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edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick

(ROC, £14.95, 336 pages, trade paperback October 2005, ISBN 0-451-46044-8.)

Review by Mario Guslandi

cover scanNowadays the bulk (and the best) of dark fiction is confined within the small world of the independent press. The mass market publishing companies, with a very few exceptions, seldom venture to host genre novels, let alone short story collections and anthologies in the horror and supernatural field.

To discuss the reasons for this phenomenon is beyond the scope of the present article, so let's stick to the fact that the appearance of an anthology of speculative fiction from a publisher such as ROC is always a remarkable event. The chosen topic, "outsiders", i.e. misfits, aliens, weirdos, freaks and so on, sounds particularly suitable and the authors involved -- either by invitation or by selection -- are apt to impress the potential buyer.

I understand that the volume has been widely distributed among the attendees at the recent World Fantasy Con. I wasn't there and you'll appreciate that mine is not a complimentary review copy of the book, but that I've purchased it from my own pocket, lured by the promise of 22 tales "from the edge" by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Steve Rasnic Tem, David J Schow, Bentley Little, Jack Ketchum, Tanith Lee, etc.

So I got this anthology full of expectations, although seeing the book printed on cheap (recycled?) paper somehow sounded as a warning sign that things might not be as bright as I was hoping.

Let me tell it straight: this is one of the most disappointing genre anthologies I have read in years.

First-class artists I've learned to think highly of, seem to have suddenly turned into second-rate craftsmen providing dull, ordinary material lacking heart and inspiration. Most of the stories are totally forgotten once you turn the last page, having triggered no emotion whatsoever (fear, disquiet, even a little bit of interest) in the reader. Occasionally, I even wondered if some of the contributors simply sent in unsold stock, rejected by other editors and lying in their bottom drawers.

If this is the quality of dark fiction which is being offered to the general public, no wonder the genre is a commercial failure and the big publishing companies look at it suspiciously.

In this depressing scenario, praise to the few authors who have contributed good stuff to this anthology. By far the best story is Elizabeth Massie's 'Pit Boy', a chilling, horrific tale where boys fighting for their own life become a pitiful, cruel show. Other excellent pieces are 'The Shadows, Kith and Kin', by Joe R Lansdale, a detached but fully effective description of a man's descent in a downward spiral of darkness and despair, and Kathe Koja's 'Ruby Tuesday', the poignant portrait of a young movie fan coming to terms with the reality of a dying mother.

Good stories come from Caitlin R Kiernan ('Faces in Revolving Souls' about a girl's struggle to become a mutant), Melanie Tem ('The Country of the Blind' where blindness becomes a way of living and loving) and Brett Alexander Savory ('Running Beneath the Skin', depicting a deadly game featuring mutants able to heal from lethal wounds).

There's also a cute mainstream story by Poppy Z Brite ('The Working's Slob Prayer') set in the world of a New Orleans restaurant, entertaining but completely out of place in this volume.

Thus the good reading stuff covers about one third of this anthology (seven stories out of twenty-two!). Frankly, too little to recommend the book to anyone except the compulsive genre collectors.

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