Book Review: The Anatomy of Monsters: Volume I, edited by Robert Tuen and Donelle Pardee Whiting

“…the anthology is a striking and strong one, with some real gems within; far more than most anthologies can boast.”

 

A new horror anthology is always a gamble, especially when there seem to be dozens being published every month. Do the editors go with a theme or simply on the strength of the stories? Is it to be a one-off, or the first of a proposed series? How does one make their product stand out in a sea of seemingly similar items? With The Anatomy of Monsters: Volume I, editors Robert Teun and Donelle Pardee Whiting seem to have gone for everything; a themed anthology which is to be the first of many, and containing stories by both established talents and promising newcomers (and, in this instance, one classic tale).

Opening with a very relevant quote by the legendary Clive Barker on the nature of stories, we have nineteen tales which take once familiar creatures and tropes of horror, and hope to fashion them into something new.

First is prolific author Gary McMahon and his contribution, ‘I Know I Promised You A Story’, a short piece which manages to combine the grim reality of vampirism by way of George Romero’s Martin with a touch of poetic horror (“You’ll live forever, inside me”). It’s a suitably grim, yet restrained opener, and the only criticism—if even criticism it is—is that it is over almost before it begins. More, please, in other words. Nicholas Vince (Chatterer Cenobite in the original Hellraiser films) gives us his take on the werewolf myth with ‘Family Tree’. Two long lost twins reunite, one asking the other to complete a terrible task. Though the pacing is a little off, and some of the reactions don’t quite ring true, it is, nevertheless, a beautifully written short which manages to surprise twice at its conclusion.

‘Conjoined’ by Greg Chapman sees the famous story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde given a new, fresh origin, and Chapman has an absolute blast with it. He manages to evoke prose and dialogue of the late nineteenth century without sounding trite or dull. In fact, the story is extremely lively and well paced, almost verging on Evil Dead II territory at one point without falling into parody. An extremely well-written work which shocks and entertains in equal measure. An astonishing piece of literary horror, Brian Hodge’s ‘A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine’ is a beautifully written treatise on man’s inhumanity to man, on the lies we tell ourselves to lift us above others. It is nothing less than an examination of the human condition and explores grace and compassion, and what drives those responses (and where some fall short). It tackles a famous creation which shall not be named here, for part of the enjoyment for the reader is coming to realise the subject. A stunning novelette, utterly wonderful, and one of the highlights of the anthology.

A hard act to follow indeed, and Carl Jennings’ ‘Losing Visibility’ suffers somewhat because of this; but also from occasional awkward phrasing and failing to really add much originality to H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Acting essentially as a prologue to that story, it feels a little bogged down in over-written, melodramatic prose, and takes its narrator down the path of criminality and madness with no real context. Nevertheless, it shows competence in writing in—mostly—a convincing, Victorian voice. And so to E. F. Benson’s tale, ‘Monkeys’, or ‘The Monkeys’ as it’s presented, here, a story nearly a century old and a take on curses from Mummy’s tombs. It’s an interesting piece that some may struggle with due to the old-fashioned prose, but has its moments despite feeling too long and drawn out for its premise. A curiosity, then, and a possible step to other works by the author and other similar writers, perhaps.

Alisha Jordan’s ‘Whitechapel, 1888’ takes the infamous story of Jack the Ripper and twists into something which incorporates illicit, lesbian affairs, genital mutilation, and a kind of cod pseudo-psychology. It begins interestingly enough, but soon crumbles into repeated scenes of murder and violation which will be familiar to even the most casual of Jack the Ripper connoisseurs. The prose is peppered with run-on sentences and some general sloppiness, and the whole thing might have worked better with some deeper psychological insight. ‘Tis a pity, for there are moments of real promise and interest. ‘Le Mort Vivant’ by Steven Chapman is a reimaging of the origins of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, and it is an assuredly written and compelling work. It follows the young phantom at age thirteen, living beneath an opera house with his overbearing mother who constantly assures him of his horrific appearance and nature. A chance encounter with a sixteen year old girl without his mask shakes the foundations of his existence, leading to tragedy and an inevitable—but well-realised—conclusion. Another highlight of the anthology, Chapman proves he is a name to watch out for.

Stuart Conover gives us ‘Creature’s Revenge’, an updated version of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, which plays out like a 70s/80s style monster movie. Whilst energetically written—with only a couple dips in pace and some convenient exposition—and describing some entertaining deaths at the hands (claws?) of the monster, it feels a little rushed or truncated. Certainly, there could have been far more wrought from the premise, and the tease at the end.

