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.

BLACK SWAN, WHITE RAVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

22910783Black Swan, White Raven
The Snow White, Blood Red Anthology Volume IV
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Published by Open Road Media, 30th September 2014
(Originally Published June 1997)
ISBN: 1497668603 – 368 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“The Flounder’s Kiss”, by Michael Cadnum
“The Black Fairy’s Curse”, by Karen Joy Fowler
“Snow in Dirt”, by Michael Blumlein
“Riding the Red”, by Nalo Hopkinson
“No Bigger Than My Thumb”, by Esther M. Friesner
“In the Insomniac Night”, by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Little Match Girl”, by Steve Rasnic Tem (Poetry)
“The Trial of Hansel and Gretel”, by Garry Kilworth
“Rapunzel”, by Anne Bishop
“Sparks”, by Gregory Frost
“The Dog Rose”, by Sten Westgard
“The Reverend’s Wife”, by Midori Snyder
“The Orphan the Moth and the Magic”, by Harvey Jacobs
“Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs”, by Don Webb
“True Thomas”, by Bruce Glassco
“The True Story”, by Pat Murphy
“Lost and Abandoned”, by John Crowley
“The Breadcrumb Trail”, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Poetry)
“On Lickerish Hill”, by Susanna Clarke
“Steadfast”, by Nancy Kress
“Godmother Death”, by Jane Yolen


While I adore fantasy, retellings of myths or fairy tales aren’t the flavor that I’d first go for. Other than a handful of really well known classics, I’m not generally familiar with the source material, leaving at least one level of a retelling inaccessible for my appreciation. But, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to try something a bit different from my favored norm, particularly when Ellen Datlow’s name is attached as editor. Terri Windling is just as respected, but I am far less familiar with her work. Probably because of this branch of fantasy in which she specializes.
And I was just enraptured from the moment starting this classic collection. Though I hadn’t heard of it before, Datlow made a comment on Twitter regarding how she was glad it was available again and in eBook form for those (like me) whose radar didn’t pick it up in the late 90s. After reading this I’ve since picked up all the other volumes from the series during an Open Road Media sale and look forward to enjoying them all.
The stories in this volume at least vary nicely in style and tone from the more serious to the light-hearted, and mix up the genres from an expected fantasy to something closer to science fiction or mystery. Beyond even the stories, there are also a couple of poems. Try as I might, I still can’t manage to get much appreciation out of poetry. I have gotten better, but still a long way off. So I didn’t read the poems in this. Nonetheless I’m glad they are there because I think the art form would give great opportunities for briefly retelling the cores of fairy tales. And these fairy tales, already existing ‘classically’ in myriad form, really are about some general ‘core’ elements rather than any given specific details of the plot.
While some of the stories stick to classic messages, perhaps in a new setting or from a new point of view, a large number serve to invert or recast elements that in this era would be considered problematic due to things like race or gender, or use the existing shell of a classic tale to create something wholly new that empowers and speaks to a group of the population that the tales of old rarely did.
For me personally on the two ends of the spectrum I cared least for “The Trial of Hansel and Gretel” and “On Lickerish Hill”. I found the former, casting the eponymous characters into a courtroom drama, to simply drag, and for the Clarke they style of the language was too much (though I managed her Strange & Norrell novel just fine).  My most beloved readings here were “Godmother Death”, “The True Story”, “The Dog Rose”, “No Bigger Than My Thumb”, and “The Black Fairy’s Curse”. Many of those I enjoyed most fall into that category where a basic assumption from the original tale is taken and inverted to show a novel perspective or truth previously hidden or, within the confines of the story, ‘suppressed’.
Honestly I could list even more of the contents that I enjoyed, but the simplest thing is to let you find this and discover them all for yourself, if you haven’t already. Or perhaps to discover them all again. Whether this volume or (it is probably safe for me to speculate) any of the volumes of the Snow White, Blood Red series, you’re sure to find a good deal thought-provoking and entertaining.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY & HORROR (2014), Edited by Paula Guran

21432372
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014
Edited by Paula Guran

Published by Prime Books, 17th June 2014
ISBN: 1607014319 – 569 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:
“Wheatfield with Crows”, by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Blue Amber”, by David J. Schow
“The Legend of Troop 13”, by Kit Reed
“The Good Husband”, by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Soul in the Bell Jar”, by K. J. Kabza
“The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey
“Termination Dust”, by Laird Barron
“Postcards from Abroad”, by Peter Atkins
“Phosphorous”, by Veronica Schanoes
“A Lunar Labyrinth”, by Neil Gaiman
“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”, by Brandon Sanderson
“The Plague”, by Ken Liu
“The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning”, by Joe R. Lansdale
“Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella”, by Brian Hodge
“Air, Water and the Grove”, by Kaaron Warren
“A Little of the Night”, by Tanith Lee
“A Collapse of Horses”, Brian Evenson
“Our Lady of Ruins”, by Sarah Singleton
“The Marginals”, by Steve Duffy
“Dark Gardens”, by Greg Kurzawa
“Rag and Bone”, by Priya Sharma
“The Slipway Gray”, by Helen Marshall
“To Die for Moonlight”, by Sarah Monette
“Cuckoo”, by Angela Slatter
“Fishwife”, by Carrie Vaughn
“The Dream Detective”, by Lisa Tuttle
“Event Horizon”, by Sunny Moraine
“Moonstruck”, by Karin Tidbeck
“The Ghost Makers”, Elizabeth Bear
“Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha Lee


