Leicht's novel is very definitely urban fantasy, but it isn't urban fantasy as it is traditionally understood. Not only is Of Blood and Honey set against the background of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, inherently a turbulent, violent setting (one of the most famous British atrocities in the history of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, is written into this novel); but the portrayal of the Fae (and the Fallen), the use of viscera and violence, and the pretty relentless male focus of the novel are not quite in the standard mould...

The plot of Of Blood and Honey is an intermingling of two conflicts; first, the surface conflict of the Troubles, with Liam, our protagonist (I hesitate, for a number of reasons, to call him a hero) caught up in them first through incarceration in Long Kesh and then on Bloody Sunday arrested again.  This draws him into the IRA, although the plot only touches lightly on his actions in the IRA; this is rather more a way to lead into the plot of Liam's father Bran, and the war between Fae and Fallen that is being played out underlying the Troubles, with the Catholic Church playing a problematic role in the conflict as well.  It's a slowly told plot, jerkily transitioning in ways that aren't always clear (whilst Leicht dwells on certain sections with little happening for extended times, for instance the prison scenes and Liam's early IRA involvement, other bits are brushed over and referred back to in passing later, such as his IRA training), and it dwells on the violent scenes and moments for too long (given that this is a novel about violence and horror, this is perhaps intentional; but the timing feels very wrong when rapid, violent scenes are given so much space whilst we skip over so much).  It also requires a lot of wilful stupidity by a number of characters, to the point of straining credibility.

The characterisation is also weak.  The only developed character is Liam, so we'll cover the other main figures rapidly.  Most central is Father Murray; a Catholic priest, he's very simply and one-dimensionally portrayed, in no small part as simply a kindly old man who has a darker side - or rather, who is intended to have a darker side without ever actually showing it.  Mary Kate is similarly basic; her portrayal is as a passive, loyal female without any real personal agency (any agency she has is only ever off-screen, which is problematic in its lack of immediacy) and she is eventually fridged. Liam is the best character, and even he is intensely passive; much of the novel is spent watching things happen to him, and Of Blood and Honey as a result has a real problem with its drive and requires a lot of credit on the part of the reader.  He's also intensely obtuse - that is, the reader is given a lot of hints and clues and is very able to put them together, and Liam, with the same information, is always way behind us, which makes him seem rather... boring as someone to follow.  In the end, the enigmas of the secondary characters are far more interesting than any of our primary cast, simply because we don't see enough of them to realise how uninteresting they are.

In the end, Of Blood and Honey has great potential, but squanders it; there is some very visceral and powerful writing on display, but that isn't backed up with characters or a plot which the reader is invested in, and Leicht uses real events and gruesome horror as a cheap way to manipulate the reader.  The writing style is choppy and poor, and the unsubtle plot and politics - British bad, Catholic Church too dogmatic, Liam's eventual moment of glory (although even that is qualified and deeply passive in reality) - really do intrude for at least this (British) reader in such a way that it harms the novel as a work of fiction, making it more of a polemic.

And this doesn't seem to be what Leicht is after; on the terms the novel is presented in, Of Blood and Honey fails dramatically, since as fiction it doesn't make the reader want to keep reading, and as argument it falls down because we don't care enough about anyone to care what happens to them (except when it's so violent as to be nothing more than cheap, obviously-fridgey manipulation...).  I cannot help but damn this book; certainly, Of Blood and Honey isn't worth your money...
The Red Tree is by a long stretch the spookiest thing I have ever read; managing to combine the creeping nature-horror of Algernon Blackwood with the claustrophobia of Cherie Priest, Kiernan's novel is a chilling, brilliant narrative, with strong, indeed excellent, characters and a powerful voice.

The Red Tree's principal cast is one character, Sarah Crowe; for the majority of the novel, she is our narrator and guide, and the events of the novel happen to her.  Kiernan uses entries in her diary, bookended by a foreword by her agent and an excerpt from one of Crowe's novels, to tell the story; and so we get an incredibly strong sense of Crowe's prickly, defensive, deeply damaged personality.  An author stuck on her new novel, Crowe has moved to New England to a house with an - unknown to her - haunted history, in the wake of the suicide of her girlfriend, Amanda; and over the course of the novel the creeping horror consumes her. Right up front we're told that Crowe has committed suicide, and this also informs our reading of the novel; it builds into Crowe's character, which is one that draws us in and makes us back off at the same time, a difficult personality, one that it's hard to like but at the same time one that perversely draws one to it.  It's a very difficult balance for Kiernan, but she strikes it excellently; we care about Crowe, whilst not sympathising with her, and we want to know what happens - or rather, what happened to cause her suicide, of which we have foreknowledge.

This need to know draws the reader through The Red Tree, with its interwoven intertextuality; Crowe's diary includes little snippets of literature, largely the Alice books, which are significant to Crowe, and excerpts from a book about the red tree at the centre of the horror of the novel by the previous tenant of the house - Dr. Charles Harvey, who also committed suicide.  We also get conversations with the tenant who joins Crowe partway through the novel, Constance Hopkins; indeed, it is only after Hopkins' arrival that the horror of The Red Tree truly gets off the ground, although it has been building from the opening page of Crowe's diary.  That chill drives the plot and is palpable throughout; how Kiernan manages it I don't know, but that The Red Tree is compelling, chilling, dark and strange from page one is an amazing achievement, and one that really drives the indescribable plot of the novel, which combines the interactions between Crowe, Hopkins, Harvey and Amanda (the past never being really dead) with the increasing role of the red tree in the lives of the inhabitants of the house.

In the final pages of The Red Tree we get the real horror, and it's a brilliant bait-and-switch; or perhaps there are two horrors in the novel - it's impossible to say, because Kiernan doesn't want to, and interrogating the question too hard, especially with a narrator as unreliable as Crowe increasingly grows, is not something the reader can do.  In the end, what the reader gets is an utterly bone-chilling novel of the kind that not only stops one sleeping, but sticks in the back of one's mind - it's the kind of story that niggles at the reader forever, what one has read always sitting in there, informing future thoughts.  A really brilliant, strange and dark piece of work, I'd recommend The Red Tree without a second thought.
Deadline is the sequel to Feed, and the second novel in Mira Grant's Newsflesh zombie-thriller trilogy.  It also suffers a little from being the second book of a trilogy; but not too heavily, since many of the excellent elements in Feed are carried over here.  However, due to some late-game huge events in Feed, this review has no choice but to spoiler that book, and will thus be hidden behind a cut.  Venture behind at your peril!

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS )
Overall, Deadline manages to be an effective novel, but it isn't up to the standard of the first novel in the series in any department; as the middle novel of a trilogy, this is perhaps an inevitability, but it is an unfortunate one.  I'll still be picking up Blackout when it comes out, no doubt about that, but I'm a little more wary of it.  Feed, however, remains a stunningly excellent novel, so if you haven't, go and pick it up!
Given the slim nature of this book, it is surprising it has taken me so long to read it; this is less a reflection of Last Days, which is disturbing and excellent, and more on my current university life.  Evenson's novel is utterly uncategorisable, the ultimate in slipstream; unsettling and strange, I've read it as a part of my Halloween horror focus, and it certainly is, in a stunningly dark way, a horror novel.

The whole setting of Last Days is a mundane, real-world one, although it's never quite located, and that nebulous location adds to the unreal atmosphere of the whole thing.  The novel starts off in a city, and most of the action takes place either in this city or in a cult compound outside the city; the two settings are never really fleshed out to any great extent, but they do give us a sense of place and of the world, since they're both slightly nebulous and unsettling, whilst at the same time rooted in the normal and everyday life of the world.

Our sole real character is Kline, who starts the novel as an ex-policeman who has lost a hand, and killed the man who did it.  Across the course of Last Days, Kline comes to terms with the loss of his hand, and also becomes ever stranger.  Kline is more and more divorced from his humanity and his past as the novel goes on, and he becomes a strange other, with whom we are intimately familiar and yet whom we are utterly apart from, because of the alienness of his experiences and emotions.  That Evenson achieves this without a single overt supernatural occurrence is fantastic, and the imagination applied to the rest of the cast wonderful, even if they do deserve a little more fleshing out as full characters, rather than simply basic figures.

The plot is a very strange one, involving cults, a very Lovecraftian feel, and the numinous.  Last Days takes the idea of mutilation as sacred rite (for historical precedent see, for instance, The Galli of Rome) and makes it even more strange and alien, as well as extreme; the realisation of religious mutilation and religious fervour surrounding the mutilations is fantastically portrayed, with some excellently sympathetic and yet utterly other writing really working its way into the reader's head in a deeply unsettling manner.  The increasing darkness and horror of the novel, as the extremity and ultimate ends of the cult begin to become clear and additional players enter the cultic politics of Last Days, each with their own claim on Kline, really work well as they turn up the pressure and strangeness; and Evenson handles a complex plot excellently.  The writing style, simple, readable, and elegant, adds to this, as the reader is drawn in and on through the novel, not wanting to put it down as the model of a thriller is adopted; indeed, in many ways Last Days is a horrific subversion of the thriller genre, incredibly effectively written.

Last Days has to be one of the most unsettling novels I have ever read, and Evenson is to be complimented for that, as well as his refusal to fall into simple categories; indeed, this is also one of the least categorisable novels I have ever read.  What it certainly won't do is leave me for some time to come.
Bradbury's take on horror is as unique, strange, evocative and poetic as his take on other genres.  That isn't to say it is flawless - any more than his science fiction is flawless; rather, it shares the same flaws, in a perhaps-different configuration.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is an example of a powerful, chilling and dark work, married to intellectual argument and thought; but each dilutes the other somewhat, rather than reinforcing.

