Revelations: Whispers and Karl Edward Wagner’s The Year’s Best Horror Stories

My previous two columns focused on contemporary authors who have impacted me both as a writer and reader; Mary SanGiovanni and Ronald Malfi, respectively. We’re going to jump back in time, now…

(but not really, because I “discovered” these collections shortly after I started reading Mary and Ron’s work, so that’s where they belong in the chronology of my development)

…and for the next two columns, look at the classic speculative and horror fiction anthologies Whispers, edited by Stuart David Schiff, and Karl Edward Wagner’s run as editor of The Year’s Best Horror Stories; and then Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant, and Borderlands, edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. First, before I get to Whispers and The Year’s Best Horror Stories, I’ll say a few words about how these books impacted me as a writer, at a very specific time in my development.

It was in Brian Keene’s keynote address at the first AnthoCon — “Roots”  — which confronted me with a fact I’d never really considered before. As they said, often and endlessly on Battlestar Galactica: “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” As a young writer, I was trying to craft stories which I thought no one had ever written before, utilizing horror tropes so well trodden they already bore a generation’s worth of footprints, but because I hadn’t read widely enough, I didn’t realize how many times said trope had already been used.

And, crazily enough, even if I suspected my stories weren’t all that original, I figured surely folks had never read this story about a vampire hunter wearing a black trenchcoat and crossing the country in his souped up black Mustang, hunting vampires with his trusty Glocks and samurai swords, seeking to avenge the death of his FBI partner (and possible lover), oh, and by the way, he’s part vampire himself, because they attacked him after killing his FBI partner/possible lover and partially turned him, and now he’s connected to them psychically, and even while he hunts them, he battles against the growing thirst inside, making him loathe himself as much as the insidious vampires he hunts.

So, I may or may not have written that story. And may or may not have called it “Blood Diner.” (Because our hero stops at an all-night, deserted diner alongside the highway to fight said vampires.) And it may or may not have once been posted online. (It isn’t any longer; I just dashed to Google to check.) Regardless, it was a pretty good indication of where I’d started my career: solidly stuck in tropes not only written about many times before, but beaten to death by both Hollywood and television.

Even when I was trying to use tropes I thought were sort of original (simply because I’d never used them myself), I didn’t realize they’d already been used several times before. I remember thinking myself pretty clever in writing a short story called “Lonely Places,” about a guy who gets cursed by the Wendigo spirit, and, predictably, embraces his new Wendigoness by the end of the story (originally published in the third edition of The Midnight Diner, and rewritten with some tweaks for my first short story collection, Things Slip Through). Imagine my moderate chagrin when I encountered a much better and far more subtle story about the Wendigo spirit and Native American burial mounds in one of the Whispers anthologies.

This is only just one of the ways these anthologies impacted me: the sheer diversity in the kinds of stories I encountered, which had a curious effect on me. On the one hand, it opened my eyes to the fact that, even if we think we’ve come up with a truly unique short story idea, or we believe we’ve hit on a rarely used trope, the reality is this: in the breadth and scope of not only horror fiction, but in speculative/fantasy fiction as a whole…all those ideas we think are so original have already been done, many times, in countless different ways, by writers probably far more skilled than us. That story I’m planning about a ghost girl tempting unfaithful men along a back-country road, luring them to their death? Probably done. Same thing with that story about Wendigos. Or water demons. Or evil doctors. Or haunted houses, or a woman driving forever on a night highway which turns out to be purgatory. You name it, someone has probably already written about it, many different times, in many different ways.

On the other hand, here’s the curious effect this awakening had on me: coming across so many different iterations of tropes didn’t necessarily push me to try and invent a new trope, necessarily, or spark a desire to write something wildly original. I’ll be honest, I still don’t think my ideas are all that original, and I’ve come to accept that. Some folks have called referred to my work as “old school,” “traditional,” “classic” and “throw-back” horror, (of course, the question is always throw back to what?) and I’m fine with that. Also, after years of reviewing, I came to discover that, in my opinion, blurbs stating a book was “wildly imaginative and innovative” was code for “practically unreadable in its attempts to be original.”

