Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror is a follow-up of sorts to editor Ellen Datlow’s Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. Released in 2010, Darkness covered select short stories published between 1985-2005. Nightmares deals with the period from 2005-2015, and largely contains tales by authors not included in the previous volume. Datlow stresses that the works chosen for Nightmares are stories she loves. Indeed, there’s a subjectivity inherent in picking a story for publication. Subjectivity also comes into play when a reviewer singles out certain tales to praise from a collection. With that said, let’s look at look at a few yarns that stood out among the twenty-four offerings.
Weird characters are always a plus, and the eponymous “Mr. Pigsny” is wonderfully strange: “The man who clambered aboard was very small, almost a dwarf, with a disproportionally large head. Long strands of sparse red hair had been combed across his domed cranium and lay there lank and damp, like seaweed on a rock after the tide has retreated.” Such witty and vivid prose is the work of Reggie Oliver, who infuses “Mr. Pigsny” with wry Britishness. Pigsny is erudite and mysterious, with connections to hell itself. He is a comical figure who is simultaneously sinister. The tale is delightfully quirky yet disturbing.
For a much weightier theme, there’s “Omphalos.” This novelette penetrates to the core. It concerns a too-close family on a rural expedition in Washington state. The familial unit consists of a father and mother and their progeny: an adolescent boy and girl who are twins. Told from the daughter’s perspective in second person narrative, this horrifying piece of fiction contains raw and brutal scenes that are devastatingly realistic. Written by Livia Llewellyn, “Omphalos” packs an emotional wallop.
Although zombies have been done to death, it’s always refreshing to read a finely-honed take on the subgenre. Dan Chaon’s “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” is about retaining one’s humanity during an infestation of the living dead. The zombies are portrayed as sympathetic scavengers, who are struggling to survive. Humans are trigger happy and losing their ability to differentiate about targets. The narrator is a widower with a 16-year old son. The youth is turning into a detached killer, and the father feels the inevitably of the situation. The narrator’s sense of loss, for both wife and child, is poignantly conveyed. This parable is perceptive and timely.
“That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” is a poetically romantic title, but the tale is far from hearts and flowers. A brother and his young sister engage in a peculiar ritual: He sadistically makes her participate in his brutal and regimented decimation of her favorite dolls. She carries this experience with her into adulthood, causing her to be remote and disinterested in relationships. But when she meets a mousy man who is deemed equally socially undesirable, she sees his potential to satisfy her needs. This being a horror story, those “needs” are unconventional. Robert Shearman wrote this beautifully bizarre yarn.
Dolls also play a part in Richard Kadrey’s “Ambitious Boys Like You.” This home invasion yarn predates the film Don’t Breathe, but shares some of the motifs. A couple of guys attempt to burgle the house of an old man, but find that he isn’t at all the easy mark that they presumed him to be. Kadrey’s story is the grand finale of the collection, which is structured chronologically by the year in which the tales were originally published. It’s heartening to see that several of the choice offerings in the anthology are from the more recent years of the decade spotlighted.
Editor Ellen Datlow has compiled works that display her ability to cull quality horror fiction, as well as her enthusiasm and esteem for the genre. Published by Tachyon, Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror is a pleasant reminder that horror’s short fiction “golden age” is ongoing.