Horror fans are often asked why we subject ourselves to stories that jolt and terrify instead of partaking in kinder genres filled with happy endings. Regardless of the fact that horror can also offer happy endings earned through different forms of suffering, it’s the chance to expel high emotions for a low investment that brings many horror fans to the table. Fear is a universal experience. “What ifs” fill all our heads at some point, complicating our already cluttered psyches. Horror offers a purge—not that Purge—of all the atrocious fantasies acquired through the simple act of living. At least it did.

The current state of our world is a “what if” scenario that has escaped the funhouse mirror imaginings of luminaries of horror and science fiction like Stephen King, Chuck Wendig and William Gibson and has made it nearly impossible for the genre to perform its most basic function. We are not only at the mercy of a virus and all the invisible malice our musings visit upon the microscopic, but that of a heavily armed minority of the population that appears deeply invested in testing the “mankind is the real enemy” trope so deeply mined by zombie lore. Our media environment is so inundated by fact, fiction and conspiracy that palpable terror is ever-present and surviving moment to moment without screaming can represent a definite moral victory. With that being said, it is an absolutely lousy time to be releasing a horror anthology, but that is the situation in which Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles finds itself.

Edited by Ellen Datlow, the multi-award-winning editor of over 100 science fiction, fantasy and horror anthologies as well as 35 years of experience from the days of print to her current work at Tor.com, the collection offers artifacts of a bygone era that ended two months ago, all of which revolve around the entertainment industry in one way or another. Writers, directors, executives, actors, documentarians, webcasters and casual and obsessive fans populate the 18 collected stories, as well as a coterie of ghosts, demons, monsters and killers set in opposition to them. Datlow has amassed an impressive roster of talent that includes Richard Kadrey, Kelley Armstrong, A.C. Wise, Brian Hodge and Nathan Ballingrud, and the characters and scenarios they offer are diverse and fascinating. But reading this book creates a crisis of purpose of a sort, forcing a constant examination of motive. What is the purpose of horror in this moment? Kadrey’s story “Snuff in Six Scenes” is a darkly comic take on the snuff film, but how subversive can that be when video of black men getting executed by white supremacists is an online genre?

Horror is always about more than monsters, and the meanings we find most significant mirror where we are in life. Metaphor allows us to create a structure to examine the anxieties that make sleep a biological need enjoyed by others while we stare at the ceiling and try to find meaning in shadow. Final Cuts offers a wide range of themes, setups and internalizations from physical and emotional abuse, obsession and beauty, but the one that kept returning was lost time as depicted in three stories that deal with mortality and how we slave for our own dreams and those of others.

The first is called “Das Gesicht,” or “The Face,” and it opens the collection with a tale of Old Hollywood, art and silent movies. In it, cinematographer Heinrich König recounts his relationship with auteur and fellow German, Udo Heldt, before and after they emigrate to America post-World War I. The title refers to Heldt’s lost film made with silent star Catrin Amour, whose face he maimed, but it is told from König’s vantage. It is a haunting tale of service to a master, unrequited love and rage. “Even ghosts should have their say,” says the woman interviewing König, and they do through images that are not easily forgotten.

Nathan Ballingrud’s “Scream Queen” focuses on the myopia of fandom. Alan is the type of middle-aged man that came to Hollywood with bigger dreams than he could realize but found a niche in the short documentaries and special features that once filled DVDs and Blu-rays. Work is drying up, but he finds himself in a small town on the verge of his dream interview, Jennifer Drummond. Men Alan’s age hit puberty when Jennifer’s one and only performance in a grindhouse demon possession film called Blood Savage was all the rage. She was his first fantasy and could have been the next Jamie Lee Curtis if she hadn’t walked away. The interview feels like it could lead to Alan’s first big break, telling the story of a woman and a film he’s loved his whole life. The serendipity is so blinding he can’t see the danger he’s in.

Finally, there is Brian Hodge’s staggering “Insanity Among Penguins.” It is a story about using pop culture as a sole means of solace while becoming a curator to a forgotten world that is indifferent to your affections. It is about the kind of people who once exchanged bootlegs and rarities and knew the thrill of hunting through record shops and video stores for the treasures they sought. It also involves a lost film, an unreleased documentary by Werner Herzog called Todestriebe or “Death Drives.” The story is a missive to the mind of the obsessive, completist fan, making you question the pieces of the culture you love beyond reason.

Datlow’s eye for fiction is resplendent. The stories fall on a spectrum from very good to extraordinary. Offering respite from a failing world was an unlikely motive when the book was conceived and the stories collected, but this is a reeducation of the terms of horror. The genre as represented here exists to help us endure these times. This is a collection of stories that burrow deeply, leaving scars that promote sanity. It gives us the space to function until the hour comes when we can bay at the moon in privacy and comfort.

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