It had to be the easiest editing gig of all time; in fact, editor Joe R. Lansdale says so in his introduction to The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners. "There wasn't any real editing to do," he writes. "The stories were already chosen by the awards committee, and they were all good."
The awards committee in question is that of the Horror Writers Association, the professional organization of horror writers that chooses the winners of the annual Bram Stoker awards. These awards are bestowed in a variety of categories, from novel to nonfiction to short fiction. It's that last category which is focused on in this collection, a book that has had a surprisingly difficult path to publication.
How difficult? Well, the last represented winner comes from 1996. Lansdale's introduction is copyrighted two years after that, which still makes it 13 years old. These factors might work against some collections, but not this one; the lack of recent work in no way diminishes the intent, which is to curate a handful of important genre works. While stories like Lansdale's own "Night They Missed the Horror Show" and Jack Ketchum's "The Box" have been reprinted numerous times, there are stories like Jack Cady's "The Night We Buried Road Dog" and Thomas Ligotti's "Red Tower" that may not be as familiar to horror fans, and as such are welcome finds.
Of the thirteen stories represented here, George R.R. Martin's "The Pear-Shaped Man" was the most exciting find for me. Martin, best known for his fantasy work, shows he can pull off quiet, creepy horror with the best of them in this tale of a strange, lonely, basement-dwelling man and his suspicious upstairs neighbor. Jessie is a professional illustrator, a woman who makes her living with her imagination, which is one reason her friends and colleagues find it hard to take seriously her mistrust of the gross but seemingly harmless hermit living below her. Her obsession with him grows as he finds his way into her work, her dreams, and maybe even her apartment, until finally her friends force a confrontation with disastrous results.
Robert Bloch, a shoe-in as a horror hall of famer thanks to Psycho, contributes a surprisingly gory vampire tale set in the hills and shadows of Old Hollywood. His vampires are unlike any you've seen before, grotesque creatures without a hint of romance about them and with a strategy for survival that's as disturbing as it is effective.
The only stumble for this reviewer came with "The Boy Who Came Back from the Dead," a 1987 tale from Alan Rodgers. It's a bittersweet story of a young man who returns home nearly a year after his death. No one can explain it, but no one can deny that he's there, in the flesh. He's returned with his personality intact and without the craving for human flesh that one might expect, but he's haunted by the memory of his time in the ground – and of the alien creatures that brought him back to life. Rodgers' approach just felt a tad too light, and the science fiction elements didn't seem to fit the overall mix.
All in all, despite the tardiness of the collection and the occasional misstep, this is a book that lives up to its ambitious title. Thanks should go to Cemetery Dance for rescuing this book from publication limbo – it's a great way to revisit some classics and discover the more unfamiliar works that deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Highly recommended.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country (http://theoctobercountry.wordpress.com), and contributes interviews to the Horror World website (www.horrorworld.org). Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.