Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Year's Best Horror Stories XVI, ed. by Karl Edward Wagner (1988): Savage Amusement

Sorry to say that nothing quite as terrifying as J.K. Potter's cover illustration appears inside this 16th installment of The Year's Best Horror Stories (DAW Books, October 1988). Which is not to say this anthology isn't worthy of a place on your horror bookshelf; indeed, any self-respecting vintage horror fiction fan probably has at least a few of these, published from 1974 to 1994. It is to say that the stories collected here by Karl Edward Wagner are generally on the more mature end of horror, stories written with flair, intelligence, and only a little gratuitous grue—though there are several worthy exceptions to this observation. As book designs go, I dig this one a lot: the bold red, the gargoyles bordering the bizarre image, as well as something not seen: a tacky blurb noting the presence of a new Stephen King story! Most paperbacks then would've blasted that info from here to kingdom come.
This new King story, first printed in the J.N. Williamson anthology Masques II, "Popsy," wouldn't appear in an King book till 1993, in his third short-story collection, Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Wagner puts it first, although its vibe doesn't really give you much of a feel for what comes after. It's a mean little story, with pulpy crime fiction elements, probably King was reading a lot Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, and Andrew Vachss at the time. Dude owes lots of money from gambling debts, a mysterious criminal boss wants little kids, so dude's gotta step up, doesn't wanna know what'll happen to either himself or the kids if he doesn't. But he kidnaps a child who has more to protect him than simply human parents. Wish I'd read this one back in the day, with a terrific climax, oh that delicious King snap: and his breath was like flyblown meat.

Children's and young adult author Jane Yolen (above) brings us her "Wolf/Child," a fine little tale of colonial exploitation, native superstition, and comeuppance. As one character says, "There are many odd things out here in the jungle... It just takes an observant eye, my boy." The title is perfectly literal, the payoff perfectly delivered. In David Campton's "Repossession" a middling accountant becomes fascinated by a light burning in the window of a derelict factory building. Soon he's having visions in which he imagines himself inside the factory, seeing a man in a black Victorian frock-coat, which you know isn't good.
Well-known genre practitioners appear: quiet horror maestro Charles L. Grant's "Everything to Live For" is a thoughtful exploration of teen life, one of my least favorite topics, and encroaching death. A sadness at the core makes for chilly reading. Pure Grant goodness. Ramsey Campbell wrote "Merry May" for his 1987 collection of "sex and terror" stories, Scared Stiff (heh). Campbell mixes his brand of urban decay with some folk horror, and the result is truly unsettling: a creep drives a few towns over for some illicit vacation satisfaction promise from a magazine ad and  gets a fine how-do-you-do from the villagers celebrating May Day in their own special way.
Wagner reaching across Ramsey Campbell, 1980s
"The Scar," Dennis Etchison's entry, is one of his oblique and metaphoric works of psychic anomie, and in his intro Wagner notes its "mood of paranoid urgency," but this one truly left me scratching my head, alas. Guy has a violent freakout in a diner, woman with a disfigured face... Wagner also mentions Etchison "is planning a new anthology, Double Edge, to follow his tremendously successful Cutting Edge." A sequel to Cutting Edge, the terrific 1986 anthology?! It never came to be, alas, although Etchison did publish a Dell novel with that title in 1997.

Noted film historian Leslie Halliwell (below) provides some great suspense and claustrophobia in "La Nuit des Chiens," bringing to life a  rich European paradise. A group of old friends make their way through a small town celebrating a local festival, looking for an upscale restaurant, but find themselves on darkened unfamiliar streets, an increasingly large number of dogs following them... and in imagination he felt the savage amusement of beasts at the group's clumsy, hesitant progress. The unexpected appearance of the n-word surprised me, although I got it—British Halliwell is referencing the British-only title of the world's bestselling mystery novel, but I wish maybe Wagner had simply bleeped it out. But story trades on its twist which isn't truly worthy of the careful buildup before it. Have you noticed that when people who aren't horror writers try to write horror they think it's only about that twist ending? And cannibalism? 
The man behind the endless psychic vampire Necroscope saga, Brian Lumley, presents "The Thin People." It elicits some absurdist shivers with the literalization of its title—but it only made me think of this classic "Simpsons" bit, sorry. R. Chetwynd-Hayes is in top form, in his witty yet still scarily effective "Moving Day." This title is euphemism, to the horror of the man who's gone to live with his great-aunts, surely always a poor idea. "Give your Auntie Edith a nice kiss, dear!"

My appreciation of horror poetry begins and ends with Baudelaire, so I'm not sure what to make of t. Winter-Damon's "Martyr without Canon" other than it's a jumble of nonsense, like those liner notes a Beat-besotted Bob Dylan used to write for his albums back in the Sixties. It appeared first in Grue magazine, which I don't think I'd heard of before this, a semi-pro zine that ran from 1985 to 1999. Winter-Damon, whose poetry appeared in many small-press horror publications, died in 2008. Another small-press poet, Wayne Allen Sallee, provides "The Touch," a non-supernatural bit of gritty, everyday violence, always Sallee's stock-in-trade.

British periodical that ran 1979-2001, first appearance of "Echoes from the Abbey"
Fans of more old-fashioned frights, like prior to the 20th century, shouldn't miss "The Bellfounder's Wife" by A. F. Kidd and "Echoes from the Abbey" by Sheila Hodgson. These two women, neither of whom I was familiar with till now, are at ease evoking subtle terrors in the manner of M.R. James: My last impression was of a series of gaping mouths set in folds of dirty linen. These are as far from typical "Eighties horror" as it is possible to get, and Kidd's ice and fire ghost is one of this antho's most arresting entities... 

