If you bought a bag of apples, and only a third of them were worth eating, would you complain to the store? If you bought a lawn mower, and it only cut the grass a third of the time (or worse, a third of your blades of grass), would you return it?
Poe’s Children, a collection of short stories edited by Peter Straub, is subtitled, “The New Horror: An Anthology.” I was looking forward to reading it (even though I haven’t signed up for the RIP Challenge!) because I really enjoy unusual and excellent horror. I’ve gone both directions in my horror reading — the vintage, like M.R. James, and the relatively recent, like Stephen King, and been well pleased. But you have to be careful: most horror (like most other literature, really) is a well-trodden path, and can be tired and clichéd. Many authors, unable to provide a genuine frisson, go for threadbare images that have worked for others or, better yet, straight for the gross-out.
All that said, I had high hopes for Poe’s Children. In the event, only about a third of the stories were really good. I was entranced by Elizabeth Hand’s disturbing “Cleopatra Brimstone,” partly because horror stories so seldom feature women at their center, and this one did it so well. Kelly Link’s story “Louise’s Ghost” reminded me of Margaret Atwood in the way it dealt with women’s relationships. There were a couple of other ones that were great pleasures — Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” was familiar, but chillingly good, for instance.
But the two standouts, the ones that were worth slogging through all the dull-as-dust stories and the silly-buggers stories and the in-a-dark-dark-room stories, were “The Two Sams,” by Glen Hirshberg, and “Missolonghi 1824,” by John Crowley. “The Two Sams” is narrated by a man whose wife has had two miscarriages, of desperately wanted children. She’s pregnant again, and her sanity, and his, and their marriage, and maybe their lives, ride on the result. He must gently, gently speak to the ghosts of his unborn children, his two Sams, and convince them not to entice this third baby into the better world where they now live. It sounds as if it could be ghastly; it’s tender and raw and perfect. “Missolonghi 1824” tells the story of how Lord Byron, in Greece, met a god. I won’t explain the circumstances. I couldn’t. But the story is so convincing, so utterly compelling, that I now believe this happened, or might have.
And that’s why books are different from apples or lawn mowers. Only a third of the stories were any good? If only one of them had been “Missolonghi 1824” and the rest had been dreck, it would have been worth it. As Annie Dillard says (and I quote her in our About Shelf Love page), with books, there is no way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one. In the end, this one blew my day.