Readers unfamiliar with The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII may prefer to read these notes only after reading the anthology.
The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII
Edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1990)
Introduction: From Horror Angst to Zombies by Karl Edward Wagner
[....]the short story has also fallen victim to pure and simple bad writing. Plots, when present, are too often so obvious and trite that one can only wonder as to why the author is bothering to clone a cliché. Characterization is too often lacking, motivation absent, and writing skills laughable. One piece of evidence of this is the shrinking average word length of the horror story. This reflects a growing trend in horror writing simply to introduce a few faceless expendables and rush them to a grisly end -- the grislier the better. Your editor yawns and turns to the next and similar pointless exercise.
[....] diminished expectations on the part of the reader and of limited aspirations on the part of the writer.
[....] Sturgeon's Law that 90% of everything makes good organic fertilizer
[....] It's almost as if the genre seems poised on the brink of a Beirut-style civil war -- tolerate no disbelievers, accept no compromises, take no prisoners. Most obvious has been the sniping over the past decade between advocates of "quiet horror" and of (presumably) "loud horror." To an extent this is all merely a continuation of the earlier quarrel between fans of traditional horror and those of contemporary horror. It's all getting to be a bit strident, and the pursuit of excellence is too often abandoned in favor of pointless extremism. Because a story is dead boring dull, it is not necessarily literary horror. Writing about a Roto-Rooter rapist does not necessarily push back the frontiers of horror's future.
[....] this is state-of-the-art horror as we closed out the 1980s.
Stay tuned to this channel, and I'll be back to take you on a tour through the 1990s.
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Renaissance by Chico Kidd
"Renaissance" is a horror story that succeeds brilliantly. A painter inadvertently "lets loose" a demon from a fresco in an Italian church. With a friend and the friend's daughter, the he tries to figure out how a Renaissance painter originally trapped the entity.
The Earth Wire by Joel Lane
The burning and street-fighting riots are over, and another, stranger crowd action has begun. Reading "The Earth Wire" in 1989 might have allowed the reader to see it as a critique of petty bourgeois complacency to upheavals against a decade of Thatcherism. Thirty years later, a richer context is granted for grasping the strange vectors of mass action. "The Earth Wire's" landscape of social disaster aftermath is deeply allusive.
Narcopolis by Wayne Allen Sallee
"Narcopolis" is a series of free-association free verse poems.
Buckets by F. Paul Wilson
"Buckets" is shocking in its bad taste. An abortionist on Halloween is visited by the trick-or-treating spirits of all the kids he killed. After some ideological back-and-forth, they lop off the doctor's head so he can finish his existence with a silent scream. The author's anti-choice rhetorical deck-stacking includes Holocaust minimization, moving the story beyond mere bad taste:
"....Some political appointees decided that we weren't people and that was that. Pretty much like what happened to East European Jews back in World War II. We're not even afforded the grace of being called embryos or fetuses."
Meeting the Author by Ramsey Campbell
"Meeting the Author" is ferocious. Young Timmy gives second-rate children's book author Harold Mealing a bad review. Mealing takes it badly, and sends his character Mr. Smiler to reset the scales.
At first I couldn't see Mr. Smiler. The pictures stood to attention as I opened the pages, pictures of children up to mischief, climbing on each other's shoulders to steal apples or spraying their names on a wall or making faces behind their teacher's back. The harder I had to look for Mr. Smiler, the more nervous I became of seeing him. I turned back to the first pages and spread the book flat on the table, and he jumped up from behind the hedge under the apple tree, shaking his long arms. On every two pages he was waiting for someone to be curious enough to open the book that little bit farther....
Campbell's portrait of a child beset by unearned and arbitrary doom is unforgettable. Timmy's parents, thoughtful and humane to a fault, finish what Mealing started.
The final paragraphs of "Meeting the Author" are shattering in their sudden and terrible sublimity.
Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy by David J. Schow
I missed the sunrise of splatterpunk, and did not catch up with its wave until 1992, when I purchased Book of the Dead. "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy" defeated me thirty years ago; I read the story today, and can confirm I am still immune to its gusto. Schow's walking dead are a funhouse mirror, and Wormboy cannot top their demands with culinary skills - or skills of any other type.
Return to the Mutant Rain Forest by Bruce Boston and Robert Frazier
The prose poem "Return to the Mutant Rain Forest" offers its impressions as explorers embrace their own mutations amid mutating surroundings.