The character of the novel is a strange one.  A minimalistic horror novel, there's actually, for the vast bulk of it, a feeling of malevolence without actual demonstrable malevolence; Something Wicked... avoids having a blunt and obvious evil up front by virtue of introducing us to the evil in a relatively innocuous if unsettling way, and building it up, to be more and more unsettling and strange from there.  The carnival at the centre of the novel is slowly transformed from the strange and uncanny to the dark and unsettling to the downright horror-inducing; the characters around that carnival and the attractions themselves are described in a slightly hallucinogenic way, clear and impossible and obvious and contradictory all at once, calling to mind something deeply personal to every reader in the precise imprecision of description employed by Bradbury.

The main trio of characters are a different matter. Jim Nightshade is as his name implies, when his early-adolescence and Halloween birthdate are taken into account; a slightly dark, slightly fey boy, half-man half-child and stuck in the between-stages.  He's mischievous but not malevolent, strange without being uncanny, dark without being evil.  Will Halloway, his best friend, is a very different character, and our main viewpoint-figure; much more innocent, much less intelligent and driven, he tends to be drawn along in Jim's wake, and that's how he is throughout the story, the voice of the more grounded, slightly more scared boy, less man than Jim.  Finally, Charlie Halloway, Will's father, is one of the best and worst characters.  From him, we get extensive, semi-relevant speeches, which are nearly author filibusters (for instance on human psychological development and the darkness in the human soul, p144); but at the same time he's a wholly different prism, as a 54 year old library porter, through which to view the world and the events of Something Wicked..., and a prism which provides for a more active role in investigating what's going on.

The plot is the most mixed element of Something Wicked... Bradbury's ability to use it to build the horror is not in question, but the action sequences feel very out of place; they concretise and, in some ways, reduce the horror by humanising it.  Similarly, Jim especially is required to act in contrary ways at different points (reflective in part of his man/boy status but also simply a matter of "plot says this"); this again rather reduces the power of the novel to put us in the uncanny valley.  On the other hand the slow revelation, the unspoken darkness, and the relentless turning up of the pressure and the stakes works very well, and - except for one or two jerky moments - means we're drawn into the terror felt by Will.

Overall, Something Wicked This Way Comes is indeed an unsettling novel, but Bradbury's extended musings at times jerk one out of it, even as his slightly psychedelic descriptions draw us on and in.  I would recommend it, but reader beware...
Feed is not what it appears to be on the cover.  Feed is not a horror novel - or rather, it is not a zombie horror novel; it is still deeply horrific, dark, and moving.  Mira Grant's strongest credential in this novel, to my mind, is that whilst the zombies are horrifying, the true threat is still humanity - because after the zombie apocalypse, after the geeks put their Romero-taught wisdom into practice... what happens next?  Feed is a good, if slightly dated (already!) attempt to answer that.

The year is 2040, two and a half decades after the zombies rose up (an event referred to the Rising, appropriately) thanks to Kellis-Amberlee syndrome - a combination of two retroviruses, one to cure cancer and the other the common cold.  The side-effect is that in combination, these two highly contagious viral drugs turn any mammal over a certain body-mass into a zombie when they die - or otherwise activate the syndrome, making everyone infected (meaning everyone) a potential ticking time bomb.  In this world, bloggers provide the backbone of the media - they were the first to break the zombie-apocalypse story, whilst the print and traditional media were denying it; and they can either go solo or have their blogs supported by a major outlet (the idea that this would take a crisis is, well... dated, as those links go some way towards demonstrating).  Thus the title, and cover art; a gentle pun - Feed, after all, has two different definitions...

Feed lives and dies on its characters, and has a huge benefit in that Grant can do character.  Our central cast is three characters, expanded for a large chunk of the middle to four, the team behind After the End Times, a blog following Senator Peter Ryman as he progresses through the Republican primaries for the 2040 Presidential Elections.  Our narrator is Georgia Mason, a journalist dedicated to the truth and unwilling to spin or lie; she's an incisive, direct interviewer, a keen observer of people, and an intelligent, thoughtful young woman, as well as being emotionally stable and willing to go the distance where necessary.  Her adoptive twin, Shaun Mason, is a thrill-seeker of a reporter; he goes out hunting for zombies in order to sell the danger to the public, and he's hot-headed, but in a crisis, he's decisive, and he knows very well what he's doing.  Finally, Buffy - a "dumb blonde" who, whilst ditzy, is a technology genius and a brilliant fiction writer (taking inspiration from the news collected by the Masons, largely); a devout Catholic, she's a rounded, well thought-out character, rather than being defined purely by her religion or her technical ability.  The other characters are a little less well-written, especially the villain, who is blindingly obviously such from the word "go" (to the extent that the first few times he appears, the reader may think he can't be the villain because it is too obvious); but the central cast, their emotions, and their interactions - highlighted by the nature of the first-person narrative from Georgia - are pitch-perfect.

The plot is a very strong one.  Feed sees the After The End Times team reporting on the Presidential run of Senator Ryman, and slowly sees the emergence of a conspiracy - though even by the end of the novel, we're not quite sure against what or whom it is really directed.  The tension is ratcheted up slowly, with interludes in zombie-combat interspersed amongst the political playbook, which is completely changed by the post-apocalyptic setting; and Grant feeds the flames very effectively, with some passages towards the end of the novel literally forcing tears from the reader on behalf of the characters, as the emotional turmoil and pain going on in the novel is so palpable and we feel so close to these characters.  There's no safety and no security, and the plot doesn't let the reader forget that; certain elements of the novel fall into a new pattern in hindsight, and it's very effectively done.

Feed is one of those books that will stay with the reader long after they've put it down, and is emotionally honest and painful.  It is what literature constantly derides genre fiction for not being, whilst also being about zombies.  If you only read one zombie novel, or one horror novel... make it Feed, because Grant has turned in a work of genius, and I'll be following the rest of the Newsflesh series as soon as I can.
Rivers of London is modern urban fantasy with a twist; rather than glamorise life (in the style of a noir novel), Aaronovitch has grimmed it up, with vampires, about whom "one thing was for certain - they absolutely weren't going to sparkle in the sunlight" (p128).  That kind of humour combined with realism runs through the whole novel, along with a certain knowing intelligence; Rivers of London contains the kind of references that grace novels like The Magicians, with a wider, and more British, sensibility.

Rivers of London is narrated by and centred on DS Peter Grant, a mixed-race Londoner who rapidly learns that there is more to London - and to coppering - than he thought; his narration is peppered with references to popular culture of all sorts, more or less obscure, and he himself is a bit of a flighty soul. Indeed, there are times reading the novel that we wonder why he can't concentrate on something, but we're told that this is his nature right up front; Aaronovitch manages to work it in consistently and well, which is excellent.  It also explains handily why he doesn't notice some clues and spot some conjunctions that the reader rapidly does, which works in the plot's favour.  The other characters are also rather well-presented; Beverly is fantastic in her brief appearances, young and entitled but submitting to Mama Thames, on those occasions she is brought to heel.  Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a proper wizard as anyone can tell, is a fun, if bland, character; he has theoretically-hidden depths which are telegraphed to the reader over Grant's head like anything, and overall does little in the narrative itself.  Finally, DS Lesley May, a female copper, is a nicely written character, with a sense of humour and slightly apart from the supernatural events of the novel; this makes her a fun, interesting character who really plays into the novel and brings out the best of Aaronovitch's dialogue-writing.

The plot is somewhere between supernatural thriller and police procedural; it's something of a whodunnit - but we get told whodunnit significantly before the end, although there are a number of other puzzles to deal with before the thing concludes - and also something of a straight-up thriller, with violent action, suspense, and a climactic showdown.  Rivers of London handles its plotlines well, with some brilliant twists and turns, and the murder-plot keeps upping the ante right to the end, managing effectively to keep the reader interested and to raise the stakes whilst never making them so grand as to become abstract.  This balancing act is effortlessly performed, no doubt helped by the far grander, if subtler and more off-screen, conflict between Father and Mother Thames, which embroils Grant until he can find a (temporary) solution.

In the end, Rivers of London is a thoughtful, well-written urban fantasy that has a strong vein of humour but also more than a tinge of horror; it's Harry Dresden with a badge and a British sensibility to it.  A thoroughly good read.
Ruckley's novel is a cross between police procedural and horror novel, and a strong piece of work; The Edinburgh Dead fits, in many ways, into Tim Powers' idea of the "secret history", incorporating as it does Burke and Hare, Major Weir, and a few other elements into a single whole.

Sergeant Adam Quire, the protagonist of the novel and man whom it generally follows, is a policeman in early 19th century Edinburgh, investigating a murder; this leads him into a whole mass of strange and supernatural horrors involving the undead, possession, demons and other strange things that populate Ruckley's Edinburgh.  Quire himself is a great character, a flawed ex-soldier turned policeman, with a good deal of stubbornness and a bolshie spirit - he cares about the people of Edinburgh, and he also has a certain resistance to authority.  These combine throughout the novel with a tenacity of spirit that drives Quire to destroy his enemies, even if it destroys him; and that gives a certain pathos, and darkness, to the whole novel.  The other characters are less well-written, though still strong; Ruthven is a weak man driven by poverty and desire for power, and this comes across well, although it makes him rather simplistic, and Burke and Hare are brilliantly written, if in direct opposition to their portrayal in the recent film of their lives, with the rest of the cast largely playing second fiddle to Quire.

The plot is quite a strong one; The Edinburgh Dead, by using the Powers' idea of a secret history, adds an air of verisimilitude to its otherwise straightforwardly horror-novel plot, and makes it hit home to the reader that much harder.  Ruckley's writing means that the discovery of the evil working at the heart of the story, in the form of Mr. Blegg, is powerfully effected, and that the twists and turns, the action and the slower moments, all fit together well.  He also manages to keep a plot touching on all sorts of different areas grounded, and to make it clear what the costs of Quire's actions are - this is a horror novel without a clean ending, in which no one comes out of it untouched, and it is that much stronger and darker for it, because lives are ruined and destroyed simply because of the nature of the characters and the horror at the centre of it.

This all adds up to make The Edinburgh Dead a really strong, powerful read, and a great novel; Ruckley's turned in a really good horror novel, with that little frisson that marks out the best from the rest.
Waking the Moon is a horror novel, rather than science fiction or urban fantasy, at its heart; a horror that Hand writes and controls masterfully, combining elements reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley and H. P. Lovecraft into an awful inevitability.

