Final Cuts (2020) edited by Ellen Datlow – Book Review

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Final Cuts—New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (2020)—is edited by the renowned Ellen Datlow and I bet there was no better connoisseur who could compile 18 high-quality stories into a single volume in such expert fashion. It has been more than a while since I read and reviewed horror literature. The last work of horror I analyzed on Literary Retreat was Rami Ungar’s Rose (2019). The previous horror anthology I reviewed was Garden of Fiends (2017) by Mark Matthews which was also my very first article on this site. Final Cuts has definitely reignited by passion for the macabre. And I hope you think so too after reading this review.

  1. DAS GESICHT by Dale Bailey: After an Introduction which talked about the birth of horror films, it would only be convenient for the opening story, Das GESICHT (The Face), to take place in the golden age of silent cinema. The story follows an old man as he reminisces to a young lady about the memories from shooting a now lost black-and-white picture. The prose is as razor sharp as the knife depicted on the cover of the collection. The tension is ripe. And the pacing is unparalleled. For a foremost tale, it has raised my expectations for the upcoming stories. Let’s see if they can top DAS GESICHT’s unforeseeable conclusion. Dale Bailey is a writer I have never heard of before but I’m grateful this collection allowed me to get introduced to his work.
  2. DRUNK PHYSICS by Kelly Armstrong: This sophomore story which followed the initial yarn can be compared to a movie sequel—most of the times they don’t live up to the original. The plot follows two girls making a web series on YouTube only for one of them to believe a ghost shows up in their episodes in the form of an orb. Unfortunately, the tale has clichéd characters and a plot which seems to be borrowed from the movie Unfriended. I appreciated the conclusion though as well as Kelly Armstrong’s writing style which reminded me of R.L. Stine’s who is best known for his Goosebumps and Fear Streets books.
  3. EXHALTATION #10 by A.C. Wise: Damn this story seems to put the letter H in Horror. It’s so dark that I thought I was reading another collection for a minute or so. The best aspect is the description which A.C. Wise is a master of. The plot follows a man with supernatural hearing trying to uncover the location of a dead woman by watching/listening to a snuff film. Intertwined with this mystery is the personal drama a man faces when he is love with someone he cannot have. The story reminded me of Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999) mixed in with Isaac Floretine’s Acts of Vengeance (2017), but in a good way.
  4. SCREAM QUEEN by Nathan Ballingrud: This short story lives up it to its title. It’s the first piece in the collection that actually got me scared out of my wits after a long time. SCREAM QUEEN follows two moviemakers interviewing a Scream Queen about being a one hit wonder and why she retired after that single feature. Not only is the yarn frightening but Nathan Ballingrud did his research when it came to scream queens and directors from the 80s era of Hollywood horror.
  5. FAMILY by Lisa Morton: This is a great addition to the compilation primarily because it ditches western society for an eastern one. The plot follows an American screenwriter working in Hong Kong who sees a horror movie titled Family but does not see the ghost which majority of the region’s citizens see when they watch it. The story is a bit predictable especially due to its cultural tropes but overall it’s a good read. I liked how it ended abruptly, but at the same time, satisfactorily.
  6. NIGHT OF THE LIVING by Paul Cornell: This is a difficult one to decipher. Unlike the title, the story has nothing to do with zombies. I think this story would have worked better in long form. Maybe as a miniseries? It has too much experimentation and too less shock value.
  7. THE ONE WE TELL BAD CHILDREN by Laird Barron: A beautiful story. The imagery is beyond vivid. It follows one of nine children who thinks his parents might have gotten possessed by demons due to watching/starring in a rare film. I reckon that lovers of fantasy literature would love this tale as the prose is lengthy similar to authors of fantasy such as George R.R. Martin. I’m not a fantasy fan, it’s one of my least preferred literary genres, but Laird Barron’s solid entry had me at the edge of my seat till the very end.
  8. SNUFF IN SIX SCENES by Richard Kadrey: This is exactly what you look for in a story dedicated to Hollywood horror. It plays out more like a screenplay (as a homage to its title) by finishing the tale scene by scene. The ending was a real shocker. I have never read anything by Richard Kadrey before but his writing style reminded me of Matt Shaw’s—especially in the case of the latter’s work Porn (2014).
  9. INSANITY AMONG PENGUINS by Brian Hodge: This story plays out more like a work of existentialism than a product of horror. It follows two movie lovers going to a screening of one of the real-life director Werner Herzog’s documentaries which has been rumored to exist for at least a decade. I am aware of Herzog and his frequent collaborator the late Klaus Kinski though I’ve never watched any of their work. Fans of the latter two might find this story more engrossing but for me it was an example of style over substance with a predictable ending.
  10. FROM THE BALCONY OF THE IDAWOLF ARMS by Jeffrey Ford: This story was all over the place. Jeffrey Ford’s description was good but there was no depth in the yarn—there just shock value for the sake of shock value.
  11. LORDS OF THE MATINEE by Stephen Graham Jones: This story has a nice balance of comedy and dread. I don’t wish to outline the plot as it’s quite unpredictable and also very original.
  12. A BEN EVANS FILM by Josh Malerman: This is the first story whose writer I’m well aware of—Josh Malerman—one of the 21st century’s most well-known horror authors—whose work I’ve seen not read (Bird Box). I’m glad to have finally read him after completing A BEN EVANS FILM. From the get-go, the story is amazingly paced and the lead character is as psychotic as the antagonists of the Bird Box adaptation. I knew how the ending would play out but I was holding my breath towards the last two pages—it’s just that heart-stopping. I might check out Malerman’s other stories soon which I’ve been delaying since the foremost time I read about him. The only downside to the plot is the foreseeable conclusion.
