Monday, September 29, 2008

Killers, edited by Colin Harvey

From the wonderfully named Swimming Kangaroo press comes Killers, a new anthology. However the operative level of whimsy comes not from the name of the press, but from the book's title: Killers is aptly named and focused on its subject matter. The cover of the ARC I have lists its genre as “Speculative Mystery,” but let me name it truly: Horror.

Editor Colin Harvey’s introduction makes his interest in stories that blur genre lines clear, and I heartily agree. I’ve developed the opinion (although it’s hardly one I’m qualified to have—I’ve read very little horror fiction over the years) that horror is not a genre, it’s an aspect or authorial tool that can be inserted into any other genre. Thus one can have psychological horror, science fiction horror, supernatural horror, etc., and no one should worry about enforcing boundaries. The scariest thing I ever read is a short story by Jonathan Lethem, included in The Asimov's SF 30th Anniversary Anthology. Titled “The Happy Man” it deals with child abuse and the victims thereof; it partakes fully of the traditions of sf, fantasy and mainstream psychology all at once. However at the same time its horrific nature is such that by the end of the story I found myself literally curled up on the couch, every muscle tense.

None of the stories in Killers quite reach that level of visceral reaction, but they generally support Harvey’s thesis: boundaries should always yield to storytelling. The eleven stories in the anthology don’t worry too much about genre, but they certainly get their points across. Mostly this involves scary treks through the minds of profoundly disturbed individuals. The anthology starts off with “Doctor Nine,” by Jonathan Maberry. The eponymous Doctor is a supernatural creature deeply enmeshed in death, and possibly the imaginary friend of a nine year old psychopath, whom we meet as she is killing her sister. This hits two major fear buttons: children being harmed and children being evil—scary stuff to say the least and a good start to the collection.

“Dead Wood” by Sarah Singleton maintains an excellent creepy atmosphere before arriving at a fairly standard horror twist—this one may be a pure “mainstream” story. “Virtual Analysis” by Philip J. Lees is one of the sf-flavored stories in the collection. It deals rather improbably with a serial killer in a VR experiment, again it ends with a twist. This story is a bit less well-executed than others; the tension doesn’t quite reach the levels one would want. The very short “Pushover” by Bruce Holland Rogers consists of nothing but twist, but it’s a good one. “Beautiful Summer” by Eugie Foster takes on the obsessive ownership engendered by gazing upon extraordinary beauty—the first person narration is perfectly rational which makes the ending all the more startling. Harvey’s own sf entry, “Just Another Day,” deals with experimental research in Iceland. It’s one of the longer stories and works well as straight sf; as a horror story it fails to frighten. The matter-of-fact narration better suits mystery and sf than really scary horror. Of course, the story invokes all three, being one of the only stories to use traditional detective/mystery plotting as well. This may explain the “Speculative Mystery” monicker on the cover, as opposed to going straight for the “Horror” label.

“Losing Paradise” by G. C. Veazey combines the horrors of vampirism with that of old-school unregulated mental hospitals; the latter completely overshadows the former. Thus the plot ends up less interesting than the setting. “Hunter-Killer” by Charlie Allery involves the murder of AIs. It’s moderately successful as sf (although a “big reveal” comes from something that should have been obvious), but not scary at all—it’s hard to get that visceral feeling from AIs, especially in the confines of a short story (this one also partakes of a more traditional mystery/detective plot, like “Just Another Day”). The last story, “The Good and Gone” by Lee Thomas, is urban fantasy involving possession and serial killing, certainly disturbing. It also has a gay protagonist who isn’t evil, which I appreciate.

The two stories I find most frightening are “Visibility Down to Zero” by Paul Meloy and “Index of an Enigma” by Gary Fry. They both take place inside the minds of profoundly disturbed individuals, and they stay chaotic and unstable all the way through, never giving the reader any solid ground to get her bearings. In “Visibility” the main character is a cop with a daughter in a mental institution, he’s in therapy himself and having progressively weirder dreams. “Enigma” involves a psychologist going back to his home town for a conference. He’s clearly an asshole, picking fights with harmless cranks, but in the night he’s also—haunted?—by something, perhaps something from his obviously unhappy childhood. As one would expect, his degree in psychology gives him no real insight into his own issues. The resolution may let the guy off a little too easily, but the story effectively ratchets up the tension right up to the climax.

I want to emphasize: my review should be taken with a grain of salt; I rarely read horror and almost never seek it out, so I don’t have much grounds for comparison. That said, I would be surprised if any of these stories become award winners. They don’t seem to be quite of that caliber. However, they are all effective stories. I wasn’t tempted to skip any of them. Those that aren’t particularly scary are interesting as mysteries or as sf, which I see as a big advantage to working across genre borders. Several of the stories are viscerally frightening, usually because of the unstable psychologies involved, regardless of genre framing. All in all, this solid collection should entertain anyone with an interest in horror without artificial limitations.

In the matter of sales and format, I want to give props to the publisher. Yea though my ARC is a traditional dead-tree pre-publication edition, the book itself is available in a few electronic formats as well as plain old paper. If you go to Swimming Kangaroo’s product page for Killers, you’ll see editions in html, pdf, and mobi available for $4 vs. $14 for a trade paperback. I applaud both their production and their pricing scheme—it would be wonderful if more publishers adopted a similar model. Better for the environment, better for getting eBooks out there, and better for the pocketbook. Bravo!

1 comment:

Kosmo said...

Colin Harvey is a real talent. I'm going to have to check this out.