Poe is one of several recent anthologies that have been commissioned to celebrate the 200th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. However, where Peter Straub's Poe's Children (2008) is simply a reprint anthology and Michael Connelly's In The Shadow of the Master (2009) is a collection of Poe stories with some nonfiction, Datlow's collection is an anthology of original stories "inspired by Edgar Allan Poe." With the exception of pastiches—which were mercifully excluded—Datlow allowed her authors to take inspiration from anything surrounding Poe. This means that there are stories inspired by Poe's famous tales, stories inspired by his more obscure works, stories inspired by his poetry, and stories inspired by his life and (evidently mysterious) death. Nor does the term "Horror" appear anywhere on Poe's cover. As with Datlow's Inferno (2007)—an anthology coyly daubed with the evasive tagline "New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural"—euphemism is the name of the game. This book's euphemism of choice is "Dark Fantasy," a label that is critically meaningless and so gives Datlow ample space to include different types of stories.
With a remit so broad as to include both surreal comedies and bleak tales of alienation, obsession, and insanity, Poe lacks anything resembling a unifying aesthetic or genre. The stories pull in so many different directions that it is impossible to judge them any way other than individually. This means that evaluating Poe is essentially a question of mathematics; how many truly decent stories must a collection feature in order for it to be worthy of your attention? Obviously, mileage varies, but I suspect that for all but the most charitable of souls, it is likely to be more than three out of nineteen.
The anthology's standout story is undeniably Steve Rasnic Tem's "Shadow." An eerily claustrophobic tale about the slow onset of paranoia and psychosis, "Shadow" follows R. D. Laing in suggesting that far from being a positive and nurturing environment, families can be secret-filled breeding grounds for all kinds of mental problems. Equipped with an unusual second-person narrative and written with the kind of chilly and unadorned prose that only serves to accentuate its increasingly surreal events, the story is genuinely disturbing not only in its execution but also in its decision to stress the sinister and surreal nature of something as mundane as a video of a family member.
Lucius Shepard's "Kirikh'quru Krokundor" is ostensibly a formulaic story about a group of archaeologists sticking their noses where they do not belong, but, despite the generic trappings and the predictable ending, the story positively vibrates with unpleasantness as a supernatural presence forces the archaeologists to gradually lose control; they ultimately descend into a hideous emotional quagmire of recriminations, anger, and demented rutting. Shepard transitions one character from tightly wound introspection to mindless carnality; such superb characterisation, and the juxtaposition of terror and sexuality, create a tone that is exquisitely bacchanalian.
The book's final story, "Technicolor" by John Langan, is also one of its most memorable. Like Tem's story, it is written as a second-person narrative, but this time in the form of a lecture delivered to undergraduates about Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." Formally innovative, the story poses as a critical examination of Poe's work using the fictional antecedent of the kind of creepy grimoire that makes Lovecraft's Necronomicon look like a YA work involving dishy vampires. Langan's fictional history of Poe's story is gripping and disturbing at the same time, even if it is let down by the kind of unnecessary and ineffectual twist ending that suggests the writer spent ages wracking his brain trying to work out how to finish the story.
These three stories are exactly the kind of short fiction that you hope for when you buy an anthology such as Poe. As well as being ambitious and technically impressive, they also provide new and interesting takes on old ideas in a way that provides real emotional impact. In short, they do what good genre works should do. However, not all of Poe's stories are so consistently excellent. In fact, most of them are merely "good enough." Among Poe's sixteen lesser stories, there are distinct groups that share similar failings. For example, the second tier is composed of stories that might be called "non-epic fantasy," in that they are fantastical stories with enough originality to make them interesting, but without the emotional power to put them on the same level as the works of Rasnic Tem, Shepard, or Langan.
Particularly interesting are M. Rickert's "Sleeping with the Angels" and Glen Hirshberg's "The Pikesville Buffalo." Both of these stories tread similar ground to "Shadow," by virtue of their taking mundane elements of our lives and presenting them as alienating and odd events that border on the supernatural. Hirshberg's story deals with the kind of extended family that traditionally characterises the lives of many American Jews, but rather than falling into Catskills-style cliche, the story transforms the old grudges, stories, and anecdotes that bind a family together and reworks them into a form of fantastical mythology. Meanwhile, Rickert's story focuses upon the heady, sensual Otherness of teenaged sex and the realisation that the rest of the world does not resemble life at your parents' house. Also worth noting are some of the anthology's least supernatural efforts, such as Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain" (chock-full of references to the history of genre cinema and at times genuinely funny), Barbara Roden's " The Brink of Eternity" (a technically superb portrayal of self-destructive obsession), Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Flitting Away" (a moving story of a near-death experience following a horrific attack on a female jogger), and Nicholas Royle's "The Reunion" (set in a hotel with fluid interior architecture and a tone that perfectly captures a sense of displacement and vague disappointment).
