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“The Dark Descent” by David G. Hartwell (editor)

Originally published in 1987, David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent collects a number of the best short horror stories written to that date. At over a thousand pages, it’s a substantial collection. Hartwell divides the stories into three thematic categories, but there’s another way in which one could divide the book into thirds. Some of the stories in The Dark Descent were written by giants of the field (and many are themselves classics of the genre); others are works by lesser-known horror writers; and still others were penned by writers famous in genres other than horror.

Fans of horror will probably already have read some of the stories in the first group, like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” In other cases, avid horror readers may be delighted to read “new” works by authors they already love. Stephen King, for example, is known primarily for his novels, but The Dark Descent includes two works of his shorter fiction, “The Monkey” and “Crouch End.” One of the most interesting stories in this set is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, despite the uncertainty over whether or not there’s actually a ghost. “The Jolly Corner” also presents a twist on tales of hauntings, with the main character conceiving of the house he grew up in as being haunted by the spirit of the man he would have become if he’d stayed there. When he tries to catch this spirit, the roles reverse, and he begins thinking of himself as the ghost.

Of the stories that fall into the second category, my favorites were Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Robert Hitchens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” “Sticks” is a truly creepy tale of a man who finds sculptures made from tied-together twigs in the woods near his home. Despite its having won a British Fantasy Award, I haven’t seen this story reprinted anywhere else, and Wagner’s work seems not to have been widely reprinted in general. “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” tells of a misanthropic scholar who’s haunted by a presence that holds no ill will toward him whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to love him. This may not seem like a promising setup for a horror story, but Guildea finds its presence revolting, and Hitchens conveys his feelings of being oppressed and smothered so well that the reader naturally empathizes with them.

Finally, several of the stories presented here are by authors who are famous not for horror, but for science fiction. While Ray Bradbury is primarily known for sci-fi works like The Martian Chronicles, he also wrote a fair number of stories that fall into the realm of horror or dark fantasy. Some of the best are collected in The October Country, including “The Crowd,” which is reprinted here. It takes the already uncomfortable phenomenon of people rubbernecking at car accidents and turns it into something truly sinister. The Dark Descent also features Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner, and here he straddles the line between science fiction and horror by positing a time-travel voyage gone horribly wrong.

While most of the stories in this anthology are well-chosen, there are a couple of puzzling omissions. John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”, the basis for John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, is influential enough to have been included in the SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And while Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is certainly a chilling tale, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” surely merits inclusion in an anthology of short horror fiction. Despite this, however, the collection is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone looking for a comprehensive survey of horror stories up to the 1980s.

“Autumn Cthulhu” by Mike Davis (editor)

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Contrary to the second part of its name, most of the stories in Mike Davis’s Autumn Cthulhu anthology aren’t strictly part of the Cthulhu Mythos. They do, however, generally fall into the realm of cosmic horror, and nearly all of them have some thematic connection to autumn.

I’m a huge John Langan fan, so his story “Anchor” is the one I was most looking forward to reading when I picked up this anthology. While I found it a bit overlong, the supernatural element was imaginative and I appreciated the skill with which the relationships among the main characters were conveyed. Also, two of the major characters are poets, and the story includes excerpts from their poems which are quite good.

One of the strengths of both “Anchor” and Langan’s novel The Fisherman is that the human relationships are as emotionally compelling as the paranormal goings-on. Damien Angelica Walters’s “In the Spaces Where You Once Lived” is another such story. The love the main character feels for her husband really comes through, and the tale is as touching as it is scary. Jeffrey Thomas’s “After the Fall” is in this vein as well. The sudden appearance of massive, monstrous images in the sky almost serves as a backdrop for the main character’s attempts to mend his troubled family relationships.

Laird Barron’s “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees” truly lives up to the name “weird fiction.” A teenage girl wants to secure tickets to an exclusive show as a gift for her seriously ill father. The transaction doesn’t go as planned, but beyond that, the story is almost impossible to describe.

