Thursday, 25 October 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Final Part)

Now that's a horror cover!

And so we end off our short series with this final batch from the odd 27th Pan Horror anthology. It's been a bizarre ride filled with violence (a lot of violence), sex (a lot of sex), and horror (not as much as the other two), with pieces ranging from insane to far too predictable, but these last three should help put the final nail in my evaluation of this collection. Twelve stories down and what did I think? Well, we'll get to that.

Let us continue where we left off.

Joint Family by B. Seshadri is about an extended Indian family and the man who is in charge. He is in his mid-forties and still single, but begins plotting a way for his family to get ahead and up the social ladder. This requires using a disease from the backwards and superstitious Medieval era. Yes, the Black Plague. But he's a smarter and more modern man, so he can control it to do his bidding and plot everything out. His Machiavellian schemes depend highly on modern medicine and the way the current era works in order to team up with a disease in order to win out. As you can imagine, this doesn't go as well as he hopes it will.

I was pleasantly surprised by this story. The themes are strong and the main character not being so good while his family is works with the plot so that you want him to fail and them to succeed. My only real problem with this story is that it takes a long time to get going and leaves a far shorter time to deal with the consequences of his actions. This leads to the ending being abrupt and the tension draining right at the end, hurting the entire story a bit in the process. But it doesn't hurt it that much.

Otherwise it is a good story about a man who has his ego run out of control, thinks he can control nature and the modern world, and leads to unforeseen destruction. It's a solid entry and easily one of the best in this collection.

What comes next is The House That Remembered by Jonathan Cruise. As you might imagine it is a haunted house story. This one follows a newlywed couple as they travel to a small Irish town and overlook a new property they inherited. But there is a history behind this place, and it is quite dark. Nonetheless, they are hoping to build themselves a new life on this old family property. What follows is a tale of ghosts, legends, and curses, and an ending that brings an entire eerie history to a close.

As you might be able to tell, this is a Weird Tale, and it is a very good one. This wouldn't have been out of place in the titular magazine. In fact, it is my personal favorite story in the collection. The tension is high, the pacing ramps up, the horror is well defined and palpable, and the ending is satisfying (if a bit too quick for my tastes) and left me wanting more after the final line. If you're looking for a reason to read through this book I would say it is worth picking up for this story alone. It is quite good.

So far, these last two were surprisingly strong compared to the absolute weirdness that the anthology started with, but we're not done yet. There is still one last tale to go. Surely Mr. Paget will end it with a banger, though? Let's have a look.

The final story in the anthology is Rothschild's Revenge by Jay Wilde, a tongue in cheek story about a serial killer who goes after the people who did him wrong. He hunts them down and murders them in absurd ways. That is the entire plot of this shorter piece. It is lighthearted and leaves with an ending that leaves the reader with the lingering question as to why it was chosen to be the last story in the collection. It doesn't leave the reader with any particularly strong feeling, it has no weight, and it is brief on top of it all.

This doesn't make it the weakest story in the collection (it would be difficult to usurp Red Recipe), but it does mean it is placed in a bad spot. Sequencing in anthologies is important to keeping the audience engaged, and using a small comedic piece at the end of what is supposed to be a horror anthology doesn't leave the reader with the right impression. It leaves them slowly closing the cover and filing the book away.

But the biggest problem is that the story just exists. There isn't any tension in the tale due to the comedic bent, the kills are meant to make the reader laugh, and the ending is so ridiculous it can't possibly be taken seriously. There's nothing for the reader to sink their teeth into for a final story. It's funny if you like black comedy, I suppose, but that's about all. This is all fine, but it is a tonal shift from the stronger last two pieces which also works against it. This is what I mean by its placement not doing it any favors.

Overall, these problems would factor into my impression of this collection as a whole. There's no coherence or logical placement of the stories within. The tale chosen for the cover was not one of the stronger pieces and doesn't represent this anthology well.

This emphasizes another issue: this anthology is confused. It does not choose an identity for itself, and the sequencing makes the problem worse than it could be.

The style of horror varies, but most of the explicit material is placed near the start leaving the creepier content at the back, aside from Red Recipe being placed between two of the strongest ones in the last half. It's a mess. The strongest stories are buried, and the comedic ones front-load the selection with a random light piece at the end to fizzle out the building tension and reader expectations. It's not very well paced, and most of the stories are simply not enjoyable. This is a weak anthology.

Would I pick the best pieces to check out it would be Stephen King's I Know What You Need, B. Seshadri's Joint Family, and Jonathan Cruise's The House That Remembered. 3 out of 12 is not a good batting average, but if you like comedic satire that is not very scary then you'll find a bit more to enjoy in these pages, but to a much more limited degree. Unfortunately most of the stories simply contain over the top gore, slow plotting, and lean on the crutch of terrible characters you can't root for which bring them down from heights they could otherwise reach. This all holds it back tremendously. It's just not a good collection.

Now I can see where the state of horror writing was by the late 80s and it is no wonder this series died on the vine not long after this volume released. The unexpected success of Goosebumps in the 90s (and Are You Afraid of the Dark? for television) by using simple horror stories and monsters with a basic underlying morality must have been a revelation for the audience at the time. There was a reason, I suppose, that more than just children were reading them at the time.

I was unaware that written horror was in such a bad state by this time, although perhaps the lousy movies of the period should have clued me in. Most of the stories in these pages really could have used some of that old magic and because they don't have it they feel far more of their time and less universal than a classic story like Dracula or Frankenstein does. Most of these stories have no actual point, and as such they have little to offer outside of violence and sex. And in the age of readily available pornography and video games they offer even less.

Because of this, I don't think anyone other than a horror zealot will find much enjoyment in these pages. It reads as a genre out of gas and stranded on an abandoned back road with nothing but a dying flashlight. What you'll find out there is nothing you would want. This is a genre that has lost its way with no idea how it happened.

As a whole this has been a fun read, and I enjoyed sharing it here, but this not something I will be passing around to others. There just isn't any reason to. Look up the best stories and find something else to read.

Not recommended.


And that's all for this short series. See you on Halloween for a special surprise!

2 comments:

  1. Horror literature's always been dodgy. I used to be lucky enough to have my family buy me compilations (since I prefer horror in short story format to novel) such as '2008's Newest Horror' or even "999: Twenty Nine stories of Horror and suspense."

    I've noticed while some of them are good. Most live too far up their behinds. And in some, the "horror" is something that only folks like the author find scary.

    There was one story, whose name and author I sadly can't remember, that was about a middle aged man contemplating elaborate automotive suicides as he drove frantically down the road, and the "true horror" at the climax was him arriving at his suburban home with his loving wife and children where he felt "trapped."

    Even my old online go-to for quick creeps, the SCP Foundation went from having legitimately scary or unsettling things, to an endless cavalcade of 'cognito-hazards' and lazy sexual or politically themed junk.

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    1. Yes, my experience with horror fiction hasn't always been the best, but I'm always excited to find some worth reading.

      This specific anthology was obviously not all that great, but at least a handful were entertaining enough.

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