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November, 2008 : Review:

Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural

The Shirley Jackson Award debuted this year. The award is given in memory of the great writer of American horror who gave us "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House. According to the rather broad rules explained on the award's website, it will be given for works of "psychological suspense, horror, or dark fantasy."

In Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, readers get a chance to see the anthology that the Jackson judges found the best of the past year, including the winning novelette, Glen Hirshberg's "The Janus Tree," and the winning short story, Nathan Ballingrud's "The Monsters of Heaven." While I found the Hirshberg piece the gem of the collection, it is far from the only superior story. Editor Ellen Datlow's introduction mentioned that she was seeking stories that generated a "frisson of shock," and I'm happy to report that quite literally all of the stories contained here managed that.

Now, to cut immediately to the caveat, some manage that pleasant moment of shock and little bit more. K. W. Jeter's story "Riding Bitch" opens the anthology, and contains some lurid, creepy images of a man forced into inappropriate intimacies with a dead lover. The second story, Stephen Gallagher's "Misadventure," makes a gym after working hours as creepy as any abandoned castle. Jeffery Ford's "The Bedroom Light" manages wonderfully creepy dream sequences, with images that deserve longer exploration. Ford pairs this with dialogue between a couple that ebbs and flows with striking and kinetic realism. Terry Dowling's "The Suits at Auderlene" gives readers an amazingly original scenario involving a meteorite and singing suits of armor. However, each of the four stories feel truncated; they give readers image, idea, shock, and then move on, without delivering fully developed stories.

Other tales from the collection give complete accounts, and well-told ones, but are a bit too familiar in their workings. The parental fears in Mike O'Driscoll's "13 O'Clock" are very realistic…but there is only one way for the story to end. Likewise, John Grant's "Lives" is enjoyable, but the climax is inevitable by the time the second slaughter starts. Christopher Fowler does a fine job of capturing the feel of the 1960s as an alien time in "The Uninvited," but his unwanted guests who spark violence echo more past stories while the surprise resolution echos another set. P. D. Cacek's "The Keeper" recalls vivid images of the Holocaust... but does little else, and other stories have evoked memories of the camps (or other horrors) that were transferred in similar ways. Finally, though I enjoyed the fallen's language in "Inelastic Collisions" by Elizabeth Bear, angel and devil meeting on earth has been done often enough that this story is but another riff on an old theme. Simon Bestwick's "Hushabye" tells a standard retribution story vividly... but the resilient killer seems borrowed from the film Halloween (and is now standard for horror).

Another cluster of stories in the collection are unified through their superior imagery, imagery that made the stories into dreamscapes that are surreally unhinged from daily reality. Lee Thomas' "An Apiary of White Bees" is a good example here. The plot is undistinguished—is there any secret treasure found that isn't linked to a dark and secret story?—but the visions of the swarming bees and the shimmering, shifting sexuality (is it pleasure? pain? happening? imagined? feared?) make an intoxicating concoction. The distorted statues that glide through Paul Finch's "Bethany's Wood" are genuinely creepy. Like some of Ramsey Campbell's imagery, Finch's descriptions were enough to make me start fearing every detail of the landscape. Laird Barron's "The Forest" isn't quite as strong—I didn't really care about the characters—but the final dissipating image is striking, and the other images of decay or deterioration contribute to a strong dark mood.

Several of the stronger stories are defined by the voices through which the horrific events are recounted. These are otherwise very different stories. Joyce Carol Oates' brief "Face" is almost all texture: a free-floating community's perspective on a local figure whose disfiguration may be spreading beyond her body. Mark Samuels' "Ghorla" is wonderfully funny, with great character portraits blended with a love of both pulp writers, antiquarians, and human oddities. The horror here is second to the unbalancing portraits of the world Samuels paints. Lucius Shepard's 'The Ease With Which We Freed the Beast" is funny at times as well, but blacker, and the brutality more realistic. The voice here is one darkened by what is probably psychosis, but what may be an encounter with some otherworldly creature.

Pat Cadigan's "Stilled Life" extrapolates wonderfully from the living statues who entertain tourists in London. Cadigan's piece is a good example of the power of voice to renew. Once one of the characters comments on the wonder and power of "the stillness," it is clear that she'll end up a statue. However, the voices of the narrator, the other characters, and the creepy main character all make the story rich and living. Conrad Williams' "Perhaps the Last" blends voice and imagery to suggest a museum and a main character that are equally bleak and ill-suited for life.

The two stories that won Jacksons are marked by certain shared qualities. First, both take up familiar themes, but blend them, creating something new through hybridity. Nathan Ballingrud's "The Monsters of Heaven" does this through a story that starts in our mundane world turned very dark through the abduction of a child, then incorporates the visitation of others. (They are called angels, and since they are winged and alien, may be angels, but they are decidedly ambiguous.) Glen Hirschberg's "The Janus Tree" is set in the midst of adolescent and school angst, blended with environmental horror of the strip-mined American west, with hints of several other more fantastic frames. Second, and crucial to the stories' success, both stories made their framing stories in this world ring not just true, but enough. (In the lesser stories, the mundane elements usually are either interesting but unconvincing or convincing but not particularly interesting. The horror is needed to make those stories worthwhile.)

Though this is not the primary point of either story, both also show how sexual desire gets tangled with other drives. They both show how friendship and loyalty can be twisted, shattered, and unclear: Ballingrud does this with a man abusing his abducted son's dog, while Hirschberg does it by charting the networks of politics that define high school.

Two rare strengths also unite both stories. First, both stories reach a point of final confrontation with their weird factor—then turn 90 degrees. The resulting actions are logically connected to the earlier plots, but not obvious. Second, without selling out or prettying things up, both show people coming out the other side of the encounter. If there is a unifying weakness in most of the stories' endings, it is that the authors present the final horror with a dramatic swirl of their narrative curtains... and then stop. Ballingrud and Hirschberg both give dark endings, and neither takes much time to wrap things up after the finale—but both are satisfying and on target. So, on the whole, Inferno is a strong collection.

Copyright © 2008, Greg Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

About Greg Beatty

Greg Beatty lives with his wife in Bellingham, Washington, where he tries, unsuccessfully to stay dry. He writes everything from children's books to essays about his cooking debacles. He has a particular fondness for speculative poetry; he won the 2005 Rhysling Award. Greg recently published his first poetry chapbook. Titled Phrases of the Moon, it is available from Spec House

For more information on Greg's writing, visit


Nov 4, 07:54 by IROSF
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