Live Twee or Die Hard

Poe’s Children: The New Horror: An Anthology: edited by Peter Straub, containing the following stories:

The Bees by Dan Chaon
Cleopatra Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand
The Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
The Great God Pan by M. John Harrison
The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell
The Body by Brian Evenson
Louise’s Ghost by Kelly Link
The Sadness of Detail by Jonathan Carroll
Leda by M. Rickert
In Praise of Folly by Thomas Tessier
Plot Twist by David J. Schow
The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg
Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story by Thomas Ligotti
Unearthed by Benjamin Percy
Gardener of Heart by Bradford Morrow
Little Red’s Tango by Peter Straub
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet by Stephen King
20th Century Ghost by Joe Hill
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
The Kiss by Tia V. Travis
Black Dust by Graham Joyce
October in the Chair by Neil Gaiman
Missolonghi 1824 by John Crowley
Insect Dreams by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

I’d like this anthology a lot better with ‘horror’ removed from the title, though what one would replace that word with could lead to some debate: several stories don’t feature the supernatural, so that’s out; ghosts don’t appear in all the stories, so there goes ‘ghost story.’ Even The New Fabulists fails, despite the broad net of that term.

“The New Horror” seems to have started around 1980 for Straub, though several writers (Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, and Straub himself, among others) have published careers that stretch back up to 15 years before that. Again, odd: there are at least two generations of writers here, maybe even three. 130 years after Poe, the title seems a bit odd as well, and unintentionally dismissive of those 130 years of horror between Poe’s death and the appearance of the first story here.

And horror, no — about half the stories here fail to horrify, terrify, gross out or (per S.T. Joshi) unnerve. And not just because I’ve read too much horror. Some of the choices — maybe none moreso than Straub’s choice for his own story — simply aren’t horror, though all the stories in this anthology are well written.

One of the strangely dominant modes here is the sort of dark, fantastical whimsy that John Collier and Roald Dahl, among others, were masters of — perhaps the most acceptable literary form of the fantastic through much of the 20th century if one bases one’s analysis on the slick magazines and what they tended to publish for decades on end. Neil Gaiman, Straub, Jonathan Carroll and a few others offer this sort of project, in which the whimsy can sometimes be smothered in twee, never moreso than in Kelly Link’s “Louise’s Ghost”, a treacly, twinkly botch of a story.

King’s uncharacteristic entry here — I can’t recall ever seeing it anthologized since its first appearance in 1984 — is much better than I remember it, but still undercut by the sheer, well, whimsy of the basic premise. The fantastic element simply can’t bear the weight of the story’s exploration of madness and addiction. The story would be better without any nod to the fantastic.

I did enjoy many of the stories I’d never encountered before, even many of those that aren’t really horror at all. But it’s a darn peculiar anthology: peculiarly skimpy on contextual material, and peculiarly spotty in terms of satisfying the ‘horror’ portion of its title. Lightly recommended.

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