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Haunted Legends / Edited by Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas

Tor Books / September 2010
Reviewed by: Norman L. Rubenstein

Reading a book or story, to some extent, is a matter of trust. Readers might recognize an author’s name and remember that they’ve read previous books/stories by that author which they enjoyed, or which shocked them, in a good way, or which made them reflect on something. They will then choose to read the new story or book trusting that the same author will provide the same innate qualities in the new story or book which they’d enjoyed previously. The same kind of trust can also occur between a publisher and a reader in the genre-specific specialty presses, where a given publisher might have published a number of books which the reader had read and enjoyed, and, through time, the reader may well trust that a new title from this same publisher will likely provide similar entertainment value.

However, when it comes to anthologies, collections of short fiction by numerous differing authors, if there is any trust to be engendered, it is the editor(s) to whom the readers will turn to for such reassurance. Whether the anthology is themed (where all the stories have some common idea or point of reference that provides a general theme for the stories contained within the collection), or where there is no common theme, and the editor or editors have merely assembled a collection of quality tales they think that readers will enjoy reading, the readers must trust to the capability of the editor(s) to select a range of fiction that does not repeat itself and provides for entertainment and mental stimulation for the readers.

The new anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, Haunted Legends, is a themed anthology. As co-editor Nick Mamatas states in his Introduction:

“Our concept was simple: ask some of the best writers of horror and dark fantasy in the world to choose their favorite “true” regional ghost story, and to rescue it from the cobwebs of the local tourist gift shop or academic journal.” (Haunted Legends, at p. 16)

If Nick Mamatas’ name seems familiar, it should be. He has written two novels and over fifty short stories in the horror and dark fantasy genre, all quite good, and is also a prolific reviewer and columnist who has written many informative articles and interviews and is considered, rightfully, an expert within the genre. Ellen Datlow, the other co-editor of Haunted Legends, is someone who is the very essence of the proverbial “person who needs no introduction”. But, just in case…Ms. Datlow is the preeminent living editor of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, having been doing so for almost thirty years and having won multiple awards for her editing work, such as the Bram Stoker Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Higo Award, the Locus Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and any other award you might be able to think of. Ms. Datlow is one of the very few editors, and certainly foremost among them, whose name is sufficient to trust that whatever anthology bearing her editorial name is placed before a reader, will be a worthwhile expenditure of time to read. As to how the combination of these two major talents have melded, I can only hope that they will continue their editing partnership based upon the results as contained within Haunted Legends. Their idea/theme for the anthology is both clever and of definite interest to those for whom good ghost stories become just that much better and more interesting, knowing they are based upon alleged “fact” or, at the least, actual existing local/regional historical traditions and folklore.

The anthology consists of twenty stories from the following authors: Richard Bowes, Kaaron Warren, Kit Reed, Steven Pirie, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ekaterina Sedia, John Mantooth, Catherynne M. Valente, Carolyn Turgeon, Carrie Laben, Jeffrey Ford, Gary A. Braunbeck, Erzebet YellowBoy, M. K. Hobson, Stephen Dedman, Lily, Hoang, Laird Barron, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, and Joe R. Lansdale. I’m certain that, like me, most of you will recognize at least some of these contributors and that others will be new to you. Again, if one is able to trust to the taste and judgment of the editor(s), then encountering new authors becomes an exciting prospect rather than a potentially worrisome gamble. So it is within the pages of Haunted Legends.

Obviously, to some extent, taste in reading material is subjective, and one person’s favorite story might well be another’s least favorite. That doesn’t necessarily make either person wrong or right. However, it is a measure of the quality of any anthology as to how many, if any, of the stories contained within are disliked by the reader. By such measure, Haunted Legends is a resounding success and deserves a solid “A” in that there was not a single story within the twenty collected that was less than good. Not a single story where the reader wondered “how did this story ever make it into the collection.” This is a feature that, in my personal experience, having read literally hundreds of collections in over forty-plus years of such reading, sets Ms. Datlow’s editing apart from virtually everyone else editing anthologies within the horror and dark fantasy genre. I cannot remember the last time any story contained in any of the numerous anthologies Ms. Datlow has edited ever struck me as being less than good. However, this isn’t to say that Haunted Legends does not contain a number of stories that I found exceptionally diverting and worthwhile reading.

The anthology starts off strongly with “Knickerbocker Holiday” by Richard Bowes. This is a very eerie, moody update, set in contemporary New York City relating to the “Headless Horseman” tales that inspired Washington Irving’s famous Sleepy Hollow tale. Another story very worthy of mention is Steven Pirie’s “The Spring Heel”. Set in contemporary England and involving a prostitute and her small band of itinerant friends, this updating of the classic “Spring Heel” legends, often related to Jack The Ripper, is a very enjoyable read. Then there’s “La Llorona” by Carolyn Turgeon. Here a woman whose child has died of cancer, travels on vacation to Mexico and there meets the legendary “Crying Woman” also well known throughout the American Southwest, who supposedly drowns her children to punish her lover in a fit of jealous rage and then repents and drowns herself as well, and whose ghost is said to wander the coastlines of lakes/rivers/bodies of water looking for her children. While some versions of her legend make La Llorona a sympathetic, helpful spirit, others describe her as very dangerous and vengeful, and who will steal the children of others. Here, the author writes an effective and moving new vision of the old legend well worth reading.

Another very entertaining read can be found in Jeffrey Ford’s “Down Atsion Road”. Dealing with the notorious New Jersey “Pine Barrens” area, here we have a winning combination of wilderness, Native Americans, and demons.

Leave it to the always brilliant Gary A. Braunbeck to take the well known legend/ghost story surrounding Resurrection Mary, and give it a unique, clever, and fascinating twist in his “Return To Mariabronn”. The quality continues with a brilliant story, “For Those In Peril On The Sea” by Australian author Stephen Dedman. The author takes a local infamous shipwreck and weaves a story involving a fictionalized version of the Fear Factor TV show, here called “Worst Nightmares” and delivers a supernatural romp guaranteed to shiver your timbers.

The anthology finishes even stronger than it begins, with three extremely inventive and thrilling stories among the final four by three of the finest authors writing in the horror/dark fantasy genre. First up is Laird Barron’s “The Redfield Girls”, which involves a haunted lake, which happens to be a popular tourist destination, located in the Washington State wilderness that was viewed as cursed way back among the ancient Klallam People. Then there’s Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes To Liverpool”. Here, the title tells you all you need to know: yes, it refers to that Chucky, the deadly toy which has been the subject of numerous movies, and which became intertwined with an infamous real-life child-murder in Liverpool in 1991. The anthology ends with a tour de force tale from American horror icon Joe R. Lansdale titled “The Folding Man”. The author takes as his starting point the tales of a mysterious black car or van that means trouble for those who encounter it, and spins a tale that will keep the reader on the edge of his seat.

My apologies to those authors whose included tales were not mentioned in this review. This does not mean that they are any less well crafted or are less enjoyable to read, but merely that a combination of space and the reviewer’s own personal predilections won out. What is important for potential readers to know is that Haunted Legends is a tremendously inventive and gratifying read. These stories are worthwhile for those with merely a general interest for tales of horror and dark fantasy. For those who especially enjoy ghost stories, this anthology will be supremely rewarding. Many of the stories here will stay in your head long after you’ve finished reading the book, and should give the interested reader much to ponder. Bravo to Ms. Datlow and Mr. Mamatas, and one hopes that this will be the beginning of a long-term professional, working partnership that will truly continue to benefit all horror/dark fantasy readers. All it takes is a little trust.

Purchase Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas.

Posted on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 10:20AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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