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Spotlight on: The Dark Descent edited by David G. Hartwell

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The Dark Descent by David G. Hartwell David G. Hartwell (editor), The Dark Descent

The subtitle, "The Evolution of Horror," says it all. This is a collection of the best of horror short fiction from its beginnings (J. Sheridan LeFanu's tale "Schalken the Painter" is the earliest example included, having been published in 1839) to its most current practitioners (Clive Barker's "Dread" is the most recent, published in 1984).

In his somewhat lengthy introduction, editor David G. Hartwell eloquently states his motivation behind the creation of "a definitive anthology that attempts to represent the entire evolution of the form to date and to describe and point out the boundaries of horror as it has been redefined in our contemporary field." Hartwell also hopes to rectify the situation of horror fans only reading "books and stories given the imprimateur of a horror category label, thus missing some of the finest pleasures of this century in that fictional mode." He sees The Dark Descent as a milestone, the ending of an era "with the intent of clearing the air and broadening future considerations of horror."

Hartwell has set a very high bar for himself with this ambition, and I believe that he has cleared it -- as far as a "complete" work can actually be such. The Dark Descent's cast of authors is a vast selection over the many years of horror fiction. There are, of course, the ones you expect to see in such a book: King, Barker, Bradbury, LeFanu, Shirley Jackson, Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch, etc. But also included are several names not generally associated with the genre, such as William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, and Flannery O'Connor.

Furthermore, Hartwell has divided the stories in The Dark Descent into three categories, each with its own evocative title. The moral allegories are tinted with "The Color of Evil." The psychologically based horrors remind us to look at "The Medusa in the Shield." And the supernatural elements can be found deep within "A Fabulous Formless Darkness." Thus, a fan seeking a particular type of terror can look in the section of his/her preference.

For example, within "The Color of Evil," one will find one of my personal favorites, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, as well as classics like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Ray Bradbury's "The Crowd" (I would have chosen "The October Game," myself), and Harlan Ellison's Edgar Award–winning "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." In the realm of "The Medusa in the Shield" are such classics of the crazy as Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and the aforementioned O'Connor's portrait of the evil inherent in the average person, "Good Country People."

Of course, if you prefer spooks, spectres, and unseen thingies, "A Fabulous Formless Darkness" holds Charles Dickens' "The Signalman," Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing" (another favorite), and Stephen King's entrance into the Cthulhu mythos, "Crouch End" (which is fun to read alongside Lovecraft's original "The Call of Cthulhu" and see how they compare).

Hartwell has done splendidly. Given the ambition he set for himself, he should rightly have failed. That he has created a book that exceeded its own expectations (and won the 1988 World Fantasy Award) is a clear sign of his hard work and dedication to the craft. One thousand pages of horror history, The Dark Descent truly belongs on the shelf of every fan of dark fiction.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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