Earlier this week I finished Ellen Datlow's new horror-themed anthology, Lovecraft Unbound (2009), featuring 22 contemporary authors riffing on and personalizing familiar Lovecraft themes and settings: impending apocalypse and cosmic horror, Antarctic quests and ancient cities, isolation and loneliness. Given the subject matter, the tone of Datlow's collection could have easily detoured into overwhelming despair.
Lovecraft Unbound, however, is a very well rounded collection and offers a wide range of stories, from irredeemably bleak personal visions (Laird Barron's "Catch Hell") to comical pastiches. While the majority of the stories tend toward the serious, the likes of Richard Bowes, William Browning Spencer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Nick Mamatas bring much-needed levity to the proceedings, providing the collection with a nice tonal balance.
Who am I kidding, though? I like my horror fiction straight up -- dark, scary, and cold sober. Here are a few brief thoughts on such stories, my favorites of the collection.
• Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud team up for the book's auspicious opening, "The Crevasse," which takes place in Antarctica just after World War I. Told in prose pruned to perfection, the authors use Lovecraft's cosmic emptiness, as well as the barren setting, to amplify and parallel the protagonist's profound personal loss. Allow me this hyperbole: "The Crevasse" is Lovecraft by way of Raymond Carver.
• Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Houses Under the Sea" (2007; one of the book's four reprints), the best story in the collection, reinforces Kiernan's place on my list of favorite short story writers. (You disagree? Get thee to her masterful 2005 collection, To Charles Fort, With Love.) A 30-plus-page novella, "Houses Under the Sea" is a straight-up weird fiction masterpiece: arresting in story and adventurous in style, abounding with emotional and intellectual layers, and overflowing with indelibly creepy imagery. It's also a persuasive argument for the power of weird fiction. Quite simply, "Houses Under the Sea" is awesome, the kind of story that keeps me loyal to the genre.
• When I finished reading Laird Barron's novella "Catch Hell," my hands were shaking. Not only with fear induced by the story, but with admiration for Barron's adroit writing. With how he slowly unveiled his characters' identities, imbued the text with deeply personal pain and perversity, and manipulated this reader's expectations from page one -- even the title, seemingly generic, smartly sets up the story's mingling of pagan and Judeo-Christian horror themes. Certainly, Barron is one of the most erudite of horror writers, and "Catch Hell" proves he knows not only his Lovecraft but his Arthur Machen and Ira Levin as well. To this reader, Barron seems intent on producing only major stories, as if he's trying to redefine the horror genre one publication at a time. I think he's succeeding.
Because I can never resist an opportunity for a list, I'll conclude with my ten favorite stories from Lovecraft Unbound.
1) "Houses Under the Sea," Caitlin R. Kiernan (2007; reprint)
2) "Catch Hell," Laird Barron
3) "The Crevasse," Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud
4) "The Din of Celestial Birds," Brian Evenson (1997; reprint)
5) "Marya Nox," Gemma Files
6) "Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love," William Browning Spencer
7) "The Recruitor," Michael Shea
8) "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark," Michael Cisco
9) "Sight Unseen," Joel Lane
10) "Leng," Marc Laidlaw