Trains are a good place to read short stories. My general problem with both short stories and train rides is that neither are long enough, usually, to accomplish much. I say “usually.”
On most of my train rides I end up staring out the window, hoping to cultivate what my father calls, “a fertile boredom” that will eventually chafe me into a restless act of creation. But some days, I’m in a fever of productivity. And some short stories, I find, rather than making me want to kick something in unfulfilled frustration, can instead create perfect sinkholes in reality, sucking you down into infinitesimal and terrible worlds that last the length of a nightmare.
So with Ellen Datlow’s INFERNO.
First I want to speak on the layout of the thing. I’m not a girl to notice an overarching structure unless it’s staring me in the face, batting its eyelashes and winking desperately. But for once, the subtleties did not elude me. It was perhaps a few stories in when I noticed the thread, a thin, gossamer thread, that linked one story to another – even though each story was written by a different author, probably incognizant of what the others were up to. Sometimes it was a word. Sometimes a phrase. Or a theme. Corpses. Statues. Dead children. Demonic children.
I will not go very deeply into each and every story, although I enjoyed them all. Some more, some less. Like most anthologies, a gamble. If I had to pick my top 6 favorites:
1. MISADVENTURE. The structure of this was so solid, you could build a house on it. The protagonist, of whom I was skeptical at the beginning, grew more and more interesting, and by the end I had that shivery feeling in the pit of my stomach. A friend of mine recently termed it “ghost envy”.
2. Laird Barron’s THE FOREST was written with an appealing formality, in exquisite – almost overwhelming – detail from the first person narrative. His one-line character descriptions were the best part for me, like little razor blades I kept stumbling on. For example:
“Their nicked up faces wore the perpetual scowl of peasant trustees.” And “Nadine shone darkly and smelled of fresh cut hayricks and sweet, highly polished leather.”
Here, too, we have an interesting story-structure, that seems at first like a flat expanse of vanilla-white, then folds slowly – very slowly – into itself, like origami in reverse.
3. GHORLA should have been written when Hitchcock was still around. He’d have had a BALL with this one. There are some very cool P.O.V. transitions, eccentric characters, almost a campy scene of foreshadowing that has you rubbing your palms together in anticipation. Showing here:
“One more thing,” Staines said, “why the bolts on the outside of the guest-room doors?”
“Oh that,” Browning replied, “just a mistake. We never use them. They should have been fitted on the inside. Cowboy locksmiths – you know how it is…”
4. FACE, by Joyce Carol Oates. I mean. It’s JOYCE CAROL OATES. Nothing wrong here. Or – everything wrong, but in the RIGHT way! Something in her prose always makes me sick to my stomach. Last time I read a short story of hers, I had the worst nightmare in pretty much a decade. FACE didn’t quite bring me to that level of cold sweat, but it’s good for a deep shudder or two!
5. THE EASE WITH WHICH WE FREED THE BEAST. We get inside the monster’s head, and it is howling dark in there. Sucker punch of a piece.
6. THE JANUS TREE was my favorite. The following stories, THE BEDROOM LIGHT and THE SUITS OF AUDERLENE were good, strong, deserving of a re-read – but I was perhaps still unfairly occupied with THE JANUS TREE. Maybe I still am.
Once again: DATLOW’S INFERNO. Go on. Descend.