John Pelan, editor,
The Darker Side:
Generations of Horror

(Roc, 2002)

Some compilations start off with a prologue, an editor justifying their choices or a fan gushing over the writers. John Pelan wastes no time with The Darker Side. Close brushes with death and a budding acquaintance with its agents jump off the first page; two stories in, and a dark phooka patrols the everyday ground of a supermarket. This is a book that's not wasting time or pages. It has too much to do. Horror comes in a thousand forms, from the old myths to urban legends to human behavior. The Darker Side covers them all.

Stories of cosmic beings are often a way of trapping fears, banishing them into a hell or otherworld. Humans in "The Plague Species" forget what can happen when Hell is on Earth, and turn their own world into a cautionary tale. One blessed island exists, populated by the children of angels, but the devil is an angel, too. Charlee Jacob makes a Bosch painting of infernal justice without going over the top. The spirits of water have enchanted and snared humans from the days of naiads.

The strange librarian who so confuses a college boy "After The Flood" seems related to that class of being. Joel Lane manages to create a soul-sucking creature that doesn't seem cruel or threatening, which turns the entrapment into something tragic as much as terrifying. Water seems to summon fear in these stories; a simple misplaced puddle mesmerizes two store clerks in "Standing Water," though Caitlin Kiernan makes the city it lingers in as oppressively dry as possible. Shikhar Dixit's "Asian Gothic," perhaps my favorite story in a nearly perfect collection, never fully explains the figure that haunts the water tank. Her story is told in fragments knit together just enough to make a shadow and make me pull the blinds on all the windows.

Of course, horror doesn't have to subtle to be effective. Richard Laymon's "Ten Bucks Says You Won't" is a grand B-movie of a story, featuring hapless teenagers, a truly evil teacher and her vengeful ghost, light petting and even some mild bathroom humor. I could hear the faked scream as I read it, and like the best of the Bs, it still managed to be creepy. "We're All Bozos on This Bus" is a simple, brutal morality tale in Creepshow style. Peter Crowther creates a rare villain with his evil orphan boy, and leaves the nature of the child-eating creatures vague -- are they demons, bad faeries or tacky freak-show cannibals? Ann K. Schwader manages to cram a season's worth of The X-Files into her ominous "Twenty Mile," with Indian curses, cattle mutilations and buried alien spaceships ganging up on a couple of unscrupulous developers. What more could a horror fan want?

You could want horror that doesn't depend on the supernatural. Fine, The Darker Side offers that, too. James S. Dorr has no magic to offer in "Pets," only lots of vermin, destruction and the horror a long war builds in a civilian population. In the dystopian tradition, "The Mannerly Man" lives in a world where everyone is able to commit one horror, one murder, legally. Mehitobel Wilson may not have created the most accurate future vision, but it's within the realm of the possible. That plausibility makes it more unnerving than a straight monster story like Poppy Z. Brite's vampire-driven "The Ocean."

I've learned that almost every anthology will offer some stories to leave you scratching your head and wondering why they were included. The best of those in Darker Side is "Grave Song" by Brian A. Hopkiss and Richard Wright. This story of a returned soul is so hopeful it's hard to see why anyone would include it in a horror anthology. "The Whirling Man" also doesn't earn its place, unless you think artist's block and depressive painters are bone-chilling. "Mamishka and the Sorcerer," by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, is so ruled by its Message that it leaves the realm of horror and leaps into surrealism, as the lineage of Jesus apparently enters Fairyland.

But a few off stories are hardly a distraction in an anthology that offers toys like "Armies of the Night" and the comforting, ominous township in "Pull." Almost 30 stories proud, The Darker Side offers several somethings for everybody. And several bodies for everything. This is Grand Guignol entertainment at its finest. Buy it, enjoy it, and store it in a well-lit room.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 28 September 2002

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