Review: Ramsey Cambell, Dennis Etchison and Jack Dann’s Gathering the Bones, by Lee Battersby

Review: Ramsey Cambell, Dennis Etchison and Jack Dann’s Gathering the Bones, by Lee Battersby

A good horror story, like good radio drama, is an essentially visual medium. Like radio, the best horror stories build up a picture inside the audience’s mind instead of force-feeding images directly into the consciousness. Horror is personal: you and I view the same things differently, take away differing opinions, find horror within different aspects of the same tableaux presented to us. Think back to the really good horror movies of the past, to the mad geniuses like James Whale, Tod Browning, or the greatest of them all, Val Lewton. What was terrible was what lurked at the edges of our vision, the tantalizing fear that lies around every corner. Any twerp with a camera and a budget can throw blood at the screen. A master creates atmosphere.

So what’s a rant about old filmmakers got to do with a brand new horror anthology? Well, as I said before (perhaps you missed it under all the frothing at the mouth), a good horror story builds within you. It nestles within your cortex long after the reading experience is finished, letting you stroke it and shudder like aluminium against a filling. The editors of this volume have 34 chances to be Browning, Whale, and Lewton. Do they succeed? Sometimes, sometimes indeed.

The anthology itself is an interesting experiment in style: 3 editors from 3 different continents gathering together the best horror writers and stories from their respective domains: Ramsey Campbell in the Old Country, Dennis Etchison in the New World, and Jack Dann Down Under. As writers each man has shown differing sensibilities. As editors this serves to create a broad spectrum of storytelling, from gentle stiletto-sharp tales to thunderous hammer blows lacking nothing but subtlety.

From the fabulous cover art to the long and impressive contents listing (although with some notable omissions: no Robert Hood? No Joe R. Lansdale?) the anthology promises an absolute carrion feast of memorable stories.

And there are some moments of unerring quality amongst them. “The Wind Sall Blow For Ever Mair” by Stephen Dedman runs along quite smoothly, a safely mainstream cross-cultural haunting story for the most part but with a final image that damn it, I can’t budge from my mind weeks later (I played soccer for 15 years, man, it just ain’t fair). Scott Emerson Bull’s “Mr Sly Stops For a Cup of Joe”, with it’s hugely awful and immensely likeable antagonist, rooted so firmly in the real world that gas-station shopping will be done at a slightly quicker clip from now on; the odd and disturbing “The Hanged Man of Oz” by Steve Nagy that opens the volume and which I defy you to read without heading for the video store, just in case…. For the most part, everything works. Even stories that aren’t in themselves inherently horrifying still dazzle with the inventiveness and at times sheer weirdness of their creator’s imaginations. The always-pyrotechnic Terry Dowling’s “The Bone Ship” causes no great stirrings of dread, yet the imagery within is magical and the climax of the story is almost to be wished for. Likewise Lisa Tuttle’s “The Mezzotint” in which image is quite literally contained within image until the hole tale begins to resemble a labyrinth of the reader’s own making. And long-time favourite of mine, Gahan Wilson, the Charles Addams of short stories, chimes in with every big brother’s deepest desire, “The Big Green Grin”.

As with any collection there is the occasional dud, the once-in-a-while misfire that fails to hit its target. No, you know my rules about these things and finding out yourself. There are only two, and you know I’m not going to name them. But these are minor stories, easily identified by their passive protagonists, diluted emotions, and almost complete lack of sensual impact. And for me, 2 out of 34 ain’t bad odds at all. Not when balanced against the gems I’ve named above, and not when the collection contains one of the most revolting, repulsive, skin-crawling horror stories I’ve read in a very very long time.

Step up, Robert Devereaux. Now let us be straight here: I’ve watched a lot of horror movies. I’ve read more than my share of horror stories. Christ, I’ve even resorted to Guy N. Smith in times of need. It takes more than a little to make me uncomfortable. “Li’l Miss Ultrasound” is repulsive. Some of the imagery contained in this story will make you feel actively nauseous. But make no mistake, it is a horror story that deserves to win awards, and deserves to be remembered long after its contemporaries have been forgotten. In fact, you’ll spend a long time trying to forget what you read in this story, and you’ll fail.

It is the highlight of an altogether excellent gathering of bones, and an ossuary that deserves a place on your bookshelf.

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