Monday, June 21, 2010

Poe's Children edited by Peter Straub

I'm a big fan of classic horror, but for some reason, I have a hard time managing to find good new horror writers. I was hoping that maybe this anthology, collected by a veteran of the horror genre, would help me find a new voice or two.

Fortunately for me, it did, but overall, I'm not sure that there's enough quality stories to make this anthology one I'd recommend to others. There's just not quite enough there worth reading, at least for me, to balance out the stories I didn't like.

I really enjoyed the first story, "The Bees," where a man trying to run from his past may have it brought back on him no matter what he does. It's a classic horror trick, using a character's failings to drive the narrative and Dan Chaon uses it to good effect. I was left with a strong hope that maybe this would be the time I got the stories I wanted in a horror collection.

Sadly, that vibe didn't last long, as most of the other stories just didn't have enough going on for me to want to read more from that writer. They weren't bad, per se (though I found Elizabeth Hand's story to be offensive and skipped it after about getting halfway through), but I didn't really get into the writing or feel anything, positive or negative, towards them.

In a few cases, the author tries a bit too hard. "The Man on the Ceiling", a joint effort between Melanie and Steve Tem, probably overreached in its attempt to be experimental. I'm still not sure I understood what they were trying for, other than their lives impact on the stories they write? "Louise's Ghost" didn't seem to have a reason to be a ghost story, which is clearly a problem. A simple re-write, and it's a standard piece of literary fiction.

"The Voice of the Beach" by Ramsey Campbell, was probably my favorite story. Our narrator finds that a part of a beach has a strange attraction for certain people, and finds that call is irresistible. As with Chaon, Campbell uses a classic concept to good effect, and I guess it shows my story bias that I like these tales more than the rest. (In addition, I see that Campbell is not a new writer, either, which makes me a bit sad.)

As my reading went on, I just wasn't satisfied with the selections made by Mr. Straub, finding that they had the same problems I've seen in other anthologies of this type, with writers adding sex to give an otherwise boring story some shock value. Others seem to wander too much and don't ever end up really giving me a thrill in the way that I can get by reading the atmospheric horror of Poe or others from the 19th Century.

I think the problem is that horror is a much harder genre to write than people give it credit for. You almost have to write it over and over again, and know that you're going to have some hits and misses. I think Stephen King is the best example of this. Cujo is horrifying but Needful Things was just annoying. Spend too much time grossing people out, and you lose me. But if you don't give me some really terrible stuff to imagine in my head, then I'm wandering off to other stories.

In this book, there are more misses than hits, which is why I can't really recommend it to someone else. There's the obvious good stories by King, Straub himself, and Neil Gaiman, but you can get those writers elsewhere, either in other anthologies or in their own collections or full length books. Beyond that, it gets a bit tricky.

For every "Plot Twist," where David J. Schow places his characters in a Twilight-zone like scenario where nothing seems to change except the characters' ability to wrong each other, there's a "Leda," the story before it, where I feel like a victimized woman's feelings are reduced to story fodder for a weird fantasy that involves predatory animals.

After awhile, I became rather disheartened because an anthology where you're only getting stories you like about a third of the time is a bit rough. I usually hope for at least better than half, between love and like. Straub's selections, when you take out the major writers, just didn't click with me sufficiently for this book to be one I'd want to read again.

If you go into Poe's Children looking for some new voices and can deal with hitting more than a few tales you won't remember for long after reading them, it should be okay. But if you are iffy on anthologies in the first place, and only want a book that features a level playing field, I think you're best served to look elsewhere.

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