Four reviews that originally appeared as part of a feature on themed anthologies in Black Static #40:-
Conceived as an anthology of stories built round tropes popularised by Dennis Wheatley, such as devil worship and demonology, DEMONS AND DEVILRY (Hersham Horror Books pb, 180pp, £7) contains five stories in total, including work from both editor and publisher.
Peter Mark May’s ‘The Abhorrent Man’ concerns an organisation that, like The Legacy in the Poltergeist TV series, has been set up to combat outbreaks of the supernatural, and this particular story takes founding member Stephen Marsden to Tunisia, there to confront a demon imprisoned in the ruins of Carthage. It’s probably the story that captures best the feel of its source material, with characters cut from the same English stiff upper lip mould as the Duc de Richlieu and company, regardless of actual ethnicity. It’s also the weakest story, with a plot that isn’t really all that interesting, just by the numbers, a prose style that is workmanlike at best and, at least in the PDF I was sent for review, some embarrassing typos, such as a soldier who is ‘pieced through the gut’ by a javelin, and continuing confusion about whether Carthage has been buried for two millennia or just two centuries.
Matters immediately pick up with the sinister ‘Little Devils’ by Thana Niveau, which is rather more like Fearsome Five meet The Blair Witch Project than Wheatley, but splendidly done, as a group of children stumble across a half built house, one that is not quite as empty as they believed. Niveau has great fun with the material, giving us a compelling picture of spoiled brat children and escalating tension with signs that something is seriously awry at this blighted residence, and a final twist that hints at a far more terrible fate for picked upon Pippa than any of us can imagine. John Llewellyn Probert is a writer who is always entertaining, and that’s particularly true of his delightful black comedy ‘The Devil In The Details’ in which a black magician’s attempts to secure a virgin sacrifice for his ritual keep coming undone, despite help from the kind of doctor you really don’t want to make house calls. The whole thing is rendered in a deliciously deadpan style, with such wonderful lines as “The virgin was delivered early that evening, along with an invoice” and a gleeful joy in the macabre visions pasted on the page, all culminating in a sting in the tail comeuppance for the protagonist, showing that evil doesn’t pay, or at least that it can always be outbid by a greater malevolence. Similar territory is explored in ‘The Scryer’ by David Williamson, which is almost as much fun as the Probert, with a Mr Kelly, who is in dire straits financially, inheriting a country mansion. Williamson plays a strong suit in characterisation, with Kelly and his distinctly down market family (they christened their daughter Kelly) playing off of each other in a Beverley Hillbillies gambit, and further comic relief courtesy of some butter wouldn’t melt, slightly condescending lawyers, but undercutting it all is a rather nifty tale of possession, with plenty of nice touches of detail and atmosphere, before Williamson pulls the blood stained rabbit out of the hat at the end, to applause all round, including from me.
Editor Stuart Young’s ‘Guardian Devil’ is the longest story in the book and the most ambitious I’ve seen from his pen in some time. Seeking support for their charitable endeavours, Becky and Sajid are lured to a strip club by a coven of financiers who have something else entirely on their minds. Hard choices are required of both characters, who by sacrificing themselves to protect the innocent manage to find a kind of redemption for their own past sins. Young doesn’t make it easy for either his characters or the reader, with Sajid revealed as a paedophile pimp in his past and Becky’s earthly body brutally raped while her psyche interacts with her assailant on a spiritual plane. The graphic nature of what is taking place, Young writing with a no holds barred sensibility, makes the story a distressing read at times and he comes close to being gratuitous and exploitative, but fortunately manages to stay just the right side of the line. The trippy aspects of the story, those events that take place on the astral plane, are handled with a visionary zeal, one that leaves the option open for the reader to interpret everything that happens as metaphor or symbol, with roots planted convincingly in kabbala magic and an underlying message about the need to forgive, ourselves and others. It was a fascinating and challenging read, one that will probably reward further scrutiny, though I have to admit I was a bit puzzled by the selection of Becky and Sajid, why they in particular were chosen for the ritual instead of those with more knowing attitudes. It’s something I felt Young needed to provide a bit more explication about.
