From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror

In the introduction of Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror, editor Ellen Datlow states, “In honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s Bicentennial in 2009, I commissioned our intrepid contributors to write stories inspired by Poe. I only specified that I did not want pastiches.” While such broad guidelines lead to a diversity of styles, it’s arguable that they also lead to an anthology no more evocative of Poe than any modern American collection of horror and dark fantasy stories. Furthermore, there was no limit on the number of authors who could use a single work as the basis of their own tale, with the result that three of the tales draw specifically and heavily from “The Masque of the Red Death.” There is also a distinct lack of mystery or detective stories in the anthology, surprising given that the introduction mentions “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” argued to be the first detective story.

Of the stories that are in Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror, one of the best is, in fact, a pastiche. “The Red Piano,” by Delia Sherman, details how Dr. Waters, an archaeologist obsessed with the burial customs of ancient cultures and taken with the idea of a corporeal afterlife, decides to buy a house that contains a red piano, which may not legally be moved or destroyed. Naturally, once Dr. Waters moves into the house, she is woken in the night by the sound of a piano playing. Though she checks her piano, no one has snuck in to play it.

After several sleepless nights thanks to the piano music, Waters decides what she’s hearing must come from the house next door. She introduces herself to her neighbor, a darkly handsome man by the name of Roderick Hawthorne, who knows about the mysterious piano-playing and how it haunted previous tenants. In fact, he has the twin of the piano in his own house, and shares with Waters the strange story of both.

The descriptions of Roderick Hawthorne, the houses, and their furnishings, the shadowy threats to Waters and her concern over her own rationality, all summon Poe’s work to mind. A typical passage from this story reads: “Unable to resist longer, I put aside my reservations, rang the rusty bell, and saw again his large, mild eyes, his sweet mouth nested like a baby bird in the riot of his beard, felt his cold, smooth hand press my own, heard his voice like an oboe welcoming me, questioning me, talking, talking, talking with delight of all the things that were closest to my heart.” (p. 201)

The resolution of “The Red Piano” allows for a lingering unease again strongly in keeping with Poe’s writing. This is a showcase piece for such an anthology.

Another showcase piece is “The Mountain House,” by Sharyn McCrumb, though a proofing mistake in the ARC cut at least two lines of dialogue from the story. The author takes a novel tack in speculative writing, setting her story among NASCAR racers. It might seem an odd choice for an anthology based on the work of Poe, but the circular, dangerous nature of the sport in fact works well with Poe’s themes of death and what lies beyond. While the tense switches McCrumb employs take some adjustment, this story contains a passage that seems to perfectly distill the question to which Poe returned again and again in his own work: “Once while I was pulling creeper vines out of a bed of pink impatiens, I found myself thinking, ‘I wonder where Liam has gone,’ and when I remembered that he had died, the question did not quite resolve itself.” (p. 126)

Displacement is another focus of “The Mountain House,” with the elite rich “summer people” staying in the Georgia mountains for only a season, then abandoning the area back to the locals, who are perceived to be part of the landscape. This perception takes on a great deal of significance in the course of the story interweaving with the narrator’s ruminations on death and the afterlife for a truly melancholy haunting.

Less subtly fantastical, “Beyond Porch and Portal,” by E. Catherine Tobler, may jar some readers with its inclusion of Poe himself as a character. The narrator is Poe’s niece, summoned by a strange messenger to her uncle’s deathbed. While Poe raves about seams and fire and his nieces tries to piece together what happened to him, the messenger appears again and again, the herald of bizarre events.

Given the mystery surrounding Poe’s death, speculation on possibilities is natural fodder for stories. “Beyond Porch and Portal” is only one of the works in this anthology with that mystery as a focus. It is also only one story to feature a strong narrative voice, richly evoking a particular place and time. Poe’s niece is engaging, pragmatic in a classic sense that does not deny the weirdness of the world around her, but rather tries to catalogue and connect that weirdness in order to determine her uncle’s fate.

The language and descriptions of this story are rich and disturbing, evocative of Lovecraft as well as Poe. There’s a bit of steampunk sensibility here, the imaginings of a previous age given fevered shape that draws heavily on Poe’s imagery. The ending of the tale is ambiguous and disquieting, which makes it highly suitable for this anthology.

Several of this protagonists in these stories are much less likable. This may be in keeping with Poe’s characterization, but it does not add to the enjoyment of works with other problems. Perhaps the weakest story in Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror is Laird Barron’s “Strappado,” a tale full of unpleasant characters largely described only by their nationality and its associated stereotypes. In fact, a lack of depth is the defining component of “Strappado,” which also features the distancing, passionless narrative style that’s common of depictions of gay relationships and characters in speculative publications not specifically geared toward highlighting gay characters. While this style suits the protagonist, it doesn’t add to any engagement by the reader.

