Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mammoth Book of Monsters edited by Stephen Jones

Mammoth Book of Monsters
Edited by Stephen Jones
Copyright 2007

Introduction by Stephen Jones
Jones introduces his anthology of monster stories by describing the ground rules for inclusion in the book and tells us we’ll see some of the old archetypes like the vampire, the werewolf, and the zombie. Godzilla gets a new look and we’ll meet some new creatures like Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex.

Visitation by David J. Schow
Supernatural debunker extraordinaire, Agnus Bond, has determined a means through which he can predict supernatural occurrences and their location. Only he believes them to be natural phenomena – not spiritual. The grandfather of his deceased partner joins him at a strange Kentucky hotel to observe the latest occurrence. Agnus says he can deflect the attack because he does not believe it to be supernatural. But the old man proves him wrong.

Mix Stephen King’s 1408 and Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and this is what you get. It’s not a bad story, but been done many times before. There’s no new or compelling twist to the scientific researcher applying science to the supernatural.

Down There by Ramsey Campbell
A woman and a male coworker are working late in a high rise building with only one working elevator. The building has a colorful past and an oddly cavernous sub-basement. She and her coworker try to make the elevator work correctly to leave the building, but end up in that strange sub-basement which was stocked with unholy terrors by its builder.

This is my second reading of this story, having first encountered it in Campbell’s collection, Alone with the Horrors. Three years ago, I said this about it: Campbell has a great concept here, but really misses the mark in character development. I love a plot-driven story, but Campbell doesn’t put any effort into making either of the characters sympathetic or unsympathetic. They’re just “there” for the action to revolve around. I stand by that statement. The reader is left with no idea what motivates these characters. Campbell feints at it. He gives us hints, but never fleshes them out. Better characters would have made this heavily plot driven story better.

The Man He Had Been Before by Scott Edelman
A 14 year old boy lives in a remote cabin with his constantly arguing parents. The world is gone, now dominated by zombies that hunt by night. By day, the family hunts sleeping zombies. This has gone of four eight years and the boy longs for a normal life and a family that isn’t always fighting with each other. One night, he slips out of the cabin and into his old home in the suburbs. He goes to the basement where memories of his youth and his abusive father come back to him.

This an exceptional short story that takes the zombie motif back to its origins in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. While the zombie world is a backdrop, the story is about loneliness and longing for normalcy, much as Richard Morgan wanted it in Matheson’s story. The central character is developed wonderfully and the story is poignant. It’s one of the best zombie stories I’ve ever read.

Calling All Monsters by Dennis Etchison
A comatose and apparently braindead man listens as a doctor argues with his wife. He is all but dead, the doctor tells her. The tests confirm it. He is an organ donor and he has been in a car accident. His wife pleads in vain for the doctor to run additional tests, but the doctor says no, the harvesting must begin now. The man, apparently not feeling anything because of his damaged brain and spinal cord, is left to think his last thoughts as the “monsters” begin harvesting his organs.

This was a short and unsatisfying story. The horrors of surgery and organ harvests being performed on accident victims still able to feel and sense is a medical fact. Etchison was going for the art of being exceptionally “short” with this short story, but I didn’t feel the horror that was supposed to be there. Stephen King does a much better job building character and tension in his story about premature carving of bodies in Autopsy Room Four.

The Shadmock by R. Chetwynd Hayes
Over the years, the ancient monsters of Europe – the vampire, the werewolf, the ghoul, etc, have been breeding to create new breeds of monsters. The newest, and most fierce is the Shadmock. An English millionaire and his wife learn this when they purchase a remote cabin in the woods and decide to spend a week there in the summer. They are greeted by the house’s staff which is a gruesome looking, but polite couple and their son. A local minister visits for dinner and tells them that their house staff are monsters. The man disbelieves at first. But when the monsters relieve him of his soul to make them one of their own, he becomes a believer. Meanwhile, the wife has made an ally of the fiercest of the bunch, the handsome Shadmock who is the son of the caretakers and the gardener. She promises to help tend the garden in exchange for his protection. When his parents want to drain her blood to fertilize the garden, the young Shadmock shows them who is in charge.

This story is told in traditional European style with a voice reminiscent of Bram Stoker – lots of words! Despite its wordiness, it is a new twist on the traditional European haunt that is engaging reading. The story was made into a segment of an anthology film in 1980 entitled, The Monster Club, starring Vincent Price.

The Spider Kiss by Christopher Fowler
Good, upstanding citizens of Miami are going crazy. They are attacking, hacking, biting, and slicing their fellow Floridians for no conceivable reasons. Then, they are killing themselves in even more bizarre manners. Two Miami detectives investigate. One is older and set in his ways. The other is younger and more open to new ideas. The younger one finds the answer with a new age guru who tells him that the cosmos are leveling man’s karma by stripping him of his soul and replacing it with the souls of lesser creatures.

To say this story was horrible would be an understatement. New Age, politically correct tripe wrapped up in splatterpunk prose. Skip it!

