December is a rough month for reading and, depending on the reader, any Christmas themed book undertaking may well keep you occupied well past the day of festivities. Hence Hark! The Herald Angels Scream was finished on New Year’s Eve. The best thing about it is the title, which isn’t exactly a shame, but this collection of vaguely Christmasy horror is a mixed-bag, and a randomly curated one at that. These eighteen stories range from twelve pages to novella length, and a lot of them have exactly the same ending: children dying, women screaming in another room or, often, an unholy combination of the two — and then, consecutively.
It’s not entirely clear why Hark! The Herald Angels Scream begins with a streak of its weakest stories, including a travel nightmare where the people “punished” for Christmas infractions are completely innocent. There are a few transferable curses on display, there’s a stern warning of the dangers of technology in that unbelievably accelerated way those sorts of stories take on, and also a bizarre entry in what is presumably a pre-existing world that remarkably little information exists about.
But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is not without its gems: Jeff Strand’s brief “Good Deeds” is a genuinely amusing study of a truly awful Christmas song, which is particularly relevant to the last six weeks of the year when all of the music in public spaces is both a) about Christmas; and b) somehow something you’ve never heard before from that incredibly specific cottage industry; “It’s a Wonderful Knife”, editor Christopher Golden’s contribution, does more than coast on its title and offers a magical movie history time travel revenge tale; John McIlveen’s “Yankee Swap” is a seasonal Saw take that doesn’t quite stick the landing but is arresting up until that point; Tim Lebbon’s “Home” provides a post-apocalyptic ritual in a world that’s moved on; and it’s all tied together by Sarah Pinborough’s quite long “The Hangman’s Bride”, which starts with a chimney adventure and is almost as emphatic as Dickens at assuring us that Tiny Tim did NOT die by the end.
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t a consistent collection, and it’s not overly fun to dip in and out of, but there are a few pieces genuinely worth the time. It’s an impressive collection of authors, but apart from the final story there’s no logical order to proceedings. Horror and Christmas are bedfellows from way back — A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and through it Dickens invented the modern conception of the day — but Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t quite enough to put you in the festive mood enough in time for the day itself.