The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever by M. John Harrison
"The Horse of Iron & How We Can Know It & Be Changed By It Forever" employs a number of arbitrary storytelling devices: switched tv channels, occult plotlining with tarot cards. It's a too clever story of London emptied of horror and replaced with mere literary oddity. It smacks of an exercise completed in a week when no better ideas came along.
Nights in the City by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
[....]How can I write you a spooky ghost story that you will enjoy a great deal because secretly you do not believe in ghosts and the terror isn't real to you. Someday you will be standing on a street corner, old and pitiful, having shit your pants, and a middle-aged woman with a sincere face will give you bad directions. That, my friend, is real terror. But you would rather hear about a weird visitation -- a ghost or a vampire -- something like that. Very well, but no more of these trumped up horror stories that could never be. This is about an actual spirit, an absolutely true story that I have never told anybody until now because I knew they wouldn't believe me. It happened to me quite a while ago, when I was a pretty girl. All kinds of men were attracted to me in those days, even a dead one. I thought I would never be rid of him.
"Nights in the City" is an uproariously funny sitcom told in high Bellovian first-person style.
Kaddish by Jack Dann
On paper Jack Dann looks like the perfect fit, based on my interests and obsessions. But "Kaddish," about a husband and father blinded to himself by the death of wife and child, strikes an overdetermined note. Absent are all the unnerving little effects that turn and twist a story into horror, particularly the meaningful half-glimpses only ramified afterward.
The Confessional by Patrick McLeod
Fr. Thompson has a tough day filled with clichés. It begins with a pedophile parent's suicide and ends with whiskey, sorrow, and panty-sniffing.
The Motivation by David Langford
The envelope contained several smaller ones, white, each with a printed caption whose indefinable tattiness suggested a hand-operated press. Police photographs leaked from Lambertstow horror case. Remains of Kenneth Quinn. Very violent, for strong stomachs only!! Which left Peter uncertain as to whether the material really was too strong for Benson's hardened clientele, or whether its sale might stir up police interest.
He wasn't sure that he wanted to peer at a corpse, however photogenic, but his inquisitive fingers had already turned back the flap and slid out the first enclosure. A tightening of the gut came even before he could focus on the glossy print; he had never somehow realized that police photographs would be in color. (Why was that? Because they were always in black and white in the newspaper. Of course.) Then he looked at the thing properly, and his first sensation was one of relief.
What lay on the grass under harsh lights was nothing recognizable as human. A long Christmas tree decked with exotic fruits and garlands, tinseled with innumerable points of reflected light; a Dali vision, which through sheer excess, had gone beyond mutilation and deformity. It was odd; perhaps a little disturbing in its abstract forms, but at first glance not at all horrific.
It was a pity, really, that Peter took the second glance.
An observation of G. K. Chesterton's caught up with him later: that one might look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times and be perfectly safe, but to take the thousandth look was to be in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time. Peter thought Chesterton had underestimated the safe exposure period, and sincerely regretted having looked even twice. The second look stirred up dim memories of an anatomy course at college, or those parts of it he'd attended; with his second look, he made the fatal error of analysis. It was fascinating, compulsive, to trace the relation between the long glittering object and what must have been a man; to consider bubbly ornaments in red and gray as something more than inorganic lumps, more than the polished haematite they called kidney ore; to trace what must have been done here and here with surgical delicacy; to wonder -- try not to wonder -- just when in the painstaking process Kenneth Quinn had actually died…
"The Motivation" is one of the most exciting stories in The Year's Best Horror Stories XVIII. One of life's also-rans, Peter is approaching the age when he can no longer kid himself. So when he discovers a forgotten envelope of crime-scene photos in a back room at work, he sees a motivation to bring his writing career daydream to life. Real life and old killings, alas, can be unyielding material.
The Boy with the Bloodstained Mouth by W. H. Pugmire
"The Boy with the Bloodstained Mouth" is a prose poem, a form Wodehouse once humorously termed "pastels in prose." Pugmire's is expressionist, closely argued, emotional, and free of fumbling.
Lord of Infinite Diversions by T. Winter-Damon
A line-enjamed free verse poem, "Lord of Infinite Diversions" gives us decadent BDSM fantasies of a brain in a jar.
