Monday, 28 April 2008
Arthur enjoys the two latest volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, despite the best efforts of its editor.
The Reading Canary: A Reminder
Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Wait, There's Good New Horror?
Almost since the birth of Ferretbrain I have walked its nighttime corridors like a phantom, rattling my chains and bewailing the damnation of the horror genre. How, I asked myself, is anyone supposed to find the jewels from the dross any more, in the absence of a "Horror Masterworks" series?
Well, perhaps I have been looking in the wrong places. Surely one of the major annual horror anthology series will be able to point me in the right direction? I mean, it's edited by Stephen Jones, who I dislike chiefly for his poor handling of several Fantasy Masterworks compilations, but can it succeed despite him? I certainly hope so. Having found the two latest volumes in Oxfam, at a price I couldn't well refuse, I snatched them up eagerly. Maybe this will be the roadmap I am looking for!
Volume 17 of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror fits the model which, so far as I can tell, all of the previous books in the series have adhered to. The beginning consists of a review of the horror field in 2005 by Stephen Jones. An 80-page review, riddled with typos.
I wouldn't resent the amount of space take up by this review if it were actually insightful, but Jones contents himself with dryly noting every single horror book, film, and game which was published in 2005, without passing comment on whether any of these publications were any good. This is almost entirely useless. People who are unfamiliar with the horror genre aren't going to be able to find the cream amongst the crap from such a list, and even people who are familiar with the genre are going to have little idea from the review whether that new author's first novel is actually worth their time. The only people who could possibly get any use out of this list are people who are fond of particular authors and follow their work avidly; even then, the listing isn't especially helpful. Such fans aren't going to get their news about their favourite author from an annual anthology; they get e-mails about it from Amazon, they subscribe to the writer's mailing list or RSS feed, they check the horror websites, they read the magazines. And the listing is so long that it's easy to simply miss an entry about an author you are interested in anyway.
The listing also roves somewhere beyond the boundaries of horror, incorporating a lot of fantasy and crime fiction. On one hand, this is fair enough: horror is less well-defined than other genres (rather than being based around the setting, like fantasy or SF, or the sort of things that happen in it, like crime novels, it's based around the mood it evokes). As I say in my earlier scribblings about horror on Ferretbrain, part of the problem that the horror genre faces is that it's all too easy to rebrand your book as a different, more popular, more successful genre. Got vampires? It's fantasy! Are there aliens? SF! Is it a serial killer story? It's a crime novel!
On the other hand, stretching the definition of "horror" to include Harry Potter novels is going too far.
Aside from a few mentions of incidents and controversies in horror fandom and publishing in 2005, for the bulk of it the review lacks anything resembling analysis - sure, this is what happened in the horror field in 2005, but what does it mean? Jones makes a token attempt at expressing an actual opinion for the last two pages, but it's utter crap. He whinges about the iPod generation not reading books on public transport, and declares that reading at all on the bus or train is dying out. (I can only assume that he keeps his eyes firmly shut whenever he uses the tube). He complains that the book industry in the UK is overproducing, that there are too many physical copies of books being printed and nobody reading them (except why would publishers arbitratily print millions of books that they are utterly failing to sell?). He tries to argue that the number of people reading books is decreasing by citing a fall in the number of books borrowed from libraries, but I would argue that this has more to do with poorly-funded libraries not being able to stock books people are interested in (and eBay and Amazon's second hand market allowing people to buy books very, very cheaply indeed) than a collapse in the number of people reading books. He complains that the economics of selling to Amazon and supermarket booksellers will prompt major publishers to cut their "mid-list" range - first novels, anthologies, and the like - and yet I see plenty of first novels and anthologies popping up on the shelves at Borders. (Even more significantly, first novels by authors who are writing multi-volume series of brick-sized fantasy novels - now that's confidence). He whines that writers cannot survive on small press or print-on-demand publications, but misses the point that in these days of the Internet small press and print-on-demand publications can get more publicity than they could ever have previously dreamed of, publicity which can win an author a wider audience and attract the attention of major publishers. Whilst dribbling onto his keyboard, he raises doomy prophecies such as "for future generations, the idea of someone having a career as a writer may be just as esoteric a job as being a gas-lamp lighter", and most ludicrously:
With ever more technological advances flooding the market every day to distract us, and the growth of an apparently sub-literate population, how long can it be before the printed word goes the way of the vinyl record album?which makes him sound like some Victorian codger complaining about frivolous young people going to the newfangled moving pictures and the death of the theatre. He is utterly missing the point that for the vast majority of people CDs represent a vastly more useful and convenient storage medium for music than vinyl records ever did, and (so long as a decent job is done of digitally mastering the album) only audiophiles with very good hearing can tell the difference.
There is no new medium for delivering text that is more useful and convenient than the printed word. People simply do not like reading large blocks of text on-screen. Websites will jazz up their presentation with nice graphics and frames and whatnot. People will suffer through reading a long Word document onscreen if they need to for work. Very few people actually read novels on a computer screen. Amazon are making a vailant effort to displace the printed book with their Kindle, but - while I can see how the magazine and newspaper subscription services would be nice - I can't imagine myself downloading my book collection onto it in the same way that I cram CDs onto my iPod. Shuffling between songs on an iPod is a fun tour through your music collection: shuffling between books from page to page is just a recipe for a confusing mess.
