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Monday, September 12, 2011

“The Monster’s Corner: Stories Through Inhuman Eyes” edited by Christopher Golden (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Christopher Golden Website
Order “The Monster’s CornerHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read “The Lake” and “Specimen 313” from The Monster’s Corner HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “The New Dead

EDITOR INFORMATION: An award-winning and bestselling writer of horror, fantasy, and suspense for adults, teens, and young readers, Christopher Golden’s extensive bibliography includes The Veil Trilogy, tie-in novels for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy, Ghosts of Albion (w/Amber Benson), Poison Ink, the Hidden Cities novels (w/Tim Lebbon), The Secret Journeys of Jack London (w/Tim Lebbon), and a number of collaborations with Mike MignolaBaltimore, or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, the Baltimore: The Plague Ships comic book miniseries, and the upcoming illustrated novel, Joe Golem and the Drowning City. Christopher has also collaborated with Thomas E. Sniegoski on The Menagerie series, the OutCast novels, and the comic book miniseries Talent and The Sisterhood. His original novels have been published around the world in more than fourteen languages.

ABOUT THE MONSTER’S CORNER: In most stories we get the perspective of the hero, the ordinary, the everyman, but we are all the hero of our own tale, and so it must be true for legions of monsters, from Lucifer to Mordred, from child-thieving fairies to Frankenstein's monster and the Wicked Witch of the West. From our point of view, they may very well be horrible, terrifying monstrosities, but of course they won’t see themselves in the same light, and their point of view is what concerns us in these tales. Demons and goblins, dark gods and aliens, creatures of myth and legend, lurkers in darkness and beasts in human clothing . . . these are the subjects of The Monster’s Corner...

FORMAT/INFO: The Monster’s Corner is 400 pages long divided over nineteen short stories. Also includes an Introduction by the editor Christopher Golden, and biographies of all of the anthology’s contributors. September 27, 2011 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of The Monster’s Corner via St. Martin’s Griffin. The UK version will be published on the same day via Piatkus Books.

ANALYSIS: The New Dead was one of my favorite books of 2010, so when it was announced that Christopher Golden was putting together another horror-themed anthology, I couldn’t wait. Like The New Dead, The Monster’s Corner features nineteen brand new, never before published short stories from a wide variety of authors from all genres. Where The New Dead focused on zombies though, The Monster’s Corner is about monsters. Specifically monsters that readers can sympathize with. Like the Frankenstein monster, King Kong, Godzilla, Magneto, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, or the whale from Moby Dick. No vampires or zombies however. Christopher Golden forbid their inclusion. He also discouraged human monsters for reasons explained in his Introduction, although “a couple of them slipped in.” Instead, the anthology features monsters that reflect the author’s philosophy about monstrosity. “About how we define each other and how we define ourselves. About what we see in the mirror and what we fear others will see. About perspective and seeing the world through inhuman eyes”:

1)The Awkward Age” by David Liss. It’s no surprise that Christopher Golden elected to open The Monster’s Corner with a David Liss story. After all, the author’s contribution to The New Dead was one of the best stories in the entire anthology. With “The Awkward Age”, David Liss delivers another satisfying winner, a cleverly written and thought-provoking tale about a relationship that develops between a forty-five-year-old husband/father stuck in an unhappy marriage, and a fourteen-year-old goth girl who is either preying on the weaknesses of a much older man for her own entertainment . . . or a ghoul...

2)Saint John” by Jonathan Maberry. Saint John believes the Voice of God speaks to him, providing guidance and answers. This could be true. Then again, Saint John could just be mentally insane because of the terrible things that were done to him when he was a child. Either way, Saint John is now a deadly killer. He is also an unlikely beacon of light in a post-apocalyptic world plagued by disease and chaos and people stripped of their humanity. Dark and disturbing, but also interjected with glimpses of hope, “Saint John” is another impressive offering from Jonathan Maberry.

3)Rue” by Lauren Groff. I loved Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton (Reviewed HERE), but haven’t read anything by the author since then. So I was excited to see Lauren’s inclusion in The Monster’s Corner. Unfortunately, “Rue” was a disappointment. The tale may be beautifully written and atmospheric, kind of like a fairy tale, but I had a hard time grasping what the story was trying to convey. There is an old woman who steals a baby and raises the girl—named Rue—secluded from the rest of the world, only to lose her anyway, but who the old woman is, why she stole the baby, and the story’s setting with its Ministers and work camps, are all cloaked in a confusing haze of mystery...

