Saturday, October 15, 2016

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

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

3 / 5 Stars

‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX’ ( 223 pp) is DAW Book No. 445, published in August 1981. The excellent cover illustration is by Michael Whelan.

As is customary for these volumes, editor Karl Edward Wagner provides an Introduction that covers the world of horror short story publishing for the featured year; for this volume, it's 1980. The landmark event of that year was of course the release of Dark Forces, a sizeable anthology of horror fiction edited by Kirby McCauley.

All of the entries in ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX’ all were published in 1980, many in ‘slick’magazines like Cavalier and Gallery, others, in small press publications and original anthologies.

My capsule summaries of the contents:

The Monkey, by Stephen King: when Hal Shelburn returns to the old house in Maine where he was raised, he finds that the disturbing toy from his childhood years is still in a moldering box in a corner of the attic……….a toy monkey, one with clapping cymbals. The problem is, whenever the cymbals clap, Something Really Bad Happens………

Having a Stephen King novelette in an anthology was a big deal, and a guaranteed cover blurb, in the late 70 and early 80s. Some of Kings’ entries were good, others, less so. This one is reasonably successful. While the idea of a toy monkey epitomizing evil gets contrived rather quickly, there is a sufficient number of untimely demises to give this story a worthwhile degree of impact.

The Gap, by Ramsey Campbell: when he agrees to host a pair of American tourists, author Lionel Tate finds his English rectitude tested by their unpleasant manners.

‘The Gap’ is not so much a short story, as it is a collection of similes and metaphors strung together to form something of a narrative. This story could serve as a textbook example of how not to write fiction. Indeed, even by the standards of his prose at this time on his career, Campbell’s inability to restrain himself leads some remarkably bad writing. For example, here’s sentence where there are THREE metaphors/similes IN A ROW:

Candlelight made food hop restlessly on plates, waiters loomed beneath the low beams and flung their vague shadows over the tables.

The mental picture generated by this purple prose is unintentionally funny……..on the other hand, it’s not funny that editor Wagner thought this story one of the Year’s Best………how many more deserving entries got excluded because of Wagner’s insistence on including Ramsey Campbell………….. ?!

The Cats of Pere LaChaise, by Neil Olonoff: at the famed Paris cemetery, a visitor notices that the feral cats slinking among the gravestones are very large and well-fed…….one of the better tales in the anthology.

The Propert Bequest, by Basil A. Smith: a posthumous entry from author Smith, who wrote English Ghost Stories in the mode of M. R. James. This novelette deals with a former chapel in the countryside near York; the chapel has been given unusual alterations, not with the best of intentions. While slow-paced and more than a little over-written, this story ultimately is rewarding.

On Call, by Dennis Etchison: the obligatory Etchison entry. A man finds that a shabby medical clinic in downtown L.A. has a disturbing nature. Like almost all Etchison stories from the early 80s, this tale is all about mood and atmosphere, with an unconvincing ending.

The Catacomb, by Peter Shilston: an English tourist, on holiday in an odd little Sicilian town, decides to break out on his own and do some exploring. While relying, like Etchison’s entry, on mood and atmosphere, this story avoids overdosing on figurative prose and delivers a satisfactory ending.

Black Man with a Horn, by T. E. D. Klein: the obligatory Klein entry. This novelette deals with an elderly man who has some modest degree of fame from writing H. P. Lovecraft pastiches; he has an in-flight encounter with a terrified former missionary, who speaks of dark doings in the untracked interior of Malaysia. Like Klein’s previous entries for the ‘Year’s Best’ series, this work is well-written, but takes its time getting underway. And like Klein’s earlier entries, the ending is too ambiguous to be very rewarding.

The King, by William Relling: a band that performs tributes to a fallen rock n' roll idol attracts unwanted attention.

Footsteps, by Harlan Ellison: this story features a lengthy and self-serving Introduction by Ellison, who relates that the story was (apparently) written in one day in May, 1980, as part of a publicity stunt associated with a bookstore in Paris. A makeshift table was set up in the front of the bookstore where Ellison sat with his portable typewriter; lucky passersby could gaze into the store and see a Master Craftsman at work.

The story itself is reasonably effective; a young woman walks the nighttime streets of Paris despite rumors of horrible mutilations and murders committed by a mad slasher.

Without Rhyme or Reason, by Peter Valentine Timlett: a girl takes a position as a live-in maid to an eccentric middle-aged woman, who tends a certain spot in the garden of her country estate with a disturbing degree of intensity…….

Summing up, ‘The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series IX’ is one of the better books in the series. If you can find a copy in good condition that is affordable, it’s worth picking up.

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