S.T. Joshi has become one of the more prominent editors in the realm of horror fiction and related genres, but this work has tended to come in two distinct categories. The first consists of his efforts spent in producing textually amended and accurate editions of work by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Robert Chambers; the Joshi-corrected texts of Lovecraft’s stories are considered definitive these days. Here he has made an effort to provide the authentic texts of the stories in question whilst not viewing his subject matter with rose tinted glasses, making an effort to each of the pieces collect into the context of a writer’s wider career. His Chambers collection for Chaosium, for instance, makes a game effort to present the best of Chambers’ post-King In Yellow supernatural fiction, whilst quite candidly admitting that Chambers was kind of phoning it in for most of his career.
The other tranche of his work is as an anthologist, editing collections of stories by multiple-different authors – either great stories selected from yesteryear or soliciting new stories. Up until the 2010 publication of the first Black Wings anthology, this had only been a very occasional sideline of his, and he had only produced three such collections; after Black Wings, he has been more prolific in this vein, producing numerous collections both in the Black Wings series and outside of it.
Soliciting and accepting stories for a multi-author collection is, to my mind, a very different proposition from producing a collection of work by a single author. In the latter case, including stories of inferior quality can be sometimes be justified. It should still be avoided if one is billing the collection as “the best of” the author in question; a “best of Bram Stoker” collection which included the confused mess which is Lair of the White Worm should be rejected out of hand, for instance.
On the other hand, if the collection is intended to bring to light lesser-known stories by the author in question, or is meant to be a complete edition of the writer’s fiction (as with Joshi’s Machen collections for Hippocampus Press), or is meant to provide an overview of the author’s career spanning their entire professional period, even those times when their work wasn’t up to their usual standard (as with Joshi’s Chambers collection for Chaosium, or his multi-volume Machen collection for them), then including a few mediocre or outright bad stories is wholly understandable. If you bill a collection as The Complete Short Stories of H.P. Lovecraft and don’t include The Street, that’s false advertising, even though The Street is a horrible story. Likewise, if you’ve been tasked with producing a collection which, say, picks one story from a prolific writer’s output from each year of their career, and they happened to spend one year in the middle of it churning out trash, you’re going to have to hold your nose and pick out the least bad story.
The same considerations do not apply to multi-author anthologies; there is, frankly, little reason to include a story in such a collection if it is outright bad or not really in the spirit of the collection you’re putting out. In many respects quality is a matter of taste, so a good anthologist whose tastes broadly align with yours should be able to select a crop of stories which you as a reader will personally enjoy fairly consistently – if, however, your own reading sensibilities are not really compatible with what a lot of stories in the anthology are trying to do, that can be a sign that your tastes and the anthologist’s are diverging.
At the same time, it is possible for an anthologist to do an outright bad job here. Some of my bugbears I’ve mentioned on here in the past include goofs like:
- Throwing in a clearly inferior story simply because it happens to be historically interesting, even though the anthology is meant to be a “best of this genre” sort of affair; if a story is not actually enjoyable it has no place in an anthology which doesn’t have a historical intention behind it.
- Including a story by your favourite authors, even if it isn’t up to their usual standards. Especially infuriating when the author in question is a well-established writer: that spot could have gone to someone starting out on their career (or another story from the same writer that’s up to their usual standards).
- Bringing in a story which clearly doesn’t fit the overall concept of the anthology, like billing a collection as being serious cosmic horror and then subjecting the reader to comedy nonsense.
Alas, it feels like in the glut of anthologies he has edited since the Black Wings first flapped, a few of these anthologies end up falling into these pitfalls. Whilst I do still like many of the Joshi-edited multi-author anthologies I’ve covered so far – I thought the hit/miss ratio on Black Wings was holding up pretty well until the fourth one – but these two didn’t work for me.
The Red Brain
This is very much marketed as a followup to A Mountain Walked, an anthology which followed the model of the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in the sense of collecting a mixture of brand-new stories and reprinted gems. However, it is substantially shorter than that volume – much less than half as long, in fact – which may give rise to suspicions that the well might be running a little dry.