Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review: The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series V, edited by Gerald Page

3/5 Stars

DAW’s ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories entries tended to be hit-or-miss affairs. I picked up eight or nine of them from the mid-70’s to the early 90’s. In general, you would find three, maybe four good stories in each volume, with the rest of the contents unimpressive.

This was due in large part to flaccid editing by Gerald Page, and after him, Karl Edward Wagner. Both editors preferred to feature stories from the same narrow pool of writers, such as the highly over-rated Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Fritz Leiber, Charles L. Grant, and Stephen King. Both editors were reluctant to select any stories with overt gore or violence, and were overly willing to accept sub-par efforts from ‘name’ authors. The result was that many ‘Year’s Best’ volumes contained tepid and unremarkable entries.

The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V' (1977), edited by Page and containing stories appearing in print in 1976, is actually one of the better volumes. It starts on a promising note with a great cover illustration by Michael Whelan.

The first story, Jerry Sohl’s ‘The Service’ isn’t really a horror tale per se, and arguably doesn’t belong in this anthology. I will admit that it’s a well-written and effective take on providing unique assistance with confronting one of life’s major stages.

The second story, ‘Long Hollow Swamp’, by Joseph Payne Brennan, is a moody and atmospheric monster tale and one of the better stories in the collection. Also well worth reading is H. Warner Munn’s ‘The Well’, featuring a ‘shock’ ending (so be careful thumbing through the book so you don’t glimpse the last sentence and spoil the story for yourself).

Arthur Byron Cover’s ‘The Day It Rained Lizards’ is one of his better short stories and touches on a feckless young man’s doings with a teen witch in the suburbia of the ‘Swingtown’ era (nowadays it would be labeled as an ‘urban fantasy’, but back in ’76 such a term didn’t exist).

Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Sing A Last Song of Valdese’ is one of his best works. The fantasy setting is artfully combined with a subtle, unfolding story of atrocity and overdue revenge. Like Munn’s tale, ‘Valdese’ features a surprise ending, so take care in glancing through the pages.

Tanith Lee’s ‘Huzdra’ is another strong entry and also successfully melds a surprise ending and a fantasy setting. Her intensely descriptive writing style lends itself better to the short story format than the novel (cough…The Birthgrave…cough).

The last story in the collection, Manly Wade Wellman’s ‘Where the Woodbine Twineth’, is set in the North Carolina backcountry, but doesn’t feature his well-known character Silver John. It’s a low-key but memorable tale of witches and charms and could well have served as the inspiration for Mike Mignola’s recent Hellboy three-issue series ‘The Crooked Man’.

The rest of the stories weren’t all that memorable. The (predictable) Fritz Leiber story, ‘Belsen Express’, the (predictable) Charles L. Grant entry ‘When All the Children Call My Name’, and Robert Bloch’s ‘A Most Unusual Murder’ are all rather dull. Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ didn’t strike me as one of his better short tales. David Drake’s ‘Children of the Forest’ mixes fantasy with subdued horror but goes on a little too long, and fails to provide a strong ending, making it seem a bit vague compared to the entries by Lee, Wagner, and Munn.

So what’s the verdict ? I recommend picking up ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series V’. It’s got a larger-than-usual panel of good stories, along with some (inevitable) weaker entries. The book serves as a good snapshot of where horror fiction stood at the midpoint of the 70s.

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