4)Succumb” by John McIlveen. Not only is “Succumb” short—only six pages long—but it’s written by someone I’ve never heard of before. In fact, I have no clue what else John McIlveen has even written since his bio provides very little information and I was unable to learn anything online. So not a lot to get excited about, although I did find the presentation of the story—a seductress having a one-sided conversation with a sinful preacher during foreplay and intercourse—somewhat interesting. For the most part though, “Succumb” is one of the weaker stories in The Monster’s Corner.

5)Torn Stitches, Shattered Glass” by Kevin J. Anderson. It’s only fitting that an anthology about sympathetic monsters would include a story featuring arguably the most sympathetic monster of them all—Frankenstein’s monster. It also makes sense that Kevin J. Anderson is the author of this particular story since he has written about the monster before in Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, although there is no connection between Anderson’s tale and Dean Koontz’s series. Instead, “Torn Stitches, Shattered Glass” acts as a semi-sequel to Mary Shelley’s classic novel with the monster living among Jews in the Nazi-occupied city of Ingolstadt in the year 1938. The short story shares many of the same themes found in Shelley’s book, even referencing the novel several times, but Anderson’s writing is much more accessible and straightforward. Overall, “Torn Stitches, Shattered Glass” is more entertaining than it is thought-provoking, but it’s a good contribution nonetheless.

6)Rattler and the Mothman” by Sharyn McCrumb. Native American folklore, West Virginia history (the collapse of the Silver Bridge, George Washington’s Lost Colony), the Mothman legend, and urban fantasy collide in Sharyn McCrumb’s amusing tale about a garuda supposedly responsible for “wiping out dinosaurs”, “sending the Ice Age mammals into extinction”, and other atrocities. Highlighting the short story is a wonderful narrative voice: “There’s a lot wrong with life in the twenty-first century, which is why I took to the woods in the first place, but in a world where the Dalai Lama is on Twitter, I don’t reckon there’s much hope for any of us Shamen—New People’s word—to get let alone.

7)Big Man” by David Moody. Having put his own unique spin on zombies and apocalyptic fiction with Haters and the Autumn series, I was curious to see what David Moody would do with his contribution to The Monster’s Corner. Consider my curiosity sated. Referencing Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff, King Kong, Godzilla and classic B monster movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and War of the Colossal Beast, “Big Man” is a nearly perfect example of the monstrosity and perspective that Christopher Golden talks about in his Introduction.

8)Rakshasi” by Kelley Armstrong. Kelley Armstrong’s short fiction has yet to disappoint me and that streak continues with “Rakshasi”, a compelling standalone story about a rakshasi named Amrita, who has served as a slave to the isha for two hundred years, eliminating evil in penance for her crimes as a human. A debt Amrita has long payed off, forcing the rakshasi to take matters into her own hands. One of my favorite entries in The Monster’s Corner, “Rakshasi” features a setup that I would love to explore further in a full-length novel or series.

9)Breeding Demons” by Nate Kenyon. I’ve been meaning to read Nate Kenyon’s fiction for a while now, but haven’t been able to find the time. If “Breeding Demons” is any indication, then I’ve been missing out. Containing both assured prose and a nightmarish imagination reminiscent of Clive Barker, Kenyon’s visceral tale of a man caught between two worlds—love and normalcy versus evil, demons and “pornography for the supernatural”—is a standout of the anthology.

10)Siren Song” by Dana Stabenow. “Siren Song” is a Kate Shugak short story. Who is Kate Shugak? Apparently she’s the star of a long-running mystery series—volume nineteen comes out in February 2012. As someone who has never heard of the series before, I wish the short story had done a better job acquainting me with Kate Shugak: who she is, what she does, or why I should care. Then again, “Siren Song” is not really about Kate Shugak. It’s about the Akulurak sisters, the pimp they are accused of murdering, the terrible ordeal they’ve suffered, and the real monsters inhabiting our world...

11)Less of a Girl” by Chelsea Cain. Gretchen Lowell from Heartsick, Sweetheart and Evil at Heart would have been perfect for The Monster’s Corner. Sadly, the seductive serial killer is nowhere to be found in “Less of a Girl”. Instead, readers are treated to a short, stomach-churning tale about some ‘thing’ living in a fourteen-year-old girl’s bedroom. Very disappointing.