Café Endless: Spring Rain by Nancy Holder
A Japanese businessman is entertaining his company’s American agent in downtown Tokyo. They are bar hopping when she sees the Café Spring Rain and is enchanted by its outward appearance. The Japanese businessman reluctantly agrees to accompany her. He is reluctant because there is a certain Kabuki dancer with whom he had a fling – a fling that still haunts and scars him today – who danced in that bar. He soon finds himself drawn back into the dark embrace of that undead dancer.

This story was exceptionally light on plot and heavy on imagery and erotica. It was well written in achieving what the author wanted it to. However, I like my fiction plot driven. Not much of a story here.

The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti
A college professor has a grim obsession with Medusa and collects all sorts of lore on the mythical woman with hair of snakes. A friend tells him to go to an antique book store. Deep in the musty stacks, he meets a strange woman wearing a turbin who drops him a note that directs him to a brownstone in the city. He goes and is lead to a storage room where he sits and ponders Medusa. Upon leaving, he friend tells him the whole thing was a ruse set up by his friend’s wife. Our college professor then learns the true nature of his friend’s wife.

This story was heavy on doses of dreary philosophy. The prose reminds one of Lovecraft – heavy on passive narration and light on dialogue and action. Not an exciting story. Certainly not a scary story. But some of Ligotti’s ruminations are thought provoking.

In The Poor Girl Taken by Surprise
by Gemma Files
An old woman comes to a remote Canadian inn called The Poor Girl Taken by Surprise and tells the legend of the werewolf. She tells of its roots, its nature, and its habits. This old woman knows because she is the oldest of the werewolves of Canada. These men have slain and eaten her two young daughters, also werewolves. The men, she tells them, are now her children.

This is quite the atmospheric tale. The atmosphere is bleak, lonely, and desolate in the Canadian wilderness where darkness and cold hold sway. Not a lot of story to be found here, but a chillingly told lecture on werewolves and their need to kill for the sheer joy of the kill.

Downmarket by Sydney J. Bounds
An orphaned teenager escapes an English orphanage and makes his way south to a small London town where he gets a job as a barrow boy at a local market. The tenants of the market take a liking to him and treat him well – until they decide it’s time to sacrifice him to the spirit of the market.

This is an oft-told tale of human sacrifice by otherwise good people. Bounds’ story is good in that it is short – sparing nary a word to drive his plot. He also develops his main character sufficiently for the reader to know and care about him. One of the shortest – and best – stories in the book thus far.

The Horror from the Mound by Robert E. Howard
A vampire is afoot after an unwitting, down on his luck farmer releases him from his tomb in an errant treasure hunt.

A succinct short story summed up in one sentence. Howard is known for driving his story through fast moving plots. This story never slows. Great stuff from a legend!

Fat Man by Jay Lake
Two down on their luck farmers chance across Bigfoot while hunting game in the Oregon forest. Believing they are going to get rich, they talk a local restaurant owner into letting them store the eight foot tall missing link’s body. However, as children in the area start to come up missing as Bigfoot lie dead in that freezer, the whole town learns the true nature of Bigfoot.

The Sasquatch legend is not one I’ve explored a great deal – in either fiction or non fiction. Jay Lake delivers a fast pace narrative where sometimes, points of view become confusing. Good tale nonetheless.

The Thin People by Brian Lumley
A Londoner walks back to his flat with a half drunk drinking buddy to have a nightcap. As they walk, his buddy is dismayed to find out what neighborhood he lives in. This area, he tells our Londoner, is inhabited by the Thin People. The Thin People are so tall and narrow they are nearly impossible to detect and their abodes exist in little narrow crannies. They have a talent for folding and unfolding themselves – and folding other people and things. They don’t like people very much and don’t mind folding them.

This is an original concept and give Lumley an A for creativity. Unfortunately, the story just wasn’t that interesting. His monsters weren’t that terrifying and his characters not that interesting.

The Hill by Tanith Lee
A professional librarian takes a job at a mansion outside a small village in Kent. The mansion’s grounds are inhabited by exotic species of mammals, reptiles, and insects collected by its owner and housed in woods nearby. With the landlord gone on some adventure somewhere, the librarian settles in to sort books with the butler and maid. When the alarm sounds in the village, they all respond. They find that the dead have dug themselves out of the graves of the village’s lone cemetery and are about the countryside, slithering on their bellies to get about. The mansion staff returns to the mansion to hunker down and see what happens next.

This great story is where Henry James(whose stories of the supernatural always had a rational ending) meets Hammer horror. The first person narrative is atmospheric and its main character well grounded – not given to fits of over the top fear. The resolution as to why the dead are returning is clever.

Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program by Joe Lansdale
Godzilla, once a destroyer of cities and subway cars is in recovery for his addiction to mayhem. He has a job in a steel mill providing fire and a small apartment. He shares time with other former monsters such as King Kong and Gamera who are in varying states of recovery. He tries to stay on the wagon and his sponsor desperately tries to help him. But, his love of destroying man’s creations proves too much.

Silly story without purpose. Enough said.

220 Swift by Karl Edward Wagner
A professor explores an area along the Pigeon River for the ancient mines of the conquistadors. He rooms with a graduate student who is student who is studying regional folklore. One evening, the pair are having dinner with their landlord when the professor discovers they’ve been using a Conquistador helmet as a flower pot. He demands to be taken to the cave where it was found. The professor and the graduate student enter the cavern. We find out the miners of these ancient mines weren’t conquistadors and we find out the graduate student isn’t who he said he was.

