Harlan County Horrors Paperback – Sep 9 2009
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
In "Harlan County Horrors", all the stories center 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 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.
I could write about individual stories, but others have already done that. Instead, I am going to let you consider what it means to think about horror stories from the point of view of an eastern or southeastern Kentuckian.
I am originally from Manchester, Kentucky, a town whose place in the world was forged historically first through salt mines and then through coal mines. So when I read a story about the Lovecraftian Terrors of Deep Mining, or of the local preacher being surrounded by real evil and monsters, and the monsters that dwell within ordinary people, or of a love curse connected to the pits of the mines and the accidents that surround them, this sends more of a chill up my spine than to hear of some alien creature coming up out of the waters near Boston. I feel this more bacause I have family members working in the mines now. This world is not distant to me.
If you like horror stories and are from or live in eastern Kentucky, where the deep mines have claimed the lives of kin without the aid of monsters, I guarantee these stories will make your spine chill.
I CHALLEGE you to read this book and not react.
But make sure the coal lamp is filled to light your way, you may have a hard time coming back out!
Anthologies are always an iffy prospect for me. I love them, don't get me wrong - my favourite series of books, WILD CARDS edited by GRRM, started out as anthologies only and still maintains that dynamic through most of the various series that make up the franchise. However, any anthology risks having a dissonance in the voices of the various authors - sometimes that works for the project, sometimes that kills it. A good editor is needed to balance that out, by pacing the various stories for the best reading experience.
Generally, I'm a read one book at a time sorta guy - however, with this anthology, since the stories weren't tied together (like, say, Thieves World or Wild Cards), I read one or two stories out of here, then read a novella, read some more stories, read another novella, and so on, until I finished this book.
There are some very creepy stories in here. I liked most of them, though a few did fall short of good for me. Still, in a collection of twelve stories (and one essay about Harlan County, the real life setting of these stories), we're talking a success rate of 83% (85% if you include the essay) - honestly, that's way better than most anthologies I've read.
A little about the subject matter - I wasn't sure how much I was going to enjoy these stories. I like horror just fine, but sometimes what gets published as Southern Horror is not my cuppajoe. I've read a couple novels/novellas over the past couple years that captured the stifling horror of the hot summer in the South - TOO WELL. So much so that the story was not pleasant to read. At all.
I am happy to say that this is not the case with HARLAN COUNTY HORRORS. Yes, there are uncomfortable stories, but the writing is pleasant, enjoyable, accessible. I've been debating whether to give this a four or five star rating; my original thought was a five star rating would have been every story rocking my world, but I think the quality of the majority of them more than made up for the ones that did not tickle my fancy, and I'm going with five stars.
"Psychomachia", by Geoffery Girard, in which a boy watches a creeping, dark madness overtake his family and everyone else working in the mines. "Yellow Warblers", by Jason Sizemore, which tells of the deadly consequences of an isolated town's xenophobia, in an alien-occupied Earth. "Kingdom Come", by Jeremy C. Shipp, a tale of manipulated identity, where memories can't be trusted - Shipp at his usual, mind-twisting best. "Trouble Among the Yearlings", by Maurice Broaddus, recounts the inevitability of dark family secrets. "Greater of Two Evils", by Stephen L. Shewsbury, is an excellent Lovecraftian tale told in a contemporary voice.
"Harlan County" ends with perhaps its strongest story, "The Witch of Black Mountain", a dark, enchanting bit of folklore written by New York Times Bestseller Alethea Kontis. Here, a young woman scorned undertakes a dangerous journey in search of death, resolution, revenge - but instead encounters and inherits an ages-old legacy, one which gives her new, dark purpose.
Bright spots include the tales "The Witch of Black Mountain" by Alethea Kontis, "The Power of Moonlight" by Debbie Kuhn, and "Greater of Two Evils" by Steven L. Shrewsbury.
A truly fine collection of stories that will send you out on a search for more tales by the authors collected within.