By Line: A New Decade of Modern Horror
Published by: Tachyon Publications
ISBN 13: 9781616962326
Published: November 2016
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five
This collection was picked up initially because it included some favourite authors, such as Kaaron Warrn, Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix, along with the knowledge of Datlow’s brilliance, and that I trust Tachyon as a publisher in general. 24 short stories, female editor, 15 contributors assumed to be male, seven female and two unknown, is certainly strange to see from Australia when our horror scene is so female-strong. I would have liked to see more female contributors, but I trust Datlow and Tachyon both, so onwards with the reading and reviewing.
Shallaballah by Mark Samuels
We open with a Frankenstein’s Monster-like tale, of a man with a face that’s a patchwork of skin. It sets the tone for the whole anthology, showing us the darker side of speculative fiction in this collection of modern horror stories.
Sogol works in the entertainment industry, and after a horrific car accident needs the knife skills of a possibly-insane cosmetic surgeon who is the only one who has the talent to get him back in front of the cameras in time. He’s assured that in mere days his scars will start to fade and his hair will regrow, but as time ticks on and he suffers one insult after another in this dim and dirty place (and he’s a celebrity, he’s used to better, this is an outrage!) one starts to ponder what he’s exactly found himself in…
Sob in the Silence by Gene Wolfe
A horror writer shows a visiting family the haunted house he now owns, and walks them through how he’s going to do it up. They discuss all kinds of things – what the house was used for in the past, after a family were murdered in it – the usual shebang of what causes a haunted house – and the terrible things that’s happened in there since. The writer gives the daughter of the family alcohol and butters her up during their conversation, praising her intelligence and other things… so it’s no surprise to anyone what happens later in the night.
There is nothing creepier than someone who acts with cold hard efficiency, who seemingly feels nothing (or perhaps, too much) and Gets Things Done. Thankfully, the ending to this one is satisfying.
Our Turn Too Will One Day Come by Brian Hodge
A man gets a call late in the night (or early in the morning), and it’s the kind that’s never good – not when you’re an adult, anyway. Fun late night calls happen during uni days.
This was a depressing and hard story to read for all the right reasons – when things just aren’t fair and life is cruel or you can’t imagine such a thing happening to anyone – especially deliberately.
The thinking behind this one is profound and leaves you contemplating things, and was a good resting place of the anthology.
Dead Sea Fruit by Kaaron Warren
Disclaimer aside, I know Kaaron a little through being both part of the Australian Spec Fic community, and I love her writing.
A girl works in a ward for girls who are recovering anorexics. She listens to their chatter and fixes their teeth as their failing bodies lose hair and flesh and strength. She hears from them of a man of ash, and then isn’t all that surprised when he turns up at her dentist office some time later.
This one gave me a Hannibal vibe – the descriptions of the ash man were like watching Mads Mikkelsen. Very well carried out, and my favourite so far in the anthology.
Closet Dreams by Lisa Tuttle
A young girl has been through unspeakable horrors, and to make matters worse, her parents, the doctors and the police, don’t believe her. They believe she’s been through something awful, but the facts aren’t all lining up, and they put it down to how her brain is coping to fill in the gaps.
This is a slow playing and detailed short that makes you want to hunch up – you feel her despair and how she barely has any fight in her left now, and as the end unfolds you can barely believe the ending. Very, very well done, and I’m sorry Kaaron but I may have a new favourite in this collection.
Spectral Evidence by Gemma Files
I have to admit I didn’t quite understand this one. It’s interesting – a collection of photographs which are described to us, and then tells us the writing they have on the back of them – writing from two different people from two different times. One set of the writing however has strange ‘baby’ this and that descriptions, which I just didn’t get what it was trying to do. It has footnotes though, and that was also interesting.
Hushabye by Simon Bestwick
A man happens across something disturbing happening in the bushes one night, and though he is too late to save the victim entirely, he’s drawn into a hunt the police can’t solve on their own. Able to step where police can’t, and also able to have his own actions covered up by delicate police reports, we soon have a hero on our hands.
I like that this one had a positive resolution in all factors, and the writing was easy yet detailed, horrific yet readable. Excellent.
