Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: The Monstrous

Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Tachyon Publications, 2015

“Knowledge comes at a price, my mother would have said, and often that price is our sense of well-being. Or our innocence. Or our ability to sleep without nightmares.”

“The Beginning of the Year Without Summer” – Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Monstrous

Beautiful Monsters.
We love them, most recently evidenced by TV shows like Dexter and Hannibal. It’s the vicarious thrill of experiencing the human grotesque at a safe distance. To this end, I have noticed a trend in both television and horror films of late where two things are very obvious: (i) we are the monsters and (ii) we cannot escape the monsters.                                                                  

This is a trend I'm happy to say is also beginning to infiltrate mainstream horror fiction and a significant number of stories in Ellen Datlow’s latest offering are either obviously such stories or can be read as such.

The stories included in The Monstrous are diverse enough to create a collection that will appeal to a number of literary tastes. Yet like many superior anthologies, together, they still provide readers with a cohesive whole. Some stories are quiet and catch you by surprise, such as Glen Hirshberg's "Miss I'll-Kept Runt", which begins innocuously with summer wind and Pudding Pops, but slowly and menacingly devolves into what must surely be a parent's worst nightmare come true. Not so quiet in its terror is "The Last, Clean, Bright Summer" by Livia Llewellyn. The title of the story should serve as a fair warning to anyone lulled into a false sense of security by the dulcet intimations that such a title might infer. Llewellyn’s story is ruthlessly brutal|, the resulting imagery shockingly intoxicating; like some horrific nightmare that cannot be escaped until it finally runs its course.

"A Natural History of Autumn" by Jeffrey Ford is a dreamlike narrative that evokes Hayao Miyazaki – strikingly surreal images and descriptions that deliver terror in the way otherness bleeds into what we view as our everyday reality. Many of the stories collected here subverts our ideas about what is ‘normal’ or ‘reality’, a tactic used to good effect to introduce the reader to the disconcertingly close relationship we have with the Other. This thing we think we know nothing about turns out to be something we know very well. A young child (flesh of our flesh), stories that we’ve known all our lives as myths but ended up being true (do we birth the monstrous?), abuse at the hands of those who are meant to protect us (nothing – and no-one is what it seems). In Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Beginning of the Year Without Summer", nothing and everything matters. Our lives exist on a precipice, awaiting the next roll of the dice. And if the call is a bad one, we might just discover what we are truly capable of.

The 20 stories collected here do not set us apart from the notions of horror contained within it. I hope this is a trend that continues. Perhaps it’s the result of a world becoming more self-aware (here’s hoping!); regardless, with The Monstrous, Ellen Datlow has once again delivered a collection of high-quality fiction that’s sure to please a wide variety of horror readers.

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