The characters of Waking the Moon are an excellent crowd; Hand’s intellectual approach to the novel is borne out in the nature of the characters – educated, knowledgeable, and very boho. The exception is our main character, who isn’t so boho, so educated, so power-housey; Sweeney Cassidy is only involved in this story by accident, as a bystander, and yet the whole thing turns around her, not just as a narrator but as a part of it. She’s a good character; intelligent enough and sensitive enough to get involved and understand the action to some extent, but still needing some explanation of the details of what’s going on. The other characters are generally those who understand it, or at least part of the picture; Oliver and Angelica are the centre of the drama, whilst Annie Harmon, Baby Joe and Hasel are peripheral. The whole cast are well-drawn and have beautifully written interactions, powerful relationships and relationships of power feeding into how the characters age and develop.

The plot of the novel is that of a secret society, the Benandanti, and the Goddess that they wish to prevent manifesting itself again; Hand’s take on the power of women and the matriarchal society is a dark, horrific one, deeply disturbing and described in a really horrific manner. Following Sweeney, with sidelines into Angelica’s development as the avatar of Othiym, is an excellent way to draw out the horror, as we see snapshots of the increasing darkness and way it grows towards climax whilst we see a more mundane Sweeney grow into herself. The plot is circular, beautiful and well-written; a simple cycle from start to close, with twists and turns towards the conclusion that is at once inevitable and impossible. Combining a writing style that brings the numinous Lovecraftian elements out strongly enough to stick in the mind with powerfully graphic if hallucinogenic visuals, Hand really turns in a stellar novel.

Waking the Moon is an absolutely fantastic modern horror novel; dark, disturbing and strange, Hand creates a really believable story that keeps the reader going and draws one in, hard. A strong recommendation.
I read Heart-Shaped Box in two sittings, half the novel in each one; it is a haunting, terrifying horror novel that – in a way few manage – not only affects the reader, but actually stops them sleeping. And yet, it is also impossible to put down; Hill’s writing flows, and moves, and drags the reader along.

There are four main characters in the novel; the one we follow is Judas Coyne, aging ex-rock star, shacking up with groupies and with an obsession for the occult. Actually, there’s much more to Coyne than the early parody of a death metal frontman implies; he’s got the stereotypical troubled childhood, but he’s also a sensitive, intelligent man, passionate about a number of things. He’s also a good person, but buried beneath the layers of persona; and a stubborn bastard, too – Hill makes sure we like him, if not at the start of the novel, by its end. Georgia is also significant in the events of the novel; the current groupie, called Georgia by Jude after her state of origin, she’s also more than meets the eye – a goth chick with a penchant for rock stars and a case of “spoiled brat” at the start of the novel, Hill adds layer after layer onto that character to make her a really important part, not only of the novel, but of Jude’s life, too. The other characters, it would be a huge spoiler to say much about – suffice to say that, once again, there’s a brilliant piece of unpacking done in Hill’s characterisation of each, and the way their lives are connected is disturbing and strange, and not what it first seems.

The plot is rather like the characters: it starts simple, and gets complicated. Jude’s obsession with the occult leads him to buy a dead man’s suit, apparently haunted… and the ghost really does come with it, with every intention of destroying Jude’s life. The novel follows Jude’s attempts to stop the ghost in its tracks, and discover why it’s haunting him; the two revelations threaten, in their own ways, to destroy him, and Hill’s strength is making his pain each time believable, and different, and real to the reader. He also manages to make the haunting utterly terrifying; there’s a horror to the mundane, and the dark, and the moments as you drift off to sleep, that Hill exploits and expands upon to the point where reading this book before bedtime is really ill-advised, if you don’t want nightmares.

Heart-Shaped Box
is a chilling, brilliant example of modern horror; Joe Hill’s debut novel is a challenge to every other writer in the genre out there, and one that they’ll be incredibly hard put to rise to. I have to say, I’m eagerly anticipating his next novel, and I recommend this one to any horror fans out there.
This philosophical zombie apocalypse novel, very much existentialist-influenced, is part of the ongoing zombie vogue; but Bell does something intriguing and interesting here, with his use of an old trope bringing in philosophical concerns in a big way.  The Reapers Are the Angels is a bit of a strange book to get your head around, but once you have, it's much more rewarding.

The characters are well-written; Temple, our viewpoint character (the novel's written, whilst third person, in a style recognisably similar to her speech patterns) is a fascinating girl with a troubled past and some issues, and she makes much of the novel more interesting by her internal conflict, by her slow revelation of her past, and by her complete resistance to character development whilst undergoing that self-same development.  Moses Todd is also wonderfully well-written; in the hands of a lesser writer, he'd have become evil, depraved or just in the wrong, but Bell manages, through Temple's eyes, to show him as not any of those; but rather a driven man doing what he feels he has to and what is right, and Bell doesn't judge that.  The other characters are rather less three-dimensional - they have some great points, but they're not well-developed, in the main - but Bell uses them well to develop the story and Temple's own character.

The plot is quite simple and basic, really, but it does have its moments; there are some nice twists, and it does let Bell take us on a walk through this zombie-infested America, and see how people - individually and corporately - respond to the challenges posed by the Apocalypse.  Through the course of the novel we see a variety of such responses, but Bell clearly favours one over the others, and it shows in the text and in the way the plot moves; The Reapers are the Angels has a strong existentialist philosophical strand running through it, and mixes that with a strange kind of Christianity to form a semi-coherent philosophy that underlies the whole novel in such an essential way that without understanding the philosophy, you won't understand the plot or characters; and yet Bell integrates it so well that it's easy to understand.

I'm not a massive fan of the novel, and Bell does do some things at times which I don't think work - but he also draws some beautiful emotional scenes, creates a resonance that really is powerful, and makes The Reapers are the Angels into an interesting and readable novel... with which your mileage may, and will, vary.
Vampire fiction has undergone a certain resurgence in the wake of Twilight, a fact that few will have missed; the combination of this and the modern resurgence of interest in Victoriana - in both the forms of steampunk and crime - presumably explains the republication of Newman's horror/crime/alternate history Anno Dracula.  Those looking for sparkling, nice vampires will be disappointed in the extreme, however, if that's what they're expecting...

The characters remind me, in many ways, of those of White City - though Newman's novel predates the publication of Bear's novellas in that world by some years.  Newman's created a variety of vampires, with different kinds - some are sympathetic, some are monsters, and some are strange mixtures of the two; deeply accurate reflections of humanity, in other words.  The mixture of vampires and the "warm" - non-vampire humans - in the cast gives a variety of different perspectives on the story in a wonderful way, in that we see each group through the eyes of the other; we also have first-person interludes from Dr. John Seward, a survivor ripped from the pages of Stoker's Dracula (an alternate ending to which Newman has jumped off to create the Anno Dracula world).  The characters are interesting - with vampires and humans alike falling on various positions on the sympathetic/likeable/moral scale - and well-drawn; I wanted to see more of both Ruthven and Reed, to get further inside their heads, but the cast with whom we were well acquainted was already rather large and incredibly well-drawn.

The plot is a nicely done one, mixing Ripperology with vampiric prostitutes and fallout from Dracula itself, with Genevieve caught up in it through her elder status and caring nature and the Diogenes Club getting involved in its own inevitable way.  Newman's mixed all sorts of literary characters into the novel, cannibalising huge tracts of Victoriana in the service of peopling and plotting the novel with style and a certain bullheadedness; the plot therefore occasionally gets a bit messy or a little bogged down in combining the various characters and making sure they're included - a number of the cameos are rather less than necessary - but it's a workable plot, for a not-too-serious novel.

Overall, if you like your vampires to be human but also capable of being implacable killers, and if you like your Ripperology and don't mind a bit of blood, Anno Dracula is for you; if you're of the sparkly-vampires or mindless-killers fanclubs, perhaps Newman's work is a little nuanced (albeit not in its plot, the brilliant final twist aside) for you.  Anno Dracula is an enjoyable, gory work, not to be taken too seriously.
This claustrophobic pseudo-urban fantasy, pseudo-horror novel is steeped heavily in the Southern Gothic tradition; it's claustrophobic, dense, murky, steeped in family drama and conflict, with roots stretching back to that defining American incident the Civil War.  Priest's opus is fantastically powerful and evocative, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds is such a departure from the 'Clockwork Century' that it almost seems to be by a different author; the theme of strong female characters, and of family, is what reminds the reader that there are some features the two series share.

Those female characters are almost the entirety of the cast here; of the major characters in the novel - Eden Moore herself, Lulu, Eliza, Dave, and perhaps Malachi and Harold - more than half are female.  They're strong, individual and well-drawn figures, with complex and intensely human motivations; Eden's drive to find out about her mother, Lulu's drive to protect Eden, and the hidden motives of Eliza are the real driving forces behind the plot, supernatural elements be damned (and, literally, they are...).  The various mindsets of the characters are so different and yet they are all derived from the same kind of characteristics; it's a brilliant piece of authorship.

The plot's a more mixed piece of work.  Whilst I am a fan of the supernatural mixed in with the typical Southern themes (think Tennessee Williams) of family drama and emotional turmoil, there is an extent to which the family drama takes a bit too much of a backseat to the more compelling family drama at times; on the other hand, without the supernatural, there would be less - if any - drama!  I think the problem is that the balance is a little off at times, and the relation between the two aspects of the plot is - until the denoument, which has some wonderful twists and turns as we follow Eden's route towards it.

What's really characteristic in this novel is actually the sense of place.  Priest's setting, of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida allows her to tap into the Southern dynamics and really dig into the American Gothic sensibility of horror through claustrophobia, through the heat and tradition and long-lasting grudges; the racial element plays a large, though not overwhelming, role in the novel and the sense of Southern decadence (and redneck stereotypes - oh, the incest and near-incest!) is really near to the fore; Priest plays with these preconceptions and notions to deliver a really creepy setting, whilst still being utterly believable and real.

