Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will likely satisfy a good majority of horror fans, regardless of whether or not they embrace the Christmas spirit.
One of the holiday’s best-known stories, that of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ultimate redemption at the hand of four spirits, tends to focus more on the humanistic elements of the story, virtually ignoring the fact that, at its core, A Christmas Carol is a rather unsettling ghost story, albeit a moralistic one. It comes as little surprise, then, that Dickens’ classic should be name-checked within this collection. But rather than ape its basic premise of a miserly old, well, Scrooge, being visited by the ghost of his former business partner and then the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, its only mention comes in Kelley Armstrong’s “Absinthe & Angels.” And while it’s only mentioned as being read by one of the characters, its place within Hark! The Herald Angels Scream shows the overarching indebtedness to the success of Dickens’ morality play/ghost story within a mainstream context.
And it’s fitting that it should find a home in Armstrong’s “Absinthe & Angels,” a tale that borrows heavily from standard horror tropes (lovers in a cabin in the middle of the woods who discover they may not be as alone as they had previously thought) and plays with the basic idea of how modern horror has gone to extremes to present visceral, gory scares couched within more traditionally minded creeping dread. As the opening story in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, it also sets the precedent for much of what’s to come, namely this ain’t gonna be one of them holly jolly Christmases. It’s almost as though each author felt the need to create a story that was the antithesis of the general spirit of the holiday in order to shock more than scare.
There are few happy endings presented herein and an unsettling number of tiny tots winding up not with their eyes all aglow, but with their lives extinguished. Scott Smith’s “Christmas in Barcelona” offers up a particularly chilling twist at the end of an otherwise fantastical tale of Christmas magic, while Seanan McGuire’s “Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow” plays out like a mid-‘80s, Chicago-suburb-set John Hughes film gone sour. These two stories falling back-to-back makes for particularly bleak going in the collection’s opening moments.
Christopher Golden’s “It’s a Wonderful Knife” feels the most timely of the stories here, dealing with a predatory Hollywood exec and the women he’s used and abused over the years. The end result can be seen coming from a mile away, but it doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Jeff Strand’s “Good Deeds” offers the collection’s funniest, blackest entry by a long shot. Taking apart the godawful premise of “The Christmas Shoes,” one of the most saccharine songs ever penned, Strand’s protagonist lives the song’s scenario, finds it absurd and sets about writing his own holiday hit. What he comes up with causes everyone who hears it to immediately kill themselves. It’s a premise borrowed from Monty Python’s “The Funniest Joke in the World,” albeit appropriately twisted to make the most of the destruction of its intended target.
Editor Christopher Golden saves the best for last however, with Sarah Pinborough’s gothic novella, “The Hangman’s Bride.” Pinborough hits all the right notes in terms of gothic horror, creating a story worthy of Shirley Jackson. Told as a story within the story, “The Hangman’s Bride” provides plenty of chilling passages, yet maintains a beating heart throughout that one-ups Dickens in terms of self-reinvention and the redemptive qualities afforded by the holidays. The mystery unfolds in a series of unsettling shadows and secrets, taking its time unspooling the narrative thread and maintaining a level of readerly satisfaction throughout, something that doesn’t necessarily hold up elsewhere in Hark! The Herald Angeles Scream.
John M. McIlveen’s Saw-aping “Yankee Swap” is more tedious than terrifying, while Jonathan Maberry’s “Doctor Velocity: A Story of the Fire Zone” feels as though it wandered in from some other collection. But fortunately these dull moments are few and far between, surrounded by more satisfying fare like Michael Koryta’s eerily compelling “Hiking Through” and Joe R. Lansdale’s tale of Christmas revenge, “The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel.” In all, Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will likely satisfy a good majority of horror fans, regardless of whether or not they embrace the Christmas spirit.