INFERNO

Edited by Ellen Datlow

Reviewed by Tim Lieder

The literary writers have their Nobel Literary Prizes and Oprah. The mystery writers have the New York Times Best Seller lists. The science fiction writers have Guest of Honor appearances and the horror writers have Ellen Datlow. There are other signs that you've made it as a horror writer--the Bram Stoker award, film adaptation, Nick Pacione accusing you of conspiring against him, first name Stephen and last name King--but the inclusion in an Ellen Datlow anthology is probably the most significant. We have many horror editors churning out multi-author collections, but few are even close to being as competent and talented as Ellen Datlow.

Inferno, a rare "general" horror anthology, again proves Ellen Datlow worthy of her reputation as an acute judge of talent and an editor that attracts the best in horror and dark fantasy. All the stories are either disturbingly beautiful or beautifully disturbing. The few failures fail not because of lack of will but from an overarching ambition that leaves the reader stranded. You can respect them even if you hate them.

Inferno begins with one of the strongest tales in K.W. Jeter's Riding Bitch where a biker must deal with his dead girlfriend and his miserable failed life, all on Halloween. As high as Riding Bitch sets the bar, many tales meet and excel expectations. Nathan Ballingrud's The Monsters of Heaven references Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Man with Wings where the introduction of angelic creatures only serves to emphasize the cruelty of the main characters. Christopher Fowler and Lucius Shepard both meditate on the Manson family with The Uninvited and The Ease with Which We Freed the Beast respectively. Fowler takes an outsider perspective, whilst Shepard puts us into the head of a Manson type leader. Joyce Carol Oates gives us Face, a story where time is the monster and none can escape.

The weaker stories include An Apiary of White Bees by Lee Thomas and The Forest by Laird Barron. Both of these stories try so hard to put the reader into another place and time that they completely bypass that Ramsey Campbell low level acid trip style and head straight for the freak out. Some like them but I found them uninspired. I still don't know whether or not I like Jeffrey Ford's The Bedroom Light in which several possibilities for a horror story present themselves and then exit stage right. I finished the story with a profound sense that he was fucking with me. I still can't decide whether I'm amused or annoyed with that feeling.

When there is no overt theme to an anthology, a theme presents itself regardless. Ultimately these are stories about the shitty things that humans do to each other and their justifications. Some writers ground the cruelty in the mundane reality of living. Others place their tales in the phantasmal world of ghosts and curses. Yet all work because they contain fully realized characters that we could all know and that makes these stories infinitely more disturbing than a dozen zombie invasions.

Inferno edited by Ellen Datlow. Tor hardback, 383pp, $25.95. Available from all good bookshops and various online outlets, including amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Website: - www.tor.com


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