I thought it’d be nice to do a book review for a change. So, here we are. It’s horror, this time – The Mammoth Book of Monsters(Constable & Robinson), an anthology of monster tales selected by well-known horror anthologist Stephen Jones. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on the genre, but I have come to read a fair amount of horror over the years, mostly bought on a whim rather than by plan. This would include a number of classic tales by Edgar Allan Poe(of course), some by Stephen King( But of course!) including a novel, Cujo , unfortunately not one of his best, some absolutely marvellous stories by Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and finally two Stephen King-edited anthologies. This title here caught my eye while I was browsing at the 2011 Patrika Book Fair here in Jaipur, mid-November.
It seems the focus here was to keep the definition of a monster as flexible as possible, going beyond the usual vampires, werewolves and ghouls to even weirder creations of the human imagination. Worry not, fans of the good old monsters; Vampires and werewolves and even Godzilla himself are here, just not in the form you would expect.
The quality of stories here is usually first-rate, and you can be sure some of the newer monsters are going to stick with you for a long time. We start with Visitation by David J Schow. Incidentally, the author wrote the sceenplay for cult film The Crow. Visitation is a fantastically vivid story based on the idea that as long as we truly don’t believe in ghosts, monsters or demons, we are safe, but if we are tricked by our imagination into planting the smallest seed of doubt in our minds, our fears might manifest themselves in the worst way possible. The monster outside is the same as the monster within.
From the charmingly rustic setting of Visitation we come to the familiar claustrophobia of tight cubicles in cramped office-spaces of big-city high rises. Down There by Ramsey Campbell exploits that fear that niggles amid the sickly white lighting of deserted corridors and elevators. A high point is the charmingly funny but realistic descriptions of the mundane reflections of the female protagonist as she bides her time together with the one other colleague still in the office at that late hour. Surely it is no small task to paint a convincing character sketch in the space of 8 pages.
Possibly my favourite story here is The Shadmock by R Chetwynd-Hayes. If you have chanced to watch the 1981 film The Monster Club, featuring Vincent Price, you might recall the episode loosely based on this story. It is really a remarkable piece, an alchemy of fear, baleful and disturbing, provocative imagery, black humour, melancholy and mournfulness, as wildly imaginative as could be. And what a novel idea!
The Spider Kiss is marred by plainly bad writing. The idea is somewhat original but the exposition of it here is so inane it completely ruins it for me. Cafe Endless – Spring Rain is one weird story, set in Tokyo, Japan, in which nothing really interesting happens. Did not work for me. The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti has an academic researching the Medusa myth. It creates a delicious atmosphere and is extremely well-written, though the conclusion could have been better. It is that kind of horror which concentrates more on the fear itself and the sense of foreboding rather than on a concrete embodiment/realization of the fear.
The Thin People by Brian Lumley is another highlight, an ingenious yarn about a kind of people that-, well, let’s just say that if you read this you’ll never look at a street lamp-post the same way again. Horror at it’s best .Joe R Lansdale’s Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program is a hilarious story which proves that you can inject poignancy into something so obviously absurd. The Hill and .220 Swift are novellas – The former makes an interesting point about supernatural beliefs while telling a story about the dead come back to life, or so it appears.
One of my favourite SF authors Robert Silverberg contributes with Our Lady of the Sauropods, that asks the tantalizing question-Can we really be so sure about our knowledge of dinosaurs, seeing as it is based on fossils alone? Could it be that dinosaurs were…different from what we imagine?
Someone Else’s Problem by Michael Marshall Smith is one of the more offbeat and creative stories here. Brilliantly funny and absurdist in tone, it hits you like a nail on the head. I’m willing to bet it came to the author’s mind as he sat in a sparsely populated train carriage, trying to read a book but eyes inevitable rising above the pages, ears attuned to the rhythmic hum of the locomotive. At some point in time haven’t we all felt like we are unjustly stuck in someone else’s problem, when we should just walk away…
Other writers of note featured here include Basil Copper, Clive Barker and Robert E.Howard. Overall a fine-to-middling collection to spook and stimulate, brought down a notch by a few unremarkable stories which just don’t match up to the standard of the rest. But these are just a few bad apples, and then, I could be wrong.
Rating – 3.5 out of 5 stars
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