There are all kinds of reasons I might read a short fiction anthology. Maybe it’s the only place to find new work by some of my favorite writers. Some anthologies serve to introduce readers to unfamiliar writers, either total unknowns, or familiar names I’ve somehow not yet gotten around to reading. Many readers are motivated by an anthology’s theme — “Oh, I love zombies, and here’s another zombie anthology so of course I’ll buy it” — but I usually don’t. I didn’t buy this because it had to do with vampirism. In fact, I imagine any reader who purchased this hoping for a bunch of straightforward vampire stories would be disappointed. There’s not so much “blood” here as there are “other cravings.”
I’ve given some consideration to the overall shape of multi-author anthologies, a subject which interests me to the extent it’s similar to the way I’ve put together various-artists CD collections in the past. Generally it seems editors load the best stories end up at the beginning and the end, and this is no exception. Among the middle stories, the only one I found noteworthy was Melanie Tem’s very odd “Keeping Corky,” about an enigmatic female character, notable for her mental abnormalities including both strengths and deficiencies, misses the child she was forced to give up for adoption.
Of the early stories, Kaaron Warren’s lead-off “All You Can Do is Breathe” is wonderfully creepy and understated. Elizabeth Bear’s “Needles” is not so much a story as a well-drawn and entertaining “day in the (undead) life,” vividly written but maybe in need of fleshing-out. And Reggie Oliver’s amusing yet dark story of a theatrical hotel overrun by very small tenants convinced me to check out more of this writer’s work.
The best of this collection comes later. “First Breath” by a new-ish writer, Nicole J. LeBoeuf, is an interesting exploration of a sort of transference of life through breath. And I always love Kathe Koja and Carol Emshwiller, whose contributions here (Emshwiller’s is one of only two reprints) are good.
The final four stories alone justify the price of the anthology.
Michael Cisco’s “Bread and Water” tells of a captive vampire trying to cope with his appetites, as well as an incapacity to consume what he desires. The creature’s gradual transformation, told in Cisco’s uniquely intense prose, evokes in the reader an effect like delirium. More than anything else in the book, “Bread and Water” inspired me to seek out more by this writer. That’s not to say it was the best story overall, but the best by an author I’ve previously overlooked.
Margo Lanagan’s “The Mulberry Boys” is told like a fable or second-world fantasy more than a horror story, but what’s actually happening here has quite a nasty edge. Through some bizarre process of surgery and altered diet, humans or human-like creatures are transformed into passive silk factories. I love the way this story is told. Very effective.
“The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan reminds me a little of Peter Straub’s recent novel A Dark Matter in its exploration of a male character trying to piece together disturbing past events. Here a brother and sister discuss their long-held perception that their father might have been unfaithful to their mother, and whether any truth might lie behind this. The fantastic elements along the way are of the subtle “thought I heard a sound, and looked, but nobody was there” variety, yet the story conveys a mysterious and even dreadful sense of secrecy. I own two of Langan’s books which I haven’t read yet, but this story convinced me to nudge these upward in my “must read soon” list.
The last contribution is by Laird Barron, recently the most consistently excellent writer of horror and dark fantasy novellas and novelettes. “The Siphon” includes elements which may seem familiar to readers of Barron’s earlier stories, but this comes across not as repetition, but a fleshing-out of a fictional world which increasingly cross-connects between one story and another. None of the characters, so far as I can determine, appear in prior Barron tales, yet the template of bored, wealthy decadents tantalized by forbidden or occult knowledge is reminiscent of such stories as “Strappado” and “The Forest.” Such is Barron’s skill that even when he’s not trying something entirely new for him (as I believe he did in “The Men From Porlock” and “Blackwood’s Baby” which appear in other recent anthologies), the work nonetheless functions at such a high level as to stand clearly apart.
By the end of a relatively mixed collection, it’s tempting to think mostly of the more satisfying later stories, but the quality dropped off enough in places that I’d give the collection four rather than five stars. At the same time, I’d recommend the book as worthy of purchase for the better stories at the beginning and especially the end.