BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 19 original tales inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
PROS: This anthology of stories inspired by Poe’s tales is full of imaginative, moving, frightening stories that, despite the shared theme, never repeat one another except in their high quality.
CONS: The few stories that attempt dark humor fall flat, and stories using more experimental narrative techniques (such as the use of the second person) are less successful than stories using more traditional methods.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best original anthologies ever edited by Ellen Datlow – a high compliment indeed, given her prowess as an anthologist. Poe would have been proud to know that he inspired such a fine collection of stories.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, 200 years ago. It’s tempting to wonder what he could possibly have known about real-life horror, living, as he did, before the Holocaust, before Pol Pot, before people flew airplanes into skyscrapers on orders from God. But Poe knew plenty about horror: poverty, physical illness, alcoholism, possibly madness – certainly an active imagination – gave him all he needed to become one of the inventors of the American short story, detective fiction, and above all, the horror genre.
Poe pays tribute to Poe, the man, the writer, the poet – to the author who makes us imagine beating hearts under floors, who added the phrase “hidden in plain sight” to the language, who makes us shudder when we hear someone refer to “a cask of Amontillado.” Ellen Datlow, the distinguished editor and anthologist, chose some of the very best short fiction writers working today to write stories inspired by Poe’s work. Interestingly, most of the writers chose to write in the first person, the voice usually used by Poe himself, and a voice that works unusually well for short horror stories.
The imaginations of these writers are so diverse and spectacularly ghoulish that sometimes the particular source of the inspiration is hard to place, which is why the short afterwords by the authors are so enjoyable. Most of these authors do not reveal the source of their inspiration – that is, the particular Poe story on which their own story is based – until these afterwords, and so I will not discuss the basis for the stories in this review. Pinpointing the inspiration was great fun, I found, and I would not like to deprive you of it. These afterwords provide quick glimpses into how these authors think although, in some cases, one must conclude that that is something of a mixed blessing.
The most horrifying story in the anthology is Laird Barron’s “Strappado.” Barron is immensely talented, as he demonstrated in his 2007 debut collection, The Imago Sequence, to be re-released in paperback by Night Shade Books this year. This bitter, creepy, truly haunting tale of an “art exhibition” in which the audience becomes the art, with the particular role of each individual determined by his or her choice to go through a blue door or a red door. I confess that in typing this description of the story, I feel my skin beginning to crawl and my gorge to rise once again. Rarely has a story had such a visceral effect on me, and all without using much explicit imagery; this isn’t a splatterpunk story, but a story about the choices of the rich and bored, or, as Barron himself puts it, “[r]evelry, privilege, decadence, and deceit.” How pliable we can become in the hands of our desire to be cool! If this story isn’t up for a Stoker prize this year, I’ll be astonished.
It will have some serious competition, though, in Lucius Shepard’s “Kirikh’quru Krokundor.” This story is, in some ways, the moral opposite of Barron’s story, in that it does not seem to deal so much with choice as with coercion. Shepard posits a jungle paradise where sexual licentiousness is imposed by the environment, leaving humans helpless to do anything but engage wholeheartedly in the perverse. The notion of being literally unable to do anything about one’s animal nature is so repellent, so frightening, and in this atmosphere of lushness and beauty, so compelling, that Shepard’s story is eerily irresistible.
The final story in the book, John Langan’s “Technicolor,” is another tour de force, and makes me very eager to read Langan’s new collection from Prime, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. In “Technicolor, Langan’s speaker teaches a seminar in Poe’s story, “The Masque of Red Death,” and in so doing, works his own brand of magic – a magic he claims Poe was attempting, but was never able to pull off. The seminar room seems so familiar, right down to the cookies; the language is exactly right, the effects just a bit like a teacher who might be trying a bit too hard to make a class interesting. This carefully woven story is so perfectly woven that it’s only when it’s too late that you, and the students, realize what is happening.
There are other very fine stories by authors like Gregory Frost, whose “The Final Act” plays on the doubts of every husband who is married to a beautiful woman. Delia Sherman contributes “The Red Piano,” a story of a romance with man who seems like a dream come true to a lonely academic – or is he a nightmare made flesh? Kaaron Warren, an author new to me, has written a deliciously spooky tale in “The Tell,” inspired by my favorite Poe story, which is followed immediately by “The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud” by David Prill, a scary story about farms and encyclopedia salesmen.
Not every story entices. Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain,” which opens the book, is an attempt at humor that fall completely flat. I’ve never thought that humor and horror mix particularly well, and this story seems to be Exhibit A to prove that thesis. The talented Glen Hirshberg also stumbles a bit with “The Pikesville Buffalo,” which, together with Barbara Roden’s “The Brink of Eternity,” makes this anthology sag a bit in the middle.
On the other hand, the anthology is made stronger by including tales by authors one would not normally expect to find writing in the horror field. Sharyn McCrumb’s “The Mountain House,” for instance, is a fine story of horror arising from, of all things, NASCAR racing. Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea” is an astonishingly good plague story. And Pat Cadigan’s “Truth and Bone” is a tale of a difficult childhood multiplied by an unwanted gift that makes the usual teenage pains seem mild.
Some theme anthologies need to be read and savored slowly, being much of a muchness, one story bearing too much of a similarity to another. Not so with Poe. Should you choose, you can sit down and read this one straight through, gulping story after story. It’s that good. Don’t blame me for the nightmares you’ll have if you do that, though. Even Poe himself would have to turn on all the lights at night and check under the bed after reading this anthology – though he’d be proud to know that he inspired such a fine collection of stories. Heck, he might well be inspired to write a few Poe-inspired stories of his own.