Sunday, October 5, 2014

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

2 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series XV’ (300 pp) is DAW Book No. UE2226 and was published in October, 1987. The nicely subversive cover artwork is by Michael Whelan, but unfortunately, it’s very small, due to the fact that starting with Series XIV, DAW began using a frame to enclose the illustrations on the front cover.

As with all the other volumes of ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’, I approached this one with the expectation that perhaps 3 – 4 stories would be rewarding. All of the stories were published in 1986, some in small press magazines and anthologies, and others, in ‘slick’ magazines.

So, how does ‘Series XV’ stack up ? Here are my brief summaries of the contents:

Introduction: Editor Wagner pontificates about the definition of horror, noting that ‘........schlock novels about giant maggots’ qualify as ‘horror.’

He clearly was disdainful of authors like James Herbert, John Halkin, Guy Smith, and Shaun Hutson, who had no scruples about writing what could be considered 'schlock' novels, sometimes about carnivorous slugs, beetle larvae, etc. And of course, these writers never appeared in the DAW 'Year's Best' anthologies. However, I think all of them are great horror writers ! So much for Wagner’s pedantry…….

The Yuogoslaves, by Robert Bloch: as he got older, Bloch’s writing could be hit-or-miss, but this tale qualifies as a Hit, and one of the better entries in the anthology. A tourist investigates gypsy-related crime among the Paris underworld.

Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back, by Joe R. Lansdale: Startlingly, Wagner lets a splatterpunk tale sneak its way into the DAW anthologies. This story, about the aftermath of WW3, features unique monsters, and the kind of graphic horror that would never have previously appeared in ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories’.

Apples, by Ramsey Campbell: UK tenement kids are rude to a neighbor and plunder his apple tree. One of Campbell’s more accessible tales, as - for some reason, and a not unwelcome one -  he avoids the purpled prose that so afflicts his other short stories of this period.

Dead White Women, by William F. Wu: satirical tale of a man whose girlfriends never seem to stick around very long.

Crystal, by Charles L. Grant: A man buys a portrait; supernatural consequences ensue. Dull and unremarkable Grant story, focusing – inevitably - on ‘quiet’ horror.

Retirement, by Ron Leming: bikers, a roadside honkey-tonk, and a mysterious stranger. Competent, if not very original.

The Man Who Did Tricks With Glass, by Ron Wolfe: a man orders a special, mirror-filled room be made to his specifications. Author Wolfe apparently was trying to write a Charles Beaumont-style story; it fails miserably.

Bird in a Wrought Iron Cage, by John Alfed Taylor: short-short story, and one of the anthology’s better entries. A family heirloom gives its owner unique powers. But nothing comes without its price…

The Olympic Runner, by Dennis Etchison: remarkably dull tale about mother – daughter conflict and psychological angst. Somehow, the 1984 Olympics get referenced. There is no horror content.

Take the ‘A’ Train, by Dennis Cassady: a plotless follow-up to Cassady’s plotless story in Series XIV….this story is one that editor Wagner considered one of the Year’s Best ?

The Foggy, Foggy Dew, by Joel Lane: A Ramsey Campbell pastiche from admirer Lane. Plotless, overfilled with empty sentences and unwieldy metaphors - and thus, like a genuine Campbell short story !

The Godmother, by Tina Rath: a young girl who goes to live in an English estate; the owner is particularly eccentric. Well-written, with a subtle Roald Dahl -ish vibe.

‘Pale, Trembling Youth’, by W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson: overwrought, corny tale about an older punk-rocker who observes youthful angst.

Red Light, by David J. Schow: a fashion model beset with psychological stress seeks assurance from her photographer boyfriend. Perhaps because it lacks the dark humor present in Schow’s better short stories, this one comes across as over-written and labored.

In the Hour Before Dawn, by Brad Strickland: unremarkable story about two men who encounter each other in their dreams.

Necros, by Brian Lumley: an English tourist to the Italian coast meets a stunning young woman. Cuckolding her elderly husband may be the least of his problems……offbeat, entertaining tale from Lumley.

Tattoos, by Jack Dann: set in upstate New York, this story deals with a tattoo artist with a unique gift. Competently written, although the horror content is muted.

Acquiring a Family, by R. Chetwynd-Hayes: a spinster seeks company from supernatural sources. As with many of his short stories, this piece from Chetwynd-Hayes is well written, but doesn’t bring anything really new to the ghost story milieu. 

The verdict ? The entries by Bloch, Lansdale, and Taylor are the only real standouts in this particular volume. I can’t say ‘Series XV’ is a must-have, but if you’re intent on collecting the whole series, then of course you’ll want a copy.

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