"Nightmare Carnival" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Dark Horse Books
Edited by Ellen Datlow
2014, 381 pages, Fiction
Released on October 7th, 2014
When it comes to anthologies, fewer phrases bring me more joy and anticipation than "Edited by Ellen Datlow". Because while I freely admit I have not read all of the anthologies she has had a hand in – I'm probably not even close – I can honestly say I have yet to be disappointed in any book she's edited, and Nightmare Carnival is another that can be added to the win column.
If you haven't gathered by the title or the cover picture above, Nightmare Carnival is a collection of 15 stories that center on the goings on at what is supposed to be a place of happiness, but we all know there's something evil that resides just below the carnival's surface. I mean, come on…clowns for one. The book is more dark fantasy than horror (although the latter does creep in here and there), and while each story is enjoyable in its own right, for the first time in recent memory I can actually pick some standout stories in a Datlow-edited anthology.
While I don't know if it's necessarily my favorite story in this collection, the one that affected me the most is Stephen Graham Jones' "The Darkest Part". The story follows three men and their plot to kill a clown. That simple synopsis enormously undersells this piece, and the depths of pain and darkness Jones guides you to shouldn't be understated, but you should have an idea of the trip you're going to be in for when the opening sentence is, "All we wanted to do was kill a clown." This one is going to haunt me for a long time to come. On a side note, it was Jones' "Daniel's Theory About Dolls" that was a standout in the anthology The Doll Collection. This guy has the skill to take you down some dark corridors.
A.C Wise's "And the Carnival Leaves Town" follows Detective Walter Eckert as he investigates the cold case of a family, two parents and their child, who disappeared the same time a traveling carnival left town. The story gets more and more unsettling as it progresses, leaving you almost wanting to look over your shoulder.
Jessica Mace is the star of Laird Barron's "Screaming Elk, MT", a tale that follows our heroine as she gets involved with the drama of the folks of The Gallows Brother Carnival. What makes this one so terrific is not the story itself (and it's a great one, trust me), but the main character, Jessica. The piece has a wonderful noir feel to it, and Jessica even refers to herself as a femme fatale, but she's so much more than that. Generally the femme fatale is reserved for the secondary character, and it's always someone up to no good. But Jessica is far deeper than a throw-away one-dimensional character, and one I'd love to see more of. Fortunately for me, this isn't her only appearance in Barron's work, so now I just have to track down the others.
As mentioned above, there's not a bad story in the bunch, and there are 13 more treasures that range from the likes of the tragic but dark love story in Priya Sharm's The Firebrand to a flea circus you'll never want anything to do with in Jeffrey Ford's "Hibbler's Minions" to a surprisingly rather touching story about a group of ghouls in Nathan Ballingrud's "Skullpocket". As is par of for the course with Ellen Datlow-edited anthologies, the variety is so vast that if one story isn't necessarily your cup of tea, don't worry because the next one should be.