When Things Get Dark ed by Ellen Datlow
Titan, hb, £12.69
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Shirley Jackson is famous for her unique style of horror. Subverting the every day with unusual and creepy elements, Jackson’s work keeps the reader off-balance throughout; the only certainty was that nothing was as it truly seemed. We Have Always Lived in a Castle is one of my all-time favourite stories.When I heard about this new collection of stories by prominent horror authors written in tribute to Shirley Jackson, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
The first story, Funeral Birds by M. Rickert, about the secrets we keep haunting us, was a great start. Lenore, the central character’s attention to detail in preparing for a funeral and her attitude towards the event are sinister, hinting at what is to come without giving anything away. However, the following story, For Sale By Owner, does not add to the set-up. Instead, we have what felt like quite a long short story about a woman who enjoys looking around empty houses. When the weirdness happens, it is too quick and too late in the story to have any real impact.
Quiet Dead Things by Cassandra Khaw explores small-town prejudices and the impact of isolated communities on mental health and relationships. What elevated this story above the others for me is that Khaw starts with a sinister event and keeps up a creepy pace throughout, and she never explains what happens. We’re left to wonder whether everything was caused by the residents’ prejudices or something supernatural.
Money for the Dead by Karen Heuler doesn’t hide the otherworldly element of this story but instead explores the difference between our memory and reality. Are things ever as wonderful as we remember them to be? Are our memories of our children sugar-coated with age? If we could have them back, should we? The use of older characters to move this story forward was an excellent choice as the decisions they make are so much more poignant with the experience of age on their side.
From the whole collection, the two stand out stories that really invoked the atmosphere and experience of reading Shirley Jackson for me are Take Me, I Am Free by Joyce Carol Oats and Tiptoe by Laird Barron.
Take Me, I Am Free is possibly the shortest story in the collection. Told from a child’s point of view, it is immediately sinister as their home is not the same environment it should be. The fear is real as the blame faced at home is undeserved, and the child does not have the vocabulary to explain what is happening to a trustworthy adult. Her survival is genuinely uncertain.
Tiptoe is a similar story, exploring childhood and its impact on our adult life. What makes Tiptoe so chilling is Barron’s consistent description of the father in the story. It grows steadily; the signs are there but revealed so subtly that the ending is a shock. In In the Deep Woods; The Light is Different There by Seanan McGuire, we were given so many possible options for the threat element that the story doesn’t feel cohesive when we reach the ending; however, Barron ties everything together and taps into a fear most of us can relate to.
As with any short story collection, even ones with editors as renowned as Ellen Datlow, there were bound to be stories that didn’t work for me as well as others. But those that I did enjoy really delivered in creepiness and quality. But then, maybe the fault is with me. This is not a collection of stories based on Shirley Jackson’s style but a tribute to her legacy in the horror genre.