  13. THE FACE IS A MASK by Christopher Golden: This story has it all, Hollywood history, a cult, two interesting main characters one being a big-time producer and the other a professor. What drags this narrative down is its lack of originality. It has a lot of scares but a lot of predictability as well.
  14. FOLIE A DEUX, OR THE TICKING HOURGLASS by Usman T. Malik: Finally a story which is fully immersed with eastern culture rather than western. Lisa Morton’s entry in this compilation, FAMILY, also did well to introduce the traditions and folklore of Hong Kong, but it was too intertwined with western themes. FOLIE A DEUX reminded me of Malik’s 2015 tale The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn though the former can be properly classified into one genre: horror. I was not surprised that Pakistani Urdu slangs, monuments, Lahori hallmarks (NCA, Jail Road, etc.), and Jinn were part of the package as they have become Malik’s literary trademarks. What I did not expect was how multi-layered the story was by including tropes commonly associated with Pakistani society, the murder and rape of young children, film and photography widely viewed as a sin, etc. These themes weren’t just in the story for the sake of diversity, but actually contributed to the plot as a whole. Malik’s prose and ability to use traditional terms such as chador, waderah, etc., instead of English-language replacements, and his ability to mix magic and cultural reality as well as exhibit national identity in his works, reminded me of the short-story collection Bitter Fruit by Saadat Hasan Manto (incomparably translated into English by the late Khalid Hasan), and of Khushwant Singh’s literature. The gory parts in this story shocked me because 1. They were unexpected and 2. They were extremely well described—like something right out of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. The only flaw I could say I found in this story was that Urdu-speaking readers would relate better to the overall narrative. But reading the tale after more than halfway through Final Cuts will feel like a breath of fresh air to most.
  15. HUNGRY GIRLS by Cassandra Khaw: This story felt like one of the horror films that sparks brilliantly at the start but sizzles towards the end. Khaw’s writing style is impeccable and her narrative has potential yet the execution was mediocre.
  16. CUT FRAME by Gemma Files: Like another author in this collection, Josh Malerman, I’ve heard of Gemma Files but never read her work, until now. This story is refreshing as it was mostly narrated in the form of audio transcripts and notes. I have never read a tale in this format before. It suited the theme of the overall collection. The comprehensive plot, though, seemed to be a mixture of SCREAM QUEEN and THE FACE IS A MASK—two previous stories present in this compilation. I loved the writing style and the characters but the stereotypical storyline didn’t exceed my expectations.
  17. MANY MOUTHS TO MAKE A MEAL by Garth Nix: I thought the editor Ellen Datlow would save the best for last (though I’m yet to read the final entry at this point) but it seems the second-last story will be hard to top by the next one. It’s fast-paced. Garth Nix’s writing style reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s and even his noire narrative was set during the pre-WW2 era. I loved the characters especially the main one, The Fixer. I don’t want to reveal more of the plot as I figure a story such as this requires a short synopsis.
  18. ALTERED BEAST, ALTERED ME by John Langan: John Langan is another writer I’ve heard about a lot about but never read until now. This story was very multi-formatted in the sense that it comprised of a bit of the stylization of Gemma Files’ tale CUT FRAME but with email exchanges instead of audio transcripts. The description was extremely vivid and enough for me to glance at my immediate surroundings more than a couple of times similar to the actions taken by one of the characters of the yarn. What made this story better than CUT FRAME was that it’s way scarier and also extremely well-researched. If you’re a fan not only of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but cinematic adaptations of the classic vampire then you’re in for a treat. I also found myself eagerly devouring such important info though how much was real and how much was fictional is yet to be deciphered by me. The plot follows a best-selling suspense novelist discussing the first draft of his next work with another writer and/or editor over an email conversation. The center of the conversation is Dracula’s Ring said to be worn by all the famous actors who portrayed the count from Lugosi to Lee (again I’m not sure if the Ring is actual or a product of the imagination). Still, its importance as a centerpiece of the story should not be overlooked as the outcome of the tale is largely connected to it. The most horrific bits are depicted in the draft the author is sharing with the other author. There’s not just blood and guts. There’s something Clive Barker-like about the hardcore imagery that will most probably leave every reader with nightmares even the long after finishing the yarn. The two flaws I found in this tale are: 1. It took a long time to get used to reading it. The many formats including the story within the story technique was a bit underwhelming during the first few pages, but after you’ve gotten halfway through it, it becomes engrossing. So, the first half of the story didn’t pique my interest on my foremost reading. 2. It was too long for the closing tale. The preceding tale, MANY MOUTHS TO MAKE A MEAL, was better in the sense that it came towards the end of the compilation, and so its length and pacing was better suited to be a finisher for an already 18-story massive collection. All in all, ALTERED BEAST, ALTERED ME is one of the most original tales in Final Cuts, especially because it will be remain etched in readers’ brains for an extended length of time. It’s quite long maybe novella length but you’ll find its length to be justifiable once you finish it. I wouldn’t mind this story being extended towards novel form—it’s simply amazing and probably one of the best horror stories I’ve encountered in my almost three years of reviewing fiction on this site.

So there you have it! Final Cuts might satisfy lovers of horror films more than non-aficionados but it is still a solid collection. This compilation arranged expertly by Ellen Datlow proves that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to editing an anthology. The diversity of tales present inside—whether this flexibility comes in the form of plotline, story structure or word count—makes Final Cuts one of the varied collections I have ever read.