Over the last few weeks I've been working my way though this 2009 collection of short dark fiction. Edited by Peter Straub, the book contains some classics as well as some new classics by writers in various stages of their careers. As a whole, the collection works and holds up as a collection under a theme. Each story does demonstrate a kinship to both the style and subjects of Edgar Allen Poe. Many of the stories delight in verbiage the way Poe did, many dance at the edges of purple prose, as Poe did, and all of them contain murder, decay and madness in varying proportions.
There aren't any complete disappointments -- even the weaker pieces deliver on the promise of a "singular effect". There were plenty of pleasant surprises; "The Voice of the Beach", "In Praise of Folly", and "The Sadness of Detail" among them. Horror fans may be put off by some of the stories, as they have more in common with literary works than straight-out genre exercises. Collected as this, even the more domestic stories offer a doorway into the darker rooms that Poe could call his own. Without the context of the collection, the passive reader might easily get bored before reaching the really juicy bits. All of the stories take their time getting to where they are going but with the exception of the longest stories, the result is worth the time.
Unfortunately "Cleopatra Brimstone" and "Insect Dreams" both left me unimpressed. The thematic connection between these two stories is strongest, as both deal with the collection of insects, and they both fail for the same reasons. Too much effort is spent on elaborate verbal gymnastics, and it comes at the expense of plot and pacing. While the feverish conclusion of "Insect Dreams" rewards the lyrical prose, the reward is not potent enough for the many pages spent getting there. "Cleopatra Brimstone" doesn't really do anything that couldn't be done in a story with half the word count.
On the other hand, there are a few stories which could've taken more time to develop to their conclusions. "Plot Twist" is clever, and while the ending is good enough, I was left feeling that it didn't have the narrative heft that it was aiming for. "The Two Sams" had plenty of creepy moments, but the story ended almost exactly as the first few paragraphs suggested it might. An expected ending can be effective, if used as a tool, but here it feels like a cop-out or tacked-on ending.
So, the collection achieves its goal of highlighting literate horror and dark fiction which dances along the edges of multiple genres. Because of context, some stories are elevated and perhaps others are limited, but the collection offers lingering hints of madness, of decay, and the final judgements of fate.