Filler content with anthologies

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #31:-

TWO ANTHOLOGIES

Edited by Adam Bradley, 13: TALES OF DARK FICTION (Morpheus Tales pb, 144pp, £7.99) is the first book release from the publishers of ‘the UK’s darkest and most controversial fiction magazine’. In his Introduction to the book, Bradley states ‘I wrote a wish list, authors I admired, authors I dreamed of working with’, and from this I infer that the project was ‘by invitation’, which makes it surprising that none of the contributors are women. I can accept the situation if an anthology that’s open to submissions from all-comers ends up with a single gender roster, but when you’re doing a book that’s ‘by invitation’ there really is no excuse for ignoring half the population. In my opinion, anyone so unfamiliar with the horror scene that they don’t know of any women writers they consider worth bothering with, or who simply can’t be arsed to think about the make-up of their ToC and get some women writers on board with the project, shouldn’t be editing an anthology in the first place, and women are certainly represented in Morpheus Tales magazine, so it’s a pity that didn’t carry over into the book.

Okay, sermon over, so let’s get down to particulars, and kicking off is Eric S. Brown with the mediocre ‘Civil Beasts’, a lacklustre tale of the American Civil War which could be reduced to a formulaic ‘and then the monster jumped out and killed them all’, the monster in this case being a Sasquatch. I had more fun spotting the typos, with the horses ‘straining against their reigns’ and the monster having ‘flash’ instead of ‘flesh’, than I did reading the story.

Things immediately perk up with Gary McMahon’s ironically titled ‘Dirty Story’, the tale of Harry who works on a building site and simply can’t get his hands clean in the evening, his OCD behaviour playing counterpoint to the way in which he screws up his private life, the revelation of something in his past which he can’t shake free of, McMahon’s careful prose building up a slow burn picture of a man in self-torment. Alan Spencer’s ‘If You Lay Here Quiet Next to Me’ is the story of Stacy, who doesn’t realise her nature and how she is enslaved, the narrative initially intriguing but not particularly compelling and with a revelation that doesn’t quite live up to what has gone before, the reality shift nature of the story ultimately disappointing.

‘Desperate Measures’ by Stanley Riiks is King’s ‘Survivor Type’ transplanted to a post-apocalypse setting, with plenty of nastiness along the way but never really grabbing the reader and nothing new to bring to the table. ‘The Tax Collector’ by Tommy B. Smith has a novel setting, with hints of the American West twisted through several degrees, but the resultant story doesn’t do the setting justice, with the feeling that the characters are simply acting as they do at the writer’s behest rather than from any genuine motivation. It’s a lively piece and I liked it rather more than not, but I couldn’t quite believe in it.

More credible is William R. D. Wood’s ‘Organ Grinder’, in which members of the police department fall foul of a creeping evil at a travelling carnival, the protagonist’s unsavoury nature and the original menace making a strong impression. Next up is the best piece in the anthology, Joseph D’Lacey’s
‘Whatever It Takes’. Again, this is a variation on something done by Stephen King, the story ‘Quitters Inc.’ in which a man hires an unscrupulous organisation to help him give up smoking. In D’Lacey’s scenario, details of which are carefully drip fed to the reader, a blocked writer engages the services of a muse to ‘inspire’ him to write at any cost, the story playing a delightful game with our expectations as it constantly wrong foots the reader, and holding up to the chill light of introspection feelings that many of the story’s target audience will be able to identify with.

‘Wounder’ by Andrew Hook is a subtle evocation of a doomed relationship, one in which dreams, guilt over the past and elements of horror intrude so that you are never quite sure what is going on, and by keeping the reader off balance in this way Hook gets under our skin. Andy Remic’s ‘Mongrel Days’ is a futuristic piece about a down on his luck war hero who is prompted out of his despair and reminded of his true identity. It’s competently written, with some nice touches of science fictional colour and scenes of mayhem, but there isn’t much to it other than my plot synopsis, and so more in the nature of a time passer than anything substantial.

Shaun Jeffrey provides a clever piece with ‘103’, the tale of a strange inheritance and how the recipient proved he was the rightful heir, the story engaging the attention and holding it to the end. Last but far from least is ‘The Watchers at Work’ by Gary Fry, a tale of paranoia in the workplace as Jamie’s desire for acceptance by his mates leads him into temptation, but in this case that is not a good thing. Well written and characterised, the story builds a strong picture of a man tormented by guilt and driven by the need for self-worth of some kind. It’s a fine end to an anthology that on balance was more hit than miss, but could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand.

