Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: Hauntings edited by Ellen Datlow

When purchasing an anthology, the first thing that readers typically look at is the table of contents to see which authors are represented. I admit, this is one of the things I look at when picking up an anthology as well, but not the first thing I look at. The very first thing I check? The editor. Each editor is different, and has his/her own tastes. When a reader reads an anthology that they find to be exceptional, they should not only remember which authors blew them away, but which editor compiled the satisfying volume. And when a reader finds an editor whose tastes align with theirs then they found something special.

What I am getting at is simple. Ellen Datlow has long ago caught my attention as one of the premiere editors working in the genre today. Whenever I see an anthology with her name on the cover I scoop it up without even looking at the contents, because I've come to trust her judgement. Hauntings is one of her latest offerings, a reprint anthology of twenty-four stories dealing with ghosts and the afterlife. In the introduction Datlow points out that many of the stories involve children and that with this anthology she hopes to broaden the readers understanding of what a haunting is. And in this she was successful, as these are not typical ghost stories.

And now for some stories. Keep in mind this was an ARC and the layout of the stories could change between now and publication.

Pat Cadigan's Eenie, Meenie, Ipsateenie opens the collection with a truly chilling tale concerning a childhood game gone wrong. The story goes back and forth from the present (well, 1983 when the story was written) and the past. The narrator is revisiting his old neighborhood and reminiscing, all while strolling and chatting with a young boy from the neighborhood. The man's recollections are not pleasant, and are about his last night in the neighborhood as a small, anxious boy, and a game of hide and seek that goes completely wrong. There is a darker undercurrent here as well, and by the end it seems apparent that the man has become a child predator of some sort. One of the things that really struck me about this story was how it can be interpreted not just as a ghost story, but also as a story of a man whose mental issues stem from that night long ago, and drive him to do what he now does.

The next story is quite similar in a few ways. Dale Bailey's Hunger: A Confession features a child narrator whose state of mind is also called into question. The young boy is tormented by horror stories told by his older brother, but the tables are turned when they move into an old house with a gory past and the young boy finds a bundle of rusty, old butcher tools under the basement furnace. Bailey expertly builds up the tension to the story's ghastly conclusion. Like the previous story, the ghostly element could be taken at face value or as an aspect of the mentally disturbed narrator's mind.

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis was a story I first read in one of Datlow's Best Horror of the Year collections. This tale concerns one of the great tragedies of the 20th century; the Jonestown Massacre. An Air-Force loadmaster is in charge of a cargo of caskets, and has a hair-raising experience while en route to the Dover Air Force Base. The story is more heart-wrenching than scary, but powerful nonetheless.

Lucius Shepard takes readers to the jungles of Vietnam in Delta Sly Honey. The insanity of war is apparent, and things get even crazier when a young radio operator who jokingly tries to make contact with a ghostly regiment is finally answered. There are truly some weird events going on, and the story has some nice bits of action.

Another heart-wrencher is David Morell's Nothing Will Hurt You. This is a depressing story about a parent driven mad by grief when his daughter becomes the victim of a serial killer. The night she is killed, her father saw Sweeney Todd, and from that night on has the song "Nothing Will Hurt You" stuck in his head. The story serves as a reflection of grief and obsession, and it definitely hits home seeing how the father of the victim falls apart. This is a story which is more about a man being haunted by the events that happened than by an actual ghost, and the supernatural events can once again just as easily be attributed to the madness brought about by grief than by actual spirits.

Caitlin R. Kiernan is an amazing writer. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) is another story featuring both a serial killer and music. In this tale a killer who fancies himself a collector has a violinist travel to his house to play a very special instrument that the collector had special made. The story is beautifully written, and a perfect example of Kiernan's gift with language.

Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer who sometimes dabbles in the horror genre. Whenever I come across one of her tales in a horror themed anthology I know I am in for a treat. Her story Haunted is just as impressive as I knew it was going to be. Oates has a way of leaving the reader chilled, and often hints at the horrors rather than exposing them. Haunted is presented as the writings of a middle aged woman reminiscing about her childhood best friend and their love for exploring abandoned places. Oates brilliantly builds an uneasy atmosphere and stretches it taut until the end. There's a lot here to like.

Following the chiller from Oates is a light-hearted story from Elizabeth Hand called The Have-Nots. The language is fun, and told in the voice of a southern woman, telling a story of her friend and their weird, ghostly experience as she tries to sell her makeup to some of her housewife acquaintances. It's quite humorous, and touching.

Neil Gaiman comes next with Closing Time, a frame story which makes for quite an effectively creepy tale. The narrator is in an after-hours club drinking with a few other regulars and a stranger when they decide to swap ghost stories. The story-within-a-story is told about a young boy's terrifying experience after school. The imagery is quite chilling, and the story is about the loss of innocence if anything else. There is also more going on under the surface, and the identity of just which character tells the story is called into question, making this a story that rewards rereads.