I loved Gemma Files’s short story collection Spectral Evidence, so I was happy to see that one of the stories in this anthology is by her. Titled “Grave Goods,” it focuses heavily on our individual and collective sense of self, and how we react when that sense is overturned.

The central conceit of Nadia Bulkin’s “There is a Bear in the Woods” might at first seem humorous: a politician sells his soul to an eldritch being to win an election. Who hasn’t joked about a politician they dislike doing something similar? But Bulkin makes the story truly horrifying, giving the reader an impression that, while the earthly consequences of the deal are pretty terrible, the metaphysical ones might be even worse.

In his introduction to the book, Davis quotes Lawrence Block as saying that while autumn is the best season, it’s also the saddest. Many of the stories deal with something or someone passing away, lending the anthology an almost elegiac feel. While there certainly is dread, and a few outright scares, in the book, they lie side-by-side with a quieter melancholy, and that sets Autumn Cthulhu apart from other anthologies in the same genre.

The Big Book of Science Fiction, by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (editors)

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Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have collaborated on several anthologies of speculative fiction, including the excellent The Weird. In The Big Book of Science Fiction, they take on exactly the genre you would expect from the title. At over 1100 pages, this massive tome catalogues sci-fi from H.G. Wells to the early 2000s, by authors from all over the world.

While it’s hard to summarize such a wide-ranging collection, there are a few themes that emerge over the course of the book. One is the concept popularized by the famous Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark”: If we encountered alien life, would we recognize it for what it was? Accordingly, a number of the stories therein, such as Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm,” present truly unique conceptions of extraterrestrial beings.

The Big Book also includes some interesting dystopian stories. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Standing Woman” posits a society with a strange and grotesque punishment for social dissidents, while Tanith Lee’s “Crying in the Rain” shows us the self-sacrificial love of a mother in a world where the rain is deadly.

Many of the stories are from non-English-speaking authors, and in a few cases, the VanderMeers even commissioned new translations of the works. There seems to be particularly strong representation from Soviet-era Russia.

Even in such a huge volume, it’s obviously not possible to include every significant work. That said, the lack of any pieces by Ken Liu seemed like a glaring omission. His “The Regular” is a masterful near-future detective story and would have been a perfect fit for this anthology.

A few notes on individual stories that I particularly enjoyed:

James H. Schmitz’s “Grandpa” presents a fascinating extraterrestrial ecology, but I wanted to see more of the denouement. Did the events of the story cause the other team members to rethink their view of Cord? And what were the yellowheads getting out of their symbiosis with the rafts?

Damon Knight’s “Stranger Station” is a great example of a dramatic reveal done right. I loved the moment where the reader (and the main character) discover the alien’s motivations and the how/why behind its production of the immortality serum.

I previously knew James Blish as the author of several novelizations of classic Star Trek episodes, and it was a treat to read a piece of his original fiction. “Surface Tension” includes some wonderfully imaginative ideas for the technology and ecology of a microscopic civilization.

Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” is, at its heart, a story about man’s best friend. It also does a great job of illustrating how different species might have wildly divergent views of the same environment.

I loved the variety of alien species in James White’s “Sector General,” as well as the concept of a sci-fi story set in a hospital.

The stories collected in this volume run the gamut in tone. I mentioned a couple of quite dark dystopian stories above; by contrast, Sever Ganovsky’s “A Modest Genius” is a whimsical, heartwarming tale.

I’ve always loved stories about the Fair Folk, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which reads like a sci-fi retelling of a story about a human enthralled by the fey. (While the Wikipedia entry for the story doesn’t explicitly confirm this interpretation, it’s bolstered by the fact that the title is a line from Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.)

One of the joys of reading an anthology is being introduced to authors I haven’t read before. I loved Robert Reed’s “The Remoras” and have since sought out other work in his “Great Ship” series.

I knew something about Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” from the excellent movie Arrival, which is based on it. I’m happy to report that, contrary to Hollywood’s standard practice, they did not butcher the source material.

The Kindle edition of The Big Book of Science Fiction costs about $18, which is pretty steep for an e-book. But for 1100+ pages of mostly good-to-great science fiction, it’s worth every penny.