Peter Straub's new horror short story anthology is so significant for the future of the genre that it comes with a title that features not one, but two colons: Poe's Children: The New Horror: An Anthology. The middle section, with its definite article and vaguely lit-crit feel, is both the most eye-catching and confusing part of the title. The stories in this antho are "new" only in a loosest sense of the term. The oldest, Ramsey Campbell's excellent "Voice of the Beach," is now approaching thirty. Several other tales are more than twenty years old. And some of those that are only a couple years old have already appeared in several anthologies, notably Dan Chaon's superlative ghost story "The Bees" and Neil Gaiman's well-traveled "October in the Chair." Even the term "horror" should give pause. There's no shortage of ghosts, monsters, death, and madness in these pages. However, there's also several comedies, one almost Carver-esque slice of life tale that includes neither supernatural elements or scares of any sort, and one genuinely touching love story.
What, then, is "The New Horror"?
In his introduction, Straub the this anthology is somewhat of a follow-up to his landmark volume for Conjunctions: The New Wave Fabulists. (TNWF is, by the way, a pretty awesome anthology and anybody interested in the more innovative fringes of pop genre lit will be well rewarded for searching it out.) The authors in this edition, he explains, have "far more in common with one another and perpetual wild cards like John Crowley and Jonathan Carroll than they did with those writers who were supposed to epitomize their fields. They were literary writers and genre writers at the same time." Straub goes on to state that, on the edge of the genre, in critically and popularly ignored journals, at small presses, and slightly off-market anthos (like this one, I suppose) a quiet borderland insurgency has been going on. The soldiers of this revolution mix the traditions and familiar concepts of horror with a sprightly, self-aware literary sensibility. By lending his cred to such anthologies, and including genre stalwarts like the inevitable Stephen King, it is Straub's unstated hope is that this unrest reaches the capital and pulls off a full-scale coup. (Though, to push the metaphor as far as I can possibly push it, this will be a palace coup, something that ushers in the new while leaving folks like King and Straub, two men who are as close to being "the Man" in horror terms as anybody could be, enjoying their new-found status as friends of the revolution.)
Given the diversity of stories in the collection, its is temping to use Justice Stewart's famed Casablanca Test and simply say that you'll know New Horror when you see it. But, generalizing somewhat, I think you can tease out at least two common elements.
1. Use of the supernatural:
A clear majority of the stories in Poe's Children involve supernatural elements. Ghosts are especially popular, but various mythological figures and indescribable Lovecraftian things-from-beyond make several appearances. New Horror isn't big on your more fleshy horrors; vampires and zombies, despite their perennial popularity in masscult horror flicks and books, make nary an appearance here. Instead, New Horror likes to tease out the possibilities of undefined, uncanny (in the original sense of the "un-home," the unfamiliar familiar), and weird. This includes the comedic, as well as the horrific, possibilities. "Lousia's Ghost," by the shamelessly talented Kelly Link (she writes, co-runs a small press, and makes the neatest swag for public events), is possibly one of the single best takes on the uncanny (from vertigo inducing doubles, mistaken identies, the mechanical/organic binary, and a ghost that is never stable enough to be described) in modern literature and it is genuinely sad and funny, rather than horrifying.
2. Overtly "meta" narrative
While nothing in the book quite approaches the Ouroboros-like self-awareness of such genre in-jokes as Scream, literary allusions and a constant self-awareness is typical of many of these stories. One of the stories lifts it's title from, of all places, The Wind and the Willows, another borrows the title of Erasmus's most famous work, another alludes to a Marianne Moore poem, and yet another features the poet Lord Byron as its chief protagonist. Allusions to Greek mythology pop up in several stories. Five feature writers (some horror, some not) in a central role. One is actually entitled "Notes on the Writing of a Horror Story" and another, which features a character who actually begins acting under the assumption that he is a character in a story, is titled "Plot Twist."
Despite any aspirations to artifice, it is interesting to note that few of the stories contained in PC engage in any modernist play with their plotting. Straub's own contribution, the wonderfully odd Little Red's Tango, uses multiple styles and radical breaks in continuity to great effect. Thomas Ligotti successfully employs a radical amount of ironic detachment from his story and the husband and wife team of Steve Rasnic and Melanie Tem bring shifting and unreliable narrators into play in their "The Man on the Ceiling." Such experimentation, however, is relatively rare. The other stories are almost traditional in the linearity of their plots and the stability of their narrative points of view. Given that some of the most interesting and innovative horror novels of the nearly 30-year period cover by PC - House of Leaves, Raw Shark Texts, Demon Theory, Sharp Teeth - played fairly extreme games with the very form of the novel, it is somewhat surprising that so little of that experimental vibe has carried over to a project like this.
Other than those two threads (and even those loose rules have exceptions in the book), the work is too diverse to pin down. This does undermine the books role as a guide to the new vanguard. Like the indescribable horrors so many of these story feature, the concept of "New Horror" is more metaphor, potential, mood, and suggestion than an actual subgenre. But if the collection fails as call to a genre regime change, this failure is entirely to the benefit of the literary value of what's within. Ignore Straub's claim that he's charting some new shift in the literary world and what you've got is a handpicked selection of stories that appealed to the mind of a genre master. Of the twenty-four stories in anthology, only one of them seemed like a dud to me. That sort of signal to noise ratio is rare. All the stories here are interesting, almost every one of them is good, and a few are destined to become classics. What higher praise can one give an anthology?
Poe's Children is out in hardback next month. It's from Doubleday and it will set you back about $27.