Monday, July 12, 2010

CBR Book#51: Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror edited by Ellen Datlow

I can honestly say that I've never read as many collections of short stories and essays as I have through this Cannonball Read. I've also shown everyone just how much horror and thriller novels I read. However, I previously had a very small list of just which horror authors I read. Stephen King and...uh, I can't think of another horror writer whose novels I read before this foray into semi-competitive reading. Bad, Pinky. Bad!

Where was I going with this? Ah, yes. I've broadened my reading horizons somewhat, though I realize I have miles to go before I can really claim myself to be a reader of all genres. I have short story collections to thank for turning me toward Kelley Armstrong, furthering my affections for Joe Hill, and convincing me that Clive Barker is better at the short story than the long novel. In fact, Barker opens this collection with his short story from 1984, "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament".

We meet Jacqueline as she decides that slitting her wrists is the appropriate action to take in her unendurable life and loveless marriage. Her husband, Ben, is able to bust down the locked bathroom door and rescue Jacqueline from her suicide. We then join Jacqueline in the doctor's office as he rambles about her treatment and she grows more angry and annoyed with the pompous man treating her like a child. It seems that Jacqueline acquired some powers during her suicide attempt and she uses them to shut the doctor up. She then begins a journey to find a way to control her power and decide what she really wants.

Peter Straub's 1988 story "The Juniper Tree" isn't horror in a way that some people might expect within the genre. The tale doesn't concern the supernatural, monsters, murders, or other events or creatures some say horror is required to have. Instead, it focuses on something much scarier to me. Something that actually has the potential to keep me awake at night. Something that frightens me in waking hours so badly that I shake and bite the inside of my cheek to resist the urge to cry out. A young boy skips the Summer Play School that his parents believe he is attending while they are at work. The seven year old instead opts to buy a ticket to the local theater and spend his afternoons watching movies, news reels, previews, shorts, and cartoons. One day a man named Stan, or maybe Jimmy, speaks to him at the candy counter and suggests they sit together. I really won't go into much more than that. Straub has a way with words and is able to let us know what we need to know without being coarse or shocking, as some writers either enjoy doing or are unable to avoid.

Pat Cadigan gives us a story with more familiar horror tropes: serial killers and vampires. While reading "The Power and the Passion", I couldn't help visualizing Mickey Rourke as Soames. The tale is short, but frightening nonetheless. "Chattery Teeth" by Stephen King combines hitchhikers and Jumbo Chattery Teeth for an unusually low-key (by King standards) story. Elizabeth Hand starts with a missing kinkajou in "The Erl-King", mixes in deals with devils, young girls, and fairy tale hallucinations, and ends with death. A 1995 Joyce Carol Oates story tells of a traumatizing childhood visit with family members. "Refrigerator Heaven" is a case of mistaken identity and higher consciousness told by David J. Schow.

The last story is another well-written piece by Joe Hill. "My Father's Mask" concerns Jack, a thirteen year old boy who is being whisked away to a family cabin with his mother and father. His mother is prone to whimsy, turning everything into a quirky game for entertainment. On the way to the cabin, Jack's mother decides that they should play a game where the playing card people are coming after the family. Then, upon arrival at the cabin, there are masks hanging all around. Jack is pushed to choose and wear one to keep him safe. Hill has made something undeniably quirky and all the more frightening in what isn't being addressed or explained.

Many of these horror stories forgo the familiar tropes of the genre or redefine them to fit their stories. There are zombies, yes, but they play music. There are vampires, but we only meet the hunter. Datlow has really collected a surprisingly tight bunch of short horror stories. They are all well-written, even if I didn't like all of them that much. Many of the stories also deal with personal grief as a catalyst for madness and the possibility of the supernatural intervening with the protagonist. The most frightening offerings, to me at least, are those that focus on the every day; those things that could happen to any of us and send us into a spiral we may be unable to recover from. Truly terrifying.


  1. For some reason, I really can't do short stories usually . . . I like some, you figured they'd be perfect for when I don't have much time but I usually lose patience - a lot of these sound really interesting though. And maybe I would react differently to a collection of short stories by different authors than one author, lots of stories. I guess it seems like usually at that point the stories start becoming too alike so I feel like they just should have written a whole novel.

  2. I don't really enjoy a lot of short stories from one author for the same reason you don't--JUST WRITE A NOVEL! Ha! I like loosely connected short stories that allow for one key theme to be interpreted and explored in different ways. That way if one is boring you know that the next one might turn you on to a new favorite author.