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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 [1989] 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.



Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
11 comments on “Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow”
Ellen Datlow

Actually no. The authors discuss what Poe story/poem/essay inspired them to write the story and why. Quite different from what is stated below. Editors generally feel no need to justify why a story is included in an anthology. I know I don't.
(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?)

Hi Ellen 🙂
Fair enough pulling me up on that, I did not express myself that clearly (I could also have done with an extra read through as the piece is full of typos and bad grammar. Yikes!)
My thinking was not that editors justify the inclusion of stories so much as provide a wider context.
I was thinking mainly of anthologies such as Kely + Kessel's Rewired (with its introductory chapter on cyberpunk) or the practice in non-fiction anthologies of linking the pieces together and back to the central point of the collection through brief outlines.
Obviously this would be less standard practice in genre anthologies as a lot of them tend to have no greater thematic unity than "the ten best stories of the year featuring vampires" and it would be grotesque for editors to try and justify themselves in those kinds of introduction.
So I guess what I'm really saying is it would have been nice if there had been a greater sense of a particular vision being pursued. Some of the authors' essays provided insight but others felt really flimsy to me.

the piece is full of typos and bad grammar
Mea culpa here: the proofreaders have been through this, I just haven't had a chance to put in their corrections.

Ellen Datlow

The vision is of Poe in all his remarkable glory as he wrote in all sub genres of dark fiction and indeed arguably created the detective story. This was not an overview of a genre as were the Kelly/Kessel anthology. An historical overview anthology is a whole different type of anthology that an original theme (or non-theme) anthology.

Jonathan,
It would have been good to remember that this essay is a review, an opinion piece, not a statement of facts. Or have you found or made a magic of universal agreement? If so, then you're wasted as a fiction reviewer. Make world peace.
But to this essay, in which the central problem lies in the two strongest words used: "undeniably" and "arguably".
The anthology's standout story is undeniably Steve Rasnic Tem's "Shadow."
Arguably the weakest story in the anthology, Gregory Frost's "The Final Act"
In contrast to your review, you might read, for instance, Eric Brown's review in The Guardian, which I've pasted here:
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth, Datlow has gathered 19 original stories from contemporary writers. Her introduction states that she didn't want Poe pastiches but stories inspired by his work. This has resulted in several of the best pieces being modern-day takes on the master's themes and obsessions. "The Final Act" by Gregory Frost is an acutely observed ghost-cum-murder tale whose protagonist is dogged by a childhood acquaintance, a story prompted by traits in Poe's own character. In "Kirikh'quru Krokundor", Lucius Shepard takes a cast of driven characters to the lush jungle of South America and subjects them to intense sexual and psychological strain, inspired by Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim". The unique Nicholas Royle, by contrast, tells a quiet tale of doppelgangers, identity crisis and unease at a school reunion in "The Reunion". Recommended.

Arguably is a strong word? What are you talking about?
I'm not sure why you would want to compare this in-depth review to Brown's 140 word capsule piece either.

It is impossible to show by argument that one story (or any work of the imagination) is the weakest in a collection, the best, or any other value in between. So I must assume that "arguably" in this essay means what it often does(incorrectly): indisputably or undeniably. Arguably, indisputably, and undeniably are words that imho should never appear in a fiction review unless they refer to facts.
In contrast, Brown's capsule piece mentions first (positively) the story labelled here "arguably the weakest". Brown also got the purpose of the choices made, which proves that length doesn't necessarily = depth.

Anna, you're making assertions about what can and can't and should or shouldn't be done in a review that are not held as universal truths. Others have put the case for the other side more eloquently than I could, so I will quote them.
Here's Joanna Russ, for instance, writing in the November 1979 issue of F&SF, as reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen from p 166 on, about typical objections to criticism:

"your opinion is purely subjective"

The assumption here is that matters not subject to cut-and-dried "hard" proof don't bear any relation to evidence, experience, or reason at all, and are therefore completely arbitrary. There is considerable indirect evidence one can bring against this view. [...] if it were possible to do criticism according to hard-and-fast, totally objective rules, the editor could hire anyone to do it and pay a lot less than he has to do now for people with special ability and training (low though that pay necessarily is). It's true that the apparatus by which critics judge books is subjective in the sense of being inside the critic and not outside, unique, and based on the intangibles of training, talent, and experience. But that doesn't per se make it arbitrary. What can make it seem arbitrary is that the whole preliminary process of judgment, if you trace it through all its stages, is co-extensive with the critic's entire education. So critics tend to suppress it in reviews (with time and training much of it becomes automatic, anyway).

I'd also point you to William Atheling Jr, as reprinted in The Issue at Hand:

There have also been a few letters and comments which have espoused the position that objective standards for writing cannot be formulated, and that for this reason Atheling's strictures can be enjoyed or discounted solely as expressions of his own personal taste. Most of the letter-writers who made this point were authors whom I had taken to task, but disinterested observers like Jack Speer also brought it up. Sorry, gentlemen, but this refuge is only about as good a hidey-hole as the one to which the ostrich legendarily retreats ... What Speer apparently wants, as do most of my other correspondents on this subject, is a list of the objective technical standards which I will apply to magazine fiction [here he lists points implicit in his first column, and notes that others are implicit in his second ...] I am not going to list them here again because, to put the matter bluntly, it is my job to write the column -- not to read it for you as well. If you gentlemen would like to argue with me further, please try at least to listen before you raise your hands. (pp 33-4)

On choice of language, and whether impassioned absolutist sentiments are out of place, after noting that most of what a reviewer has to read is garbage, Russ writes "if critics' accumulated suffering did not find an outlet in the vigor of our language, I don't know what we would do. And it's the critics who care the most who suffer the most; irritation is a sign of betrayed love." And she quotes George Bernard Shaw:

Criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man [sic] a critic ... when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform ... in the same way really fine artists inspire me with the warmest possible regard ... When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word; it is passion.

