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The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20 by Stephen Jones
Review by Liz de Jager
Robinson Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781845299323
Date: 15 October 2009 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The latest Steve Jones Best New Horror anthology is the twentieth in this hugely significant series and the stellar content from names both new and familiar only serves to reaffirm the importance of this volume to the entire canon of horror fiction.

"The year's best, and darkest, tales of terror, showcasing the most outstanding new short stories and novellas by contemporary masters of the macabre, including the likes of Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Brian Keene, Tanith Lee, Elizabeth Massie, Kim Newman, Michael Marshall Smith, and Gene Wolfe.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror also includes a comprehensive annual overview of horror around the world in all its incarnations; an impressively researched necrology; and a list of indispensable contact addresses for the dedicated horror fan and aspiring writer alike. It is required reading for every fan of macabre fiction."

The anthology opens up with Stephen Jones' in depth look at horror in 2008 – nothing seems to have escaped his notice and he unflinchingly mentions both the high and low of this favourite genre.

Twenty one short stories by established authors are crammed into this anthology. Some succeed beyond my expectations whilst some are merely good and one or two are a bit dull and maybe self-indulgent.

Highlights include Paul Finch's "The Old Traditions Are The Best" in which we are confronted with the Morris men and the hobby horse tradition which is still quite popular in a lot of towns in and around Great Britain. The story is revamped for modern times, with a twist in the tale which is thoroughly readable. Fans of anything remotely witchy and pagan will get a kick out of this.

"Through The Cracks" by Gary McMahon has us examining our own small superstitions, things you try not to think about too much, i.e. only wearing red on Wednesdays, not stepping on cracks. The story is involved, dark and scary and one that stays with you a little longer than most.

Tanith Lee offers us the fantastically weird and creepy (no, seriously) tale of "Under Fog" in which the residents of the small town of Hampp make their living by salvaging goods from shipwrecks. So far, so 1800s Cornwall and Devon, you may think until the story gets turned on the residents and a spectral ship comes to visit. A really good supernatural horror which leaves you itching just that little bit behind the ears with unease.

"Feminine Endings" by Neil Gaiman deserved two readings. The second one was to make sure I got what he was getting at. The man is a mystery and in this short, which turns out to be a love letter to a mysterious girl, by none other than a human statue, he adds lashing of weirdness to his narrator's story. It is an odd, strangely disturbing, Tim Burton of a story and one that freaked me out just a little.

Ramsey Campbell, the grand-daddy of horror writers, (if Stephen King is king,) offers us "The Long Way". We've all walked past weird eerie houses in the past, or maybe a graveyard. In "The Long Way" a young boy with an over-active imagination starts seeing shapes in a deserted house. These shapes start moving. Is what he is seeing real, or is it his imagination? An excellent example of Campbell playing with our insecurities and self-doubt in a dark creepy story that is definitely not for kids.

The rest of the shorts in this anthology are all good examples of what our authors can do so well and some excel at. I couldn't help but feel though that unless you are a dedicated horror fan, some of these may leave you cold, purely because they feel a little false. I felt particularly this way about "It Runs Beneath The Surface" by Simon Stranzas – the writing, please note, is of excellent quality, but the world weary tone only serves to bring you down even more and to be honest, horror isn't about being down, it's about thrill, excitement, terror, horror and dread. We have to feel something, everything! Another short I'd like to point out is Christopher Fowler's "Arkangel" - it manages to save itself towards the end but the feeling was that he relied heavily on a cliché of two westerners visiting a small Polish town, then getting into trouble, a la Hostel. Again, the mastery of writing is there, just not the belief in the actual story.

These are small gripes – of a personal nature – but overall The Mammoth Book of Horror 20 is definitely a worthwhile purchase for the shelf of any horror fan. Cleverly released in time for Halloween, this is one of those books you buy to read because the weather is drawing in and the nights are getting longer and those shadows are definitely moving, aren't they?

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