“I thought of myself as a work of art. I caused responses without being responsible for them. This is the great freedom of art.” The quote is from “Ashputtle,” a story written by Peter Straub, which is included in the anthology The Monstrous. The female protagonist of Straub’s tale has a skewed view of reality, yet her words seem somewhat applicable to the stories selected for the compilation. Editor Ellen Datlow has chosen works with a wide range of settings and situations, which indeed display “the great freedom of art.” While Straub’s character subscribes to the rationalization of not “being responsible” for the responses she causes, the writers whose yarns appear in this collection are definitely responsible for eliciting some genuinely unsettling responses to their tales. Unsettling is a desired response for those who write and read horror fiction, and The Monstrous fulfills the desire.
The first story in the volume, “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford, is splendidly atmospheric. A Japanese businessman and a female escort (euphemism) in present day Japan encounter malevolent supernatural entities. The uncanny beings unleash behavior between the couple that culminates in a nice twist. An undercurrent of mystery simmers between the lovers, and Ford does a fine job taking it to a boiling point/climax and ironic denouement.
A Nazi death camp is the setting for “Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. In this riveting narrative about survival at all costs, a bloodsucker serves as a metaphor. Bruckman is a prisoner who discovers that Wernecke, another captive, is a vampire. Very much in keeping with the anthology theme of The Monstrous, the profoundly disquieting “Down Among the Dead Men” asks the question of who is more monstrous—the sanguinary imbiber, or the evil people who engender genocide? This grim passage describes the terrors and despair of those imprisoned in the concentration camp: “It was smotheringly hot, and the air was filled with the stinks of death and sweat and fever, of stale urine and drying blood. The sleepers thrashed and turned, as though they fought with sleep, and as they slept, many of them talked or muttered or screamed aloud; they lived other lives in their dreams, intensely compressed lives dreamed quickly, for soon it would be dawn, and once more they would be thrust into hell. Cramped in the midst of them, sleepers squeezed in all around him, it suddenly seemed to Bruckman that these pallid, white bodies were already dead, that he was sleeping in a graveyard.”
History also plays a part in Brian Hodge’s “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come.” A 21st Century Colorado man buries a couple of dead relatives and unearths secret ancestral practices. He traces the dark deeds back to his family’s Scottish roots. The rites seem wrong in the modern world, but centuries of appeasement demand they continue. Hodge artfully creates a loathsome lineage, setting the action amidst the rugged beauty of Colorado’s majestic terrain.
Unsavory family ties propel the plot of “Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling. An enigmatic young woman checks herself into a psychiatric hospital. Her attending physician is thrust into a maelstrom of delusions and illusions fueled by the patient’s staggering familial relationships. Conscious and unconscious self-deceit is used to great effect in this labyrinthine narrative. Dowling superbly conveys the surfeit and range of emotion that occurs when kin recall and rekindle horrors from their past.
The twenty high caliber tales in Tachyon Publications’ The Monstrous delve into egregious behavior with intelligent observations. Eerie and artfully executed, the narratives are highly imaginative and chilling.
The Monstrous is now available via Tachyon Publications for purchase.