Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horror Stories

A mixed bag of genre stuff this entry. I'm trying to weed out books I know I'm not going to read, to donate to the book drive that will be happening to support National Novel Writing Month. I can't let any anthologies go without at least reading a couple of stories in each. So:

From Cthulhu's Reign, edited by Darrell Schweitzer (the concept of the anthology is "what the world will be like after Cthulthu and the other Lovecraftian monsters return to Earth):

304. Such Bright and Risen Madness in our Names by Jay Lake. Lake takes the anthology's premise and narrows it down to the personal level: the narrator is one of an ever-dwindling group of "rebel" humans / near-humans striving to maintain some kind of resistance against Cthulhu and the humans/near-humans who serve "him." In Lake's interpretation, there seem to be very few baseline humans left: almost everyone has undergone some kind of physical change since the Olde Ones returned. The narrator ends up involved in a plan to wipe out the Lovecraftians, but if every other form of resistance has failed, what are the odds this one will succeed? And is our narrator willing to do what it takes? What works about this story is that it could just as easily be about a resistance cell in an over-run third world country -- if the dictators in the story were not actual monsters, the emotions and interplay of the three main people in this story would be just as heart-wrenching and their decisions would be just as difficult to try to understand. The best genre stories speak to the "real" world, and this ranks right up there.

305. The Seals of New R'Lyeh by Gregory Frost almost crosses genre -- it's a crime caper (let's see if they can steal the heavily-guarded Seals), it's a sort-of buddy flick (if the buddies don't actually like each other but work together anyway) and it's at least dark fantasy, if not outright horror (after all, the setting is The World After Cthulhu Returns). At least twice, I thought I knew where this story was going and found that it wasn't going there. Frost makes several neat turns in the story work with just a word or two; he never beats you over the head with clues to where things are headed, but the clues are there nonetheless in the way the story progresses. See if you can put it together before the end; I'll admit, I didn't but afterwards said "of course!"

And now four from the first Dark Delicacies anthology, edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

306. The Reincarnate by Ray Bradbury. Is there anything like a Ray Bradbury short story? This is one of those stories that is addressed directly to the reader-as-main-character: "After a while you will get over being afraid." This type of story is, I think, very hard to pull off even in the short form. So far, Bradbury and Norman Partridge seem to be the only authors that come to mind has having succeeded enough for me to not only remember the story, but to add it to my list of favorites. Bradbury's starts off a little rocky for me, but within a trio of paragraphs I was pulled right in and stayed in the story through the really satisfying ending.

307. Part of the Game by F. Paul Wilson. This is a tidy little "pulp / penny dreadful" type story. 1930s Chinatown setting, prejudiced white detective tries to horn in on the gambling and other illicit activities from which a mysterious figure called The Mandarin takes a cut. He tells the Mandarin's Emissary that he wants to "be a part of the game," or else he will bring the entire police department to bear and essentially shut Chinatown down. Famous last words, of course. What I really liked about this story is that Wilson does not attempt to make the detective, or the emissary, or the Mandarin himself, at all sympathetic. Occasionally, a story in which everyone is simply out for himself is exactly what the reader needs. This was one of those times for me. And it's not that the detective is a particularly flat character -- he has motivation and such -- it's just that he's thoroughly unlikeable. Great story, and I'm wondering if Wilson intended "The Mandarin" to be Fu Manchu.

308. Bloody Mary Morning by John Farris. I'm not a "gore horror" fan so much -- I'd much rather watch or read a psychological horror story than see the latest SAW movie. Farris' tale sort of walks the line between the two. There is a lot of blood here, and described in very cinematic terms, even though there are only three deaths. The blood permeates the entire story, and just when I thought it was getting to be a bit too much and perhaps a bit cliche ... Farris ends the story on a grace note that makes you realize why all the blood was necessary and what it was really all about. The psychological dramatic tension (will he get away with it, is the best I can summarize without giving anything away) walks you through a few cliches but not in any way that feels cliched.

309. A Gentleman of the Old School by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I read this because it is a Count Saint-Germain story, and it's been years since I've read a Saint-Germain story. That being said ... it's not really a horror story. In fact, I'm not really sure what to call it. It's got murder mystery and serial killer elements in it, it's got the whole "will she learn his secret and what will happen if she does" element, and it's got that "intrepid reporter who might be getting in over her head" element. And they somehow work together, but there's nothing particularly horrific about the story, nor is there anything really in the way of a satisfactory exploration of the serial killer aspect. For fans of Saint-Germain, I think it's a great little character moment, but others might wonder just what the story is doing in this collection.

And finally three from Dark Delicacies II: Fear, also edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

310. Dog by Joe R. Lansdale. I normally try not to boil stories down to comparisons with other authors, but this story made me immediately think of two Stephen King works: CUJO (for perhaps the obvious reason), and "The Gingerbread Girl" (for reasons that hopefully will become apparent when you read the story). Which is not to say that Lansdale spends the story channeling King -- this is definitely a Lansdale story beginning to end. The tension just keeps ratcheting up through the story. I literally was sweating along with the main character, feeling chased and harried. And left the story with an unsettling feeling that this is the kind of thing that happens to you once, and you can't explain what it was all about but you hope you've done your time and it won't come around to bite you again. Which is meant as a great compliment.

311. First Born by John Farris. This Farris story didn't work quite as well for me as the one above, but it still had its nice twists. The main character is a famous actor who finds that he doesn't remember a promise he made 20 years ago to the man who started his career -- or at least that's what the odd voice on the other side of the phone claims. The caller wants the actor to turn over his first born child -- I'm not giving anything away here because the title pretty much leads you to that already. Farris works in a twist about halfway through that allows the story to resolve in a little bit of a different way than is typical. I think the details he leaves out (allowing the reader to piece things together) are more interesting than the details he leaves in.

312. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) by Caitlyn R. Kiernan. I know this is part of a longer book. I read it and decided that I really want to read that longer work now. Kiernan gives us a view through a serial killer's eyes -- a killer who has two passions, killing and collecting ammonite shells. He has a violin constructed using some of those shells and we spend most of the story wondering what his purpose is. It becomes very clear at the end. Kiernan does a great job of building that tension and wording things in such a way that even up to the end you're wondering exactly how the story is going to play out. Very well done.

No comments: