Steven Silver &
Martin H. Greenberg, editors,
Horrible Beginnings
(DAW, 2003)

Any fantasy lover who doesn't feel their interest jump when they learn of a new Steven Silver and Martin Greenberg Beginnings anthology has clearly not been paying attention. Horrible Beginnings is another collection of accomplished authors' surprisingly good first steps, and a fine introduction for those who like their fantasy with to have some bite -- and maybe some claws, too.

Robert Bloch's "Lilies" could serve as an introduction to the whole book. By now it's odd to consider Bloch as a rough beginner, and "Lilies" gives no suggestion that he ever was. A nice understated ghost story is made more eerie by the mundane tone of the narration. Bloch is one of the few writers who can't provide his own introduction, and Stefan R. Diemianowicz offers no insight into the weaker moments of Bloch's craft. Ramsey Campbell can and does speak for himself, and manages to add some humor to his tales of early authorial ineptitude before leading the way to "The Church in High Street." This powerful service should provide some dark faith for writers still struggling for a voice, as well as being a nice addition to the Cthulhu mythos.

Campbell isn't the only writer to deceptively lighten his contribution. Tanith Lee shares a brief conversation about "Eustace," a tale of true and truly creepy love. Edward Bryant's poor victim has no love for the succubus who haunts him through "They Only Come in Dreams," and his disproportionate fear of this friendliest of demons turns his haunting into a joke. The light tale is given a darkwash by a parting reminder of the demons' glacial persistence. The succubi at least explain their motivation. "The Cleaning Machine" shows none, much to the frustration of F. Paul Wilson's detectives. This locked boilerroom mystery is made even more tangled by the only witness, a woman who seems to have lost touch with reality, making her confessions a bit of a joke between two hard-boiled lawmen. Only a thin dusting of evidence mutes the laughter. A little glint of humor can make throw the hidden shadows into a frightening relief, and the wicked gleam of these stories leaves some of the more lingering nightmares.

Part of the joy of short story, especially in horror, is that nothing needs to be explained. Ghosts and nightmares can appear, haunt and destroy without any backstory to take away the shock of their appearance. Yvonne Navarro reveals a very "Surprise Fall" and promptly hides the view, leading the reader still gaping. Poppy Z. Brite never explains the origins of those who make "Optional Music for Voice and Piano," and the alien nature of the music makes its power more haunting. The porous wall between reality, magic and madness wavers and disappears under "Amymone's Footsteps," and Gary A. Braumbeck feels no need to rebuild it for his desperate heroine or any lost readers.

Horrible Beginnings also offers the chance to take a nice long look into the shadows. Henry Kuttner's "Graveyard Rats" takes a leisurely jaunt to doom with a thoroughly unlikable gravedigger. Given enough time to know the nasty fellow, his gory death is rather satisfying, but sinister enough to grant him some uneasy sympathy. But rats, organic and nasty as they are, can never be as eerie as the puppet "Prince of Flowers." Elizabeth Hand gives the lovely toy to her kleptomaniac archivist, along with the strangest fate a cheap apartment can contain. A deal with the devil may not be the most original plot, but the slow agony of waiting for the punishment makes "Colt .24" a delight of anxiety.

Not all these beginnings are truly horrible. "Agony in the Garden" walks with a dying god through a world where faith lives only in the mad. Thomas K. Montleone helps the deity along, and leaves its dystopian technocracy with an abiding sense of unease, but no real fear. Kathe Koja shows off her science fiction skills in "Distances." The fight of the altered "needleheads" and their trainers to explore the wider universe is tense and packs a novel's depth into a deceptively short space, but the forgiving, optimistic ending takes it far away from the bleak realms of horror. Koja's writing in "Distance" is noticeably rougher than her later work, but well suited to the cyberpunk aesthetics of her story.

It's worth noting how few of the stories in Horrible Beginnings deal with established monsters. Even as beginners, the writers collected here were unafraid to explore the stranger corners of the horror world. It's an unnerving journey, but great fun in the company of these able guides.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 2 August 2003

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