Detours

Anthologies tend to be theme-based: Vampires, UFOs, zombies, even “best of”’s… Usually when you pick up an anthology, you know what you’re getting. Personally, I like a good werewolf, time travel, or superhero anthology. But that’s enough about me.

Editor Brian James Freeman gives a short (one-page) introduction and explains what the theme is for DETOURS, the new anthology from Cemetery Dance. It’s “rare and lost material” written by his favorite writers, “along with a couple of original pieces that have never seen the light of day before now.”

Okay, so the theme is: There is no theme. Just obscure or unpublished stuff that couldn’t find a home anywhere else. And in some cases, probably shouldn’t have found a home. Not everything your favorite writer composes is gold, folks. Some things are better left in a drawer or in a folder on a hard drive. Anyway …

DETOURS opens with “Memory,” a short story by Stephen King. To the credit of the publisher, King’s name is not emblazoned on the cover in larger print than the title, even though his name is generally guaranteed to boost sales even when he’s simply picking stories and providing a three-page intro. Exhibit A: SIX SCARY STORIES, also published by Cemetery Dance.

“Memory” is a forgettable story (see what I did there?) and is indicative of much of King’s short story output these days. That is to say, he starts off strong, but then meanders. And just when you think he’s building to something dark and unexpected, the ending fizzles like a wet firecracker.
Exhibit B: King’s last collection of short stories, THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS, which is filled with lackluster stories like “Memory.”

DETOURS has lots of forgettable pieces. And when I say “pieces,” I mean literally. There’s a one page fragment of a story by Ray Bradbury, that may have been the beginning of something, or the end, or maybe the middle … who knows? I’m not even sure why someone picked up a scrap of paper that Bradbury must have jotted down part of a scene, and decided it had to be published. I love Ray Bradbury, but even I’m not such an obsessed fan as to want to see every half-cooked, throwaway thing he wrote down. I’m only interested in what the author finished, edited, polished and decided was ready to enter the world with his name proudly stamped upon it.

There’s lots of things like that in this book: A first chapter from Michael Marshall Smith’s novel SPARES that was cut, and a chapter from a first draft of another novel by the same author. A “lost chapter” to Poppy Z. Brite’s LOST SOULS. The discarded opening to Peter Straub’s MR. X. An unfinished novel by Stewart O’Nan.

In most of these cases, you can see why they were discarded. They offer nothing to the larger works they’re derived from, and generally have the sense that the author was still discovering the story they were trying to tell. (Or in O’Nan’s case, you get a sense of frustration for reading a half-finished story.)

Note: I read Straub’s MR. X years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. But if it had contained the opening section that’s reprinted here, I never would’ve gotten past it and into a taut, lean thriller that the rest of the book becomes. Kudos to the editor who convinced Straub to cut that bloated opening.

There are complete stories by Kelly Armstrong and Clive Barker, but again, much like King’s story, they fail to develop beyond a general idea and don’t show what the authors are truly capable of when they’re working at the top of their game. Barker’s two-page story, especially, feels more like a writing exercise he did for a workshop rather than a fully formed idea.

That’s not to say DETOURS doesn’t contain some worthwhile pieces, and if it sounds like I’m dumping on the book … well, I guess I am because so much of it feels like the editor had to scrape bottom to fill out the page count and be able to use big industry names on the table of contents. But there’s some good stuff, too.

“Dead Image” by David Morrell is an intriguing story about a screenwriter discovering an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to James Dean (named “James Deacon” in the story). Morrell begins with a fairly humorous behind-the-scenes Hollywood tale, and turns it into a dark, twisted fairy tale. There’s also “The Curator” by Owen King, which reads like George Orwell’s 1984 if it were written by Kurt Vonnegut.

My favorite piece in the book is the nonfiction essay “If There Were Demons Then Perhaps There Were Angels: William Peter Blatty’s Own Story of The Exorcist,” which is exactly what the title says. Blatty details the genesis of his novel from the newspaper story that inspired it, to pitching it to publishers, to getting the film ball rolling. Along the way, he talks about how the novel, and subsequent movie adaptation, changed and evolved. His early drafts of the story. How close Shirley MacLaine came to playing Chris MacNeil, the woman she was the inspiration for in Blatty’s book, and how she sabotaged herself out of the part. The big-name directors (at the time) who turned down the movie.

Interesting stuff, and along with the two stories by David Morrell and Owen King, almost worth the price of the book.

Almost. —Slade Grayson

Get it at Cemetery Dance.

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