Perhaps the easiest way to judge a book of horror is based on the criterion of whether it’s actually scary. By that criterion, Dangers Untold is not a work of horror, simply because it is not scary.
In less simple terms, there’s some fancy literary distinctions that provide an explanation of what exactly went wrong. Long ago, when big gloomy castles and mysterious passageways were just becoming the rage in a genre called Gothic, one of the founders of that genre, Ann Radcliffe, came up with a distinction between terror and horror. Horror, quite simply, is the response of revulsion at something disgusting, like a dead body. Terror, however, is that feeling of anticipation and anxiety elicited by a fear that is much more vague than concrete. Or, in less abstract terms, it’s that truly frightening tale that makes shivers go down your spine.
By that standard, Dangers Untold is a work of horror, which may be chock full of disturbing images and dead bodies, but has much less of that content which makes one’s skin crawl with suspense and possibility.
And yet my interest was drawn by this collection of tales precisely because I’d hoped it might avoid this pitfall. I read little horror, precisely because I find it a difficult and arduous task to seek out those stories which are truly frightening rather than bloody attempts to be so, and the description of this collection had sounded like an answer dropping out of the sky to my quandary.
It advertised itself as a collection of unexpected fears and frights rather than the usual monsters and zombies, and I’d hoped that I’d find here those things that are truly frightening: the everyday, the expected, the usual, transformed in such ways that the things you didn’t know you could fear became the stuff of your nightmares. And, though a few particular gems stand out from this collection as fitting that criterion, the majority are nothing but variations of a predictable formula of horror – so predictable that horror is far from one’s mind because it often feels as if one’s reading a guide to story structure rather than a story itself.
The collection gets off to an excellent start with an impressive story going by the unimpressive name of “Haunted.” It takes that word in quite a new sense: a man is haunted by his memories – all of his memories, for, possessing a photographic memory, he cannot forget. That’s not the scary twist in the story, though – I’m not spoiling the excellent, unanticipated climax. All I can say is, it more than lives up to the claims of this collection, making us fear ourselves rather than monsters.
Unfortunately, this excellent story is followed by a string of unimpressive tales, one so like the other that I have trouble distinguishing them one from the other as I pen this. A few tidbits stand out, mostly in the way that the monsters in the stories (yes, monsters) vary – from the horrors of the deep to pieces of technology turning into bugs, these may not be zombies and vampires, but they’re still the exact same monsters that do nothing scarier than leave a trail of blood.
Following this is “The Madness,” and if I thought the other tales in this collection read like formulas, this one takes the cake. It’s a short, 15-page story about a book driving to madness and murder anyone who reads it – a metaphor for the power of story that is perhaps as old as time, and a story that simply failed to elicit any other emotional response from me than a raised eyebrow of surprise that the author did not try harder.
Following this string of unimpressive attempts, however, is “Stone Heart, Vinyl Floors” – one of the true gems of the collection. It has it all: a house that is sentient rather than haunted, the dangerous, co-dependent relationship between the house and its inhabitant (which, if one wants to get literary, is a beautiful parallel for an abusive relationship), and even that sense of normality that pervades the story, making its supernatural aspects deliciously creepy. And yet there’s something incredibly human to it, too: rather than supernatural terrors, it offers us the fear of the human heart and the terror of devotion. It is not only terrifying, it is also tragic.
The next story of note, “The Dybbuk Wife,” begins with a predictable scenario: a husband loses his wife, who haunts him and refuses to move on even as her grieving husband seeks her presence. She’s a form of evil spirit (my Supernatural-watching self screamed at him to salt and burn her bones) – so far, predictable, and horror formula dictates his death in one gruesome way or another as he seeks union with his dead beloved. There’s a twist, however, and the irony is that the twist leeches anything frightening from the entire scenario out of the story, leaving a rather bland tale of moving on from loss.
Finally, the last two tales in the collection would be good tales, except that they are not horror stories. They are stories of the supernatural, certainly, and they both have definite strengths, but they do not feel like they belong in a collection of horror. “The Oracle Bone” tells of an artifact, passed down through generations of women, which is able to reveal infidelity – an interesting conception, but which perhaps would be much more horrifying if there was a human cost involved. “Man With a Canvas Bag,” though written in an excellent, engaging style, reads more as a nostalgic reminiscence – and a meditation on the existence of suffering in the world – than it does as a horror tale.
Perhaps a few of these tales could find their places in other anthologies, where their interesting twists and unique ideas could fit right in. The majority of these tales, unfortunately, can simply pass under the radar as yet another handful of unremarkable variations on the idea of monsters.