In conclusion, then, this urban fantasy with strong American Gothic sensibilities is fantastic; Priest's creation of Eden Moore is a really lovely character who I want to hear more from; and Four and Twenty Blackbirds, whilst being a very different kind of thing than the 'Clockwork Century', is still utterly fantastic.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Chiang's story is an absolutely brilliant tale of entropy, but also of what it means to be human, the extremes of scientific curiosity, and what life is. Indeed, the expressions of the Laws of Thermodynamics - not in an obvious way, but still clearly underlying the story - give so much humanity to the nameless viewpoint and to the alien "other" who is speaking that Chiang's empathy is clearly absolutely fantastic; indeed, the detail and intricacy of the story, the thoughtful complexity of it, the completeness of the world and the alieness of it is all really incredibly wonderful. I am envious, and more, of Chiang's ability to write, but I am so glad it exists, so that I can read what he produces...
 
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
The title is not the only brilliant thing about this story. Bear's tale of a black professor in 1940-ish is fantastic, and the implications of the shoggoths' enslavement and his own grandparents' experiences combine to create a wonderful dilemma and set of implications up the conflicted character of Harding. Brilliantly written, the background detail is fantastic, and Harding's academic character is absolutely crystal clear; every action he takes is intelligent and makes sense given his personality, and indeed the whole concept of the story is incredibly creative and well-done. This is a fantastic story, more than earning its inclusion in any best-of anthology.
 
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel by Peter S. Beagle
This is a really moving, touching and very Jewish story - Beagle must be himself Jewish, because he's got the mindset and religious life so perfectly it's brilliant. There's a wonderful sense of the divine pervading the story, and it contains one of my favourite lines ever. Duvidl, Chaim, Rifke, and the rabbi Shulevitz and brilliant creations, as is the blue angel herself; Beagle's got a really deft hand for character, and the amount he packs into a story of only 30 pages is incredible. It's an intense story, evoking a range of emotion but at the end leaving one with "fear and trembling", to steal the Kierkegaardian phrase; absolutely standout fantastic and incredible.
 
Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines)
In the past I've given this story relatively short shrift, perhaps a little unfairly. It is actually better than I've given it credit for, read in this context rather than as a steampunk story, and one without the hallmarks of much of VanderMeer's work - which is, in this case, a definite strength. Fixing Hanover is a story of loss, of discovery, of slow revelation, and of painstaking process; it's a fascinating tale with complexity, humanity and morality coming together to create something truly interesting, and indeed the slow revelation of the past and the world is timed incredibly well. I am, on reflection, rather a fan of this story.
 
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
I'm not a big fan of Bacigalupi, in general, but this story does seem to be pretty good. Mixing the fast-paced news welter of the modern world with extrapolations to a near-future which shares similarities with The Windup Girl, this is far superior to that; it's a discussion of what's valuable, and valued, in a society, and whether those two can ever become the same thing. It's a fascinating story of exile and redemption, with perhaps a touch - or more - of schadenfreude, but it comes to a fantastic understanding of the character of Ong and the world in which he lives, as well as the world of Lao from which he has come; really good, thought-provoking stuff.
 
The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald
McDonald’s story is a weaker selection than the previous ones, to my mind. It is a fascinating, complex, interesting, wonderful, thoughtful and intelligent story, but it doesn’t suck the reader in; whilst the world-building, the near-future tech, is complex and well-dealt with, whilst the nutes are rendered in stunning Technicolor detail and bluntness, whilst the setting is brilliantly realised and explained to the reader, the characters are a real problem: they’re not sympathetic enough. McDonald makes them rounded and human, but I can’t like any of them, even when I can see their point of view; and for me, that’s a problem. However, this is still a great story, just not a pleasure to read.
 
Virgin by Holly Black
This is a really depressing story, and really dark. Black’s take on the Fae has always been a more traditionalist and grim one, but this reflects worse on humanity and our smallness, our pettiness, than probably any other fiction I’ve ever read; it’s a tale of cruelty and banal evil, rather than of grand schemes and great deeds. Black’s made it moving and soul-destroying, intense and powerful, and at the end of it it hurts to have read the story. A strong, painful piece…
 
Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
This combination of Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice, intimated in the title and set some years after the latter novel, is a rather brilliant story of manners and of evil; it really does combine, in incredible style, the prose of Shelley and Austen in quite remarkable fashion. Making Mary the central character, and somewhat different from her role in the Austen novel, is quite a nice touch; she’s reasonably likeable and very much akin to the Austen original. The whole affair, and encounter, is brilliant, and really well worked; Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus really is fantastic, and stands out from the crowd of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style works fashionable at present.
 
The Thought War by Paul McAuley
This is the first truly duff story of the anthology; it has major flaws in style and execution, and manages to avoid really being interesting. Whilst steeped in scientific and "historical" information, the 6-page piece is a single long infodump; it doesn't raise compassion or caring, it doesn't excite horror or fear, it doesn't produce sadness or despair, it doesn't elate or create happiness. It is an informative, rather than a moving, piece, and that is a domain I tend to dislike my fiction moving into; inform if you wish, but make it entertain as well. Reminiscent of the first story in the anthology, Chiang's Exhalation, without the humanity or heart, this is an inclusion I could have done without.
 
Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe by Garth Nix
Nix's story, despite the childlike name and general YA air of the opening, is probably not a story I'd give to a YA. It's a brilliant story, there's no denying that; the changing focus and nature of it, the rapid world-building and character creation, the twists that come not-too-fast but relatively thick, the sense of pervading horror and strangeness, the odd rules that obviously govern things, and Nix's slow revelations of the truth of what's going on are really well done; equally the speed and fury of the final confrontation are brilliant, really well handled... all in all a great story.
 
The Small Door by Holly Phillips
Phillips is a really weird author, but this is a fantastic tale; reading it left me with a lump in my throat for the darkness of its end, but also some hope - for the same thing, actually. It's brilliant at making the reader feel for Sal and be moved by the events of the story, hurt and wounded and mournful; it's also great in the way it manages to balance contradictory things, in an incredibly human way. Phillips' imagination has some really subtle elements interwoven in this story, and her ability to draw in and hold onto the reader in such a subtle, quiet, understated tale is wonderful. Really quite harrowing and at the same time uplifting.
 
Turing’s Apples by Stephen Baxter
Baxter's story is an interesting and moving one; in the same sort of line as Chiang's and McAuley's, it focuses in a large part on scientific concepts and acts as hard SF in a somewhat old-fashioned way, but stands apart from each in using it as a jumping off point for a very human story, and in mingling it with some very alien - literally - elements. Like Chiang's, the realisation and effect of the concept is huge and dealt with in a very skillful, very human way; but unlike it, there's more of a feeling of human conflict in here, the scientific implications being filtered through interpersonal relationship, until Turing's Apples (not the first one you might think of, though...) are all eaten away... This makes me even more convinced I need to read the Xeelee sequence, because it's a brilliant advertisement for Baxter's ability.
 
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates by Stephen King
King's story is another of the less obviously fantastic ones, and as seems to be normal for King is infused by religious concerns - in this case about the afterlife and about humanity. It's a really moving, touching and almost painful story to read, and once more I was left with a lump in my throat reading it - there's a desperate sadness and love infusing the piece, such a sense of mourning, especially the almost anticlimactic and at the same time awfully pathos-inducing ending. King's created a character with whom we deeply, deeply sympathise and feel for - indeed, sympathy becomes overturned by empathy, and that is the mark of a truly great writer; this story is wonderful in how touching it is, and even if it does include a moment or two of cliche, those are rather overriden by the pathos of the piece. Moving and fantastic.
 
Five Thrillers by Robert Reed
Reed's series of connected short stories - or rather, Reed's long short story told in five acts - is a fascinating piece of science fiction, meditating on the effects of an utterly amoral genius if he chose to turn his actions towards the good of mankind. It's a really rather interesting far-future that Reed posits, with space travel, genetic mutation, &c, and he's an absolute genius at constructing actions and reactions of people; Carroway, in his actions, is really well and disturbingly portrayed, not at all sympathetic but utterly brilliant and ruthless, and that works; we're drawn into the story to see where he's going and what he's leading towards, and when we discover it, it's incredibly horrific. A brilliant, awful tale.
 
The Magician’s House by Meghan McCarron
McCarron's story is similar in tone to Black's, in many ways - that use of sex in terms of magic, that pessimism about human nature, that basic underlying theme of the awfulness of life. This one seems to have an active anti-sex message, however, in many ways, which I really find problematic; on the other hand the characters and emotions of the story work really well, one little moment aside (it's too graphic and not really integrated into the story properly, as well as being just plain odd). It's a well put together piece, and the emotions are all there, it just doesn't click properly, for some reason, in my mind; perhaps it's just a little confused about itself...
 
Goblin Music by Joan Aiken
Aiken's story is a really quite interesting, indeed, fascinating one; replace goblins with Travellers, and it is also terribly socially relevant. It's a moving, but also dark, piece, with a mixture of English country conservatism and warm-hearted kindness portrayed absolutely beautifully, with characters very much like those of a small village - albeit perhaps more accepting, overall. It's a fascinating piece of social history, in some ways, about a past that never truly existed; but it's got a strong message for the present, as well as strong, interesting characters and some wonderful thought behind it. Really good work.
 
Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded)
Langan's story, on its third read, loses something; perhaps the suspense and surprise, the twists and changes, are necessary; perhaps its the unexpected or unforseen character growth that's needed to drive the story. It's still an interesting story, and still has a much darker view of steampunk and Victoriana - as well as sex, which it treats terribly negatively - than people expect, but it's not got the spark that makes a story great. It's functional and more than adequate in painting a picture of the torments of the viewpoint character, as well as in describing a bleak, awful Australia, but again... I'm not sure how far it goes. Rereading, in this case, makes the heart grow colder...
 