Also problematic in “Strappado” is the exoticization of non-white nations. While the main character is Japanese-American, he is largely ignorant and contemptuous of his Japanese heritage, indulging in the white Western privilege he’s accorded while on business in India. While the narrative is clear that his views are distorted, nothing is offered as counterbalance, and in fact he surrounds himself with people who are just as bad. His lover is a brash Englishman who casts himself in the mold of “great adventurer,” and the group they fall in with are Western tourists, all shallow and petty.

While “Strappado” employs Poe’s techniques of terror in both the exotic and mundane, in the main character’s self-loathing as instrumental to his downfall, it never moves beyond an unpleasant setup. The reader is not asked nor expected to have sympathy for anyone in this story, yet that makes it difficult to be moved by the events depicted, particularly in light of the main character’s self-indulgence. The point may be for the reader to share the character’s loathing of himself and his companions, but such a point seems counterproductive.

Exoticization and indulgence are two themes that also crop up in “The Brink of Eternity,” by Barbara Roden, “Kirikh’quru Krokundor,” by Lucius Shepard, and “Lowland Sea,” by Suzy McKee Charnas. In “The Brink of Eternity,” a man sets out to the North Pole to prove the theory that the earth is hollow, with life-sustaining lands under the surface. A white, Western man conceiving of himself as shackled by his privilege and setting out to a more “primitive” land to interact with Nature and the natives he views as Noble Savages is by no means a new plot. While the concept could be an interesting one to deconstruct and challenge, this tale does neither. What’s more, aside from the beliefs held by the protagonist, there’s not much in the premise of the story to mark it as either fantastical or a singular successor to Poe’s work. Poe’s own interest in expeditions to the Antarctic is mentioned, as is his belief in Symmes’ “Hollow Earth” theory, but this only serves to weaken the story, reminding the reader of the fiction of the main character’s fate when the events themselves could be as easily read in true-life accounts from the time period.

“Lowland Sea” at least breaks with the white man as viewpoint character, instead focusing on a young African woman who has come to be a photographer among the entourage of an American film star. She, her employer, and his other employees and hangers-on are in Cannes, France for the film festival when there’s a global outbreak of a mutated strain of Ebola. The group isolate themselves in a high mountain fortress owned by the actor, hoping to wait out the outbreak. Naturally, things don’t quite work out as hoped.

Unfortunately, despite the unique viewpoint, none of the characters are given dimension beyond their stock setup of aging movie actor, Eastern European child prostitute turned nanny, former black marketeer turned bodyguard, and so forth. “Lowland Sea” features some lovely details, and the references to “The Golden Vanity” and Noah’s dove add extra literary resonance, but this story is largely wasted potential.

“Kirikh’quru Krokundor” is another case of wasted potential. Along with exoticization of its South American locale, this story also features a focus on the white male narrator’s sexual obsessions. It’s a trope that hasn’t gotten fresher with time. This is especially inconvenient because the character around whom the plot turns, Nubia, has such potential for interest, but the main character only relates to her through their past relationship and his current desire for and contempt of her. The main character also classes his past relationship with Nubia as “rape,” which is hugely problematic in the way it trivializes the topic.

Of course, the plot of the story is configured in such a way as to excuse the character’s sexual fixation. In a mysteriously abandoned complex, a group of historians attempt to piece together why the religious population cut off ties with the world and then vanished. The complex is full of sexually-charged artwork, and the designer’s focus seemed to be either offending the caretakers or luring them from their moral code. The historians experience sudden erotic inclinations outside of their normal range, and the secret of the complex comes into focus. That secret is neither original nor particularly reminiscent of Poe in its horrific aspect.

Nor is “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” unique in featuring a male protagonist incapable of viewing women in terms other than sexual. “The Final Act,” by Gregory Frost, is the story of a man whose wife may or may not have cheated on him with a despised co-worker. The wife, the only female character in the story, is never fully realized as an individual. While this illustrates blindness in the characterization of the men, when the narrative also regards her as merely an appendage, a plot device through which to torment the main character, the entire story feels contrived.

“Flitting Away,” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is similarly contrived, though the main character is a woman. Rusch has a fondness for writing about assault on women, and this story is no exception. The protagonist, a self-described “cautious woman,” blames herself for the attack that nearly takes her life. She becomes convinced nowhere is safe from her assailant, a typical reaction in assault survivors that closely matches the paranoia of so many of Poe’s works. Despite that similarity, “Flitting Away” seems out of place in this anthology. The author says in her afterword: “What happened… happens to women all the time. And to me, that’s horrifying.” (p. 388) Though a true statement, the sentiment and the resulting story are perhaps not the best fit for an anthology that otherwise seems concerned with the more fantastical elements of Poe’s work.

