Book Review: A World of Horror ed. by Eric J. Guignard

Mixed author anthologies, for me, have always been a hit or miss endeavor. With a single-author collection, you have the opportunity to tell a larger story through many shorts. It’s musical—think of how a great album feels, how it flows from one song to the next, how it presents its themes across songs—the subtle ways they repeat and therefore cement themselves. It is truly a We are Legion scenario. Together, the stories in a single-author collection are stronger than if they were apart. In a multi-author collection, a theme is often given to present some sort of cohesion, but it’s a perfunctory move: this isn’t an album, it’s a greatest hits. Which is to say, we’re here to sample many voices in one go, and hopefully come away with a couple more names to play I Spy with in the horror section. But, the nature of the game, again, is hit or miss.

A World of Horror, compiled by Eric J. Guignard, has a noble aim: to break the anglo-American stronghold on the genre by featuring horrors from across the world by a cadre of international, and therefore under-represented authors. Even more diverse, over half the authors are women, breaking another barrier of the genre. But, the other curse of the multi-author anthology is that it relies on a curator. It’s a way for the editor, the silent, but authoritative voice, to present their own vision of what good work means—and as with most things, depending on taste, your results may vary.

There’s no easy way to say it: A World of Horror is uneven. There are twenty-two stories here, and not all of them are good. A  few feel inconsequential—as if they were written in response to a submission call without much thought but to represent their geography. These stories are what you expect: short riffs on local folklore without enough arc or direction for them to transcend. That being said, A World of Horror does knock it out of the park occasionally, and while it frustrated me for the first half, the second half largely delivered some not-just-good, but truly great worldly tales.

Some of the bigger names of this anthology deliver in spades; Nadia Bulkin, representing Indonesia, while not operating at She Said Destroy level, still delivers a worthy story with “Things I Do For Love.”. David Nickle (Canada) writes the first true standout of the collection, “On a Wooden Plate, On a Winter’s Night,” a weird and highly unsettling story that scares largely through conversation. But it’s Kaaron Warren (Australia) who raises the bar with her story “Sick Cats in Small Spaces.” While it may seem unfair to catalog the anglophone stories higher than the rest, I can’t help but wonder if that their success is based more on the language they happen to know than anything else. Still, it’s Warren’s story that leads us blazing into a handful of strong showings that hold their own just fine against some of the big names.

“Obibi,” representing Uganda, from Dilman Dila is a clear triumph of the collection—in it, is the promise of everything the phrase “A World of Horror” conjures. It’s the story of a child born crippled, and the shakey ground he stands on within his community—a community that kills or casts out deformities. It combines unique monster folklore with an interesting character arc that leads us toward a strange and horrifying ending.

Most of the stories are brief, and here, the briefest tend to shine the brightest. The flash fiction in A World of Horror is some of the best I’ve seen. The second of the outings representing South Africa, “Chemirocha” by Charlie Human, tells the story of a pop song anthropomorphized who must meet his sister. It’s weird, short, and not specifically scary, but it incorporates some cool music history into its lore and comes out as one of the stronger stories in the collection. “Warning: Flammable, See Back Label” by Marcia Douglas (Jamaica) explores the dirty history of rum in a disturbing and accusatory second-person ghost story. This story might also best represent the specific horrors of its country through history—but ultimately, its great writing that puts it over the top.

The crown jewel in the collection, and the one that I’ll probably remember best in years to come, is “The Man at Table Nine” by Ray Clulely (England). It’s a sort of modern twist on the vampire story, although the vampire-like character is depicted from a pretty unique angle. It follows a Polish waitress who does her best to speak English and get along in a new country that doesn’t seem to want her. Then, one night, a strange customer arrives who keeps ordering food and wine that he doesn’t eat or drink—instead, he takes Polaroids; then, cuts them up and eats them. The story is in the details though. It can be read as social satire (who doesn’t instagram their food anymore?), it can be see as an inversion of Stoker’s Dracula (this time, it’s an Englishman haunting an immigrant), or it’s a dark painting of xenophobia and the working class in modern London. This depth makes “The Man at Table Nine” one of the most complete entries in A World of Horror.

There’s enough good in A World of Horror to suggest Mr. Guignard has some pretty solid taste. There are some extreme highs in this collection, stories that explore their country’s national identity—with nuance and craft to spare—that fulfill the anthology’s central promise exceptionally. Others, are so fleeting or inconsequential they feel like padding—and that is the collection’s largest problem: A World of Horror, would be a stronger tome with less stories. Eleven great stories, rather than twenty-two that run the gamut from bad to okay, forgettable to classic. Still, for readers interested in fear beyond their own borders, A World of Horror can be a valuable asset with some fantastic highlights. But with a little pruning, this mixed collection of greatest hits could’ve won a Grammy.  

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