Words In: The New Gothic, anthology edited by Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath

I’ve been reading an awful lot of story anthologies lately, and the word “uneven” seems to occur to me just about every time. No exception here, I’m afraid. Despite the roster of respected names on display here, from experimentalists to literary mainstays, writers with horror/fantasy credentials and those who work in other genres such as mysteries, many seemed not to know what to do with the theme.

Complicating matters further is the editors’ use of novel excerpts, rather than stories specifically crafted to fit here. The Anne Rice and Peter Straub excerpts, at least, were some of the better writing on display, and somewhat suited to the theme.

I most enjoyed the short stories of Jeanette Winterson, Jamaica Kincaid, Joyce Carol Oates and Angela Carter, all of them inventive, colorfully told and evocative. Otherwise, the most interesting stories were by writers I previously knew by name only, like Ruth Rendell and Scott Bradfield, or hadn’t heard of before, as in the case of Jamaica Kincaid and Emma Tennant.

Conversely, some of the more established names whose work I looked forward to here — Martin Amis, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Kathy Acker and William T. Vollman — disappointed. At least Acker and Vollman displayed a knack for stringing together a nicely-formed sentence. Amis, Hawkes and Coover all three lost me early on. Their stories seemed less about engaging the reader and more about amusing the writers themselves with puns, crudity and pointless wackiness.

I know some readers frown upon fiction writers, who are also editors, including work in their own edited anthologies. It’s interesting that two of the better stories here are by the editors of The New Gothic, Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath. Morrow’s “The Road to Nadeja” drew me in as much as anything in the book. A compellingly drawn narrative. McGrath’s “The Smell” was strongly narratived, a great imitation of the old-fashioned Gothic in terms of both voice and tone.

In the end, I was left thinking this “New Gothic” movement, if there ever was such a thing (this was released in 1992), lacked the vitality and momentum to deserve a title, let alone to support a themed anthology of this kind.

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