Friday, April 4, 2014

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

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

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series XIV’ (291 pp) is DAW Book No. UE2156 / 688, published in October, 1986. The cover art is by Michael Whelan.

All of the entries in this edition were first published in 1984 -1985, usually in the pages of other anthologies, or in magazines like The Twilight Zone Magazine, Interzone, and Night Cry.

There is a brief, two-page introduction by editor Karl Edward Wagner.

‘Series XIV’ is a standard-issue ‘Year’s Best’ compilation; meaning, in other words, that the usual suspects are represented and accounted for: Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Tanith Lee. But there are also some newcomers to Series XIV, and they provide the better entries.

My brief summary of the contents:

‘Penny Daye’, Charles L. Grant: mildly threatening British ghosts, ancient monuments, and the anomie of modern life; another forgettable, psychological horror tale from Grant.

‘Dwindling’, David B. Silva: Quiet Horror story about a boy whose family life is subject to unusual circumstances.

“Dead Men’s Fingers’, Philip C. Heath: in the South Pacific, the American whaler Reaper is found adrift, her crew vanished. One of the best stories in the anthology.

‘Dead Week’, Leonard Carpenter: a coed has unusual visions. Predictable, if competently written.

‘The Sneering’, Ramsey Campbell: British pensioners find life in a neighborhood undergoing urban renewal has its drawbacks. I wasn’t hoping for much from Campbell with this story, and he didn’t disappoint me........ Although it’s the first time I’ve ever read the sentence: ‘A car snarled raggedly past the gate.’ Cars …….snarling…..? Raggedly ? But then, who am I to say what is Art ?

‘Bunny Didn’t Tell Us’, David J. Schow: a burgeoning splatterpunk practitioner makes it into a DAW ‘Year’s Best’ anthology ! Hurrah ! Clever tale of grave-robbing gone bad…..because the grave belongs to a deceased pimp……!

‘Pinewood’, Tanith Lee: predictable tale about a grieving widow.

‘The Night People’, Michael Reaves: a hipster seeks solace for his angst by walking the city streets at night. I suspect most readers will guess the ending well in advance.

‘Ceremony’, William F. Nolen: a late-night bus ride leads to a creepy small town. Atmospheric, with a good ending; another of the better entries in this collection.

‘The Woman in Black’, Dennis Etchison: while employing his usual oblique, overly wordy prose in this story about a boy navigating a troubled neighborhood, Etchison makes this tale work by virtue of a bizarre ending.

‘Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea’, Simon Clark: more a fragment rather than a genuine short story. Supernatural events at night, in a British seaside resort.

‘Mother’s Day’, Stephen F. Wilcox: a man attends to his nagging mother. Not really a horror story, but in fact a psychological drama.

‘Lava Tears’, Vincent McHardy: confused tale of a psycho killer.

‘Rapid Transit’, Wayne Allen Sallee: an aimless young man witnesses a murder in a train yard. Essentially plot-less, and badly overwritten by Sallee, who at that time was a poet trying his hand at short fiction.

‘The Weight of Zero’, John Alfred Taylor: not a short story per se, but actually the first chapter of a never-published novel…?! It’s never a good indicator of editorial competence when the editor has to use a first chapter of an unpublished novel in order to meet his obligation for a requisite number of entries….anyways, this is the vague tale of a Euro-hipster pursuing occult rituals.

‘John’s Return to Liverpool’, Christopher Burns: as you can guess, Dead Lennon is resurrected and visits his hometown. Relying on New Testament tropes, the story comes too close to being mawkish and insipid to be effective.

‘In Late December, Before the Storm’, Paul J. Sammon: unimaginative tale of a dissipated young man  fated to relive a traumatic event. Sammon would go on to edit the seminal Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror anthology of 1990.

‘Red Christmas’, David Garnett: a serial killer is on the loose, just before Christmas. I started this story thinking it was yet another clichéd ‘serial killer’ tale, but it provides a genuinely imaginative, offbeat ending. The best story in the anthology !

‘Too Far Behind Gradina’, Steve Sneyd: it’s not a good sign when a story in a horror anthology starts off with a really awful poem in blank verse….this despite the fact that the author is a published poet…..’Gradina’ is about a bored British housewife on vacation in Croatia; she follows a pair of German tourists, brother and sister, to a forbidding destination in the hills above the coast. This novelette was a true chore to finish, as it consisted of the type of run-on sentences, heavily overloaded with stilted, figurative prose, that typified SF writing of the New Wave era. It closes the anthology on a very unimpressive note. 

The verdict ? ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series XIV’ is no better, and probably a little worse, then the other volumes in this series that were edited by Karl Edward Wagner. But hardcore horror short story aficionados may want it for the virtues of the tales by Heath, Schow, Nolen, and Garnett.

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