The Monstrous by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Release Date: October 27, 2015
This is a story anthology offering tales of monsters—just not your everyday monsters. In her Introduction, Editor Ellen Datlow said her solicitation for stories asked for “unusual monster stories.” She wanted neither “human monsters” (i.e. no pedophiles or serial killers) nor was she interested in your classic Transylvanian Count Dracula. With this book’s 20 stories, the authors succeed in meeting Datlow’s request—in several cases spectacularly. Some of the stories are chilling, others are creepy, and two are even humorous, but all feature monsters that are out of the ordinary, or—at least—the monsters are in extraordinary situations.
Without further ado, I’ll offer a brief synopsis of, and comments on, the stories in this anthology:
1.) A Natural History of Autumn by Jeffery Ford: Set in Japan, a salaryman takes a girl-next-door escort to a remote onsen (thermal springs bathhouse and inn.) Neither of the main characters is what they seem, and, therein, lies the story’s appeal.
2.) Ashputtle by Peter Straub: A beloved kindergarten teacher describes her life and experience of the disappearance of a bright student. This story comes closest to violating the “no human monsters” proviso, but it creates a character so intriguing that you don’t necessarily care.
3.) Giants of the Earth by Dale Bailey: Miners stumble onto something unexpected deep within the Earth. This wasn’t one of the more engaging or memorable works, though it does have an intriguing premise.
4.) The Beginning of the Year without Summer by Caitlín R. Kiernan: A professor and a young, female townie chat by lakeside, and also a discovered book is returned. This is one of two southern gothic pieces, and is more engaging for the conversation between the intelligent professor and a more “common” young woman than for monstrous or supernatural elements.
5.) A Wish from a Bone by Gemma Files: An archeological team in a war zone stumble into more than they signed up for. Like a terrestrial Aliens movie with Sumerian evil spirits in lieu of aliens.
6.) The Last Clean, Bright Summer by Livia Llewellyn: A teenaged girl in a dystopian future travels with her parents to the sea for a rite of passage of an unexpected and haunting variety. This is one of the most visceral entries, and the author captures the teenage voice to great effect. This is in my top five stories from the anthology.
7.) The Totals by Adam-Troy Castro: A get-together between monsters to discuss quarterly figures and give out performance awards. This is one of the humor-oriented pieces—though not to the extent of the Monsters animated movies. The two humor pieces (the other being How I Met the Ghoul) offer two different angles on monster humor. This piece is set in a monstrous world, but juxtaposed against that eeriness is the work-a-day feature of a staff meeting. (The other story is set in our world—or at least a very mundane world reminiscent of ours—and draws its humor from the introduction of the monster into the midst in a very banal environment.)
8.) The Chill Clutch of the Unseen by Kim Newman: The last monster killer waits for the last monster to steam into town. This is one of the entries with a wild west feel to it. A common approach in this collection is to create unusual monster stories by putting monsters that may or may not be usual (in this case they aren’t) into settings and across from characters that one wouldn’t expect to see them.
9.) Down Among the Dead Men by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois: A man discovers that his best friend in a Nazi concentration camp is a vampire. Referring to the previous entry (i.e. the Kim Newman story), this is an example of a typical monster (a vampire) given new life by placing it in a context that one would least expect to find it—a concentration camp. This was also one of my top five from this collection.
10.) Catching Flies by Carole Johnstone: A girl and her baby brother are removed from a household (by a DFACS-like entity) after their mother dies from mysterious causes. I mentioned a story done in the voice of a teenager. This is one of a few entries written in the voice of a child—which is very apropos for an anthology about monsters.
11.) Our Turn Too Will One Day Come by Brian Hodge: A man is called in the middle of the night, and asked to come and bring a shovel—which is, needless to say, never a good situation. The monsters, while fascinatingly described and unique, are almost superfluous to this story. The monsters appear only at the end, and it would be a highly readable story without them—though it would be in the wrong collection sans the monsters.
12.) Grindstone by Stephen Graham Jones: A man who’s been shot up is fleeing from something across desolate territory. This is the other entry with a very Western feel to it. This is also one of the shortest entries of the batch.
13.) Doll Hands by Adam L. G. Nevill: Set in a dystopian future, a laborer in a luxury building takes matters into his own (doll-like) hands when he can no longer accept the atrocities the super-wealthy patrons of the building are perpetrating. One of the great features of this story is that it creates visual imagery that one isn’t sure whether to take literally or just descriptively. For example, the lead baddie is an old, rich woman who’s described in avian terms. It’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong in this world, though there is strategic ambiguity as to what. This is in my top five.
14.) How I Met the Ghoul by Sofia Samatar: A reporter conducts an interview with a ghoul in an airport lounge. This is the other story that is more comedy than horror. The comedy is born of putting the monstrous creature in a mundane setting during a workaday interview. It’s not even the kind of hard-hitting story that a well-known journalist would take on, but more like a cub reporter doing a human interest featurette.
15.) Jenny Come to Play by Terry Dowling: A former Siamese twin, separated from her twin as a teenager, admits herself into a psychiatric hospital where her psychiatrist tries to separate fact from fiction and the twisted imaginings of insanity from reality. These Siamese twins shared no common organs, just muscle, and were ideal candidates for separation as infants. However, their father kept them conjoined (and much worse) so that they could be the main attraction in his cabinet of curiosities. Not only is this story in my top five, I’d have to call it my favorite of the bunch. It reminds me a little of the work of the novelist team Preston and Child at their best. It has the same combination of creepiness and dark foreboding, while keeping one in the dark as to what imaginable events have actually transpired.
16.) Miss Ill-kept Runt by Glen Hirshberg: A family drives through the night to go to stay with family as if fleeing an ill-defined threat. This is another of the stories done in a child’s voice and perspective, and it captures that voice well.
17.) Chasing Sunset by A.C. Wise: A young man flees across country in an attempt to escape a demonic father who is after his body. This story offers the most impressive use of language. It’s one of the most enjoyable pieces to read, and, while it didn’t quite make my top five, it definitely gets honorable mention.
18.) The Monster Makers by Steve Rasnic Tem: A grandfather teaches his grandkids the family magic of being able to make others turn into monsters. In a way this seems like a thinly-veiled allegory for how grandparents turn children into “monsters,” but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
19.) Piano Man by Christopher Fowler: A travel writer doing a story on New Orleans gets caught up in a local voodoo turf war. This is another Southern Gothic piece with post-Katrina New Orleans as the setting—with all its tragic, macabre undertones.
20.) Corpsemouth by John Langan: An American visits his ancestral home and old world family in Scotland and discovers that the “gibberish” last message of his dying father actually had a rather spectacular meaning. This story rounds out my top five. I found it to be engaging, highly readable, and with an intriguing premise.
This anthology is thrilling and readable, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read about unusual monsters.
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