Reflections by Jeffrey Goddin
"Think of all the silica in a window. And of all the windows in a city. Frequencies can go from a crystal to a crystal -- why not from a window to a window? What if all that silica has a kind of mind of its own -- or suppose it can trap spirits, the spirits of those who've died, and never quite made it away from the earth, like we trap a bit of information in a silica chip? And suppose that this "trapping" effect allows them to build up a kind of awareness from the spirits that are trapped -- a kind of artificial intelligence? And suppose they're hostile to living humanity, because we're still alive, and we have a chance to go -- wherever we go when we die. But they're trapped here in a kind of conscious prison.
"Reflections" is a terrific short story of real power and subtlety. My note on Goddin's story "The Smell of Cherries" in The Year's Best Horror Stories XI can be read here.
Sponge and China Tea by D. F. Lewis
"Sponge and China Tea" is a brief, unerring, and surreal short story that quickly bores down to the gruesome preoccupations that sap social convention.
The Deliverer by Simon MacCulloch
"The Deliverer" is a wonderfully macabre story about a child's Christmas and how it was impacted by the local vicar. (N.B. Deliveries would be an excellent subject for an anthology of horror stories.)
The Pit-Yakker by Brian Lumley
"The Pit-Yakker" is a grim story, recalling Lumley's masterpiece "The Viaduct." "The Pit-Yakker" focuses on violence inherent in class differences under pressure of adolescence. As an example of a coming-of-age story it is free of cliché, faster and sleeker each time I read it.
Zombies for Jesus by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
"Zombies for Jesus" is about sentient zombies in a devil's bargain: they serve a preacher whose serum keeps them filled with almost human desires and aspirations.
On the Dark Road by Ian McDowell
Stranded by a flat tire at night in Appalachia, a folklorist and her boyfriend encounter something they have been documenting in interviews with locals. McDowell has written a deft story, sharp and clever.
The End of the Hunt by David Drake
Drake's "The End of the Hunt" is an off-earth race for survival tale, breakneck in speed and with no pause until the end, when context's avalanche crowns the reader's skull.
The Gravedigger's Tale by Simon Clark
Clark's tale begins as a bit of drollery: a gravedigger having fun making a young electrician turn green. It's a clever turn, before the turn-again to clichés.
Mr. Sandman by Scott D. Yost
Two young men share one consciousness: one is alive and awake while the other sleeps. Arbitrarily, the sleep comes on each of them as it will:
Jeff had never been to Delaware (not as Jeff anyway). The farthest north he'd been was Virginia when he and his father drove up one weekend last fall to a Duke-UVA football game. And except for two weeks in Jamaica, he'd spent nearly all his life in North Carolina -- the first eighteen years in Greensboro, the last three at school in Durham.
But he knew Delaware intimately: the shortcut to Phipps's Gulf, the liquor stores with the best prices, the street corners where you could get decent cocaine. He knew all this and more because whenever he slept, that's where Mr. Sandman sent him -- to his other life, the one in Wilmington.
Clyde, of course, saw it differently; to him Jeff was the dream.
Jeff is a middle class university student; Clyde is working class and knows he is going nowhere. Yost does an excellent job depicting the friable realities beyond the wall of sleep. And his grasp of the meat and potatoes of real life is formidable.
Rail Rider by Wayne Allen Sallee
Sallee does an economical conjuration of urban anomie. While non-supernatural, the atmosphere is limned with a prose not far from Leiber's "Smoke Ghost" or Campbell's "Macintosh Willy."
Archway by Nicholas Royle
Just when she finds a haunted apartment filled with rusty coughs, asthmatic laughter, and wall cracks big enough for her fingers to explore, Bella gets fired. Her odyssey to sign up for welfare without jeopardizing her lease falls within the penumbra of a laughing demon:
She got up to make a cup of tea and passed by the kitchen window. Down below on the patch of waste ground a figure turned its face up to her window. Bella froze to the spot. The face just stared, its eyes quite clearly defined. Bella's flesh crawled, her scalp tightened. She shivered, and a change came over the face. It became elongated as the mouth opened and formed a black triangle. Symmetrical lines deepened about the eyes and mouth, accentuating the apex at the chin and reducing the eyes to black slits. The features formed a hideous triangular mask and became fixed in that image. It was the mime artist's version of an evil sneer; malice and twisted pleasure. The person had gone when Bella looked up again.
The Guide by Ramsey Campbell
Campbell captures coastal isolation and familial incongruity down to the last detail. And he will have his fun at the protagonist's expense: just because your M. R. James book is non-fiction doesn't mean you're not in peril.
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29 August 2022