THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow


The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley

“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories, Adam-Troy Castro

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories,
by Adam-Troy Castro
Publisher: Prime Books
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

An Adam-Troy Castro story was the cover feature for the first short story genre magazine issue I discovered, relatively late when entering grad school. I continue to wish his name would pop in issues more frequently. This collection is perfect for someone like me who is unfamiliar with a large amount of his previously published work.

The stories in this collection are united in being exceptional. They also share a common grim thread of disturbing themes or tones, at times moving into outright horror. This isn’t all Castro writes. In fact, he is rather adept at switching forms and styles. The stories here, however, illustrate his predilection and talent for darkness. Each showcases his ability to take core aspects of human relationships or conditions and taking them to extremes, to regions where the recognizable beauty of family, love, reproduction, etc begin to become warped into forms only partially recognizable, distorted and often very frightening.

In “Arvies” a world is postulated and explored where a devotion and respect for unborn life is taken to its extreme, at the expense and exploitation of the born, in the title story, with shades of ’50s B-movies, a grieving widow is reunited with her deceased soldier husband’s conscious, in the only part of his body left: an extreme of devotion and connection to the physical for ties to the emotional. “Shallow End of the Pool” takes sibling rivalry to extremes, and the closing “The Boy and the Box” switches up distortions from the human to the divine, taking a theology (in this case a rather poor theology) to absurd maximum.

I adored most of the other stories and appreciated the afterward by Castro regarding his writing and some of the inspirations and reactions to his work. (I still don’t get the significance of the title ‘Arvies’ though – ovaries??). “Our Future” stands out as the most unusual work here, more traditional and less disturbing, making it easy to see how it could form a part of a larger series of stories as it is. Though it doesn’t quite fit the collection perfectly it is a superb story with interesting ideas about ‘otherness’. The award-winning “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” was actually my least favorite story in that it just didn’t connect at all, meaning I may just need to reread it. The fragmentary and distant nature of its narrative voice was just too much the moment I read it I think.

The most profound and staggering story here is “Cherub”, a wonderfully conceived fable-esque fantasy where judging people’s moral standing from outward appearances is rendered fully manifest, but with the same basic problem. A gut-wrenchingly beautiful tale, said without hyperbole. This story conveys in purest terms Castro’s ability to look upon the basics of humanity, even in its darkness, and construct a fantastic story of the concept’s extremes without rendering anything clichéd, absurdly silly,or insincere. Instead, his stories stay brutally honest, despite extremes woven around speculative plots, transcending into a basic communication with the reader that more often than not connects with a wisp of beauty shining from within the outer layers of disturbing darkness.

Any SF/Fantasy reader should give this a read, as well as anyone liking literary fiction on a darker edge. This is one collection I am picking up in physical form ASAP.

Five Stars out of Five