From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Inferno, ed. Ellen Datlow, Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

Tor, 384 pages, $25.95 (hardcover)

Seeking a definition of “modern horror” or “literary horror”? Look no further. Inferno, edited by Ellen Datlow, defines short dark fiction circa 2008 as surely as Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces did in 1980.

Despite her eminence as an editor, Ellen Datlow has never — until now — been given the opportunity to compile a non-themed anthology of original short horror. With Inferno, she takes her chance and makes the most of it showing, in concrete terms, what modern horror is. Her selections are intended, she writes in the introduction, to provide “the reader with a frisson of shock, or a moment of dread so powerful it might cause the reader outright physical discomfort; or a sensation of fear so palatable the reader feels impelled to turn up the lights… and play music or seek the company of others to dispel the fear; or to linger in the reader’s consciousness… long after the final word is read.”

But the emotion of horror is individual; what makes one person shudder might leave another unshaken. Overall, Datlow has chosen stories that will resonate with any reader who takes the plunge — there’s not a bad story in the bunch — but personal taste will determine individual (and reviewer) preference.

It’s Halloween, see, and a guy walks into a bar with his dead ex-girlfriend strapped to his back…”Riding Bitch” by K.W. Jeter is considerably more effective than his joke of a premise. The stark light of personal philosophy jars the reader more than the special effects.

“Misadventure” by Stephen Gallagher is a ghost story in which the dead are heroes. It has its gross-out urban legend moment involving the discovery of a body, but it is the atmosphere and, again, a view of life that disturbs.

Laird Barron is a master of dread, and “The Forest” provides plenty of it in this tale of the minuteness of humanity. It, too, has its over-the-top moment, but it is rendered in a paragraph of entrancingly beautiful language that rivals Poe.

Two weird sisters are cunningly sympathetic monsters in Elizabeth Bear’s “Inelastic Collisions.” Bear reintroduces Pinky Gilman, an inhuman man of great humanity first seen in her story “Follow Me Light,” a character who provides hints of a far vaster cosmos the author has yet to explore.

Christopher Fowler’s “The Uninvited” relates how close a man comes, in end-of-the-sixties Hollywood, to touching evil. The Twilight Zone-ish tale begs to be translated to the television screen, but there you’d lose the social nuances that make the story work.

In less spectacular company, Nathan Balllingrud’s “The Monsters of Heaven” might have shone. Here, its surrealistic trappings don’t quite equal its melancholy tone of loss. A father’s nightmares are somehow tragically reborn in his son in the evocative “13 O’Clock” by Mike O’Driscoll. “Ghorla” by Mark Samuels is gleefully macabre with its Lovecraftian characters. Joyce Carol Oates is always worth reading, and her “Faces” is adequately chilling — it’s simply not her best work. “An Apiary of White Bees” by Lee Thomas captures the imagination with its strange tale of enchanted liqueur, but it is also somewhat weighed down by inevitability.

John Grant’s “Lives” is memorable for its twisted answer to one of those questions you may not want to ask again after you read his story: If there are those who have incredible luck, what might that mean for those around them without it?

The horrors of the holocaust and the necessity of remembering acts of overwhelming evil are the theme of P.D. Cacek’s small gem, “The Keeper.” Paul Finch provides plenty of ambiance in “Bethany’s Wood,” but an unbelievable, unlikable protagonist weakens the story. In Pat Cadigan’s “Stilled Life” everyday life steps into the bizarre and takes you with it.

The core of Lucius Shepard’s “The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast” — the making of a psychopath — conveys violence with impressive force but without overly graphic detail. The framing story of a man passing on his beliefs to his son is, however, even more indelible.

Simon Bestwick’s “Hushabye” depends on shock for its impact, but the quiet determination of its vigilante protagonist stays with you. You suspect (perhaps hope) his act of justice may be just the first in a series.

Conrad Williams turns in a creepy “Perhaps the Last” which starts out with introspection, journeys into suspense, and ends with a gruesome twist. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Bedroom Light” is perhaps the book’s oddest piece and in its strangeness lies the razor edge between the light and the dark.

In the “The Janus Tree,” Glen Hirshberg manages to build a world and draw characters with depth most authors can only accomplish (if they can at all) at novel length. A polluted, decaying mining town provides the background for what seems to be a straightforward, if darkly disturbing, coming of age story. Then, in the last paragraph, Hirshberg brilliantly blindsides you. Once you reach the end, you’ll want to go back and re-read it all from your now-altered perspective.

Terry Dowling’s “The Suits at Auderlane” is just as strong, but in an entirely different way. An eager reporter seeking a good story finds a haunted house to explore, a damsel in distress, and an eerie mystery to solve. The solution may surprise you, but the feeling of the story itself is redolent good old-fashioned things that go bump in the night.

And, for all this opinion, only time will tell if the stories that provide the most profound immediate reactions will be the ones that linger the longest and work their way into your psyche. (ISBN: 978-0-7653-1558-8)

RED SPIKES by Margo Lanagan
Knopf, 176 pages, $16.99 (hardcover)

Margo Lanagan writes in a distinctly individual style that seems both modern and timeless. She creates small, strange universes — sometimes delightful, occasionally dark, all worth reading. Her imagination seems boundless. In this, her third collection, she draws on a variety of sources for inspiration, but each story is entirely her own. In “Baby Jane,” an odd trio grow from small figurines and a young boy helps deliver a warrior queen’s baby. “Monkey’s Paternoster” is told by an Indian temple monkey and relates the world from a simian viewpoint. A young man proves he possesses “A Good Heart” not by winning the girl, but by protecting her. “Winkie” turns a nursery rhyme into a nightmarish tale. The spirit of bird returns to save a young woman from herself in “A Feather In The Breast of God.” “Hero Vale” deals with both a young bully and a boy who becomes a hero, but at great cost. “Mouse Maker” is concerned with minor witchcraft. Limbo, that place in the Catholic cosmos that is neither heaven or hell, is the subject of “Under Hell, Over Heaven.” Tribal women deal with matters of god after their men are stolen from them by Catholicism in “Forever Upward.” “Daughter of the Clay,” is a rather sad tale of a child who discovers she is a changeling and sets things right. Although published for young adults, “old adults” will enjoy Lanagan’s new stories even more than the intended audience. (ISBN: 978-0-375-84320-4)

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