A few tales lighter in tone follow. F. Paul Wilson's Anna is a straightforward tale about ghostly revenge. Jonathan Carroll's Mr. Fiddlehead focuses on a type of "ghost" that we can create ourselves, and Terry Dowling's The Fooley is a silly little story about a man's experience with a stranger on a nighttime road.

After the lighthearted excursion, Datlow brings us right back into horror by throwing us head first into the deep end. First Paul Walther brings readers to the lake shore on the last day of summer in The Toll. A young lifeguard deals with an increasingly creepy man who has failed to mature past his teenage years all while seeing shadowy figures out in the water.As creepy as this story is, it is only an appetizer for the next one.

Simon Kurt Unsworth's The Pennine Tower Restaurant was perhaps my favorite story in the entire book, and had me genuinely creeped out. The author took the approach of presenting the story as nonfiction. He describes how a former coworker, who appears to be falling apart at the seams, approaches him with files and asks him to write about why the Pennine Tower Restaurant can not be reopened. What follows is a compilation of events that transpired in the restaurant over the years. The matter-of-fact presentation of the events lends a certain coldness to the story that adds to the overall effect, making for a grade-A horror tale.

Distress Call by Connie Willis is an interesting story, a bit confusing at times as it seems to jump around, although the confusion seems intentional, helping the reader relate to the confused protagonist. The story eventually comes together but still leaves several questions open. Overall not a bad story, but not exceptional either.

Stephen Gallagher's The Horn follows three men trapped in a blizzard with an angry ghost. There are some pretty strong moments in the story, but it seems more like a monster story than a ghost story.

Michael Marshall Smith's Everybody Goes is another story that's not scary, and has a nice little twist of an ending.

Transfigured Night by Richard Bowes is another story that touches on the theme of childhood's loss of innocence, although in a much more disturbing manner than Gaiman's story. The story itself has moments that are quite intense, and is probably the darkest story in the book. A lonely boy cuts his finger, uses his blood to make a circle, and wishes for a best friend. His wish is answered, with the appearance of a boy who seems to know too much for his age. As the man grows into a drifting hustler, he goes on a dark, bloody quest to be reunited with his old friend, bringing the story full circle to quite a conclusion. Definitely a haunting story, this one will be stuck in the mind for awhile.

James P. Blaylock, an author mostly known for being a pioneer of steampunk, pens a tale about a man searching for something. He doesn't really know what it is he is searching for, but it seems connected to a visitation he had during his childhood. Not a horror story, Hula Ville is more of a dark fantasy and whether or not it's about a ghost is up to the reader to decide.

The Bedroom Light by Jeffrey Ford is an interesting story, while there isn't really much of a plot. A couple lies in bed, avoiding a certain conversation topic, instead talking about their neighbors, in particular a creepy young girl they refer to as the "demon seed". Despite not much actually happening, Ford's talent as an author is on display; conversation that feels truly natural and some creepy stories shared by husband and wife.

Spectral Evidence reads as a case file at a paranormal research facility. The file consists of photographs which are described, the notes on each photograph (written by three different characters), and footnotes written by another character. While not scary, the story works on many levels and is quite a fun read. It makes for a perfect example of why Gemma Files is an author well worth reading.

Kelly Link brings us into space with Two Houses. Members of a decades-long space mission awaken from slumber and swap ghost stories. While some of the stories are interesting and some interesting questions are raised I thought the ending was a bit of a let down.

Adam Nevill, a British horror author who has really been making a name for himself with his novels, brings us a story of cinematic horror with Where Angels Come In. Two schoolboys decide to brave the huge white house on the hill, in order to find some sort of treasure and come back as schoolyard heroes.What they find in the building (Is it a mansion? An asylum?) is something that completely justifies their fears and helps explain the many disappearances in the town. Nevill excels when it comes to creating horrific imagery, and leaves enough unexplained to add a sense of dreadful mystery to the setting.

The collection closes with Peter Straub's Hunger, An Introduction. The narrator is a psychopath who is quite clearly delusional, and is definitely a character most readers will be familiar with. Everyone knew or went to school with one of these people at some point. A person who can be quite smart yet thinks they are much smarter than they are, lacking in social skills, quick to point out other's failings and alienating themselves from everyone else. Instead of finding the success they wrongfully think they are entitled, they usually tend to be underachievers who live in their own little world. The narrator is one of these familiar faces, and is quite far from likable. When he comes into contact with a ghost from his town's local folklore he finds a sort of inspiration. The narrator also has an interesting theory about ghosts and why they haunt the living, and the end of the story shows why this is the perfect story to close out the collection.

Datlow once again proves herself as a master editor. Her mission to broaden readers' concepts of what a haunting can be is nothing short of a success, and the twenty-four stories on display run the gamut from explicitly terrifying to eerily familiar. Readers who wish to be haunted themselves should not miss this one. Highly recommended.

Hauntings is due to be published in April, and can be pre-ordered HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review! I've dipped into this collection frequently in the last couple of years, revisiting my two favorites stories: The Unsworth and the Nevill. For my money, these gents are two of the best writers working in the genre.