Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The First Book of Classical Horror Stories

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.
 -William Congreve, The Mourning Bride
And so it does. But it also has less pleasant capacities, darker magic to unsettle, to depress, to terrify. It is that sort of music that's performed in DF Lewis' latest anthology, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories. As with The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies from the same editor, this is an intriguing, often remarkably effective set of stories, let down only by unpolished prose and imperfect structural decisions from a few of the contributors. However, this new volume is heavier than its predecessor on truly well-crafted work, and lighter on grating failures. The highs are also higher, and the lows aren't lower, making The First Book of Classical Horror Stories an easy anthology to recommend to admirers of subtle and surreal horror.

Things begin a little awkwardly with Rachel Kendall's "Chamber Music" and Andrew Hook's "The Universe at Gun Point," both of which are solid concepts imperfectly executed. Kendall's style lacks the command of diction necessary to allow her disturbingly evocative vision of a comatose giant on a hillside to achieve its fullest power. Hook, on the other hand, finds the right voice for his account of a musician's unusual source of inspiration, but the imagery and narrative arc are too insubstantial for the whole to have much impact; one is aware and appreciative of the story's intentions, but almost clinically so. Neither of these opening tales is bad, but there's a definite sense of reach exceeding grasp.

A run of more successful stories follows. D. P. Watt's "Vertep" is arguably more puppet horror than classical music horror, but either way it's a good one. Initially its narrator's flat affect is a mixed blessing, making the prose seem crude rather than simple, but as this tale of obsession builds toward its unexpectedly blatant climax, that bluntness becomes appropriately disturbing, a mark of insanity that strikes an appropriate balance between terror and a terrible humor. Admirers of Thomas Ligotti's later work are particularly advised to check out this story.

Given the theme of his collection A Pallid Wave on Shores of Night, it comes as little surprise that Adam S. Cantwell contributes a story to this anthology, and given the excellence of that collection, it comes as little surprise that "Beyond Two Rivers: A Symphonic Poem" is one of the anthology's triumphs. A great conductor has traveled to a Middle Eastern nation to lead its Philharmonic, but why, in the aftermath of a botched performance, is he waking up in a pitch-black rehearsal hall where the only sound he can hear is music? The Maestro's desperate search for answers in that darkened space is a fine exercise in gradual horror, but the real meat of the story is its flashbacks, in which the opulence and the despair of this dictatorship, and the Maestro's own psychological and moral weakness, are deftly sketched, creating a weighty counterpoint to the immediate terror. Cantwell has a gift, quite valuable in subtle horror, for crafting language that communicates its elegance without verbal pyrotechnics, simply by never striking (forgive the over-apt metaphor) a false note.

In "Anamnesis in Extremis" Dominy Clements uses the historical fact of the suicide of Gustav Mahler's brother Otto as the basis for a tale of fatal music. The prose is, given the narrator's formality and the seriousness with which he approaches the philosophy of music, competent, but it's only in the final two paragraphs that it becomes truly, er, musical. Lawrence Conquest's "Reverie" is a short, sharp, grim story about grief and the power of music to set a mood, with lean, poetic prose that is as powerful a mood-setter as the music it describes. Nicole Cushing's "The Fourteenth" takes its inspiration from Shostakovich's symphony on death, and considers grief in a manner entirely different from but as effective as that of the Conquest story, with a series of odd, almost comical encounters that nonetheless capture the deranged pathos of loss.

Like "Chamber Music," Stephen Bacon's "The Ivory Teat" isn't written with quite the skill necessary to make its images of urban isolation, awkwardness, and despair resonate, though the story nonetheless has a lurid charm. There's no charm at all in "Human Resources," easily the anthology's worst entry. The element of classical music is awkwardly joined to a framework of corporate horror, which could itself be interesting were it not for Karim Ghahwagi's torturously flabby prose, which makes becoming involved in the story so difficult that its underdeveloped narrative is especially unsatisfying.

Things take a turn toward the positive again with "Winter's Traces" by John Howard. It's not really a horror story, though there is one creepy notion at work, but a melancholy reflection on a frustrated artist and his peculiar life, and on the disappearance of cultural forms. Holly Day's "Excerpted" is more traditionally horrific, and works well on that level, although there's nothing especially surprising about what happens when the protagonist goes too far in performing the strangely dissonant alterations to classical compositions that he discovered in a convent library. Colin Insole's "The Appassionata Variations," like his story for The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies, conjures up a world of Gothic cruelty, but the prose here is much stronger, creating an atmosphere of decadent corruption that is, in and of itself, sufficient reason to recommend the story to audiences who value such things.

To this point the stories have aided the construction of a review by falling into runs of better and worse. In the last third of the collection, though, the patterns fall apart. Tony Lovell's "The Holes" is another surreal piece that doesn't quite make its strangeness meaningful, while Daniel Mills' "De Profundis" is a brilliant cosmic horror story of deepening obsession that returns to the motif of music's power to alter the world in upsetting ways. "Boris' Aria" by M. Sullivan could be a great little piece of comic horror, but in its present form it doesn't take full advantage of its potential, whether because it wasn't conceived as horror or because its author doesn't have the requisite stylistic chops. S. D. Tullis' "Strings" suffers from a couple unfortunate comparisons, one of which I'll get into below, and one of which comes from the use of quotes from finer stylists at the beginning and end of the style, which can only serve as reminders that Tullis' own prose lacks their natural rhythms. Carmen Tudor's "Grace Notes" is another traditional horror notion, somewhat hampered by imperfect prose. Mark Valentine's "Without Instruments" is a delightful example of his aesthetic, esoteric fiction, which whether supernatural or not has a marvelous transporting effect not unlike that described in this story, which can be seen as a sort of companion or contrast to his "The Atelier at Iasi." In "Songs for Dead Children," Aliya Whiteley takes on the bleakness of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and says something powerful about the price of truly understanding tragic art. And the collection ends with Rhys Hughes offering his usual dark brand of whimsy in the one-page, one-joke, fairly satisfying "The Trilling Seasons."

Readers familiar with the table of contents for The First Book of Classical Horror Stories will have noticed that I've left one story out of this perhaps overly exhaustive rundown. I was about to type a one-sentence review of Sarah O'Scalaidhe's "He Had Lived for Music," but it would have been essentially the same as several other one-sentence reviews: "prose doesn't quite do justice to" etc. The deeper problem, for O'Scalaidhe's story and several others, is that, despite differences in setting and style, many of the contributing writers are trading on similar basic notions, often to do with the power, either emotional or literal, of music. "Strings," for example, isn't really a bad story, but both "De Profundis" and "Anamnesis in Extremis" have done basically the same thing at a higher skill level. Sameness is often an issue in theme anthologies; here, given the mediocrity of some of the contributions, it means that they slip rapidly from the mind. (Badness is often more memorable than adequacy; I'm certainly not going to forget "Human Resources," but I had already lost track of "The Ivory Teat" in the week between finishing the book and writing this review.) To an extent, this works in the anthology's favor, since only the good stories contribute to the reader's impression of it. And there are a lot of good stories, and only the one real clunker, which means that as anthologies go, The First Book of Classical Horror Stories is quite strong. Will there be a Second Book of....? I don't know, and I don't know whether the concept of classical horror is strong enough to support a series. But for one volume, it works out reasonably well.

The publisher supplied a review copy of this book.

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