One of the nice things about picking up a short story collection is that it allows you to hedge your bets. When reading a novel, you’re in it for the long haul – especially if you’ve selected it as a book of the month club selection. In the case of an anthology, however, it’s a relatively shorter haul and, while the brevity of the well-written works often leave one wanting more, the brevity of the duds prove comparatively merciful. Yes, any anthology will have its stronger entries, its weaker entries, and all those that fall somewhere along that sliding scale. Take Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination for instance, a collection I read for the first time way back in elementary school. On one side of that sliding scale sits “The Cask of Amontillado“, a tale so creepily effective that it unnerves me to this day. On the other side, you have “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in which the killer turns out to be…wait for it…an orangutan. And then there are the many, many works that fall in between.
And so it is with Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. There were some stories I liked a lot, some that failed to impress, and a few that surprised.
In “Illimitable Domain”, Kim Newman pays homage to those lurid Technicolor Poe-inspired horror films of the 60’s. In Newman’s alternate reality, these movies prove so lucrative that Poe-inspired big-screen adaptations become all the rage. As someone who grew up watching Vincent Price ham it up in such garish Roger Corman classics as House of Usher, Tales of Terror, and The Raven, I tip my hat to the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. He does such a marvelous job of blending fantasy and reality that there were instances in which I found myself fondly recalling a movie…that never actually existed! Although it peters out in the end, it proves an immensely entertaining read.
Melanie Tem’s “The Picker” draws its inspiration from several of Poe’s works, most notably The Raven, in telling the story of a woman, coming to terms with the recent loss of her husband, and her strange encounter with a group of homeless individuals. As Tem explains in the story’s afterword, she was fascinated by mythological depictions of the ravens in which “They use what we have no more use for.” Indeed, these homeless people, “the pickers”, root through the trash, take what our protagonist has no more use for – particularly the effects of her late husband – and, as the narrative progresses, seem to acquire much, much more, inevitably becoming substitutes for what she has lost. An interesting story and a fascinating premise, but I was frustrated by our heroine’s inaction and progressive lethargy.
In “Beyond Porch and Portal”, by E. Catherine Tobler, explores Poe’s last days in which he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in somebody else’s clothing. Agnes, Poe’s niece, looks into her uncle’s claims that he is being pursued by a mysterious individual named Reynolds, only to end up questioning her own sanity when the investigation lands her in an alternate dimension. Another interesting premise but a story that suffers from casual characterizations and, as a result, ends up feeling sleight.
As I started Gregory Frost’s “The Final Act”, I began to expect a modern re-telling of The Cask of Amontillado, but the story spins off in a totally different direction. Leonard offers to give his co-worker McGowren a lift, this despite the fact that he is still stinging over his wife’s indiscretion with the guy. As the ride progresses, we discover there is a long-standing animosity between the two that dates back to high school, a simmering enmity that threatens to explode into murder. A very engaging story that concludes with a twist that is certainly surprising if not altogether satisfying. As a rule, I’m not a big fan of story’s in which the narrative is ultimately undermined by the revelation that our protagonist is losing his/her mind.
Laird Barron’s “Strappado” is reminiscent of many a horror movie – a group of travelers accept an invitation to a secretive event and, once there, encounter much more than they bargained for. On the surface, it seems a fairly straightforward story and yet its deeply atmospheric progression and terrifying denouement stayed with me for days. This was one ending that I found highly effective, leaving the reader to wonder whether the final image of the protagonist and his lover entombed in the acid-filled barrel is merely symbolic of the inescapable experience they both shared or a shocking return to reality from an imagined escape.
In “The Mountain House”, our main character is the widow of a former NASCAR driver killed doing what he loved most – racing. She moves to an Appalachian estate and there befriends a young local boy who possesses a mysterious connection to other late drivers. Author Sharyn McCrumb does a nice job of painting a sympathetic and engaging portrait of the NASCAR spirit although, in the end and even with the benefit of the afterword, the Poe connection was lost on me.
From the standpoint of character study, Glen Hirshberg’s “The Pikesville Buffalo” in which our protagonist pays a visit to his two eccentric great aunts, Ethel and Zippo, is wonderfully touching. As a horror story dealing with shape shifters capable of assuming animal form, it falls a little flat.
