[This review was originally written when I read the book in late 2008. New comments are in brackets.]
Of the two great figures of American horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft is far more frequently imitated. Whether inspired by his cosmicist materialist philosophy, his carefully-honed ornate prose, or (most often, alas) his universe of vastly ancient godlike aliens, other writers have been working in Lovecraft's tradition for decades, almost since Lovecraft himself began writing. For whatever reason, Poe, though equally admired, is less often pastiched. And what literary homage to him does exist is more imaginative, less formulaic, than the endlessly spawning volumes of Cthulhuiana. Such imagination is on display in Ellen Datlow's new anthology Poe, which includes nineteen new stories, inspired by Poe's own works, that celebrate the bicentennial of Poe's birth. [Datlow has since edited an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired tales, which is also well worth reading.]
As Datlow observes in her introduction, these stories are not pastiche. Poe serves as a point of departure, not a tracing model. As a result, the anthology offers a range of styles and themes comparable to that in a volume with no theme. Apart from the Poe connection, the only common thread is the high quality of the prose and the elegance of each story's narrative construction. Even entries that lack novelty of plot or theme are distinguished by virtually faultless prose, so that it is impossible to entirely dislike them, they read so easily. Such consistency is a major reason Datlow's anthologies so often find their way onto my reading list.
Fittingly, the two best stories bookend the anthology. First is Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain." It's an excellent choice to open Poe, not only for its high quality but also for the signal it sends about the collection's openness to innovation. It's difficult to say too much about the plot of Newman's story without giving the game away, so I'll only observe that Newman puts his obviously substantial knowledge of mid-twentieth century Hollywood to good use in crafting this tale of comic horror. The narrator's voice is a perfect imitation of the fast-talking, hard-edged Hollywood guy of popular imagination, and as events work toward their inevitable conclusion, a touch of Poe is seamlessly introduced, to surprising effect. Like all the best comic horror, this story is simultaneously amusing and unsettling.
Melanie Tem's "The Pickers" is a fine example of how a writer can take a familiar Poe work and craft something new. I wouldn't dream of revealing which bit of Poe she begins with, but she surrounds it with a thoroughly modern phenomenon- dumpster picking- to produce a haunting dark fantasy tale about grief and survival. [I wish I had said more about this story, which lingers in the mind wonderfully, but really there's nothing to say except that you should read it.]
Datlow notes that she discouraged writers from using Poe as a character in their stories. One can see why: it would be easy to use the author cheaply, especially given the extraordinary mystery surrounding his death. But that mystery is rife with narrative potential, so it's no surprise that Datlow included three selections that riffed on it in different ways. The first, E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch and Portal," is perhaps the weakest. [I wouldn't say "weakest" anymore; it's only that I happened to enjoy it least.] It offers a take on Poe's imagination that is similar to those offered about many other authors of fantastic fiction in stories written about them. But Tobler's prose suggests the past without being archaic or ostentatious, and the real heart of the story, the female narrator's liberation from a restrictive world into a strange and new one, is brought across in subtle flashes of insight that are more effective than clearer elocution of the theme would be.
In some ways the horror story is a conservative form, one in which delicate execution of a familiar theme or conceit is more difficult than sloppy innovation. [Really this applies only to the kind of horror I happen to like, but the point pasically stands.] Consequently many horror stories are frightening but not all that shocking: the inevitability of the climax is often the point. Stories that manage to thrill and surprise achieve special distinction. Such a story is "The Final Act." Gregory Frost's suspense tale concerns an old high school grudge and an act of final revenge- but whose revenge? Only at the very end is it clear who is the victim and who the villain in this tense piece.
In "Strappado," Laird Barron offers a trip through an avant-garde art installation, but is this aesthetic experience worth its price? Barron's forte is bringing unusual characters and images into traditional horror scenarios, and he does so effectively: industrial detritus and 21st-century decadence are as evocative as their classical counterparts. Yet the story never quite attains combustion: one reaches the center and finds nothing there. This may well be the point, but if so it is at odds with the story's potential narrative power.
Excessive straightforwardness plagues the next story, "The Mountain House" by Sharyn McCrumb. I've said that familiarity is inevitable in horror fiction, but there can be too much of a good thing, and it's all too easy to guess from the first couple pages exactly where "The Mountain House" is going and why it's going there. Still, the prose has the quiet grace that gentle ghost stories reserve, and its evocation of milieu is powerful given its brief duration.
Glen Hirshberg, for my money the greatest current writer of ghost stories, specializes (like many ghost story writers) in fictions about the pain and power of memory. "The Pikesville Buffalo," while not ranking among his greatest work, offers an affectionate portrait of two elderly Jewish aunts, who have an unconventional and strangely poignant answer to the protagonist's question, "How do you survive the love you outlive?"
