Award winners don’t always age well. It’s true for Best Picture winners, it’s true for Grammy winners, and it can be true for literary award winners. With that in mind, approaching a collection like the Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners with a fair bit of caution is justified.
The book itself is an interesting artifact, long delayed in publication and edited by Joe R. Lansdale, whose departure from the Horror Writers Association (which bestows the Stokers) and antipathy for the concept of the award are well documented elsewhere. Some of that gets laid out in Lansdale’s introduction to the volume, and the end result is, dare I say it, a little trepidation. With so many things working obliquely against it, what should be a “greatest hits” volume has the potential to be a train wreck.
Fortunately, that’s not the case. It’s true that some of the material has aged badly. Harlan Ellison’s “Chatting With Anubis” takes an eerie, otherworldly setup and then sandbags it with a Borscht Belt one-liner at the end. The book’s opener, Robert Bloch’s “The Scent of Vinegar” is a fascinating, non-Transylvanian vampire story that stumbles over some period attitudes and then the increasingly frantic actions of its characters. Not surprisingly, the stories that have aged the worst are front-loaded, and the collection gets progressively more readable as it chugs into the meat of its middle section, with stories from Nancy Holder, Elizabeth Massie, and Alan Rodgers.
The best horror has, after all, always been about people, about pain and loss and relationships, with the very human terrors we face transmogrified into monsters in order to make them easier to confront. The bulk of the book nails that understanding in ways that still stand up. Patricia D. Cacek’s “Metalica” is a graphic, brutal tale of self-inflicted body horror, while George R.R. Martin’s “The Pear-Shaped Man” is at the opposite end of the spectrum when a young woman moves in to a building with a character whose physicality is instinctively loathsome. The narrator’s “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” is a darkly comic tale of a couple of unpleasant jackasses whose own minor-league sadism ends up costing them when they run into some professionals; the subtext hints that there are monsters who prey on monsters, and that the occasional gesture toward decency is not sufficient grounds for redemption. “The Box”, by Jack Ketchum, is about a young boy learning a secret that ultimately kills him, but underneath, it’s about how communications break down within even the most tight-knit family. And David Morrell’s “Orange Is For Anguish, Blue Is For Insanity” takes the hackneyed notion of the artist who sees that-which-should-not-be-seen and pushes it to a place where it’s about loyalty and friendship and obsession, and the place where all of those break.
Two stories stand out above and beyond the rest. Thomas Ligotti’s “The Red Tower” is a positively baroque, relentlessly formal distillation of the sort of cosmic nihilism that would have done Lovecraft proud, rendered absurd by its anchoring in a sort of metaphysical practical joke manufacturing complex. Is the fabled tower a metaphor for the human condition? A fever dream? A commentary of the futility of artistic effort in the face of entropy? There are no answers given, just a magnificently described look into the abyss.
Opposite that is Jack Cady’s masterful “The Night We Buried Road Dog”, which is as thoroughly human a piece as one will ever read. A story about cars, the men who love them, and the ghosts we make for ourselves, it’s grounded in place and time, in technology and in regional accent, and it is heartbreaking. For those who think horror is just about the blood spatter and the bared fang, Cady offers an effortlessly eloquent refutation.
Accompanying each story in an illustration by Glen Chadbourne, whose spiky style complements the material elegantly. Detailed in some places, minimalist in others, they support the stories without distracting from them, and they are uniformly effective.
The Ligotti and Cady alone make this book worth a read, and there’s plenty more above and beyond that. Those looking for a “greatest hits” of the so-called biggest names – the ones whose books get routinely shelved outside of the horror section – may be a bit surprised by Lansdale’s conception of a “hall of fame” here, but anyone taking time to peruse the material will quickly be brought around to appreciating his way of thinking, and his editorial eye.
(Cemetery Dance, 2011)