Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series X

Book Review: 'The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series X' edited by Karl Edward Wagner

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X’ is DAW Book No. 493 (240 pp) and was published in August, 1982. The striking cover artwork is by Michael Whelan.

All of the stories in this volume were first published in 1980 or 1981, in 'slick' magazines or small press anthologies.

In his Introduction, editor Wagner provides an overview of the genre in 1981, covering both new and failing print outlets for horror fiction. Wagner also notes that, with volume X, The Year’s Best Horror Stories series has achieved the ten-year mark, with the first volume being ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: No. 1’, DAW Books No. 13, released in the US in 1971.

Wagner had an unfortunate affinity for the work of the grossly over-rated Ramsey Campbell, not only foisting two Campbell stories on readers of Series X, but also doing so for other DAW volumes, such as Series XVII.

In this volume, we are given ‘Through the Walls’, which has something to do – deep within its remarkably bad prose – with a suburban husband undergoing a nervous breakdown. Campbell actually uses the sentence: The hinges of the gate shrieked jaggedly; Pears felt as if the sound were being dragged through his ears. The entire story is crammed with these metaphors, all of them straight out of a 'how not to write fiction' class.

Campbell’s other contribution, ‘The Trick’, deals with Halloween in the UK, and the neighborhood bag lady, who may be a witch. This tale is more accessible than ‘Through the Walls’ but still suffers from such clotted, figurative prose that wading through it was tedious.

The other entries in ‘Series X’ are of varying quality. ‘Touring’, By Dozois, Dann, and Swanwick, meshes rock and roll with ghosts. ‘Homecoming’, by Howard Goldsmith, is an embarrassingly bad haunted-house tale.

There are two entries in the classic English Ghost Story mode. ‘Wyntours’, by David G. Rowlands, and ‘Old Hobby Horse’, by A. F. Kidd, adhere to this genre without adding anything really new or novel.

‘Firstborn’, by David Campton, features a remote estate, an eccentric uncle, and a strange greenhouse; there is a Roald Dahl-ish quality to this story that makes it one of the better ones in the anthology.

The obligatory Charles L. Grant story, ‘Every Time You Say I Love You’, is actually one of his better stories, featuring an ending that, unlike so many of his other short stories, delivers a neat payoff.

The mandatory Dennis Etchison entry, ‘The Dark Country’ has nothing to do with horror, being more of a psychological drama involving dissipated American tourists loose in Acapulco. Even as a psychological drama it is over-written and plodding.

‘Luna’, by G. W. Perriwils, features an astronaut troubled by unusual nightmares. ’Mind’, by Les Freeman, deals with a day-tripper to the English town of Whitby; the trains service offers something out of the ordinary.

The magazine Running Times was source for David Clayton Carrad’s ‘Competition’, about a jogger who takes a turn down a forbidding causeway; it’s another of the better tales in the collection.

‘On 202’, by Jeff Hecht, centers on a late-night drive through spooky New England countryside.

M. John Harrison’s ‘Egnaro’ is a tale about a middle-aged bookshop owner whose life is afflicted with entropy. He seeks salvation in the existence of the eponymous mythical country. While well-written, 'Egnaro' is devoid of any horror content, and its inclusion either a sign of how slim the pickings were, or Wagner’s limited capabilities as an anthology editor.

The final entry, Harlan Ellison’s ‘Broken Glass’, deals with telepathy gone bad. It’s rather graphic sexual content is something of a surprise to encounter in a ‘Year’s Best’ anthology, and indicates that Wagner was willing to embrace this aspect of horror fiction, even as he deliberately avoided entertaining any submissions with graphic violence.

The verdict ? ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X’ has a couple of worthwhile entries, but the rest are mediocre. It’s a pretty clear picture of the genre as it stood in the early 80s, a genre experiencing increasing commercial success, primarily due to the novels of Stephen King, but also a genre that, in the main, was content to recycle the same old tropes and plot devices.

Although in the early 80s James Herbert and Shaun Hutson were bravely promoting fiction with genuine horror content, the advent of Clive Barker and ‘The Books of Blood’, and the much-needed changes essential to the emancipation of the genre, were still three years in the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the obligatory Charles L Grant story, The mandatory Dennis Etchison entry, your controversy with Ramsey Campbell. what do you have against quiet horror?