Book Review: Thirteen, Volumes I, II & III
Originally published on 28/09/2014
Last edited on 28/04/2015
Back in the late 1990s I was browsing around a school fête when I found a second-hand book titled 'Thirteen', a compilation of 13 horror-based stories from renown writers. Despite my childhood status as easily scare-able ('Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory' terrified me as a kid and for months made me paranoid about chewing gum), I loved ghost stories and bought the book immediately, only to later be disappointed with the fairly mixed bag of tales.
Those few stories that stood out as creepy, suspenseful and even a little ironic, however, provided a somewhat enjoyable distraction from my homework and a memorable introduction and appreciation for short horror-themed narratives. It was these stories that saw me re-read the book countless more times in following years, with the title even earning itself a temporary place on my bedside table for over a year - a freakishly long period of time considering the book's relatively short length.
Over a decade later I found the book again, clearly fallen from grace and no longer in the honored position of the bedside table but instead crammed inside a battered cardboard box underneath random junk and stored in my cupboard. Curious as to see what the public reception was to the book, I browsed the internet, only to find a range of articles and chat sites discussing a 113-piece horror anthology also titled 'Thirteen'.
Many purported this new title to be hands-down the scariest book they've ever read, with numerous reviews pointing to a single two-paged short story titled 'The Magic'. Now, horror writers claiming that they've created the "scariest work of fiction ever" is nothing new, but these bold statements accompanied by some controversy surrounding the title's release and this strong reaction by horror junkies, definitely had me intrigued.
Wondering whether this 'Thirteen' could satisfy my appetite for concise, punchy, suspenseful horror-themed thrillers to the same extent as the anthology that I bought over a decade earlier, I soon found myself buying the kindle versions of both volumes for my laptop, with the intention of reviewing them. Unfortunately due to the book being so ineptly and awkwardly adapted to Amazon's 'Cloud Reader' and the public hype for the book dwindling, I soon abandoned this endeavor with no future plans to complete my review.
Vox Pop on Thirteen Vol. 1. and 'The Magic'.
The Thirteen Anthology: Terrible or Terrorific?
My Tolerance to Terror
Today I can proudly state that I've come come a long way from the frightened 5-year old with an overactive imagination, who for years tried convincing others that he was being haunted by a portrait of Madam Rimsky-Korsakov or that when ever he played basketball a specter of a cleaning lady with a wheelie bin, bloodied cleaver and disapproving expression would materialize on the sidelines.
Over the years my susceptibility to horror tropes has diminished somewhat thanks to my nerves becoming "manly" and "steel-like", a growing aptitude to rationalize situations with logic and common sense as well TV and video games finally killing off my pesky imagination (therefore I can "logically" dismiss that dark figure in my doorway as NOT being the ranting, crazed and fallen former Broadway star whose taken up residence in my ceiling space; but instead a splendid shadow of a tree caught perfectly in the radiant moonlight beaming through the window, though its incessant muttering and deranged monotone rendition of famous show tunes baffles me).
About Thirteen, 'the scariest books ever!'
So is Thirteen's brand of horror enough to rattle my bones?
Does it creep me out to the point that I leave the lights on at night while curled up in bed, vivid thoughts of Thirteen's unnerving tales keeping me awake and with only a blanket to shield me in case the nightmarish entities from the book's pages escape their ink-and-paper prison before forcing their way into our reality?
Nothing that dramatic, unfortunately (or thankfully depending on your point of view). While Thirteen's official website brags that its contents are the "most important contribution to the horror genre in living memory", in reality that claim is a little too grandiose.
Thankfully there are some great stories within the compilation, though these will of course be entirely up to readers' tastes.
Impressively there seems to be short stories covering every horror sub-genre with many including supernatural creatures such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts and other sinister entities and demons. Then there are those that focus on humanity's potential for evil, with murderers, rapists and cannibals making up the many human antagonists throughout the story.
Several memorable stories take a more subtle approach to horror and more closely resemble dark comedy, often with a somewhat ironic and comical twist.
For those that enjoy a bit of action, particular stand-outs that appear early in the first volume includes James Cooper's horror-suspense narrative, 'All Aboard the Love Train' and Lee Betteridge's supernatural-action story 'Bobby Moon'. Both pack a level of excitement, pitching individuals against insurmountable odds with fairly unpredictable twists.