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
A man mourning the loss of his wife signs up to get away from his awful family who call him heartless, and the memories of his wife, even if it means leaving their newborn behind. He tries to keep the men in order, but hazing always happens, and though he thinks he shouldn’t make excuses for them he finds himself using the common line ‘boys will be boys’,
In this I don’t quite get how all the ends come together – things seem fragmented, mentioned for no end result – the sad ending a little sadder because… well, what happens next?
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Another disclaimer for the previous reason stated, and I love Margo’s writing already.
This one is almost too unsettling for words. A Hansel and Gretel tale a little more twisted than the original, What happens if Hansel ever returned to the house, a little older? What kind of life did he have afterwards, how would his mental state be, and what of his parents?
This is the only reprint in the anthology that I’ve read before, and it hits all that much harder on a second read though. Lanagan is terrific with words. Terrific and terrible.
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
A group of forty-eight set out from Missouri to make a new home for themselves, in wagons with oxen and all their hopes and dreams besides. This is however a short story in a horror collection, so one may guess that things don’t go too well for these travellers, especially as their leader, Clay, has zero experience in leading a party.
I found this one to be surprisingly beautiful, and really lost myself in the story. I think if it were a novel it would be too depressing overall, but it works very well as a short, especially as it is told in journal entries. Another favourite to add to the list.
Strappado by Laird Barron
This one I couldn’t really get into – I could visulise the characters, but not why they were there, or what plot was going on around them, which made it hard to follow. I did however enjoy the characters and the dialogue.
Lonegan’s Luck by Stephen Graham Jones
An old time crook travels through the wild west selling his snake oil remedies and whatever else, but what makes him different is he swears he’ll stay in the town until his remedies work, and then collect the money. He does, and as an added bonus his horse disappears and he winds up in a jail cell, so there’s no way to dispute his promise.
This one was excellent, dry and awful and a good ending that leaves you satisfied. I like that it wasn’t obvious what would happen next, and that a few things manage to take you by surprise and even leave you feeling a bit sad that such-and-such has just happened… even if it may be for the best.
Mr Pigsny by Reggie Oliver
A mob bloke dies, and it’s up to an uncle to take nephews to attend the funeral or else risk disrespecting a powerful family. Somehow he got along with the deceased okay for the few times they had to interact, in a way that he doesn’t really have any time at all for the rest of the family. Even though the man has literally killed a man through his work, our main character, who happens to be a professor at a significant British university, didn’t really hold that against him.
It’s at the funeral that he discovers that he’s been named in the will, and though taken by surprise, accepts his dues even though they then involve a strange little man… while the brother of the deceased – a man much harder to like – gets really quite angry and unsettled by the whole story.
As the story goes on, you’re hooked by both the normalcy and the unnaturalness of it all, and it turns into a cracker of a story. Really well done.
At Night, When the Demons Come By by Ray Cluley
The writing on this one just didn’t appeal, so I wasn’t able to get into it. Some kind of apocalypse has happened, there are demons, and the descriptions are kinda messy, such as ‘We had a couple of guys on our college football team, back when things like that mattered, who were as big as this man. A couple, as in put them together and you had the right size.’ Cute, but rubs me the wrong way for some reason, as well as the character thinking girls are useless and ‘nice tits’ blah blah. I know it’s setting up the character, but I just can’t be bothered to read it. My loss, as it probably does something clever with it later on.
Was She Wicked? Was she Good? by M. Rickert
Possibly one of parents’ worst nightmares – the slow discovery that there’s something not quite right or good about their child. As many parents they have quite different ideas of what can and should be done to try to correct this before it’s too late, until one night a decision has to be made without pause. It feels short even for a short story, as we jump from an event in the past, to the now, and then to the next season.
Thrilling and never quite explaining enough, this was good in all kinds of ways, and leaves me wishing there was more. Perfectly handled.
The Shallows by John Langan
A man talks to a crab stuck in the sink, and reminisces about his wife’s grandfather who passed away, and who was to bestow his name Augustus on his great-grandson. We’re not immediately told but one assumes that the son perhaps didn’t survive – or perhaps I’m being grim and misunderstanding, and they just chose another name for reasons soon to be clear. As one could assume, the man is from a different time and can say and do some quite vile things.
In all of this, all I really want is to see a crab walk at such a speed that it keeps up with an ambling human. I’ve seen them move quite fast before, I think I just like the domesticity of it all.
