The Museum of Horrors, edited by Dennis Etchison

the-museum-of-horrors-edited-by-dennis-etchison coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Dorchester Publishing Company
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by William D. Gagliani

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This is the first HWA anthology to hit the stores as a hardcover and not as a limited edition, and for this Leisure Books deserves the credit. Spreading the horror gospel is something HWA and Leisure can partner on, and this volume is handsome enough to catch a casual reader’s eye. As an ambassador for HWA, MUSEUM gets a good jump out of the gate. But how does it finish?

I should note that I actively wanted to like this anthology — as a member of HWA, as a relatively well-read fan of Stoker and Poe’s chosen literary genre, and as a writer fortunate enough to have had a story in ROBERT BLOCH’S PSYCHOS (a previous HWA anthology). Perhaps my bias allowed me to gloss over a few flaws. I’ll always have a tender spot for PSYCHOS, which was surely a fitting tribute to Bob Bloch, and F. Paul Wilson’s FREAK SHOW was nothing if not spectacular. Rick McCammon’s UNDER THE FANG was my first taste of HWA and blood-sweet. PETER STRAUB’S GHOSTS was solidly ethereal, and WHITLEY STRIEBER’S ALIENS certainly out there. Even DEATHPORT, despite its laughable premise, presented some excellent stories. THE MUSEUM OF HORRORS, while occasionally underwhelming, finished strong and toward the front of the pack, if not in the lead.

It’s true that the anthology seems a bit stodgy, as if it doesn’t know whether to be hip and splattery or literary and sedate. Maybe that’s a fair representation of HWA’s membership, though, and an unfair criticism. There’s plenty to like in this collection, and even the weaker stories certainly are competent. But the museum theme seems underdeveloped, really only dealt with directly in three entries, and, it’s not that great a premise anyway — maybe that’s the reason the book doesn’t rely on it, using it instead to tease us.

In one of the theme-related stories, “The Museum of Dr. Moses,” Joyce Carol Oates turns in an exquisitely written piece that nevertheless seems far less weighty and mysterious than its length would imply. More successful is the final tale, S.P. Somtow’s devastatingly beautiful and grotesque “The Bird Catcher,” in which a grandfather confides a bit more about his youth in post-war Thailand and his friendship with a strange “village idiot” than one might expect. It’s a perfect anchor to the anthology, keeping to the theme and painting a vivid portrait of its time and place.

The anthology’s stodginess melts away when you reach Dick Laymon’s “Hammerhead.” It may peg me as favoring the splattery side of horror, but so be it. Dick’s story made me laugh and reminded me why I like his work so much. He plays with the reader’s sympathies, using the bad guy’s POV and making him witty and weirdly likable, and then using him to commit terribly gruesome deeds. Then Dick cleverly sneaks in his pro-gun stance at the expense of the amoral protagonist, and by the end you’re not sure where you stand but you know you’ve been messed with. This is dangerous fiction, and it’s yet another reason I’ll always miss Dick Laymon. Many of the competent stories in the book just don’t mess with you enough.

Reliable Ramsey Campbell’s “Worse Than Bones” offers a Campbell staple — an obsessive average guy for whom life has just been knocked askew by an old book whose previous owner won’t let go. Charles Grant’s “Whose Ghosts Are These” explores a beat cop’s lonely retirement from one career and entry into another, nicely creating dread within the author’s time-tested minimalism.

Robert Devereaux’s “Apologia” is a hoot and sacrilegious to boot. After the revisionist Claus of SANTA STEPS OUT, Devereaux offers Judas Iscariot’s take on some events we think we know and understand. It’s more dangerous fiction, guaranteed to offend someone, and therefore highly desirable.

Peter Straub’s fragment, “Perdido,” is engrossing and superbly-written but nevertheless a disappointment because it simply goes nowhere. Fragments must strive to stand alone when used in an anthology, and this tale about a mysteriously magical resort for rich folks teases without even the pretense or illusion of resolution. While Straub’s presence is surely desirable, so would have been a complete story or at least a fragment with some sort of closure. Fortunately, to balance this misstep are strong efforts by Conrad Williams, Tom Piccirilli, Susan Fry, the legendary William F. Nolan, and Lisa Morton, among others.

Perhaps the greatest impact this volume will have on the genre will be its mere presence on bookstore shelves, helping restore visibility to names and themes not currently in favor. Ironically, one can argue that we need the grim cynicism of horror more now than ever. Greater in size and visibility than any of the preceding paperbacks, better distributed, better packaged, and with HWA information included at the back, THE MUSEUM OF HORRORS sets the stage for what one can hope will be even stronger efforts in future anthologies. As in figure skating, its score may be high but still leaves room above for the next contestants. DARK ARTS, you’re up.

Visit Bill’s web site for more reviews and other cool stuff!

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