Monday, October 04, 2010

Book Review: Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

In Nick Mamatas’s short but concise introduction to Haunted Legends, he sums up the reality of the derivative ghost story: safety. And that’s a real problem for what is associated with the horror genre (and fiction in general)--or at least it should be, if you’re a discerning reader. The premise of Haunted Legends is actually a tall order:

“...ask some of the best writers of horror and dark fantasy in the world to choose their favorite “true” regional ghost story, and to rescue it from the cobwebs of the local tourist gift shop or academic journal.”

Now that statement can be interpreted in many ways. If you’re like me, I thought that meant adapting or reinventing existing ghost stories for today’s audience. And it’s that expectation that initially baffled me. Take for example the opening story, “Knickerbocker Holiday” by Richard Bowes. In his opening lines, Bowes teases us with famous icons like the Flying Dutchman and the Headless Horseman yet such entities never appear in the story. The horror aspect of the piece also doesn’t manifest itself in a direct way, the way most Hollywood horror movies or campfire tales do, but rather does so in a subtle and indirect manner (although this is mostly spelled out to the reader in the dialogue between two of the characters towards the end).

The first (and subsequent) stories in the book were surprising because it did prove Mamatas’s initial statements, at how we’ve been trained to expect “safe”--and therefore predictable--ghost stories in our narratives. I’m familiar with Ellen Datlow’s other anthologies for example and I didn’t have expectations of concretized threats (i.e. actual ghosts) which I did for this book. Some readers might take the line of reasoning that the anthology fails because it didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations but was my initial expectation not worth being challenged?

Having said that, Haunted Legends is a mixed bag with some stories forgettable while others are impressive to the point that I’d easily nominate them for awards. I was going to write at how some of the stories were what I initially expected from the anthology but there’s only just one: “The Folding Man” by Joe R. Lansdale. It’s really a modern monster story with its unique monster-of-the-week and perhaps it’s because it’s the only one of its type in this book that it remained memorable. It’s not bad per se, and was definitely fun, but it’s the type of story that I imagine would have lots of commercial potential and actually the type of story I’d find in the local tourist gift shop.

One trend I noticed in some of the stories is that they’re told from a “cultural tourist” point of view. In terms of technical craft, I have no qualms with them (and in fact are great pieces on characterization) but because the story is told from a foreigner’s perspective, the narrative limits itself from delving deeper, either because the author is afraid to experiment, or because they lack that level of familiarity. One exception to this is “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai” by Catherynne M. Valente and I think the author sets herself apart because instead of attempting to be faithful to the literal details of the culture she’s writing about, she instead writes to capture its spirit, at the same time infusing it with her own unique writing style.

There are two stories that really stand out. One is “Down Atsion Road” by Jeffrey Ford and it’s a piece that shows us what it means to be familiar with the subject material yet not be a slave to it. Ford owns the story because while the first paragraph teases us with the Jersey Devil, there are other ghosts (yes, plural) in the narrative that the reader is concerned with. In fact, the beauty of “Down Atsion Road” is that the level of revelation is continuous and plays on the unreliable narrator aspect of the piece. Ford uses multiple layers of deception that makes it incredibly effective.

The other noteworthy piece is “The Foxes” by Lily Hoang. It’s not just the juxtaposition that this author employs but the way the text can be interpreted. Is Hoang being literal? Surreal? Fantastical? Each level adds a different layer to the story and the narrative is aware of its own subjectivity. There are multiple themes and sub-textual conflicts here, such as male vs. female, imperialism vs. nationalism, etc., without one ideology dominating over the other.

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