Edited by S. P. Miskowski & Kate Jonez, LITTLE VISIBLE DELIGHT (Omnium Gatherum Media pb, 168pp, $13.99), invites contributors to explore their obsessions, “the irresistible, undeniably dark, potentially maddening, yet essential concept to which an author returns time and again”. The anthology contains eleven stories, including pieces by both editors, and each story has an afterword in which the authors discuss their obsessions.
Opening proceedings is Black Static columnist Lynda E. Rucker’s ‘The Receiver of Tales’, with fiction itself as a very obvious obsession for writerly folk, only here translated into a kind of vampirism, the story’s protagonist needing to hear the tales of others, they in turn conferring a kind of parasitic immortality, but also a terrible burden. It’s a concept fraught with subtext and metaphor, and Rucker wraps it all up in a compelling narrative, one that can simply be read at face value, the story of a woman who is either cursed or blessed with a condition for which there is no cure or resolution. Cory J. Herndon’s ‘Needs Must When the Devil Drives’ is the short story version of Ken Grimwood’s novel Replay as the man who financed the invention of time travel returns to live out his own life over and over again, each time trying to rectify the mistakes he made before, the story delighting with its invention and keeping the reader continually off balance as we get yet another variation on a theme, but underlying it all a genuine sense of tragedy, of a man haunted by his own existence.
In ‘A Thousand Stitches’ Kate Jonez presents the beautifully written and uplifting story of a sweatshop worker’s attempts to get out from under, but the final twist presents us with the possibility that either madness or the supernatural is involved, leaving the reader to decide, though neither can detract from the fact that Laura Beatty has saved herself, whatever crutch she needed to pick up to do so. The protagonist of ‘The Point’ by Johnny Worthen is obsessed with the end of the world, imprisoning himself in a fallout shelter and serving meals to his imaginary guests, people he has known in the past and whose conversation allows us to trace the development of his pathology. The moral of the story, obvious to everyone except the protagonist, is that he has in effect ended his own life by focusing everything on the imminent apocalypse and it’s a common enough theme, but seldom done as engagingly as here.
Blake, the protagonist of James Everington’s ‘Calligraphy’, discovers that words are written on his face, seared into the flesh of his body, the story developing along similar lines to The Scarlet Letter but using the device to offer a vision of the scapegoat, Blake accepting the sins of others, the overall effect one of surrealism and reality dysfunction, with a subtext rich in meaning. A mother who attempts to control her young daughter’s life invites trouble into the family circle in ‘This Many’ by S.P. Miskowski, when a birthday party takes a surprise turn. The story moves deftly from an account of somebody who is simply a bit overbearing, and possibly trying to recapture something of her own childhood, into far more sinister territory, the threat at first understated and ambiguous, then smashing down with the impact of a sledgehammer in a resolution that melds family life and urban myth to disturbing effect. One of the shorter pieces, ‘JP’ by Brent Michael Kelley is the account of a man so devoted to his dog that he will do anything to save the animal’s life, the story moving from calm to a horrifying crescendo of madness, murder and mutilation, and written with a tone of voice that solicits belief even as we realise how ludicrous and over the top this all is.
Mary Borsellino’s ‘Kestrel’ didn’t really work for me, the title coming from the name of the character, but made no more use of. Kestrel has both difficulty talking to others and cannot feel pain, but she overcomes these handicaps through the medium of writing a film script, at which point the whole story just becomes the delivery device for a glib punch line about pain and art. ‘An Unattributed Lyric, In Blood, On a Bathroom Wall’ by Ennis Drake feels like the most personal story, a meditation on death, rejection, and writer suicides that carries over from the story itself into the author’s notes on the story, breaking down the third wall. It’s a powerful piece, moving and at the same time disturbing for the hints of personal darkness planted in the text.
Probably the shortest story in the book, ‘Black Eyes Broken’ by Mercedes M. Yardley presents a pseudo-surreal account of a woman who seems fated to break everything in her life that she cares about, the story another one that didn’t quite work for me, a little too lacking in substance despite the evocative prose. Lastly we have ‘Bears: A Fairy Tale of 1958’ by Steve Duffy, which reinvents the fairy story as a parable on immigration and xenophobic prejudice, as a family of bears move into the neighbourhood and find that they do not fit in, resentment culminating in the hooliganism of Goldilocks trashing their house. It’s written with tongue set firmly in cheek and a skill for gonzo invention, but at the same time serious points are being made, the story just our spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It’s the perfect end to an interesting and strong collection, one that is remarkable for both the variety of material on offer and the consistency of quality throughout.