She was almost close enough to touch, now, and I saw with a sort of fascinated revulsion that the whole of her side and her arm were boiling, like milk on a stove, bubbles rising to the surface and bursting. The flesh hissed and simmered, and I felt the heat which radiated from it. Her ruined face drew close to mine, and then she smiled.

Wagner finishes on a high note with Michael Shea's "Fat Face," originally published as a chapbook by Axolotl Press. Patti is a prostitute working in a Los Angeles massage parlor in a cheap hotel; across the street in an office building a man sits at his office window and looks down on the activity below. Despite the mockery of her colleagues, Patti feels kindly toward him as he runs an animal shelter there, and one day decides to visit. While I found it over-written and overlong, the payoff is a wonderfully disgusting bit of Lovecraftian grue, body horror so gooey and grotesque it would've been a perfect Stuart Gordon vehicle. 
Nightmare ought not to be so simply there before her, so dizzyingly adjacent to reality. That the shapes should be such seething plasms, such cunning , titan maggots as she had dreamed of, this was just half the horror...

I haven't mentioned all the stories, however they're fine if lacking a bit of real bite. Wagner's brief introductions provide biographical background on each contributor, which is great because I knew virtually nothing about a handful of them (many included were more SF&F writers, which may be why). He also states "these stories are chosen without regard to theme or method, style or approach," and that well-known writers appear along with the not-known. That's certainly how I myself learned my way in and around the genre back in the Eighties, buying and devouring anthologies filled with names I only dimly was aware of, and then sought out more work by the authors who had the most effect on me—I'm sure you've done the same.

While I enjoyed this volume as I read it, impressed by the high-caliber, professional-grade prose and imaginative flair on display, I began to feel there was little potency, little that reached down deep to disturb, to linger. Not to say this title isn't full of good horror moments; it is, with lots of the authors working at the top of their respective games. But I often wonder, when reading a vintage horror for the first time, if I would have enjoyed it had it on its original publication. That's why I chose this Volume XVI: it came out in late 1988, when I was starting my senior year in high school and really ramping up my horror intake. Would I have been impressed by the stories herein? Not sure, as nothing here is as inventively ground-breaking as what Clive Barker or Joe Lansdale or Michael Blumlein or Poppy Z. Brite were doing back then. Still, anything with Wagner's name attached is a must-have for your horror paperback library, and I look forward to collecting every volume—only three left to go for me!—of Year's Best Horror.


Treebeard said...

You read stories featuring depravity, violence and horror, but the "n-word" is so offensive to your sensibilities that you wish it was bleeped out? Hilarious, dude.

tarbandu said...

I began collecting these DAW ‘Year’s Best Horror Stories’ anthologies in 1977 and over the years I have accumulated all but one or two of them. Regardless of the year, and whether the editor was Richard Davis, Gerald Page, or Karl Edward Wagner, for any volume there would be at most four or so stories that were really worthwhile.

While it was true that during the 70s and 80s there were few outlets for short horror fiction, and to acquire a sufficient page count, the editors had to bring in some mediocre material, it’s also true that year after year the same select group of contributors – bosom friends and acquaintances of the editors - were solicited for entries, thus ensuring that younger, newer writers were underrepresented.

I’m not saying that DAW needed to incorporate splat tales that offered the literary equivalent of the recent Ronnie McNutt shotgun-suicide video, but too often, subpar / dialed-in efforts from ‘name’ writers became the norm.

Anyways, enough of my soapbox……….good luck acquiring the few volumes needed to complete your collection, as they are getting pricier and pricier…….I remember about 11-12 years ago I got outbid on a full set (in very fine condition) at eBay for something like $68. I purse my lips and frown, thinking that I should’ve bid $10 – $15 higher and thus grabbed them, but hindsight is always 20/20……sigh.....

Rob said...

You got so uptight about the blogger not liking the "n word" that you felt compelled to write a nasty and condescending comment on his own blog. Pathetic, dude.

John said...

“Tarbandu” said:

While it was true that during the 70s and 80s there were few outlets for short horror fiction, and to acquire a sufficient page count, the editors had to bring in some mediocre material, it’s also true that year after year the same select group of contributors – bosom friends and acquaintances of the editors - were solicited for entries, thus ensuring that younger, newer writers were underrepresented.

The first line of this doesn’t make much sense to me. Through at least the late ‘70s and most of the ‘80s there were plenty of outlets large and small for short horror fiction. At least one major magazine in Twilight Zone and countless smaller periodicals constantly springing up all over the place, from Whispers on down, as well as no shortage of anthologies produced by mainstream and specialist publishers over that period. Many of the stories Wagner selected for his anthologies came from obscure little publications with readerships that probably never exceeded double digits. And of course what you personally consider “mediocre material” might always reveal hidden depths to another reader’s eyes.

The latter part of that statement, however, reads like the kind of mean-spirited attack on Wagner’s credibility one might expect from a failed writer of that (or this) period, especially since he explicitly stated time and time again that there was no favoritism at work in his choice of writers to fill his anthologies with. Convenient enough that he can’t respond to any of it, I guess.

Seems like it’s kinda fashionable in this day and age to slam our predecessors in this little literary niche, whether such criticism is warranted or (more often than not, I would argue) not. Wagner’s choices were never going to make everybody happy, in fact he probably wasn’t even interested in trying to please everybody, or in showing off “groundbreaking” new work if it wasn’t to his taste. (Plus there’s probably all sorts of legal BS involved behind the scenes meaning he couldn’t reprint this or that Barker story). Maybe it’s just me, but considering the legacy he left as a writer and editor of horror actually worth reading that went on to inspire a new generation of readers and writers, I’m inclined to be a little more grateful for his contributions the genre.

Michael Parish said...


I’m surprised you haven’t reviewed anything by Lumley. His Necroscope series is ubiquitous in used bookstores, at least in my neck of the woods.