Epeolatry Book Review: Christmas and Other Horrors Edited by Ellen Datlow
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Title: Christmas and Other Horrors: An Anthology of Solstice Horror
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Titan Books
Release date: October 24, 2023
Synopsis: Hugo Award winning editor, and horror legend, Ellen Datlow presents a terrifying and chilling horror anthology of original short stories exploring the endless terrors of winter solstice traditions across the globe, featuring chillers by Tananarive Due, Stephen Graham Jones, Alma Katsu and many more.
The winter solstice is celebrated as a time of joy around the world—yet the long nights also conjure a darker tradition of ghouls, hauntings, and visitations. This anthology of all-new stories invites you to huddle around the fire and revel in the unholy, the dangerous, the horrific aspects of a
time when families and friends come
together—for better and for worse.
From the eerie Austrian Schnabelperchten to the skeletal Welsh Mari Lwyd, by way of ravenous golems, uncanny neighbors, and unwelcome visitors, Christmas and Other Horrors captures the heart and horror of the festive season.
Because the weather outside is frightful, but the fire inside is hungry…
Featuring stories from:
Stephen Graham Jones
[Spoiler alert: Don’t open your Christmas present early. There may be some dropped hints here that mess up the surprise for some of these stories, so if you want to avoid that, just stop reading now, and give yourself a perfect Christmas gift: buy the book.]
Do you nail up your house at Christmas? Do you close the drapes against the brightest sun of the year? Do you self-consciously, ironically, call a near-Christmas get-together that avoids the seasonal trappings, but delivers the same forced bonhomie and social unease? Or does your meet-the-parents Christmas turn into a literally pressure-cooked nightmare?
In case you didn’t already have enough reason to dread the Season of Good Fear, Ellen Datlow, who has pulled together brilliant anthologies on just about every other horror trope under the sun, has assembled a Christmas garland of 17 originally commissioned tales – all of them, interestingly, copyrighted 2023, and as fresh as the winter’s first snows. The fact that she’s been able to pull together such a sterling collection from such a top-rank stable of authors speaks to the lasting power of the season to energize writers’ fancies – and frequently, to lay bare the dark, cold ironies beneath the tinsel.
Christmas has that wonderfully ambivalent edge to it that makes it a gift for the horror writer, perhaps even more than the one-dimensional flavour of Halloween. It’’ a time when ancient traditions thrust themselves into the contemporary world, and childhood, childish tales and taboos take on sudden, deadly force, as with the Schnabelperchten in Christopher Golden’s opening tale, or the most familiar Christmas figure of all, as in Benjamin Percy’s “The Ones He Takes”. It’s a time when our superficial accommodations to modernity and maturity drop away, and we’re left, as in W.H. Auden’s poem:
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
Does that make Christmas horror folk horror? Perhaps – except that most folk horror seems to involve modern protagonists suddenly confronted with atavistic believers or presences, bound by, or embodying, awful irruptions from the past. Christmas horror looks to imply that we’re all implicated, all atavistic, all unable to escape those shadows cast by our own past or the collective past. If Christmas is the one countenanced irruption of the numinous into our modern secularized culture, then Christmas horror might be the reminder of the price, the dark side of the divine, the Mysterium Tremendum, the ancient dread of Panic terror. And whatever you do, don’t be like the careless intrudersin Alma Katsu’s “His Castle” and think you can play with the oldtime customs. It’s the most magical time of the year – in the worst as well as the best ways. As Richard Kadrey says at the end of his tale, “Winter isn’t just a time of celebration. It’s a time of cosmic retribution.” And its malice can be very disquieting indeed.
We’re treated to quite a variety of Christmas outings. Nick Mamatas’s Greek family falling-out, or Garth Nix’s Antipodean vampirism in “Last Drinks at Bondi Beach”, which is far more sinister than it sounds. Then there’s Tananarive Due’s “Return to Bear Creek Lodge” telling a Kwanzaa story in The Shining country for quite the most unexpected Black Christmas. And in “All the Pretty People”, Nadia Bulkin produces what any Christmas horror show needs – a Christmas ghost; only, it’s a very modern ghost, quite unlike Marley, with the added hook that, though you may want to secularize and subvert the holiday season, it may not be ready to let you go.
Interestingly, the winter solstice gets an awful lot of mileage in this collection. Even the cover bears the legend “A Winter Solstice Anthology”. I don’t know if that’s because of its purely secular, multicultural nature, or because the longest night of the year has extra imaginative resonance. It certainly has in “No Light, No Light by Gemma Files”, where … well, that night gets stretched in an apocalyptic climate change near-parable. Kaaron Warren’s “Gravé of Small Birds” serves up a solstice feast for the TV chef generation, which at first seems to be heading into Wicker Man territory before finishing in quite a different place. And John Langan’s “After Words” makes the solstice the crux of a smaller, more intimate tragedy.
The names I’ve already dropped in this review, and the others in the contents list, should have convinced any waverers that Ellen Datlow has – yet again – pulled in many of the very best writers in the field. I’m sure this is henceforth going to be the default stocking filler for any horror fan in your life – and With Authority. If nothing else, you can savour the recursive irony of giving someone a Season-of-Goodwill-destroying Yuletide gift. Me, I’d still stick out for Charles Stross’s “Overtime” as my favourite dark Christmas tale of all, but that’s just a personal preference, and in no way overshadows these excellent tales. If you ever needed a reason to leave a bear trap in the fireplace on Christmas Eve, these are it.
- About the Author
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Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a Scottish author, poet, journalist, games writer, and media professional. Born in 1961, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, has lived and worked in Asia and Central Europe, and currently lives in France near Geneva.
Paul’s first collection of short stories, Black Propaganda, appeared from H. Harksen Productions in 2016. His second story collection, The Echo of The Sea & other Strange War Stories, was published by Egaeus Press in 2017. His short novel The Three Books was published by Black Shuck Books in 2018. His short story “The People of the Island,” in Eldritch Horrors: Dark Tales, from H. Harksen Productions, received an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow in her Best Horror of the Year Volume Two list for 2009.
Paul’s acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published by Bellew Publishing in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013. His second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published by H. Harksen Productions in 2011. His sonnet cycle The Great Arcana: Sonnets for the 22 Trumps of the Tarot, and his ballad cycle Black Ballads, based on traditional Scottish myths and legends, were both published in 2022.
Paul’s Lovecraftian and dark fiction, and criticism, has appeared in numerous formats and journals worldwide, including Occult Detective Magazine, Weirdbook, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, the Financial Times, the UK Independent, the Times Literary Supplement, Arts of Asia, Strange Horizons, A Broad Scot, and elsewhere. His co-translations from the Japanese, done with Maki Sugiyama, include The Poems of Nakahara Chuya (1993) and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1995) by the 1994 Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, which won a Japan Festival Award. He also co-translated Superstrings (2007) by Dinu Flamand from Romanian with Olga Dunca. Paul is a former Executive Committee member of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors of Great Britain. He was rated #1 of “The 12 Publishing Shakers You Should Be Following” by The Independent Publishing Magazine. He is also the official clan poet of Clan Mackintosh.