Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-
TWO MORE ANTHOLOGIES
Edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson, DARKER MINDS (Dark Minds Press pb, 252pp, £8.99) is the second publication from the aptly named Dark Minds Press. It’s a nice looking piece of kit, with an eye-catching Ben Baldwin, while the ‘frames’, supplied by illustrator Will Jacques, that accompany each contributor’s biographical details are a nice touch, something that you don’t see all that often, and suggesting that Dark Minds see books as aesthetic objects in their own right and not simply as packaging for fiction.
There are fifteen stories, and some of the names in the frames will be familiar to Black Static readers. None of the writers are women, but as far as I know the book had an open submission policy rather than ‘by invitation’ and so I won’t criticise the editors for the omission.
Leading off is the lively ‘Reflections From A Broken Lamp’ by John Travis, which gives us several different accounts of an act of burglary, but as the narrative progresses the line into madness is crossed and we gain hints of something far more terrible that has taken place in the past, the story developing an atmosphere similar to that of Poe at his most outlandish. Daniel Kaysen gives us an intriguing variation on the doppelganger theme with ‘Slip Inside This House’, as the changes that take place in a married couple’s relationship result in them hiving off into separate people, the originals being marginalised by their doubles, the story coming with a subtext that touches on the psychology of relationships, how our partners fail/succeed to meet the expectations we have of them, are revealed as other than we thought or wished them to be.
There’s a topical feel to ‘Tale of the Abnormal Beauty Queen’ by Robert Essig, the story of how a beauty pageant contender was abducted and kept prisoner in a yellow room for eight years and the aftermath of that, the narrative touching on madness and obsession that leads ultimately to unforgiving violence. Stuart Young’s ‘Houses In Motion’ puts us back on more familiar ground, with the detailed and memorably characterised account of a man’s realisation of the true nature of reality and how architecture can be used to keep the outré at bay, Young holding his cards close to his chest, each step in the protagonist’s journey of discovery meticulously plotted, the tale gripping and holding the interest all the way, with deft touches of humour to ground the events in our everyday world. Simon Bestwick’s ‘Laws of Acquisition’ initially put me in mind of Thinner, but develops into the tale of a self-centred man who believes that all of his finest qualities have been taken away from him by a rival, the story arguably offering a subtext as to how we fear being replaced in our own lives by others who want what we have, and a warning not to take things for granted.
‘Looking At Me, Seeing You’ by Mark West tells the story of a man who is so preoccupied with external matters that he becomes an outsider in his own life, playing the role of observer and seeing exactly where things have gone wrong for him, but too late to do any good. Then there’s something delightfully different courtesy of Gary Fry’s ‘The Way of the World’, in which young Oliver goes on holiday with his girlfriend and her parents. Fry deftly blindsides the reader by focusing on the social dynamics of the situation, only to then surprise us with an ending in which the oedipal undercurrent is given concrete form, adding a delicious final touch that is ripe with irony. The ‘body thief’ concept surfaces in ‘The Listening’ by Benedict J. Jones, with a convict who is serving a life sentence having the ability to possess the bodies of others, the story well written and holding my attention despite the familiarity of the central idea, with a credible description of prison life and a neat sting in the tail.
‘Rise, Dead Man’ by Joe Mynhardt didn’t grab me, being a very ordinary tale of spectral revenge, with a drug addict who robs the dead brought to book, and nothing beyond that on offer. It was humdrum. A stage magician gets himself buried alive in ‘John Bane’s Grave’ by Charles Austin Muir, but he is dealing with the tragic death of his sister and addressing theories on developing a universal consciousness, the line between madness and sanity crossed at some point in this fascinating story and no clear divider. Knowledge of the moment of his death is the prerogative of ‘The Man Who Remembered’ by Stephen Bacon, a blessing he passes on to another, but while the story is clever enough in the way it hints at what is taking place instead of laying it all out for the reader there is little on offer beyond this cleverness.
Ray Cluley also touches on the theme of vengeful revenants with ‘Waste Disposal’, as a grieving widower is assaulted by some young thugs in rundown public toilets, but Cluley gives it a, for want of a better term, Rabelaisian spin and writes about geysers of excrement with such unabashed gusto that the story rises above the material and becomes a master class of sorts in this sort of thing. It’s a definite highlight of the anthology, but at the same time not recommended to those who are in any way offended by descriptions of bowel movements, because Jane Austen this ain’t.
Themes of guilt and penance permeate ‘Seeing Things’ by Robert Mammone, as a man responsible for the death of his lover takes drastic steps to dispel the visions that torment him, the story well written but not really going anywhere much. Clayton Stealback’s ‘Shutdown’ deals with the subject of post-death visions, with a man in a coma trapped in a reality where the same things keep happening over and over again and a strange mist is closing in, shrinking the borders of his world, the story engaging and clever, but not quite satisfying, always seeming to be written at secondhand so that I didn’t quite feel what the character was going through.
Finally we have ‘Cinder Images’ by Gary McMahon in which a man who is part of the test audience for a new film finds the drama seeping out of the screen and is himself drawn into events, the story’s subtext hinting that it is now impossible for us to function simply as observers, as the refrain ‘But it is England. It is now’ implies. There are images in the text that will stay with you long after the story is done. It’s a strong end to a powerful anthology, one where the good far outweighs the bad, with Travis, Kaysen, Fry, Cluley and McMahon the standouts.
