31 Days of Halloween: A Book of Horrors

A Deep, Dark Collection

During my second day at the Crescent Hotel, on an excursion down the hill to the historic district for a bite and a pint, I found a little bookstore and decided to pour through the various pages, searching for some new reading material. Most of what they shelve is Arkansas or Ozarks centered, by and large a tame collection. Guidebooks. Travelogues. Regional Histories fit for any elementary school. The fiction titles I spied did little more to impress, the paperback spines leaning to the outdated, cheap mass-market variety, the titles reading like a list of Harlequin romances and cozies with a smattering of James Patterson. There some of the Twilight series, some young adult titles. I was ready to give up when I spied, over in the corner, a small nook, and on the shelf at eye-level, a trade-paperback, an anthology edited by Stephen Jones. I snatched it up and purchased it, carrying it with me to eat my burger and fries. I finished the first three stories in about the same time it took me to finish the burger and drink three pints. I had several hours before the start of the ghost tour, and knew I could get through most of the collection. The sidewalks weren’t crowded, so I meandered back up to the hotel while enjoying “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter.

Dr. Slater has a number of publications and awards on her CV, which is crowned by an MFA and a PhD in Creative Writing. That her publications lend toward horror should, by itself, add fuel to the argument that the genre needs to be considered for serious literary and academic study.

The story reminds me of how creepy I find the funeral trade and those who embark to ply their undead wares. The undertaker’s daughter is just as creepy. But hers isn’t the only notable story in the collection.

There is a great ditty by Stephen King to start things off.

Caitlyn Kiernan has seen her short work published in numerous anthologies and her novels published all over the world. A transsexual lesbian pagan, Kiernan has fought hard all her life to be labeled a horror writer.

Peter Crowther is another distinguished horror author featured in this volume. Like the others, he’s been published on numerous occasions and has one a plethora of awards.

Brian Hodge’s picture on his homepage bears a striking resemblance to Weird Al Yankovic, but that can only be a passing comparison. As the latter is a master of musical polka parody (that is a thing, I guess), the former has been just as prolific as the other authors on this list, and if his ghost story about rural revenge is any indication, his dark fiction is as far removed from Weird Al’s music as the fans of Dr. Seuss are removed from listeners to Marilyn Manson.

Dennis Etchison’s short story lends a bit of hope to the weird, but still presents something dark and fantastic.

Most famously known for his vampire novel – Let the Right One In – that has been adapted into two exquisite movies, Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist contributes a chilling story to this anthology, about a man and his son moving into a new home in an effort to overcome the death of wife/mother. When the father encourages the boy to take piano lessons, a haunting melody summons a dark entity not fully prepared to relinquish the edifice.

Ramsey Campbell, I think, is obsessed with films. His novel The Grin of the Dark focuses on a rare film scholar searching for a demonic silent movie. His short story, “Getting it Wrong” is another foray into the medium, this time with more of a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” feel. Campbell lives with his wife in Liverpool, who published his first book – a collection of short stories – in 1964. Since then, he has steadily published.

Robert Shearman has written for stage, film, and radio, and is a publisher of short stories. Another English writer working in the genre, it makes me wonder what American academics have refused to see. American academic creative writing instructors tend to shackle themselves to TS Eliot and the idea of New Criticism, that literature should mirror real life. There is no place for fantasy or genre in serious study except where it elevates the human condition and speaks to the social conscious. And outside a few historical works, no contemporary author is capable of offering up such a contribution to the literary zeitgeist. They laugh off genre writing, dismissing it as frivolous at best or, don’t consider it all. But the British and their ilk, the Australians and other European English speakers, have apparently embraced horror writers. This amuses me, a form of irony. TS Eliot abandoned Americanism for British citizenry and set the rules for New Criticism literature. American academics followed him and his rules and have clung to them. Now the rules have changed, as far as Europe is concerned, but now it is America clinging to outdated beliefs, while English-speaking Europe embraces the genre and pushes forth.

I’ve seen an example or two where this isn’t the case. UCA – the University of Central Arkansas – has a progressive creative writing program that teaches a variety of subjects, including courses on genre writing. I have seen some smaller programs that are open as well. I heard Columbia College in Chicago is opened to genre writing, and my biographer received his MFA from Goddard College by completing a creative thesis set in the horror genre that is now about to be published.

Are there other writers in this anthology? Yes. And I’ll list them and their websites below, but I need to tell you why I was so fascinated by a near forgotten lore. Because my own hunt for a demonic script has led me to the Crescent, near my home. The Voynich Manuscript has been lost for ages, and if I can find it, I can find the answers that a dear friend of mine needs. Maybe it’ll prove Adam’s not crazy, after all.

All these stories are worth a look. If you can find this anthology, I suggest you buy it and read it.

Lisa Tuttle – “The Man in the Ditch” – the horrors of moving to the country, or from Houston, Texas to the Scottish Highlands.

Reggie Oliver – “A Child’s Problem” – a great old-fashioned horror story

Michael Marshall Smith – “Sad, Dark Thing” – about a man who is begging for retribution

Elizabeth Hand – “Near Zennor” – A great Lovecraftian horror

Richard Christian Matheson – “Last Words” – From the son of the other great 20th century horror master.

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