Seeing these broad tapestries of different kinds of stories about ghosts, vampires, demons, monsters, spirits, and other supernatural occurrences didn’t encourage me to try and make up something completely new (which, I believe, is impossible). It gave me a sense of freedom. I was going to write this story about whatever, adding it to the tapestry which already existed, and any originality I crafted into the story would come from inside me. That’s how I would make it original. I would make it personal, to my experience.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk a bit about why I think every beginning horror writer should seek out these collections, posthaste.

*

The first one of these I tracked down was the Whispers anthologies, edited by Stuart David Schiff. This was a no-brainer, especially after meeting Dr. Schiff himself (he’s a dentist, by the way), in that wonderful evening I spent with him, Tom Monteleone, and F. Paul Wilson, in which I received several hours worth of genre fiction education, straight from the horses’ mouths, as it where. In any case, that very night  (much to my wife’s chagrin), I jumped on Amazon and tracked down several copes of these anthologies.

Whispers was an unthemed anthology of simply great speculative fiction stories. Throughout my reading of the series, I encountered  a classic, spiritual ghost story by Russell Kirk; a more standard ghost story by J. N. Williamson, an intrigue story about the conspiracy to kill the kings of rock and roll, by F. Paul Wilson; a subtle speculative fiction story rooted in folklore, by Alan Peter Ryan; a Halloween tale about the origin of fear, by Al Sarrantonio; a tale of magic and folklore, by Manley Wade Wellman; a disturbing bit of psychological horror from Dennis Etchison, and much more.

Also, Whispers was the first collection which sent me on rabbit trails searching out these authors and their careers. Whispers lead me to Who Fears the Devil?, a wonderful collection of Manley Wade Wellman’s “John the Balladeer” stories, which, in turn, led me to the “Silver John” novels. Whispers also led me to Russell Kirk’s through-provoking collection of very Catholic ghost stories, Ancestral Shadows. It was a short leap from Whispers to Dennis Etchison’s collection The Death Artist, and Al Sarrantonio’s collection The Toybox. In addition to these authors, for the first time I encountered short stories by  Steve Ransic Tem, Tanith Lee, Hugh B. Cave, Fritz Leiber, and many others.

The Whispers anthology was the first classic horror anthology I started exploring, and it will always hold a dear place in my thoughts when I think back on my growth as a writer, especially with the personal connection of meeting Stuart David Schiff himself, and spending an evening listening to his wisdom and experience.

*

Ever heard of Neil Olonoff? Read his wonderfully disturbing revenge tale “The Cats of Pere Lachaise?” How about “The Catacomb,” by Peter Shilston, which is on par with the best M. R. James and Russell Kirk has to offer? If you run an Amazon search on either of these authors, you won’t find an extensive bibliography. In fact, you probably won’t find anything at all. Yet both of these stories are excellent works of thoughtful, well-written horror. Where were they originally published?

“The Cats of Pere Lachaise” was published in 1980, in a publication titled A Touch of Paris. “The Catacomb” was published in a publication titled More Ghosts and Scholars. And they were found and selected for The Year’s Best Horror Stores IX by legendary writer and editor, Karl Edward Wagner. That’s only one of the reasons for younger horror writers to search out copies of Wagner’s run as editor of Best Horror on Amazon (they’re so cheap, it’s almost criminal). Not only did Wagner select stories from well-known horror periodicals, he selected them from obscure chapbooks, and off-genre magazines horror fans wouldn’t even think of pursuing, like Running Times, where he found “Competition” by David Clayton Carrad, a thrilling running story about a man trying to outrun death on a lonely road.

I have this image (and horror veterans will have to correct me if I’m wrong) of Karl Edward Wagner sitting in an over-stuffed, cluttered, Bradbury-esque office. He’s probably enjoying a tumbler or two of fine whiskey, maybe a cigar, and he’s surrounded by piles of magazines, anthologies, digests, short story collections, chapbooks, and periodicals of all kinds (even convention programs). He’s whiling away the hours, dutifully searching not only the well-trodden paths for what he considers to be the “best horror stories of the year,” but also all the out of the way places he can think of, places most readers wouldn’t even look.

