Anthologies really need to have some kind of bonus material, outside of the stories themselves. Until recently, I’d have thought this was so well understood not just by me but by the people who actually put anthologies together that the last thing I’d ever have to do in my life is mention it. Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror collections are so packed with story notes and introductions and the-year-that-was essays that it’s getting to the point where that stuff makes up about a quarter of the whole book (I am not complaining about this). The very least you’re bound to get are brief author biographies and some kind of introduction explaining what the anthology is all about. This is common for all kinds of anthologies, in all genres, though it strikes me as particularly useful or, alternately, amusingly pointless, in horror anthologies because they always have some sort of core idea, however vague. Presumably, all anthologies have some idea behind them, but in horror, even the vague ones are specific. Ellen Datlow’s Inferno came into being supposedly out of a desire to collect stories each of which contained a moment of horror so powerful as to make the reader actually uncomfortable (which is, well, more on that another day). On the less vague end, you have something like Michelle Slung’s I Shudder At Your Touch, which features stories that combine horror with eroticism. You don’t tend to see this sort of thing in mainstream literary anthologies. You don’t, for example, see anthologies made up exclusively of stories about trying to make it through Harvard Law School while strung out on heroin, or about married couples whose lives are crumbling because what happened on their trip to Angola changed them irreparably.
So because of this specificity in horror anthologies, some sort of explanatory introduction, at the very least, would seem to be in order. Never has this been more true than in the case of D. F. Lewis’s new collection The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies. I first encountered any mention of the book through a link on a horror message board that described it only as The HA of HA, which also offered a look at the cover. Following a line of logical reasoning I can now no longer reproduce nor justify, I initially assumed this was an anthology of essays. But no, further exploration revealed that this very curious book is actually a collection of brand new, original horror stories, each of which revolves around a fictional horror anthology. So, for example, you might have a story called “No Fangs, I’m Trying to Read!” that’s about a lonely guy who has been waiting for this new anthology of vampire stories called A Bite on the Town to come out – all of the stories are about going on dates with vampires – and when it finally hits stores, he goes by after work to pick it up, brings it home, sits in his favorite chair and happily opens the book to begin his night of reading, but then a vampire pops out of the book and eats him. Or I don’t know, maybe in a twist it’s a werewolf instead.
The point is, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies contains no explanatory material whatsoever, not even on the back cover. If I hadn’t stumbled across that link on-line I…well, first of all I might not have ever heard of the book in the first place, but if I had I would have no clue what kind of wonky book this is. I mean, that title really isn’t much help – it reads more like a brag than anything else. This is the horror anthology to end all horror anthologies, sort of thing. Also not included in the book are any author biographies, which is, if anything, even more surprising. This is a pretty packed collection, and of twenty authors represented, I’ve only heard of three, and only one, Reggie Oliver, do I know anything at all about. Part of the point of anthologies, I would have thought, is to introduce the reader to previously unknown talent, and to let the reader know who these people are. One of the writers in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, I have since learned through my own research, is pretty brand new himself, with only four or five publishing credits to his name. You could argue there’s not much biography to include in his case, but I would argue right back that this is exactly why he needs it.
Anyway. This is all less a criticism than a note on the various different ways The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies manages to be weird. It also means that in my selection of which stories to read, I was largely flying blind -- I knew almost none of the writers, and had no information to guide me. Yes, I could have stacked the deck in the anthology's favor by choosing Reggie Oliver's story, him being the heir apparent to Arthur Machen, but no, I was going new the whole way. Which mainly worked out, since the first story I chose, Mike O'Driscoll's "The Rediscovery of Death", is sort of a hoot, and catnip for a guy like me. The main character is Nick Cleaver, and Cleaver is the owner of the small horror publisher Thingumbob Press. He specializes in publishing the first story collections by promising young horror writers. His business life has been a bit of a see-saw, and Nick is nervous about the future when he's contacted by a man named Simon Strickle who claims to have in his possession a large number of excellent, never-before published stories by the genre's leading writers. Intrigued, Cleaver agrees to meet with Strickle and have a look. However, he'd assumed that by "leading writers" Strickle had meant contemporary names, like King, Campbell, Barker, and so on. But no. The first name Strickle mentions is Robert Aickman, dead for thirty years. And Shirley Jackson, dead for almost fifty. Fritz Leiber, August Derleth, Angela Carter, all dead. H.P. Lovecraft...
How, Cleaver wants to know, did nobody know about these stories? How could the estates, the various biographers and anthologists, not know? And right around here is where "The Rediscovery of Death" gets amusing, because O'Driscoll starts name-dropping like crazy. Not name-dropping in the "I know this person!" sense, but in the "I'm going to pack my story as full of real names as is physically possible." So, when Cleaver is researching Strickle on the internet, we get:
By the late eighties Strickle was editing a series of little known but highly influential anthologies, all now out of print. Among those who commented on Strickle's work was Jonathan Carroll, who called him one of the most astute editors in the field, while Peter Crowther said he owed him a huge debt of gratitude...
There were people [Cleaver] could speak to about Strickle -- Peter Crowther for one. And surely Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones could confirm his reputation?
