Steven H. Silver and Martin H. Greenberg (editors), Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, 2003)

I've never really understood the attraction of "famous writers' first stories" anthologies. The stories are never as good as the authors' present works, and I've usually been disappointed in them as a whole; a case of mediocrity overexposure. Of course, from the financial standpoint, putting a famous writer's name (or, even better, several) on a book cover is a sure way to sell many copies and make a quick buck without needing to actually create anything new.

This was surely the idea behind Silver and Greenberg's new triple threat of anthologies. Wondrous Beginnings covers science-fiction, Magical Beginnings is all about fantasy, and this one, Horrible Beginnings, features horror authors. Each story -- ordered chronologically by date of first publication -- is headed by an introduction from the author (or in the case of the deceased, someone else) that gives insight into the creation of the story and how his or her career was subsequently affected. Some of these introductions, especially in the case of shorter works, run longer than the stories. Most are better than the stories they introduce.

Not surprisingly, Horrible Beginnings consists mostly of flat fiction. Even those stories by the familiar names were far less than entertaining. "The Cleaning Machine" by F. Paul Wilson is a solid-but-bland effort about a mysterious machine that makes people disappear; "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds" by Neil Gaiman is an embarrassing Raymond Chandler pastiche placed in nursery rhyme land; and Ramsey Campbell's "The Church in High Street" is (the author admits in his introduction) simply yet another H.P. Lovecraft rip-off. "Lilies" by Robert Bloch is fair but not representative of the quality of his later works.

On the other hand, Henry Kuttner's "The Graveyard Rats" (introduced by Frederick Pohl), while written in the stilted prose of the 1930s, managed to elicit a physical response from me with its tale of a greedy undertaker. And Tanith Lee's "Eustace" is a ninety-word vignette that left me pondering far longer than it took to read.

Two of the more interesting stories, coincidentally or not, came from the same themed anthology. (The editors have not entirely played fair with the rules here and have included "first stories" by authors who had written several novels, thus raising the average level of quality.) "The Wind Breathes Cold" by P.N. Elrod and "Deep Sleep" by Matthew J. Costello (whom I only knew from his work on the 7th Guest video game and a couple of suspense novels written with F. Paul Wilson) both star Count Dracula in interesting situations.

Elrod's follows a long literary tradition of taking a minor character in a novel -- in this case vampire killer Quincey Morris -- and fleshing him out in his own story. Elrod would later expand this story into a novel. Costello follows with a high-concept "what if?" tale: Dracula on the Titanic. Both writers take their stories to their proper conclusion, leaving enough room for the reader to continue if she wishes.

All in all, this is a fair collection with some gems and several duds, but that is to be expected with such "first story" anthologies. Hidden among the detritus, however, are a few fine tales just waiting to be (re)discovered. And, if nothing else, Horrible Beginnings gives a peek into the early careers of some of today's best authors.

[Craig Clarke]