Joshua Viola, ed.
280 Pages; Print, $12.99
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess that I’m not a regular reader of horror fiction, so my impressions in this review are going to be those of a reader who has read widely in nineteenth-and twentieth-century literary fiction, but has only read a few of the classic authors of the genre: a lot of Poe, some Lovecraft, a smattering of Stephen King, a bit of Shirley Jackson. I consequently came to this new collection of contemporary horror, Nightmares Unhinged: Twenty Tales of Horror, with fresh eyes since I’d heard of only a few of its contributors, even though their biographical notes tout that nearly all are award winners in the genre, and I hadn’t read any of their works.
Like most story collections, this one varies widely in the quality of its narratives: from somewhat trite and predictable to genuinely witty and original, from stylistically pedestrian to very well written. Six of the stories are written or co-written by the volume’s editor, Joshua Viola, including two under the pseudonym of “J. V. Kyle,” which is the pen name of Viola and Keith Ferrell. Although I found Viola’s own stories to be relatively good, his two collaborations with Ferrell are along his best, and the two stories by Ferrell writing solo, “Be Seated” and “Danniker’s Coffin,” are the very best in the collection.
I suppose I liked the latter story better despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, “Danniker’s Coffin” isn’t really a “horror story.” Or, at least, it’s not as deep in the genre as some of the other stories (no blood and guts, no vampires, no things that go bump in the night). In short, it never lapses into cliché but, instead, tells the moving tale of an elderly man who finally resolves to change his failure of a life and assume the career for which he’d been destined by his family’s heritage: to be the maker of fine coffins. Although his forefathers had been skilled carpenters and built beautiful coffins, Lower Jim (so named since his father was Upper Jim) never quite mastered the tools to perfectly plane a piece of wood or get the corners of a coffin neatly joined. His grandfather and father encouraged him in woodworking, but when Lower Jim decided to give up, they allowed him to retire his apprentice tools and handle the family’s business accounts and act as the office manager. After his father’s death, however, the business ends and Lower Jim, who has never married, slowly descends into poverty.
The story ends with a surprising, yet very logical, conclusion that allows Lower Jim a measure of dignity and grace as he, in shocking fashion, resolves to carry on his family’s legacy. Moreover, Ferrell’s writing, unlike the heavy-handedness so often prevalent in horror fiction, remains clear and true, with the occasional deft metaphor added to accentuate the story’s theme. An example is when Ferrell describes Lower Jim’s stoicism in the face of his disappointing life: “As with his father and grandfather, tears had been fenced off from him from the moment he lay swaddled on the ground beside the plot into which his mother was being lowered.” This image not only describes Lower Jim’s emotional state of being but it also reinforces his decision that he must build a high fence between his property and that of his neighbor’s to ensure his privacy. Moreover, the repeated passive voice emphasizes the extreme passivity that Lower Jim has exhibited for most of his life until he resolves, finally, to build a coffin.
Unlike the realism of “Danniker’s Coffin,” Ferrell’s other story in this collection, “Be Seated,” is much more firmly rooted in the horror genre as it relates—through an unreliable first-person narrator—the tale of a mysterious conjurer and his armchair, which the narrator later inherits following the conjurer...