SHADOWS EDGE (Gray Friar Press pb, 196pp, £8.99) is a first time in the editor’s chair for Canadian writer Simon Strantzas, who in the Afterword explains his vision of ‘a book of fiction that explored the numinous thin places—where shadows edge, where the intersection between waking life and dream is murky at best’, which to my mind doesn’t seem all that distinct from themes tackled by a lot of genre fiction. Strantzas also contributes ‘Prologue: The Nineteenth Step’ in which a couple with a new house appear to discover one of those ‘numinous thin places’, this section acting as a teaser/framing device for what follows.
Joel Lane strikes up the band with ‘Echoland’ in which two musicians try to find their way back to a place of which they had visions in their youth, using drugs to attain altered states of consciousness, but underlying it all is a feeling that even visions can become tainted with time, so that the land Diane finally enters is just a ruin of her memories, the story putting me in mind of the seekers who often crop up in the work of Clive Barker. Similar memories of a place/time now lost inform ‘The Penury’ by Michael Cisco, as a man interrogates a friend newly released from prison about transcendental experiences, but the narrative was too rambling for me to get any firm grip on what was really going on, which could well be the point of the exercise, though if so it didn’t work for me. Reid encounters down and out Agnes, a ghost from his past, and takes her to the desolate spot known as ‘Tinder Row’ in the story by Richard Gavin, where an act of transformation takes place that sees her elevated to a an elemental status, the story at its best when describing the people and things that got abandoned along the way and the feelings they invoke in those of us who continue on, perhaps as much envy as guilt.
A magical book and visits from a young woman serve to undo scholar Virgil Lodge in ‘The Falling Dark’ by Daniel Mills, the story compelling and written with an enviable lightness of touch, firmly set in the modern world but with a sense of something timeless underlying the reality of events. Gary McMahon is the only writer to appear in both these anthologies, with the protagonist of ‘The Old Church’ finding himself drawn into a strange ritual when he goes to a christening with his wife, the story taking normal, everyday events and cleverly twisting them out of true, so that everything is distorted as if seen through the lens of a nightmare. A man encounters creatures from another dimension entering our own in ‘… he was water before he was fire…’ by D. P. Watt and through serving them learns something of his own true nature, the story set firmly in the natural world but shot through with a sense of awe and a keen awareness of the strangeness to be found in wild places.
There’s a Blair Witch feel to ‘False North’ by Ian Rogers, as a man trekking in the woods becomes well and truly lost, his only guide an old compass that he has discovered and one which seems to lead him even further astray, and all the time the sense of something numinous approaching, the story creating a genuine feel of menace, the realisation that there are more things in heaven and earth. Lisa L. Hannett’s ‘Morning Passages’ reads like a conflation of Eraserhead and a training manual for midwifery, with a strand of unsettling weirdness running all the way through the narrative. I liked the effects, the squelchy feel of it all, but it was a little too oblique for my tastes, at least on the one reading. It has the feel of a story that demands something epiphanic from the reader for everything to slot into place, but for me that ‘road to Damascus’ moment remains elusive. The next story is more mundane, albeit in this anthology the term is relative. A man who takes ever bigger risks in his attempts to outrun the shadow that follows him finally endures a confrontation ‘At the End of the World’, a story by R. B. Russell whose conclusion brought to mind Bradbury classic ‘The Wind’, with its vision of natural forces acting out the will of fate, possessed by a sentience and intelligence far beyond human comprehension.
From W. H. Pugmire we have a snapshot of the strange, ‘Within One Ruined Realm’ showing one person’s awakening to the potential of the outré, the story written with the sensitivity and command of language of the true poet, but perhaps a little light on actual content. ‘Stabilimentum’ by Livia Llewellyn is one of the best stories, a woman finding her apartment overrun by giant spiders that appear to be coming through a portal from some other dimension, and then finding that she herself has gone adrift in space and time, the story starting normally enough, with fear of financial loss part driving the plot, and then seguing off into something more weird and wonderful, like The Mist done in miniature, only taken further than King dared to go. ‘Some Other You’ by Michael Kelly comes with a convincing sense of a man disconnected from his own life in the wake of a relationship breakup, but then delivers a powerful ending, one that hints at other possibilities, such as the existence of a doppelganger.
An encounter with a homeless man opens the eyes of the protagonist of ‘Lost in the Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Steve Rasnic Tem to the idea of many realities, including those in which stories might be the truth and vice versa, the piece beautifully written but to my mind not really going anywhere, doing little more than present the concept. The truth behind an ancient legend is seen in Peter Bell’s ‘The True Edge of the World’, with the protagonist’s wife going missing, presumably taken by faerie folk or similar, the story capturing perfectly the sense of isolated places where the walls between the worlds wear thin and anything is possible, past and present overlapping, the natural and the supernatural.
The best story has been kept for last. Storms are the catalyst that provide a glimpse of otherness to the narrator of ‘Bor Urus’ by John Langan, and he spends all his life trying to recapture that moment even though it might cost him his wife and children, only to then discover that the vision he sees is but a shadow of some terrible reality, the story easily one of the best that I’ve read this year, developing at a wonderfully natural pace, events and characterisation reinforcing each other, and with a sense of the weird that runs truly deep, the subtext that sometimes our illusions are the only things that keep us safe from a reality that is inimical to our well-being. It was a brilliant end to an interesting collection, one that attempted to draw aside the veil on reality and show us what could lie beyond the realm of the senses, and mostly the writers succeeded in this aim.