The greatest disservice the publishers of this anthology could have done was select the title they selected.
In his introduction to this collection of so-called horror stories, guest-editor Peter Straub says the stories (all previously published in other outlets) selected for this anthology represent "breathtaking 'literary' writers, who in this newly liberated atmosphere have no problem embracing their inner Poe."
This is meant to be a compliment. The 24 writers included in this compilation, Straub asserts, are breathing a new life into the hacky horror genre and bringing spooky stories into the literary mainstream, just as Edgar Allan Poe did 160 years ago.
Slapping Poe's name on the front of this limp collection of overwrought writing exercises is both an affront to Poe and to the horror/weird tales genre itself.
Poe explored deeply human terrors, writing lush prose about universal fears, such as premature burial, abandonment, hopelessness, guilt and revenge. Many of these stories lack soul. They're just stories about quirky characters who have a brief brush with something mysterious in a cafe, or battered shells of humanity reminiscing about some distant experience that changed their lives utterly.
It's a whole-lot of hand-wringing and hardly any spine-tingling. It's a campfire ghost story where the spookiest element is the way the story-teller holds the flashlight up to his chin; the story is inconsequential.
In short, it's the absolute opposite of what Poe represents.
Of course, it's unfair to judge an anthology of contemporary writers against the standard of one of the giants of American literature, but that's exactly the sort of comparison -- unfavorable as it is -- that this book invites with such an audacious and undeserved title.
There are some very good stories, half-buried in some of the dross and dreck of posturing and pseudo-horror. Ramsey Campbell's "The Voice of the Beach" is a Lovecraftian spiral into the unknown and a wonderfully disturbed tale.
Ben Percy's "Unearthed" gets credit for having a delicious opening line ("Denis began acting strangely soon after he dug up the dead Indian"), but the story eventually fizzles out. Bradford Morrow's "Gardener of Heart" is a haunting little story with a nice twist.
The real gem of the anthology is Stephen King's "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," which was first published in 1984 in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Though not "horror" in the classical sense, King's story of magic and madness is rich, sweet and unforgettable.
In his introduction, Straub writes about the old perception of horror fiction as "inherently trashy, unliterary to the core, actually rather shameful, literature's wretched slum." He asserts that the writers included in this collection are adding credibility to the horror genre and taking it in new and exciting directions, and makes pains to distance the so-called New Wave of horror writers from the cheesy 1970s paperbacks featuring "broken dolls, severed heads, or minimalist mouths letting slip single drops of blood."
He must have written the introduction before he saw the cover Doubleday created for this book -- one that features broken dolls, a severed hand, and some drips of blood.
In other words, it's the same subpar material bound up in a slick new package, adorned with Poe's name, and rushed into stores just in time for Halloween.
If this represents the "New Wave" of horror, as Straub asserts, it's best to stick with the old masters.
Dan Murphy is a Buffalo freelance writer.
Poe's Children: The New Horror
Edited by Peter Straub
544 pages, $26.95