The third tier of stories constitutes a further dip in quality. The six stories in the second group might lack the emotional precision and affective power of the top three, but they all rest upon original and interesting ideas. By comparison, third-tier stories feel overly familiar.
Kaaron Warren's "The Tell" is the best of this bunch. The story deals with someone who comes to own Poe's mummified heart. The heart is a catalyst for some low-level weirdness but despite having some efficient characterisation, the story never really goes anywhere or does anything. Delia Sherman's "The Red Piano" is similarly inert and is too similar to Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) to ever acquire any real charge, but Sherman does a great job of emulating and even updating the slow and ornate quality of Poe's writing. Other overly familiar stories include Pat Cadigan's "Truth and Bone" (teenagers with magical powers and a plot line far too close to the opening arc of Bryan Fuller's Dead Like Me), Suzy McKee Charnas's "Lowland Sea" (a huis clos siege horror bolted onto a poorly exploited examination of rich show biz wannabes), David Prill's "The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flood" (full of the same Depression-era back-road weirdness of Carnivale blended with demented yokels), Sharyn McCrumb's "The Mountain House" (essentially a NASCAR (!) retread of Field of Dreams  but with grief replacing obsession as a motif), and E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch and Portal" (dully reminiscent of the type of stuff Neil Gaiman was producing in the early 1990s, the story suggests Poe was merely a chronicler of visits to some fantastical other world).
While the stories in this group may not explore their concepts as thoroughly as you might hope, none of them can be described as poorly written. Indeed, most of Poe is very well written, with the emphasis clearly placed (as is the fashion nowadays) on strong characters whose psychological outlines are easily detectable thanks to the clear communication of their motivations and foibles through prose which, more often than not, grants them a coherent voice. Most, but not all. Unfortunately, the fourth tier is made up of stories that are completely hamstrung by technical misjudgements.
Arguably the weakest story in the anthology, Gregory Frost's "The Final Act" tries to be one of those stories in which a surprise ending causes the reader to completely reinterpret everything that came before. However, Frost's insubstantial story involving unpleasant, whinging characters feels more like something cooked up for a writing class, as the ending simply naysays what came before, reminding you that all fiction is ultimately conceit and then mocking you for being so gullible as to suspend your disbelief for the time it takes to read a single story. Similarly disappointing is Melanie Tem's "The Pickers." It starts off well, with a vision of a bleakly postapocalyptic Western civilisation colonised by a race of people who, much like ravens, pick our bones and live off what we no longer want. However, the story falls apart when Tem's central character starts to appear more mentally ill than consumed with grief. By the time the underwritten and self-consciously mysterious ending comes along, "The Pickers" has started to resemble a tabloid scare story in which a gang of Romani-like people steal from and then consume some helpless woman who had recently lost her husband. Equally off target but less unpleasantly so is Laird Barron's "Strappado." Full of wonderful depictions of self-indulgent decadence and equipped with a fantastic sense of place, the story is fatally undermined by Barron's ambivalence towards his own characters. On the one hand, the story seems to be trying to convey some sense of impending doom, but on the other it seems to be trying to shame us into wishing the smug and wealthy characters dead before confronting us with the chastened and horrific results of our fictionalised vendetta. In order for the story to work on the first level, Barron needed to make his characters more sympathetic, but if he wanted to make it work on the second level (a more interesting and ambitious prospect), then he should have made them even more smug, moneyed, and decadent than they were. As it is, we feel neither, and the story passes without emotional impact.
Picking one's way through Poe is a treacherous experience. At times, the good stories come one after the next and the book leaves you ruing the end of your commute or the realisation that you should really turn off the light and go to sleep. But at other times, the weaker ones come in gaggles and reading becomes an uphill slog through expanses of the kind of dull and uninspiring text that have you checking the page numbers to see how much longer it is until the next story starts. The concept of a "Poe-inspired" anthology was an interesting one, but one cannot help but wish that "inspired" had been more precisely defined. (Bizarrely, Datlow even has the authors write page-long essays in which they justify the inclusion of their story in the collection. Surely that should be Datlow's job as the editor?) As it is, the inclusion of the Poe name feels like little more than a marketing exercise, since this random collection of fantasy and horror stories seems to have about as much to do with the work of Poe as the stories in Asimov's Science Fiction have to do with the Foundation series.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.