book reviews by Althea

The Monstrous – Ellen Datlow, ed.

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The Monstrous
The Monstrous by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***** “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
A very strong opener to the anthology.
As the scene is set, a Japanese couple are on their way to a retreat at a remote onsen. (bathing spa). This being a horror book, we might expect that not all that is to transpire will be romance and relaxation – and we would be right. However, the twists, turns, and gradual revelations about who this man and woman are, and who they might be to each other, are unexpected and sharp.

*** “Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
An unpleasant glimpse into the mind of a kindergarten teacher. The ‘feel’ of the piece reminded me just a bit of ‘Misery’, but all the horror here is hinted at around the edges. Still, I was left with the distinct suspicion that you might not want this lady teaching your kids.
The title clearly refers to the Brothers Grimm’s Cinderella story, but I didn’t see a strong connection there, although the main character has indeed lost her mother, and endured a difficult childhood.

**** “Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
Setting charges off underground to open up new veins of coal is a dangerous job – but miners with families to support have little choice. One time, though, the explosion opens up more than expected… and the miners come face to face with something out of the realm of human experience.
The opening of the story is very, very strong, but the ending felt less-original and just a bit inconclusive. It’s still a very good piece overall, I just wanted a little bit more.

**** “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Two scenes are contrasted: in one, the narrator discusses swans with a stranger in Providence’s Swan Point Cemetery. In the second, the same narrator (we assume) attends a strange, ritual party in a house on Federal Hill, and tells a man about the strange circumstances of the rediscovery of a significant tome.
The piece raises many questions and offers no answers – but I didn’t care; I still really liked it. It gave me vivid flashbacks to scattered memories of my own teenage years in Providence.

**** “A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
A bit into this story, I began to think: ‘this is really good, but the scenario seems rather familiar… oh, wait…’ Yes, I’d read this before, in another of Datlow’s anthologies, ‘Fearful Symmetries.’ I still read it all the way through, again.
‘A fine entry into the ‘cursed tomb’ subgenre. A TV show crew gets more than they bargained for when they enter an ancient Middle Eastern crypt in search of some good documentary fodder.’

**** “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
The YA-sounding tone of the teen diary entries that present this story is deceptive.Sure, the narrative lets you know right off the bat that there are going to be some dark themes… our narrator’s young brother has passed away, the family seems to be in some emotional upheaval, and they’re relocating for some time. However, after setting this scene, the author went “Muah-ah-hah-hah,” and grinned evilly as she went about writing the details of the lovely, traditional family reunion that these characters are en-route to.
You know Lovecraft thought about this sort of stuff, but didn’t actually go there…

*** “The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
Many of the ‘monsters’ in this anthology are unexpected, but ‘The Totals’ features a very classic monster-monster – a giant, ogre-ish killer. And killing seems to be all he does; his brain doesn’t seem to have the capacity for much else. But when this killer wanders into an odd meeting at some kind of interstitial diner, an unexpected twist is revealed.

*** “The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
In a small town, an old man is the last protection his neighbors have against an invasion of monsters. Little do they know that this town oddly attracts the uncanny and legendary beings which are a threat to humanity. But for own long can he keep up his secret defense?

**** “Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
A vampire in a WWII concentration camp. One night, Isadore Bruckman discovers a secret that might even exceed, in pure horror, the dreadful atrocities visited on him and his countrymen by the Nazi guards. But where is a line drawn between evil and what someone will do to survive? A vivid and uncomfortable story. Very good.

**** “Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
This is the second selection in this anthology that also appears in Datlow’s ‘Fearful Symmetries.’ Both repeats are excellent stories… but the overlap is unnecessary, IMHO.
‘Emergency workers grab a young girl and her baby brother from their home, rescuing them from a horrible scene. They’re unwilling to talk to the girl about what happened to her mother. But the girl knows more about the horror than any of them. Really effective; well-done.’

**** “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
A brother is called to his sister’s side in a moment of crisis. Family has to stick together, even when it might go against the law. But he learns that there are things about his family that have been kept from him his whole life… things that go back generations.
Great idea, but it gets a tiny bit ‘tell-y’ with the explication in the latter half.

*** “Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
Out West, Derle, a thoroughly unpleasant character, gets up to some nasty stuff with sheep and little girls. Yeah, even MORE unpleasant than what you’re thinking.

*** “Doll Hands” by Adam L. G. Nevill
If you thought Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ was too gentle and understated, you’ll probably love this one. I didn’t think that, however. I’ve still got an appreciation for the straight-up gross, dystopian horror to be found here, though.

*** “How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
In Middle Eastern mythology, a ghoul is not merely a monster that consumes the flesh of the dead. Rather, a ghoul is an “evil female spirit of the desert,” who preys on travelers, shape-shifting, “luring lustful men to their doom by taking the guise of beautiful women.” While once these beings may have solely been found in the remote desert, today, it makes a kind of sense that a reporter granted an interview with one of these baleful creatures would have the meeting set up in an airport…

*** “Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
Very much like an episode of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show.’ Here, we meet a young woman who’s checked herself into a mental asylum. She claims it’s mostly because she needs to hide from her sister, who’ll be coming to get her. Her doctor believes this to be a delusion, but soon enough, the sister does indeed turn up – and her behavior is somewhat suspicious.
However, the doctor’s sudden willingness to break all professional protocols and go haring off on a wild goose chased based on a slender thread of evidence strains belief.
It does culminate in an eerie – and nasty – finale, though!

**** “Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
The sense of dread here is masterfully done. A family is moving. It’s a stressful time. The mother of the family is acting in a mentally disturbed manner. Is it just stress, as Dad claims, or is it something more? Shoved into the back of the car with her brother, for a long overnight drive, a young girl becomes convinced that something is not quite right. And she may be correct.

** “Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
A Lovecraft-inspired monologue from a real son-of-a-devil. I’m not sure why, but this one just didn’t really speak to me.

*** “The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
On the face of it, this is a story about a family with a strange curse… people around them seem to turn into monsters. But really, it’s a musing on loneliness and the inevitability of death.

*** “Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
Playing into pretty much every preconception that fiction has created about magical, decrepit, voodoo-soaked, jazzy New Orleans… but doing it with a bit of self-awareness, this story gives us a bit of unexpected horror in a tale of revenge and a haunted piano.

***** “Corpsemouth” by John Langan
After the death of his father, a young man goes to Scotland to reconnect with his extended family, and to face, inside himself, some of his guilts and resentments. However, that isn’t all he’ll end up facing. This story meshes contemporary concerns with ancient legends and mysteries of Britain in a tale slightly reminiscent of Alan Garner. Loved it.

Many thanks to Tachyon and to NetGalley for the chance to read this excellent anthology. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

View all my reviews


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