CHILLING TALES – EVIL DID I DWELL: LEWD I DID LIVE (Edge SF&F Publishing pb, 211pp, $14.95), edited by Michael Kelly of Shadows & Tall Trees fame is an anthology consisting of eighteen horror stories from Canadian writers.

Opening the account for the land of the Maple Leaf is Robert J. Wiersema, with ‘Tom Chestnutt’s Midnight Blues’, a lyrical and quietly compelling tale of a musician and the curse that haunts him, the story written with real feeling and bringing to life on the page a bitter undercurrent of resentment and self-hatred. Richard Gavin’s ‘King Him’ is a tale of madness, with the line between fact and fantasy blurred to the point where the reader is left unsure as to what is actually taking place and the story made all the stronger for that. Paranoia in the work place is at the heart of Barbara Roden’s ‘404’, with employees inexplicably disappearing, the tale circling around one man who can read the signs and finds that they do not foretell a happy ending, the author cleverly co-opting the 404 error message for her story and tapping into a common fear of how people are being marginalised and side-lined in our technological world.

In Leah Bobet’s ‘Stay’ an isolated community finds itself threatened by the wendigo, and torn apart by different ideas as to how the menace should be neutralised, the story excellent at creating the feel of a town where everybody knows everybody else, and how old ideas overlap with the new, and a subtext about those who fight monsters. ‘Blacklight’ by Michael R. Colangelo is a strange little tale, a couple drawn into the web of another and the man finding that he has become a killer, the mysterious Atticus dominating them all. So much is left unspoken and unseen, with the prevailing air of ambiguity making what we do witness all the more horrific. Sleep experiments go disastrously awry in ‘The Deafening Sounds of Slumber’ by Simon Strantzas, with the suggestion of something far more horrific lurking in the background as reality and dream fade and meld into each other, the subconscious minds of the sleepers acting as a conduit to some other, hideous dimension.

The protagonist of Nancy Kilpatrick’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is a patient in a hospital, a pitiful and self-justifying man who refuses to take responsibility for the accident he caused in which a mother and child were killed. The main thrust of the narrative lies in how he is brought to admit and face up to what he has done, the description of the man gratifyingly repellent and for the reader a quiet satisfaction in seeing him get his deserved comeuppance. A woman whose body is covered with eyes is the femme fatale of David Nickle’s ‘Looker’, the story offering a variation of sorts on the vampire theme, with the woman playing straight person to the story’s narrator, a weak and self-absorbed man who witnesses this miracle of flesh but sees nothing more than a way to pursue an agenda of his own. It’s a strange and chilling tale, fascinating for the way in which it merges mutation and madness, the two informing each other, and for my money it’s far and away the best piece in this anthology.

‘Cowboy’s Row’ by Christopher K. Miller tells of Rex who loses his temper when ordered to abuse an animal in his care and later causes an accident that nearly costs a small girl her life, the two events merging to present a portrait of a tortured personality, a man desperate to do the right thing for reasons rooted deep in his psychology. Initially there’s a Kafkaesque feel to ‘The Carpet Maker’ by Brent Hayward, as a man tries to find out what has happened to his daughter, but this is replaced by reality disconnect as the full story is revealed and the man becomes an unreliable narrator, the narrative intriguing and selling the reader a series of dummies as we try to get to the bottom of what is taking place. Sandra Kasturi’s ‘Foxford’ has a fairy tale feel to it, as put upon sister Eleanor is transformed into a fox to hunt down those who torment her, the story touching on aspects of the ugly duckling and cannily soliciting reader empathy for the underdog. In ‘My Body’ by Ian Rogers an encounter with a ghostly hitchhiker leads a man into danger, the story dealing with a familiar scenario and with little new to offer, but moving for the way in which it is told and the emotional acuity of the protagonist, the sadness and inevitability of all that takes place.

‘The Shrines’ by Gemma Files melds the emergence of a strange new religion with a mother’s love for her estranged son, the boy angry at a providence that has snatched away his father. Keenly felt, the narrative is reminiscent in many ways of Ellison’s Deathbird Stories with its chilling hints of something awful that has come in answer to human need. One of the highlights of the anthology, Claude Lalumière’s ‘Dead’ is a sly and humorous account of a young boy who one day decides that he is dead, a strange vision of family life revealed as the story progresses. It treads the line between funny and sad, making us laugh and yet moving in its depiction of loss and a despairing love. The last story is ‘The Weight of Stones’ by Tia V. Travis, which shows a community haunted by the collapse of a mine with huge loss of life, the descendants of those killed living on with images and reminders of destruction all around them in this skilfully realised picture of desuetude.

On this evidence, horror fiction in Canada is resting in safe hands.

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