John Pelan, editor,
Dark Arts
(Cemetery Dance, 2006)

Let me just get it right out in the open here -- I normally don't find "themed" horror anthologies, in which the editor directs the contributing authors to focus on some particular brand of nastiness or other, to be nearly as effective as the ones in which authors are free to dwell upon whatever miscellaneous darkness is most vexing their imaginations at the moment, demanding to be unleashed on the world. At the risk of dating myself, my memories of my favorite unthemed horror anthologies of recent decades, including Dark Forces, New Terrors and the whole Shadows series, easily rival those generated by themed efforts like Freak Show, Ripper and most of the Chronicles of Greystone Bay.

That being said, the application of the theme of art within the 22 entries of the latest Horror Writers Association collection, Dark Arts, does not limit the scope of the stories as much as I feared, even if there are more than a few clunker tales here with authors setting up pedestrian scenarios with no payoff or overreaching themselves in metaphysical mumbo jumbo. To wit, the reclusive painter who does self portraits with what seem to be dead women in Michael Oliveri's "A Splash of Color" turns out to, big surprise, actually kill them(!); while the nearly incomprehensible prose of Jeff VanderMeer makes trying to like "Learning to Leave the Flesh" an exercise in frustration. And editor John Pelan, in his own tale, "For Art's Sake," perhaps wisely ends up not even really describing a work of art that supposedly drives all who see it mad -- or at least decidedly unsettles them -- because, alas, most authors' language would fail them in trying to make a fictional trope of this sort seem truly disturbing instead of just plain silly.

The sad thing is that these three stories, along with quite a few others in this volume, might have been partially redeemed for such shortcomings of inventiveness if they had at least been a little scary, but nowhere in Dark Arts do potentially terrifying scenes result in much more than one genuinely squeamish moment, and that's not until the very last entry, "Nightmares, Imported & Domestic" by Matt Cardin and Mark McLaughlin.

In the end, the jewels in the crown here come from authors who avoid the pitfalls of emphasizing the art part of the anthology's title over the dark, or who take stabs at comedic effects (as in Tom Piccirilli's delightfully droll, theatrically-oriented "The Final Staging of Ascent") that work uncannily well within what at first blush appear to be unwieldy frames. And the best tales by far even avoid making artists, as such, their main characters. By transcending the temptation to turn in what might make for a workmanlike Night Gallery episode, and stretching the barriers of dark fantasy in directions their fellow contributors didn't tread, a handful of Dark Arts authors truly stand out in this museum of horrors.

Best by far is "Body" by Tim Lebbon, a grim exploration of the lengths to which an entire culture might go to obey the whims of a mad ruler. Set in what could either be an alternate history or a pure fantasy realm, this story's work of "art" is a massive monument to the mad ruler's dead daughter; its "artists" are the brutally mistreated slaves who construct it and the special subset of pampered slaves who serve a very different purpose. As told by a privileged slave who begins to doubt the foundations of her lifelong, quasi-religious devotion to what amounts to a death cult, the narrative delivers many memorable scenes in its short span and only fumbles in the closing sentences. Indeed, because the ending is so disjointed from what has come before, perhaps slapped on under deadline pressure, I very much hope that "Body" is a fragment from a longer saga that Lebbon is fleshing out.

Other finely crafted works include "The Disease Artist" by the always reliable Steve Rasnic Tem, about a performance artist whose shtick is mimicking illnesses to, um, pathological levels; "With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu" by Brian Hodge, with a combat photographer as its eloquent narrator; and "The Disinterment of Ophelia" by Michelle Scalise, an oddly touching look at how a spot of grave robbing for the sake of poetry affects a nicely varied cast of Dickensian characters.

The better parts of Dark Arts have at least encouraged me to look for more material by a few authors that I'm not all that familiar with. The lesser parts just show that even a tired, slapped-together tale of "terror" that doesn't terrorize at all might eventually find a home if it fits an editor's chosen theme close enough for comfort. I would have preferred a shorter anthology with the overall quality of the best of this batch to the diluted effect produced by the sheer quantity of middling efforts here.

by Gary Cramer
30 December 2006

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