In these dog-days of generic Lovecraftian smorgasbords, a collection entitled The Monstrous could easily evoke jaded expectations of yet more creaking tentacles and stale Yog-Sothothery. Even a name like Ellen Datlow, doyenne of horror/weird anthologists, might not conjure up greater hopes, though she did already cover this base with her Lovecraft’s Monsters. So I’m happy to be able to report that this anthology manages to cast its net far wider than the waters off R’lyeh or Innsmouth, and snare a far more diverse catch of monstrosities, many from no particular mythos at all – or from very private and very unsettling personal mythologies.
“I am looking for unusual monstrosities,” explains Datlow, citing her commissioning policy. “Not your usual monster kills/destroys everything … Never forget that monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder.” And she quotes Saint Augustine on monsters, to the effect that: “They say they are called monsters, because they demonstrate or signify something,” from monere, the root of monstrum, which “means to warn and instruct.”
In which case, you have to wonder what the lesson is, because it’s often as cryptic as any of these cryptids. Some of the monsters are monsters of the psyche, like “Ashputtle” by Peter Straub. Some are the grotesques are the creations of collective insanity or mythology, like those in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s extraordinary “The Beginning of the Year Without Summer,” or Gemma Files’s harrowing “A Wish From a Bone.” Some tales you will have seen elsewhere. “Doll Hands” by Adam L. G. Nevill, for instance, is already familiar as one of the bleakest, most hideous depictions of monstrous behaviour I’ve read – though again, nothing squamous or rugose in sight. So is “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford, very Japanese and extremely untypical of anything whatsoever. Some have appeared in Datlow’s own past collection Fearful Symmetries, but she certainly has a chance to refine her choices and focus this time round. “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, which ably juggles a Caledonian setting and Celtic lore, is a first-time publication. And many others are new to book publication, such as “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn, which wells up from God knows what dark ocean of the unconscious, but definitely one where far more disturbing creatures than the Deep Ones swim.
Datlow has more backed-up expertise and accumulated assets than almost any other horror/dark/weird editor in the business. It certainly shows in this collection. It’s one of the most monstrous compilations around, and you may find yourself dreaming of its various manifestations for weeks or months afterwards (just not tentacled ones).