Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Favorite Horror Story edited by Mike Baker and Martin H. Greenburg

My Favorite Horror Story
Edited by Mike Baker and Martin H. Greenberg

The concept of this anthology is simple. The editors asked several prominent horror and science fiction writers to submit their favorite horror stories. The sum is a collection of stories that inspired today’s best writers to write.

I enjoy short horror fiction. Stephen King, in describing the satisfaction of reading a good short story, made an apt comparison between the short story and a novel. He likened a novel to a long love affair while comparing the short story to a quick kiss from a stranger. While I’ve ever experienced the latter, I’ve got to believe the experience would be enjoyable.

Sweets to the Sweet
By Robert Bloch
Submitted by Stephen King

A nanny has quit the employ of a wealthy aristocrat because she can no longer care for the man’s daughter whom she describes as evil – so evil even her own father hates her. When the man’s brother goes to his house to see the girl and investigate, he finds the girl playing with her toys, which are really just “candy”.

Movie fans know of Bloch’s most prolific work, Psycho, a novella that Alfred Hitchcock made into one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Connoisseurs of horror fiction know Bloch as one of the masters and great contributors to contemporary genre fiction. Like most Bloch work, the prose is short and the story well paced.

The Father Thing
By Phillip K. Dick
Submitted by Ed Gorman

Aliens have eaten Charles Watsons’ father. He must flee from the awful thing that has taken its place and take revenge on its evil master.

This is the only Dick story I’ve ever read and, while I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” more which this story resembles closely. That novel was written by Jack Finney and they were written about the same time. Finney’s allegory about the Red Scare of the 1950s is deliberately thinly veiled. Dick’s story is not an allegory, but an attempt to convey the horror of a child. As we all know from being children, the imagined horrors of our youth are the most intense. Dick does an adequate, but not superb job in capturing that.

The Distributor
By Richard Matheson
Submitted by Ed Gorman

A new man moves into Joseph Alston’s neighborhood and promptly introduces himself to Alston as Theodore Gordon. At first, Gordon seems amicable enough. But soon, he starts to “redistribute” the belongings of his neighbors. When they complain, Gordon seizes control of the neighborhood through nefarious and prurient means.

I have a passion for Matheson’s work. I have read about half of it and am looking forward to taking more soon. He is rivaled only by Bradbury in his ability to tell great genre short stories. Matheson’s prose is a forerunner to that of writers such as Stephen King who tells great tales in a straightforward manner (usually). The Distributor is just another of Matheson’s wonderful stories. Certainly not his best, but I’ve never read or seen anything by Matheson I would call bad.

The thing about Matheson is, almost everybody is familiar with his work, but they don’t know it. He wrote 13 scripts for Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” including several of its most famous episodes like “Terror at 20,000 Feet”. He wrote I Am Legend that has been made into three different movies. He also is known for blending romance and fantasy in such books made into movies as Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come.

A Warning to the Curious
By M.R. James
Submitted by Ramsey Campbell

A young man spins a tale in an English country inn about great and powerful artifacts of a forgotten age buried in the countryside. He convinces two older gentlemen to help him unearth these artifacts. Someone lives to tell the tale. . .

This is the one story in the book I really did not enjoy. Campbell tells us he appreciates the “lightness” of James’ writing. I found it dull. I liked the story concept a great deal. The two older gentlemen remind me of members of “The Chowder Society” of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. However, sometimes the failing of a story is in the poor telling of a good tale.

Opening the Door
By Arthur Machen
Submitted by Peter Atkins

A cynical journalist recounts his encounter with a man known as “The Canonbury Clergyman”. His interviews with the clergyman leave him with large gaps in his memory and disorients him in a way that is hard to reconcile with his journalist’s hardened sensibilities. When the clergyman vanishes, he recounts it as perhaps the only true case of a human being truly disappearing from existence.

I like the journalist character who, as a Fleet Street tabloid writer, is a bit of an anti-hero. Machen tells the tale as any journalist would – events chronologically told with insights from the author. It reads like a feature article from a newspaper. Machen was a journalist by trade, so he was in his element when he wrote it. This was my first experience with Machen and he’s an author more of whose works I hope to read.

The Colour Out of Space
By H.P. Lovecraft
Submitted by Richard Laymon

A meteor crashes into a New England farm. Soon, the family living on that farm devolve from human beings into subhuman beings. His neighbors and the local constabulary investigate to find the greatest horror man has ever known.

Lovecraft never tells a tale from the point of view of the victims of horror. Lovecraft’s narrative always comes from a third party observer. That is how Lovecraft terrifies the reader without ever quite showing the source of that terror. This story is a rare instance when the narrator is directly engaged in the action and sees the nature of the horror – a meteor whose description is of no color, yet of all colors. Stephen King retold this tale in a campy fashion for his anthology movie, “Creepshow”.

The Inner Room
By Robert Aickman
Submitted by Peter Straub

A young girl acquires a large dollhouse from a country antique store. The dollhouse is large enough that an entire room is required to accommodate it. Parts of it are strangely inaccessible, although its features can be observed through windows – except for room in the center of the house. The secrets of that room and that house will go on to dominate the girl and her brother into their adult years.