Todd Langley's 'The Cluster', Andrew Hannon's 'Undertaker', Thomas Gilbert's 'The Show', Leisa Parker's 'That First Cup of Joe' and Cas Stavert's 'Lost' offer a far different sort of horror, mostly absent of insidious, evil or supernatural forces, yet still prove to be somewhat compelling, amusing and even slightly relatable apart from their surprising conclusions.
Robert Nielsen's 'Mr Thirteen', offers a lighter type of horror, somewhat resembling the TV anthologies like Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark, The Nightmare Room and The Haunting Hour. While not a bad story, I was surprised to see constant and fairly embarrassing spelling mistakes, such 'Mument' (the first letter was always capitalized, even if it appeared mid-sentence) instead of 'moment'.
For those who prefer to learn about folklore, while the book has that covered too with Bete Noir's 'Padraig O Mealoid' being the most notable example as it focuses on a professor teaching a class on different supernatural beliefs, superstitions and folklore. While variety is welcome, the set up of this story seems a little out of place as it lacks any attempt at building suspense, adding twists or creating horror.
There are so many others that deserve to be mentioned, but of coarse with over 200 stories going through each one individually is impossible.
While editor Andrew Hannon took on a major task of creating such a massive collection of short horror stories, his accomplishment is in itself a little flawed and this does impact the overall enjoyment of reading through the three books.
The greatest problem here is that Hannon, rather than setting out to create a horror anthology with a specific and well defined audience in mind, has opted to instead bombard readers with as many stories as possible in the hope that some will make an impression.
While this at least results in there being something here to satisfy most horror fans' reading interests, it also meant that from the entire selection only a few will really strike accord with the majority of readers.
To be fair this issue applies to most anthologies consisting of works from many contributors who were given no overall theme and instead told to write something vaguely horror-based. Readers may find that from a dozen authors only two or three will stand out, with the remaining narratives being considered bad, boring or simply tolerable.
While in most collections only one or two stories may separate the reader from that haunted house or monster story they prefer, I found that due to the vast number of narratives in Thirteen (particularly Volume One which is nearly twice the size of the other two volumes) I was often grinding through five to ten short stories just to reach one that I found really suited my tastes.
Even for short stories, the majority of Thirteen's narratives are exceptionally brief, with some lasting only two to three pages. This results in many of the entries lacking any sort of build up, suspense, dread or even character development as we hardly get to know most of the protagonists.
Too many tales just comes across as brief interludes, dropping the readers into dark scenarios and though they may be a little disturbing, have an interesting setup or even have a hint of comedy and irony, eventually I felt that some were reiterating themes and ideas expressed in earlier stories, while generally failing to instill any sense of fear.
A couple even feel simply lazy, as if the authors were inspired by something as mundane as their daily commute on the train but decided to spice things up by throwing in a couple of random twists that generally feel disjointed and detached from the rest of the story. As a result, I occasionally felt that I had skipped a page or was given the impression that the author wrote themselves into a corner by not being able to deliver a satisfying and thematic conclusion.
Those few that did ensnare my interest and had potential for creating frightening situations, also tended to end abruptly before forcing me to grind through a dozen more narratives and adjust each time to their different writing styles, formats and characters.
It should be noted that much of my criticism about Hannon's series comes from attempting to binge read all three volumes in a relatively short period of time. For those that intend on sitting down for a couple of hours and immerse themselves in dozens of shorts stories, it really does come across as a very mixed, inconsistent and occasionally uninteresting experience.
However these complaints will naturally be less of an issue for readers who may casually pick up the books every now and then to enjoy a few quick thrills by reading a couple of stories at a time.
I also read all these stories on my laptop from Amazon Cloud Reader, which for some reason doesn't allow readers to select each individual story from a contents page that also totally excludes page numbers. Therefore the only option to navigate these massive books is the 'next page' buttons at the bottom of the screen.
This sounds like a minor issue, but it becomes a real nuisance if you want to re-visit any of the stories for a second read, as you will not know the page number and as the book has not been indexed for Cloud Reader (at least at the time of reading it wasn't), using the "find word" function doesn't help either in locating individual tales. This issue of coarse doesn't exist with soft or hard cover copies and may also not apply to some eBook versions.
