horrible stories

There have been interruptions to my usual writing schedule, due to a short trip to visit family, followed by a sudden cold, which is incapacitating my brain.

On the plus side it’s meant I’m catching up on my reading. By catching-up I mean I’m making a very small indentation in a massive pile of books.

I’ve read a bunch of stories in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror (the 17th edition). It’s rare that I read anthologies from the beginning to end. I dip and out of them, testing the waters. This time I made a point of reading all the stories by women writers: “I Live With You and You Don’t Know It”, by Carol Emshwiller, “All Fish and Dracula” by Liz Williams, “Pinkie by Elizabeth Massie, “One of the Hungry Ones” by Holly Philips, “The Other Family” by Roberta Lannes, and “La Peu Verte” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (there’s another story, “The Ball Room” that is co-written by China Miéville, Emma Bircham and Max Schaefer).

As you’d expect, all the work I’ve read so far is well written, and usually contains an interesting story. A few of them dwindle in the end. This, I suspect, is a problem that is deep-rooted in horror fiction. The twist ending, or the “It’s coming to get me” one, were popular in the past and now are generally frowned upon. Yet, those templates are fixed fast within us and are hard to resist. So, to compensate, some of the stories I read have an ending that drifts away at the end like a floating balloon. This can work, but sometimes I fidgeted, restless and unhappy at the sense that I’d been duped in some fashion. It’s a vague feeling that the author didn’t know how to end the story, or was afraid to end it the way s/he wanted.

Liz William’s “All Fish and Dracula” suffers from a disappointing ending. It offers a “monster” at the end of the story that I could not find scary (rather laughable, instead), and then completes with a predictable change in the protagonist that has a somewhat trite feel to it. It’s a pity, as William’s story is well executed otherwise. Mark Samuel’s “Glyphotech” is an interesting, and often sardonic, commentary on motivational seminars with a nice lacing of modern paranoia, but the resolution is clearly in sight from the beginning: it’s not going to end well for his central character, and it stumbles on the “they’re coming to get me” finish.

Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” has that slight chummy feeling that I get from stories that are a commentary on the writing industry. In this case a horror editor finds an amazing story, but the writer is even stranger than the story. There’s a visit to a convention, discussions about the horror business, and some rather vicious imagery that is passed off as fiction by another author. There’s even a nod at slasher flicks, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The ending rushes at us with a certain inevitability, although Hill has the floating balloon knack down very well so it feels as if there is more going on. When I read a story like this I wonder who, outside of the horror fans, would enjoy and “get” this story. Perhaps that’s not a fair remark, since it is a horror story.

So far it’s been Elizabeth Massie’s “Pinkie” that’s I’ve enjoyed most. There are a couple of reasons. Massie establishes her insular setting quickly, and with precision. Her prose is simple, spare and always used to best illuminate the character or story. There’s a sly humour in this story of a loner farmer, Rennie, and his pig Pinkie that caused me to laugh out loud in surprise at least once. Cleverly, Massie establishes sympathy for the protagonist right at the start, and over time unravels the reader’s sense of what is real and unreal. I remember once being told that good stories have unpredictable endings, which once re-examined are inevitable. Readers do not like being fooled. Massie keeps the point of view tight to the protagonist and slowly reveals what he has been keeping from himself, and thus the reader. Therefore we do not feel tricked. As I thought about the story subsequently I realised the different ways I could interpret the events of the story, and that was satisfying. Like a good wine, this story has lingered on my palate long after I consumed it.

Kiernan’s “La Peu Verte” is also very good. It’s one of those stories that you admire more if you write. Kiernan shifts back and forth through different time periods with ease and confidence, starting at a costume party in Manhattan, and then peeling back through older events to explain the impact of this occasion, until she returns, with the reader, to the originating point. Along the way we have the usual Kiernan decorative flourishes that are gorgeous and also inform and support the story. Her ending contains the poignancy of the inevitable, alongside the devastating glamour of the fantastic.

Phillips’ “One of the Hungry Ones” is a great read, which contains evocative prose, and a sympathetic viewpoint on her characters, even the ones who do not behave well. The story nails the balloon ending – it floats up, carrying us with it, into a vista of potential. We know the story has a life beyond the pages, and we can almost see the outlines of it.

Carol Emshwiller’s “I Live With You and You Don’t Know It”, is a funny, tricky story, that plays around with the nature of consciousness and how we segment our personalities in order to defend ourselves against life. Or so it reads to me. The story is designed to be interpreted in a couple of ways

“The Other Family” by Lannes is lovely, particularly in its details of a young family away on holiday by the sea. Family vacations are often the source of more tension than the familiar routine of being at home, and Lannes twins that with a ghost story, but who is doing the haunting? As much as I like this story I thought the ending wasn’t well signalled, or explained, so that instead of moving with the current I resisted it. It seems to me that there is an intangible element missing from this story. I don’t believe in over-dosing in exposition, but sometimes you need to tell a little too. Or maybe it’s a result of my brain firing a little slower than usual.

Tim Pratt’s “Gulls” is a strong story, and written in a breathy style that works most of the time. I thought Pratt genuinely succeeded in creating a quiet dread that escalates from the middle of the story. I had a couple of moments during the story when I thought the protagonist acted as if she was an escapee from the 1950s, and the number of parenthetical clauses came close to annoying me. Yet, his ending is awful and tragic and perfect. This is a horror story in the classic sense.

“The Ball Room”, co-written by Miéville, Bircham and Schaefer, is a smart commentary on the nature of industrial spaces fused with a simple haunting. Yet, it suffers from having an important event happen off-stage while the protagonist is away, which means it is told to the reader second-hand. It’s a shame because it’s a good sequence that is drained of emotional impact because the reader is twice-distanced from it. There’s an interesting twist towards the end of the story, and afterwards it drifts away tied onto a balloon of introspection.

I’m almost unable to criticise Ramsay Campbell’s “The Decorations”, as the man is a giant in the field. As much as I liked the story the ending didn’t work for me, and that’s down to personal preference perhaps. The best thing in the story is a child’s difficulty with dealing with the personality change caused by his grandmother’s dementia, and a perceptive understanding of the different spaces inhabited by adults and children.

I had not intended doing this round-up of the anthology, but it was a good distraction from my thumping head and poorly state. Alas, that is impinging more strongly now (I am tempted to say stronglier). Drugs, where art thee?

I should note that the more I write the harder I find it to criticise work by other writers. I’m too familiar with the difficulties of writing, re-w

riting, and the intrusion of deadlines and life’s little realities upon one’s hopes for a story. All of the stories I’ve mentioned merited publication. My comments are merely my reflections upon the solid achievement of other writers, and should be taken as such.

I look forward to sampling the rest of the anthology. It’s the 17th iteration, and despite doing this for so long editor Stephen Jones continues to produce a fine selection of horror tales from writers around the world.