[Editor's note: this anthology has recently won the 2003 International Horror Guild Award for best anthology, and one of the stories in it, Glen Hirshberg's "Dancing Men," also won in the category of medium-length fiction. This review originally appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction. This is its first appearance on the web.]
In her introduction to The Dark, editor Ellen Datlow says she set out to create an anthology filled exclusively with scary ghost stories. If that was her goal, The Dark failed. Only a very few of these stories were scary, or indeed, seemed intended to frighten. However, what this collection does, it does well.
The rest of Datlow's brief introduction speculates on the relationship between ghosts and darkness, and sketches a quick outline of the ghost story's rich history. This sketch is then fleshed out by the brief statements following each story in which the author names his or her favorite ghost stories. These statements are intriguing in themselves, and for the glimpses they offer into each author's psyche. Their educated variety offers an indication of where The Dark succeeds. The sixteen original ghost stories in The Dark explore the myriad variations on the theme of darkness—bleak and savage emotions, the dying of the light with age and violence, types of blindness, and of course, literal darkness—while providing a primer of the various reasons ghosts keep showing up in stories. In The Dark, readers meet ghosts who are externalizations of internal states, ghosts who sum up a time or place, ghosts who "live" to complete past loves, hates, and relationships, ghosts who are the faces of deals with the supernatural, ghosts who are quick jolts of black humor, ghosts who are instruments of fate and justice, and, rarest of all, ghosts are truly uncanny, and truly frightening.
When are we afraid of ghosts? When are we even open to their presence? Historically, it has been when we are not just alone, but isolated. However, isolation is getting harder and harder to come by in the Information Age, so it's worth noting how these stories manage it. In the collection's first story, Jeffrey Ford's "The Trentino Kid," the isolation is twofold. First, the narrator is at a crisis point, a time just after high school when he's trying to figure out who he is and how he should live. Secondly, although the story set in the early seventies, he's telling this story thirty years later, now facing a second death related crisis point, that of mid-life. But that's just the perspective. The story, and the core isolation, is that of identity and the sea. The narrator is an intellectual trying to find himself and make money by clamming; the Trentino kid—the ghost that gives the story its title and climax—is the son of working class immigrants, and died in that bay. Like many ghost stories, Ford's is really two or three stories projected atop one another, though what drives them all, and makes it work, is the feel of the sea, and the desperate timeless attempt to escape the sea and the Trentino kid... who never did escape.
In Tanith Lee's "The Ghost of the Clock," we're given another young first person narrator in search of money and identity, this one female, again isolated by circumstance. In this case, the isolation is more immediately distasteful and threatening; Laura has gone to live with her rich Aunt Jennifer, who is also mean, in all senses of the word. Their living arrangements immediately become a vicious domestic war, in which the titular clock is both symbol and player. In this fresh and rather strange story, a familiar sub-theme is played out; family hatreds wake larger, older things, and personal clashes interweave with non-human, or post-human forces.
These larger forces define several other stories in the collection, and remind us of other characteristic elements of the ghost stories, namely that we see ghosts when our perceptions vary from the norm (or are allowed to vary), that opening ourselves to these larger perceptions changes us in fundamental ways, and that these changes occur more intensely in certain locations, especially those linked to the past. All of these are true about one of the collection's gems, Terry Dowling's "One Thing About the Night." Several stories do a good job of slowing their paces when the narrator encounters the ghost, but none do it so wonderfully as Dowling. In this story, investigators find an undisturbed psychomantium, a building constructed to give access to the soul. Though these investigators use all the tools modern science provides, the story suggests, in a quiet but convincing fashion, that there are ways in which the human spirit is the trigger for these uncanny experiences with the beyond. That all sounds both familiar and abstract, but let me assure you this story is neither; the final pages, in which seconds crawl by and the solitary seeker confronts the dark, are genuinely creepy.
By contrast, the next two stories did not frighten at all. Instead, Mike O'Driscoll's "The Silence of the Falling Stars" did a wonderful job of showing how personal and geographic...climate? intersect. This story could only be set in the desert, and the opening image, in which a man's desiccated body turns to dust at a touch, is symbolic of the whole story. The desert is barely human at the best of times, and when the first person narrator (yet another) tells his story, it's one in which the expanses of human emotion get locked up with the dry, silent, heat-distorted cycles of the desert. Gahan Wilson's "The Dead Ghost" is the lightest story in the collection, about, as the title suggests, a dead ghost. It was a welcome break, and produced a smile; in tone it was very close to Wilson's wonderful cartoons, in which the strange and impossible are played for laughs.
Following O'Driscoll's story, Wilson's story, which is presented as one story told in a string of stories at a party of some sort, accents the degree to which ghost stories are personal narratives. Whether told for fun or to scare, they always force the reader (or fictional listener) into a place of doubt, so that at some point, the question is not just "What really happened?" but "Is there something wrong with the person telling me this?" Two of the collection's stories highlight this question, Stephen Gallagher's "Doctor Hood" and Joyce Carol Oates's "Subway." Gallagher's story is one of the few told in the third person, and it focuses on Miranda, who goes home to find her father investigating ghosts. In this story, there is genuine fear, but it is Miranda's, not the reader's; Gallagher gives us a fine portrait of a woman achingly afraid that her mother's death has shattered her father's mind. In the end, it hasn't— there's a real ghost, and several touching twists of love and competence are woven into the resolution— but that fear opens the story like a gust of cold air where there should be none.
