Friday, 30 October 2009

‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20’ – Edited by Stephen Jones (Constable Robinson)

Seeing as Halloween is tomorrow there was really no option other than to review something chock full of horror and other supernatural goings on. What’s the one thing that’s better than a horror book? The answer is simple; one horror book that’s absolutely crammed full of horror stories! The ‘Mammoth Book of Best New Horror’ series has been going on for a fair while now (hint, the clue is in the title!) and each book gives it’s readers a round up of what’s been going on in the world of speculative fiction over the past year. It was the stories that I was interested in though and there were plenty on offer this time round. Not all of them worked for me (for reasons that I will go into in a bit) but the end package was a more than pleasing result that any horror fan will get a lot out of.

To be honest with you, I’m never entirely sure how to go about reviewing anthologies like these; especially when (as in this case) there are a large number of short stories to work through. Do I go through each one individually? I wasn’t going to do this originally but ended up doing just that. Whether a story worked for me or not, there was no denying that they all leaped off the page and grabbed me...

I love horror. Whether it’s watching someone fall prey to evil on the big screen or reading about it in a book; the resulting tingle of fear is delicious, a flavour to be savoured and sought out whenever possible. With such a wide variety of authors contributing to the ‘Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20’ there really is something here for everyone but that means that not all of it will be for you; or me in this case...

I love horror that gets right up in your face and showers blood all over you while it chews on its victim. At the same time, I love a horror story that takes it’s time and creeps up you to give you an ending that either packs a punch or leaves you squirming with just how unpleasant, or just plain wrong, it turned out to be. The good news, if you’re anything like me, is that the ‘Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20’ has plenty of that on offer.

Before any of that though, I found out that there’s a lot more to horror with Peter Crowther’s ‘Front-Page McGuffin and The Greatest Story Never Told’. While I loved the concept behind the tale, the true horror of the tale was to be found somewhere completely different. The horror of real life is easily passed over sometimes but losing a loved one to illness and then waking up on your own the next day? That is true horror as far as I’m concerned. Crowther hits the nail right on the head with his depiction of just how lonely that life can be, enhancing this feeling with contrasting snippets of humour.

After ‘Front Page McGuffin’ we’re into the kind of horror stories that I came looking for. Simon Strantzas’ ‘It Runs Beneath the Surface’, Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘These Things We Have Always Known’ and Gary McMahon’s ‘Through the Cracks’ deal with insidious evil that slowly builds up until there is no way to stop it. Strantzas’ tale is scary in its depiction of an unknown evil but is pipped by both Rucker and McMahon; the endings in these tales get right under your skin... and make it crawl.

I’m becoming a fan of Tim Lebbon’s work and ‘Falling off the World’ was no exception here. A completely surreal event is given added weight by the matter of fact way in which it is related to the reader. And the way it ends... Talk about a cliffhanger ending!

Paul Finch’s ‘The Old Traditions Are Best’ sees the beginning of a slump in the book, at least as far I was concerned. Again, I liked the concept but not only was the ending clearly signposted but it felt like it took an absolute age to get there... Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Long Way’ didn’t have the signposting but still dragged and the evil monkey toy (a ‘never fail’ plot device in horror fiction) was smothered under the comings and goings of the apartment complex in Michael Bishop’s ‘The Pile’.

Tanith Lee’s ‘Under Fog’ gave things a little shot in the arm with a tale of people’s capacity for evil pitted against the evil of the otherworld. I really got into this one and it was a shame that Christopher Fowler’s ‘ArkAngel’ didn’t keep the momentum going. Here was a tale that had the potential to be pretty nasty but ended up coming across as a pale imitation of the real life events that it was based on.

As someone who didn’t perhaps get everything he could have done out of childhood family holidays I found a lot to identify with in Ian R. MacLeod’s ‘The Camping Wainwrights’ but (perhaps because of my own experiences) I found myself more annoyed at the tale instead of frightened. To be fair though, MacLeod’s piece is excellent in terms of building up to the final catastrophic event... and the event itself.

While I like a long drawn out build up to the payoff, the timing has to be right otherwise the impact is lost. Leave it a little too long and you may as well start again. This was an issue I had with ‘A Donkey at the Mysteries’ (Reggie Oliver), ‘The Oram County Whoosit’ (Steve Duffy) and Sarah Pinsborough’s ‘Our Man in the Sudan’. All three stories had a great underlying concept that was spoiled by a tendency to meander through the background scenery, stifling the impact of the final critical moments. Although to be fair, Duffy’s tale does come off better than the other two in this respect. Offering respite though is Stephen King’s ‘The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates’, a touching and poignant tale of a couple’s last conversation and the ramifications that it has over the years.

Edmund Bertrand’s (or Mark Samuels’, depending on how you look at it) ‘Destination Nihil’ is a short sharp burst of something truly weird with an undertone of a terror that keeps on growing. Unfortunately for the book as a whole, it is followed by Albert E. Cowdrey’s ‘The Overseer’; another tale that promises much but wanders through the background history far too much to be truly effective.

Just when I thought things really were on the downward slide, Pinckney Benedict’s ‘The Beginnings of Sorrow’ picked things up a treat. This is one of the darkest tales in the collection, promising nothing but the eventual apocalypse and a story that will stick in your mind for a long time to come if I was anything to go by. I’ve read a few werewolf tales but never one that works in reverse like this...

Brian Lumley’s ‘The Place of Waiting’ is a ghost story that could teach a few lessons to the tales here that suffer from issues with pacing. Everything is balanced here and works together to hit the reader with a concept that is hinted at but never revealed until exactly the right moment. ‘The Place of Waiting’ is a timely reminder that I need to give the ‘Necroscope’ series a go very soon.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘2:00pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives’ is a fitting finale to the collection, doing everything that ‘The Place of Waiting’ does but in only fifty five words. I challenge you to read the final sentence and not think, ‘What the f...?’

‘The Mammoth Book of Horror 20’ wasn’t all for me but there was no denying that every single tale had me gripped and slightly shaken after I’d finished reading it. I’ll be making very sure that I’m around for ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21’...

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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