999: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

Back in 1999, Al Sarrantonio edited the stellar anthology 999: Twenty-nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense. Here on the eve of a new year, with another 9 about to roll over, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look back at the Stoker-Award-winning book.

Two decades later, 999 still impresses with its size and scope. My Perennial paperback copy of the anthology clocks in (not coincidentally, I’d like to believe) at 666 text-packed pages. Between the covers of this thick-spined volume, the full range of dark fiction is represented: from quiet horror (T.E.D. Klein’s subtly sinister “Growing Things”) to brash splatter (Edward Lee’s unblinkingly graphic “ICU”); from Northeastern gothic (“The Ruins of Contracoeur” by the masterful Joyce Carol Oates) to the Southern folk tale (Nancy A. Collins’s local-colorful and captivating “Catfish Gal Blues”); from psychological horror (Rick Hautala’s creepily resonant “Knocking”) to noir crime (Ed Groman’s sexy and sinful “Angie”); and the weird tale of varieties both raucous (“The Entertainment,” provided with wicked wit by the incomparable Ramsey Campbell) and the somber (Thomas Ligotti’s brilliantly hypnotic, yet undeniable bummer of a cosmic-horror story, “The Shadow, The Darkness”).

The standard genre tropes show up here at Sarrantonio’s celebration, but prove most welcome in their fresh attire. Kim Newman’s lead-off piece “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue” takes the zombie tale to new places, not just via the story’s Communist Russia setting but also its bizarre twists (involving a revenant Rasputin!). In the bad-blooded “Good Friday,” F. Paul Wilson develops the traditional plot of vampiric incursion to chillingly apocalyptic extremes. The hoary haunted-portrait story gets updated and turbo-charged in Stephen King’s nightmare-fueling “The Road Virus Heads North” (one of King’s earliest post-IT returns to the town of Derry). Last but not least effective, William Peter Blatty’s volume-closing novel Elsewhere slyly reworks the classic elements of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and gives an incredible twist to the haunted-house formula (one that predates a certain Nicole Kidman film by two years).

I won’t pretend that every tale Sarrantonio selected is a narrative gem, but only a few pieces fail to sparkle in this treasure trove of terror. Shining brightest of all here is a pair of novellas that alone makes 999 a precious possession. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Mad Dog Summer” (which the author subsequently expanded into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms) is a terrific East Texas riff on To Kill a Mockingbird. David Morrell’s “Rio Grande Gothic” starts with an unsettling premise–empty shoes repeatedly found set on the yellow median line of a Sante Fe road–and deftly crosses over into downright eerie territory.

In retrospect, the high hopes outlined by Sarrantonio in his Introduction (that “this book turns out to be revolutionary, helps to revive the field, kills the ghetto, and starts a third Golden Age”) might not have been quite fulfilled, but there is no arguing against the success of this effort. The book is a strong contender for the title (again, in Sarrantonio’s words) of “the finest collection of brand new horror and suspense stories ever published,” and warrants a permanent space on the genre-lover’s bookshelf alongside such original anthologies as Dark Forces and Prime Evil. 999 has aged finely over past twenty years, and its dark contents prove well-deserving of a “vintage” label.

 

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