The Art of Alchemy by Ted Kosmatka
This is a fascinating, fantastic story; reminiscent of the Ben Elton novel Gridlock in its premise – indeed, the premise is namechecked, intentionally or otherwise – it’s a wonderfully interesting take on corporate responses to perceived threats, the problem of the profit motive for innovation (and it is a big problem), and on the nature of chemistry; it’s also a fascinating character study on our two main figures, who are interesting, complex, contradictor and altogether very human figures who keep the story moving and working. It’s a really brilliant piece of work.
 
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
Johnson’s story is sweet and touching, and definitely fantasy: it simply accepts, rather than even trying to explain, what’s happening in it. It explores the nature of humanity and how wide that is, with sympathetic characters – it seems dry and factual, with little dialogue and very flat description, but the reader still connects incredibly strongly with Aimee, because Johnson’s description is so incredibly evocative and powerful despite its seemingly basic nature; and the monkeys… well, read the story to learn about the monkeys, and they’re worth it. All 26 really are.
 
Marry the Sun by Rachel Swirsky
This has the most fantastic first line of a short story I have ever read. It’s stunningly brilliant. Swirsky’s story matches that first line; a romance, and an exploration of humanity and pain, and an examination of the reality of the relationship between gods and mortals, it touches on so many subjects and is incredibly powerful and painful. Swirsky’s versions of the Greek gods, and her creation of Bridget, are all so very human, so very believable; they’re real people, who we can understand, whose motivations are real and basic. It’s an absolutely fantastic, brilliant story.
 
Crystal Nights by Greg Egan
Egan’s story is, perhaps, something of a precursor to Chiang’s Lifecycle of Software Objects novella; both deal with the emergence of AI, and in very different ways, they see how humanity can nurture such developments, and more importantly how individual humans will shape that AI. Indeed, it is an incredibly well-written piece that, from a very different perspective, sees humanity as a much darker force with much different imperatives; it’s a fascinating story of character and of Darwinism, brilliantly written, and does, in a brief aside, include Chiang’s idea of the coming of AI. Brilliant.
 
His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi
Rajaniemi's story is quite a weird one, really; following two characters - uplifting animals, a dog and a cat, the nature of their uplifting unclear and uncertain - it's a tale of risk and recovery, bravery and loyalty, and finding sentience. It's a tale of the far-future, I think, but that's not clear; it's a strange one, with a plot that is straightforward but characters and concepts that are rather mixed - especially the cat and the dog, who vary in their capabilities and whose intelligence is similarly somewhat variable. The writing style is good and it does power along nicely, but some elements of the story could - should - have been better cleared up, and overall I have mixed feelings about this one.
 
Special Economics by Maureen F. McHugh
 McHugh's story has a soundtrack, a mix of hip-hop and the country song Sixteen Tons.  The near-future it posits is now one we're safe from, with the passage of bird flu from potential pandemic to blip on the radar, but the concept remains the same; post-epidemic economics will indeed be different, and this suggests a really interesting model for what that difference might look like in China.  It isn't a terribly optimistic story whilst at the same time containing its own solution, shades of grey mixed with a wistfulness for the long-gone days of black and white revolutionary versus reactionary... a really good, political, left-wing story.
 
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment by M. Rickert
 Rickert's story will be incredibly difficult to talk about without getting angrily passionate and political, and that's a good thing; indeed, I suspect it's her intention. Starting off with a quote from Randall Terry (the third one down), Rickert displays the horrors, the awful dystopia, of that world in a very Orwell way: from the perspective of someone touched by it, who accepts it. It's a horrific scenario, a bleak and black world, ugly and appalling, and its justification is just vile; the whole story exposes the hypocrisy of a certain kind of "pro-lifer", and is incredibly powerful and effective, as well as moving. Really grim.
 
From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… by Michael Swanwick
 This xeno-tale is quite fantastic; Swanwick creates a whole alien civilisation and culture, and at the same time a whole human civilisation and culture, to explore an oft-neglected "science" in science fiction: economics, in human terms. Information and trust economies are explained and understood, built up and worked with; the myth of original sin and its value is dealt with; and the powerful uncertainty of the end of the story is brilliant, indeed. It's also got a touch of Sixteen Tons about it again - that's not overstated, but plays as background to the human character; and those characters are reasonably strong, explicitly subverting the cliches of this kind of story. It's well-told and well-dealt with.
 
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
 This is a fascinating story which slowly developes across the piece, with slow revelations controlled by Bowes about Mark Bannon and the Bannons as a whole. It's a New England Irish-American political family, and Bowes plays with that idea, bringing in the Kennedys and Kennedy-esque elements; he also makes sure the reader knows what's happening to a limited extent, slowly upping the supernatural elements, the strangeness of the story as it goes along. There's also a fascinating level of insight into US politics in the story, with its infighting and double-dealing; again, Bowes has a real level of insight and character-building, with the whole cast terribly vivid and human, really well displayed as people. Brilliant, and with an amazing ending.
 
The Doom of Love in Small Spaces by Ken Scholes
 Scholes' story is a really sweet and touching on, about a burgeoning of love in a weird dystopia, a strange and unclear world of bureaucracy and officework. It's a very strange story, but what shines through are the characters of Drummond and Harmony, thrown together, both with their secrets - revealed in an utterly unexpected twist at the end - and their personalities; it's a beautiful, passionate, odd story which works really well, in its execution, as it powers through towards an end utterly unexpected. The vividness of the decaying world and the strangeness of it all is beautiful, crumbling as we read it, and adds to the odd, gothic atmosphere of the piece. Great stuff.
 
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
This set of intertwined narratives, each with their own cliffhanger, is brilliant. It starts out with hints of Twilight and other YA sparkly-vampire fiction but grows progressively stranger and darker, the narratives growing more gothic in their own, understated ways; the characters are similar and yet different, and you can see the way they parallel the actions of each other, with a strange inevitability about the ending (which is brilliantly, wonderfully played by Link, who displays an absolutely incredible genius in this story) whilst letting it also be a surprise.
 
Overall
This selection of short stories is varied, complex, widely-selected, and incredibly good overall; whilst a few duff notes are struck, the anthology hangs together well, covering all kind of corners of the SFF, with moving political pieces, brilliantly vivid character portraits and settings that leap off the page and draw the reader in.  With a mix of new and established authors on the scene Strahan's wide gaze has brought together a collection of stories that everyone will find something to enjoy in.
A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman
This is quite a brilliant one, especially the final twist that comes right at the end – that really bites the reader, given the play on our expectations! The world of the 19th Century set up by Gaiman, with what he tells us and the little snippets of advertisement (increasingly mythical and literary), is really brilliant and the Study in Emerald very much is reminiscent of A Study in Scarlet. Really well done, and another demonstration of Mr. Gaiman’s place as one of the top authors of today.
 
Tiger! Tiger! By Elizabeth Bear
Whilst very much a tale of the 19th century, this is hardly a Holmes story, despite the presence of Irene Adler; a tale of a hunt in the far reaches of the Empire, it’s well-written, fast-paced, mysterious, and of course incorporates some iconic Lovecraftian imagery, but overall it’s not a terribly Sherlockian tale. I do enjoy Bear’s writing, and her character-creation and use here is wonderful, however.
 
The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger by Steve Perry
Perry’s story is a little problematic. Not in its portrayal as a casually misogynistic Holmes, and nor in its portrayal of someone as brilliant as Holmes (though that IS a little problematic, because she doesn’t always act in line with that); in part it ignores Holmes’ abilities, and in part it doesn’t really fit with the Holmes mythos. However, it is a great story in terms of detection and counter-detection, and works rather well on its own terms; enjoyable and intellectually interesting.
 
A Case of Royal Blood by Steven-Elliot Altman
Altman’s story of the Old Ones crossing wits with Holmes through the Dutch Royal Family is quite remarkable, not least in its brilliant use and characterisation of H. G. Wells as a stand-in for Dr. Watson. The tone of the piece is really well-done, managing to balance the impulses to indulge in Lovecraftian, Wellsian and Doylesque prose with a more modern sensibility, and the plot is rather brilliant; not too obvious but still the reader can, with a little familiarity with Lovecraft, work out what’s happening. Rather wonderful.
 
The Weeping Masks by James Lowder
Lowder’s story of Watson’s Afghan experience is very much in the tradition of Lovecraft, especially in the non-white people in the story being the cultists of the Unknown. However, it’s a fascinating tale – it’s got some really good moments, and the discussion of logic and so on is really well played with, especially in the context of that which cannot be logical according to Lovecraftian canon. All in all, a fantastic tale – and the final lines take on a new, and interesting, twist if you know your Holmesian history.
 
Art in the Blood by Brian Stableford
Stableford’s story is the first that really takes note of the disjoint between Holmes’ and Lovecraft’s wordviews, and it brings in Mycroft as a sort of bridge between the two. It’s a horrific, terrible tale, told largely by two characters, one of whom is Sherlock himself and the other the client of the story; it’s got a creeping, insidious awfulness, and the use of Mycroft’s intellect as a reassurance for his brother is dealt with really well. The final parts of the story are awful and strange, and Stableford’s created a really good tribute to Lovecraft here.
 
The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson
Brite and Ferguson’s story of Holmes’ investigation is a mixed one. Whilst it has some typical – indeed, stereotypical, to the point of overdone – elements of Holmes stories in, and whilst it does give an interesting account of the relation between Watson and Holmes, too much of it relies on Watson going against all his instincts, and on not showing us but telling us what’s happening; a large part of it is exposition, and there’s never any real feeling of threat. Not a great story.
 
The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Neice by Barbara Hambly
This is the first really, truly creepy story in the anthology so far, and it really does get under the reader’s skin. Hambly’s story, drawing on New Weird and Old Weird styles more than it does on Doyle in parts, has two sections to it, really; the Doyle and the Lovecraft. But the two sections mesh and blend wonderfully, reason giving way to madness and strangeness, and the very strong writing style and ability of Hambly is wonderful – there’s terrific control here, and it makes for a fantastic, utterly creepy, story.
 
