A bit of an EDGE in anthologies…

J.R. Campbell & Charles Prepolec, eds. Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes (EDGE 2011).
Nancy Kilpatrick, ed. Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper (EDGE 2012).
Nancy Kilpatrick, ed. Evolve Two: Vampire Stories of the Future Undead (EDGE 2012).
Nancy Kilpatrick. Vampyric Variations (EDGE 2012).

Reading these anthologies has reminded me of how few genre writers (a vast crew, it seems) I know. And I admit it: I tend to read the work of a fairly small number of writers, whose writing has already won me over, or whose fiction a few rusted critics have praised. So most of the writers in these anthologies are new to me. Some I will seek out, but there are too many for any one reader to keep up with (or, at least, for me to do so).

On the whole the stories in Gaslight Arcanum are great fun, pitting the always super-rational detective against various forms of the supernatural. In the original stories what seems supernatural isn’t, but in these tales most of the time it is. Dr. Watson narrates a few, Holmes himself authors a couple, one a letter to Lestrade explaining how he became the great detective. And some are just straight narratives about Holmes, including one in which he still lives & works, in this story in contemporary Las Vegas. I enjoyed them all, in their various ways, but, intriguingly, the best, most thoroughly entertaining, tale in the book, Kim Newlman’s novella, ‘The Adventure of the Six Maledictions,’ isn’t about Holmes at all. No, Newman has begun a series of tales about Moriarty as the criminal Holmes. And he has given Moriarty his own version of Watson, Sebastian ‘Dead-Eye’ Moran, as nastily comic & vicious a narrator as any reader could hope for. Moran happily commits any crime necessary for Moriarty, & tells his tale in his own inimitable way: this adventure is scathingly politically incorrect (even for its period let alone now); it rings changes on many Victorian popular culture icons; it is also a hoot. I intend to track down the one earlier tale & hope Newman plans many more. Other standouts include Stephen Volk’s ‘The Comfort of the Seine,’ Fred Saberhagen’s witty ‘From the Tree of Time,’ Lawrence C Connolly’s cross-over ‘The Executioner,’ Kevin Cockle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game,’ Paul Kane’s ‘The Greatest Mystery,’ & Tony Richards’s ‘The House of Blood.’ All in all, Gaslight Arcanum provides the goods. Not just Sherlockians will find much to entertain them within.

The back cover of Danse Macabre says ‘This anthology could be the most unusual and original collection of stories you’ll ever read.’ Well, maybe, maybe not. The concept is definitely intriguing: as Kilpatrick says in her Introduction, ‘The idea came to me to see if it was possible to translate the Danse Macabre concept from a visual art form to a literary art form.’ And so we have a collection of stories in which Death appears in a myriad of forms, & in which a wide variety of figures confronts it (he, her, they) in wildly different manners, moods, & modes.

There are 26 stories here, &, as a whole, this is an entertaining collection. Two things stand out for me: none of the stories are complete duds (although some could have used a good copy-editor, someone sadly lacking in too many publishers today); a few, usually by the better known writers, are especially fine. Lisa Morton’s opening tale, ‘The Secret Engravings,’ tells how Hans Holbein the Younger took on a special commission from Death himself. Nancy Holder & Erin Underwood’s ‘Totentanz’ offers a neatly ironic view of Death versus a dead conscience. And, indeed, various forms of irony play a large part in many of the stories in Danse Macabre. Opal Edgar’s ‘Elegy for a Crow’ does a nice turn on the Japanese vision of Death. And speaking of irony, Tanith Lee, as one might expect, neatly turns things upside down in ‘The Death of Death.’ Lee is one of the well known writers here, & she makes no mistakes, either in narration or in grammar. I wish I could say the same of all. There are some stories here in which the concept is far better than the execution, & I think Kilpatrick was perhaps too gentle as an editor with them. Nevertheless, Danse Macabre remains an entertaining example of an intriguing concept anthology.