Little Pig by Anna Taborska
A woman flees her home with her children after the death of her husband, battling snow and wolves with an almost dead horse pulling the sleigh, desperate to reach her parents. All too quickly her odds of survival grow less and less, and she’s soon left with a terrible choice to make…
In this one, though I was captivated by the story, I didn’t quite get the point of it and how it matters that this grandmother has now come to London to meet her grandson-in-law. Like… what am I missing here?
Omphalos by Livia Llewellyn
This one I found triggering and couldn’t read.
How We Escaped out Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
Zombies have come and changed everything forever. People live behind massive barbed wire fences and young teens can fire and clean a gun better than anyone. We hear an accurate account for how a zombie invasion would probably happen – many more injuries and deaths caused by not reacting well enough when those close to you happen to turn…
This one worked well as it shows zombies in almost a natural state of living – not the cause for the story, but the padding around to give that added flare of the dramatic. Quite enjoyed this one.
The Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love by Robert Shearman
A young girl is consoled by gifts of dolls from her often-travelling father, who doesn’t take the time to gift things to his much older son. This son has his quirks with his sister, but is sent away to war where he dies overseas, and his sister mourns him.
Years pass, and a young man who avoided war by being too young, is bullied by his older brothers but ‘wins’ somewhat by being the one who gets to marry first – somehow charming an uncharmable woman at a dance, who usually dismisses everyone else. She says there’s nothing wrong with silence, and they court over silent dinners, and then suddenly, they’re happily married.
This one was so utterly creepy and worked well in how it seems to have two separate stories (like we see in Little Pig) that then come together in a many layered ending. This one works and works well, which is no surprise as Shearman’s work is always excellent.
Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8) by Caitlín R. Kiernan
This one I couldn’t get into either – it had a way of writing on and on like a stream of consciousness which just isn’t my thing, unfortunately.
Shay Corsham Worsted by Garth Nix
I saved this one for last in hopes I could then push through until the end of the anthology, and try to catch up on my review pile in general, and I wasn’t disappointed.
A young man breaks into an old man’s home for the thrill of it, and he likes the power he has over anyone. He runs into more than he bargains for, and we then jump to another scene, of a woman bringing her father things from the shop and idle chatter of things she’s seen.
We have Nix’s usual easy yet detailed way of writing, that easily captures your attention and holds it. We have interesting characters that we feel we know with little to no description as he fluidly adds little bits here and there that add infinite character. We have an efficient story that hits hard, and feels like a novel in such a short time. As always, with Nix’s writing, you can never have too much.
The Atlas of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
Jack, a bookstore owner, gets a midnight visit from a muscley chap named Patrick, who’s shot a guy in the head but the guy kept standing there, until Patrick said ‘Lay down! You’re dead! I shot you!’ …and then the guy drops ‘like a fucking tree’. Jack doesn’t know what to make of this story and wrongly laughs, making Patrick only angrier.
It spills out from there, and we have an excellent ramble of a story that seems just dangerous enough to keep you turning the pages, interested, but not grossed out or too worried by what’s going on. Really enjoyed this one.
Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey
It’s 2am, and a couple of cousins are up to no good. They pull up outside a derelict house – one Witt always used to avoid as a kid for thinking it was haunted. His cousin, Sonny, is from Houston and doesn’t believe in anything. They cover their faces and get out of the car and Witt starts thinking about what he hopes to find through this robbery – he wants cash, not gold, noting he’s not a pirate and wouldn’t know what to do with gold really anyway.
This is a good ending to the anthology, a slow burning and longer short than most, and a strange tale that’s a little like Home Alone with strange things happening that must be tricks or something… but even more sinister, and not as funny. The timing in this one is excellent, and well worth the placement.
- Anna Taborska
- Brian Hodge
- Caitlín R. Kiernan
- Dan Chaon
- Garth Nix
- Gemma Files
- Gene Wolfe
- John Langan
- Kaaron Warren
- Laird Barron
- Lisa Tuttle
- Livia Llewellyn
- M. Rickert
- Margo Lanagan
- Mark Samuels
- Nathan Ballingrud
- Nicholas Royle
- Ray Cluley
- Reggie Oliver
- Richard Kadrey
- Robert Shearman
- Simon Bestwick
- Stephen Graham Jones
- Steve Duffy