Ellen Datlow (editor), The Dark: New Ghost Stories (Tor, 2003)

Horror is not, by any means, something that I seek out for me reading pleasure. There's no Stephen King in the extensive collection of fiction that Brigid and I have accumulated over the decades, nor is there any Clive Barker, save for his children's tale, Abarat. Nor is there anything else of a horrific nature — unless one wants to stretch the definition of horror, in which case one could argue that Mulengro, a Charles de Lint novel in our collection, is horror, but I think that's really, really a stretch! So why did I greedily grab The Dark: New Ghost Stories when it showed up in our mailroom? Are you daft? It's edited by Ellen Datlow! The Ellen Datlow who has created some of the best, most interesting anthologies one could hope for, including, to give you a sample, The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest, Swan Sisters: Fairy Tales Retold and Snow White, Blood Red. All co-edited with Terri Windling, who was also co-editor for sixteen years with Datlow of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Good stuff, eh? Bleedin' right!

But, you protest, I said that I didn't like horror. I don't, most of the time. But a well-crafted ghost story is not really done for the sake of scaring you witless; a ghost story done right is more subtle, less gory, than a horror story. For example, Brigid, me darling wife, decided to read Clive Barker's Weaveworld and found that the story was well-done except for the nasty tendency by the author to be gross just for the sake of being gross. Have you seen any of the Friday the Thirteenth series? If you have, you know what I mean. Gore for the sake of gore just doesn't do it for me. Now, if you like that sort of excess, fine. It's yours to read.

Yes, I'm picky — why shouldn't I be? Green Man gets 'nough fiction of every sort for review that all of us are like the felines in this old building — if it don't smell right, we don't touch it. (Not quite true of all the cats here. Didjan is a smaller-than-average tabby female, probably the runt of her litter. Something of an 'outsider', but she somehow manages to thrive on any food scraps left unattended for more than a second by the others.) So finicky is good.

Me, I'll go for more subtle pleasures. No less horrific, but just less, errr, stomach turning. Chilling is good, and ghosts, as Datlow notes on the dust jacket, can be very chilling: 'Ghosts are among us. On the other side of death, the spirits of departed souls have been part of human myths and beliefs as long as anyone can recall. Some of the most powerful and affecting images in fiction are of ghosts, spirits, visitations from beyond the veil of death.' Now, I should note that even the best of editors is only as good as the writers that she selects. I've read anthologies that had great premises, but lousy stories (for the most part), such as Mardi Gras Madness, which was edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis.

So who do have here for authors? Oh, just a few middling (ha!) writers such as Sharyn McCrumb, Ramsey Campbell, Jeffrey Ford, Charles L. Grant, Glen Hirshberg, Kathe Koja, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Lucius Shepard, and Gahan Wilson. (I knew Gahan Wilson did wonderfully macabre art for the likes of Playboy magazine, but never knew he was a writer. A damn fine writer at that, judging from his piece here!)

Of course, The Dark: New Ghost Stories is something like a wee dram of single malt from your favourite distillery, best sipped slowly. Thus, I started by simply flipping through the contents to see what tickled me fancy. I decided, on an appropriately dark and chilly night, to start off 'The Gallows Necklace', a Sharyn McCrumb meditation on the consequences of justice delayed. Set between the Wars in Oxford, England, her tale is both about those being haunted and those doing the haunting, and how vengeance is indeed something that can take a very long time to happen. If you like the mysteries of Anne Perry, you'll like this tale.

Equally chilling for someone who likes houses with odd quirks — which I do — is Tanith Lee's 'The Ghost of the Clock', wherein the grandfather clock is animated by the spirit of a murder victim! Lee's foreword says, 'I don't believe in ghosts... So, this isn't a ghost story. Although it has a ghost.' Ghost or not, it's a dark tale. As is the lingering influence of a madwoman that terrorizes a child in Ramsey Campbell's 'Feeling Remains'. All of these tales could, if one were so inclined, not be considered ghost stories, but rather the result of minds gone mad with fear, paranoia, and waiting for the ax (perhaps literally) to fall. Are they ghost stories? Some are, some aren't. Will all appeal to you? Prolly not, as they didn't to me. But I found most of them to be fine reading.

I could list every tale here, but I won't. Suffice it for me to say that The Dark: New Ghost Stories will find itself residing alongside the other anthologies mentioned above, as it's definitely worth revisiting. Now, excuse me while I go see what that creaking noise is that I'm hearing from outside the room I'm in right now...

[Jack Merry]