I’ve still never read any of the crime fiction Connolly made his name with, but this is the third supernatural book of his I’ve tackled and loved: it’s just as good as the others. Perhaps as a result of his experience writing thrillers, Connolly has a real knack for building tension. The stories in this collection range from a few pages to over a hundred, but each is expertly paced and crafted. He manages to write stories that are taut and spooky without dipping into cliche or camp. His The Book of Lost Things reminds me of Stephen King at his best, and the mood and creativity of The Gates readily compares to Neil Gaiman’s work. This collection of scary tales marries those styles almost perfectly.
While there are vampires and the like in here, most of the supernatural subjects are pretty original. My favorite were those that told of hauntings by evil spirits, such as the old pagan gods of “The Shifting of the Sands” apparitioning from swirls of dirt to consume men’s souls. The child-nappping beast “The Erkling” and the possessing spirit of “The New Daughter,” who lures a child from her home to an ancient burial mound nearby while her father tries in vain to save her, are similarly great. These particular stories do great things with atmosphere–I found myself transported back to my childhood, reading Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by flashlight.
Stories like “The Inkpot Monkey” and “Nocturnes” are very Stephen King-y with their cursed or haunted objects and susceptible subjects. And more than one story (“The Ritual of Bones,” “Mr. Pettinger’s Daemon,”"The Shifting of the Sands”) places demons amidst old institutions such as the clergy or a boarding school. There are submerged houses of the dead, passages to Hell, giant spiders in ancient caves, witches, vampires, slime ghosts, you name it.
The long-form stories that dot the book do a fine job of shifting gears. “The Cancer Cowboy Rides Again,” which opens the collection, is actually a departure from the rest of the stories, so much so that placing it first was a pretty bold move. It’s about a wanderer who is a sort of walking carcinoma. In order to ease his own pain, he must infect others with his curse, giving them rapid, incurable forms of cancer. It’s a cop-versus-bad-guy horror story, and a good one. Similarly blending horror and crime writing, “The Reflecting Lens: A Charlie Parker Novella” features a private eye on a case that turns up some other-worldy stuff and includes perhaps the most creepy character in the whole collection.
All told, there’s a lot of great horror stories in here. There’s not a single one I didn’t like, and since the subjects and styles vary so much from story to story, I suspect there are a lot of people that will find something to really enjoy here. Connolly is a great entertainer and storyteller, I can’t recommend his books enough.