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BOOK REVIEWS: August 1999
By Paula Guran

999: NEW STORIES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE
Edited by Al Sarrantonio
Avon/ $27.50/ 704p
ISBN: 0380977400
(Now available in paperback)

book cover It's nice to have a horror anthology that paid its contributors well and is being considered as a major "publishing event." I enthusiastically applaud Avon for showcasing horror, especially in original-story, non-themed anthology form. Kudos to editor Al Sarrantonio for bringing off this certifiably "big deal." Included in 999 are novellas by Joe R. Lansdale, David Morrell, and Joyce Carol Oates; novelettes by Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, Thomas F. Monteleone, Kim Newman, Eric Van Lustbader, F. Paul Wilson, and Gene Wolfe; short stories by Edward Bryant, P. D. Cacek, Nancy A. Collins, Thomas M. Disch, Neil Gaiman, Ed Gorman, Rick Hautala, T. E. D. Klein, Edward Lee, Bentley Little, Dennis L. McKiernan, Tim Powers, Al Sarrantonio, Peter Schneider, Michael Marshall Smith, Steven Spruill, and Chet Williamson. With 250,000 plus words of original horror from some outstanding writers, this mammoth anthology is more than worth investing in. Definitely buy the book, enjoy most of it (although you can skip the 40,000-word hackneyed haunted house short novel by William Peter Blatty) for its overall competence and its occasional brilliance -- just don't buy all the hype.

Is 999, as promised in flap copy, the "largest" and "finest" anthology of original horror fiction of all time? Biggest it may be, but that doesn't make it the best. Does it attain the level editor Sarrantonio aspired to -- namely to further horror as literature as Kirby MacCauley did with DARK FORCES (1980) which was, in turn, inspired by Harlan Ellison's redefinition of sf via DANGEROUS VISIONS (1967)? No. DANGEROUS VISIONS introduced readers to writers and speculative fiction they had not -- literally could not -- encounter elsewhere. Fresh, audacious stories; entertaining and full of ideas that were wildly varied, but consistent in vision. Each entry was preceded by Ellison's unique personal insights into author and story. When Kirby McCauley edited DARK FORCES, he was a recognized authority in the field of horror with his finger on its pulse. He succeeded, as he hoped, in compiling an anthology "with the same scope and dynamism of Harlan's Ellison's DANGEROUS VISIONS, but in the supernatural horror field."

Most of 999 is good, some of it is great -- stand-outs include a wondrously wrought and redemptive Joyce Carol Oates novella; a wickedly dark Neil Gaiman story with a fascinatingly amoral protagonist; riveting, chilling realism from Ed Gorman; a novelette from Kim Kewman that manages to be both macabre and mirthful as Americanski zombies invade Soviet Moscow; an East Texas Gothic novella from Joe R. Lansdale; Gene Wolfe's tale of a haunting Polynesian paradise turned hellish; and a purely creepy offering from Bentley Little -- but it is far from daring (as was the 1986 CUTTING EDGE, edited by Dennis Etchison); defining (as was Douglas Winter's 1988 PRIME EVIL); redefining (as was BORDERLANDS, 1990, edited by Thomas F. Monteleone); visionary (as is Winter's loosely-themed REVELATIONS, 1998); or even consistently excellent (as are the recent DARK TERRORS series from British editor Stephen Jones and any number of Ellen Datlow's original-but-themed anthologies). Nor does Sarrantonio seem knowledgeable about the "state of the art" of horror he apparently seeks to encapsulate. There are some decidedly odd inclusions and some frankly shocking exclusions -- which, of course, would not matter if the fiction were all top caliber. Disappointingly, he doesn't seem to grasp the basic bibliographic and biographic facts about many of the authors in his brief and perky story-introducing paragraphs, let alone provide Ellisonian insight that might compel readers to seek the authors' work out elsewhere.

And perhaps this is irrelevant, but at least a mention should be made that the demographics certainly don't reflect horror-as-it-is-today or horror-as-it-will-be-tomorrow. Out of 29 contributors, only three are female; only three are not American. Michael Marshall Smith is the only one of the group under 35. All are firmly established, usually award-winning professionals -- so much for the editor's supposed concept of a market for "new Young Turks."

At the end of his introduction, Sarrantonio sums up his hopes for 999: that it will be revolutionary; that it will help revive the field while freeing the genre from its ghetto thereby establishing a new Golden Age of horror. On the other hand, he pragmatically admits if that doesn't happen at least 999 "is merely a celebration of the success the field has already achieved -- final proof...that it is a literary genre." Although not devolutionary, 999 is not revolutionary. I hope it will help bring more awareness to the field and thereby assist with reviving it -- particularly in the anthology arena. Perhaps with a rumored $200,000 ad/promo campaign behind it, it will do just that. Despite the editor's opinion, there has been considerable proof already made available to those who are inclined to accept horror as literature, so I'm not even sure 999 will convince those who are disinclined, although it may find (or rediscover) some new fans. And that, really, is what 999 is about -- a celebration of horror designed to appeal to the mass market -- and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! One simply hopes that the masses realize that horror is unlimited and ever-changing; so rich a field that its talent can not be contained within one volume -- however large; so varied it can not be contained at all; and, in fact, offers so much diversity that there is something in it to evoke the emotion of horror in everyone no matter what their individual tastes, backgrounds, or preferences. So, forgive 999 its hype -- after all, horror probably needs more hype these days, not less -- and hope that it paves the way for more anthologies that celebrate the both the excellence and vast variety of the literature of horror.

ALL OF US ARE DYING AND OTHER STORIES
George Clayton Johnson'
Subterranean Press/ $40/ 460p
ISBN: 1892284219

book cover Chances are you haven't heard of George Clayton Johnson -- although you have probably seen his work on a television screen. If you care about superbly good writing, take advantage of this retrospective collection to rectify your ignorance. The co-writer of the novels LOGAN'S RUN and OCEANS 11, Johnson (who recently turned 70) wrote for a number of television shows including TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK and was, in the 1950s and 1960s part of a group of Southern California-based writers that included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. ALL OF US ARE DYING AND OTHER STORIES includes a sampling of a few scripts, some interviews and commentary, and, most importantly, it offers some of Johnson's short stories. Classically written, flawlessly crafted -- evocative examples of short fiction powered by understatement and complete believability -- they are beautifully delineated by an unrelentingly precise use of language. A writer's writer and a reader's treasure -- George Clayton Johnson can be classed with the best.

SCREAMS & NIGHTMARES: THE FILMS OF WES CRAVEN
Brian J. Robb
Overlook Press/ $27.95/ 192p
ISBN: 0879519185

book cover Based on personal interviews with Craven and sources such as magazines CINEFANTASTIQUE and FANGORIA, Brian Robb's overview of the films of horror film writer, producer, and director Wes Craven is both entertaining and informative. From LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) through SCREAM 2 (1997), SCREAMS & NIGHTMARES is credible and complete, although perhaps a bit fannish in tone. The book lacks an index, but an authoritative filmography is included as is a chapter the Nightmare on Elm Street series, even though Craven was not involved in the films after the first three episodes. Biographically, Robb delivers the facts, never delving past the obvious. (Craven was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist family with pronounced ideas of good and evil, it doesn't take Freud to make the few connections the author makes.) Numerous excellent black and white photographs (some from Craven's private collection) support the highly readable text in the well-designed 7"-by-9" hardcover. Of particular interest to horror buffs are comments on Hollywood's periodic reaction to horror as undesirable and even dangerous and Craven's recurring tussles with censors both in the U. S. and England. A "must-have" for any Craven devotee, as well as students of horror films in general.


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