The theme of SPLATTERLANDS: REAWAKENING THE SPLATTERPUNK REVOLUTION (Grey Matter Press pb, 282pp, $15.99) is pretty clear from the title. Edited by Anthony Rivera & Sharon Lawson, this anthology looks for inspiration to the extreme and graphic horror of the splatterpunk movement, which peaked in the 90s and arguably laid the groundwork for torture porn cinema. It contains a traditional thirteen stories, and it’s safe to say that most of them are not for the squeamish.
Michael Laimo sets the tone with ‘Heirloom’, the story of Lucienne whose sexuality is intrexicably linked to the rifle that has been in her family for generations, the author exploring the origins of her fixation in a form of childhood abuse and then showing the way in which this seed has blossomed in her adult life, but despite Laimo’s best efforts it didn’t quite convince me, passing muster simply as a lively and well written atrocity show. Gregory L. Norris gives us a bargain basement Dexter with ‘Violence for Fun and Profit’ in which a man who has lost everything becomes a killer for hire, living off the map, but occasionally he’ll take out somebody who was really asking for it. On reflection the story could be called ‘The 1% Solution’ and, as far as that goes, while disapproving of his methods I found myself able to applaud his results in a tale that, depending on your point of view, is either a case of somebody overreacting or simply a matter of punishment fitting the crime.
A talentless but hugely successful musician finds that his natural gifts are enhanced by ‘Amputations in the Key of D’ in Jack Maddox’s story which explores the idea of suffering and handicaps to overcome as a goad to creativity, though not in a way that I found at all convincing. The only reprint, ‘Housesitting’ by Ray Garton was the most restrained piece on offer and definitely one of the best, as a woman who pries into the personal effects of her friend and neighbour discovers an ugly truth she would rather not know about but now can’t forget. Nothing bad happens as such, but the story chills with its revelation that we can never truly know the people we live beside, that the values we all claim to share are based on possibly false assumptions. By making the conflict one of an emotional and intellectual response, Garton gives us a situation we can all identify with and raises the tension in his narrative.
Gonzo invention comes to the fore in ‘Empty’ by A. A. Garrison, the story opening with the line “Shit and Cunt were husband and wife, named after famous saints”, and going further off the map with every additional page, as Cunt must travel back in time to kill author A. A. Garrison so that the Prophet will vomit in her slop bucket and she can refuel Shit. It was all somewhat ridiculous, but at the same time great fun, a black comedy with respect for no one and nothing except the demands of its over the top plotline. ‘Dis’ by Michele Garber plays its cards close to its chest, with a psychiatrist treating a woman who appears to be possessed by a demon, only there are problems in Tony’s life that make him prey to the creature, the story exploding in a display of revolting violence, and the reader left wondering if what we have witnessed is madness or satanic activity, the title signalling both the city of hell and dissociative personality types.
‘Dwellers’ by Paul M. Collrin has some nice effects in a story of transformation and apotheosis that doesn’t quite rise above the emptiness of the material. At the end of the day it is simply a series of impressions served up in fancy prose, like Barker running on empty, and doesn’t really go anywhere much. The singsong stream of consciousness lilt of Chad Stroup’s ‘Party Guests’ deftly builds a compelling picture of the personality of mentally challenged Geoffrey and slowly leads us to worry about these guests of his, the story a tour de force of inventive language, capturing what makes the character different and dangerous. There’s a killer on the road in ‘The Viscera of Worship’ by Allen Griffin, but murder here becomes a religious act, and the perpetrator too is open to the redemptive and transformative quality of violence, the narrative taking place at an oblique angle to modern life, coming from a place where more primal appetites need gratification than those of the 24/7 grind. It’s a tale of nullity, and on that level done extremely well, but ultimately doesn’t seem to have much to offer beyond a few atrocity scenes and hints of more going on behind the scenes.
