The Museum of Horrors

The Museum of Horrors - Dennis Etchison, Joyce Carol Oates, Conrad Williams, Th. Metzger, Susan Fry, Charles L. Grant, Peter Straub, William F. Nolan, Lisa Morton, Robert Devereaux, S.P. Somtow, Ramsey Campbell, Melanie Tem, Tom Piccirilli, Darren O. Godfrey, Joel Lane, Gordon Linzner, Richard L I'm sorry to say this is bound to be a cranky review. But then I find nothing more annoying than a mediocre short story anthology. Were The Museum of Horrors a novel, I could have closed it after about 50 pages concluding it wasn't worth my time. But with this, I lurched from story to story hoping to strike gold. Disappointing since since this was billed in the back cover as the "Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology of the Year." I can't even say that this collection of eighteen "all new stories" were a whole greater than its parts. With an original anthology you can't cherry-pick tales, so often a strong theme is part of what makes it work. In this case, only three of the stories incorporated even a mention of a museum. The front of the book announced the book featured "Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Laymon, Ramsey Campbell and others." Obviously these four are the authors they considered the biggest draw, and certainly Straub, Oates, Campbell (and Charles L. Grant) were the only names I recognized included in the collection. In the case of Straub, if you look at the contents page, his contribution "Perdido" is subtitled "A Fragment from a Work in Progress." That's something I expect from Fan Fiction Net--not professional publishing, and particularly inexcusable as it takes up 50 pages of the 370-page book. Joyce Carol Oates provides one of the two novellas in the anthology, a story she thinks highly enough of to be the title story in a collection of her own. She's an author with a lot of literary creds, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee. I found myself underwhelmed by the two novels by her I had tried, We Were the Mulvaneys and Black Water, so I had low expectations, but at first thought this might work. Her "The Museum of Dr. Moses" was macabre and creepy, the story well-written and atmospheric without seeming sloppy or affected in style like the previous works I had tried by her--but ultimately the ending fell flat. It says a lot about this collection that it still was among the strongest stories in the book. I really liked Ramsey Campbell's novel The House on Nazareth Hill and his "Worse Than Bones" was nominated for Best Short Fiction in the 2002 International Horror Guild Awards. I thought it a rather routine ghost story however and not gracefully written. And Richard Laymon? His "Hammerhead" is supposedly a humor piece (that looks into the mind of a serial killer), but I found it so gruesome from the start that I skipped the rest after a couple of pages--and I can say that about only one other story in the collection. (The other being William F. Nolan's "In Real Life" which changed perspectives so much I felt dizzy.) Robert Devereaux's "Apologia" about Jesus and Judas is obviously meant to be edgy and brave. As an essay I might have found its points convincing and interesting. But as a story not only did it confusingly jump all over the place, it just seemed mean-spirited. (And I'm an atheist with plenty of issues with Christianity, so if I find the story borderline offensive I can only imagine how a Christian might feel.) And the above stories didn't even come close to being the one I hated the most. No, that would be Joel Lane's sickening "The Window", a story with BDSM trappings involving a middle-aged pederast and his abuse of a troubled teen. Stories I found silly and lame included Peter Atkin's "King of Outer Space", Melanie Tem's "Piano Bar Blues," Gordon Linzner's "Author, Author," and Th. Melzger's "Transorbital Love Probe," which I do have to give points for weirdness. It is memorable. So that covers 11 of the 18 stories. Were there any stories I did like? Yes, but except in one case, only mildly, rather than in a I-wish-I-could-write-like-this or "Wow, I didn't expect that" way. There are six stories I'd rate three stars rather than only one like the above: Tom Piccirilli, "Those Vanished I Recognize" - Chilling and with more emotional impact than any story in the collection. Darren O. Godfrey, "Inland, Shoreline" - I liked how this piece intercut the two time-frames and the ending was about the only one I found even a bit surprising. Conrad Williams, "Imbroglio" - A stylishly written disturbing story about an ordinary boy, his family--and a brush with a serial killer. Susan Fry, "The Impressionists in Winter" - The one period piece, it was an atmospheric and well-written ghost story. Charles L. Grant, "Whose Ghosts These Are" - I'd heard of Grant, a Nebula Award winner, as one of the best writers of Urban Fantasy out there. I don't know I can say this story of a retired cop impressed me, but it was well-written and with deft characterizations--even if I saw the ending coming from the first mention of "the Ghost guy." Lisa Morton, "Pound Rots in Fragrant Harbour" - This struck me as a twisty little variation on the classic "deal with the devil" story and was absorbing and well written. My only complaint was that I found one aspect of the ending unnecessary and crass. And finally there was one story that did impress me, S. P. Somtow's "The Bird Catcher," which unsurprisingly won Best Novella in the World Fantasy Award. It's set in Thailand where Somtow has family and has visited, which is no surprise giving how vividly he evoked the story's setting. So a third of the stories I liked and one I thought haunting and all in all amazing. Enough to redeem the anthology and make it worth reading as a whole? Not really, but enough to push my rating to two stars.