So there's this idea out there that every story that can be written has been written, and there's no truly new or innovative story left. It may be true that there are some well-worn paths through the Forest of Story, and it may even be that there's a superhighway shooting through it (I think I'll call it Chosen One Road, with major routes through the towns of Don't Go Down There It's Not Safe and Happily Ever After....Or Was It?). I am even a champion of the idea that you don't have to be original in your ideas and plots in order to tell a good story. Shakespeare wasn't. It's just that he knew how to treat a story right. (Most of the time. I still think Much Ado About Nothing is a bit of a hot mess.)
Anyway, I've been doing my best to do a lot of short story reading lately, and in the name of having complete coverage in the field of horror, I picked up The Century's Best Horror Fiction (Vols. 1 and 2), edited by John Pelan. This monster of an anthology is unwieldy, my friends. It is not the kind of book you take with you on the bus. It is a commitment.
The fact is, though, that it is also lovingly and knowledgeably curated. Pelan's task was to select one story from each of the years of the 20th century, the best that each year had to offer. His only limit was that any given author could only be represented once. The stories are absolutely wonderful. The results are well worth reading. (Sure, you can pick up some of the more popular early stories online for free, but you can't get them all, and you won't get Pelan's terrific editorial notes on each one. I've worked on similar anthologies in the past. It is a lot of painstaking work to put something like this together.)
What's really interesting about the earlier stories is that among them are some of the best-worn horror tropes. (He was really a ghost! Be careful what you wish for! The family curse is real!) There are also some stories that are just quirky enough or somehow maybe not easily represented on film or...something...that I've never quite seen their type before. For sheer audacity of storytelling and a pretty creepy use of a framing device, you must read Arthur Machen's "The White People." If you haven't read it before (and I hadn't), you're in for a treat. Last night Dave and I read "Thurnley Abbey" by Perceval Landon, a writer Pelan identifies as a kind of one hit wonder. Despite a long preamble, "Thurnley Abbey" is such a revelation. I was really glad that I was reading it aloud to Dave, since it has a moment of such total absurdity that I needed a witness to share it with me. Really weird ghost story.
It's just so nice to know that, once upon a time, there was something that could maybe only have been said in that storytelling moment, and it was said, and it was a pretty unique thing unto itself. I don't want to say more than that, because I don't want to spoil it for you guys if you're inclined to go read either of those stories. If you've read them, let's discuss in the comments.