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Creeping Waves by Matthew M. Bartlett

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a black shape against the sun, a negative space: A review of YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION VOLUME TWO

Edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly
Published by Undertow Publications
Available Here or on Amazon

My literary tastes trend toward the grindhouse. Schlock, melodrama, and spooky spectacle of the un-ironic variety. To continue to couch this in terms of the cinema, I prefer John Carpenter over David Lynch; Stuart Gordon over Lars von Trier. Whatever weird fiction might mean, I more often than not prefer it to mean horror, and within that association, I like monsters, creepy settings, unsettling imagery, and a little action. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy fiction that’s intellectual or cerebral. But I like what I read to strike a balance somewhere between fun and intellectual, with the slider closer to the former. It’s all art to me, man—whether it’s the rickety spookhouse ride or the ballet.

I just tend to have more fun at the spookhouse.

It is, however, with great pleasure that I devoured Year’s Best Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly. Koja is a powerful writer and artist, and Kelly’s voluminous reading of horror and weird literature is award-worthy unto itself. Together, they’ve curated a book of sterling quality; diversity in stories, modes, and authorship alike. This is elite weird fiction—yes, even literary in its aspirations—done completely right.

Not every story was my bag of popcorn, of course. But what makes this collection great is that, even when I didn’t vibe with a particular style or narrative, I still recognized that the writing was masterful, and the imagery was haunting. This book has a little something for everyone, and, I’m not afraid to admit, my own tastes and preferences were challenged for the better.

I won’t mention all the stories I enjoyed in this collection (that would be most of them), but I’ll touch on a few. Keep in mind that the stories that I didn’t enjoy were not bad by any means, but were instead just not right for me.

YBWF-2

Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” was the perfect story to start the collection. It’s a crime noir yarn with a delirious creature-feature bent. Siobhan Carrol’s “Wendigo Nights” is equal parts The Thing and introspective supernatural meditation. Kima Jones’ “Nine” is a period piece that tells a story of dark juju and a patchwork family battling its influence. Caitlín R. Kiernan turns the monster slayer trope on its head in the pulpy (yes!) selection “Bus Fare.”

Rich Larson laughs off the standard mermaid tale in “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” and explores a would-be father’s fear. Usman T. Malik writes about religious-civil conflict in a foreign-born Re-Animator take in “Resurrection Points.” Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction-character study “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is a subtle examination of identity and rural life (with more than a passing connection to my own dear Colorado).

These selections knocked my socks off—scratching that ghoulish horror itch, or conjuring thoughtful reflection. Again, even the stories not listed here—a couple of which were not to my taste—were still full of striking imagery and impression that lasted well beyond the time I spent reading them.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an anthology that, despite its chronological-inspired name, will remain evergreen. I have not read Volume One, but I should. With Volume Three right around the corner, there’s no better time than to get caught up now.

Highly recommended for fans of dark speculative fiction, or for those looking for an entry point into the vast and growing body of high-quality weird work… and recommended for lowbrow horror junkies, too.

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