By contrast, both Oates's story and Charles L. Grant's "Brownie and Me" are told from the ghost's point of view. It's unfortunate that they are in this collection. Each is well-told, and would have carried considerable mystery had they been encountered in other circumstances. Grant's narrator sounds so normal and human that I would have taken him for a your average guy, whereas Oates foregrounds the pain of urban isolation so much that I would have taken the narrator for a common, but living, tragedy. Reading them in this context, their edge was blunted. Kathe Koja's "Velocity" is just as modern, but far less common—and we have far more reason to worry about the speaker. Alternating between a question and answer interview with an artist and short, focused descriptive passages about the Red House, the site where he creates his art, "Velocity" provides an original take on the ghost, appearing as it does in the artist's art, and through the sort of "negative space" created by his denial of its influence.
Jack Cady is a well-known Northwest writer, and, just as O'Driscoll's "The Silence of the Falling Stars" could only be set in the desert, Cady's "Seven Sisters" could only be set in the moist vegetation of the Northwest. Even though Cady sets the story in a "worn town on the Washington coast" that has access to the ocean and is clearly dying, one reason the story feels so creepy is that he captures the claustrophobic feeling of temperate rainforest so well. Everything and everyone in the story feels crowded up against one another, and even as the main characters deal with age and the returning past, part of what they're dealing with and threatened by is a fecundity that feels almost unnatural in itself. Everything has something else growing on it—moss, lichens, ferns—or dripping from it—fog, again, moss, rain—why not a ghost? It's just as intrusive and ill-defined. To that regional flavor Cady adds several variations on deals with the devil, an entire haunted housing development, and striking senior heroes.
If we open to the ghosts when we are alone, distorted, open to the other, when do they come to us? Most often, legends tell us, they return when something was left undone in life, when the living fail those who have passed on, and/or when passions too great to be contained by death have been released. Several of the remaining stories return to these traditional roots. Sharyn McCrumb's "The Gallows Necklace" is one of my favorites from The Dark. This story is lovingly wrought in the quiet tradition of M. R. James, and is one of the few recent stories that is weird in older sense of the word. As this story unfolds, there is a sense of a fate larger than individual choice at work, its wheels turning inexorably...ah!
Two other stories are driven by something closer to vengeance, Daniel Abraham's "An Amicable Divorce" and Ramsey Campbell's "Feeling Remains." Abraham's story is nicely nasty, mostly a ghost that is an externalization of anger over a failed relationship, but Campbell's story, well, it is genuinely disturbing. When I read Campbell, it is with at least two different types of awe. On one hand, I'm impressed with him as a writer. His characters express class origins, philosophical allegiances, and internal weaknesses, all in the same line of dialogue. On the other hand, I'm creeped out by his ability to go into the genuinely dark places of the spirit, and for his characters to go there and come to feel at home, and rather quickly. Reading Campbell is exciting, and disturbing on a very real level. When I'm done, I feel a little unclean, and that the world isn't as trustworthy as I thought.
Equally disturbing, though in very different ways, are the three remaining stories in the collection. Glen Hirshberg "Dancing Men" fuses two very different haunting pasts to original ends. One, the Navajo culture, is haunting because of ghosts produced by age, producing a kind of dry and ethereal haunting. The other is the fresh pain of the Holocaust, and the ghosts that still live among us due to its pain. Time, pain, and guilt loop back on themselves in an intercultural, intergenerational knot of pain. It's not an easy story, but it is a fine one.
By contrast, Lucius Shepard's "Limbo" is easy, at least at the beginning. It starts like a crime caper, and a fairly lighthearted one, with a likeable criminal on the lam hiding out away from it all. When he meets an ethereal, luminous woman early in the story, I was disappointed. It was too easy, she too obviously a ghost, and, I, I soon learned, too lazy a reader. Shepard took the hardboiled cliché of a dangerous man and woman who was death (and who technically belonged to someone else) seriously and literally. For them to get to sex was strange enough, but when Roy Shellane, his heart twisted around and opened up by Grace the ghost, turns his criminal skills to busting Grace out of limbo, things get seriously weird. The dark and foggy landscape in which Shellae stumbles around is at once as weird as anything from Hodgson and an appropriate metaphor for all the tough guy romances that ever were, as is the dark ending.
If the wonder of Shepard's story is how he transforms well-known fictional tropes into something new and disturbing, the wonder of Kelly Link's story "The Hortlak" is how well she transforms the all too familiar contemporary urban landscape into something equally disturbing. "The Hortlak" is mostly set in and around a convenience store in upstate New York, close enough to the Canadian border that the store often serves Canadians, and sufficiently adrift in the slipstream that they serve zombies even more often. Are these real zombies? I'm not sure. They might be the desperate homeless, but the ghosts are real, or should be, as one of the major character makes her living putting dogs to sleep at the animal shelter. Before she does, however, she takes them for a last drive around the city. Because she loves them. If that image doesn't haunt you, and doesn't make you say, "Well, of course she'd be haunted by that," you're a stronger person than I. I should add that I'm not fond of slipstream stories; they seem too often self-indulgent, and lazy. But the florescent, shifting unreality of "The Hortlak" offers a such striking lens upon contemporary urban reality that I couldn't imagine changing it.
In the end, where does this trip through The Dark leave us? Is there a place for ghost stories in this new millennium? Oh yes. Writers who write stories about things that go bump in the night may have to work harder to scare us (only Campbell and McCrumb did so for me). But time and again in this collection, these authors aren't trying to scare us so much as to unsettle us. The ghost proves a disturbing and vital (forgive the pun) way, as Emily Dickinson urged us, to "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." These ghosts show us how much darkness there is in the human heart, and how much bleakness in human society, and how much the past lingers, and all of these are so important and scary.