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An Anthology of Fright

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Sunday, October 26, 2008; Page BW06

POE'S CHILDREN

The New Horror

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Edited by Peter Straub

Doubleday. 534 pp. $24.95

Peter Straub's revelatory anthology Poe's Children is subtitled "The New Horror," a designation that raises a couple of questions: What exactly is the "new horror?" What makes it different from, or better than, the old stuff? The answers, as Straub notes in his elegant introduction, have their roots in the horror boom that peaked and crashed in the 1980s. That boom began with the immense popular success of such novels as Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), Thomas Tryon's The Other (1971) and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971). Shortly afterward, in 1974, Stephen King published Carrie, launching one of the most successful careers in the history of popular culture. Suddenly, horror was hot, and the public's appetite for "malevolent orphans, haunted brownstones" and -- in Michael McDowell's memorable phrase -- "underwater lesbian Nazi vampire turtles" seemed inexhaustible. But a parade of satanic knockoffs had a deadening effect. Interest in these generic creations gradually declined, and the boom inevitably went bust.

The problem lay in the narrow view of horror fiction as a marketing category tied to specific tropes and specific expectations, rather than as a flexible instrument capable of addressing the "essential terror within the human animal." The 24 stories in Poe's Children illuminate that "essential terror" through an impressive, highly personal assortment of perspectives and techniques. The result is a remarkably consistent, frequently unsettling book that does as much to blur the artificial boundary between genre fiction and "literature" as any anthology in living memory.

The stories are all of a relatively recent vintage, i.e., post- Carrie. The oldest (and by far the most traditional) is Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraftian novella "The Voice of the Beach," published in 1982. The contributors, who come from all over the demographic map, include several writers with long-term connections to the horror field (King, Campbell, Thomas Tessier, Thomas Ligotti), along with rising stars such as Joe Hill (King's son) and Tia V. Travis. Two respected members of the literary mainstream (Bradford Morrow and Dan Chaon) are present, as are such uncategorizable writers as Jonathan Carroll, Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman.

There are almost too many good ones to comment on, but here are a few that struck me with particular force: In Elizabeth Hand's "Cleopatra Brimstone," a young American woman moves to England in the aftermath of a brutal rape. Once there, she discovers a latent capacity to effect astonishing -- and lethal -- transformations on the men who come into her life. This tale of predators and prey -- a kind of entomological horror story -- is erotic, disturbing and strangely beautiful.

Graham Joyce's "Black Dust" is a subtly written ghost story set in the coal-mining region near Coventry, England. A young boy whose father has been trapped by a cave-in suffers through a protracted rescue effort, in the course of which he comes face-to-face with the massive contradictions of adult behavior.

As its title indicates, M. John Harrison's "The Great God Pan" is a modern riff on Arthur Machen's classic tale about an ill-advised attempt to pierce the veil between this world and the next. Harrison's version is both an enigmatic horror story with some truly unsettling images and a grimly affecting portrait of lives scarred by grinding disappointment.

Pan makes an appearance of a different sort in John Crowley's "Missolonghi 1824." In this beautifully composed story, the dying Lord Byron remembers a magical encounter with an ancient pagan creature that has come to symbolize the "wild possibility" that animated his life and freed him to pursue his central preoccupations -- poetry and love -- in the face of the impending void.

Finally, there is Straub's own contribution, "Little Red's Tango," an impressionistic portrait of a New York City music collector that powerfully reiterates a characteristic theme: the persistence of the sacred in a chaotic, darkening world. Like the best of the stories in this splendid anthology, "Little Red's Tango" transcends genre labels and deserves to be recognized for what it is: first-rate fiction by a first-rate American writer.

-- Bill Sheehan, author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree."


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