Whatever Happened To Anthologies?

Reading & Writing

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I grew up reading the Pan Books of Horror (see columns passim) and eventually entered their hallowed pages as an author, which was a great thrill. After they ended, I continued to collect anthologies (not collections – they’re stories from a single writer), often working for the passionate anthologist editor Stephen Jones, but recently the anthology has fallen on hard times, all but vanishing from bookshelves. Why?

Although sell single e-stories sell, readers seem to have fallen out of love with anthologies. The last few volumes I’ve seen have been painfully tame and have lacked an interesting point of view. The greatest reflected the minds of their editors. Peter Haining produced a great many excellent anthologies, John Burke edited the Tales of Unease series, Fontana produced a great many anthologies of ghost and horror stories, Christopher Lee and of course Alfred Hitchcock lent their names to a huge number of volumes.

But the strangest and most wonderful anthologies of all are edited by Alberto Manguel. His ‘Dark Water’ and ‘White Fire’ are huge volumes that gather stories from all over the world, and there’s nary a dud story in them. Naturally, they’re now out of print.

Kirby McAuley’s ‘Frights’ was a classic, as were volumes on the rivals of King Kong and Sherlock Holmes, a startling collection of black humour, the Playboy book of horror stories, collections of tales about cars, and the end of the world – and one I’m sure I had about trains, which I’d love to get hold of again.

When it was suddenly decided that tales of the fantastic should become an adolescent concern, several lacklustre volumes pretty much killed the UK market. Jo Fletcher’s new horror imprint stumbled after a poor start with the awful ‘A Book of Horror’, and too many other anthologies lacked an intelligent editorial voice.

In the US things have been different, and many volumes have successfully explored a single idea, which to my mind is far more appealing. Ann & Jeff Vandermeer shook things up with a whole series of beautifully packaged volumes, from a fake compendium of discredited diseases to a cabinet of curiosities. Their two huge volumes, ‘The Weird’ and ‘The Time Traveller’s Almanac’ proved even more ambitious, and finally came the graphically innovative ‘Wonderbook’, in which many authors laid out ‘How To’ plans for creating fantasy works.

But I’m in two minds about the Vandermeer volumes, which are surprisingly patchy in their keenness to be so complete – there are some early stories that simply don’t bear repetition, and the anthologies are a triumph of marketing pizzazz over actual content. However, they’re still game-changers, especially ‘The Weird’, with its double-column pages, which offers a vast overview of the genre.

Tales of crime have fared better; Otto Penzler’s ‘Kwik Krimes’, which features very, very short crime tales, is a more rigorously chosen selection, and Martin Edwards has edited several smart new crime collections that work very well indeed. I contributed a new story, ‘The Ash-Boy’, to Steve Jones’s excellent ‘Fearie Tales’, but loathed the title and the painfully dull packaging. The problem is that publishers don’t provide adequate budgets for the graphic side of things, and anthologies must look as stunning as ‘Wonderbook’ to return them to the status of treasured gifts.

‘Swimming Pool’, tales set around pools and printed on waterproof paper, still has to be beaten in terms of crazy packaging, but I’d like to see volumes on fresh topics. If I had time I’d love to create an anthology, but I’d veer away from the usual names in the field and pick surprise choices for inclusion instead of going through a rolodex of mates, as too many editors do.

WB

4 comments on “Whatever Happened To Anthologies?”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Good comment.

  2. steve says:

    I really enjoyed ‘The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities’ which you refer to above. I’m just finishing ‘Brave New Worlds’, which I’ve also liked (Dystopian stories including Minority Report by Philip ‘ K Dick which wasn’t even mentioned on the front cover!). I’ve read a couple of Sherlock Holmes anthologies in recent years that I thought worked well (Shadows over Baker St had lovecraftian influences and ‘new’ mammoth anthology which I think was actually published about 15 years ago ). I’m with you with regard to anthologies, any thought of inviting in a group of other writers in with you to explore B&M’s world this way?

  3. steve says:

    I really enjoyed ‘The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities’ which you refer to above. I’m just finishing ‘Brave New Worlds’, which I’ve also liked (Dystopian stories including Minority Report by Philip ‘ K Dick which wasn’t even mentioned on the front cover!). I’ve read a couple of Sherlock Holmes anthologies in recent years that I thought worked well (Shadows over Baker St had lovecraftian influences and a ‘new’ mammoth anthology which I think was actually published about 15 years ago ). I’m with you with regard to anthologies, any thought of inviting in a group of other writers in with you to explore B&M’s world this way?

  4. Mim says:

    I’ve got quite a lot of the Pan books at home. Love ’em.

    Anthologies are still being produced, but mainly in the US, and mainly by writers of popular horror-soap novels. My problem with these volumes is that the ‘stories’ often aren’t stories in their own right, but little vignettes about already-popular characters. And yeah, you do get the feeling that the ‘Rolodex of mates’ was involved in choosing which writers got included.

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