Stephen Jones is the recent recipient of the Horror Writers Association Life Achievement Award and this anthology amply demonstrates why the award was so deserved. Anthologies most often come with a hook if they’re not numerical annuals and this is an impressive one: horror yarns inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Add in a splendid cover illustration and superb pieces of interior art by Alan Lee and you have the makings of a great anthology.
But it’s the stories that count isn’t it? So let’s see. The book kicks off with Ramsey Campbell and Neil Gaiman yarns and it doesn’t let its stranglehold go much after that!
Tanith Lee’s ‘Open Your Window, Golden Hair’ is one of the most terrifying tales I’d read in a while. Our character is Brown and on an excursion to see the landmarks of Europe he spies with his binoculars a strange tower beyond a wood. The story has the inquisitive tourist and the pub and its landlord warning about the tower (right out of a Hammer film). Of course, the story is based on ‘Rapunzel’, and the editor has placed some of Grimms’ tales as foretastes to the new stories. If you’re familiar with ‘Rapunzel’ you’ll have a notion of the plot of Tanith Lee’s story, but her writing is so intensely matter of fact, yet so utterly alarming, that it can’t help be excruciatingly horrific.
Garth Nix’s story, ‘Crossing the Line’ is a delightful Western with bags of style. Rose Jackson’s daughter Laramay, has been abducted by Alhambra and she sets off in pursuit. Pursuit “across the line” into a strange land where the critters need to be killed with the “silver death”. Fantastic stuff!
‘Hansel and Gretel’ is the inspiration for Robert Shearman’s ‘Peckish’. The adventures of Hans and Greta are related to Sieglinde by her grandma Grossmutti Greta, who makes delicious gingerbread… and it’s a fine treatment of the story with the cannibalism sweetly handled.
Michael Marshall Smith’s creepy ‘Look Inside’ has messages from a member of the fairy folk appear on paper like invisible ink does when exposed to heat. The woman in the story has her house invaded by something that leaves cryptic creepy notes. It’s an urban tale told with the author’s characteristic dry, witty style and an ending like a punch in the guts.
For a take on the Grimms’ elvish child replacement story that moves the plot to a whole new level, try Brian Lumley’s ‘The Changeling’. An absorbing and horrific story linked to the Cthulhu Mythos and specifically the worshippers of Dagon and of batrachian fish-men. A meeting on the beach of a Greek island leads the protagonist back to his roots in ancient Cornwall and its smugglers and links to the South Sea Islands.
‘The Silken Drum’ is Reggie Oliver’s Japanese fairy tale. Yuki rents a cottage from the first-person narrator of the story, and he quickly becomes obsessed by her beauty and her dark nature. Repressed due to his full-time commitment to his ever-watchful wife who has MS, and jealous of a local artist who has apparently seduced Yuki, the tale weaves a spell that is both erotic and dreamlike. Skilfully written and wholly absorbing, the story of the Japanese water deity, a Kappa, a vampiric succubus, is brilliantly told in a dispassionate style.
Brian Hodge’s dreadfully measured revenge story relates a “Willy Wonka” tale of horrendous proportions. The eponymous hero of ‘Anything to Me is Sweeter, Than to Cross Shock-Headed Peter’ is a captive in a gaol of grotesques intended to frighten bad children into being good. But when Peter falls in love with Jenny With Her Head In The Clouds, a new victim, he plots an elaborate escape and in the process a sweet revenge upon their gaolers Mr. And Mrs. Crouch. Superb.
Obviously in any anthology there will be tales less appealing to any individual reader and I found one or two not to my taste, but with fifteen stories it will be hard to find much not to enjoy of this anthology.