the brief coda that implies an extra cruel twist.
I don't usually consider Neil Gaiman a horror writer - he hews closer to dark fantasy most of the time - but he really hits it out of the park here with my favorite story in the collection, "Feminine Endings". I was initially wary of tweeness as the introduction told me the piece was written for a collection of "love letters as stories" but this a supremely creepy tale once you get the gist of what's going on - an obsessional confessional from a unique point of view that becomes a thoroughly plausible stalking scenario. Extremely well done!
And so, that's it for now. Next on the BNH horizon would be this year's installment, and then I'll try to retroactively knock a few more off the list - while working in all my other reading.
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Read information about the authorStephen Jones is an eighteen-time winner of the British Fantasy Award.
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