I found this at a library sale, and all I needed to see was the title and the name Joan Aiken to know I’d found something good. It didn’t hurt that other contributors include Caitlyn R. Kiernan, Garth Nix, Gregory Maguire, Janni Lee Simner, and Neil Gaiman.
The Introduction by Noyes is beautifully written: evocative and mood setting, so I strongly recommend reading it first. It is a conjuration of one’s imagination, inviting one to become complicit with the magic. It primes the reader to engage with these narratives, some horrific, some merely darksome, and several sharply laced with humor.
The first story, “Lungewater”, is vintage Joan Aiken, with a mysterious second narrator, the whiff of old romance, cruelty and courage in almost equal measure. If you are unfamiliar with Aiken’s short fiction, if you only know her from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the Dido Twice adventures, you have a real treat in store for you; I recommend any of her collections, such as Smoke From Cromwell’s Time. They are quite extraordinary, really unforgettable, and perfect for sharing with young readers, including students.
Next up is “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys” by Vivian Vande-Velde, which is out-and-out horror, deceptive in how it plays with tropes, seemingly playful, turning and twisting memes with prestidigitatious ease until they form a strangle cord.
“Watch and Wake”, by M.T. Anderson, is a haunting story. A stranger is asked to attend a corpse-watching, to help out. Gradually, the tragedy behind the banal-seeming death unfolds, until the local necromancer appears to put a name to things.
Neil Gaiman contributes “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a delightful bit of inventiveness that stands horror on its ear, and then waggles the ear. A young man struggles to write a realistic tale of terror, bedeviled by a perverse longing to write fantasy.
The “Dead and the Moonstruck” is an interstitial tale about Caitlin R. Kiernan’s character Starling Jane. This is her coming-of-age, her rite of passage into the realm and powers of being a witch. The story is well-told, and the penultimate moment is one of the best passages in the entire collection.
“Have No Fear, Crumpot Is Here!” by Barry Yourgrau, mixes horror and humor into an upsidedown layer cake of identity crisis and unforeseen consequences.
“Stone Tower” by Janni Lee Simner, is an eerie story, deliberately ego-centric, for that is the essence of one flavor of horror, when the self has been driven into itself by betrayal.
“The Prank” is just what you ought to expect from Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked and all its ilk. A teen with ‘tude is court-ordered to stay with a relative, only it turns out that bad behavior may be genetic. It’s edgy, and hilarious, and there is a thread of kindness running golden through the awfulness, as more than one character struggles to effect a small, personal redemption.
“Writing on the Wall” by Celia Rees is another example of classic horror, with the clues and foreshadowing that knit a story together. A father moves his family into a house that was a great bargain on the market. He should have asked why….
And to Garth Nix goes the honor of closing the anthology with the aptly named “Endings”, a haiku of a tale, with two swords named Sorrow and Joy, a challenge and a choice. “Endings” is profoundly sonorous, the bone-deep resonance of the words invites one to read it aloud.
The timing of finding this book was serendipitous, as I’d just watched the Ken Russell film Gothic, about the weird night that Mary and Percy Shelley spent with Lord Byron, the night that sired Frankenstein in Mary’s mind. If you do not already recognize that the name Ken Russell contains within it a red flag the approximate size of Providence, RI, consider yourself duly warned. On the other hand, maybe you enjoy nightmarish visions and depictions of depravity. Not my usual, but I’ll watch just about anything if it includes Gabriel Byrne. As for the book Gothic, it is a dark gem to add to your collection of fantasy and horror. ~~ Chris Wozney