Some of the titles have jumped around in my head for ages, as did a few of the authors names, both because some became favorites and others because they seemed to become nothing. What Borderlands offers is stories that feature all kinds and styles of horror, from the non-supernatural to the otherworldly, from the quiet whisper to the shockingly violent, from dark fantasy to urban realism, psychological thriller to fairy tale, gritty suspense to gothic decadence. There's something here for the proverbial everyone. This means you.
(Speaking of Ellison, Borderlands was also my very first introduction to Poppy Z. Brite, whom Ellison lauded to the sky and back. "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood" is a goth-punk update of Lovecraft's "The Hound," both factors endearing her to me at once. I wrote about this story here.)
1994 reprint from White Wolf, cover art by Dave McKean
It was a pleasure to reread tales I'd half-remembered: "Muscae Volitantes" by Chet Williamson, but mostly unforgotten since I've been plagued by the titular condition for years. A husband's lover threatens to reveal the truth to the wife. Surely the husband can see his way out of this untenable position? And things get wonderfully, maniacally surreal in "Oh What a Swell Guy I Am," a story Monteleone happened upon out of the hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts he received. Jeffrey Osier, a regular contributor to small press mags like Deathrealm and The Horror Show, possesses a strong, passionate prose style; his bizarre images are conveyed fully formed, which resonated uncomfortably with me. In a good way. The title... is literal. Oh man, is it literal.
standard horror tropes with wit and irony but is no less the horrific for it. Pure entertainment. John Shirley's "Delia and the Dinner Party" is part child's-eye view of the titular event and splatterpunk reveal, while Nina Kiriki Hoffman's creepy short-short "Stillborn" reminded me just a bit of the underseen 1990 film The Reflecting Skin, children obsessed with... well, no spoilers!
crime fiction but wrote quite a few pulp-horror novels under the name Daniel Ransom. Likewise, "Suicide Note" by Lee Moler isn't necessarily horror but more dark erotic suspense, a man obsessed with carnality till the very end of life.
In a more general vein, two looming specters over horror fiction of this era appear in Borderlands: religious fundamentalists and sexual abuse/incest. Today these topics seem a little shelf-worn in fiction, tropes that inexperienced or lazy writers can trot out and use to push readers' buttons all too easily (it's not just in genre lit either you can be sure). But when these themes starting appearing in horror fiction it signaled efforts to make horror more serious, more real, more involved with the world at large than retreating into the vagaries of the imagination à la Lovecraft, say. These themes date Borderlands but negate it little.
Bizarre hands indeed
Fortunately their appearances here are for the most part handled with intelligence. And, yes, irreverence: Joe R. Lansdale's "By Bizarre Hands" trades in both businesses, riding the edge of irreverent black humor and down-home horror in his own inimitable style as a pedophiliac preacher/conman drives the dusty roads of Texas looking for simple-minded girls he can "save" with the Good Lord's help. Joe's story ends Borderlands on a very high note, no surprise there. And "The Good Book" from G. Wayne Miller works the Lord works in mysterious ways just right, I thought.
Nazis, chemical pollution, and the nightmare of a homeowner's lawn care make John DeChancie's "The Grass of Rememberance" an intriguing read; the connection of these disparate elements didn't quite come together for me. "Alexandra," from '80s anthology essential Charles L. Grant, was quite good but again, the ultimate intent seemed to dance away from me at the last moment. A subtle and powerful woman befriends an Oxrun Station physician. Cool, but you all know Charlie: it's what he leaves out that is probably the most important aspect of his fiction. Sometimes I wish he'd just left it in.
In "Evelyn Grace," by Thomas Tessier, a young man feels up a female corpse in a funeral home. Then things get weird. This one ends with very nearly the most objectionable word in the English language... and it is oh so right. Another one outta the park for Tessier; he's batting 1.000 here at TMHF. The ever-welcome-but-rarely-seen T.E.D. Klein contributed one of his few short stories of the '90s, "Ladder." Fate is a gamesman, a wordsmith, trailing an Irishman as he travels the globe. Klein's sense of place and locale is impeccable, and his brand of Borgesian wordplay tickle the intellect but unsettle it too; surely we are not gamepieces for an idle god...
When I solicited material for what I hope will be the first of many volumes, I made it clear I didn't want stories that employed any of the traditional symbols and images of the genre. I wanted writers to expand the envelope, to look beyond the usual metaphors, and bring me something new... They are all extremely well-written. Some stories will dazzle, while others will quietly subvert, but they will all reach down and grab for the soft parts.
So says Tom Monteleone (above) in his intro, and he really deserves kudos for his editing skill here - and I don't have room to go into everything included. There is an air of conviction in all the stories; every one means business, even the "lesser" stories. No juvenile hijinks mar the carefully crafted terrors, no lapses in the write stuff to break the spells cast. Even the tales that get under the skin in a surreal yet inexplicable manner are serious in intent and purpose but without that sense of literariness of, say, 1988's Prime Evil; it's not so high-minded as that anthology. Borderlands (and the subsequent volumes, of which I own only the second today) promises to take us far, and it does, oh it does. What you will see there you've not seen elsewhere, but it's a one-way trip. So be warned: you'll have to find your way back on your own.