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Gathering the Bones

edited by Jack Dann, Ramsey Campbell, and Dennis Etchison

(HarperCollins Voyager (Australia), AU$29.95, trade paperback, March 2003, 466 pages; Tor Books (USA), US$27.95, hardcover, August 2003, 448 pages.)

The relative goodness of a science fiction cover scan - US editionor fantasy story is perennially debateable and therefore largely user-defined ('user' here taking in writer, reader, and the holy ghost that their book-locked interaction conjures up) -- the idea is most important, no wait, it's the characters, originality of secondary world is the prime directive ... Horror's abiding obligation is to induce fear -- pure and simple. Whether it's a slowly creeping dread, the tip of an icepick down your spine, or a hot liquid twist in your gut, horror's inherently promised payoff is to scare the reader witless, and still be doing so long after they've put the book down.

By this reckoning, then, how good, how fear-inducing, are the thirty-four stories that flesh out Gathering The Bones? For one thing, it's a pleasant surprise that yet another doorstop 'original' anthology in a field that relies to a large extent on its readers' knowledge of standard tropes does actually show some marked seams of originality in its contents. As well, the tri-continental flavouring of Gathering The Bones is refreshing, the editors giving equal space to talent from their respective chunks of rock (Dann from Australia, Campbell from the UK -- well, Britain thinks it's a continent, doesn't it? -- cover scan - Australian editionand Etchison from the US). Inevitably there is a clutch of non-starters and no-hopers (thus obeying the anthology version of the 'there's-always-one' rule), but there's also surprisingly little that is middle-of-the-road, and a large handful of the good stuff, including at least one tale that, if the world were a fine and just place, would be winning awards all over it.

In the interests of, well, interest, I'll pass over the bad and the ordinary, mentioning only that the bad are mostly (though not exclusively) perpetrated by first-timers and the ordinary by, um, well, the ordinary. The former have some potentially rewarding ideas that they manage to execute, period. From the latter, you can just choose your own favourites and chew on their various gobbets of mildly diverting brain-candy at your leisure. With so much work of a similar quality out there, sardined onto the shelves and into the remainder bins, I'm increasingly declined to bother reviewing any of it. So I'll just concentrate on the good stuff.

A fair portion of the better offerings are prime examples of what can be done by taking established tropes, stripping them down to their bare essentials, and then reconfiguring them in startling and innovative ways -- not a new writing technique, by any means, but if it works, so what? Steve Nagy's 'The Hanged Man of Oz', for instance, is an atmospheric and witty recombination of Ringu and L Frank Baum, which pretty much tells you all you need to know but certainly shouldn't stop you reading it. Christmas telly will never be quite the same. Kim Newman's 'The Intervention' is The Trial for the Dilbert generation, with every shuddering tic of Kafka's 250 pages of fractured paranoia crammed gasping into a mere 18. And the protagonist is even called Keith. Lisa Tuttle's '"The Mezzotint"' is simultaneously a frank homage and a revivifying palimpsest of M R James's story of almost the same name (yes, those extra quote marks are deliberate). It is a hall of very dark mirrors, and very worrying screensavers.

Gahan Wilson's 'The Big Green Grin' is a neat little urban fairy tale about sibling rivalry that'll have you warning your kids about vacant lots and paying newfound respect to Mother Nature. Scott Emerson Bull's 'Mr Sly Stops For A Cup Of Joe' is short, fierce, and very funny, a set-piece encapsulation of the broader, darker absurdities of the world and all its egos. Mr Sly is one of the most potent and distressingly likeable übermonsters I've ever met (not that you would ever want to actually meet him).

And then there is Isobelle Carmody, a writer of the most consistently evocative and sensuous prose, with 'The Dove Game', a characteristically shadowed tale of twisted love and fractured time and the beautiful, painful signs we create to try (and usually fail) to tell other people the stories we live by, the stories we make our lives out of. Carmody is always worth reading, and for sheer virtuosity of style and plot, 'The Dove Game' is worth the purchase of the whole book.

For me, though, the most disturbing tales, the ones that still give me the existential creeps several weeks after reading them -- and therefore, by my initial measure, the best -- are Chris Lawson and Simon Brown's 'No Man's Land', Mike O'Driscoll's 'Sounds Like', and Robert Devereaux's 'Li'l Miss Ultrasound'. Aptly enough (and entirely unplanned, I assure you), that's one from each continent (Oz, the UK, and the US respectively). And oddly enough, the source of much of the horror in all three is sound.

