March 2004

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

The Urban Bizarre

In movies, horror tends to stay in the countryside and the small towns, with Jason and Michael and dozens of alien creatures all picking their prey off far away from any potential passing pedestrians. Even those movies with urban settings tend to cut their victims off from the rest of the world, limiting them to a college dorm or an apartment building.

In horror literature, the city gets a little more attention. Stephen King and his imitators may continue to decimate small town after small town, but plenty of other authors have recognized that, even in the sophisticated, streetwise city, there are things (natural and otherwise) scarier than gangs and insane drivers. Harkening back to the roots of the genre, with Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde running amuck in London, contemporary authors from Charles de Lint to Tananarive Due have used cities (not just isolated buildings) as their settings.

Still, The Urban Bizarre, an anthology from Prime books edited by Nick Mamatas, is a unique take on urban horror. Mamatas, in his intro, makes it clear that this anthology exists as much to oppose the happy post-Giuliani feel that contemporary urban literature has taken on as anything else. Mamatas remembers a New York before The Nanny Diaries, back when Times Square had hookers and porn shops, instead of the Disney store. Mamatas recruited a group of zine and underground writers, and the resulting anthology, if rough around the edges, is one hell of a good read.

The best of the bunch includes "Perhaps the Snail," by James Maxey, a story that starts out as erotica and evolves into something much more powerful; it's a simultaneously beautiful and disturbing story of a groupie discovering himself. Maxey's imagery verges on the poetic at times, all the more impressive given the sense of the absurd that he combines with the erotic. There are other stories as sexually explicit, if not as erotic. Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt's "Blue Chuck Does Thrilltown," a fun tale that shows us the brothels of the future, is enjoyable (if inconsequential), and Ann Sterzinger's "Amy" is a superb love story (at least, as close as anything here comes to being a traditional love story) that springs its horrific element a bit too suddenly.

Michael Hemmington frames the anthology with dual tales of contemporary New York and LA. The former, "Tuck," is that rarity -- a 9/11 tale that doesn't hew to cliche. If its ending is a bit abrupt as well, it's forgivable, given the chaos in which it's set. The latter, "Long Island Iced Tea," is a Noir tribute (complete with a Sam Spade epitaph) that's fun, but feels somewhat out of place in this volume. Both are polished and worth the read.

Of the rest, the best is "The Defragmentation of Thomas Crane," by Jeff Somers (whose other story, "Dick for Eternity," doesn't work nearly as well for me). It's one of those stories of gradual horror that King did so well in his early days, and that others, like Michael Marshall Smith, still write (in fact, it shares a concept with Smith's "The Munchies," which was published at almost the same time in More Tomorrow and Other Stories). On almost the same level is Tsaurah Litzky's "Ruby Tuesday," probably the most beautifully written story in the book, about a smart stripper whose (admittedly cliched) rediscovery of purpose is achieved via a drug trip.

There are other good tales (Frank Markopolis and Charlie Anders provide the best of the ones I haven't mentioned already), and a few that are a bit too much by the numbers (Douglas Texter's "A Dangerous Day," and Michael Belfiore's "Highway to Hell" both feel like stories aiming for Twilight Zone level originality, but they end up with nothing that we haven't seen before). But there's not one story in The Urban Bizarre that isn't readable (a rare feat for an anthology). This anthology is a damned fine kick in the ass, and is a book that people need to pay attention to.

The Urban Bizarre edited by Nick Mamatas
ISBN: 193099740X
180 Pages