Poe’s Children

poe's childrenIf 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.

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12 Responses to Poe’s Children

  1. I like your analogies. And I read a book of Christmas short stories by Connie Willis that I felt the same way about – i.e., only one was worthwhile, but it was worth the money for the book. Still, you wish there could be more consistency!!!

  2. Nymeth says:

    I want this anthology for the John Crowley story alone – love him! He has a whole novel about Byron, called The Evening Land, which I’ve been meaning to get my hands on for some time.

  3. Rachel says:

    Yes it is always sad when a collection of stories disappoints, and you have to wade through a lot of muck to get to the gold. But the gold in this case definitely sounds deserving of the wading, so this will be a collection I look out for, if only for the two marvellous sounding stories you mention.

  4. I’d seen this at my local library. I’m not the greatest horror fan, but “Missolonghi 1824″ sounds fascinating! I’ll have to read it.

  5. Eva says:

    I’m reading from this one as well, and I agree with the 1/3 good stories. I haven’t read your two faves yet, so I’m glad there’s wonderful-ness waiting for me! :)

  6. TJ says:

    I’ve been putting off reading this one for months. I guess it won’t hurt to wait awhile longer…

  7. Steph says:

    What a wonderful review! At first I thought that a 33% success rate was pretty poor, but then I thought about what you said about finding some truly spectacular reads from this collection, and in the end I think you’re right that having just one or two amazing stories can make slogging through the rest worthwhile. But I think my general issue with short stories is that I so rarely have a higher success rate than 33%!

    I have read the Kelly Link story, “Louise’s Ghost”, as I read a collection of her stories earlier this year. That was another collection where the stories were either hit or miss for me, but I did enjoy “Louise’s Ghost” a good deal.

  8. Victoria says:

    Lovely review Jenny. Have you read any of the Crowley’s long form stuff? The Aegypt Cycle is supposed to be a work of timeless genius but I haven’t tried it yet. As for Glen Hirshberg, I’ve never heard of him but that story sounds wonderful.

  9. Kristen M. says:

    I think that the best thing about anthologies is that they expose you to those one or two authors that you really want to explore further. Most will probably end up on your “not for me” list but you’re right … it’s worth it to find the gems. I’ve been avoiding this anthology for other reasons (like the rare chance that any of these authors actually showed the promise given by linking them with Poe) but I may check it out for next year’s RIP reads.

    I do have a Kelly Link collection that I’m going to read this year — Pretty Monsters.

  10. Jenny says:

    rhapsodyinbooks — I read that collection of Connie Willis stories, and personally I thought most of them were hits (but I’m a huge Willis fan.) Which one did you like? But yes, it would be so nice to get a 100% success rate!

    Nymeth — I’m on to the Byron novel after the Aegypt cycle. Have you read much Crowley?

    Rachel — the collection was hit-or-miss, but at least those two were well worth it, and there were others as well.

    Omnivore — even if you just flip straight to the Crowley story and don’t read any of the others, you’ll have done yourself a favor.

    Eva — I look forward to your review! I’m curious what you think of my favorites.

    TJ — the collection as a whole wasn’t spectacular, but there were a couple of gems. So whenever you pick it up, you’ll be okay.

    Steph — Kelly Link is new to me, though of course I’ve seen her name. I liked this story enough that I might seek her out sometime. Another book for my TBR list!

    Victoria — thanks! I’ve read Little, Big (and thought it was shatteringly wonderful, the best fantasy I’ve ever read) and am currently in the middle of the first of the Aegypt cycle. So yes, I like Crowley a fair bit, and would recommend.

    Kristen — I agree with you about anthologies. I had never read Elizabeth Hand or Kelly Link before, and now I will probably try them again (especially after Nymeth’s recommendation of Mortal Love.)

  11. Nymeth says:

    Jenny, I’ve actually only read Little, Big and a handful of short stories, but I loved them all so much I think I’ll love everything he’s written, period. The Aegypt cycle is also on my list!

  12. christina says:

    This collection disappointed me so much. I picked it up excited that I might stumble up on new authors. Nope. I read the ones I wanted, tried a couple of others, and then returned it to the library. Oh well.

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