I’ve had the privilege of reviewing a fair number of books over the last few years - and yes, I do consider it a privilege when someone sends me a book and asks me to publicly share my opinion of it, especially considering they don’t know if my opinion is going to be good or bad. There’s a trust and an expectation of fairness inherent in the whole situation, and for that reason I want to do each book I am able to review justice. If I think the book is good, I want to be as specific as possible as to why I think that. If I’m not in love with it, I want to be equally specific. I think that’s only fair to the authors and publishers who’ve worked so hard to get their project finished and out in the world.
That’s proven difficult for me when it comes to anthologies and collections. In those, you’re dealing with multiple stories (and, in most cases, multiple authors), which makes it a little harder for me to comment on the book as a whole. If the book has a few more stories that I like over the number I don’t like, is it successful? What if I hate most of the stories, but really, really love a handful of them?
I’ve been contemplating how to approach this for a while now (and, as a result, have several anthologies sitting on my desk that I’ve been dying to get to), and I thought I’d give this approach a try: I’m going to review a couple of anthologies here on October Country story by story. I realize I’m not breaking new ground here. I’ve seen reviews that list every story in a book and give sentence or two about it. But I’m going to write a short entry on each story to try and give it a little more depth. Once I’ve gone through all the stories in the book, I’ll do a little wrap-up/overview of the whole thing.
I feel like I’ve already spent too much space explaining my “system” here, so I’m going to dive in. The stories I’ll be reviewing over the next month or so come from The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan, and A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones. As always, your comments on this little experiment of mine, as well as on the individual reviews themselves, are appreciated.
“The Moons” by Ramsey Campbell
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011
Ramsey Campbell once again proves that a stealthy approach to horror can be just as discomforting as any in-your-face gorefest with this, the leadoff story in The Devil’s Coattails. In “The Moons,” a young boy named Stuart is urged to get out of the house by his disinterested parents. Most of the neighborhood kids are together at a nearby house, and when Stuart – an outsider who’s barely comfortable in his own skin, much less in a group – arrives, they are dealing with a near-hysterical girl named Valencia who is upset over the loss of a bracelet. When he gathers that she may have lost it at a nearby beach, Stuart takes a chance and suggests they go look for it as a group. Presumably having nothing better to do, the other kids agree and off they go.
Once there, the kids are almost immediately beset upon by some older, tougher boys who begin to hassle them with vague threats about stealing their cell phones and roughing them up for fun. The besieged group makes its way towards a parking lot where they assume they will find some adults, then detour in the woods when they see a man in a green ranger’s uniform beckoning them on.
The ranger calls himself Woodward, and it’s not long before Stuart begins to wonder if he’s more of a threat than the boys who were chasing them. His apprehension grows as Woodward begins to speak cryptically about their journey through his woods while leading them in circles. When Stuart begins voicing his concerns to the group, his outsider status once again comes into play. Nobody listens, and when he finally breaks away to find his own way home, nobody tries to stop him – and nobody follows.
Campbell slowly turns the screws on us as the story progresses, from dread when Woodward first shows up to near desperation as we realize the kids are marching willingly into his trap. Even the palpable relief we feel when Stuart leaves the group is tinged with sadness when we come to fully understand the aftermath of his escape.
All in all, “The Moons” is an evocative, creepy opener for The Devil’s Coattails, and sets a tone that I hope the rest of the stories are able to maintain.