Book Review: The Monstrous (Edited by Ellen Datlow)

The Monstrous is one of the most impressive themed anthologies of the year, varied in terms of theme and style, but not in quality.

MonstrousMonsters are a staple of the horror genre, with countless books serving up reheated stories of vampires, were-creatures and Cthulhu. But as you might expect from editor Ellen Datlow, The Monstrous is altogether more ambitious in its scope.

This anthology collects together stories about monsters from across the globe and different traditions. There’s nothing formulaic here and even where a recognisable creature from the horror pantheon appears, it’s not as we know it. This is also an anthology that largely steers clear of the overdone ‘humans are the real monsters’ trope–the beings in The Monstrous are for the most part defiantly Other.

It opens strongly with ‘A Natural History of Autumn’ by Jeffrey Ford. This is a modern day Japanese noir, in which a business man takes a hired escort to an onsen (a thermal spring bathhouse). Like all good noirs the stories secrets are revealed gradually and the monster, presumably one from Japanese folklore, is for Western readers something of a surprise.

Next up is ‘Ashputtle’ which explores the idea of human monsters… or at least monsters in human form. A retelling of the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, Peter Straub’s tale no longer has a happy ending. Told in the first person narrative told by an aloof school teacher, the story is as good as you’d expect from a veteran like Straub, calling into question our own prejudices and perceptions about where we see evil.

‘Giants in the Earth’ by Dale Bailey is set underground in an early twentieth century mine. It’s a setting expertly realised by Bailey and the vulnerable position the miners are in serves to make the reader uneasy even before they open up a new chamber in the earth and see what is within… What is revealed is beyond mere frightening, evoking a feeling of awe.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s ‘The Beginning of the Year Without Summer’ is a story sure to divide opinion. At first seeming to be about little more than a female professor and a younger woman talking by a lake, the monstrous element only subtly intrudes. Told in multiple timeframes, the reader must do some work to piece the story together themselves. It’s understated and rewards rereading, just to see how exceptionally well-written it is.

By contrast, ‘A Wish From a Bone’ by Gemma Files is one of the most conventional pieces here in terms of structure and plot (ancient monsters unleashed, kill people), but the details of Sumerian folklore and strong characterisation lift it out of the ordinary.

‘The Last, Clean, Bright Summer’ by Livia Llewellyn is one of the highlights of the anthology, a fascinating and mysterious story told from a teenager’s perspective about strange rituals by the sea. The ‘monsters’ here are unique and the story builds to a climax which mingles awe with horror. An audacious, compelling story.

‘The Totals’ by Adam-Troy Castro is a nice change of tone, a darkly amusing piece where the  monsters of the United States all meet up to compare their ‘totals’ – how many they have killed – in the style of travelling salesmen. There are prizes for the best performers; second prize is a set of steak knives, but first prize is… well, that would be telling.

‘The Chill Clutch of the Unseen’ by Kim Newman is a somewhat predictable story about an aged monster hunter chasing down his last monster. Falling awkwardly between horror and something more ambiguous, it never really seems to settle down into being the story it wants to be.

Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois’s story is one of the few stories to feature a traditional monster, but the vampire in ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ is as much victim as predator, being trapped in a Nazi concentration camp. A story that challenges our notions about what people would do to survive atrocity and just what counts as ‘monstrous’ behaviour when doing so.

‘Catching Flies’ by Carole Johnstone is one of the scariest stories in the anthology, and one of the finest. Readers will empathise all too well with the vulnerable narrator, a young girl who has been removed from her home with her baby brother by a mysterious government agency. The reasons for this are gradually revealed in flashback as we learn of the girl’s life with her mother.

‘Our Turn Too Will One Day Come’ by Brian Hodge has a compelling opening: a man is called by his sister in the middle of the night and told to come to her house… and to bring a shovel. This is a story about how families have to stick together and about what secrets families can hide. The monsters in this one only intrude towards the end of the tale but are sinister presence for all their lack of stage time.

‘Grindstone’ by Stephen Graham Jones is a short, sharp story about a wounded man fleeing from something unseen and largely undescribed. Well written and evocative as all of Jones’s fiction, it does feel like piece that could have been fleshed out to good effect. As it is, its serves as an effectively hellish interlude between the larger pieces.

Many This Is Horror readers will no doubt have read Adam Nevill’s novels of the ghostly and supernatural. The superb ‘Doll Hands’ shows another side to his talents, being set in a nightmarish and surreal version of the future. Almost every character here is misshapen and grotesque, inside and out. A labourer in this disturbing world must take charge of a delivery of ‘meat’ for his ultra-wealthy employer–Nevill’s story is an ambitious and ambiguous deconstruction of social class and how the bullied become the bullies.

With Sofia Samatar’s ‘How I Met the Ghoul’ we get another comic interlude which attempts a similar trick as ‘The Totals’, presenting a monstrous being in a humdrum, everyday context: here a ghoul is interviewed in an airport lounge. Again, the story is genuinely witty and a nice change of pace.

‘Jenny Come to Play’ by Terry Dowling is puzzle-box of a story, with the reader trying to decipher what is fact and fiction: a young woman has checked herself into an asylum and her psychologist struggles to learn her secrets and those of her twin sister. Skilfully constructed and with a thrilling climax.

‘Miss Ill-Kept Runt’ by Glen Hirshberg is another one of the highlights here, a bravura demonstration of how compelling horror fiction can be. It is told from the point of view of a child in the backseat of a car of a family who are fleeing… something. As the story progresses the reader intuits that the horror may already have caught up with them without their realising, and the ending is both perfectly crafted and unexpected.

‘Chasing Sunset’ by A.C. Wise is a delight, a street-wise, fast-paced riff on both Lovecraftian nastiness and the idea of a cursed inheritance. It’s propelled forward by the wise-cracking first person narration of its main character, fleeing along American highways to the coast, whose sense of humour only serves to bring attention to his desperate situation.

Steve Rasnic Tem has always proved himself an accomplished short story writer, and ‘The Monster Makers’, whilst not his best work, does nothing to dispel that reputation.  A grandfather teaches his grandkids some strange family magic: how to make monsters. The contrast between youth and age is nicely handled and the stories themes are poignant yet unobtrusive.

‘Piano Man’ by Christopher Fowler is a Gothic piece set in a post hurricane Katrina New Orleans. It’s a setting that lends itself to cliché and occasionally this story seems to cross that line, full as it is of jazz musicians and voodoo… but Fowler is too experienced a writer not to serve us up something genuinely compelling and scary as well.

‘Corpsemouth’ by John Langan (the only piece original to the collection) is a story about roots, both personal and ancestral. It’s an interesting work, but the reliance on Merlin and other somewhat overused pieces of British folklore does reduce the tension somewhat; the monstrous here is rendered less effective as a result. The story is by no means a failure, showcasing Langan’s usual flair for characterisation and nuance.

Overall, The Monstrous is one of the most impressive themed anthologies of the year, varied in terms of theme and style, but fortunately not in terms of quality. There are no bad stories and the standard caveat applies: every reader’s favourites will differ. Datlow’s reputation as one of the best anthology editors in the business endures.


Publisher: Tachyon
Paperback (384pp)
Release Date: 31 October 2015

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