Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror, edited by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror Book Cover Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror
Ellen Datlow (editor)
Horror
Tachyon publications
November 1 2016
e-book
432

Ooh, look. Another horror anthology! I apparently read quite a number of them, and yet, Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror stands out from the rest.  This is partly because many of the stories wander over that line that separate entertainment-horror from needs a set of trigger warnings-horror.  It's probably good to be prepared for that, because going unknowingly from a ghost story to a tale of various kinds of child abuse can be upsetting.

Good horror can be upsetting.  It isn't always, or even most of the time, but it's definitely a part of the thematic landscape.  I'm not normally shaken by zombies and body snatchers and whatnot - but this anthology offered not just one, but many stories still haunting me weeks after reading.

So, well. I'll mention some of my favourites - not necessarily the most shocking, just the ones I personally liked best:

"Closet dreams" by Lisa Tuttle is bleak and awful. A young girl has been kidnapped and is held captive, a very long time, in a closet. Expertly written, and definitely one of the stories I can't get out of my head.

"The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan is a dark fantasy - Hansel without Gretel, a few years after the first visit to the witch's house.  Everything is really enormously grimdark, but the witch's special diet is the least of the terrible things.

"Lonegan's Luck" by Stephen Graham Jones - a clear favourite of mine! This story sits firmly in the aisle of fun-horror, introducing us to a classic snake oil-salesman in the old west, travelling from town to town.  He never revisits a town he's been to, with good reason.  Not that there'd be anyone left to recognise him, but still.

"The Shallows" by John Langan was a strange thing - it reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Knox's "Wake", in that the story's present time is set after what was obviously a hideous apocalypse event - but in this story, the event must have been somewhat... Lovecraftian.  It is that flavour of weird, and I liked it a lot - I would have liked to explore this world at length, like, in a novel. 

"Shay Corsham Worsted" by Garth Nix - this story instantly made me add the author to my list of authors I need to read more of,  which is the kind of reaction I always hope to get from a short story.  An old man tries to stop a dangerous old military weapon from destroying everything, but he can't get through, the records are lost, and no one will believe him.  No one will recognise this particular weapon for what it is, just by looking at it...

Yep. Great anthology. Go get it if you feel like you could go for a smorgasboard of horror authors to further fatten your to-read shelf with.

Harrison squared, by Daryl Gregory

Harrison squared Book Cover Harrison squared
Daryl Gregory
Science fiction, horror
Macmillan-Tor/Forge
March 24 2015
e-book
320

Daryl Gregory does Lovecraftian horror, referencing certain events and characters previously mentioned in the novella We are all completely fine? Yes!  I knew Harrison squared was going to be a read-in-one-sitting kind of happy meal before I started. I knew because that's the kind of story this author always delivers - never boring, no speed bumps, and - best part - never doing any trite "Action tricks to keep you entertained!"-dances.  I mean, well, you know what I mean.

Harrison Harrison - that is, Harrison squared - lost his father and a leg in a boating accident when he was a toddler. He doesn't remember a lot -  Or, well, what he remembers is probably wrong. It certainly doesn't match up with the story on record.

About thirteen years after that incident, Harrison accompanies his mother, the absent-minded scientist, on a research trip to New England. While he realised it'd be different from California, he thought it'd be mainly about the weather.  Of course, he's wrong.  So wrong.

Life in Dunnsmouth - Dunnsmouth...! - is, um, strange.  Perhaps especially at the school, which Harrison struggles to navigate - socially and literally.

When his mother goes missing, Harrison learns she kept certain facts hidden from him, though he can't understand why.  And what exactly was his mother searching for out there in the ocean, anyway?

-

I had a great time reading this. It was that special kind of "choosing exactly the right book for exactly the right day"-kind of joy.  (The day was one of those imminent-thunder-causes-overwhelming-lethargy affairs, for which a ceiling fan and a book that keeps you awake without struggle is the only appropriate course of action.)

Who would I recommend this to? Almost anyone - because I think almost every genre reader I know will have some suitable time for a comfortable read with nice people and tentacles in it.  Bring it on a plane or to the dentist waiting room or keep it for one of these bad weather days or whatever. Or just go read it right now, because it's fun.

Wake, by Elizabeth Knox

Wake Book Cover Wake
Elizabeth Knox
Horror
Corsair
March 5 2015
e-book
448

"What if the story starts with the terrible and abstract nightmare event?"

Does the horror get worse from there?

Elizabeth Knox's Wake is a strange novel. It knows that horror can't be horror unless it has people in it and it succeeds in making you care about these people and whether or not they're scared or miserable or going insane.  In this small New Zealand settlement,  there were fourteen who survived the thing that happened, because they happened to be out of reach of - whatever it was.