A Viking raiding party find that their bloodlust is of little account in the great scheme of things evil, as they become ‘The Defiled’ at the hands of marsh-folk in Christine Morgan’s grimly gratifying tale of just desserts meted out to those who believe themselves innocent of anything other than acting according to their natures. A tale of the hunters become the hunted, abusers turned into the abused, it worked very well on that level. In ‘The Artist’ by James S. Dorr a chef with delusions of creativity wreaks an unlikely but inventive revenge on his cheating wife, in the sort of story Roald Dahl might have come up with, the matter of factness and underlying sadness of it all tinging the narrative with a note of bitterness. There’s a similar matter of fact quality to J. Michael Major’s ‘A Letter to My Ex’ in which a spurned husband spells out the nature of his revenge, but on this occasion I found it even harder to credit, even though the author addresses precisely the objections I had to the story. I guess the message the author is trying to put over, if any, is that people are often more evil than we are willing to believe them capable of, and that the need for payback completely destroys any sense of moral judgement.
Lastly we have the lively tale that is ‘Devil Rides Shotgun’ by Eric Del Carlo in which a police officer enlists supernatural help to resolve a series of brutal slayings, the story undercut with a delicious sense of humour and sparkling dialogue between detective and demon, so that despite the splatterpunk trimmings in the form of dead bodies on display it felt rather more like paranormal romance than what’s on the tin. No matter, as I found it highly entertaining and a nice, restrained note on which to bring down the curtain on this collection.
From an anthology whose roots are nourished by blood and bone meal to one that aspires to touch the night skies, the DARK HALL PRESS COSMIC HORROR ANTHOLOGY (Dark Hall Press pb, 136pp, $12.95), but shivers while doing so, and not just from the cold. It contains ten stories, most of them by writers I am encountering for the very first time, and the editor isn’t named.
There’s an early Ballard feel to opening story ‘The Yellow Dust’ by Oliver Smith, with the UK overcome by dust clouds and a couple living on inside an abandoned house as their world unravels around them, but look beyond the surface and Smith gifts us a subtext dealing with memory and grief, one that is personal as well as cosmic in scope. At heart the story is an elegy, for a life, for a way of life that is no longer sustainable. Lovecraft is the genius loci of ‘The Interview’ by James Pratt, with an alien informing mankind of the impending return of the Old Ones and offering to save a few choice humans, subject to terms and conditions as they say in all the best Ponzi schemes. There’s little that’s new here, with the usual subtext about the unimportance of human beings in the cosmic scheme of things, but it’s well told and with some engaging characters.
A man wakes from stasis sleep in ‘The Unknown’ by Tim Jeffreys to find the spacecraft has landed on an unknown world and the rest of the crew are missing. His attempts to discover their fate don’t particularly bring the narrative to life, but they do lead into an almost sublime ending, one in which the final twist seems to be at the expense of the reader. In ‘Night Terrors’ by Mike Pieloor a man accesses another reality when he sleeps and is pursued by malevolent Hunters, and a scientist wishing to help enters Ben’s Dreamscape. It reads like a cross between The Cell and Basil Copper’s story ‘The Janissaries’, and offering nothing, either in conception or in terms of execution, that they hadn’t done better. Darin Kennedy’s ‘The Eye of the Beholder’ has writer Patrick addressed by total strangers who impart cryptic messages. The premise caught my interest, but the ending is a little too weak for the build up, soliciting an indifferent shrug rather than anything more positive.
The protagonist of ‘Starstruck’ by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd is an inmate at a mental hospital who meets a former film starlet and learns the reason for that woman’s own collapse from sanity, with the threat that she too will be gifted a similar clearness of sight into the true nature of reality, the story intriguing but not really delivering on its promise, all seeming a little too vague and first draft. Silas learns of the pact his father has made with a monster in ‘Goddess of Our Fathers’ by Josh Strnad, the story well written and engaging, with an agreeably hideous entity offering bribes as well as threats in its attempt to hang on to human servitors. Men building a railway line unwittingly unleash an ancient evil in the unremarkable and forgettable story of ‘The Events at Frenchman’s Creek’ by D. J. Tyrer.
One of the more effective pieces, ‘The Ceiling with No Hook’ by Johannes Pinter is an enigmatic and gratifyingly strange account of a painter/decorator lured to a house that feeds on him, the story all the more chilling for the lack of detail regarding why this is happening, what the point of it all is. Last but not least, in ‘A Drawing of the Sky, A Song of Change’ by Bear Weiter a shaman must destroy creatures that come from the stars to preserve the future of the human race, the story a mildly entertaining diversion into familiar territory, but with nothing to make it really stand out in the memory.
(TO BE CONTINUED)