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The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 23 hit the shops in time for Hallowe-en, and as always I snapped up my copy, eager to get Stephen Jones' take on what has been a rather good year in horror.

This collection takes a while to warm up after an inauspicious start. The new Ramsey Campbell story 'Holding the Light' fails to impress, and although it was well-written Christopher Fowler's 'Lantern Jack' (about evil pub lore) didn't hold much novelty for me as I'd just finished a novel of his with the same theme, The Victoria Vanishes (though I don't regret reading it as it was jolly good fun!) Joel Lane's 'Midnight Flight' also fell flat with me, mainly because I found the subject matter rather confusing and am somewhat averse to writing about writing (especially after being traumatised by Peter Straub's awful A Dark Matter during the year.) It may improve with a re-read though, it has that feeling about it.

My flagging enthusiasm was revived by Gemma Files' 'Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face', an entertaining, visceral look at the Medusa myth played out in a Dust Bowl travelling circus run by a strange pair of women. The Carteresque feminist message is grindingly obvious (it reads as a girl-power version of Robert Aickman's 'The Swords') and the vibe is nothing new to fans of the series Carnivale, but there is some great imagery and ultimately the story transcends its political context. Daniel Mills' 'The Photographers' Tale' is, again, rather hackneyed in its basic concept (standard "magic camera" business) but Mills puts an unusual amount of heart, psychological realism and imagination into his interpretation, thereby showing that good stories can still be written on the oldest themes.

But what about Jones' regular big-hitters? Well, I was disappointed to find that I'd already read most of the best stories in the collection! Obviously it's not Jones fault if this material has been previously anthologised this year by the likes of Ellen Datlow or the Black Book of Horror, but I was annoyed to find at least one story taken from one of Jones' own publications! (It's not even a very good one - 'The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murdered' by John Ajvide Lindqvist.) Still, if you haven't read much this year there are some great tales from Jones' usual suspects. The Reggie Oliver story,'Quieta Non Movere', is a bit weak compared to some of his stuff, perhaps because it's more textbook MR James than his usual stories, but it's still fun and I was once again impressed by his ability to write in a pre-war style. Michael Marshall Smith's 'Sad, Dark Thing' is more melancholy than scary, and the same can be said of Tim Lebbon's psychologically-tinted haunted-house story 'Trick of the Light'.

In fact many of the stories this year seem to focus more on atmospheric sadness, loss and fraught states of mind than straight scares. It seems like everyone in fiction-land is having trouble with their spouses lately. Unsurprisingly, Conrad William's 'Wait' is the best of these, but I've already extolled its virtues in my review of Jones' Haunts collection, so I'll just say that here is one story that actually deserves to be anthologised twice in the same year! Got to spread the Williams love, after all. Simon Strantzas' 'An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky' also appeals, with its unusually gloomy and suffocating evocation of an out-of-season seaside town hotel interleaved with environmental preoccupations and, yes, relationship trouble. Normally I love decayed seaside resorts, but I wouldn't tarry too long in this one!

Another thing I noticed about Number 23 is the amount of really old material. At least three of the stories were actually written decades ago but have been included here for various reasons, none of them quite convincing. Nor is the quality of these older stories particularly exceptional. Joan Aiken's sinister mother-in-law drama 'Hair' is the best of them, but I bridled at the inclusion of Evangeline Walton's 'They That Have Wings', apparently a previously unpublished Weird Tales story. It takes up twenty pages but fails to really warm up despite the inclusion of some strenuous avian hi-jinks written in the "ripping yarns" style. Meanwhile, Campbell's 'Passing Through Peacehaven' is a lot better than 'Holding the Light', but do we really need two Campbell stories in one collection? Reading these less-than-fresh contributions I couldn't stop thinking about all the talented new horror authors struggling to make a name for themselves today - authors who could really use the kudos an appearance in a Jones collection brings.

But there is one genuinely new treasure in Jones' portly book. The laurels for Best Story go without a doubt to Simon Kurt Unsworth's terrific 'The Ocean Grand, North West Coast'. It's about a a trio of architectural and artistic types who are making a survey of an abandoned Art Deco-era hotel for a company that is thinking of buying it and restoring it to its former glory. The hotel was built with the collaboration of a couple of famous, eccentric and somewhat sex-crazed artists, and it's crammed with beautiful art - but beauty can be a very effective conduit for sheer horror, as Unsworth ably shows. We are at the meeting-point of aesthetics, sex and fear, and Unsworth does all this stuff really well - we're talking Robert Aickman quality here, when Aickman was writing at his best. Fundamental mysteries are touched upon, sumptuous imagery abounds and true terror - which always has a component of capital-A Awe - is the splendid result. This is actually quite surprising, given just how much of the story is in the form of art history lectures from one of the characters - that could've been disastrously dry in the hands of a lesser author. Overlook Schmoverlook, I'm wintering at the Ocean Grand this year!

In conclusion, Mammoth's latest sortie is not one of the all-time best numbers in the series, and it's definitely not your bag if you like fiction that deals with contemporary social and political realities (reading this you'd think the global depression of the last few years had never happened, for instance.) This gives it a more old-fashioned feel than some books in this series. But for the more casual horror fan it provides a worthy overview of the year's horror, and I would even suggest that it's worth buying for the Unsworth story alone! And I liked the purple, turquoise and black colour scheme and the big crow on the cover. I do love a crow-faced book, though covers with owls on are even better of course.

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