Book Review: Nightmare Carnival

Edited by Ellen Datlow; Published by Dark Horse

Recently I’ve been interested in reading short story collections rather than novels. I’ve become tired of failing to get invested in a long-form story’s characters or plot, and have become accustomed to recognizing when a novel’s length is padded for thickness’ sake.

I’ve also been interested in reading work by female authors—especially within the horror genre—because most of the books I pick up tend to be written by men.

Add to that a desire to read something fun and pulpy, and Nightmare Carnival edited by Ellen Datlow seemed like the perfect fit. An entire short story collection with a diverse authorship—helmed by one of the industry’s top editors—and it’s about scary clowns, freaks, carnivals, and circuses (yes, there is a difference between the latter two).

If what I’m describing sounds interesting to you, I’ll save you some time and say that you should pick up the anthology. The book isn’t without its uneven or weaker stories—find me a collection that is—but the good (and a couple of great) outweigh the bad and the boring.

That said, this is not a book for the hardcore horror fan. Many of the stories—probably half or more—aren’t strictly horror, but are instead dark literary fiction or fantasy. The lack of the supernatural—or its de-emphasis, or its use as a vehicle for vaguely weird experimental fiction—in many of these works left me a little disappointed.  I wanted the book’s cover, complete with cut-off text and faded comic-style coloring—to deliver on its promise of fun and pulp. I wanted a carnival spookhouse ride of mayhem, cheap thrills, and bright colors. Certainly, some of these stories deliver on that promise, and in very interesting and disturbing ways. Others simply do not, relying more on experimental forms of suspense and plot that don’t seem to have any substantial connection to the circus motif, which is obviously ripe for exploration in the horror forms.

Maybe this is my issue, not the book’s—but a book called Nightmare Carnival with ghouls, a weird-looking kid, and a bleeding clown on the cover tends to imply horror, right? While none of the stories were poorly written—the authors in this collection are certainly true talents—a few of them were, well, kind of pedestrian. They felt like something you’d read in a mainstream literary magazine, with a few big-top tents and carnies thrown in for flavor.

But there are quite a few really solid pieces in the book.

“Scapegoats” by N. Lee Wood is a sordid tale of mob rule and outcasts’ revenge; “And the Carnival Leaves Town” by A. C. Wise is bizarre supernatural detective story where the evidence just doesn’t add up; “Corpse Rose” by Terry Dowling is part science fiction, part urban legend; “Hibbler’s Minions” by Jeffrey Ford is a darkly-funny tale of monstrous fleas; “Screaming Elk, MT” by Laird Barron feels like a pulp action-horror romp in the contemporary Robert E. Howard school.

The two stand out stories of the collection are “The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones and “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud, both for very different reasons. Jones’ work is the only truly terrifying work in the collection; he forgoes all humor and pretense and goes straight for the jugular, capitalizing on fears of child abuse and molestation, torture, and clowns. It’s a story I read right before bed—and immediately regretted it. It also served to illustrate how the fear of clowns and the circus that many people suffer is completely underutilized in this collection. His story creeped me out in all the wrong ways.

“Skullpocket” uses horror tropes in new and interesting ways, following a cult priest and supernatural creatures as they reflect on their bizarre hybrid-town’s violent and compelling history. Out of all the stories in this collection, Ballingrud’s had the most behind it, implying a fantastic world of wonder and ruin beyond the scope of its too-few pages.

Nightmare Carnival comes recommended for these stories. Those looking to face their fear of clowns and the big top head-on, or those expecting a straight horror anthology, may be disappointed (with a few notable exceptions).

Then again, your mileage may vary—and the stories that work, well—they justify the price of admission. It’s the popcorn you pay for, but the peanut smell is free.

3 out of 5 Talking Balloon Animals

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