The Mystery of the Worm by John Pelan
This is another one that really does hit the mark on combining Lovecraft and Doyle, in leaving the end open-ended, with the hint of horrors to come. Pelan’s story is told magnificently, with build-up, subtlety, exposition and experienced horror mingled and mixed in such a way that the reader really feels what’s happening; indeed, Pelan makes the horror immediate and there’s a feeling that it could just leap out at the reader. Fantastic.
 
The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle by Paul Finch
Finch’s story is a perfect Holmes story, reminiscent in its start of the recent film despite being several years its senior. It’s a fantastic tale of deduction and action mingled together into a brilliant, awful whole with a real punch to it, and the combination of action and intellect is nothing short of brilliant. The premise is well-done, and the characters are excellent, straight from Lovecraft; for all that, unlike the previous two stories, this is much more Doyle than Lovecraft, and benefits from that contrast and variety.
 
The Horror of Many Faces by Tim Lebbon
This story incorporates elements of the Ripper mythology into the Lovecraft-Holmes duology. It’s a terrifying, shocking story that builds and shifts and morphs as the reader progresses through it, with Lebbon constructing a true sense of awful and appalling horror in the reader whose target for said horror changes as the story goes on. It’s a really freaky tale, this one, and its ending is possibly the single most haunting one so far in the anthology.
 
The Adventures of the Arab’s Manuscript by Michael Reaves
This story’s less strong, on some levels – in part Reaves leaves Holmes a clue or two that actually don’t work (the famous Hamsa, or Hand of Fatima, rather undermines some of the deduction Holmes does), and in part it’s a matter of how it’s just a bait-and-switch on Watson. Reeves seems to have some idea of how to do Lovecraft, and some of Doyle, but this story really hasn’t come together well, and is significantly dull and largely without the strengths of either writer.
 
The Drowned Geologist by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s story is rather wonderful. It’s subtle, gentle, and not overtly horrific; indeed, the suggestion of horror is much stronger and indeed more effective than the depiction would be, especially in terms of some of the matters mentioned within the story. Kiernan’s got a wonderful character in Dr. Logan, and she uses him, as narrator, really rather well; indeed, it’s a letter that really packs a significant punch to it, telling a strong, compelling and disturbing (and impossible) tale to Watson. Really rather good.
 
A Case of Insomnia by John P. Vourlis
This is quite a nice one. It seems a typical Holmes case, and Vourlis certainly treats it as such, with evidence gathered, travel, people questioned, and a series of possible explanations ruled out; further, Vourlis withholds from going down the full Lovecraftian squamous route, rather going for a more strange but investigable opponent for Holmes. There’s a brilliant note of whimsy struck at the end of the story very reminiscent of Doyle but tinged with more than a touch of Lovecraft, than really gives the story that extra push to make it brilliant.
 
The Adventure of the Voorish Sign by Richard A. Lupoff
This one’s not so great. Lupoff abuses Watson something dreadful, and I really do dislike the slow companion portrayals common to so much post-Doyle Holmes-lore. There’s also a really unhealthy use of gypsies, not just bordering on but actively deciding to revel in racism. However, the story does have its moments, and Watson himself does have a couple of occasions to display some skill; but overall this is not a terribly good story, with little really to show the strengths of either the Lovecraft or Doyle which influenced it.
 
The Adventure of Exham Priory by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
MacIntyre’s story is rather excellent, incorporating standard Lovecraft tropes and lore with the characters of the Holmes tales; Moriarty is excellently portrayed and used, with his strengths and weaknesses clearly highlighted, and both Watson and Holmes are shown in a good light (Watson gets to do some deducting for once!). Indeed, this story is one of the strongest so far for Watson; MacIntyre portrays him as intelligent and curious, and a good companion to the aloof Holmes. This is, then, a story that is creepy and malevolent in atmosphere and excellent in execution.
 
Death Did Not Become Him by David Niall Wilson and Patricia Lee Macomber
This is a fantastic, fascinating story mixing Holmes, Lovecraft and Kabbalah (in the form of the golem). Wilson and Macomber’s tale of mystery and the intrigue strikes me, in some ways, as not terribly Lovecraftian, but on the other hand it not only incorporates that mainstay of the Mythos, the Necronomicon, but also has settings reminiscent of Lovecraft – an abandoned asylum especially. Indeed, the story really does work well as a combination of the two styles, with a very different take on it as any previous work in the volume.
 
Nightmare In Wax by Simon Clark
 This is a fantastic story, told in the first person by three different voices, with an obvious twist marring an otherwise brilliant story (though, I suppose, both twists are both obvious and intended to be so, so perhaps not so much marring as altering).  Clark's story once more captures the essence of Moriarty perfectly, as well as of Holmes; indeed, Holmes' weaknesses are very much central to the story, as is Moriarty's personality and arrogance.  This is a more interesting story than many of the others both in its style, how its told, and in the content, in its descriptions and explorations; it also seems less dark, in some ways, though with an incredibly dark end.
 
Overall
Reaves and Pelan have put together an anthology that, whilst a little mixed at times, tends towards the better end of the spectrum; the mixture of stories, in terms of style, period, focus, and execution is a good one, with different aspects of Doyle and Lovecraft both coming to the fore, and a variety of different ideas about who Holmes himself is being presented too, which is of some interest.  I'd say that a fan of Doyle shouldn't really be too attracted to this purchase, as all too often Holmes breaks away from canonical interpretations of him towards a more mystical version, but fans of Lovecraft will want to own this anthology.
Waggoner's urban fantasy (ish) pulp (ish) horror (ish) novel is a hard one to classify, as you can see.  An Angry Robot release, Nekropolis is like much of their output: well-written, not overly deep, up to date, and using a variety of concepts with a varying degree of success; Waggoner's novel is a little more miss than hit in the background, but the majority of the novel reverses that trend to create a fun, pulpy read... however misleading the blurb on the back is, in that it completely mischaracterises pretty much the entire plot of the novel.

The characters of the novel are very much in line with a standard pulp urban fantasy release, in the vein of Butcher's Storm Front, with Richter taking the place of Dresden and Devona taking the place of both romantic leads in that novel.  Richter's a self-aware zombie, indeed the only self-aware zombie apparently, and Devona is a half-vampire (a daywalker; yes, think Blade), but Richter at least has more depth than so far implied.  An ex-cop, driven to his duty but refusing to see it, he's also tormented by his past and blase about his future; indeed, as a viewpoint character it's really interesting to see what goes on in his head and how his psychology changes over the course of the novel to be more detailed, complex, and (one assumes) closer to what he was as a living, human cop.

The setting is rather wonderful, with the various districts of Nekropolis each being explored, however briefly (I rather like the description of Glamere - 'like a renaissance faire, only without the funnel cakes and ATMs labelled Queen's Treasury').  They're detailed, well thought out, and very different from each other; and rather than just being unremittingly awful, as one half-expects, there's an internal logic to each and a sort of grim beauty in there as well which really makes the whole world hang together properly.  The Aethernet, Mind's Eyes, and over magicised technology which looms large at the start of the novel but is more downplayed as it continues is a problem for me - it makes it more a comedy, and less serious, on its own terms - as Waggoner doesn't seem to take it seriously or do anything with it except point up parallels with the real world slightly too clearly.

The plot, completely divorced from that described on the blurb, is actually much stronger than it implies; tied up with character growth on the part of Richter, it combines private eye pulp, horror, and a couple of other elements to create a really interesting set of circumstances which make the choices of the characters not only believable, but actually not the only ones they could make.  There's a series of twists that someone with a better mind for the whodunnit than me could probably have unravelled to work out what was coming, but to me it really did throw me and the villain - and truth of the scenario - was so incredibly different from what I expected that I was amazed and awed; Waggoner pulls the unexpected ending off really well, although it does tie up slightly too neatly (though I suppose that's how pulp works, really.)

All in all, then, this is a great whodunnit and pulp novel; there's a couple of slips and flaws, but Nekropolis is involving, detailed, beautiful, and believable - despite the supernatural infusing it.  Waggoner's clearly got a strong hand on the helm, and I can't help but be really impressed by this novel.
Hill's Horns owes a debt to the work of authors like Koontz and, appropriately, King, though the religious messaging of the father appears to be very different in the work of the son; indeed, in Horns, the Devil truly does get his due, in a rather Miltonian manner.  Indeed, Horns could be seen as a justification for Satan and a cry against God quite easily, given the religious messaging that goes on in the novel.

The characters are a mixture; Ignatius ("Ig") and Terry Perrish, and Merrin Williams, are reasonably well developed, with a mixture of motivations, feelings, thoughts and ideas.  Each of them has a different side to them, and the presentation, as it developes throughout the novel, grows in such a way that we learn to understand them, and learn what happened through a prism of their actions; that prism, indeed, is what's really important to the novel, as it changes the events that have gone before each revelation quite significantly.  Sadly, other characters, and especially Lee Tourneau, are much less well developed; Lee has the appearance of being a complex character, briefly, before suddenly becoming indistinguishable from the other sex-obsessed foul characters that make up the cast of Horns.  Hill's samey selection of characters, therefore, becomes a real flaw in believing in any of the individuals in the novel in any serious way.

The plot's rather better; it developes, shifts and changes, and the multiple perspectives and timelines involved really give the book some three dimensionality; indeed, Hill's ideas and thoughts really come through clearly in the delayed revelations and repeated changes of perspective, indeed paradigm shifts, forced on Ig and on the reader by the discoveries we come to throughout the novel.  Each discovery requires re-evaluation and a new attempt to understand what has preceded it, and this makes the novel an intellectual challenge as it really does force the reader to both challenge their preconceptions and follow the plot quite closely in order to not miss anything.

The one other criticism I might have is the general unsubtlety of a lot fo the messaging, and the religious tone of the novel.  It's very different from King's overtly religious work (eg. The Green Mile) and closer to the theology in Elizabeth Bear's Ink and Steel, in that the devil is not per se evil but simply very much different from God.  There is an undercurrent of revolution against Christianity in Horns, and Hill doesn't bother to be even a little subtle about it, and whilst it works within the plot it's about as subtle as a brick to the face, and with all the style and persuasiveness of a burning turd.

