Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: 'Whispers II', edited by Stuart David Schiff

2 / 5 Stars

‘Whispers’ was a semi-professional zine devoted to fantasy and horror short stories. It appeared irregularly during the 70s and 80s as a labor of love by Stuart David Schiff, who worked full-time as a dentist in Binghamton, New York.
A (somewhat arrogant) account by David Drake of the magazine’s inception, and how submissions were handled / discarded, is available here.
Starting in 1977, mainstream publisher Doubleday began to reprint material from the zine (as well as commissioned new stories) in hardcover, and a series of paperbacks followed suit, appearing under the Doubleday Jove imprint. These are available from and eBay for reasonable prices (although original issues of the magazine itself are much more expensive).
The anthologies are representative of 70s and  80s horror and fantasy, much in the same manner as the DAW ‘Years Best Horror Stories’ collections (which often included stories that first saw print in Whispers). Although newcomers to the field could see their work appear in the zine, a lot of material was provided by a relatively narrow coterie of fantasy / horror / SF writers of the era, such as David Drake, Charles L. Grant, Karl Edward Wagner, Dennis Etchison, and Ramsey Campbell.
And, like the DAW anthologies, or Kirby MacCauley's ‘Dark Forces’ collection, Whispers sought to publish ‘quiet’ horror; outright grue and gore were considered the purview of tasteless hacks. Later in the 80s, splatterpunks like David Schow were able to get their more restrained pieces into the zine.
‘Whispers II’ was first published as a hardcover in 1979 by Doubleday; this Jove paperback (256 pp.) appeared in November 1987 and features cover art by Marshall Arisman. A brief rundown on the contents, some of which appeared in the Whispers zine from 1973 - 1978:
‘Undertow’ by Karl Edward Wagner: a mediocre Kane story. For whatever reason, Wagner’s early Kane stories featured really, really bad dialogue and adverb- and adjective- overloaded prose. Have a dictionary at hand for ‘corposant’, ‘rubious’, and -  ‘cucurbit’ !?
‘Berryhill’ by R. A. Lafferty: juvenile delinquent investigates a haunted house.
‘The King’s Shadow Has No Limits’ by Avram Davidson: not a horror story, but a philosophical tale about the city of Bella, featuring Davidson’s Doctor Eszterhazy character.
‘Conversation Piece’ by Richard Christian Matheson: the narrative is mediated entirely by dialogue passages; a man who can’t say no to medical ‘research’ tells how he earned his living.
‘The Stormsong Runner’ by Jack L. Chalker: a hillbilly girl and ominous weather.
‘They Will Not Hush’ by Sallis and Lunde: more of a fragment than a coherent short story, whatever thin plot is present gets lost under metaphor-encrusted prose.
‘Lex Talionis’ by Russell Kirk: the ghost story component of this tale is really just a device upon which Kirk espouses his conservative, orthodox, Catholicism-driven philosophies. The prose can be ponderous (‘rusticated ashlar’  ?!).
‘Marianne’ by Joseph Payne Brennan: a short-short story of a bad time at the beach, albeit in the off-season.
‘From The Lower Deep’ by Hugh Cave: a flooded island, Lovecraftian horrors, ‘explicit’ gore (by the standards of the Whispers crowd),  and one of the better stories in the anthology.
‘The Fourth Musketeer’ by Charles L. Grant: the obligatory C. L. Grant entry. A middle-aged man experiencing angst finds himself in his old neighborhood. Most readers will see where the story is headed well before the (typically for Grant, oblique) ending.
‘Ghost of a Chance’ by Ray Russell: short-short story; a skeptic meets a True Believer in ghosts.
‘The Elcar Special’ by Carl Jacobi: reasonably good haunted-car story
‘The Box’ by Lee Weinstein: Weinstein, a new writer, delivers a short story that is less about horror and more about manifestations of bereavement. Unremarkable.
‘We Have All Been Here Before’ by Dennis Etchison: The mandatory Etchison entry. A psychic assisting with a murder case may have her own agenda. The horror elements are predictably muted and failed to impress me.
‘Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole’ by Ken Wisman, and ‘Trill Coster’s Burden’ by Manly Wade Wellman: two folk tales with supernatural themes.
‘Conversation Piece’ by Ward Moore: this story would have been more at home in ‘The New Yorker’. In 1805 Gotham, a dandy meets a mysterious family of Russian aristocrats.
‘The Bait’ by Fritz Leiber: unremarkable short-short tale featuring the Gray Mouser and Fafhrd.
‘Above the World’ by Ramsey Campbell: the obligatory Campbell entry. A distraught man embarks on a hike in the English countryside. To call Campbell’s prose turgid is an understatement; witness the description of a stream that “….pursued its wordless water monologue.”
‘The Red Leer’ by David Drake: avaricious farmers poke around an ancient Indian burial mound. One of the better stories in the collection, featuring a unique sort of monster.
‘At the Bottom of the Garden’ by David Campton: an entry in the genre of fantastical children’s tales best worked by the British author Roald Dahl. In this story, a little girl’s mysterious playmate provides very unusual medical aid.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

Funny, I've just been thinking about the Whispers anthologies and how I haven't seen any in years and years. Why am I not surprised a lot of the stories are underwhelming?