999 edited by Al Sarrantonio
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edited by Al Sarrantonio
Avon, 666 pages

Amy Halperin
Al Sarrantonio
Novelist, short story writer, editor, book reviewer and columnist, Al Sarrantonio is the author of 20 novels in the horror, science fiction, mystery, and western genres, as well as the editor of 5 books of horror and humour. He has been nominated for the Horror Writer Association's Bram Stoker Award as well as for the Shamus Award of the Private Eye Writers of America. His short story collection, Head Stories, has just been published.

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999 Review
999 Table of Contents

A review by Georges T. Dodds


Al Sarrantonio states in his introduction his motivations for assembling 999:
to highlight the literary quality of current horror fiction and in so doing demarginalize it;
to offer authors, new and old, a more remunerative market;
to test the waters with regards to the marketability of such a large collection of original works; and
hopefully to serve as the cornerstone of a horror Renaissance.

Whether the latter two aspirations come to be fulfilled, only time will tell. The fact that the book has been a market for several writers is self-evident.

There remains the question of the literary quality of the stories, but first and more importantly what horror is. Sarrantonio defines horror as that which scares the reader, which is excellent in identifying a wide and varied spectrum of writing as horror; however, it is equally weak in that it obscures what and to what degree a particular manifestation of horror affects the reader. Ghost stories which I have found exceedingly mild have given my godfather, a rational and materialistic man, weeks of severe nightmares. Similarly, a news item presented to me by a friend as the epitome of horror -- a Malaysian man killing his girlfriend, cutting off her head, boiling it, then eating her tongue (La Presse, Montreal, 4 August 1999) -- left me, trained as a scientist, not horrified, but wondering about the motive or religious/societal symbolism of eating the tongue. Thus 999 represents stories that either scare Mr Sarrantonio or which he believes scare a significant number of his prospective readers.

In this context let me highlight three stories involving paedophilia: Neil Gaiman's "Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story," Edward Lee's "ICU" and Joe R. Lansdale's "Mad Dog Summer." Gaiman's story tells of an amoral hitman and purveyor of young male victims for his rich homosexual boss, who finds the most beautiful young man in the world amongst a lost Asiatic tribe. To me, this story, which at worst might be accused of being in bad taste, hasn't the slightest element of horror. Lee's story of a child pornographer/cop-killer and the nasty surprise awaiting him in hospital is a typical last minute twist story, but again with few strong horror elements, except perhaps as a conte cruel. Lansdale's novella, set in the depression-era South, has, to me, all the elements required, a source of horror or danger that is both tangible yet mysterious, plenty of atmosphere-building locations (both creepy and of the importantly contrasting normality of the farm and small town), plenty of non-gratuitous blood and gore, plenty of suspects, and interesting characters. Admittedly the novella lends itself to far more character and locale development than a short story, but Lansdale's story, to me, is clearly head and shoulders above the others.

While it would be wonderful if students and reviewers of mainstream fiction did not dismiss horror literature as being beneath contempt, literary quality isn't everything. Take on the one hand Edith Wharton's Tales of Ghosts and Men (1910), which generally pass muster with the literati; unfortunately to my tastes they are dull as ditch-water. Conversely, H.P. Lovecraft and David Lindsay are both recognized as major horror-fantasy authors. Few people, literati or otherwise, would argue that either was not an awkward writer; what made them great was their soaring imagination. Having said this, there certainly are stories in 999 which could cross over into "literary circles" -- Joyce Carol Oates' "Contracoeur" and Thomas F. Monteleone's "Rehearsals," among them. However, several 999 stories are just plain good horror (if even slightly pulpish): Stephen King's "The Road Virus Heads North" or Al Sarrantonio's "The Ropy Thing," amongst others, don't need the accolades of the literati to make them good solid scary stories.

I have to admit that no one story or scene within a story, with the possible exception of Lansdale's "Mad Dog Summer," (discussed above) struck me as something to put on my list of enduring classics. On the other hand, all the stories were uniformly well done, with no gratingly underpar material. The novel(la)s were the works that most stuck in my mind. David Morell's "Rio Grande Gothic," while more of a police-detective story, is a very good suspense story in the Deliverance genre. Along with Bentley Little's "The Theatre" it will make you think twice about eating your vegetables. Joyce Carol Oates' "The Ruins of Contracoeur," while wonderfully atmospheric in a Gothic way, follows the well-worn monster/family member in the crumbling mansion plot. William Peter Blatty's excellent haunted house/ghost story, "Elsewhere," certainly brings into question Stephen King's recent assertion, in an interview telecast on CBC Newsworld last month, that the traditional ghost story is dead. It's Topper-like ending even injects an appropriate dash of humour. However, Blatty, whose The Exorcist appeared in 1971, appears to belong to a different generation of horror writers than the others represented in 999. The story has a distinctly 70s aura, and is reminiscent in treatment to the numerous ensemble cast films like Murder by Death (1976) or The Poseidon Adventure (1972) of that era.

