This 2011 anthology of ghost tales, edited by Stephen Jones, was another of my new acquisitions from City Lights and one of the few anthologies (other than the ones I edit) in which I actually read every single piece included. Not in order, though; I never read in order. I jump around in anthologies reading the short ones first, then the ones with the interesting titles, the familiar authors, and then the remainder: the loooong ones with the dull titles.
This is likely not the way an anthologist wants a reader to read, since it destroys any sense of build-up or connectivity the editor is striving for. I do try to pay attention to the editor’s role in all other ways, however. And in this regard, Jones does a couple of things very right and one thing very wrong. On the plus side, Jones has a short intro piece that nicely sets the tone: nervous black humor. He also has asked each of the authors to include in their bios a note about the inspiration for their story; this results in some very interesting insights.
On the negative side, the actual editing is atrocious. There apparently was no proofreader, and there are not only misspelled words and bad grammar throughout, but also missing words. Very annoying and very disappointing, because this is a rather “high-end” product, filled with familiar names: Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, and Tanith Lee, among others.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad assortment of stories, and several were extremely well written and intriguing, notably:
- M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious,” which reminded me a bit of The Man Who Would Be King, not only with its central motif but also in that old-fashioned clubby English way
- R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s “The Door,” was shiveringly satisfying
- Reggie Oliver’s highly unnerving “Hand to Mouth,” about one of the coldest, dankest, scariest old castles ever — and its long-dead occupant
- Richard Matheson’s compassionate and quite lovely “Two O’Clock Session,” which evokes the iconic Ray Bradbury, just as Matheson had hoped, according to his bio explanation
- “The Mystery” by Peter Atkins had a neatly breezy coolness to it that was most appealing in juxtaposition to the storyline
- John Gordon’s “The Place” was an admirably taut, cool exercise that put me in mind of this gem by I.A. Ireland, reprinted in the incomparable Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature (which is, in my judgment, the best anthology ever by the best anthologist ever):
Climax For A Ghost Story – I.A. Ireland“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “–And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke and it suddenly swung to with a click.
“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t believe there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in!”
“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.
- R.B. Russell’s “The Bridegroom” was clean and wistful; Conrad Williams’s “Wait” shared a similar doleful tone
- Kim Newman’s “Is There Anybody There?” might be my favorite in the volume with its deliciously unexpected Internet/ouija board haunting and the equally unexpected victor in the uneven match-up of crossed times
- John Gaskin’s “Party Talk” was another top pick; this brought to mind the old hitchhiker urban legend as it slowly, delicately unfolded
- Grandmaster Robert Silverberg’s “The Church at Monte Saturno” was elegant, brittle, and sophisticated; very satisfying and another top pick
Several others, while not badly written per se, just didn’t grab or move me. And a few were just poor; the worst of these was “Poison Pen” by Christopher Fowler. This story was a complete mess, not just in terms of an overblown kicker to what had begun as an interesting premise, but literally: it had extremely poor continuity and was littered with errors and contradictions. It read as if a preliminary version of the story had been included rather than the final; again, a strike against the editor. Also badly in need of an editor was Tanith Lee, with an overly long entry, “A House on Fire,” which contained at least one jarring anachronism. Richard Christian Matheson’s unintentionally preening “City of Dreams” was a story as pretentious and bloated as his father’s was simple and sweet. I also am never fond of stories where unmotivated, unlooked-for bad ends are summoned against hapless characters: that happened in both the Ramsey Campbell and Lisa Tuttle pieces.
All told though, many hours of goosebumpy fun and several new authors to look out for in the future.