Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 20 edited by Stephen Jones

As far as “best of the year” collections go, the horror field doesn’t have a huge number. Night Shade Books has just started up Best Horror of the Year, which seems to be replacing The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, which is currently on hiatus, if not canceled. Beyond that, it is slim pickings, with the sole exception being Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, which has hit a twentieth year. As far as anthology series go, that is quite exceptional (The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror made only twenty-one). Jones begins things with a very long introduction, where he goes over the entire horror field, from books to short stories to graphic novels to television and movies, which is in itself a treasure trove of things to look into for the horror fan. After that, the tales begin:

“Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told” by Peter Crowther: Crowther tells a story of a man who suffers the deepest of horrors: the death of his wife. This spectacular tale is equally beautiful and poignant, and the touches of humor are expertly done.

“It Runs Beneath the Surface” by Simon Strantzas: This tale of a man running from shadows is intriguing, but a touch predictable. Good, but not great.

“These Things We Have Always Known” by Lynda E. Rucker: A great “weird town” story, “These Things We Have Always Known” keeps the weird vibes rolling the whole way through.

“Feminine Endings” by Neil Gaiman: With one of the creepiest endings in the entire volume, Gaiman’s love letter is written in wonderful prose, and leads up to an excellent conclusion.

“Through the Cracks” by Gary McMahon: A Lovecraftian horror story of creatures trying to come through the cracks in our dimension, McMahon adds into the mix a very well-rounded character that can sometimes be missing in Lovecraft. An excellent story.

“Falling Off the World” by Tim Lebbon: Lebbon tries to add weird to the thought of getting lifted away by a balloon, but this story falls rather flat, containing no horror, just bizarre fantasy that didn’t do much at all as a story.

“The Old Traditions Are Best” by Paul Finch: An entertaining story of an old tradition meeting the modern world.

“The Long Way” by Ramsey Campbell: Likely the best story in the volume, Campbell’s tale of a boy haunted by an unknown figure is incredible. Campbell ties in the wonder of youth and the hardships of old-age, all while creating an incredible level of tension and suspense. A near perfect story.

“The Pile” by Michael Bishop: A shorter jaunt about a brother and sister who can’t escape the pile of goods that are left next to the dumpster. Entertaining, if not excellent. The story behind it, of Bishop writing it based on the notes of his son who was killed at the Virginia Tech shooting, is more powerful.

“Under Fog” by Tanith Lee: A sometimes dense tale of a town with a dark secret. It wasn’t as effective as the other weird town story in this volume, “These Things We Have Always Known.”

“Arkangel” by Christopher Fowler: A slow start lead to a wonderfully moody story of two friends trapped on a train with a very dark termination point.

“The Camping Wainwrights” by Ian R. MacLeod: A fun, atmospheric story that devolved into violence before reasserting itself, this almost non-horror story was a lot of fun to read, and another gem of this collection.

“A Donkey at the Mysteries” by Reggie Oliver: While Oliver packs in a lot of historical information (occasionally a little too heavily handed), it is a very fun story with great writing, and a conlusion more than worth the time spent reading.

“The Oram County Whoosit” by Steve Duffy: Another Lovecraftian tale, this of an unknown creature discovered in a small town, it also contains the inner part of the frame story, of a trip to the Yukon that resulted in terror. Duffy has made a wonderful homage to a master of the genre.

“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King: A touching and sad story of a woman getting one last conversation with her dead husband. A powerful piece by King. Another must read.

“Our Man in the Sudan” by Sarah Pinborough: Rather dry and without much of a conclusion, this story about a missing MI6 agent in the Sudan didn’t do much for me.

“’Destination Nihil’ by Edmund Bertrand” by Mark Samuels: A weird story that I am sure contained some deep, symbolic meaning that was totally over my head. Because of that, I found it odd and confusing, if a little reminiscent of (although far more hard to get than) Franz Kafka.

“The Overseer” by Albert E. Cowdrey: The longest story in the book, and one of the best, Cowdrey’s tale of Old South horror and haunting was incredible. He builds his historical setting richly, and then infuses the horror elements subtly and to full effect, with a denouement that was perfect. This plays a very close second to Ramsey Campbell’s story for best in the volume.

“The Beginnings of Sorrow” by Pinckney Benedict: A slow story of a dog becoming more man like, that I just couldn’t finish.

“The Place of Waiting” by Brian Lumley: This story I skipped. Nothing against Lumley, because he is a master of the genre without doubt, but I had a very busy few days and just wasn’t feeling like it. I will come back to read this one someday, and will share my thoughts then.

“2:00 pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives” by Steve Rasnic Tem: A very short, very creepy story of a house not quite as free of horror as it would seem.

This is all wrapped up with a long and extensive “Necrology” by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman that gives a listing of the people important to the horror field who died within the last year, and their accomplishments, as well as a list of “useful addresses” for horror-related topics, including magazines and small press publishers.

All-in-all, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 20 is a wonderful addition to any horror fans library. While some of the stories weren’t my thing, that is bound to occur with any volume of “best of” stories, as no editor will have the exact same tastes I do. From the “state of the genre” intro to the huge selection of stories, this is a volume that has huge amounts of fiction (it is indeed mammoth, both in page count and words per page) for a decent price. Check it out.


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