Of the short stories, my favourite is certainly Thomas Ligotti's "The Shadow, the Darkness," though this is strongly coloured by my opinion that Ligotti is the best horror writer out there today. Ligotti's work is not for everybody, his writing is poetic and dense, and much more about concepts and weird points of view than about physical objects or events. Many of his stories, besides his obvious pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft, are set in a Lovecraftian world of entities or forces lurking just outside our cognisance -- he is what Lovecraft might have been had Lovecraft been born in 1960 rather than 1890. "The Shadow, the Darkness" follows the career of one Reiner Grossvogel, who after a trip to the hospital returns with the knowledge of a vast blackness that is simply everywhere and everything. Ligotti goes on to do no less than present what one person might see as the great chaos that is the universe or to others the great dark "God" himself:

"And what I saw was a black snow tumbling with an incessant roar from a black sky. There was nothing recognizable in that sky -- certainly no familiar visage spread out across the night and implanted into it. There was only this roaring blackness above and this roaring blackness below. There was only this consuming, proliferating, roaring blackness whose only true and final success was in the mere perpetuation of itself as successfully as it could in a world where nothing exists that could ever hope to be anything else except what it needs to thrive upon... until everything is entirely consumed and there is only one thing remaining in all existence and it is an infinite body of roaring blackness activating itself and thriving upon itself with eternal success in the deepest abyss of entity."
In the tradition of the Caribbean horror tales of Henry S. Whitehead (Jumbee & Other Uncanny Tales, 1946) and John Russell's similar Pacific island tales in Where the Pavement Ends (1921), Gene Wolfe's "The Tree is My Hat" makes my list as a wonderful example of horror tales set in island cultures of the Caribbean or Pacific. The hero becomes blood brother with what can perhaps be best described as a were-shark demi-god, with not so pleasant consequences for his friends.

Michael Marshall Smith's "The Book of Irrational Numbers" is an otherwise typical serial killer story, but, with an interesting twist, the killer views the world and supports his actions through his own strange kind of numerology. However, this isn't the numerology of the Kabbalah or other similar texts, but one based on the intricacies of number theory, irrational numbers and Newton-Raphson equations.

Bentley Little manages to weave a bunch of squash, pumpkin, zucchini and other assorted cucurbit stage actors into a very creepy and unsettling story of obsession, madness and ultimately murder. Suffice it to say that there's a good reason why Mr Carr has warned his employee Putnam not to ever open the locked door behind which a staircase leads to what remains of an abandoned theatre.

Thomas F. Monteleone's "Rehearsals" is a story which, as Sarrantonio points out, would have fit Rod Serling's Twilight Zone to a T. After hours, Dominic, the stage manager and night-watchman at a major Broadway theatre, sees a play occurring before him in the darkened theatre. Soon he begins to interact with the characters, realizing that they are individuals from his own past life, which he feels may assist him to overcome some of his neuroses. Any more would give the story away.

With 29 different original entries ranging from the short story to the short novel, 999 is the biggest anthology of original horror ever published. With excellent stories ranging from the straightforward and graphic to the complex and cerebral, from suspense to supernatural horror, from strict rationalism to irrealism, from the grimly horrifying to the humorous, with settings ranging from current New York society to depression-era Southern farm-folk, anyone unable to find something to raise the hair on the nape of their neck in 999, is likely in need of resuscitation paddles. With authors ranging from horror icons like Stephen King and William Peter Blatty, to lesser known or more recent entrants to the field, like Bentley Little and Michael Marshall Smith, the book presents an excellent cross-section of horror as it is and as it stands to be in the next millennium. With all this between its covers, even the most hardened of horror traditionalists like myself cannot help but admit that Sarrantonio's hope for horror fiction's Renaissance and its acceptance into mainstream fiction is not as far-fetched as one might think.

Table of Contents
Elsewhere William Peter Blatty
Styx and Bones Edward Bryant
The Grave P.D. Cacek
The Entertainment Ramsey Campbell
Catfish Gal Blues Nancy A. Collins
The Owl and the Pussycat Thomas M. Disch
Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story Neil Gaiman
Angie Ed Gorman
Knocking Rick Hautala
The Road Virus Heads North Stephen King
Growing Things T.E.D. Klein
Mad Dog Summer Joe R. Lansdale
ICU Edward Lee
The Shadow, The Darkness Thomas Ligotti
The Theatre Bentley Little
An Exaltation of Termagants Eric Van Lustbader
Darkness Dennis L. McKiernan
Rehearsals Thomas F. Monteleone
Rio Grande Gothic David Morrell
Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue Kim Newman
The Ruins of Contracoeur Joyce Carol Oates
Itinerary Tim Powers
The Ropy Thing Al Sarrantonio
Des Saucisses, Sans Doute Peter Schneider
The Book of Irrational Numbers Michael Marshall Smith
Hemophage Steven Spruill
Excerpts from the Records of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax Chet Williamson
Good Friday F. Paul Wilson
The Tree is My Hat Gene Wolfe

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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