'The Magic', 'The Dare' & 'The Midnight Man' (spoiler-free reviews)
No review of the Thirteen anthology could be complete without looking at the works of Darran York. The publisher's website and the majority of book retailers purport these to be some of the most terrifying inclusions in the horror genre, while making no mention of Thirteens other authors or stories.
Without giving anything away, what can be said about these pieces is that they're not really stories but are instead a set of instructions.
The most notorious of the three is a two-page piece known as 'The Magic'. According to the publishers and the book's title pages, this was so controversial upon the books release that Volume 1 was banned in Italy and that the anthology can not be sold there unless 'The Magic' is removed. While I was unable to confirm this, it sounds to me just like P.R. propaganda (after all what could be more effective in capturing horror fan's interest than a book that's been banned for being too scary).
'The Magic' also inspired an internet craze called "I Read Thirteen", where people attempt to finish the story. Apparently only around 6 percent of people have ever successfully done so, with the rest apparently chickening out before they reach the end.
So what actually is it? Well unlike the stories included in Volume I, 'The Magic' actually addresses the reader directly, with most of the text appearing as seemingly pointless drivel before setting out a short set of instructions that work somewhat effectively in helping put the reader into a vulnerable state of mind.
While the twist isn't exactly that imaginative and I knew it was somewhat ridiculous, I'll be honest and admit that a certain revelation on the author's identity did make me pause and re-consider not completing the set out tasks.
Well I did ultimately decide to finish the activities on the page, I can't deny that small hint of reluctance that entered my mind towards the end of the story. Therefore I can understand why some people, especially the very religious or superstitious, may feel uncomfortable or unwilling in completing the challenge. Hardcore horror fans and those without religious or supernatural beliefs are less likely to be as effected.
While 'The Magic' can be done by oneself, it is a little annoying however that the other two pieces heavily promoted by the publishers add extra restrictions by requiring group activity,.
Unfortunately I was unable to gather enough people together to attempt Darran York's second story 'The Dare' (included in Volume II), as I'm beyond the age in which friends are enthusiastic about staking out a graveyard and performing mock rituals (I suppose it's a bit of a strange thing to discuss with your partner or babysitter if asked about their activities on the night).
York's third story 'The Midnight Man' (in Volume III) also requires a group of people to follow a set of instructions that focuses on a popular urban legend based on a paranormal figure that can allegedly be summoned through a mock-Pagan ritual. While earlier variations of 'The Midnight Game' found online require bloodletting, thankfully Darran York's version is bloodless.
For me personally Thirteen doesn't quite have the same effect as my original experience with short horror-based narratives in the late 90s, but this may be due to a greater level of exposure to the genre as I've gotten older.
Though they're hardly as grand as advertised and barely make new strides or introduce anything amazing in literature, Thirteen Volumes One, Two and Three DO offer a good assortment of short horror-based stories, with many including unique ideas, characters, formats and styles.
However while most of the writer's are quite competent, few of the narratives are memorable due in part to the editor's preference for quantity over quality.
Some readers will get a thrill out from Darran York's much hyped 'The Magic', 'The Dare' and the 'The Magic Man', though this will largely depend on your susceptibility to become unnerved.
It should be noted that the publishers pronouncement that 'Thirteen' contains the scariest stories ever, is largely referring to York's works and that these form the basis of a marketing campaign to encourage readers to buy all three volumes. If the few reviews on Amazon and other sites are indicative of the general trend, then this promotion has been somewhat effective in persuading readers to buy the books.
So it's a little perplexing then that rather then requiring people to purchase the books to experience York's works, the publishers provides an option for people to bypass Thirteen altogether by allowing readers to purchase these challenges separately.
All-in-all though Thirteen's volumes are worthy of a purchase, especially at the bargain price of $3-$10 for each e-book or kindle version(paperbacks will set you back around $20 for each volume). The series does offer a decent level of entertainment, but it's best to going into them ignoring the obnoxious and overly-pretentious hype by the publishers.
While the book series doesn't quite meet the hype and the collection as whole is a clear example that quantity-over-quality maybe not the most effective approach in creating an anthology, 'Thirteen' still offers a decent, yet somewhat inconsistent, assortment of grim, dark and sinister tales that should provide most fans of the horror genre with a degree of enjoyment and cheap thrills.
Those looking for a little terror and suspense and have an appetite for massive servings of short horror stories may want to consider giving one or more of these volumes a read.
With the Kindle versions selling at such great value, readers will definitely get what they pay for.