Edited by Ramsey Campbell
Pocket Books, pb, 356 pages, $4.99
ISBN: 0-671-69575-4

There has been a long discussion on GEnie's Science Fiction Roundtable recently about why anthologies don't sell very well. So far, no one has suggested that part of the problem is that there are a lot of bad anthologies out there.

Deathport is one of them.

It isn't just that this is largely a collection of mediocre to bad stories. Deathport's premise is so fundamentally flawed that it would be nearly impossible to write a good story for it; if word hadn't gotten out that the book was paying outrageously well for stories, I'm not sure anyone would have even tried. There's certainly room on the shelves for a good anthology of airport horror stories. Airports are rich grounds for fear: huge, impersonal spaces connected by endless mazelike passages, filled with enormous, lethal machinery, armed guards, and thousands of uneasy people nervously preparing to board twenty-five-year-old, deregulated airplanes. Unfortunately, the writers in this collection are not (with a few exceptions) able to build on the very real fears that air travelers feel. That's because all of the stories in this collection are set in one airport: the fictional Dry Plains International Airport, located somewhere in the southern part of Texas.

Dry Plains International is not just another airport, of course. It seems the facility was constructed on land cursed either by Comanches or (presumably migratory) Aztecs, depending on which stories you believe. As a result of this curse, DPI endures a run of bad luck, only part of which is chronicled in this book. Planes crash with alarming regularity; terrorists are always blowing up pieces of the airport; dead people show up in the bathrooms a few times a day; entire waiting rooms are depopulated by the ghosts of Comanches and/or migratory Aztecs; and so on. About two-thirds of the way through the book, DPI is obliterated in a nuclear accident, in a case of truly unfortunate story placement.

The FAA is remarkably unconcerned about the situation, as are the FBI, local police forces, etc. The National Guard makes a brief, unlikely appearance in one story, but that's one of the only hints that anyone beyond the DPI management team is at all concerned about the growing heaps of smoking corpses in the rest rooms, to mention one recurring theme. On the other hand, everyone else in the world seems to know that the airport is cursed. Rarely does a story go by without someone remarking in some detail about the curse and the odd air disasters that seem to constantly strike DPI. This engendered a certain lack of sympathy on my part toward the characters in a number of stories: are all of these people stupid or what? Would you travel through an airport where you knew thousands of people were regularly eaten by otherworldly spirits?

Despite the book's problems, there are some stories that deserve mention. Clearly the best story in Deathport is "Tire Fire" by Nancy Holder, a gruesomely juicy account of a cannibal musician's encounter with motorcycling Indian spirits. Not coincidentally, the airport figures only peripherally in this story. "Sacrament," Brian Hodge's account of a female chaplain who encounters something that combines the horrors of Aztec culture with the equal horrors of the drug trade is also compelling, although the ending didn't quite work for me (a frequent complaint during this anthology - many stories started well before stumbling over the contradictions inherent in the book's premise). Charles Grant's "In the Still Small Hours" closes the book with a poignant piece of quiet horror, one of the only non-splatter stories in the collection. Adam-Troy Castro's "The Telltale Head" is a gruesome but fun piece told from the perspective of a mentally unhinged man who can no longer afford his medication. Kathryn Ptacek's "Bruja" was one of the few stories that effectively used the Indian themes which supposedly underlie the whole book.

While this was one of the most negative reviews I've ever written, it actually turned out to be very popular with the contributors to the anthology, who felt like I'd pretty much nailed the problems they'd faced in writing stories for the thing. This was also a bit of a reminder of how long I've been online....

First appeared in Horror magazine, January 1994.

Copyright © 1993 by Leigh Grossman