So, as a novel, Hill's done a fantastic job, and as a character study and fascinating intellectual exercise I love this book; but I wouldn't turn to Horns for theological argument, by any means...
Reading this book, it becomes clear why Simmons' reputation stems equally from his horror and space opera credentials; whilst it focuses firmly on the former, the style and pacing are of a kind that would lend themselves readily to the more science fictional kind of writing.   In Song of Kali, Simmons uses a number of themes (and some really problematic ideas, though we'll get to those later) but most strongly a joint fascination with Calcutta's violence and with deity.

The characters are an interesting mix; Simmons is very variable, in this novel, in how much any character other than Robert Luzcak, our narrator and main character, is fleshed out, with most of the background characters falling into single archetypal roles and simply sitting there doing very little other than fulfilling stereotypes.  Indeed, the India and Indians that Simmons portrays barely stand in three dimensions, all too often simply being monodimensional and simplistic beings there to advance the plot and create the (very problematic, perhaps unintentionally) racist air of the book.  However, Luzcak - perhaps coincidentally a Polish-American - and the other American characters, are all far more fleshed out and real, with multiple dimensions and a real humanity to them, even the brusque Jewish-American Abe Bronstein who is early on portrayed as very one-dimensional but develops a lot.

The plot is superior to the characters, though not by much. It's relatively predictable, with the so-called twists and turns little more than expected; centring on a cult of Kali, manipulated out of all recognition from the reality of the Hindu goddess of the same name.  The mixture of politics, religion and strange racism into the pot all serve to turn a complex, fascinating ancient religion into something of a boring pastiche - I refuse to go so far as to say it's unenjoyable, because despite my misgivings I did enjoy it, but it's not even remotely great.  Equally, the use of the poetry in the plot is rather expected; and the magical, horrific elements are - whilst incredibly well executed - a little bland, in some ways.

I have to conclude, then, that this book is not irredeemable... but it's hardly worth going out of your way to read it.
Illimitable Domain by Kim Newman
This creeping tale of cultural and cinematic domination by Poe is gothic, strange, and overblown – indeed, it really is very Poe! Newman takes the Poe-based films of the 1960s as a starting point for his cultural zeitgeist takeover, which becomes increasingly total – and increasingly gothic, as the language of Poe seeps through into the story; and the mingling of fact and fiction to the ridiculous and insane conclusion is brilliant. This, with its underlying (and sometimes less-underlying) comic element and its overall melancholy gloom, is brilliant storytelling.
 
The Pickers by Melanie Tem
Tem’s story is imbued with the kind of melancholic grief and gothic unrealism of Poe’s works, the conceptual imagery redolent with Poe’s ideas – The Raven especially playing a large part. The actions of D and Toni, the loss of Matt, the dead dull emotions and the horror of the story as it develops to its ultimate gothic ending is very much in line with Poe’s mournful poetry, and Tem’s ability to keep that air in a prose work is incredible. A really good story.
 
Beyond Porch and Portal by E. Catherine Tobber
This is a strange story of Poe’s death, a fantastical and macabre story that involves parallel worlds, fairy lands, Rip van Winkle-style relativity, and some other odd elements; it’s a strangely gothic and stately affair whilst also being full of squalor and ugliness. The combination of the reality of Poe’s death and the whimsical inventions of Tobber works very well, as does the importance of Poe to the whole thing; it’s a strange, quite grim tale, and decently done.
 
The Final Act by Gregory Frost
This one’s a strange one – a very Poe ghost tale, grim and macabre, with it being unclear that it is a ghost story until the end. The psychological horror and manipulation, the use of an unreliable narrator speaking to our viewpoint-character who is himself perhaps an unreliable narrator, the sick sense of dread pervading through the whole piece all build up to the final shocking conclusion and denouement; it’s a really terrifying and strange tale, but quite brilliant in its gothic horror (and very, very Poe).
 
Strappado by Laird Barron
Barron’s story is quite strange, and very sensual; it’s also very horrific, and has some subtle Poe references (subtle, and quite excellent). It isn’t simply a reworking or pastiche of a Poe story, but it does draw very much on certain narratives by Poe for its events; the hedonism and sensuality is reminiscent of The Masque of the Red Death especially, and the eventual conclusion, grim, horrific, shocking, insane, is incredibly well done. It builds slowly to its psychological, and indeed unspecified, conclusion, and then continues on to the awful effects of that conclusion; really horrific and gothic.
 
The Mountain House by Sharyn McCrumb
This is surprisingly uplifting for a story in the style of Poe, and yet the haunting beauty, the strange spiritlike natives (perhaps a touch of Magical Negro here, albeit with rednecks?), the dark sense of death hanging over everything, and the slight degree of foreboding and melancholy that infuse the piece all rescue it from being utterly unPoeish. The characters are wonderful – the dead Liam, who we understand more and more as the story continues; his nameless partner, who is central to the whole thing and the viewpoint-character, and who is an incredibly well-rounded personality; and the spirit of NASCAR itself. McCrumb’s story is Poe, with a bleak sort of optimism; a brilliant read.
 
The Pikesville Buffalo by Glen Hirshberg
This one’s a really quite sad, incredibly moving and affecting tale; Hirshberg’s storytelling is utterly fantastic, and powerful. The whole story has an air of unreality, and whilst not necessarily fantastical has a sense of the fantastic about it. It’s melancholy and downbeat, and has some incredible characters; the whole story is very Jewish, in some ways (explicitly and in its attitudes) as well as being incredibly characterful and emotional. I’m really impressed and moved; it’s a really, really good piece.
 
The Brink of Eternity by Barbara Roden
This is a really good story; until I read the afterword I couldn’t work out if it was fictionalised reality or realist fiction, but it’s the latter. It’s a fantastic piece, with the mixed styles – strangely abstract, scholarly and simple fiction – building to create a multifaceted portrait of a man giving himself over to an obsession; it’s that obsession that forms the focus of the story and its central point, and drives everything within it. In that regard, amongst others, it’s a really good piece of work as the obsession is transmitted to the reader whilst also being used to hang aspects of the character of Wallace on. Readable and brilliant.
 
The Red Piano by Delia Sherman
This is very much a gothic romance in the way that Poe wrote and developed them; macabre, supernatural, horrifying, and with heaving bosoms and preying men. The theme of music – intimated by the title, made explicit in the story – works really well with the tale, as it combines to form an interesting, well-wrought underlying rhythm to the tune of the characters’ interactions and emotions. As a whole it works really well together to create a creepy sense of unknown horror at the start which fades and returns in full force; Sherman is very much in control of what she’s writing, to create a gothic symphony worthy of Within Temptation…
 
Sleeping With Angels by M. Rickert
This is a really macabre story; with murder, child abuse, horror, ghosts and death as central aspects in the life of a child for one summer. There’s a mysterious element that’s never addressed head on and never explained, one which is horrific in its implications; there’s a lot of the supernatural and strange; and indeed, Rickert preserves an air of gothic horror very worthy of Poe with powerful and affecting characters and a simple, moving story. Simple gothic, and very fine.
 
Shadow by Steve Rasnic Tem
I’m not sure what to say about Tem’s story; I really enjoyed it, and was spooked by it, but it’s a little hard to explain why – something about the second-person narration, drawing the reader into the story in a very strange way; something also about the element of personal threat inherent to the whole tale; perhaps also Tem’s use of someone talking to the viewpoint, who is the reader, and the final conclusion, which combine to create a really horrific self-image. It’s a brilliantly creepy and spooky tale with a nebulous threat hanging over it all; really well done.
 
Truth and Bone by Pat Cadigan
This is a really spooky story; Cadigan’s tale of a family with certain strange traits, and of a member of that family, and the consequences of one’s actions, and the inevitability of fate, involves themes common to Greek tragedies (the Fates cannot be thwarted!) and a strange, disturbing and awful sense of the weird. Cadigan’s story is spooky and macabre, the start somewhat uplifting and happy (though with an odd note in there – Loomis); it descends then into the macabre, gothic majority which is where it revels and shows its true excellence. I loved the story, and I love the messages in it; really good work.
 
The Reunion by Nicholas Royle
Royle’s story is centred on a location that is as strange as the content. I’m not a huge fan of the story, but it is undeniably well written; the strangeness of the hotel, the oddness of the events of the story in its location are all built to be as creepy and weird without being actually horrific as possible. However, there’s just something that I dislike about the story; it has a certain disconnect and a certain lack of coherence that don’t really work terribly well, I think… I guess it’s a mixed execution of an interesting concept.
 
The Tell by Kaaron Warren
This story is quite spooky; it’s about Poe’s death, in a way, and also about the power of nightmares and horror – their addictive quality, almost. Warren’s story involves a combination of magic, normality and art in a trifecta that manages to be both original and expected, in the best sense of each term; the characters are well-drawn and develop unexpectedly throughout the novel, and their horrors are personal and different – indeed, it’s an odd story and rather a damning one, but incredibly Poe. A brilliant work.
 
The Heaven and Hell of Robert Flud by David Prill
Prill’s story combines elements of The House of Usher with a little of The Tell-Tale Heart; the sense of decay and the macabre, the death inherent in the whole tale, the terrible sense of the American Gothic that pervades the piece are a sort of modern Poe. There’s a build-up of the inevitable over the course of the novel as it moves towards a more and more horrific sense of death; it’s ugly and decaying and dead, and Prill is awfully good at the darker side of Poe…
 
Flitting Away by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch says of this that it is an ordinary crime, quoting Poe on Marie Roget; and she’s right. That doesn’t make it any less horrific – she sets up a crime (a murder) and plays it through, and uses it as a starting point to reach forward and backward into the life of the victim of that crime; and the effects of the crime are as horrifying as the crime itself. Rusch’s story is incredibly well-written, and filled with a passion and horror derived from Rusch’s own reaction to the crime of the story, and it’s a very much ordinary horror story from Poe…
 
Kirih’quru Krokundor by Lucius Shepard
This is the second story in this anthology I’m unimpressed by, and I’m unimpressed on multiple counts. Shepard’s story is very much Death By Sex, and also has problems of morality (there’s a very explicit judgement in the story against sex and against Nubia for her sexual behaviour, as well as against homosexuality); it also doesn’t have the sense of gloom, or any hint of the macabre, or really any element whatsoever of Poe’s fiction. It’s an odd selection, then, on all these counts; and not a terribly well-written story, to my mind.
 