Kilpatrick edited Evolve a few years ago, & it added some nice new twists to the whole vampire mythos. Now in Evolve Two, she asked her contributors to think of vampires in various futures, some apocalyptic, so hopeful, some so far future theyre more SF than horror. Clearly, writers like to be challenged this way, so Evolve Two is one of the better anthologies of recent years, as was the original Evolve. And, although Danse Macabre was definitely based on a good idea, a lot of the stories therein seemed not quite finished, not quite fully there. The results in Evolve Two are generally better, although a few could (again) have been helped by some good copy editing.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed the whole thing. Kilpatrick has neatly organized the anthology into 3 sections. ‘Pre-Apocalypse,’ ‘Post-Apocalypse,’ & ‘New World Order.’ She has some returnees from Evolve; & a few well known writers, who, yes, provide the very best stories. Kelley Armstrong offers a funny take on one of her usual powerful women, this time a vamp. The future offers some neat future turns on the usual vampire powers, as in Heather Clitheroe’s ‘Forest-Bathing.’ David Tocher’s ‘Chelsea Mourning,’ aside from its great title pun, is a terrifically dark take on abuse & the possibilities of revenge, Jason S. Ridler, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of human power in a world where vampires have gained a lot of social power. Two well respected writers, John Shirley & Tanith Lee, explore a future in space where vampires find a place, accepted & acceptable, or not. Shirley’s ‘Soulglobe’ is a powerfully violent view of a soldier’s discovery of a terrible secret in what’s supposed to be a lovely euthanasia satellite in the outer planets, & what he’s willing to do for the woman he loves. Tanith Lee’s ‘Beyond the Sun’ also explores an aspect of love: its continuing loss over centuries of stellar exploration, best carried out by a vampire plus human crew. Both are deeply moving, crafted & plotted with the care that perhaps only comes with experience.
There are standouts, then, as there always are in such anthologies, but the general quality is high. If you had to choose only one of these anthologies, I’d put Evolve Two at the top of the list.

After the anthologies she edited, it seems only fitting to look at Nancy Kilpatrick’s own work, in her second collection of short fiction. Vampyric Variations demonstrates that Kilpatrick knows her vampires & their myths, legends, & history as well as anyone. The stories & novellas therein cover a very wide range, almost always with a dash of wit & insight, as well as narrative savvy.

‘The Vechi Bårbat’ not only uncovers/invents ‘an older vampire mythology that pre-dates Tepesh,’ but explores the psychological dissonance that arises when an old order meets the modern world. ‘Berserker’ gives us Dracula’s perspective of London as he attempts to deal with the people & places of the Industrial Revolution (a vampire ecological story?). Kilpatrick is a good writer, usually able to represent any possibility, but it’s tough to combine horror & comedy smartly & subtly: ‘Bitches of the Night’ strives for a kind of slapstick but doesn’t quite come off. On the other hand, ‘Vampire Anonymous,’ in which the vampires use the Internet as a method of attracting victims carries off its darkly comic conceit with some flair.

‘Necromimicos’ (‘a word I think I invented’) neatly turns the tables on the vampire by creating something strangely superior to it. Short & very pointed. Kilpatrick offers a variation that brings the South American vampire across the US border like so many other immigrants, to make some caustic social points. ‘Traditions in Future Perfect’ suggests one way vampires might enter into the world of the near-future, with a sense of dramatic loss for the elders involved. (It would have fitted perfectly into Evolve, & I admire her refusal to include her own work in an anthology she edited.)

The second half of Vampyric Variations contains 3 erotically tinged novellas, 2 of which play variations on the original Dracula legend. Kilpatrick deliberately explores the Romance aspects of the mythos, & in doing so tries to capture mixture of fear & desire that drives these tales without falling into the traps of so many cliché vampire romances crowing the store shelves today. ‘Lover of Horses’ stays in France (rather than the Transylvania the first part of the tale leads us to expect) with the feisty American woman kidnapped & then slowly seduced as well as imprisoned by the man who insists that she & he have been lovers for centuries. ‘Time’ is about the difficulties of remaining sane over centuries & millennia, & suggests a different history for the vampire race. Narrated by a fairly young vampire who slowly discovers that the truth about what he is & what he might have been created for is very different than he believes, it is also about the utter loneliness he faces if he cannot learn to be different. Finally ‘Wild Hunt,’ told from the point of view of a psychic woman who is also in the thrall of a destiny her grandmother predicted for her, seeks to explore both the violence implicit in the vampire mythos & the romantic underpinnings of the vampire’s seductive presence in our psyches. On the whole, it works & slowly drags us in to accepting its complex situation, but there are moments where Lorelei’s knowledge of what must happen conflicts with her feelings in ways that are certainly comprehensible but that confuse the development of the plot. On the whole, though, it’s a solid psychological thriller.

Kilpatrick can write, on the whole a lot better than most writers in the field, &, as a result, Vampyric Variations is a more completely solid collection of tales than the anthologies she has edited, & just as wide ranging. All these books will appeal to fans of the uncanny & the supernatural, but Vampyric Variations is definitely something a bit more special.

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