Book review: Poe’s Children: The New Horror

Poe’s Children: The New Horror (Kobo link)

The two genres I read the most are science fiction and horror and with horror I especially like anthologies and collections because horror stories work well in short form where it’s easier to suspend your disbelief because the shambling monsters have to caper for only a few dozen pages or so and not hundreds.

A few years ago I started a thread on Quarter to Three asking for horror story recommendations (the first reply is still classic — I specifically said I was not interested in series or vampire stories and the initial suggestion is for a vampire series) and one of those recommendations was for the then-new anthology Poe’s Children: The New Horror (2008). It featured a good mix of famous and lesser-known authors and hey, how could you go wrong with Peter Straub as editor? Even if it seemed a bit odd that he would include one of his own stories. Editor’s privilege, I guess.

My first creeping doubt came as I read Straub’s introduction, in which he frames the collected stories as part of a new wave of literary horror while at the same time almost apologizing for them being labeled horror at all because horror stories are apparently the domain of hormone-fueled teenage boys or something and this presumably makes them worthy of nothing more than scorn. I get the impression that the best way to read these stories is with pinky extended. So I extend my pinky and start in.

The opener is “The Bees” by Don Chaon and it’s fairly conventional, a ghost revenge story that comes together neatly and for the protagonist, horribly in the end. Its worst flaw is it didn’t take me long to start poking away at the plot holes but hey, it’s a short story, so time to move on.

Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone” features a young American woman house-sitting in England. She has a fascination with moths that extends to being able to transform her sexual conquests into them. It’s a quirky premise and is handled well. My only real complaint with the story is that it went on too long. The various conquests did not distinguish themselves enough to warrant having as many as there were detailed. A snappy ending concludes the story on a high note.

And then we get to a funny thing, a ‘story’ called “The Man on the Ceiling”. I put that in quotes because it’s not a conventional story as such, more a meditation or mood piece, with repeating imagery, shifting viewpoints and no specific focus, just overlapping feelings of dread or wanting and such. Sound interesting? The author notes at the end of the book inform me that husband and wife authors Steve and Melanie Tem’s effort is ‘the only work ever to win the International Horror Guild, Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards in the same year’. And I found it boring, pretentious and pointless. I cannot recall the last time I read a short story that actively annoyed me as much as this one. If this vapid, indulgent piece of nonsense is what passes for ‘literary horror’ I think I may stick to lurid tales for oversexed boys. I suppose this is a case of different strokes. I am left so dissatisfied that at this point I actually set the book down for some weeks before pressing on.

The next few stories are decent enough but the overall theme of the anthology is becoming clearer, as many of stories are more mood pieces, veering away from the concrete to the ethereal, using words to create images that are fuzzy around the edges, leaving out details deliberately to confuse or beguile. I’m okay with this. I freely admit I prefer my fiction more straight-up because I’m more interested in being entertained than challenged but a change-up on occasion is like cleansing the palette. And my palette is about to get cleansed with the literary equivalent of bleach.

“Louise’s Ghost” is a story that shows off its cleverness with broad strokes. A little girl loves the color green, so everything must be green. The two adult protagonists are both named Louise so at times it’s difficult to distinguish who is saying what. But it’s clever because it blurs their identities and makes a statement about how interchangeable we all are or whatever the hell point author Kelly Link was trying to make. Maybe it was to simply give the reader a headache, in which case she succeeded with me. The story is further addled with dialog that is twee as all get-out. I will give Link credit, though — there are moments when all of these elements actually pull together and it really is clever and witty. I also give her points for offering something that isn’t Very Serious.

“Plot Twist” is a self-referential piece that does its shtick very well — three people stranded in a desert, running out of supplies and wondering why no one ever comes along the road they walk along. As is often the case with these kinds of high-concept pieces,  David J. Schow’s ending seems gratuitously ‘shocking’ and isn’t really satisfying. Still, the journey to get there is worth the trip.

Along similar lines is Thomas Ligotti’s “Notes on the Writing of Horror”, although the gruesome ending is to be expected with Ligotti. His darkly comedic prose may not be to everyone’s taste but I find the more of his work I read the more I want to read, so it is apparently a taste I like.

Neil Gaiman’s entry “October in the Chair” is vintage Gaiman, a warm tale of a young ghost in a forgotten town.

I skipped Stephen King’s “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” because I read it nearly 30 freaking years ago.

Peter Straub’s “Little Red Tango” produced a weird effect for me right from the title. I jokingly referred to a short guy I thought was one hot tamale in college as Little Red and after doing that for two years it’s difficult to see the phrase and not think specifically of him. In Straub’s story the titular character is a kind of idiot savant who lives in a hoarders-style apartment and does weird and magical things for musicians and music lovers with his vast collection of vinyl records. The story is quirky and magical but grounded in the everyday, the grit and discomfort of ordinary living mixed with extraordinary events. In the case of “Little Red Tango” Straub was correct to invoke editor’s privilege and include it.

The collection ends with “Insect Dreams” by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson. Set in the 17th century, it tells of a trip a young woman named Maria Sibylla makes from her native Netherlands to the lush jungles of Surinam in South America, there to study the insect life both as a researcher and artist. The prose is written with a languid and poetic style, with a formal and sometimes melodramatic flair. Although slow to get going, the story drew me in as it progressed and I became more interested in Maria’s experiences in this strange and dangerous land. The closest the story comes to horror, however, is when a ‘monster’ turns out to be a plantation owner who treats slaves sadistically (one scene has him literally pull the arms off a girl who resists his advances) but this  — as terrible as it sounds — is treated more an incidental to the main story. Were it not there the story would not really fit in a horror anthology at all, literary or otherwise.

In the end I came away from Poe’s Children disappointed. There are some very good stories here and there is decent variety despite the classification as ‘new horror’ so if you like gore, you’ll get some of that and if you like explicit sex, you’re covered there, too (so to speak). I found the collection very uneven, though and can’t recall the last time multiple stories in a collection actually annoyed me. Finishing the book was more a relief than anything.

Thumbs down for me but it is quite possible that I’m just too dang juvenile to appreciate art when I see it.

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