The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, volume 11 edited by Stephen Jones
(Robinson Publishing, £6.99, 572 pages, paperback; published 19 October 2000; ISBN 1-84119-167-1)
So, another year, another volume of Best New Horror. And as usual, the question is whether these really are the best stories the field has to offer, or if they are merely the most convenient.
After a disappointing start - "Halloween Street" is nowhere near Steve Rasnic Tem's best work, and the piece taken from Others by James Herbert is included, I can only assume, so that the author's name may adorn the cover, wholly predictable and uninspiring as the extract is - we get to "Growing Things" by TED Klein, an absorbing tale which capitalises fully on suggestion, mood and language.
From this point in, the standard improves and remains consistent. Between here and the final page the proceedings are let down only by "The Ballyhooly Boy" by Graham Masterton, a "so obvious I can't believe he bothered to write it" ghostly tale, saved in part by a nicely narrated episode on an old staircase, and by "Welcome", a disappointingly cheap story by Michael Marshall Smith in which an office worker in central London (where else?) descends day by day into madness, a country to which he is beckoned by the word of the title. Smith is capable of much more lateral feats of the imagination than the simple filling in of the psychological horror story template, which he elects to do here. Just think back to the wonderful "More Tomorrow", and the even more wonderful "Later".
For every bad story there are two or more good. The highlight has to be "Aftershock" by F Paul Wilson. A young woman has herself struck deliberately by lightning (not as difficult as you'd expect), time after time, because at the point at which the lightning strikes she gets to see for a few brief seconds her son, who died years earlier. The narrator is drawn into her world, taking with him his own history. Unsettling, especially the dream of the gondola, it is also touching and witty and totally original in its simplicity of idea. It has about it a hint of the film Flatliners and an absolute surety of direction: from the first word Wilson not only knows where he's going but what he'll pass on the way, and most importantly, when. Buy this book for "Aftershock" alone.
Other stories that shine include Caitlín R Kiernan's "The Long Hall on the Top Floor", which is kind of Lovecraft by way of Douglas Coupland, beautifully characterised and poetically written; Ramsey Campbell's "The Entertainment", where a stranded traveller checks into a less than ordinary guesthouse, and which contains some of the most velvety prose to slide from Campbell's pen since Demons by Daylight; "Unhasped", a grisly unveiling of ex-girlfriends by a very troubled gentlemen, told with glee and excitement by the very dark David J Schow; and "White" by Tim Lebbon, a tale set on or around doomsday in which a group of folk wind up trapped inside a mansion house while a wild and white supernatural creature picks them off one by one in classic Night of the Living Dead style, right down to the boards nailed across the windows.
As always, the Introduction and Necrology are faultless. Where else would you learn that Percussionist James Blades OBE, responsible for the sound of the J Arthur Rank film gong, died on May 19th 1999, aged 97? Or that showbusiness lawyer Milton "Mickey" Rudin, whose client list included Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, gave in to pneumonia on December 13th of the same year, aged 79?
Looking over the above it sounds as if I enjoyed this book. Well, I did. But...
Placed alongside, say, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's Years Best Fantasy & Horror - a similar anthology put together in the States - then the breadth of what is contained here cannot help but be questioned. There's a spiciness and a cosmopolitanism in the US counterpart which is all too absent in this. Perhaps that's due to the fantasy element of which the Datlow and Windling is partly comprised. Perhaps it's due to editorial diligence. Perhaps neither.
If between these covers there was literature published originally in France, Germany, Japan, Africa, China, then this would indeed be a book worthy of much praise; an event, no less. Such a book is probably both economically and logistically impossible. A nice dream, though. After all, the horror world is told continually in columns and in newsletters and by people on panels that the attraction of the genre lays in the universality of fear. We are all capable of being scared, regardless of where we live or the language with which we choose to communicate. But if this book is any kind of barometer then it seems only the English-speaking world enjoys the odd scream. And that, of course, is a poor representation.
Equally, so much is missing from here because it gets published under a mainstream imprint, or is deemed "literary". A good deal of contemporary writing of late has about it a macabre or fabulous ingredient, which readers of Campbell, Gaiman, Straub et al would surely love, and yet it is entirely overlooked. This series - established and well trusted as it is by the horror audience - has perfect potential to help the two meet. And it should.
Narrowness aside, Best New Horror 1999 is a sound, reliable and entertaining collection of horror stories. But please, editor, a little wider net if you will.
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© Jason Gould 9 December 2000