At the halfway point, we are presented with ‘Rational Creatures’ by Daniel I. Russell, which tackles another common horror trope that will not be mentioned here. Suffice to say, though, that it is, quite possibly, the best story in the anthology. One with great competition, no doubt, but the best all the same being that it is a powerfully written and pitch-perfect literary horror story that manages to dazzle and repulse in equal measure. With tight, poetic and flowing prose, perfect pacing, and a keen eye for character and detail, Russell shows an absolute mastery of his craft. Truly astounding, one of the best short stories of 2017, it might even be argued. ‘The Birth of Djinn’ by Alex Laybourne attempts to give an origin to the creature of its title—the Djinn, or genie—but is hampered by some lacklustre prose and a rather flat, almost stream-of-consciousness narrative. It feels more a collection of some loose, partially-thought out images than a complete story, which is a shame as there are some interesting ideas and conceptions, here.

Next up is ‘Gorgons’ by Jess Landry, a rather beautifully tragic version of how a certain famous, ancient ‘monster’ came to be. It is steeped in the Greek myths it emulates, but bends them to its own will. Suffused with gorgeous prose and a powerful through-line, Landry infuses her imagery with life and emotion. Dark, poetic, and laced with melancholy, this is another high point in an anthology bursting with them. Another fantastic story by Laura Mauro, rising star of the UK horror scene, ‘Nightswimming’ is her take on the mermaid legend, twisting the concept to her own, inventive needs. The prose is perfect, the imagery suitably fluid and deceptively languid, the watery setting serving to temper—but never obscure—the emotion of the narrative. Like the darkest oceans, lurking just beneath the surface of this piece is real bite; quiet, savage examinations of betrayal, brutality, domestic violence, and the burning need for revenge. Quite simply wonderful.

Phil Sloman’s ‘The Darkness in our Dreams’ offers us both a veiled explanation of how nightmares came to humankind and also a take on a very recognisable trope which will not be mentioned here for fear of spoiling. There is a nice cadence to the prose, though the narrative occasionally becomes muddled, and the story might have better been served with a slightly keener observance of its intent. Nevertheless, it still works. Giving us a modern epistolary ‘tale within a tale’, Simon Bestwick’s ‘To Walk in Midnight’s Realm’ is a twisting, surprising, and utterly readable work which manages to combine horror, emotive storytelling, and a sense of wonder and darkness in expert fashion. It also has a tone almost of high adventure laced through, without ever feeling silly or derivative. Excellent and inventive, genuinely touching and terrifying.

Josh Malerman’s ‘Basic Shade’ gives us a tale of the first peoples, of the dawning of intelligence and art, and of the first ghost. It’s a dialogue free piece which slips dream-like through its compelling prose into the mind of the reader; suffused with striking imagery and intent. A rather wonderful work which feels far more by its conclusion than it first appears to be, lingering long in the reader’s mind.

Horror legend Ramsey Campbell gives us a rather fragmented examination of a man’s possible encounter with a rather unusual supernatural entity—or his descent into madness—in ‘The Ferries’. Peppered with some keenly observed images, it nevertheless feels a little too disjointed to make a deeper impression; perhaps a more conventional narrative would have helped. Or perhaps this is entirely the point of the story. ‘The Curse of the Monster’ by Bryn Fortey and J. A. Mains attempts to emulate in modest fashion the mash-up stylings of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is lively and inventive enough. Yet its messy—in parts—prose, it’s dull and unpleasant main character, and its rather loose story let it down somewhat. It also suffers—though no fault of its own—from being included in an anthology of mostly literary horror. A more expansive or tighter version would be a welcome addition to amore pulp-flavoured collection. Finally we have ‘The Unfleshed: Tale of the Autopsic Bride’ (and what a gorgeous title that is) by Lisa Vasquez, which appears to be a few chapters taken from a novel published by the same press as this anthology. Unfortunately, it suffers by being cut from its surrounding text—offering no context or anchor—and is suffused with awkward, clumsy, and over-written prose. Otherwise, it might have been an enticing hook to draw readers to the larger work.

So there we have it; the birth of a new, annual anthology, and—for the most part—it is full of high quality and inventive writing/storytelling. The cover art by Greg Chapman is gorgeous, and the final product promises to have each story illustrated by him (unavailable at time of review) Aside from the very occasional dip in quality, and the unnecessary inclusion of a classic tale, the only other detraction might be the over-reliance on Victorian-style narratives, but perhaps that’s simply inevitable due to the subject matter. Regardless, the anthology is a striking and strong one, with some real gems within; far more than most anthologies can boast. Here’s hoping Anatomy of Monsters goes from strength to strength; it has the potential to be a real force for showcasing the very best horror writers currently working today.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Stitched Smile Publications
Paperback: (215 pp)
Release Date: 22 June 2017

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