Throughout this silly little rant, Jones sounds like a grumpy and confused old man who doesn't understand these young people and their inter nets, is bemoaning the publishing world that is moving away from the sort of environment that allows a strange dinosaur like him to survive and thrive, is dismissive of the potential of the small press to promote authors, and, most seriously, is blaming the continued troubles of the horror genre on a publishing environment in which, for example, multi-volume brick-sized fantasy series have thrived. This is frankly ludicrous. The factors Jones cites should surely be just as much a cause for pessimism for every literary genre, and yet horror languishes in the doldrums whilst even the likes of Cecilia Dart-Thornton are thriving. For the love of God and all that is holy, they are thriving. Mr Jones, blaming external factors for the failure of your chosen genre under these circumstances is ludicrous. If the horror genre cannot overcome these factors in the same way that fantasy, SF, and hell, even Warhammer and Dr Who tie-in novels do on a routine basis, the problem is with the horror genre, not the rest of the world. As the editor of a major yearly anthology, writing an essay which attempts to summarise the state of the world of horror in 2005, it behooves you to actually investigate the situation and perhaps give us some idea of what is wrong with the genre. That you fail to do so, and throw the blame on everyone from the publishers to Amazon to the readers to Apple Computers, only leaves me convinced that you are the last person who should be summarising the state of the genre in 2005, let alone editing one of its most important anthology series. Christ, even your crotchety old man rant is stacked with typos.
In short, Jones's opening essay achieves precisely nothing beyond establishing himself as the bitter old sour grapes merchant of horror, and compiling a big list of publications. I could probably compile a better essay by subscribing to a few horror magazines and copy-pasting the first paragraph of every story in their news section over the course of the year. For all I know, this is how Jones actually compiled it.
Speaking of things which would really work much better in a magazine format, at the opposite end of the book Jones takes up another 80-odd pages (that's well over a quarter of the page count, especially if you include the one-page introduction to each of the stories - but more of that later). Most of this consists of the Necrology he writes with Kim Newman, a compilation of obituaries of anyone and everyone, no matter how tangentially involved in the horror genre, who died in 2005. Again, if you are not a horror fan, this will mean little-to-nothing, and if you are you'd subscribe to a magazine if you were interested at the sort of thing. A dozen or so pages at the very back of the book consists of useful addresses of fan clubs, publishers, magazines, and other useful resources for horror writers and readers alike - this, at least, is useful and worth putting in an annual anthology. It's a shame that, with the frequent typos Jones allows to slip into every section of the anthology, I can't actually trust that any of the addresses are correct.
Sandwiched between two items that really belong in periodicals and a decent list of addresses lie the stories themselves, each of which prefaced by a short description of the author's career and their recent and upcoming works by Jones, along with any comments the writers themselves have about their stories. For the most part, I can't fault Jones for his choice of stories, although I do wish he had been more vigilant against the typos which mar many of them. Since The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror is one of the major annual anthologies in the field, Jones can essentially take his pick, and he does so happily, selecting stories from established authors like Kim Newman and Ramsey Campbell to newcomers like Mark Samuels and Joe Hill (who is Stephen King's son, but don't tell anybody because he's better than King), in styles ranging from brutal gorefests to artsy-fartsy subtle literary things where you don't get to see anything happen. Almost all of them are, in their own way, excellent.
The exception is The Taint by Brian Lumley, the one novella-length story in the collection (as far as I can tell, the tradition is to round off the collection with at least one longish story). Maybe I am prejudiced; certainly, Lumley is not my favourite writer. On the other hand, I genuinely believe that any impartial reader browsing through the collection would come to the conclusion that The Taint is noticably poorer than most of the other stories in the compilation; it simply doesn't belong in the same book as the others, especially not an anthology promising the Best New Horror. It is a tired-out old Lovecraft pastiche from a tired-out old author; it is, as Lumley affirms, the third or fourth time he has rehashed The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and it's about as boring as Lumley's other attempts. It's especially frustrating since I actually find Lumley's short stories to be, in the main, more interesting than his novels - when he isn't trying to imitate H.P. Lovecraft's writing style. The thing is, we're able to forgive Lovecraft's horrible, stodgy prose because he was original, he had wild and brilliant ideas, and yes, he was also batshit crazy, which makes me more inclined to give him an easy ride. Lumley is not original, is relying entirely on other peoples' ideas, and so far as I am aware is not crazy; he has no excuse for producing such horrible writing, which flows like cold porridge and sparkles like rust.
The Taint is, well, a taint on the otherwise flawless lineup of stories on offer. One wonders why Jones included it. Perhaps it's subcultural politics: Best New Horror is one of the major anthologies, if a well-established writer's story is rejected they can take it as a snub, Jones may have recognised the story's shortcomings but included it anyway to maintain good relations with Lumley. To my mind, this is the charitable interpretation, since it assumes that Jones is aware that the story is bad but for whatever reason felt obliged to include it anyway. The alternative is that he does not, in fact, think that The Taint is a boring and unoriginal retread of exhausted Lovecraftian motifs, and is just as worthy of inclusion in the anthology as the others; Jones is, after all, a massive Lovecraft fan. I would submit that, while obviously the personal taste of an anthology editor is always going to influence the content of such a collection, it is a very bad thing when the editor's personal interests blind him to how poor a story is.
