Anthologies of short stories are usually put together to honour the best of a particular genre for the past year. It's not uncommon therefore in January to see collections titled The Best Fantasy, or The Best Science Fiction being released by various publishers. In those instances the editor's job isn't really that difficult as they simply round up those stories that were either prize winners of runners up from the year in question and republish them with a little blurb on each author.
In recent years a new type of anthology has started to appear, especially in the fantasy genre, where authors are asked by an editor, or editors, to write a story according to a theme. These have included retellings of classic fairy tales, new takes on the hero myth, and other variations on that idea. Since this format has become popular, the name of one editor has become synonymous with the best of these collections. I don't know if Ellen Datlow was the first person to put together one of these anthologies, but her name as editor on one of these collections has become a guarantee that you're going to be reading a great collection of short fiction. It doesn't matter whether you've heard of any of the writers or not, because Datlow knows exactly which authors to approach for the type of story she has in mind for a particular collection and the results are always worth reading.
So when I saw that she was responsible for editing Poe, a collection of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe in honour of the two hundredth anniversary of his birth being published by Simon & Schuster Canada on January 6th, 2009, I knew that it would be a must read for anyone who liked the late, great master. Yet, even I was surprised at what I found within the pages of this book, as the stories exceeded all of my expectations.
The guidelines for each author were simple: write a story inspired by any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe in whatever setting you'd like. As one might expect, the results range all over the place with some stories being funny, others mysterious, and some downright macabre. Yet what each have in common is that one way or another they have managed to capture the spirit of what made Poe's stories so effective. More than just your common garden variety horror story, filled with creaking floorboards and knife wielding maniacs (although he had his fair share of them, too) Poe was famous for his ability to create atmosphere, and in their own way each tale in this collection rises to that challenge in grand style.
Kim Newman's "Illimitable Domain" provides a light touch as the opening story, and is as much an homage to the many cheesy film adaptations of Poe's work as the author himself. Written from the point of view of your almost stereotypical Hollywood agent, he represents a slightly gone to seed chimpanzee whose place in the sun has been taken by Bonzo and Cheetah, who latches onto a new way to grab his ten percent. When a low rent, low budget production company that specializes in three-day shoots is looking for a change of pace, he suggests the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Although the works are in the public domain, our erstwhile hero gets his cut by claiming to be the representative of a group that has registered Poe's name as a trademark and offering to negotiate rights to its use.
Once the company gets rolling producing Poe movies they can't stop. Initially it's because they are successful, but then mysteriously, no matter what movie they set out to make, Vincent Price ends up in the lead role and the plot turns into a variation on The Fall Of The House Of Usher. By turns funny and high camp, the story is a brilliant love letter to the tacky horror movies of the sixties where a heroine's quality was measured by how well she filled a sweater, and Technicolor was an excuse for buckets of blood.
Laird Barron's contribution, "Strappado", is far more traditional in its approach and leads the reader deep into familiar Poe territory. Our hero is part of a group of drunk, jaded thrill-seekers who come together while slumming with the "natives" in India. European and American jet setters looking for something off the beaten path, they first start in a bar catering to locals instead of staying in a designated tourist spot, then are lured to an underground "art" event. The big appeal is that the artist behind the event isn't even allowed into Great Britain because his work is so controversial. What the group doesn't know is that they won't be witnessing one of his "events", but are slated to be the next work of art.
Barron has cleverly recreated the feelings of impending doom that Poe was so adept at rousing in his readers. So while the characters in "Strappado" — through their arrogance and delusions of importance — willingly go to meet their fates, we see what they are too blind to realize it. If you've ever asked yourself how people go to their deaths so willingly in the concentration camps or in similar situations, this story gives an indication of just how easy it is to lead sheep to the slaughter.
The writer's have covered all the bases with their stories, from the gothic romance of Delia Sherman's "The Red Piano" — which reads like a typical Poe story although set in contemporary New York City, offering an explanation for the manner of Poe's early death (he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, stone cold sober, in somebody's else's clothes) in E. Catherine Tobler's "Beyond Porch And Portal" — to Melanie Tem's surreal take on "The Raven", entitled "The Pickers". Part of the fun is trying to guess which story, or aspect of Poe's life, inspired individual authors to write what they did. Unless you're a Poe scholar, intimate with all his writings including his essays, there are some stories that will stump you; however, each author has written an afterward that explains their choices, so that mystery will at least be cleared up.
Poe has been credited with writing the first ever mystery story, The Murders In The Rue Morgue, and his stories have been the inspiration for many a horror and dark fantasy writer over the years. The 19 stories commissioned by Ellen Datlow for the collection Poe are works of mystery and imagination that not only do justice to the author they celebrate, but are fine stories in their own right. Datlow has once again shown an uncanny talent for approaching just the right writers for the task at hand, as not one disappoints.