12)The Cruel Thief of Rosy Infants” by Tom Piccirilli. Piccirilli has received numerous awards and nominations for his writing including four Bram Stoker Awards. It’s easy to see why after reading “The Cruel Thief of Rosy Infants”, a dark and haunting fairy tale about a fae creature charged with his family’s millennia-old duty to steal human babies and replace them with one of his own race. Definitely one of the anthology’s better entries.

13)The Screaming Room” by Sarah Pinborough. Greek mythology is full of terrifying monsters like the Minotaur or Cerberus, but Medusa? Medusa is both terrifying and tragic, a contrast that is wonderfully captured in Sarah Pinborough’s striking short story, “The Screaming Room”, which is named such because of an interesting twist on the mythology where it takes years, not seconds before the monster’s victims are turned to stone...

14)Wicked Be” by Heather Graham. “Wicked Be” is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Heather Graham. It was not a very memorable first impression, especially considering how much the protagonist’s narrative voice annoyed me, sounding more like a teenager than a centuries-old immortal witch. Things become better when the story focuses on Melissa’s friends and loved ones caught up in the witch trial madness of the 1600s, but as a whole “Wicked Be” is rather pedestrian.

15)Specimen 313” by Jeff Strand. Featuring giant, carnivorous man-eating, gene-spliced Venus flytraps who can speak with each other and possess human thoughts and emotions—sadness, fear, love—“Specimen 313” offers a refreshing and entertaining take on monsters who turn against their creator...

16)The Lake” by Tananarive Due. Can Tananarive Due write or what? Her prose alone is reason enough for why “The Lake” is a highlight of The Monster’s Corner. Of course, there’s more to “The Lake” than stunning prose. The story about a woman trying to get a fresh start in Graceville, Florida—“new job, new house, new lake, new beginning”—and the changes she undergoes there, both human and inhuman, is gripping and evocative.

17)The Other One” by Michael Marshall Smith. “The Other One” is another expertly written offering from Michael Marshall Smith, highlighted by a convincing portrayal of a thirty-eight-year-old woman who has grown tired of her life—her job, her friends, her relationship with Richard—and an unexpected climax involving the ‘other one’. As good as the writing is though, the short story was a bit allegorical for my tastes and left me feeling unfulfilled...

18)And Still You Wonder Why Our First Impulse Is To Kill You: An Alphabetized Faux-Manifesto Transcribed, Edited, and Annotated (Under Duress and Protest)” by Gary A. Braunbeck. If The Monster’s Corner was a competition and I had to pick a single winner, it would easily be this story. Why? For starters, the setup which features Braunbeck as a character in his own story with monsters dictating what he should be writing in the alphabetized Manifesto—“A is for Abomination”—is incredibly inventive and fun to read. Then there’s the writing itself, which sparkles with cleverness and versatility. Finally, Braunbeck’s Manifesto is bursting with humor and imagination at every turn like the monsters’ favorite author and band—Joyce Carol Oates and Nazareth; their regret at using H.P. Lovecraft as a ‘PR man’; their fear of Ken Doll; the Colophon whose goal is to “erase all printed language and destroy all digital language”; and so much more. In short, “And Still You Wonder Why Our First Impulse Is To Kill You” is the must-read story of The Monster’s Corner.

19) Jesus and Satan go Jogging in the Desert” by Simon R. Green. Even though the previous story would have been a better choice to close out the anthology, Simon R. Green’s amusing retelling of Satan’s temptation of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is a nice way to end The Monster’s Corner.

CONCLUSION: Collectively, The Monster’s Corner is not quite as strong or as entertaining as The New Dead. This can partly be attributed to the anthology’s theme about monstrosity and perspective, which can be a little restrictive when compared to simply writing about zombies or post-apocalyptic settings. For me though, it was more of a personal issue I had with the editor’s choice of contributors. There’s no question the authors selected for The Monster’s Corner are talented and give the reader a diverse range of stories to choose from, but I was in the mood for something darker. Something that would send chills down my spine and leave me haunted by nightmares. In that regard, The Monster’s Corner doesn’t quite hit the spot. That all said, Christopher Golden has, in the end, compiled another impressive and successful horror-themed anthology in The Monster’s Corner...

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