I read this story in a series of short installments and that may have made the experience less rewarding. I found the description of the house confusing and impossible to picture in my own mind. However, as the kids grow and the memories of the house instead of the house itself , come to the fore, the story really picks up and finishes nicely.

Young Goodman Brown
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Submitted by Rick Hautula

A young man ventures into the woods on a quest to discover his own nature and test his own morals. While there, the true nature of his wife, friends, and associates is revealed in its most debased form. Brown’s own morality is tested and he is tempted with his basest desires by the devil himself.

I read this in college and enjoyed it a great deal. I did not enjoy it so much when rereading. Some stories can only by enjoyed once, I think. I’m not a fan of classical literature – preferring modern prose. However, it is impossible to not acknowledge the contributions of early writers like Hawthorne to the development of genre fiction.

The Rats in the Walls
By H.P. Lovecraft
Submitted by Michael Slade

A young man, traveling by bicycle through New England, tries to find shelter in what appears to be an empty house. But the house is not empty. It is inhabited by a absurdly weird man who has a number of guests “living” upstairs.

I’ve read almost all of Lovecraft’s fiction and this story still ranks as my favorite. The key component of Lovecraft’s fiction is dread. Seldom do we witness the horror – whether it precedes the story or is the climax. In this story, as in most others, our imagination finishes the tale for us much better than any written word. Lovecraft knew, perhaps better than any other writer, how to let the reader’s imagination finish the tale.

The Dog Park
By Dennis Etchison
Submitted by Richard Matheson

In the wealthiest of suburbs in Los Angeles, there is a dog park utilized by the rich and the famous – and their dogs. The hero of the story lost his dog in that park and isn’t quite sure why. He goes back to explore the park and meets a woman. As they talk, the woman’s dog meets its fate and the man learns the park’s secrets.

While this was an enjoyable tale, the social commentary was entirely too thinly veiled as to detract from the story. I have to believe Matheson has read better fiction than ths.

The Animal Fair
By Robert Bloch
Submitted by Joe R. Lansdale

A drifter comes across a traveling “jungle show” and is horrified with inhuman cruelty which the show’s host submits the show’s prime exhibit – a trained gorilla. After leaving the show, the drifter is hitchhiking when he is picked up by the show’s master. As they travel across the country – with the poor ape in tow – the circus master relates his own tale of inhuman cruelty done to him.

While the nature of the tale is much different than that of Psycho, the telling is the same. There’s no supernatural or fantastic element to the story. It’s just a horrific tale of the sometimes inhumane nature of man.

The Pattern
By Ramsey Campbell
Submitted by Poppy Z. Brite

A young couple – the man an artist and the woman a writer – rent a secluded cabin in the English country. Their first night there, the hear a horrific scream which could only be human. They search for its source and can find no evidence of anything amiss. When they make inquiries of the locals, they are told some secrets are better left undiscovered.

The story was decent, but what struck me was how vividly Campbell can describe a setting or scene. While good settings are an element of a story, they usually can’t carry a story. Here, Campbell’s brilliant descriptions elevate an average story to brilliant.

The Tell-Tale Heart
By Edgar Allan Poe
Submitted by Joyce Carol Oates

A young man slays a rival and conceals his body beneath the floor boards of his home. He tries to convince himself of both the infallibility of his concealment and the righteousness of his deed. When the inspectors arrive to search for the missing man, he smugly invites them in to examine his abode, quite confident they will not find the missing body. But the beating of the heart. . .if he can hear it, can the inspectors?

It is impossible to take a high school literature class and not be assigned this story. It is one of the most famous stories in history, spoofed, imitated and retold countless times. Poe’s legacy is the most enduring of any American horror writer.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
By Ambrose Bierce
Submitted by Dennis Etchison

A confederate spy is about to hang for attempting to sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge. The hanging goes awry and he escapes into the river below. He eludes the Union troops pursuing him until he gets home when. . . .

I first read this story when I was in grade school and it was my first experience with a plot twist. It made an indelible impression on me. I forgot the author, but never the story, until I was in high school when it assigned in a literature class. Now, the name Ambrose Bierce, for me, will be forever linked to everything that is great in short fiction.

Bierce wrote more than one hundred short stories – mostly real life or supernatural horror from the Civil War. This particular story was adapted into a 22 minute film, without dialogue, for Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” with exceptional quality. It was also adapted for radio for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater in the 1970s.

The Human Chair
By Edogawa Rampo
Submitted by Harlan Ellison

A Japanese writer receives a strange letter from a furniture maker, telling her of how he designed a chair that allows him to hide inside it, undetected. He recounts how he used the chair to take up residence in an expensive hotel and make a living as a thief. Soon, his use of the chair becomes more prurient and horrifying.

This story had a delightful twist. It was originally written in Japanese and the translation is sometimes a bit stilted – lapsing into passive voice when active voice would have b been better. Nonetheless, Ellison promises a horror story to rival anything written by American or British authors and he does not disappoint.

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