A good themed anthology, especially one with the word Mammoth in the title, should be a mix of the old and the new, a collection of classic reprints as well as some new material for those of us who need a little bit more than just a re-read of old favourites. Illustrating very nicely indeed the way to do this kind of thing properly is The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan and published by Constable Robinson.
The book kicks off with a short, chatty introduction by Stuart Gordon, director of the classic ReAnimator and a number of other fine horror pictures including Dagon and Poe’s The Black Cat for television. Understandably Gordon concentrates mainly on his hunt for, and eventual discovery of, the Lovecraft story that helped make his reputation, but he does take time out to mention some of the other stories in here, as well as a quick anecdote about meeting Wes Craven at a urinal, before we get into the stories proper.
One of the things that many long-time readers wonder about as they grow older is whether the stories that thrilled them as youths will remain available to be discovered by today’s young horror readership. Volumes go out of print, stories are forgotten or neglected, and an entire generation can miss out on, say, W W Jacob’s ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. It is therefore with some delight that Kane and O’Regan have reprinted some classics here that have been away from our shelves for too long. After stories by Mary Shelley, Poe and of course H P Lovecraft’s ‘ReAnimator’, all of which can be found in collections in any high street bookshop, The Mammoth Book of Body Horror begins to show its real worth with reprints of John W Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ and George Langelaan’s ‘The Fly’. The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories did a fine job of keeping the Langelaan story in print for years and the Campbell featured in a 1995 US anthology, but it’s good to see both in print again. A tiny funny by Richard Matheson ‘Tis the Season to be Jelly’ is next, followed by Stephen King’s ‘Survivor Type’, the tale of a surgeon stranded on a desert island and having to resort to increasing acts of self-mutilation in order to stay alive. Stories by Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley follow. Lumley’s ‘Fruiting Bodies’ is a deservedly award-winning tale of rot and decay in a crumbling seaside village, while Bloch’s story concerns a man who finds he has bought the secret residence of silent actor Lon Chaney (which comes complete with makeup case and haunted mirror) and Campbell’s is the tale of an unhappy teacher who keeps seeing the figure of a dancing clown on the other side of the river to his flat. Needless to say, when he decides to investigate further the consequences are (bodily!) horrific, and it could have led to the inspiration for a famous J K Potter illustration, but you’ll have to read the end of the story for yourselves to find out which one.
In his introduction Stuart Gordon recommends that you read the next story ‘Freaktent’ by Nancy A Collins, at the end. It’s certainly very effective, although the theme (which won’t be revealed here as it would spoil the ending) has been touched on by authors as far back as Charles Birkin in the 1930s. Michael Marshall Smith’s contribution, ‘Walking Wounded’, was originally published in Gollancz’s Dark Terrors 3 – it’s a fine tale of suburban body horror. Richard moves into a new flat with his new girlfriend. Pretty soon small cuts are starting to appear all over his body and rather than healing up they’re getting bigger and bloodier. Good stuff and a nice ending to this one. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Changes’ is more science fiction, but that doesn’t harm the story at all. In a future not so far away cancer has been cured, but the treatment has had some very unusual side-effects. James Herbert’s ‘Others’ is an extract from his novel of the same name and is a brief catalogue of hideous malformations. ‘The Look’ by Christopher Fowler, first published in Telos’ Urban Gothic anthology, is next. It’s body horror as fashion (or should that be the other way around) and again, while the subject has been dealt with by other authors (most notably in the far futuristic science fiction novels of Iain M Banks) Fowler’s story is very much a horrific satire set in an almost contemporary world.
The book concludes with a number of stories that have been specifically written for the volume. These are by a mixture of authors both familiar and unfamiliar. Of the eight stories it came as no surprise that one of the stories was by old hand Graham Masterton, ‘Dog Days’, who delivers a deliciously outrageous tale of one man and his dog (not to mention the girlfriend). However, no more will be said about it so as not to spoil the surprise. David Moody was another surprise with his very well written and entertaining EC comics-style story ‘Almost Forever’. The following tale, Alice Henderson’s ‘Residue’, starts off a bit unsurely, but as it goes on it evolves into a whole bundle of alien-style fun and it comes highly recommend.
Overall, then, Kane and O’Regan’s Mammoth Book of Body Horror is a very fine read indeed. There were only a couple of stories that didn’t work, and the only real criticism is that the book ends on a rather grim downer of a story that really isn’t in keeping with the tone of the rest of the book at all. Otherwise, it’s a book that works beautifully as an introduction to the genre for those who aren’t that familiar with it, offering a fine selection from many of the very best writers the genre has ever had, as well as a decent mix of new tales. Introductions to each story by the editors, explaining why they had made their choices, would have been nice, but it’s still a fine volume even without them. In fact, if one were to recommend a good horror anthology to a friend who wanted to see what good horror stories were like, this would instantly come to mind. It does our beloved genre proud and there’s no greater praise than that.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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