The subtitle of The Dark Descent, "The Evolution of Horror," says it all. The Dark Descent is a collection of the best of horror short fiction from its beginnings (J. Sheridan LeFanu's tale "Schalken the Painter" is the earliest example included, having been published in 1839) to its most current practitioners (Clive Barker's "Dread" is the most recent, published in 1984).
In his somewhat lengthy introduction, editor David G. Hartwell eloquently states his motivation behind the creation of "a definitive anthology that attempts to represent the entire evolution of the form to date and to describe and point out the boundaries of horror as it has been redefined in our contemporary field." Hartwell also hopes to rectify the situation of horror fans only reading "books and stories given the imprimateur of a horror category label, thus missing some of the finest pleasures of this century in that fictional mode." He sees The Dark Descent as a milestone, the ending of an era "with the intent of clearing the air and broadening future considerations of horror."
Hartwell has set a very high bar for himself with this ambition, and I believe that he has cleared it -- as far as a "complete" work can actually be so. The cast of authors is a vast selection over the many years of horror fiction. There are, of course, the ones you expect to see in such a book: King, Barker, Bradbury, LeFanu, Shirley Jackson, Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch, etc. But also included are several names not generally associated with the genre, such as William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Flannery O'Connor.
Furthermore, Hartwell has divided the stories into three categories, each with its own evocative title. The moral allegories are tinted with "The Color of Evil." The psychologically based horrors remind us to look at "The Medusa in the Shield." And the supernatural elements can be found deep within "A Fabulous Formless Darkness." Thus, a fan seeking a particular type of terror can look in the section of his/her preference.
For example, within "The Color of Evil," one will find my personal favorite "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, as well as classics like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Ray Bradbury's "The Crowd" (I would have chosen "The October Game," myself, but I don't have a book to put it in), and Harlan Ellison's Edgar Award-winning "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." And in the realm of "The Medusa in the Shield" are such "classics of the crazy" as Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and O'Connor's portrait of the evil inherent in the average person, "Good Country People."
Of course, if you prefer spooks, spectres, and unseen thingies, "A Fabulous Formless Darkness" holds Charles Dickens' "The Signalman," Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" (another favorite), and Stephen King's entrance into the Cthulhu mythos, "Crouch End." (It's also fun to read alongside Lovecraft's original "The Call of Cthulhu" and see how they compare.)
Hartwell has done splendidly. Given the ambition he set for himself, he should rightly have
failed. That he has created a book that exceeded its own expectations (and won the 1988 World
Fantasy Award) is a clear sign of his hard work and dedication to the craft. One thousand
pages of horror history, The Dark Descent truly belongs on the shelf of every fan of dark fiction.