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25 November 2009

Review: Harlan County Horrors

For me, the short story format is the ideal format for horror.  The necessary brevity of the format seems to concentrate the power of fear into a gut punch.  It may have something to do with the fact that a short story can be consumed in a single sitting, and the immediacy of the experience is not lost like the drawn out process of reading a novel.
Even my favorite authors in the genre (e.g. Stephen King, Clive Barker) consistently deliver better in their shorter works (although their longer work is still way beyond the average), and the masters of the format such as Robert Bloch, Lovecraft and Karl Edward Wagner can communicate more in the space of a few hundred words than many other authors can in an entire novel.
So, if the short story is the proper meal for horror, then a collection of short stories is a feast, and an anthology is a proper banquet.  Nothing serves up quite as well, in my opinion, as a selection of dishes from a variety of authors, and in that regard, "Harlan County Horrors" truly satisfies.

"Harlan County Horrors", edited by Apex submissions editor Mari Adkins, is a recent anthology from Apex Books, with all the stories centering on events in and around the mining region of Harlan County, Kentucky, an area apparently well known for its ghost stories.  Aside from that uniting factor, the stories in the collection are on a cornucopia of subjects and themes, from demon dogs and Chinese vampires to dark science fiction and true love gone awry.  A lot of horror tropes a put to good and novel use in these stories, while cliche is generally skiilfully avoided, making each story an exploration for the reader.
The authors for this anthology are the cream of Apex's alumni, who really shine in these works.  Alethea Kontis's "Witch of Black Mountain" is a dark romance that is equally poetic and macabre, while Geoffrey Girard's "Psychomachia" is a bleak humanistic tale built on coal mining, and Ronald Kelly's "The Thing at the Side of the Road" is a fast-paced and bloody monster story worthy of Bloch.  Apex publisher Jason Sizemore even comes through with a nasty little surprise in the story "Yellow Warblers".  With these and the other authors that make up the dozen in the book, it's practically guaranteed that any fan of horror tales will find something pleasing here, although I don't think that any discerning reader will be disappointed by any of these stories.
Honestly, when I first saw this book listed on their store page, I thought it would hold little to interest me.  I didn't know anything about Harlan County, and couldn't see myself caring what these authors had to say about it.  However, given the price it was selling for on Fictionwise, and the strength of previous works I had read by some of these authors, I thought it would be at least worth a try.  I'm glad I did.  "Harlan County Horrors" is one of those books that I cherish while reading, and will recall fondly long after I'm done.

"Harlan County Horrors" is available in print version from Apex's store where you can preview the story "Yellow Warblers", or in ebook version from Fictionwise or the Amazon Kindle store.  For cost and portability, I recommend the Fictionwise version, but to each their own.  In any version, it' well worth a look.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Dominic said...

I've updated the post just slightly because I forgot to give credit due to Mari (see previous comment) as editor of the anthology.