Over the years, I’ve read what may amount to hundreds of strange, eerie, and downright scary short stories. Poe, Bierce, E.F. Benson, Robert Aickman, Stephen King, M. R. James, Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman… when they’re done well, I love them. So when I saw Eva’s enthusiastic review of John Connolly’s collection, Nocturnes, several years back, I added it to my TBR list.
The collection is fairly long — fourteen stories and a novella — and I found it a bit hit or miss. All of the tales were fairly well-written, but some of them were spine-chilling and original, while others were mere pastiches, and one of them was way, way over the top, past scary or disturbing into disgusting and distressing. (Naturally, your mileage may vary, and as Stephen King has said, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”)
For me, the worst story, the one I just referenced, was the first: “The Cancer Cowboy Rides.” It’s about an entity that can transmit fast-growing terminal cancer by touch. It had the feel of a particularly nasty Stephen King story to it, but less heart, and with that introduction to the volume, I struggled with continuing. However, the best stories were worth it: “Miss Froom, Vampire,” the only story with even the faintest tinge of humor to it, and “The New Daughter,” a genuinely frightening story about a man who has something ancient and alive in the burial mound in his back yard — something that is insidiously attacking his children.
There were several stories in the collection that were obvious homages to M.R. James (“The Shifting Sands”) and Lovecraft (“The Wakeford Abyss”) and Benson (“The Inkpot Monkey”). Those were fun to read: it was a bit like playing a spooky version of Authors.
As I read (I am a diligent reader of short stories, and always read straight through from beginning to end), I saw a couple of troubling patterns emerge. First was that, out of the fifteen stories here, seven of them deal in some way with the abuse, torture, or murder of children. This reminded me of the open letter to Peter Straub I wrote a while back. I get it, I really do: the mistreatment of children is the most horrible thing we can imagine. But after a while, it becomes your one-trick pony.
The other pattern I saw (and I don’t want to harp on this, I really don’t — I read the entire book hoping to find something to use as a counterexample) is that, with the exception of the established wife of the main character in the novella — someone he has written about before and will again — there is not a single positive female character in any of the stories. There are hatchet-faced bitches, there are stupid women, there are fat women, there are nasty unpleasant ex-convicts, there are female demons and monsters and succubi and vampires and witches, and there are daughters who want to kill sons, but there are no point-of-view women and not a single pleasant reliable woman in sight. I will say that some 19th-century horror writers perform similar tricks, but this book was written in 2005.
So. Hit or miss, for me. Has anyone read any of his other books, in order to give them a recommendation?