“The Pikesville Buffalo,” by Glen Hirshberg, in fact, draws on a fantastical image from one of Poe’s essays. The resulting story is hilarious and bizarre, but not much reminiscent of Poe’s fictional works. The other comedic piece in this anthology, Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain,” is a little more overtly Poe-derived. “Illimitable Domain” tackles cinematic adaptations of Poe’s work, most of which have been admittedly underwhelming. The story’s set in the nineteen fifties, with a lot of references to cinematic history. This should please film buffs, and there’s enough explication that even readers who didn’t spend the Saturday afternoons of their childhood watching b-movie marathons will get the gist.

Pat Cadigan’s “Truth and Bone” has several moments of humor, and is another story featuring a clear, immersive narrative voice. The voice becomes a weakness, however, when certain details don’t ring true, making them all the more jarring. Also, while the protagonist’s special ability is evocative of Poe, not much else in “Truth and Bone” is. “Technicolor,” by John Langan, may be intended to be read humorously, but the predictability of the final twist means the joke falls flat.

The blackly comedic elements of “The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud,” by David Prill, are also some of its more horrific elements. Robert Flud is a travelling encyclopedia salesman plying his trade in rural Minnesota. He decides to take a chance on selling something at a strange farm, where all the animals are silent and the buildings look diseased. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

The plot of this story is a twist on that of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The setting relies more heavily on “American Gothic” and the horror and unsettling humor that’s come to be associated with rural America. The blend of the two works well, especially since Prill most strongly focuses on physical and mental isolation and how hard both can be on the human psyche. Poe likely would have approved.

Poe may also have approved of “The Pickers,” Melanie Tem’s take on “The Raven.” While the main character is sympathetic without being particularly likable, the pickers are fascinating. Dee, their matriarch, is nearly too helpful and kind at the beginning of the tale, but by the end her nature has grown more ominous. Like “The Raven,” the sense of horror and dread in this story is very dreamlike and langourous. M. Rickert’s “Sleeping With the Angels” is dreamlike, but it’s a fever dream of adolescent tragedy and the tales children tell themselves and each other to keep from acknowledging the monstrousness of humans. Sharp and dark, the story has a vivid voice and strong characterization. However, the connection with Poe is tenuous, primarily made up of the surface detail of a girl named Annabel who used to live by the sea.

While its connection to Poe is stronger, “The Reunion,” by Nicholas Royle, is a weaker story. The setting is a hotel with secrets, a horror standard. The protagonists arrive for a medical school reunion, and the hotel has no record of their booking. This is an auspiciously ominous beginning, but the story never develops beyond that initial promise. The viewpoint character, a hypochondriac, is prone to anxiety and imagining the worst. When the hotel proves to be made up of floors that mirror each other in every detail, the character becomes convinced he has a doppelganger walking around. Once that conviction is made, the story ends, and what exactly is terrifying about the doubled nature of the hotel is never explicated.

“The Tell,” by Kaaron Warren, has a similar problem. Siri meets an old man who claims to have Poe’s heart in his possession. He gives Siri the heart, and with it, “the gift of nightmares.” Siri begins to dream of clothes. She quits her job, learns to sew, and opens a boutique where she sells clothing with strange, supernatural side effects.

While this story evokes Poe in its edge of madness and soft-spoken yet deadly protagonist, the madness is never quite strong enough to overcome the lack of motivation for Siri’s actions. The reason Siri is drawn to fashion is never hinted; perhaps the reader is meant to recall that Poe himself was found wandering in strange clothes shortly before his death. However, the tale of Poe’s final days is recounted in the course of this story, and that detail is not even mentioned. Had it been, “The Tell” would be on of the more successful stories in this anthology in terms of bringing Poe to mind. As it is, the lack of explanation is distracting.

“Shadow,” by Steve Rasnic Tem, is also lacking in explanation, though not in details. Like the title suggests, this story most strongly riffs off the work that Poe originally title “Shadow -A Fable.” The story makes use of the second-person, a device not uncommonly deployed in Poe’s time, with a man addressing his niece in the future via a video recording on the day of his death. The device of the recording allows for reeling descriptions of a landscape in flux, aptly described, “As if he has been carrying your head around the house, and has now reattached it to your body, which has been sitting by itself in his living room” (p. 250) While this story is heavy on macabre descriptions and implications of a horrible fate for mankind, however, the main character’s detachment is a barrier to the melancholy and horror usually associated with Poe. There’s also a jarring detail at the end of the story that serves as a distraction from any sense of doom.

In the end, Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark Fantasy, and Horror doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its stated intent, but it’s still a solid volume of dark genre stories.

J. C. Runolfson is a poet and fantasist who posts infrequent book reviews to her own journal.

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