Thursday, October 24, 2019

Five Horror Short Story Collections That Aren't My Favorites

Horror: (from the OED Online)
A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful. Also in weaker sense, intense dislike or repugnance. (The prevalent use at all times.)
I strongly believe horror, as a genre, works best at the short story level. I've probably expounded on this before, but, wait, I'm going to again. It's a masterful novel that can maintain the suspense, fear, and atmosphere to deliver a good, unnerving chill to the marrow. Unfortunately, while I've read many very good horror novels (see this post), but, man, oh Manischewitz, I've read way more terrible, or just plain crappy, ones.

On the other hand, I've read great stories from mediocre novelists. Like a nightmare, a story only needs a little time to get in there and drive a spike into your brain or leach poison into your soul. No matter how lunatic the setup is, if it only last a dozen pages, it doesn't have to be able to hold up to deep scrutiny. If you want an evil, winking planet, you can do it ("The Tugging" by Ramsey Campbell). Short fiction is where the horror can run its freest and wildest.

In A Lonely Place (1983) by Karl Edward Wagner

It's been some time since I've read all of this nigh-perfect collection, but enough memories of the best stories in remain so I feel confident in writing about it. Wagner is probably best remembered as an editor of tremendous talent and a writer of topnotch swords & sorcery tales. What he also was, was a very, very good horror writer. If you don't believe me, just look up how many times "Where the Summer Ends" and "Sticks" have been anthologized. Wagner wrote more stories than the seven included in this volume, but these are the ones with which to start.

The Inhabitants of the Lake & Other Less Welcome Tenants (1964) by Ramsey Campbell
What can I say, I love this one, it's an absolute blast. Ramsey Campbell, one of the most respected names in horror, began, as most genre writers do, as a fan. Before he was a teenager, inspired by ghost stories he had read he turned his hand to writing his own. Later, as a teenager, he wrote Cthulhu Mythos tales that strove to be spitting images of HPL's own. At August Derleth's suggestion, Campbell rewrote them in an English setting. In 1964, at the age of eighteen, Arkham House published, Inhabitants, Campbell's first collection.

Replete with creepy, inbred denizens of spiritually corrupt towns, unwholesome tomes, and new Mythos deities of his own devising, these stories are an absolute hoot. Lin Carter tried to do the same thing in his Mythos stories, but they are mostly failures. I think the difference is, ultimately, even at a young age, Campbell was just a better writer and Carter never got that it was atmosphere more than demonic genealogies and lists of tomes that make these sort of stories work. Now, these stories are no great works of art, but Campbell knew for them to work their needed to be discomfiting, to be disturbing. The urban decay and moral rot that's a major part of Campbell's later, non-Mythos, writing can already be found in some of these early stories.

Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens (2003) by Manly Wade Wellman

This isn't the first and it probably won't be the last collection of Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories, but it's the one I have. For those uninitiated to the wondrous magic of Wellman's yarns, these are essentially paranormal detective stories. Instead of fog-shrouded cities, they're set among the deep hollows and mountains of Appalachia and are filled with bits of real (and invented) rural folklore.

I have no memory of when I first encountered Wellman and his stories. It might have been the story "Owls Hoot in the Daytime" itself. It first appeared in Kirby McCauley's terrific anthology, Dark Forces, but I can't swear to it. However I found him, I became a fan years ago and find myself dipping back into his stories regularly. I like them all, but it's the John stories I find drawn back to most often.

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

What can I say except that this is the book, more than any other, which made me a lifelong Stephen King fan? I like many of his novels and collections, but the only one other than The Shining that I've read multiple times is this. I've read it maybe half a dozen times over the years, all at once or in bits and pieces. Including "Quitters, Inc.," "The Children of the Corn," and "Night Shift," this collects more of King's truly great stories than any of the other collections published over the years. Vampires, aliens, Lovecraftian horror, King leaves practically no horror stone unturned and it's a blast.

Looking at the table of contents, I was almost shocked at just how many of the stories in Night Shift have been filmed - eleven as standalone or parts of anthology films or tv-miniseries  and several more as non-professional shorts (the latter as part of a deal where King allowed student and amateur directors license stories for a dollar). Most of the films stink, but I'd be curious just how much King has profited from this single forty-one year old story collection. Whatever, if you aren't a King reader but are curious, this is still the best place to start.

Nocturnes (2004) by John Connolly

I discovered John Connolly through the Kevin Costner horror movie, The New Daughter (2009). The movie is not bad, if not great, still some things about it - the inevitability of its conclusion particularly - lodged themselves in my brain and wouldn't let go. When I discovered the movie was based on a story by someone named John Connolly, I decided to get a copy. A quick search brought me to Nocturnes. Since then, I've read nineteen books of Connolly's, seventeen of them part of a series, and not one has disappointed me.

From the King-like "The Cancer Cowboy Rides Again," to the MR James-like "Mr Pettinger's Dæmon," to the supernatural detective novella, "The Reflecting Eye." this book supplies all the chills and shudders I want from horror stories. Nine of the fifteen stories began as a radio scripts and that shows in their ghost-story-around-the-fireplace feel. I wrote a standalone post about the collection when I first found it that you can read HERE. I only describe the stories above as "like" King or James to give you a sense of what they're like. Connolly doesn't hide his influences, but he is not pasticheur. He writes with an authority and eloquence that verges into the poetic many, many times, and its all his own.

The best thing to come out of discovering Connolly was finding his series character, Charlie Parker. Again, I've written about the books HERE. I cannot recommend them enough.

I could write a dozen posts about another sixty collections I've loved over the decades, but these five are among the very best and among the ones I've gone back to again and again. Not every story in any of them is perfect. Some are even bad, still each of these contains among some of the very best spooky writing from the last half century.