The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror edited by Stephen Jones (Robinson Publishing, £6.99, 494 pages, paperback; published 26 November 1998; ISBN 1-85487-554-X)
Each year Stephen Jones trawls every magazine and anthology to have seen the light of day in the past twelve months in search of the crème de la crème of contemporary horror fiction. Like previous volumes, this - a collection of work originally published in 1997, bookended by a yearly roundup and a necrology of those who died - is both extensive and eclectic, and a big fat middle finger to all those who'd have you believe that horror is dead and buried. An institution, I believe. And thankfully so.
As I read through these stories I was struck by how massive a task it must be to whittle all the stories published in 1997 (on paper and on the internet) down to a mere nineteen. We're talking millions and millions of words here. Every excellent, crap, indifferent, puerile and wonderful tale to be recorded. Hmm, thought I, I wouldn't mind trying that myself...
So, from The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 1997, I bring you my top ten, my top of the chops...
At ten, just scraping in, is Pat Cadigan's 'This is Your Life (Repressed Memory Remix)'. My main problem with this story is that I was just starting to enjoy it, and think that it was getting underway, when it came to an end. Renata flies home after her father's death, and finds her family assembled around a video he made before passing on. The content of the video turns out to be the wrongdoing that forms the repressed memories of the title. Cadigan handles the tearing apart of a close family by awful revelations in an expert and highly readable manner, but frankly I wanted more.
Douglas E Winter is at nine with the bittersweet, 'Zombies of Madison County'. It's a romantic tale, overflowing with melancholia and sentimentality, and told in a raw and honest style, which follows the narrator back into the past, and all the heartache and memories that exist there. One to read with a hanky at hand.
John Burke's deceptively short 'The Right Ending' sits at eight. We're in the world of subtle horror here, with a case of "is the narrator seeing a ghost or has he stayed up one night too many watching Nigel Mansell's Indy Car Racing?" Burke has an elegant prose manner, and tugs the reader one way then the next with apparent ease. Ticket to the Twilight Zone anyone?
There are some eggs at seven, and they're 'Serpent's Eggs', laid by Ansible editor David Langford. This, along with Michael Marshall Smith's contribution, is probably the nearest story here to science fictional horror. A community has sprung up on Droch Skerry, a remote isle in the Shetlands, and the narrator has travelled there on a fact-finding mission. The paranoia of the place is captured perfectly, and conjures images of a small supernaturally afflicted Jonestown, marooned at the top of the world. Brrrr...
One of the most original and disturbing images I've ever read in horror fiction forms part of Brian Hodge's 'The Dripping of Sundered Wineskins', the story that occupies the number six slot. That image occurs when the narrator (a sort of Irish saint blessed with stigmata) is praying alone in a church. As he prays he is increasingly aware of a dripping sound, which becomes gradually heavier. Then there's a rip, followed by "a moist heavy thud, like that of an animal carcass collapsing to the killing floor." He looks round, and notices that the cross, which had borne a statue of Christ, is now empty... The story, which is consistently good, is worth reading for this passage alone.
In Poland the prostitutes don't solicit for business in lonely back alleys, but by the side of the motorway, with juggernauts and convoys thundering past. But, in Gwyneth Jones's 'Grazing the Long Acre', which touts itself at number five, someone is picking them off, murdering them one by one. A touching treatment of what it means to be female in a male dominated world, it has, like all good stories, a warm and happy ending. But why is it that a lot of the best tales have religious undertones?
In Narnia, if you recall, the White Witch made it always winter but never Christmas. For Christopher Fowler, who spanks his way into number four with 'Christmas Forever', it's quite the opposite. Then again, though the new ice age has started, nobody feels much like singing carols, on account of it being so cold that the population is dropping like flies. The theme, which I thought especially smooth, is that warm emotions - for example, love - find it hard to exist in colder climates. A theme which the central character, in the middle of Tower Records in an utterly frozen and desolate Piccadilly Circus, manages to disprove.
An alternative version of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, entitled, oddly enough, Coppola's Dracula, hangs upside down at number three. Written by the immensely talented Kim Newman, the story takes its plot from Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and moulds it around characters from Stoker's classic tale. Like much of Newman's work, it's satirical, funny and horrific all at the same time. Particularly impressive is the way he writes about Hollywood actors like Harvey Keitel as if he's known them for years. Even more impressive is Newman's knowledge of film, evident in both this story and the 1997 Necrology - penned with Stephen Jones - at the rear of the book.
Sheer simplicity ensured that 'Save As...' by Michael Marshall Smith won a place at number two. The idea - that human lives can be backed up and restored after disaster in the same way as computer data - is so simple it's brilliant. But, as Smith writes in his introductory notes, technology is far from infallible, and it only takes one little accident to mess up the whole process. Quite wonderful.
And so we come to number one, my own personal favourite in this, the ninth volume of Best New Horror. Yours might be different, but for me it has to be 'The Windmill' by Conrad Williams. The piece traces the gradual disintegration (which is both sad and painful to witness) of the relationship of a holidaying couple. It's excellently written, and put me very much in mind of Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now and Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, with perhaps a hint of David Lynch and Ramsey Campbell. It's a story that will, I think, be a landmark in Williams's career, and one that has to be read twice so that its absolute distortedness may be properly savoured. Very, very scary.
Other stories that didn't make it into my top ten, but which are equally readable, are by David J Schow, Simon Clark, Yvonne Navarro, Stephen Laws, Dennis Etchison, Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell, Andy Duncan, and Caitlin R Kiernan.
Until next year...
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© Jason Gould 15 December 1998