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REVIEW: Isaac Asimov’s Halloween edited by Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of ten stories with a supernatural element that originally appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 6 stories good or better; two of them standouts.

CONS: 4 stories mediocre or worse. One story (“DikDuk”) is incomplete, but is fortunately available online.

BOTTOM LINE: A decent collection of stories with a supernatural element.

I’ve been collecting the books in the Isaac Asimov… anthology series for years and haven’t read them. (Insert biblioholism admission here. Treat self to new book for the courage to do so.) With Halloween just around the corner, I figured if I wasn’t going to read Isaac Asimov’s Halloween around this time of year, I never would. So I did.

The title Isaac Asimov’s Halloween may be misleading for those who don’t read the fine print. This anthology, like others in the series, collects stories that were originally printed in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The “Halloween” in the title does not imply stories of the horror genre; Asimov’s is a science fiction and fantasy outlet, after all. But the stories do contain some element of the supernatural and/or inhuman (read: Cthulhu).

Overall, it was a decent collection. As usual in anthologies, stories vary in quality. There were two standout stories in the ten provided: the creepy “He-We-Await” by Howard Waldrop and the humorous “The Shunned Trailer” by Esther M. Friesner.

Reviewlettes of the stories follow.


STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:

  1. “Words and Music” by William Sanders [1997 novelette]
    • Synopsis: A Cherokee Indian medicine man fights the devil at a church gathering.
    • Review: Evoking the perfect rural town charm, this story has everything you’d expect in a fight with the devil. The medicine man knows magic that affects his underlings, but it’s no match for the devil. To do that takes a head-to-head music battle with a very special guitar.
  2. “Beluthahatchie” by Andy Duncan [1997 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man named John rides on a train to Hell but refuses to get off. He ends up in the desolate town of Beluthahatchie.
    • Review: Another man vs. devil story only this time there is no clear resolution; nor any clear conflict for that matter. John is a Blues player whose songs of rebellion are revered in Hell. But is he the savior he is made out to be?
  3. “Renaissance” by Nancy Kress [1989 short story]
    • Synopsis: A shallow Hollywood couple agrees to have their baby genetically altered.
    • Review: Told from the point of view of the baby’s grandmother, this is a minor story that relies on a “surprise” ending as to the nature of the genetic experiment in which the parents agree to partake. Even moments of symbolism involving the mythological Griffin and the obvious parallels with the grandmother’s relationship with her son add little. Kress does a way better job handling the genetic engineering theme with Beggars in Spain, which is based on her even-better novella.
  4. “Dikduk” by Eliot Fintushel [1995 short story]
    • Synopsis: A Jewish boy recounts the events of when he dabbled in the occult by trying to invoke the power of Mephistopheles using the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
    • Review: This story was a pleasant surprise for two reasons. First, my initial reading revealed this story to possibly be the worst story ever – something I was ready to describe as eighty percent of Yiddish-laden reminiscence and twenty percent story that had no resolution. Then I realized that this is a publishing mistake – the second half of the story was missing from my copy of the book. D’oh! A little Internet searching (Go, go gadget Google!) revealed that “Dikduk” is available online in its entirety. Suddenly, the worst story ever had a fighting chance. The second reason I was surprised is that the missing second half rocked! A New York rooftop battle with the devil? How cool is that? As an additional bonus, the story nicely employs dikduk, a process of wordplay that uncovers secret meanings.
  5. “Pickman’s Modem” by Lawrence Watt-Evans [1992 short story]
    • Synopsis: A new modem seems to be responsible for embellishing a man’s posts to a bulletin board.
    • Review: A light story that was fun, mostly for the way it captured the pre-web-boom computer technology of its day. The reason for the malfunction is to the man’s brand new 2400 baud modem (!) is suitably humorous as well, and not the giveaway it is in other collections in which this story appears.
  6. “Thorri the Poet’s Saga” by S. N. Dyer & Lucy Kemnitzer [1995 novelette]
    • Synopsis: In an ancient Iceland, a lawyer sets out to solve a crime involving the ghost of a poet.
    • Review: It’s Law & Order: Iceland! Only it’s much less engaging than any Law & Order franchise. The Norse lawyer and his friend play detective and to solve the crime and, ultimately, the case is tried at Law Rock. Yawn.
  7. “He-We-Await” by Howard Waldrop [1987 novelette]
    • Synopsis: Details the mystery of an ancient Egyptian king who was nearly lost to history but not entirely forgotten.
    • Review: Initially off-putting because of its snapshot depictions devoid of plot, this story really rewards those who stick around for the fate of young Bobby and the part he plays in the prophecy of the lost king.
  8. “The Shunned Trailer” by Esther M. Friesner [2000 short story]
    • Synopsis: A Harvard student gets lost on Spring Break and is taken in by inhuman Cthulhu worshippers…who live in a trailer park.
    • Review: This might be considered entertaining enough just for its premise, but the fact that it’s skillfully and humorously written in Lovecraftian style itself is just brilliant; like when the student is taken in by the frog-like mother and son of one Twinkie-like trailer, he recounts: “Ah, how little I knew then the nameless horrors that awaited me. And yet I must in honesty confess that that even had some admonishing angel with a fiery sword appeared to forewarn me of how I then stood in peril, body and soul, I was so grateful to have come in out of the rain that in all likelihood I would have replied to that winged messenger, ‘Bite me.'” Funny stuff from start to finish.
  9. “The Country Doctor” by Steven Utley [1993 short story]
    • Synopsis: A man returns to his hometown, in danger from impending flood, and discovers the truth about the town’s long-dead residents when the bodies are exhumed.
    • Review: I’m not sure if this was just quiet in tone or just unremarkable. I did like the writing style, but the content was only of marginal interest.
  10. “The Golden Keeper” by Ian R. MacLeod [1907 novella]
    • Synopsis: The written diary of an accountant of the Roman Empire and how his year-long appointment to supervise a remote gold mine lead to a discovery of mysterious, ancient artifacts.
    • Review: A bit long-winded but worth it for the subject matter that unfolds. Along the way there are side tales of greed, murder and how complex but truly contemptible a person Maximus really is.
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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