Now no one can get out. They're trapped inside of a strange powered field no one understands. It won't allow anyone to go through. Birds who fly into it fall to the ground.  The survivors are imprisoned in a small area, with the gory remains of the thing that happened.  The thing that did something to all the people, before they died.

There are so many bodies to bury.

Does the outside world even know there are survivors here? Do they know what happened? Can they see anything through the mysterious field?  Are they coming to the rescue?

We slowly learn more about each of the survivors, though they do not necessarily learn much about each other.  They don't know, for example, if the travelling American lawyer is just coldly rational or, say, a sociopath.    They don't know if the woman who takes charge of the kitchen has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, or is just dealing with fear and nerves by counting and sorting things, again and again.   They don't know Sam.

Even Sam doesn't know Sam.

-

I enjoyed this book, though it could probably have been a little faster-paced. The developing relationships and tensions between the survivors is beautifully written,  and worth spending the time on - still, I got a bit impatient through the middle bit.   Not enough to keep me from recommending the book to, say, someone interested in the immediate aftermath of a Lovecraftian monster event, or even someone looking for a horror novel set in an unusual place, like New Zealand. (There are kakapos!)

The antagonist of the book stays invisible and unknown for quite a long time. The reveal of the unknown enemy is often a bit of a letdown in this kind of story, but I like the way it's handled here - the realistic responses to basically crazy shit.  It really works. (And then I asked myself, "wouldn't it be interesting to get another book about how these people cope after this, too?", and I realised I've already read Daryl Gregory's We are all completely fine, which actually does give people like these survivors a support group.)

And, hey. The cover for this edition of the book looks really cool.  I thought nothing could compete with the other edition's cartoony brightness (I love cartoon-styled book covers and don't see enough of them), but this one fits.

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix

Horrorstör Book Cover Horrorstör
Grady Hendrix
Horror, parody
Quirk books
September 23, 2014
e-book
243

First of all: I was actually at an actual IKEA, not once, but twice, while I was reading this thing.  I lived. I got some new shelves. I watched CompanionBot eat cake in their cafeteria.  The horror was pretty muted.

Second: I read this book in the bluefire app on my new note 4. This was a first-time experience for me, and mostly because I wasn't given a kindle copy.  My reading experience may have been negatively impacted by how incredibly hellish it is to try to read things in .acsm format. Sorry. I hate non-adjustable font sizes and having to slide all over the place to get to the text on every single page.  This is an unrelated gripe, but I mention it because it certainly made my reading of a pretty short book a lot slower than it needed to be.

So.  Well, look at that cover. The setting and the parody are not exactly kept secret.  It's gimmicky, which is fun, especially as you progress through the chapters, accompanied by simple illustrations of furniture items, with inspired names and descriptions.  You might not pick up on the entertainment value of some of the names if your knowledge of basic Scandinavian (and even some German) is... not there.  One of the furniture pieces is called Kummerspeck, which is a fantastic German term, meaning basically grief bacon - or "excess weight caused by overeating".  (Now you know. Unless, of course, you knew it already because you are like me and prone to reading lists of cool and strange words.)

We follow Amy, a young woman through her work day at Orsk, where she earns not-enough-to-pay-the-rent, and has no intention to stay.  Not that she intends to go back to college, either. Really, she's not motivated to do much at all, aside from getting her rent paid so she won't be kicked out by housemates whose patience has run out.   Her manager is an entirely different kind of person - he cares.  He cares about his responsibilities, about the security guidelines, the personnel guidelines and instructions he knows by heart and quotes happily.  His job matters to him,  and he can't lose it, and that's why he has to take care of the emerging problems in the store before his superiors can find out about them and blame him.   Of course, he picks Amy to stay after hours to take care of things, and she agrees, because it means a bigger paycheck.

Along with a few other characters, they find out Orsk contains a lot more than affordable, practical furniture in pretty showroom arrangements.

The story is nothing very exceptional - it falls a bit flat,  which is not really helped by the genuinely funny chapter illustrations - they just make it even more noticeable that the story itself doesn't have the same entertainment value.   It's not exactly bad, certainly not bad enough to make this a less perfect gift for a reader with unresolved IKEA issues - but it really does depend entirely upon its gimmick.

Thus - I would not recommend this as a horror.  Or even as parody/comedy.  This has a very specific audience, and that is the audience who knows what it's like to spend a neverending evening on the floor, assembling shelves or wardrobes out of insanity-inducing flat packages, gradually starting to sweat, as they realise they have to go back to the warehouse and get another THING. 

