Peter Crowther, editor,
Taps and Sighs
(Subterranean Press, 2000)

Ghost stories, in spite of their association with tales of terror (almost any scary tale told around a campfire is referred to as a "ghost story"), have lost much of their luster in the days since Poe and LeFanu. With the occasional exception of a work like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting or Stephen King's The Shining, few modern ghost and haunting stories are scary, and even fewer, frankly, are good. Peter Crowther, in his latest anthology, Taps and Sighs, has assembled a host of top-notch authors to reinvent the ghost story, and for the most part, he has succeeded.

Most of the authors in this anthology recognize that ghosts aren't that frightening in this day and age, so instead of an anthology of half-rate horror, this is actually a mixture of subtle horror and mythic fiction. Richard Christian Matheson and Michael Marshall Smith set the tone with the opening tales. Matheson's "City of Dreams" is a tale of horror, not because anything nasty happens to the protagonist, but because the best of intentions lead to true tragedy. And Smith's "Charms" is a touching (but not sentimental) tale of urban fantasy that could fit well among Charles de Lint's Newford tales.

Speaking of de Lint, he provides one of the two most pleasant surprises in the collection, as his "The Words that Remain," a twist on a classic urban legend, not only is sweet, but is a rare Newford tale that doesn't require the reader to be familiar with ten years of backstory. Setting the tale outside of Newford, and getting rid of the alternating first and third-person narration that had bogged down so many previous Newford tales has led to the most enjoyable de Lint story in ages.

The other surprise is Ray Garton's "The Homeless Couple," quite possibly the best piece of fiction Garton has ever written. Like de Lint, Garton's ending is utterly predictable, but the road he takes in getting there, and the parallel tragic lives of the protagonist (who morphs, over the course of 20 pages, from an unsympathetic archetype into a truly sympathetic hero). Garton, normally one of the best at telling novels of terror, makes a wonderful shift this time.

The actual tales of terror in this collection are no less impressive. The always-amazing Graham Joyce, in "Candia," provides his own nasty little tale of folks trapped in their own personal hells. Ian McDonald and Mark Morris take the same twist in two different, but equally horrific, directions. And Terry Lamsley's "His Very Own Spatchen" is a fun little tribute to the classic DC House of Mystery comics.

The cream of the horror crop is Gene Wolfe's "The Walking Sticks," a tale that presents as untrustworthy a narrator as in any Edgar Allan Poe tale. Wolfe's tale nicely mixes personal madness with ancient hauntings. Like Garton's story, expect to find this one reprinted in any number of "Year's Best" collections next year.

There are a few stumbling blocks. The McDonald and Morris stories, given their similarities, really should have been placed far apart, not next to each other. Ramsey Campbell's "Return Journey" is almost deliberately bad (the only horror being the reading experience itself), and Poppy Z. Brite's "Nailed," although completely readable, simply fails to break any new ground (a bit of a disappointment from such a consistently groundbreaking author). Still, Crowther (who contributes a very nice story with Tracy Knight) has assembled some great authors, and Taps and Sighs, added to his earlier Touch Wood and Dante's Disciples, establishes Crowther as one of today's top editors.

[ by Adam Lipkin ]

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