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Be Afraid!, edited by Edo van Belkom, Tundra, 2000, 178 pp.
Van Belkom has put together a fine collection here, with Be Afraid!, an assortment of horror stories for younger readers. The contributors are mostly American, with a handful of van Belkom's fellow Canadians, and one British writer. Be Afraid! has no overarching theme, apart from the younger age of the target audience, and so reading it is quite a varied experience. Despite van Belkom's preference for strong plots in his own fiction, many of the contributions here are stories in desperate need of an ending (although some of the stories certainly succeed with their non-endings). Also, most of Be Afraid! is not really horror as such at all, which could either be a welcome reinvention of the genre or misleading advertising. I enjoyed the stories; there's a good deal of very satisfactory surrealism.
"Jake's Body" by Steve Rasnic Tem is a good example of the strengths of Be Afraid!. Jake is a teenager who is undergoing some profound changes to his body, as happens during adolescence. But then he starts to feel fur growing over parts of his body, and claws and a foot pushing out of his leg. The transformation literalizes the metaphor of puberty, but retains its power simply because the story is so focused on the concrete details. Nicely done.
"The Witch of the Dawn" by Ed Greenwood is a very effective piece of local colour. The main character runs a marina in fishing country, and a "City Dude" comes to town to buy some property and a boat. Unfortunately, the boat is the Witch, formerly Tom Darcy's, and everyone who has ever owned the boat has disappeared without a trace. The story is written in a low-key manner, but it builds to a well-played climax.
"The Boy Who Loved 'The Twilight Zone'" by Richard Laymon is the story of Chuck, whose parents don't understand his liking of the old, creepy show. They force him to miss the Halloween marathon of Twilight Zone episodes by going out to trick or treat, and, horrors, he is fifteen and he has no costume! But the situation on the streets trick or treating turns out much differently than expected, and the knowledge gleaned from watching the show turns out to be crucial to his survival.
"In the Middle of the Night" by Edmund Plante is an extremely disturbing story, and one that capitalizes a bit crassly on the issues of a blended family. Kelly's mother has remarried, and Kelly's new stepbrother, Jason, seems to be a bit scary. Jason also seems to never get in trouble from their parents. Kelly finds out a few things about Jason in the middle of the night that drain all hope from her. Whereas "Jake's Body" succeeded in its use of a literalized metaphor (in that case, for the changes of adolescence), "In the Middle of the Night" somehow doesn't work. Perhaps Plante goes too far -- Satanic mind-control might be an extreme metaphor for power struggles with a stepbrother.
Nancy Kilpatrick wrote "Old One/New One" and it's an interesting tale of generational struggle, in this case between Cass and her Gram. Seen through the same lens as "In the Middle of the Night," this story is also too extreme in its portrayal of some struggle of the teenager. Yes, there is a generational struggle, and Gram ends up trying to come back from the dead to control Cass' body. Somehow Kilpatrick's story doesn't quite convey the same literalization of the metaphor.
"Hell-Bent for Leather" by Michael Kelly is somewhat of a chestnut, with Otis as the main character trying to fit into the gang of the Tuxedo Boys. Otis has to knock over some gravestones, and the Tuxedo Boys try to scare him with stories of the Shambler, a zombie type urban legend who kills those who violate the graveyard on Halloween. Otis goes into the graveyard and the Shambler duly kills him, the end. The writing is vivid, but the story is a bit old.
Monica Hughes writes "The Gift," a story about a girl named Trish who buys a doll for her younger sister Cindy's doll collection. Too bad the new doll is cursed, and it takes control of Cindy's life. Nor can the doll be destroyed, as it passes the pain along to Cindy. The story ends with the triumph of evil, as is the case in about half of the stories in the book.
Ed Gorman writes a timely piece called "The Gun Show," which capitalizes in its own way on the tragedy of school shootings. The story postulates the existence of one specific gun, passed along from shooter to shooter, by a dealer at gun shows. This gun causes the owner, usually a teen, to shoot people, turning the NRA axiom (guns don't kill people, people do) on its head. The logic of the situation proposed by Gorman's invention is a bit twisty: yes, gun control is a good idea because of the nature of guns, but the situation is probably more a combination of the two factors than either Gorman or the NRA would seem to admit. Solving the problem of school violence is a far more complicated than trying to eliminate one specific, supernatural gun. Of course, while the story literalizes the problem, the ending can be turned in the opposite direction by saying that the gun might stand for the malignant hold that violence has on the popular imagination. This is an interesting stance to have in a horror story, and fittingly, all of the violence in "The Gun Show" takes place offstage.
Joe R. Lansdale contributes the short short, "Personality Problem." A bit gimmicky, but fun nonetheless.
"The Flat-Brimmed Hat" is a beautifully written story by Nancy Etchemendy. The story opens with Kathy about to throw herself off a cliff, only to be stopped by a stranger named Kate. I liked the story because of the focus on one woman's dilemma, and how it is solved. It's one of my favourites in Be Afraid!.
Robert J. Sawyer contributes "Last But Not Least," another of the chestnuts in the collection. This time we get the story of Matt, who always gets picked last for sports teams at school. But miracles happen, and so does a lot of pain (especially when playing football).
"In the Heart of November" by Scott Nicholson is a melancholy story, an elegy of sorts. Margaret and Ellen had been best friends in school, but then Margaret was hit by a car. Her ghost hangs around at the graveyard and the two girls chat quite often. Margaret is still hung up on her love for Doug, a boy she had been dating when she died. However, Ellen has a secret crush on Doug now, and she doesn't want this to come between them. The problem is solved by an action of Ellen's which proves definitively that men (in this case, boys) are jerks.
"The iBook" by Tim Wynne-Jones is a variation on the horror standard of the typewriter or computer with power over reality. Nothing too surprising or interesting.
Paul Finch provides a fascinating take on war and the power of movies in "The Man on the Tip." The story is set in Manchester in 1965, and the main character is an unnamed girl whose grandfather survived WWI. A film crew is using the disreputable part of the neighbourhood to recreate the Battle of the Somme. The set becomes reality for one night, and the girl helps her grandfather set an old wrong right.
The collection closes with a story by van Belkom himself, "To Be More Like Them." A girl with a disfigured face deals with teasing at school in an unorthodox manner. It's an appropriate way to round out the book, as it's a good story. Despite some clichéd stories, Be Afraid! is a strong collection which I enjoyed reading. The book might be specifically for a younger audience, but the writing is sharp enough overall that Be Afraid! can appeal to everyone. Some of the stories are straight horror, but the most effective ones (like "Jake's Body" and "The Flat-Brimmed Hat") gain their power from well-written characters and a touch of the surreal.
Last modified: October 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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