The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Edited by Stephen Jones (Robinson Publishing, £6.99, paperback, 513 pages; ISBN 1-854787-901-4). 1997.
What is most striking about this anthology is how varied the stories are. Here, we have blatant horror, quiet horror, the occasional splash of grue, and even a play (Scot Edelman's A Plague on Both Your Houses). Proof positive that horror is entering a new stage in its life (a sentiment echoed by Stephen Jones in his Introduction), and not dying.
Opening - and closing - this cross-section of horror published during 1996, are tales by Terry Lamsley. I'd never read anything by this author before, but by all accounts he's gaining a fair old reputation as a budding maestro of the short spine-tingler. Indeed, this is the first time that the editor has included more than one story by the same author in such a collection. Lamsley is what might be termed a traditionalist, in that his content and style, while being placed in contemporary times and exploring contemporary themes, have about them an air of classicalism, setting him at the opposite end of the genre to the likes of Michael Marshall Smith, Nicholas Royle, Christopher Fowler, and other members of the Brit-horror brat pack. Is this a good thing? Perhaps. Personally, I prefer the likes of Smith, Royle and Fowler (all represented in these pages). But that's not to say Lamsley doesn't know his stuff, because he does, and proves it with 'Walking the Dog' and 'The Break' - both of which put me in mind of Herbert Van Thal and the halcyon days of The Pan Book of Horror.
Having read some of Poppy Z Brite's output in the past, and enjoyed her short work much more than her novels, it was with quaking hands (well, maybe not quite) that I turned to her offering: 'Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz'. Frankly, I was disappointed. I expected a lot more. Rather than her usual darker than dark vision, we get conspiracy theories, ghosts, Cagliostro, and...yep, New Orleans. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed to be an idea for a novel condensed into a few thousand words. It's not bad, but she's much better at chronicling the human body than the history in which it exists.
Douglas Clegg surprised me recently. I'd seen his novels, and on the strength of their covers assumed them to be gore-on-the-floor slash-fests. However, after reading him in Palace Corbie, and now Best New Horror, I'm having to re-assess. 'Underworld' is a sad story built around lost love and the sins of the fathers, and has some genuinely spooky scenes in a derelict building. Just goes to show: books, covers, judging thereof, etc, etc.
On the same subject, Iain Sinclair is a writer who you might not expect to find in an anthology sporting a zombie and a beakerful of eyeballs on the front. Anyway, he's here with 'Hardball', a weird, brilliantly written, and very clever piece on football. Definitely deserving of reprint.
'Gas Station Carnivals' by Thomas Ligotti, a writer much at home in the short story sphere, is decidedly scary, almost surreal, but in my opinion is let down by trying to be too clever for its own good. The plot twists and turns without ever really leaving the one room in which it's set. However, stick with it until the end as it is well thought out, and quite poignant. Worth reading for the Showman (very scary), and various other inhabitants of the attraction from which the story takes its title.
I'd read reviews, and knew Thomas Tessier's 'Ghost Music' was going to be good. The lead character, or one of them, is a musician who begins to display traits of the dead composer Peter Warlock. The narrative is subtle, the idea unusual, and the 'pain' - and fear - of being a creative artist perfectly characterised.
Is it coincidence that Nicholas Royle and Michael Marshall Smith appear side by side in this collection? Hmmm. Regardless of that, these are my favourites (if you buy this book - and it's certainly good value for money - you'll no doubt have your own). Royle - directed and smooth as ever - gives us 'Skin Deep', a symbolic venture into marital affairs and taxidermy, while Smith gives us a lesson in how 'Hell Hath Enlarged Herself', a mix of science fiction and horror in which Earth is made accessible to those in Hell by the antics of a computer-based research group. Like 'More Tomorrow', and his novels Only Forward and Spares, this story expertly blends science fiction with horror, and makes me wonder if he's going to do to sci-fi what Clive Barker did to fantasy. Or has he already?
There's over twenty stories in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, plus a round-up of the year, a Necrology of who died, and a list of useful addresses (which is useful, particularly the internet ones). To tell you about each story in turn would take far too long. I expect that everyone who reads in the genre will have their own personal favourites which didn't make it into the volume. Me? I'd liked to have seen Martin Simpson's 'Dancing About Architecture' and Justina Robson's 'Deadhead' (both from The Third Alternative) and Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne's 'Citizen Ed' (from Interzone). That, however, is the nature of reprint anthologies.
All in all, whichever branch of the darkside you're into, I'll wager there's something here for you.
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© Jason Gould 22 November 1997