THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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


Contents:
“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.
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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.
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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.

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
ASIN: B00EXOT73U
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five