If you aren’t too familiar with the current fantasy and/or horror that is being published today, or if you only know these genres from the novel form, there is no better place to start than this mammoth collection. Featuring varied stories across the genres from both print and electronic sources, regular and individual publications, established and upcoming authors, Paula Guran assembles a great overview of 2014. As typical for these types of anthologies, I wouldn’t consider all of these my favorites of the year – and some of the stories here I had no appreciation for at all – but there is assuredly a good chunk of material  to satisfy most readers here. Even if you don’t normally read short stories, this would be useful for finding authors whose voice and style you enjoy to perhaps then search out a novel you otherwise would never have picked up.
A handful of stories in this were familiar to me from their original printings in the magazines I regularly consume and for the most part they had remained in my mind fondly. Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar” and “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn fall into this category with tales that feel timelessly familiar yet with beautiful unique voices. I also adored “The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey for its take on the outsider ‘monster’ and for being immersed in the world of film and the classic Universal Films Horror. The story isn’t particularly dark or horrific (in the sense of scary), however, and indeed many of the stories in the collection aren’t particularly ‘dark’, so don’t let that term scare you off if you don’t typically go for such tales.
The majority of pieces included in the anthology were completely new to me. Since I first read about it prior to its release I’ve been interested in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters from Small Beer Press. “The Good Husband” affirms this feeling and his collection now is in the top of my list of volumes to get as soon as possible. I was also particularly impressed by Schow’s “Blue Amber”, Evenson’s “A Collapse of Horses”, and Marshall’s “The Slipway Gray”. (I have a review of a Marshall collection that I read soon after this coming up).
Some of the authors known to me have strong showings here, particularly Tem (“Wheatfield with Crows”), Gaiman (“A Lunar Labyrinth”), and both Lees (“A Little of the Night”, Tanith and “Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha). Typically I’m nothing but praise for Ken Liu (I can’t wait to write up the review of his upcoming novel), but “The Plague” failed for me here. I may try a reread, but it felt too short and unfulfilling.
One of the things I noticed in the midst of reading this anthology was a few stories that are written in the second person. Unfortunately I’ve been noticing this crop up more frequently throughout my reading. I don’t know if this is because I’m reading a greater range of short fiction or if it is some kind of trend, but I find it incredibly awful. In general I know most people feel this way and that the stories published with the narration constantly referring to ‘you’ are supposed to be the minority exceptions where this point of view is made to work. Only in the extreme minority of these published cases do I find them worthwhile, and in most of those cases it is just random chance that they do align vaguely with ‘me’.
I previously reviewed the 2014 science fiction entry from Prime Books ‘Year’s Best’ series for Skiffy & Fanty. Both that anthology and the one here were the first I’ve read in the series. Despite reading fairly widely in the genres there was a lot of new stuff here for me to discover and fond rereads. I look forward to the years to come.

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

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem
Publisher: Solaris
ASIN: B00INHMFKA
222 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I began this excited from the book’s description, eager to delve into a horror novel with rich, gothic mood. High expectations probably account somewhat for my overall feeling of being let down. I’ve come across Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction through short stories, particularly those published in Asimov’s in the past years and seeing how his style fit into a longer form held my curiosity. To my mind his work is known for a heavy dose of darkness, occurrences that will not go well for characters, no bright futures.

“Blood Kin” fits into this thematic mode well, but the plot and overall divided structure of the novel creates some problems. I’m not talking about the division of plot into two point-of-view protagonists here. Both Michael, and his grandmother Sadie are compelling characters. The switch of narration between the ‘present day’ and Sadie’s past works well. The division that posed a problem for me is regarding the genre emphasis throughout the novel. The story opens with a strong sense of Southern Gothic realism, with perhaps a tint of the magical. After building some tension and increasing the fantastic elements of the story it ends in a stronger dose of horror. At least one other reviewer found this to be the case and preferred the first half of the novel. However, for the most part, my interest in the story lay stagnant until the last moments.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The start of the novel with its Southern gothic vibe and the element of the encroaching kudzu grabs your attention. About midway through there is a fantastic chapter detailing Sadie’s first exposure to the church and its snake handling. Between these moments and the close, however, I simply felt the story drift within a lot of potential, but going nowhere significant.

This would have made a fantastic novella, the aforementioned highlights of the novel could have been condensed into one and I think the story would have had a far greater impact overall. If you are a fan of Tem’s work, or if the plot description rings as something you tend to like then this is worth reading. I wish as a novel it would have had greater development or a more consistent focus on horror/fantasy.

Two Stars out of Five