THE GIANT BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR
Edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell
1993, Magpie Books, 619pp
This giant horror collection has been on my shelf for 20 years. Over that time I’ve read bits and pieces from it, but this year thought it was time to give it a good cover-to-cover re-read.
The book collects Jones and Campbells’ selections of the ‘very best’ from the first three volumes of their BEST NEW HORROR series, published in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It is indeed a huge collection, containing 41 stories, ranging in length from about 2000 words [4 pages] to around 18,000 [32pp] words, and from an eclectic range of authors.
The collection gives a needle-sharp reflection of the state of horror at the time. Mostly supernatural horror, or dark fantasy, fills the pages, and there is a certain amount of gory, cinematic action-horror that often typified the era. There is a handful of stories set in more exotic locales [meaning neither the UK or USA], a number of stories using various literary techniques like intertextuality and unreliable narrators, and a set of tales still haunted by the shadow of Vietnam. Each reader will like or dislike different selections, but here are mine.
My favourite story in the book, though difficult to choose, is from an author I had not encountered before; Ian Macleod’s ‘1/72nd Scale’ is an excellent story telling of a boy trying to heal the pain of his family after the death of his brother, by building his brother’s unmade Airfix model plane. He becomes close to his brother’s spirit and memory while building the model, and sets in motion a chain of supernatural and weird events. A delightful easy-to-read and compelling story, this is very evocative of childhood, and anyone who grew up in England in the 70’s or 80’s will find much to empathise on.
Around a quarter of the stories I would consider excellent or very good. Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Last Feast Of Harlequin’ and Gene Wolfe’s ‘Lord Of The Land’ are great in different ways, both with a hint of Lovecraftiness. Wolfe’s story tells of a guy collecting mythic stories of the ‘soul-sucker’, while Ligotti’s scholarly story has a narrator investigating pierrot or sad-clown figures in a strange Winter festival in an unusual town. Both tales suggest that reality is just a thin veneer which hides something alien and horrific.
Ghosts and hauntings are frequent here; Thomas Tessier’s ‘Blanca’ tells, in measured and impeccable prose, about a bland holiday, night-time visions, and a missing friend. ‘Ma Qui’ by Alan Brennert, which won the Nebula Award, is an inventive and excellent story of ghosts, demons and of belief, and how American G.I.’s that die in the Vietnamese jungles face an afterlife of a different culture. ‘True Love’ by K.W. Jeter is both devastating and memorable with a woman abducting small boys and taking them home to her dying father. This simple plotline very effectively mixes true horror with the supernatural.
‘The Man Who Drew Cats’ was Michael Marshall Smith’s first published story and tells of a mysterious pavement artist. ‘Pelts’ by F. Paul Wilson was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and is a straight 80’s style horror fest, concerned with the animal fur trade, but delivering delicious horror splat.
There were also good [but perhaps not outstanding] enjoyable stories here;
‘No Sharks In The Med’ by Brian Lumley is a well-written version of WOLF CREEK set in Greece, and is only slightly overlong.
‘The Horn’ by Stephen Gallagher tells of a supernatural menace in a snowstorm. There is good humour and good writing here, in this tale which I found very indicative of the 1980’s.
‘The Last Day Of Miss Dorinda Molyneux’ by Robert Westall is a good ghost story about a shambling corpse released into the vaults of an abandoned church. It has a slightly slow build-up, but builds to an atmospheric ending.
‘Snow Cancellations’ by Donald R. Burleson is an old favourite of mine. Again, set in a snowstorm, this has at its core an obvious yet genius idea.
‘Those Of Rhenea’ by David Sutton, and ‘The Same In Any Language’ by Ramsey Campbell are both enjoyable ghost-stories set in and around the Mediterranean. Campbell’s story particularly lingers in the memory.
‘The Braille Encyclopedia’ by Grant Morrison, ‘Where Flies Are Born’ by Douglas Clegg’, and ‘The Eye Of The Ayatollah’ by Ian Watson have original but macabre ideas behind them. All three are enjoyable and memorable tales.
I enjoyed ‘Impermanent Mercies’ by Kathe Koja, even though it is perhaps the most bizarre in the book. It is very well written and tells the strange story of a dog’s head in a box, ordering people to carry out its evil bidding.
Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood’ is an elegant and decadant story of thrill-seeking grave-robbers. Occasionally unpleasant, there is flair and style in the prose.
Jonathan Carroll’s story ‘The Dead Love You’ is highly readable, about stalkers and being stalked, with some great lines. Carroll likes playing with the readers expectations; take this paragraph half way through;
“Are you confused? Good! Stick with me a while longer and you’ll know everything. I could have held all this till the end. But I want you frowning now, knowing something is very wrong with your parachute, even before actually pulling the cord and praying it opens.
P.S. It won’t.”
‘Chui Chai’ by S.P.Somtow tells of Frankenstein-like experiments on the streets of Bangkok, while ‘Inside The Walled City’ by Garry Kilworth describes an expedition in a vast soon-to-be-demolished collection of slums in Hong Kong.
There are other ok to average stories by Gahan Wilson, Harlan Ellison, Richard Laymon, Nicholas Royle, Karl Edward Wagner, J.L. Comeau, Steve Rasnic Tem, Chet Williamson and Robert R. McCammon.
Alas, there are always stories that miss the mark, and everyone’s will be a different set. Personally, here, I wasn’t so keen on the work of Peter Straub [unusually], Cherry Wilder, D.F.Lewis, Elizabeth Hand, David J.Schow, Charles L. Grant, Joel Lane, Jean Daniel-Breque, or Dennis Etchison. Neither did I much like ‘The Original Dr.Shade’, a novella by Kim Newman; this won the 1991 Science Fiction Award for Best Short Story, so quite clearly, that shows how much I know.
In summation, this is a huge collection which explores many and most of the popular themes in the horror genre, and contains plenty of great reading and clever ideas. There is more than just splat and gore here; there is atmosphere, excellent prose, mystique and wonder, and above all, there is heart; there should always be heart in good horror. Quite simply, anyone with an interest in the genre will find much to like here. 8/10