Both Atheling and Russ, of course, are happily assertive about what they like and dislike, including using the sort of intensifiers you feel have no place in reviewing. (Atheling: "The Sturgeon story, certainly the best in the issue ..." (p 23).)
And finally, I'll quote John Clute, on the distinction between "getting" a text and engaging with it. After setting out his "protocol of Excessive Candour" at the start of Look at the Evidence ("Reviewers who will not tell the truth are like cholesterol ... they starve the heart" etc), he says, "If that means we sometimes make errors, speak cruelly, carve caricature grimaces onto the raw flesh of books, so be it. Some golems are necessary ... what I would like to suggest is not only that misprision is inevitable, but that misprision is the right stuff" (p 4), and goes on to describe how the only review he can remember of his first novel is one which got his intent entirely wrong:

So it was misprision. The critic had seen something that looked like truth, and he had imposed this "truth" on a text, had "interpreted" my precious novel, had pummelled it into a shape of his own devising, had made a Necessary Golem of my Work. He had recreated the book. Was I glad?

I was. This reviewer's misprision is the only comment on the book I can recollect in any detail. It is the only review which represented a wrestling of the reader with the text, the only one which taught me anything about what I had written. By re-creating The Disinheriting Party, the reviewer had allowed me to look at it again, to see the thing as an autonomous text, no longer mine, no longer tied to me by the umbilicals and conceits and oneirisms of the creative heart. (p. 5)

He goes on further to describe his similar response to a very negative, and vicious, review of his first book of reviews:

In accomplishing this dismantling, Latham is performing the critic's task: that of unmasking the being of the book; re-creating that being; freeing the book from the author of the book, and from the beehive cloister of the affinity group; and, in the end, granting a privilege. The author's true privilege is to be misunderstood (how many of us, glaring into airless mirrors of unpublishable selfhood, ever get the chance?), and the critic's true function is to make misunderstanding into a door of perception. So with Latham's help, I open the door. I see how the book can be seen. There's some fucking going on in the workings, but that's life. And it all helps me see that when I, in turn, shape the books I review into what I understand them to mean, I shape them into monsters their parents might well weep to recognize: but at least, within sf, they are neighbourhood monsters. (p. 7)

On these issues, I stand with all of the above. Brown's review strikes me, perhaps unfairly, as what Clute calls "gospel singing"; though of course it has no space to be anything else.

Niall, I'm glad that I threw my forks into the whirring machine here, or you might never have posted your excellent reply. And yes, I agree with much here, especially your quote from John Clute: "The author's true privilege is to be misunderstood." I agree with that completely. Once a work is given birth, it has its own life, and the author should butt out of it, even if that author thinks that the work is being abused.
What I object to in this review is not the use of strong words, or of the subjective opinion of the reviewer. As you say, if not for that, we could have only gospel singing — with heathens outside the church door, and drugged believers hallelujahing inside.
So I'm not advocating for milquetoast talk, nor of uncritical puffery. What I object to here is, to be blunt, the arrogance, the total lack of humility with no saving cruel grace. All reviews are objective. All reviewers should feel free to state, with no reservation (or need to proffer smelling salts or an ER clinic) "This is the worst ..." or Dorothy Parker's "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Or that one-line classic of hers about Winnie the Pooh: "“Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
I'm only saying that even Dorothy Parker knew that her taste wasn't to everyone's. And I'm also not saying that clever cuts would have saved this review in my opinion. As Parker said, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."
What I am saying is that, given the understanding all readers of reviews have, that the the Kingdom of Reviewers houses many gods, there is room in the Kingdom (and below)for other opinions, and the reviewer should remember that. Therefore, I still maintain that arguably, indisputably, and undeniably are words that should never appear in a review of a work of the imagination unless they refer to facts.
But as I said, that's imho, which perhaps is not only irrelevant but not constructive to the furtherance of well-written and considered reviews. And though I have criticized this review, I don't review, not having the skill. But reviews perform a necessary function, as you have shown.
As Da Vinci said: We know very well that errors are better recognized in the works of others than in our own; and that often, while reproving little faults in others, you may ignore the great ones in yourself. To avoid such ignorance, in the first place make yourself a master of perspective...
So, thank you Niall, for your wise words.

Err, how did that "objective" sneak into my observation: "All reviews are ..."? I dunno, but I swear I typed "All reviews are subjective." I certainly meant that, though the weight of criticism can seem so heavy, it must be more than air. The critical mass of Bulwer-Lytton, Tolstoy, Joyce, and the poet who cleared the Mall at the latest inauguration are all good examples. See also, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Bulwer-Lytton.

Jeff VanderMeer

Arguably, indisputably, and undeniably shouldn't appear in the review because they are artery-clogging adverbs.

 

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