And elsewhere he wonders aloud to Strickle how editors like David G. Hartwell and S. T. Joshi could have missed these stories, so thorough are they. Outside of the double up on Peter Crowther, no horror editor or anthologist is mentioned twice -- every time, it's someone knew, which gets a little ridiculous (although, on the other hand, where the hell was Kim Newman in all this?). But fun. I found it to be sort of like watching a film and suddenly a major scene is taking place on a streetcorner you know very well, maybe near where you grew up. It's uselessly exciting. Useless or not, though, I enjoyed how fully within the world of contemporary horror publishing O'Driscoll wanted to submerge his story, and this method ended up achieving the verisimilitude he was no doubt going for. He does the same thing with the writers whose stories Strickle gives to Cleaver, and that was neat, too, although I did blanch when suddenly Richard Laymon's name was dropped in there with Aickman and Lovecraft and Jackson and Leiber and so on. I mean, please.
As for the story itself, it's a good one. It's not entirely not what you might expect from a story with that premise -- Strickle is clearly a sinister figure, and Cleaver has no clue what he's getting into, even as the stories themselves, each one a fresh masterpiece, begin to obsess him. I won't ruin it, though. One odd thing is that among the writers being celebrated/used to crush Nick Cleaver's soul is one named Willard Grant. He appears to be fictional, but my assumption that Grant would come to function in a way similar to Lilith Blake from Mark Samuels' fiction turned out to be off. There's something going on there -- O'Driscoll's "The Rediscovery of Death" takes it's title from Grant's "The Rediscovery of Death", which in turn will become the title anthology, The Rediscovery of Death, being put together by Cleaver. But O'Driscoll doesn't go much further with that. Maybe for the best. Anyway, I'm in favor of this sort of post-modern horror fiction, of which there is very little -- you're far more likely to find this kind of thing on film, and there it's generally being produced by a pack of gibbering idiots. So this is better!
One of the contemporary horror writers whose name O'Driscoll drops is Rhys Hughes, and Hughes just happens to have his own story in The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies. It's a short one, six pages, called "Tears of the Mutant Jesters", and while laziness played a role, I did choose two very short stories to follow up O'Driscoll's long-ish (not very, though) story because I wondered how the premise inherent to the whole anthology could be gotten across, while still leaving room for anything else, in a six or seven page story. Plus, one of those stories was called "Tears of the Mutant Jesters", and I'm not made of stone. Well, in Hughes's case, it doesn't matter, because "Tears of the Mutant Jesters" plays more like an advertisement for surreal horror than anything else, and a pretty low brand of surrealism, at that. "Tears of the Mutant Jesters" is the title of a horror anthology beloved by Thornton Excelsior. It is a collection of surreal horror, "a somewhat sidelined subgenre." The six pages of the story mainly consist of the book needing readjustment on the shelf, the book weeping, Excelsior's attempt to help the book, his various conversations, which are basically each exactly the same, with his housekeepers -- none of whom he hired which is pretty surreal when you think about it -- named Dawn, Midday and Dusk. So you'll have lines like "Dusk was sweeping the land", which is a pun, but also she really is sweeping the land -- sweeping up mountains. Anyway, I guess I missed the thing where everybody likes puns again, but I still don't. Hughes features them prominently, and makes me very much against the idea of partaking in his brand of surreal horror.
The final story I read, though, I think is rather interesting. It's called "You Walk the Pages", and was written by Mark Valentine, a writer I only know by name. Also quite short, this story is narrated by a clearly insane man who wishes to relate how he used the services of a gift website called youwalkthepages.com to get back at his enemies. The site -- which, if some version doesn't actually exist now, certainly will soon -- takes classic literature and replaces the names of the heroes with the names of whoever you want to give the gift to. So if someone wanted to get me a copy of Ulysses wherein I can read things like "Mr. Bill R. ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls", that's how you'd go about it. But our narrator has the idea to place his enemies in the position of victims in horror stories. The resulting private volume is Valentine's horror anthology.
And I know what you're probably thinking about where this one's heading, but I'll go ahead and spoil it, sort of, by pointing out that no, these enemies do not suddenly drop dead. This is because our narrator is insane. He's delusional. He's never not those things, and the story doesn't try to fool us into thinking that what he believes might be true but might not be true -- it pretty obviously isn't, and the horror of "You Walk the Pages" is the horror of the narrator's madness. On this level, it is entirely successful. When describing one of his "enemies", an old man who takes up too much space at the library table, our narrator says:
I want to sit there and make notes, I only have a standard size notebook, I do not need much space, but it is all I can do to get a little patch of the desk because of all the space he has got with his papers. He does not even look up, he does not give any sign that he sees you, or that you might want some space as well, you might as well not be there. If he saw what books I was looking at and what i was writing in my book he might take a different attitude I believe.
I also like the approach to the anthology idea here. While O'Driscoll's approach is as delightfull literal as you might expect when hearing the idea for The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, and Hughes's approach is to sort of not approach it at all, Valentine imagines something entirely new and unique and on point. Well done.