A physical copy of this is probably quite excellent as a gift for that person.  Or even for a very enthusiastic graphic designer who might geek out over the conceptiness.

Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest

Maplecroft Book Cover Maplecroft
The Borden Dispatches #1
Cherie Priest
Fantasy, Horror
Roc Trade
2nd September 2014
e-book
448

I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw the description. The story about Lizzie Borden (and her axe) merged with, oh, Lovecraftian horrors? Sold!   Despite not being terribly fond of my previous encounter with the author (I thought Boneshaker had a cool cover, but was... evidently very forgettable, because I can't remember anything of it).

And despite this: I really do not enjoy reading H.P. Lovecraft's own works.  I've been through some of it and hope never to trick myself into trying to read more of it. Not for the content, just, well, my life is probably not long enough to cope with that level of flowery prose.

So it's strange, and delightful, how much I enjoy stories inspired by Lovecraft.  Some of my favourites are Charles Stross' The Laundry novels,  where magic is sort of a branch of applied mathematics and unfortunate programmers may end up summoning terrible things entirely by accident.   That's not the case at Maplecroft, which is the house where Lizzie Borden and her poorly sister reside, somewhat sequestered from the rest of the town of Fall River,  as the general public is not quite convinced that Lizzie was truly innocent of brutally murdering her parents with an axe, a couple of years earlier.

And, well, she wasn't. Except they were really not her parents, at the time. Things had progressed much too far already.   The bloated,  shark-white skin,   the unblinking eyes...

Maplecroft is a house full of secrets, though most of them are hidden in the basement,  along with a huge laboratory.   Lizzie is the one doing most of the research, in her somewhat inexpert way,  though her sister is the quite brilliant marine biology enthusiast who thinks and writes like a proper scientist - under a proper scientist's name, of course. A man's name.

The two of them are not enough, though.  They can't learn enough about the threat the town is facing,  only just enough to be terrified.

The story is told from various view points, journals, letters, articles and telegrams,  and the style of prose does a good job of setting the mood.  (And that mood is, mostly, slowly descending into madness.) Some might accuse it of being long-winded, but I think it works very well.  (And I don't have infinite patience for long-windedness, as already stated.)    Towards the end there is a breakthrough I did not expect, by which I don't mean it comes out of the blue,  it's just a way of thinking of the fish people trope I haven't really seen before, and I like it a lot.

Would recommend as a fun horror read to the kind of people who are apt to describe horror as fun.  Or any of those people in your life who talk about tentacles more than they should.

The year’s best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition, edited by Paula Guran

The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition Book Cover The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition
yearly anthology
Paula Guran (editor)
Dark fantasy, Horror
Prime Books
June 17th 2014
e-book
576

Do I need to mention, to start with, that I'm not a very enthusiastic short story reader? I've been trying to mend this for years now, because there are so many awesome authors writing really awesome things in short form. I've read some that I genuinely liked, so I know I have it in me. Still, I find it so much harder for short stories to stick to me, you know? Time/immersion is one of my issues.  The other one is that quite a lot of short stories are of the "window"-variety, you know, they aren't actually stories, just glimpses of something going on somewhere that might have been interesting if you spent more time there.  I'm frustrated by that kind of thing.  I always want story.

But, hey.  I read this anthology,  The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition.   A lot of it was enjoyable, too! I don't really know anything about the editor, Paula Guran, but I did know a lot of the names on the list of authors, which was what compelled me to read this thing in the first place.  The nice thing about a huge collection like this, of course, is the opportunity to discover new names to add to the mm, interesting-list.

Some of the stories were, inevitably, uninteresting to me. In a collection this size, that's no shocker.  Easy to forgive and forget, though, when there are highlights like these:

Phosphorus by Veronica Schanoes

I recently read about radiation poisoned factory girls in The Poisoner's Handbook (which is a great piece of non-fic for anyone with any curiosity about poisonous things and how lucky we are to inhabit a decade in which there are some sort of regulations) - so maybe I had some special interest in this short story about an Irish immigrant girl in London, poisoned like so many of her colleagues. Told in a haunting second person voice, the necrosis is detailed as much as old Nan's dreams of Eire.  Oh, yes, Old Nan. She knows a thing or two about, uh, a thing or two.  The story is brimming with atmosphere and some classic ghostliness around the edges.

(I thought I remembered the name Schanoes, and I did, because a while ago I read the short and similarly themed novella  Burning girlswhich can be had for free from Tor, because Tor is awesome like that. Schanoes is a name to remember if you have a penchant for hopeful/miserable immigration era spookiness.)

