[Gotta love anything Ellen Datlow has her hand in. Take it from me, in this Wayback from the late, great Green Man Review. Originally published 10/21/2007]
Ellen Datlow, ed., Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Tor, 2007)
I love short story compilations. I’ve reviewed several of ’em here at GMR, so when Inferno dropped into our in-box, I held out an eager hand. I didn’t care about what was in it, not really. Quite honestly, to paraphrase the horribly overused line from Jerry Maguire, they had me at terror. It wasn’t until I took a good look at the book itself that I realized that the editor of this collection, Ellen Datlow, is the very same editor that does the honors for the annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I’ve fallen at her feet before, when reviewing the Years’ Best Fantasy and Horror, volume 18, so I snuggled into my favorite corner and got to reading.
Now, even though I adore horror short stories, having grown up reading Charles L. Grant’s Shadows series, Metahorror and Night Visions (not to mention a deep and abiding love for Richard Christian Matheson’s “Red”), I have a somewhat higher tolerance for what would be considered the truly horrifying, along with a laundry list of outrageously high caliber stories from the masters rattling around in my little brain. In other words, do your worst; even then, I may still end up yawning. Bolstered by the idea of an editor that knows what she’s doing, I dug in hoping to get the pants scared off of me. Or at least loosened a little.
This collection starts out, as they all do, with an Introduction by the editor. Her discussion of “short form” horror is well written, interesting and brief, as all intros should be but quite often fail at. She also gives a sort of shout-out to the best of the best in horror short story compilations, and that list of further reading is reason enough for picking up this book. (Though I have just about all of them in on my bookshelves. Almost.) She describes her selection process for the stories in this book as tales that “provide a frisson of shock or a moment of dread so powerful in might cause the reader outright physical discomfort. . . .” Sounds good to me! How did the stories fare?
The first story, “Riding Bitch,” by K.W. Jeter, can provide shock aplenty. The situation itself is pretty sick, and if you focus on what the protagonist of the story is doing, you may feel a little queasy. But for me? I moved past that quickly, and found a story that was heartbreaking and strangely beautiful. A twisted tale that quotes the “Song of Solomon” at its climax? A bang-up way to start this collection.
“Misadventure,” by Stephen Gallagher is the kind of story that sneaks up on you. I thought I was reading one type of tale, only to have it shift into another type entirely, and back again. A wonderful story about interactions with the dead and how those interactions can lead to gruesome, if necessary, things.
Nathan Ballingrud’s “Monsters of Heaven” is a beautifully crafted piece, but so bizarre I just couldn’t absorb it all. And I tried, I did. Still, even this story left me with amazing, haunting images that left me unsettled for quite a while after I’d put the book down. Perhaps I’ll go back to it again, after the cacophony of other voices from this collection have died down a bit. I’m hopeful the pieces will fit then. Perhaps “The Last,” by Conrad Williams, is another one for the “huh?” pile, but Williams pulled me into his story regardless of the fact that I didn’t quite follow his ending very well. Maybe I was too focused on the gross-out. That happens with me sometimes.
My two favorite pieces were Christopher Fowler’s “The Uninvited” and “Hushabye,” by Simon Bestwick. With “The Uninvited,” horror is found in the most unlikely place: the Hollywood Hills. Do people truly sell their souls to the devil in those mansions? Or are things more darkly sinister lying in wait? The lead character, an actor who has seen a little too much for his liking, gets a glimpse of true horror, and the shock of the this story’s climax threw me for a loop. Needless to say, I loved it.
“Hushabye” deals with horror on its most basic level: there are monsters among us. And they want our children. This story starts at 11 and just keeps going from there. But it does more than offer a Bad Monster Does Bad Things tale. Ideas of vigilante justice — and all of the moral uncertainty that comes along with it — also haunts the characters. The ending left me wondering about the future for those that survive, as well as worrying about the horrible creature they encountered. ‘Cause you never know what could be lurking. Anywhere. Just sayin’.
In addition, Lee Thomas’ “An Apiary of White Bees” is also worth mentioning. A mysterious, hypnotic tale, the pace of which plays in perfectly with the haunted, mesmerized lead character. And I took a total LSD trip with “The Bedroom Light,” by Jeffery Ford. Dude, acid is so 20th century. I couldn’t shake off the story after I read it, but the imagery was so twisted in on itself that I ended up wondering what the hell it was that had creeped me out.
No, I won’t review each and every story here; what would that leave for you? The fun part of getting the beejeebers scared out of you is the mystery of it all. So this review will only serve to provide brief flashes of what lurks in the dark here.
Stephen King described the emotions a horror stories stir up — along with how they rank — very well in his book Danse Macabre:
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion. . . , and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud” (And god bless him for that.)
But he missed a finer point, at least to my little brain; the creep out. That awful/wonderful feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and the pit of your stomach lurches, only ever so slightly. You’re not terrified, not really. You’re not exactly horrified either, and you’re not quite grossed out. But you can’t seem to shake it off, either; the feeling just lingers there. It’s a place where shock can just dig a hole straight into your gut, where it’ll stay . . . until you decide to turn out the lights.
So all in all? This is a smorgasbord for any horror reader, regardless of where his or her interests may lie; horror, terror or gross out. And a small word of warning, those who are not quite as used to graphic violence as I am may find themselves truly grossed out by a few. But mostly, and more importantly, this book serves up excellent, high-quality creep. That’s something anyone can sink their teeth into. Bon appetit!