A romantic image, to be sure. Maybe the reality is closer to the image portrayed in Joe Hill’s riff on the subject, about a burned-out editor bored to death by the same old stories, in “Best in Horror,” featured in his first short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. In any case, being a romantic, I’ll stand on the former image. It’s the kind that makes me want to be an editor.

Almost.

In any case, I stumbled on Wagner’s run as editor of Best Horror Stories when I visited one of the best used book stories in Pennsylvania, The York Emporium, on the way to one of the last Horrorfind conventions. I dropped a considerable amount of cash at the Emporium, and one of my purchases was Horror Story: Volume Four, edited by Karl Edward Wagner. It’s a doorstop hardcover tome collecting Best Horror Stories X, XI, XII. It sounds corny, but wherever my career ends up, I will always have fond memories of that summer, because reading the stories in that collection (which is begging for a re-read, soon), served as the cornerstone of a summer that saw me also discover Shadows, Whispers, Borderlands, and Jack Finney’s The Third Level.

This hardcover collection, more than any short story collection (at that time), cracked my mind wide open. I’ve heard some folks comment that Wagner’s collections didn’t have enough diversity in regards to race and gender, and honestly, I can’t speak to that. In a three year period, I consumed those collections so quickly, I really wasn’t keeping track. I can say that one thing which amazed me about this series was at least the diversity in the kinds of stories. In one collection, you could encounter a gross-out story by Richard Layman, an intellectual, surreal tale by Ramsey Campbell, a whispering breath of quiet horror from Charles L. Grant, sci/fi horror from David Drake, complex psychological horror from Dennis Etchison, and some of Stephen King’s best work, like “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” and “Uncle Otto’s Truck.”

And then, of course, there were the stories — really, really good stories — by writers no one has ever heard of. Writers who, even after achieving such a milestone, didn’t go on to establish a career in horror like the rest. This was thrilling, and, at the same time, humbling. Maybe a little scary to a young writer with stars in his eyes. It was a stark reminder that, no matter our time in the sun, it is temporary, and someday, you’ll just be a name on a TOC in a book on sale for $0.01 (plus $3.99 shipping) on Amazon.

A final strength of these Best in Horror collections is, quite simply, the forwards by Karl Edward Wagner himself. Insightful comments about the state of the genre at the time (as he saw it); if there were some way of collecting all these forwards and publishing them in one collection, you’d come up with a fine book of essays about horror covering an important time in its history. (Somebody get on that, okay?)

In any case, search Amazon for “Karl Edward Wagner” or Best Horror Stories, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, and Whispers, edited by Stuart David Schiff, and while you’re at it, in preparation for our next column, find copies of Shadows by Charles L. Grant, and used paperback copies of Borderlands — or the newly minted e-books — edited by Thomas F. Monteleone.

Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Needwas released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.

3 thoughts on “Revelations: Whispers and Karl Edward Wagner’s The Year’s Best Horror Stories”

  1. Thanks, Kevin. These essays are always enjoyable, and I look forward to the upcoming column about Charles L. Grant’s great Shadows collections, which I always preferred to Whispers and Year’s Best Horror. During my teen years, when I started reading horror, our local mall had three bookstores (!) and I would scour the shelves looking for new anthologies. Since there was no easy way of knowing when a new Shadows or Whispers was being published, their presence in the store was always a wonderful surprise. At the time horror fiction seemed so eclectic, particularly in the short story form. Unlike “zombie anthologies” or other themed-collections, which seem to be more prevalent today, the subject matter was vast, and one never knew what kind of darkness lurked on the next page. The one sorely-missed companion to these anthologies was Twilight Zone magazine, which raised the bar for dark fiction higher than it ever was before, or since.

Leave a Reply