Lawson and Brown's 'No Man's Land' is set in the trenches of WWI France, with a rapidly dwindling squad of Tommies telling each other ghost stories between aborted forays over the wire. The stories they tell focus on the carrion-craving ghouls that are thought to roam the eponymous field of mud and bones between their own trenches and the Hun. The narrator finds the line between story and reality blurring as more of his comrades are lost in pointless attacks, until he discovers for himself exactly what it is that lurks in the lethal non-space between the lines. This story is soaked in a constant and remorseless sense of contrast. The first words plunge us into the endless din of battle, and we veer from that to the sibilant quiet of night and whispered ghosts and back to the brain-shattering noise until we wonder, much like the grunts in the trenches, what is really being heard, and what is the very last thing they might hear.

Tellingly, 'No Man's Land' is also marked by a contrast-that-isn't: this is a horror story, and a scary one at that, but it's not as scary as some of the others in Gathering The Bones. The real horror here is the war itself, something that actually happened, that was real. The fact of it, the fact of what war makes men do to survive it, washes into and through the imagined horror, so that the fiction -- the monster, the bogeyman, the dreaded thing itself -- becomes the filtered, manageable aspect of the reality. The imagined thing is still, always, terrifying, incapacitating, not of this world and therefore beyond understanding -- and so, finally, almost a relief. It is the end result of something we made, though we did not ourselves make it; so all we have to understand is that we are frightened of it. War, on the other hand, we are too frightened of to understand. 'No Man's Land' is neither the best written story in the collection, nor the out-and-out scariest (though it's in the top third on both counts). But it tells us to be frightened of something that matters. It compels us to see that horror is always, finally, real.

O'Driscoll's 'Sounds Like' is psychological horror delivered at a peak of accomplishment. It is the story of Larry, a thoroughly average man, and his gradual mental disintegration as he loses first his child and then his wife. Sounds ordinary enough. But as each catastrophe befalls him Larry finds that his hearing becomes more and more acute, to the point where he is hearing sounds that he cannot possibly hear:

... beads of sweat rolling down his chest; a dry crack like snapped twigs, which are the spasms of his facial muscles ... the creeping of insects in the walls; the scuttle of a spider across the ceiling; the babble of microscopic bedbugs in the sheets.

While these may be sounds that we all imagine, or try not to imagine, we can hear, for Larry they are absolutely real, and he has no choice but to hear them. Somehow, he has lost one of the filters that keep the world at bay. At work, as a monitor in a call centre (a nice touch), he starts cutting the volume on his headset so that he is listening to hours of dead air, just for some relief. But with every attempt to block the aural offensive, it only renews and reinforces itself, so that Larry's methods of defence become ever more desperate and extreme. The end result is inevitable but nonetheless shocking, and is nothing even remotely like a relief.

Devereaux's 'Li'l Miss Ultrasound' is almost indescribable. It is, in all the right ways, disgusting, appalling, repulsive -- quite literally horrifying. It takes two current, persistent, and already disturbing human propensities -- the sexual commodification of childhood in the name of some spurious higher abstract like beauty or innocence or truth; and our dumb willingness to be led by rather than to constructively control the capabilities of technology -- and pushes them to their hideously logical limits. Basically, advanced digital imaging techniques allow pregnant women to airbrush and animate ultrasound renderings of their unborn children in ever more provocative intrauterine wardrobes and catwalk poses in order for said women and their ultrasonographers and their managers to win national foetal beauty pageants.

Now, even the most jadedly cynical of moral relativists ought to find their stomach rebelling at such a scenario. And that's basically the point. 'Li'l Miss Ultrasound' could easily have been a sensationalist shocker-for-the-hell-of-it, a Daily Star-style headline grabber with literary pretensions. What Devereaux has produced, however, is a sensitively handled, sharply characterised, and utterly riveting story with a deeply and seriously satirical sensibility threading through every sentence. Everyone in this story is a monster, one way or another. Everyone who reads it will hate it. Everyone who reads it and hates it and bothers to stop and think why they hate it will find that they love it in the same breath. There won't be that many that bother, though (the editors obviously did, to their credit). That's why it's such a good story -- it knows that.

'Li'l Miss Ultrasound' ought to win everything. But it won't.

Review by Robert Guy Cook.

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