Lowland Sea by Suzy McKee Charnas
This story, a take on The Masque of the Red Death combined with modern celebrity culture but also with a certain powerful air of its own, is a brilliant piece of work. Obviously infused with the sense of Poe, the writing style has the same air of inevitability to it, and the sudden twist away from a straightforward retelling of the original Poe inspiration is unexpected and really well performed. Charnas’ story has a great deal of depth and originality to it, aided by strong characters and a sense of humanity that is wonderful, and the outsider status of our viewpoint character only helps that. A really good tale.
 
Technicolor by John Langan
Langan's take on the Masque of the Red Death is an interesting one; it starts out a bland college lecture on the story, moves into a more (fictional) historical analysis, and eventually takes on a very different - and unexpected - significance.  Langan's persona as lecturing proffessor is articulate, learned, and contemptuous of his students - a very honest and open image of the average university lecturer, in my experience! - and this lends verisimilitude to the story.  The more spooky and strange elements build up through the story but the reader is brought far enough in that they seem almost normal, and the sudden change in the final part of the story to a more supernatural, strange ending is brilliantly done.  A fantastic closer.
 
Overall
As with her selection in Lovecraft Unbound, Ellen Datlow makes an almost universally excellent selection of short stories here - there is indeed significant overlap of authors between the two anthologies - and also has the same aim of collecting tributes rather than pastiches, an aim very much fulfilled.  The different kinds of story, all very much Poetic, taking on different parts of Poe's oeuvre, are well-selected and varied; whilst The Masque of the Red Death crops up a few times, each occasion has a different take on the story, rather well done and different in each case.  An excellent anthology, and very gothic.
The Walker in the Cemetery by Ian Watson
This is a very Lovecraft story; perhaps a little too anti-science, a little too obvious, and a little too formulaic to be very good perhaps. Cthulhu’s back and apparently likes to play with his food – which is an interesting conceit; that note of originality is the shining part of Watson’s tale, the psychological horror drawn out by the cruelty of the Old One. It’s a bit of a bland, emotionless tale, too obviously intending to invoke horror to manage it and too crude to really be serious. Not a great start.
 
Sanctuary by Don Webb
This is a much better story than Watson’s; Webb’s story of a town in the time of Cthulhu has the potential to be brilliant, and with the discussion of what happens to rationality and Christianity in the time when the Old Ones return is fascinating. It’s also got some wonderful ideas about where they are – really creepy and almost believable ones. Overall, indeed, Webb’s story, with some excellent characters, is relatively good; however it also indulges in some clichés and folly that really don’t work… especially in regards to the priest; and the crudity takes a lot away. Not terribly good, overall.
 
Her Acres of Pastoral Playground by Mike Allen
This strange pastoral story is really disturbing; whilst centred on a family and, indeed, quite fascinating, it has really dark under- and overtones, which build to a brilliant conclusion. The inevitability, madness, and strange occurrences are quite wonderfully Lovecraftian, and the slow revelations of more and more that has happened are incredible – as is the post-madness element, absolutely genius. Allen’s story is undeniably both the most Lovecraftian so far and the most brilliant.
 
Spherical Trigonometry by Ken Asamatsu
This story’s quite good, about the madness induced by the return of the Old Ones and the inevitable failure of measures to seek safety from them; Asamatsu’s vision of the return of the Old Ones is a grim one, but based very much in the post-Lovecraftian works and esoterica; it also brings in some fascinating ideas. However, the ending is far too neat in an annoying, happy way which really doesn’t fit the essential hopelessness of his story… let down by that, it can’t be called great, but at least decent.
 
What Brings the Void by Will Murray
 This one’s a fantastic tale, actually; Murray has a brilliant sense of rising and creeping dread, of inhumanity, of imminent annihilation, and indeed the sense of a world only just gone mad is incredible. His use of the remote viewing experiments of the US government are quite fun and add to the atmosphere of unreality, although they do take from the realism of the story. In the end, the creation of the character and the understanding, both of the Lovecraft mythos and of the Old Ones themselves, is incredible.
 
The New Pauline Corpus by Matt Cardin
This is a strange one; Cardin takes theology and aligns it to Cthulhu – through madness and a lens of unbelief, admittedly; he imagines the Catholic Church being forced to realign its doctrines in the face of the appearance of the Old Ones, and that concept is what runs through the story. It has a disjointed prose style which makes reading it confusing, and it is very unclear (as well as actually theologically pretty weak and incoherent…); all in all, whilst the concept is fascinating, Cardin fails to effectively put it into practice.
 
Ghost Dancing by Darrell Schweitzer
Schweitzer’s story is decent, though hardly fantastic. It captures the panic and chaos that the return of the Old Ones would produce, and it captures the idea of a world gone mad with religious fervour – to make the Old Ones leave; however, it also has rather too hopeful an element in it, and indeed the Old Ones themselves seem strangely absent from the story except as names. On the other hand the characters are excellent and this makes the story actually rather good.
 
This is How the World Ends by John R. Fultz
This is quite a well-written story; it captures the horror and claustrophobia of Lovecraft, involves a Mad Max element in its post-Apocalypticism, and has a transformative element that’s a brilliant twist. It’s a dark and horrific tale, with characters whom we come to identify with only to be thrown by twists dropped in over the course of the tale. However, it fails to really give you a sense of anything – even those characters to whom we are drawn are very sketchy. Good, but sparse, perhaps?
 
The Shallows by John Langan
This is quite an interesting piece – though really it has nothing to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or return of the Old Ones, which simply act as a background element; indeed they are largely irrelevant to the human narrative of the piece, and that human narrative is not a terribly well-written one either. Indeed, Langan’s whole story is rather out of keeping with the anthology and not terribly exciting; whilst it is definitely well written – or rather, the monologue is – the other events are not so well done, with their slightly purpling prose being more pastiche of Lovecraft than tribute.
 
Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names by Jay Lake
This is a decent story; it starts slowly and unpromisingly, to my mind, but Lake’s actually got something really impressive going here. The world built around the rise of the Old Ones and their return, and the idea of them as careless, “narcoleptic” masters of the Earth, is less fascinating than the split that Lake foresees in humanity – a split I can’t help but agree with him on; and the idea of that split, and what it would lead to, is the truly fascinating element of the story – as is the simple humanity of people even in the face of the Old Ones. Great stuff.
 
The Seals of New R’lyeh by Gregory Frost
Frost’s story is brilliant. It’s a heist tale (yes, a heist, after Cthulhu’s ascendance!) and yet it is also, somewhat, about an attempt to resist the Old Ones; the characters are typical of the heist drama, and all in all it’s a great combination of humour, bumbling incompetence and brilliance. It also manages to get in the numinous and nameless terror that is so sadly lacking in much of this anthology; Frost really does pull off a great piece of work here!
 
The Holocaust of Ecstasy by Brian Stableford
Stableford’s tale is utterly strange – utterly, utterly so; he creates a weird vision of the post-Cthulhu world that’s actually rather, indeed, incredibly beautiful, and so very alien. The authorial hand shows itself in the thoughts of the viewpoint-character, but it works incredibly well; discovering the world with him, peeling back layers of Mythos and mythology, uncovering the truth over time. It’s a brilliant, beautiful and intensely unsettling story, and I think it is the highlight of this collection.
 
Vastation by Laird Barron
This is a strange story, and not one I’m a fan of. It’s more VanderMeer than Lovecraft, with a fungus-focus, and the central character is unlikeable, unsympathetic and more than a little insane; indeed, the whole story could be described in those terms. Whilst an interesting concept – and indeed with interesting futurism – Barron’s story fails to capitalise on those elements and lacks a certain clarity, or sense, or even plot, really; in the end it’s a failure as a story, to put into practice an interesting concept and world.
 
Nothing Personal by Richard A. Lupoff
This is quite a good story; it explains what the Old Ones are, and where they come from – in terms quite alien to Lovecraft, in no small part because they hadn’t been invented then – and also has a really incredible character and setting of far-future SF with a cosmonaut. It’s actually a really well-written and well-told story and Lupoff marshals his concepts incredibly well, keeping hold of the essentials all the time; perhaps the most brilliant element is the end and the thinking that drives it. A really good psychological piece.
 
Remnants by Fred Chappell
Chappell's story is a really rather brilliant one; it has psychological insight (indeed, the description of the autistic mind and thought-process is incrdibly insightful and wonderful) and it combines this with a plot that, whilst actually vastly reducing the threat of the Old Ones, still leaves them dangerous, and indeed, universe-threatening; it's a brilliant tale, well-told and suspenseful, with a real power to it and a really interesting idea - both of what the motive of the Old Ones is, and of how they act.  A stand-out story.
 
Overall­
Having just read Lovecraft Unbound and the excellent selection made by Ellen Datlow, Schweitzer's anthology is much more disappointing; whilst there are strong stories included, and indeed some really excellent ones, it's a much more mixed bag, with a stronger feel of pastiche than tribute; of simply recycling Lovecraft, rather than using him as a jumping-off point. There is, at times, a sense of horror and suspense; and the unknowable horrors of the Old Ones are actually there in some of these stories, but what this anthology mainly drives home is that, in not telling us what happens when the stars are right, Lovecraft was doing something very clever: he wasn't forcing himself to dilute the pure horror of the unknown, as these are.  I wouldn't recommend it, honestly.

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Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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