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By any definition, Ellen Datlow is one of the best anthologists working today. She’s earned a shelf full of awards for her work, including a fistful of Hugos and Bram Stokers, and a whopping nine World Fantasy Awards; she edited The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror until it died in 2008, and was brought on by Night Shade Books to fill the void when they launched their The Best Horror of the Year series in 2009; now, she buys the short fiction that appears on Tor.com. Her latest collection is The Monstrous, an anthology focusing on monsters. Not the schlocky, lumbering behemoths that kill everything, roll credits; nor any cliché tales of “human monsters,”such as serial killers or madmen. Despite the evil humans can unleash on each other, Datlow wanted stories about something truly monstrous, viewpoints both alien and extreme.

The stories she picked deal with a wide spectrum of monsters, covering a range of topics and settings, coming from a combination of genre juggernauts, rising stars, and young-up-and-comers: twenty stories by twenty authors, dealing with the most monstrous subjects these writers could come up with.

Tachyon Publications - 2015 - illo by Reiko Murakami

Tachyon Publications – 2015 – illo by Reiko Murakami

The sheer diversity of authors is impressive, and there’s bound to be something here for everyone. Gemma Files offers something for the fan of extreme horror with “A Wish From a Bone,” a gruesome thriller where the crew for a reality TV show stumbles across the tomb of ancient evils which then begin to possess the film crew. Dale Bailey’s excellent tale is more chillingly cerebral, about miners who quite literally find “Giants in the Earth;” as the winged behemoths sleep, the miners debate what to do, and their decision(s) have lingering after-effects. Caitlin Kiernan’s “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer” is a Southern Gothic, beautifully written and flush with atmosphere, that raises as many questions as it answers. Or take Stephen Graham Jones’ “Grindstone,” another unsettling gem; it’s a visceral tale, sort of a weird western, about a man so evil even his sun-bleached bones can pass on his inhuman vileness.

Genre giant Peter Straub is represented here by an older story, “Ashputtle” (from 1994), a glimpse into the mind of a kindergarten teacher. Not just any kindergarten teacher, since this one has a touch of madness lurking around the edges, and hinting at the darkness resting within. The genius of it is that Straub never mentions anything overt or direct, instead building great unease based on what goes unmentioned.

Meanwhile, Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois—an excellent editor in his own right—co-authored “Down Among the Dead Men,” about a vampire preying on its fellow inmates within a Nazi concentration camp. The protagonist slowly realizes it is just a parasite, keeping its fellow Jews alive and fed to be future food-stock for the vampire. It’s a fascinating tale, both for the uniqueness of its setting as well as the layers Dann and Dozois give the story. And the finale adds another layer of horror to it all.

Adam L. G. Nevill’s tale, “Doll Hands,” is set in the decaying future of 2125, the kind of gross, dystopic apocalypse I love. The protagonist sums himself up in the first line—“I am the one with the big white head and the doll hands”—and from there I was hooked, enraptured in the superb tale of depravity and the ambiguous nature of this world. The protagonist is a porter of sorts at a luxury home for the super-wealthy, where the malformed inhabitants can afford to eat more than just “yeast from the tanks in the basement”—they can afford meat. And this “meat” comes from a human animal.

Some of the stories share similar themes, such as the entries by Livia Llewellyn and Brian Hodge, where the protagonists find out some dark family secrets. The stories are nothing alike save for that basic theme. Hodge’s “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” has the protagonist return to his family homestead to help his sister, after her estranged husband attempted to kidnap her daughter. There, some puzzling moments from the past fall into place, and he learns the truth about the family lineage—something taken with them from the old country, possibly the thing that got them thrown out of the old country. It’s a quiet but disturbing kind of horror, the sort of literate story Hodge excels at. Llewellyn’s “Last, Clean, Bright Summer” starts to look like a teenage drama, consisting of a teenage girl’s diary entries as she goes to a family reunion. The deceptive first entries—combined with the protagonist’s strong YA voice—hides a knockout punch, the most brutal and visceral story in the collection. It mixes Lovecraftian themes with some shocking sexual violence that would have made the puritanical Lovecraft blush. It’s probably the most memorable story in the collection, shocking yet intoxicating, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

On top of the familiar names, I was impressed by many of the new-to-me authors included in the collection. I’d never read anything by A.C. Wise before, but found her “Chasing Sunset” to be a fascinating addition, its half-crazed protagonist fleeing from his father and dark Lovecraftian horrors, a mad rush of insanity and paranoia. It’s short and brutal, twisted in on itself, as if Wise was trying to capture insanity via the written word. Similarly, Terry Dowling I knew by name alone. His “Jenny Come to Play” was less intense but no less unnerving, following a woman who’d committed herself to an institution; when her sister shows up to collect her, the head of the institution figures there’s more to their story than what he’s told. There is, and it involves a twisted path through freakshows and conjoined twins and mental breakdown blocking out the truth. Good stuff, with a rich and foreboding atmosphere.

This is a collection about monstrous creatures and individuals, after all, so it should come as no surprise that many of these stories were quite dark, unsettling, or visceral even when they weren’t specifically graphic or gruesome. But these tales aren’t just chilling and disturbing, they’re also artfully executed, filled with some very literate horror and dark fantasy. If you’re a regular reader in those genres, especially one who enjoys good short fiction, The Monstrous is an excellent volume worth picking up. As usual, anything with Datlow’s byline rarely disappoints, and The Monstrous is no exception, an above-average collection of twenty strong stories within one unique theme.

Contents List
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year Without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L. G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

Book Details
Title: The Monstrous
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
MSRP: $16.95 trade paperback/ $9.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC recieved via NetGalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 9781616962067 / B010MCWEI6