In “The Brink of Eternity”, Barbara Roden offers up a beautifully lyrical and, by contrast, effectively bleak account of one explorer’s obsessive search of the North Pole for the entrance to the mythic “hollow earth”. A truly horrifying descent into isolation and madness.
Stylistically, I found Delia Sherman’s “The Red Piano” most evocative of Poe’s work. A woman rents a house on the condition that she not touch a mysterious red piano. She thinks nothing of it and, as she settles in, gets to know her neighbor, a seemingly lonely fellow named Roderick (!) who happens to have a similar piano in his mansion. As romance blossoms, the reader begins to suspect that there may be a deeper, almost other-worldly connection between the two pianos. Not my favorite entry but an entertaining read nevertheless.
M. Rickert’s “Sleeping with Angels” is another haunting story that succeeds because it is, at its heart, a story of neglect and child abuse as told through the eyes of an innocent child whose friend, Annabel, seems an odd little girl – but her injuries and tall tales belie a terrible secret…
In Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Shadow”, the reader is the protagonist, a woman who has sealed herself off from the outside world stricken by a horrible plague. As you sit, barricaded inside your home, you watch a videotape recording of your seemingly lunatic uncle who informs you of a “shadow” that has infected the place. Another nicely atmospheric entry that does a slow build to its decisive conclusion.
I found Pat Cadigan’s entry more reminiscent of The Twilight Zone than Poe. In “Truth and Bone”, we are introduced to a teenager who hails from a family possessed of paranormal powers. She, herself, has the ability to foresee an individual’s time and manner of death and uses this knowledge to save the life of a local bully – with disastrous results. As in many tales of this ilk (and here I include time travel stories as well), the lesson seems to be that the future is fated to happen and no amount of tampering will deny destiny. A fine entry although I felt as though I’d seen and read it before.
Nicholas Royle’s “The Reunion” is a weird little tale about a couple attending a reunion taking place at a bizarre hotel. Time shifts abound as the husband bears witness to architectural impossibilities, future versions of his fellow guests, and his own doppelganger. The story sets up an intriguing scenario it never pays off, cutting out at the climactic moment when our protagonist is about to come face to face with his double.
Kaaron Warren’s “The Tell” is a riff on Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. In this story, an enigmatic stranger presents our heroine with a gift: a horsehair heart said to have belonged to Poe himself. As it turns out, the heart may well have been the inspiration for many of Poe’s tales as it confers upon its owner the ability to dream the darkest of nightmares. Not one of my favorites either.
Another Twilight Zone-esque outing is David Prill’s “The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud” about a salesman whose visit to a remote farm proves a most unwise detour. A terrific little gut punch of terror. This one WAS one of my favorites.
While the Poe connection is tenuous, Kristine Katherine Rusch spins a disconcerting tale of a woman, assaulted and left for dead by someone she trusted, who struggles to recover from the violent attack. Her vocal chords damaged beyond repair, she communicates via a voice box, and is forced to move back home with her parents as she awaits a trial that may not go her way. It’s a dark and, frankly, quite depressing story – but dead on.
Lucius Shepard’s “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” charts the journey of a group of anthropologists to deepest, darkest Venezuela where they encounter a bizarre otherworldly force that compels them to have sex with each other. Hmmmm.
In “Lowland Sea”, Suzy McKee Charnas gives us a contemporary spin on The Masque of the Red Death, a terrific end-of-the-world scenario where the survivors of a plague known as the red sweat carouse their days away in a secure compound while society crumble around them. Eventually, when provisions begin to run low, our heroine Miriam is sent (read: forced) out on a fact-finding mission (read: to test whether the contagion is still active). She returns to the compound with now news but is refused entry on suspicion that she is now infected. The revenge she exacts on the survivors is perfection.
The final entry in the collection, John Langan’s “Technicolor” in which The reader is audience to a college professor’s lecture outlining his theory on the meaning behind the mysterious color sequence in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. It’s a clever story that ambles along straightforwardly enough only to take an astonishing hairpin turn in its last page. Worth the price of admission.
Editor Ellen Datlow has done a nice job of assembling a varied selection of stories paying homage to Poe. Tales humorous and horrific, uncanny and unpredictable, there’s something in this collection for everyone. So, now that I’ve waded in with my preliminary thoughts, what did everyone else think? Start posting your questions for editor Ellen Datlow.