Shadows for Silence in the forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

Lengthy dark scariest-of-scary-forests story, in which some female characters kick ass, and man is generally worse than even a bunch of creepy zombie-ghosts.  It might sound like a spoiler, but it can't be, because just reading my sentence about it isn't going to convey any of what Sanderson makes you feel.   He takes the time to allow you to invest in the characters,  feel the darkness, scramble for your silver trinkets,  and the length allows some real narrative structure, so this made me very happy. And somewhat haunted, even a week after reading.  Silence and her family will be difficult to forget.

(I know, I know. More Sanderson is on the to-read list.  It's not a list. It's the cloud of titles sliding in and out of my most immediate awareness zone. Sanderson will slip inside it once I get some other epic fantasy things out of the way.)

The Plague by Ken Liu

Ultra-short, but a huge favourite to this reader, who has a throbbing heart for evolutionary/post-human ethical debacles. Or, well, horrors. It's often horrors.   These few pages pack a heavy punch,  though the "the tables have sure turned!"-thing isn't exactly unexpected or shocking. It's just harrowing. And neat.  I love it even though I wish it was a novel, or even three novels.

Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck

Last December I visited Prague, and went to stare at the Copernicus clock at the turn of the hour, while munching some roasted chestnuts from a hot paper cone. I've had a special interest in the history of astronomy, because nerd, and this made it very easy to provide the visuals for Tidbeck's story, in which a strange and distant professor with an Eastern-ish European name sits by her telescope, while the moon is up to no good.  The writing is stark and stylish, and I'm glad I have the author's collection Jagannath somewhere on my kindle, shuffling closer to being paid attention to.

It takes me some time to read a thing like this. An anthology, I mean.  It becomes something I take a bite out of between chapters of other books.  I think I just get fatigued if I slip into too many different worlds/settings/moods in quick succession.  But being able to give it enough time helps to improve the experience of each of the stories;  there were others, aside from the ones mentioned above, that I'll remember for a while.  Some of them just do the horror thing where they manage to find a direct line of communication to my nerves, because of some weirdly specific theme or even just a sentence that strikes the right chord, but it doesn't necessarily mean the story is exceptional.  The most haunting horror-thing I've ever read was actually another short story, Stephen King's Survivor type- if you've read it, you'll know it's not exactly intellectually stimulating stuff, it's just... it just freaked me out, and still does, though I cannot really explain why.   That's how some of the stories in this anthology work, too.  Others, of course, fall flat, but for all I know they'll smack others in the face just like that Stephen King story did to me.

Anthologies are nice tasting menus for narrow sub-genres, I realise, and I should consider, um, considering them where I usually just go "Ok, point me at a novel that'll show me the features of this sub".  It is nice to have alternatives, and when offering recs to other readers, a short story is much less of a time investment than a novel. For good and bad.

The girl with all the gifts, by M. R. Carey

The girl with all the gifts Book Cover The girl with all the gifts
M. R. Carey
Horror, science fiction
Hachette Audio
First published June 6th 2014
audiobook
460

First: I chose the audiobook copy of this, which is narrated beautifully by Finty Williams.  I'm pretty sure this voice made me find more hours in the day to listen than I would have with a less optimal narrator, so that's a huge thumbs up with admiring glances and happy noises.

And - people will tell you,  try to read as little as you can about The girl with all the gifts before you start reading.  The reason for this, of course, is that a big part of the book is to discover the terms of the world alongside our main protagonist, the titular gifted girl.  Most is revealed quite early on in the book, and you'll likely see it coming once you're reading,  but I don't want to steal it from you.

Melanie is a little girl in a school for what appears to be special children.  She loves her teacher, Miss Justineau, and likes to learn just about everything, even though not all of the teachers are as nice as Miss Justineau.  People act a little strange around these kids. In this future, apparently ten year-olds need armed military guards.

And there's so few of them.

That's all I want to say about the plot, really.  It features good characters it's easy to care for, though they might not be surprising , maybe even somewhat typical of the genre.  (A well used formula can still be used well!)   The title's reference to Pandora,  she who opened that box,  is of course meaningful.  The prose flows along without a snag; there is little or no redundant dwelling on events,  but a steady forward motion, towards a looming, inevitable end.

The ending is a relieve, because I was for a while afraid the novel was going to chicken out on itself.  It doesn't.  It goes as far as it has to go, and while it contributes to strapping the novel into the horror genre,  it's also very peaceful.  I end the book feeling oddly harmonious, given what I've just been reading.

I recommend the book in any format,  but the narrator makes the audio a very good choice for either picky listeners, or people looking for a good gateway audiobook experience.