I was planning to review this anthology in December last year but I ran out of time, so foolishly let it languish on my shelves for a year so I could come back to it this December instead. And it is very much a seasonal read, as is obvious from the title and cover art, so that's all fine and good, but this is also a quality anthology indeed and 2020 might have felt just a little better had I read some of these stories much sooner.
And yes, anthologies, by their very nature, are inconsistent beasts so that my suggestion that there are a few weaker stories here won't come as too much of a surprise. What's more surprising is that there aren't many and those lesser pieces aren't particularly bad in themselves, suffering mostly by an inevitable comparison to the best stories, which are myriad.
It starts off really well, with a quartet of highlights, all from name authors I recognise (as indeed are almost all the authors here, because this is star-studded indeed). Kelley Armstrong, a favourite of my better half, kicks it all off with a story about mummers. They traumatised Ava when she was a three-year-old and they're about to do it again as a grown-up, while under the influence of absinthe. Absinthe and Angels is textbook stuff.
Then comes one of my favourites from this entire volume, courtesy of Scott Smith. It's about a Christmas trip from Hell, told in the second person, and it's fantastic, with its smooth prose, lean approach and killer twist. That it takes place in Barcelona is a bonus. I guess I really do need to get round to Smith's 2006 survival horror novel, The Ruins. The incessant hype around it has put me off thus far, but Christmas in Barcelona suggests that perhaps it's warranted.
And, if that wasn't enough, then Seanan McGuire and Thomas E. Sniegoski show up to keep the quality really high. McGuire's story, Fresh as the Fallen Snow, casts Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden of Russian folklore, as the lead in an unusual take on the meaning of Christmas that works as the flipside of one of our standard western tropes. Sniegoski's story, Love Me, is perfect anthology fare, a moral tale that's vicious and twisty and also delightfully icky.
It's a rare anthology that can keep its quality at that high level, especially one with a generous eighteen stories, and this one isn't quite that rare. A cautionary tale from Sarah Lotz that's neatly SF tech horror is effective but a little straightforward. Josh Malerman's loose and conversational tale of a former cult leader attending a Christmas party is interesting but it ends surprisingly weakly. C'est la vie. These aren't bad stories. They're just not a patch on what’s gone before or some of what's still to come.
I'm not going to run through all these stories, but the next pair are two of my favourites, so I'll call them out for praise.
Jeff Strand's contribution is a black comedy rather than a horror story, but it fits here very nicely. It's Good Deeds, it's the darkest comedy I've read in a long while and it's told very drily indeed. I loved reading this one, enough that I had to read it aloud to my better half. It's told conversationally and I couldn't resist reading it aloud. It's dramatic, but it has to be underplayed for the most brutal effect.
Surprisingly, Christopher Golden chimes into his own anthology, not a usual state of affairs for him, as a prolific anthology editor, but I'm hardly going to complain about his Christmas revenge story, It's a Wonderful Knife, with the connection to classic film that that title suggests. This could easily be a worthy episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I'd tune in.
Later highlights come from Elizabeth Hand, Michael Koryta and Jonathan Maberry. The Hand is Farrow Street, a long story about an American stuck in London during Christmas that becomes even more eerie given that she doesn't explain where it goes, just goes there anyway. The Koryta, Hiking Through, is a ghost story with a twist that's so utterly obvious that I'm not sure I can even call it a twist, but it plays very effectively anyway.
Maberry's story, Doctor Velocity, is arguably the least Christmassy story in this book, but it's a powerful exploration of the torment of artistry, set in a strange world where strange people have strange names without any need to explain. It's labelled a Fire Zone story, but I don't know if that's an actual place in his fiction or simply a broad label to tie unusual stories together in collections like Tales from the Fire Zone. I'll check that out to see.
The book ends with a long and effective ethnic period ghost story by Sarah Pinborough. It's set in the Victorian era, as is very traditional for Christmas ghost stories, and revolves around a boy working as a chimney sweep, not a particularly healthy profession at the best of times but a more dangerous one in the context he stumbles into here. For a book that included a host of non-traditional stories, not least Strand's, Maberry's and Tim Lebbon's odd post-apocalyptic story called Home, Pinborough's The Hangman's Bride is a fantastic way to wrap things up.
After that, we can happily settle down under the holly for some mince pies and mulled wine. Golden edits good anthologies generally, but this one is a step above. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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