Monday, February 21, 2022

Manzetti, 150 Exquisite Horror Books (2021)

Alessandro Manzetti, 150 Exquisite Horror Books. Crystal Lake Publishing, 2021. Pp. 210. ISBN 978-1-7377-2187-1. $11.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

There is an art to creating a “Best of” list, whether that be a “Best of Shakespeare’s Plays” or “Best Singles by Take That.” You are inevitably going to make a lot of people angry. Art and tastes are subjective, and one man’s trash is another person’s treasure. And nowhere is this more true than with horror fiction. Fears are as individual as fingerprints. The film or book that terrify us and make chills run down our spine might make be utterly dull to another. And we horror fans are desperately protective of our best beloveds. I have seen knock-down drag-out fights between fans who can’t agree whether Matthew Stokoe’s Cows is trash or a masterpiece. So creating a volume in which you want to compile the best of modern horror fiction is a bit of a risky endeavour. Fortunately for all of us, Alessandro Manzetti decided to take on the challenge, and he took it on with grace, courage, and a library I can only dream of possessing.

Now, when I first opened this book, I was a touch disappointed. I’d made the assumption that Manzetti was going to take the same approach as Stephen Jones had 34 years ago with Horror: 100 Best Books, then again in 2005 with Horror: Another 100 Best Books (both of which I highly recommend, by the way), an approach which avoided the previously mentioned fray with masterful grace. Jones essentially contacted 100 different authors and anthologists and asked for a short essay about their favourite horror book. It was guaranteed that, no matter what your personal taste, you were going to find something in there that appealed. So when I saw that all of the volumes in 150 Exquisite Horror Books were selected by Manzetti, I felt a pang. If all of these books are chosen by a single person, there was a much, much greater chance of his tastes clashing with those of the readers, and I felt that would make the book weaker.

I first realised my judgment was a bit hasty when I saw the interludes scattered throughout the book. These interludes were of horror authors and anthologists listing their own favourite books or stories (and, in the case of Stephen Jones and Lisa Morton, they were given a few pages to talk about their selections). I also appreciated that the authors/anthologists chosen for these little interludes were not just veterans like Stephen Jones, Richard Christian Matheson, Ellen Datlow, and Ramsey Campbell (delighted as I am to see them!), but also included some newer faces in the field, like Owl Goingback, Randy Chandler, Jack Bantry, and Kate Jonez (I know Owl Goingback has been around since the late 90s; I am old and that counts as newer to me). This immediately gave the book a wider appeal; even if you completely disagreed with all of Manzetti’s selections, you were bound to find at least one author whose tastes were comparable to yours.

My next epiphany came when I saw that the subgenres represented included splatterpunk.

Now splatterpunk (also known as hardcore or extreme horror) is a controversial subgenre even amongst horror fans. And considering how controversial horror is as a whole, you know that’s saying something. Splatterpunk is hyper-violent, extremely graphic horror, often including sexual violence. It’s frequently dismissed as “torture porn” or “violence for violence’s sake”. Even well-respected horror gurus like Robert Bloch have condemned splatterpunk for diminishing the credibility of the whole genre. But some of modern horror literature’s true greats have played in splatterpunk’s red and squishy fields, including Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin, Richard Christian Matheson, Brian Keene, and Joe Lansdale. Lesser-known but still veteran faces in the field are Edward Lee, David Schow, John Skipp, and Wrath James White. Still, splatterpunk is often left out of or dismissed from most collections of “The Best of” horror, whether it be because the collectors consider themselves above it, or because they fear the collection losing credibility should it be included. And that is unfair.

I am not saying this because I am a huge fan of splatterpunk, though I do enjoy it. I am saying this because splatterpunk is the gingerest and most freckle-faced reject out of all of horror, a whole collective of red-headed step-children. Horror is a deeply undervalued and underappreciated genre, and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical that the horror community should banish one of their own sub-genres for the same reasons that horror itself is so often dismissed. Seeing a book/collection that has the courage to include multiple works of splatterpunk, including from lesser known authors, is incredibly refreshing.

The other thing that I noticed is the inclusion of pulp. Pulp horror is just what it sounds. It is light, it is fluff, it is often ridiculous. One of the books included in this list is quite literally about man-eating crabs. But here’s the thing, and I think it’s a fact that has become more and more unappreciated and lost the more horror begins to claw some legitimacy as a genre: horror can be fun. Please do not get me wrong, I adore the recent trend in more cerebral, character-driven, well-crafted horror, horror that is bringing the genre into the limelight and gaining it valuable credibility as true art, whether it be literature or film (to be clear, it has always been art, but some of the pieces produced in the past 10-15 years have been such masterpieces that is impossible to dismiss them as “just horror”, and that is to be lauded). But at the same time, it seems to me there has been a lack of the ridiculous campy joy that makes pulp horror such a delight. So it’s a very, very delightful surprise to see pulp titles included in this list. Sometimes you want Jordan Peele’s deeply psychological and intricate allegories for modern racism, sometimes you want giant man-eating crabs. And both deserve to be celebrated.

Do I agree with all the selections here? No, certainly not. Do I think it’s a travesty that Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep was included when works such as Revival and Full Dark No Stars are absent? Possibly. Do I think there is a gaping hole where Dark Matter and The Silent Companions should be (a space possibly taken up by The Hunger)? Maybe. Am I quite frankly stunned that Richard Christian Matheson put Stephen King’s Nona in his list of his favourite short stories? Perhaps. But this is a matter of personal taste. I’m also in the minority of people who thinks that Adam Nevill’s masterpiece is No One Gets Out Alive rather than The Ritual, so maybe I’m just odd.

(Seriously, RCM? Nona, of all things? Not The Jaunt, The Mangler, Gramma, Mrs Todd’s Shortcut, Children of the Corn? Not 1408, for the love of all that is holy? You pick the one about the weird chick that turns into a rat at the end? I mean, it takes all types, I guess…)

But what really matters in a list like this is open-mindedness, the courage to consider (without prejudice) all examples of a genre, no matter how unpalatable to the mainstream or highbrowed, and variety. And this collection has that in absolute spades. I did not go into this book expecting much, and I came out with an extremely long list of books to add to my Amazon wishlist. My only complaint is the amount of money I’m going to be spending in the near future. Highly recommended.

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