Book Reviews: Creatures, Thirty Years of Monsters, edited by John Langan and Paul Tremblay

Back in October I was cruising Tor.com or Suvudu when I saw a post regarding the Creatures anthology. The table of contents sounded interesting, a nice mix of author’s whose work I was familiar with and those I had never heard of before, and so I added it to my Amazon Wish List to pick up later. Then came December and someone, either my sister or my friend Krys, I can’t remember which, gave me a copy of this anthology and I just finished it.

Before I get into the meat of the review I’d like to talk about why I like anthologies. Anthologies are like the sampler platter of literature, bite-sized morsels of tasty fiction large enough to leave you satisfied while small enough to count as just a taste of an author’s style. Many anthologies are set up around a theme. The theme could be as loose as “Big Anthology of Science Fiction” and have everything from cyberpunk to hard sci-fi to apocalyptic fiction or it could be much narrower, down to stories that fit a particular theme or topic. Creatures is definitely one of the latter, the topic of which, you guessed it, is stories about monsters.

And oh what stories about monsters they chose.

The anthology is divided up into four sections:

  • “It Came and We Knew It”
  • “It Came, We Could Not Stop It”
  • “It Came for Us”
  • “It Came From Us”

Initially Creatures started off pretty tame with “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program”, a story about that giant lizard doing his best to stay on the no-longer-destroying-cities-and-crushing-people-to-death wagon, and then “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” which is the story of the classic Universal monster movie told from the Creature’s perspective. The next story, “After Moreau”, is a spin-off/sequel from “The Isle of Doctor Moreau”. These weren’t bad stories, there were engaging in their way, but they seemed…kind of weak. Sure, they were monsters but they were too familiar; I think just about everyone knows who Godzilla is and you can’t call yourself a horror fan and not recognize the classic Universal monsters. While interesting and well written, they were also boring in their familiarity and I was a little worried about the anthology.

I so didn’t need to worry.

The next section “It Came, We Could Not Stop It” opened with “Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker. If you’re unfamiliar with Clive Barker, he is a writer who does not hold back. He’s about as serious as an axe-blow to the head and as visceral as a meat hook to the stomach and after the relatively mild first section “Rawhead Rex” was a shock, so much so there were a few times I jerked back from the book, blinked, and thought “Whoa.” And I’m familiar with Barker’s work and know how serious it can be. “Not From Around Here” by David J. Schow was almost as intense and certainly as graphic, bleak in a way like David Lynch films in that even if the monster is vanquished, you still feel dirty and soiled in victory. All of the stories in this section have a definite “even when you win, you lose” feeling and I thought all of them, save “The Ropy Thing” were superb (“The Ropy Thing” was good, but not on the same level as the others in my opinion).

The third section, “It Came for Us”, when compared to the second, was definitely weaker. None of the stories in this section had that same punch or the same kind of emotional hook. In “Not From Around Here” you see the main character lose everything in a poignant, potent way, feeling along with him the utter helplessness he experiences in the face of what happens to him. I didn’t really think that any of the third-section stories had anything close to it. While each is creatively unique none of them really spoke to me, and I found “Proboscis” by Laird Barron to be somewhat erratic, the literary equivalent of the cinematic quick cut.

The fourth and final section, “It Came From Us”, picks up the pace with China Miéville’s “Familiar”. Miéville is one of the New Weird authors and that particular flare definitely shows in his story about a discarded witch’s familiar. “The Changeling” by Sarah Langan and “Absolute Zero” by Nadia Bulkin both have a nice, detailed flourish that I enjoyed very much. The other stories in this section weren’t bad but I didn’t think they were as good as the ones I mentioned.

Over-all, did I like Creatures? Yes, I’ll say I did. While it definitely had the hit-or-miss issue that many anthologies have with me (hey, sometimes you don’t like everything that comes on the sampler platter, which is why the fried zucchini always remains behind long after the onion rings and cheese sticks have been devoured), it had enough stories that pushed the right buttons for me to be satisfied enough to keep it and recommend it to others.

I will warn you, some of these stories are quite graphic and definitely could be disturbing to some people but, then again, I think that is the point of horror in many ways. Horror is supposed to push you to that edge, to make you stand at the line of your comfort zone and lean as far over it as you can for as long as you can. I think that’s the art of horror, keeping a reader there without throwing them over the edge, so that when they’re done reading they’re raw and tender and can’t help but experience the story through their own emotional filter, seeping in through that roughly scrubbed skin, possibly haunting them, possibly infecting them.

If you want a decent-to-good anthology about monsters, this is one to go with.

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