This was a fantastic tale that would have made an excellent vintage 1950s B-horror flick. Wagner keeps his reader guessing all through the story. Great stuff that would make great reading material for pre-adolescents.

Our Lady of the Sauropods by Robert Silverberg
A lady research scientist is trapped on an island that is inhabited by artificially created dinosaurs. It will be thirty days before a shuttle will arrive to pick her up. Basic challenges like gathering food and water have to be met. She is able to survive until she falls from a tree and breaks her leg. But she finds an unusual ally and benefactor. She finds she has the power to repay the favor.

This was a creative concept and a well told story by one of the masters of sci-fi/fantasy! The main character is well developed without too much backstory. This story was published about eight years before Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, so credit Silverberg with a brilliant dinosaur story – of which there are few.

The Flabby Men by Basil Copper
At some point in the earth’s future, when the planet is sickened with radiation and pollution, a research scientist is dispatched to an island research station that is studying the native inhabitants of that island. One day while exploring, he meets a woman (in this day and age, women are called “breeders”) who shows him a slimy growth on her chest. In her own language, she pleads for help. A team of researchers is dispatched to a satellite location near the village to research the nature of the problem. They find out that there are other inhabitants of the island – sea creatures who devour souls.

Cooper gets caught up a bit in describing the minute details of logistics, making his story unnecessarily long. But the main theme of malevolent sea creatures is straight out of the Lovecraft canon. Cooper’s writing made the story resemble something of where H.P. Lovecraft met Roger Corman. If one can get past the excessive verbiage, there’s a great story there.

The Silvering by Robert Holdstock
A man living on a remote island has formed an intimate relationship with a sea creature known as a Selkie who shed their sea creature skin when they come ashore and become human. When another selkie who is not his beloved shows up one evening, he is distraught to learn that she has “gone deep.” He wants her skin so he can bring her back to life. The selkie are not eager to comply.

I have mixed views on this story. I liked the twists contained in the otherwise disjointed prose. But the writing is just atrocious! Events unfold that have no bearing on anything and the narrative’s timeline is confusing and hard to follow.

Someone Else’s Problem by Michael Marshall Smith
A man boards a commuter train to take him home after a hectic day at his London office. As he sits pondering the problems at the office, he sees a monkey standing in the aisle of the car, looking at him with blue eyes. He is stunned. At first, he believes it must be somebody’s pet. Later, when he goes to the bar car for a drink, he finds the monkey and his friends. Nobody else is present. He returns to his seat. When his seat mate heads for the bar car for a snack, he doesn’t discourage her. He just wants to get home.

This story had so much potential, but fell flat. It took forever to get going. The first third of the story is the main character pondering his office problems. I don’t care to read them anymore than I care to hear them from someone. The man’s dismissal of what he sees and his lack of concern for his seat mate who is going as a lamb into a slaughter when she heads to the bar car is chilling, but it took too long to get there.

Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker
An ancient evil is awakened when a farmer removes a sunken stone from his field. A gigantic humanoid creature with large claws, large teeth, and a taste for human flesh is unleased on a British village to kill and pillage at will. The police can’t help. The church can’t help. But perhaps a new immigrant can.

Written with Barker’s usual lack of restraint, Rawhead Rex is a lot of fun and perhaps the best story in this book. The monster, Rawhead, is as menacing as they come. Parts of the story are written from his point of view and he is truly evil and depraved. Barker knows no sacred cows and adheres not to conventional mores, making the first reading of any of his stories and adventure.

The Chill Clutch of the Unseen by Kim Newman
The retired police chief of a small Connecticut town considers his responsibility to be at the train station daily to watch the train arrivals for his town is where old ghosts come to die and new monsters are born. He’s battled them like his father before him. One day an ancient ghost arrives and Chief Stockton is there to greet him. They go to Stockton’s house to discuss the pains of old age and the nature of their rivalry.

This story was too ponderous to be fun and too long for its subject matter. I like the idea of a New England town where ghosts and monsters go to die and new ones are born. I didn’t want a lesson on geriatrics.

Stephen Jones has edited some fine anthologies and has usually been able to garner submissions from great authors like Stephen King, Robert McCammon, and Neil Gaiman. This book contains many stories by authors who are strictly second and third tier writers. The biggest name in the book is Clive Barker. While Rawhead Rex is a fun, sometimes disturbing story, it’s far from his best. Robert Silverberg, Ramsey Campbell, and Brian Lumley are represented and are definite first tier writers. But like Barker, they are not represented with their best work.

I get that it’s a “Mammoth” book of monsters, but some of the stories were too mammoth. They came close to departing the definition or short story and approached the land of novella. That’s not necessarily bad except the time invested in one of these long short stories should be worth the reader’s while. Too often in this anthology, it was not worth the while.

1 comment:

  1. A WEALTH of info here. This'll keep me clicking/ reading for awhile, thank you... I haven't seen The Monster Club in YEARS.