Back in their heyday the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror, edited by Stephen Jones, were a big favourite of mine and introduced me to a lot of great authors of modern horror (for my money the best one’s the 4th.) If horror has been in a slump since the 80s, it’s certainly not Jones’ fault: during the series’ peak any of these books were good enough to immediately silence any claims that horror isn’t “proper writing”. Jones took his Best New Horror series to Drugstore Indian Press a few years ago, but still does one-off collections for Mammoth sometimes.
At first glance the Mammoth Book Of Nightmare Stories is one of these, so I quickly bought it, but beware! This Book is actually not a proper new collection at all, but in fact a cut-and-shunt of two older collections from PS Publishing, Keep Out The Night and By Moonlight Only – both of which I’d already read! I felt ripped off when I discovered this, as this fact isn’t mentioned at all in the Introduction, although for all I know it may have been stated during the book’s promotion by somebody and I just wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, since I’d spent the money I couldn’t afford to buy another new collection this month so I thought I might as well read the stories again, since I didn’t actually review the earlier books for Darkling Tales.
This collection is conceived as a homage to a horror editor called Christine Thompson. I remember once reading some old quote from her – she was bitching about what she considered to be a market glut of excessively classy horror (those were the days eh?), but apart from that she means about as much to me as Elvis does to Chuck D. I don’t think that really matters to one’s appreciation of the stories though.
It feels like Jones has deliberately sought to contrast older, more traditional material by established writers with authors who were hip young gunslingers when these books first came out. This is laudable in theory, though I have to say the old guard kind of get their arses handed to them by the new boys and girls. Pulp purveyors like Hugh B. Cave and Sydney J. Bounds just can’t compete with the new lot, although old-timer Brian Lumley comes out of it well with ‘The Viaduct’, a blatant and probably very successful attempt to equip every reader with a fear of heights for life. The same is true of Basil Copper – his stories often seem a bit dated now, but his contribution here, ‘The Gossips’, is one of his best and his sinister statue extravaganza drowning in creepy Mediterranean atmosphere very much deserves to be remembered by horror history.
And what of the more modern writers? I’m pleased to say some of the very best horror authors from the late 80s and 90s are present here. Caitlin R. Kiernan impresses with ‘Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956)’, a haunted house story dripping with New Orleans gothic menace and style in a way that hadn’t yet become hackneyed and still feels fresh and sharp-edged now. Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘Nothing of Him That Doth Fade’ is a sombre romance set at sea; it’s outstanding, like much of her work at the time, and its exploration of gay relationships was certainly ahead of the curve.
There’s also a good story from Tanith Lee, ‘These Beasts’, a kind of Arabic fantasy of the kind Christopher Fowler used to do well, a very long Tim Lebbon story, ‘The Unfortunate’, a piece of metaphysical horror about luck and the afterlife which was just as good as ever in its filtering of epic themes through the lens of one increasingly confused and disturbed air crash survivor. And then there’s Michael Marshall Smith, one of the most consistently good horror writers I can think of, winning again with ‘Dear Alison’, a painfully sad but compulsively readable examination of infidelity with a satisfying twist.
Also recommended is ‘Is There Anybody There’, a tale of psychic attack and seances by Kim Newman. He’s a Jones favourite who I don’t normally go a bundle on, but in this case he really delivers, with an original plot, great characters (a reminder that Newman can do very good female characters when he wants to) and a snappy, fun style of the kind that sometimes seems a bit rare in today’s horror scene.
Another strength of this collection is Jones’ willingness to feature really long stories of the kind that probably wouldn’t be allowed to appear in magazines. Apart from the Lebbon and Copper ones, there’s a 79-page epic from Ramsey Campbell, ‘Needing Ghosts’, which should keep the reader stocked with alienation, urban anxiety, and paranoia for months to come. Altogether I have to say I wish more modern anthologies were this good!