Barbara Roden's "The Brink of Eternity" combines elements of several Poe works with real and invented history so delightfully, and manages its three narrative strands so elegantly, it doesn't matter that the story has only the most rudimentary plot and theme. It's a mood piece, but a fairly strong one. Something similar could be said of "The Red Piano" by Delia Sherman, which reverses a particular trope of Poe but is otherwise a standard tale of psychic vampirism. It comes closer to echoing Poe's style than most other entries, but has a readability that his work often lacked; despite its modern setting, there's a pleasing period feel to the proceedings. ["Standard" is such a harsh word; I think of this one more fondly now. It has a lovely nineteenth-century atmosphere despite a modern setting.]
M. Rickert always bring something new and wonderful to her short stories, and "Sleeping with Angels" is no exception. It deals with a friendship between two teenage girls, one of them abused, but with a dark twist few writers could envision. As often, the genre elements in Rickert's story are only as prominent as they need to be to add a tinge of the unnatural to the powerful emotions of real life.
In "Shadow," Steve Rasnic Tem offers a portrait of generational paranoia. An old videotape offers insight into the frenzied last days of a relative who once lived in the house where the protagonist now dwells, but the protagonist has her own brand of insanity to face. Though somewhat insubstantial, the story makes good use of the way in which the ordinary can become dangerous and strange in the eyes of a paranoid (or a horror writer). [Like his wife's story earlier, this one lingers in the mind.]
Pat Cadigan's "Truth and Bone" features a family whose members develop peculiar talents when they reach a certain age. The narrator discovers that she knows exactly how everyone she meets will die-- and tries to prevent an imminent tragedy, with results that will be obvious to anyone who's ever read a story about trying to change the future. Where the story shines is its portrayal of this unconventional but all too human family and the ways in which it copes (and sometimes doesn't cope) with its members' skills.
As anyone who has sat through the dogged explanations that drag down the last third of The Ring can tell you, horror sometimes works better without explanations. Nicholas Royle's "The Reunion," by declining to explain the mysterious...echoes that strike a man at his wife's medical school reunion, brings across the protagonist's bewilderment and sense of the uncanny. As in a dream, the answers seem forever within sight but just out of reach in this quietly creepy story.
In "The Tell," Kaaron Warren offers the anthology's middle variation on Poe's final days. Yet this story isn't exactly about Poe, but about his legacy of nightmares and the different ways it might be passed on by artists of other sorts. This is another story that lacks straightforwardness and easy narrative flow and is all the better for it. I'm not sure I quite understand it yet, but I know it works.
"The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud" is Poe re-envisioned, by David Prill, in the American Gothic mode, complete with decayed and eeriely silent farmhouse. It's difficult to explain this tale's grim appeal without giving away which Poe inspired it and how, so I'll say only that a traveling salesman finds his way to that rundown farm, with just the kind of outcome you're already hoping for.
"Flitting Away" is Kristine Kathryn Rusch's story of a woman who struggles to survive and unlock the secret of a brutal assault. The secret turns out to be quite intentionally uninteresting; I take Rusch's real-life point here but am not sure that it serves the story as well as it might. Still, the portrayal of psychological disconnect due to shock and trauma is at once beautiful and sad, with an authentic stream-of-consciousness air.
Lucius Shepard's "Kirikh'quru Krokundor" presents the reader with characters and a milieu that retain the feel of Poe despite being utterly unlike anything he would have written. An expedition to a South American settlement once occupied by a splinter religious sect may be the narrator's best chance to resolve an old conflict with an ex-girlfriend, but the atmosphere at the settlement may bring about a kind of resolution he never expected. Their complicated past and uncertain future add a frisson of character to the supernatural events of this satisfying novelette.
At first "Lowland Sea" seems to be a capable and thoughtful but hollow update of a certain famous Poe story, but as the conclusion nears it becomes clear just how Suzy McKee Charnas has improved upon Poe's construction, with a development that should perhaps have been obvious to this reader but wasn't. The final image of this one is a killer. [I reread this one recently in Datlow's Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two. I hadn't remembered the final twist, which is still lovely, but this time I was more struck by the story's evocation of the social world of its protagonists.]
My own favorite story in Poe is the final offering, "Technicolor" by John Langan. What begins as a rather conceited literature professor's ponderous lecture about the meaning of "The Masque of the Red Death" develops into a spine-tingling meditation on the power of the imagination, with a side-trip into a third account of Poe's final days. Further plot summary would only dull this story's effect. The contrast between the narrator's banal self-regard and the chilling reality he reveals is perhaps "Technicolor"s strongest feature.
It might seem appropriate to end this review on a summarizing note, trying to unify the anthology's stories in some way, but I'm not sure any such unity could be created that wouldn't be facile. Nor is one necessary: the joy of a theme anthology is in the variety of approaches the writers bring to it. The stories in Poe emphasize the timelessness of Poe's concerns and the breadth of his appeal by taking his work in nineteen different directions; all they have in common is that each represents writing of the highest caliber. [All I can think of to add is that this is perhaps my favorite of the many excellent Ellen Datlow-edited or co-edited anthologies I've read. Check it out if you enjoy subtle, innovative modern horror.]