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Onyx reviews: 999 edited by Al Sarrantonio

The cast of contributors to this anthology reads like a who's who in horror and suspense. Within its covers, the reader will find 29 all new stories from the likes of Stephen King, William Peter Blatty, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Paul Wilson, Bentley Little and Joe R. Lansdale. The stories range in length from three pages for Peter Schneider's bizarre little tale-within-a-tale to a novel by The Exorcist author Blatty.

Editor Al Sarrantonio put together this collection: a quarter of a million words, one novel, three novellas, eight novelettes and "a whole bunch of short stories," the largest collection of its kind ever published. He had so many authors eager to contribute, that he turned away stories from top-notch writers.

The title is the last three numbers of the publication year, as well as "666" upside down. Few of the stories make use of the upcoming change of millennium, but the number of the beast certainly lies at the heart of many of them.

In a collection this large, one cannot expect every story to hit the mark. Several of the tales are so bizarre that the reader may come away from the story completely mystified. But the misses are few and far between. This is a very strong collection, which has stories which should appeal to most readers.

Not all of the stories rely on supernatural elements to create horror or suspense. Joe R. Lansdale's novella "Mad Dog Summer" is a gripping To Kill a Mockingbird, Texas style. In Edward Lee's "ICU," the protagonist discovers that not every nurse emulates Florence Nightengale. Chet Williams explores the darker side of a men-only social club where the competitive edge gets out of hand in an unthinkable manner in "Excerpts From the Records of the New Zodiac and the Diaries of Henry Watson Fairfax." Ed Gorman's gritty "Angie" is a terrifyingly credible lesson in the disposability of human life.

Most of the authors are well-known in the horror field, while the books of some, such as Eric Van Lustbader and David Morrell (creator of the Rambo character), generally appear in other sections of the bookstore. Many of the authors are deadly serious about giving a good scare. Nancy Collins, however, turns in a funny morality tale called "Catfish Gal Blues." Horror and comedy are often the flip-sides of the same coin.

The classic horror elements are well represented. In "Good Friday," by F. Paul Wilson, vampires are sweeping across the planet unchecked. Blatty's "Elsewhere" is an archetypal haunted house tales, complete with psychic investigators. Zombies walk the streets of Moscow in Kim Newman's opening story and Edward Bryant explores revenge, voodoo style, in "Styx and Bones." Joyce Carol Oates' eerie "The Ruins of Contracoeur" may well be the first gothic tale to feature such modernisms as computers and e-mail.

Several of the authors have found a way to take the horror tale and turn it into a story of redemption. In Thomas F. Monteleone's "Rehearsal," the protagonist finds himself in a Twilight Zone where his reality is rewritten a little bit each day, allowing him to confront issues from his past and become a better person for it. Van Lusterbader's oddly titled "An Exaltation of Termagants" drags his main character through an altered reality which allows him to reconnect with his family.

On the other hand, Stephen King's nasty little comic tale, "The Road Virus Heads North" will give most readers pause before they stop off at the next roadside garage sale.

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