Oh well, on to the next volume. Maybe he'll have cut back on the essays this time.
No such luck; volume 18 in the series adheres to the same formula as the previous one, although the page count is higher and the necrology and introduction are a little shorter, so at least we get more stories. As far as Jones's editorial skills goes, again the less said the better; suffice to say that the typos are back. This time there seem to be fewer in the stories themselves, although there are a few real howlers in the introduction - at one point he refers to Poppy Z. Brite as "Poppy Z. Bright", for example. For the conclusion of his opening essay Jones chooses to actually express a reasonable opinion on current events in the horror field, which is a refreshing change from the iPod rants; specifically, he reports on the International Horror Guild's decision not to nominate any anthologies for the "best anthology" section of their annual awards ceremony. While it is mildly disappointing that Jones seems to choose the conclusion of these introductions to insert somewhat self-serving spiels (both the iPod ravings and this segment have an undercurrent of "oh dear, the anthology market which pays my bills isn't doing very well"), it is at least a good overview of a mild but not unimportant controversy in the horror field during 2006, and as such represents Jones stumbling towards usefulness. Only time (and the publication of the 19th volume in the series) will tell whether this is a mere random drift towards non-mediocrity or whether he will continue to improve.
My big issue with this volume, actually, is the selection of stories, which I feel is much less consistent than in volume 17. As I said above, I at least see the point of including pretty much all the stories in that installment of the series, with the exception of The Taint; however, whilst there are some equally brilliant stories in this volume, there are also some genuine stinkers. The Clockwork Horror, for instance, is written in a style that is trying to emulate Edgar Allen Poe but just seems ugly, artificial, and dull; I couldn't read to the end. Nor did I manage to finish The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train, Kim Newman's novella, which appears to be a horror take on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only without bringing any of the fictional characters it tries to crowbar into the narrative onstage; its main problem is that it's just slightly slow and boring adventure fiction as opposed to horror.
That said, there is a lot to like in this compilation; Sob In the Silence is a Gene Wolfe story, and an uncharacteristically violent and nasty one at that. Caitlin Kiernan's Houses Under the Sea is an excellent take on The Shadow Over Innsmouth, as different and original as Lumley's The Taint is uninspired and imitative. But despite the presence of those gems, and others, I get the impression that Jones was scraping the bottom of the barrel this year. In some cases, the stories he selects barely qualify as horror - whilst Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman and Elizabeth Hand's The Saffron Gatherers are undeniably powerful and poignant, I would not call them horrific. In other cases - and here Best New Horror makes the same mistake as the first volume of Read By Dawn - the stories just come across as being very slightly too gimmicky. What Nature Abhors by Mark Morris is very obviously a result of the author playing Silent Hill 2 and deciding to riff on similar themes, whilst Between the Cold Moon and the Earth is just a little too incoherent to have the emotional impact that Peter Atkins is going for there.
Perhaps this, again, is due to publishing politics. 7 of the authors who contributed to volume 17 have stories appearing in volume 18, and a brief look at previous volumes suggests that a few authors get work accepted for Best New Horror over and over again. My concern is that the compilation series might better be referred to as Best Stories Written By Stephen Jones' Clique than Best New Horror. If The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train hadn't been written by Jones' collaborator on the yearly necrology, would it really have been accepted into the anthology? I somehow doubt it.
The Canary Says
In this canary's opinion, Stephen Jones is an editor ruined by success. His anthology series has won every award that counts. Writers queue up at his door to submit stories to it. If you become part of Jones's circle of favoured writers, you can almost guarantee that some of your output will be accepted into the anthology almost by default (thus Jones's laziness infects his writers). He could spend time and effort to root out the typos that riddle these volumes, but why on Earth should he bother when horror fans will buy them by the score anyway? His introductory essay and his obituaries section almost made sense when the series began nearly 20 years ago, before the Internet became ubiquitous, but in this day and age they would work far better on a website than in an annual anthology; and yet, he persists in doing them anyway.
Jones is going through the motions with these. He can assemble a good anthology almost by default, simply because the best writers in the genre let him print their stories (and pepper them with typos while he is at it). No wonder atrocities like The Taint end up slipping through occasionally; Jones can afford to let his personal enthusiasm for Lovecraft pastiches override his objective editorial stance because the rest of the anthology will make up for it. The only thing which can really stir Jones from his sleepwalking is an event or phenomenon which threatens the anthology market which he depends on for his living, a market which (if his introduction in Volume 17 is to be believed, and if the assessment of the International Horror Guild in 2006 is to be believed) is in the doldrums. I would have to say that Jones is part of the problem in that score; whilst The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror is still an excellent read (and aid for finding out who's hot in the horror genre these days), it is despite its editor, not because of him.