A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-
NANCY KILPATRICK – EDITOR/WRITER
For her latest anthology from Canadian publisher Edge, editor Nancy Kilpatrick takes as her theme our fascination with Death and, more specifically, the artwork this archetypal figure has inspired, inviting writers to paint pictures of their own using the medium of words. The end result of this exercise, DANSE MACABRE (Edge pb, 262pp, $14.95) contains twenty six ‘close encounters with the reaper’, with a wealth of stories from around the world and portraying Death as friend and foe, help and hindrance.
After Kilpatrick’s Introduction, outlining why she thinks depictions of Death are so beguiling and help us to come to terms with the thought of our own demise, the anthology proper kicks off with an appetizer in the form of Ian Emberson’s poem ‘Danse Macabre’ in which Death is an enchanting young lady in a mini skirt who invites her ‘victims’ to join her for a dance, this unusual and unexpected image setting the tone for much of what follows.
‘The Secret Engravings’ by Lisa Morton tells of the artist Hans Holbein who secures a special dispensation by agreeing to paint for Death, but in later life realises that he has been tricked into providing inspiration for the mythical counterpart of a serial killer, the story intriguing and with a neat twist at the end, while the historical period in which the events take place is brought to vivid life on the page, so that you have a sense that this is how Holbein actually lived. In Morgan Dempsey’s ‘Death in the Family’ a man who is Death’s godson uses what he has been taught to act as a healer, eventually coming to realise that death too has its place in the greater scheme of things, the story a clever variation on the fairy tale template, complete with an interlude involving princesses and kings. The protagonist of ‘Blue-Black Night’ by Timothy Reynolds is seduced by Death, who comes to him as a beautiful woman and wants him to teach her a song on his old guitar, a stream of gentle acceptance running through this story, the sense that what is happening is entirely natural and right, death not as something opposed to life but as its appropriate end.
There’s a suggestion of dementia about the protagonist of Lucy Taylor’s ‘La Senora Blanca’, an old woman who still resents Death for taking her husband who made so many sacrifices to him, but when her own time comes she dances out of the nursing home and into the path of a train, the story hinting at the impossibility of bargaining with fate. One of my favourites, ‘Totentanz’ by Nancy Holder & Erin Underwood is set in Cologne and gives us the story of a woman who accepts employment with Death and through doing so finds a way out of the abusive relationship she has with her husband, the story deliciously oblique and with rich touches of detail, so that Death is portrayed as both bureaucratic functionary and romantic lead, empowering the protagonist to see the truth of her own life and escape from it. In ‘Out Of The Sun’ by Gabriel Boutros, which appears to have been inspired by a Dylan song, a group of prospectors have an encounter with Death and the Joker, the tale an evocative threnody on the theme of what each of us is prepared to do to live.
Death is known as ‘Matryoshka’ in Sabrina Furminger’s story and a woman tries to bargain with her for the life of her son, but learns rather more of her family history than she is prepared to embrace, the story having about it the feel of a tale from Russian folklore, with keenly felt emotions and a strong twist at the end. William Meikle’s ‘Ghost Nor Bogle Shalt Thou Fear’ is another attempt to bargain with death, and it’s an attempt that goes chillingly wrong in a tale rich with dialogue and characterisation (I particularly liked the old lady with a passion for horror movies). The owner of a diner gets a week’s warning of her impending demise in ‘Death Over Easy’ by Suzanne Church, and a rather engaging Death helps her ‘put her affairs in order’ in a tale that celebrates small town neighbourliness, has some cracking prose and is undercut with a gentle acceptance of the inevitable.
Bev Vincent has his tongue firmly in cheek for ‘Therapy’ in which Death comes for a psychiatrist, but decides to have a session with the shrink first, and of course there is something oedipal at back of it all, as shown by the wonderful last line. A dying man gets to meet Lucifer and hear the truth behind creation in ‘Me and Lou Hang Out’ by Tom Piccirilli, but he senses that the fallen angel may be feeling a little too sorry for himself. Japan is the setting for the evocative ‘Elegy for a Crow’ by Opal Edgar, with a woman who wishes to spare her family suffering trapping Death and asking it to no longer take souls, but not realising that their pain will continue all the same, the story beautifully written and with a sense of the exotic about it. At the heart of the narrative is the realisation that for some death can be a release, an end to suffering.
A young man is reminded of the disappearance of a friend in childhood, leading to an encounter with ‘The Angel of Death’ in Lawrence Salani’s finely honed mood piece with its bitter end twist, while a doctor who has often thwarted Death finally becomes its victim himself in ‘The Physician’s Assistant’ by Dan Devine, a short piece that celebrates life through the medium of death. Afghanistan is the setting for ‘An Appointment in the Village Bazaar’ by S. S. Hampton Sr, with an American soldier who has some talent as an artist given the chance to save his life by drawing Death, the story eminently readable but with no sense that there is anything more to it than what’s there on the page, no subtext.
A dead newspaper reporter gets ‘The Exclusive’ when he interviews Death before moving on to the next stage in his existence in the story by Edward M. Erdelac, the concept a novel one and intriguing, but the plot feeling rather contrived all the same. An underworld executioner with a nasty line in torture is the protagonist of Brian Hodge’s ‘For I Must Be About My Father’s Work’, the story one of the best in the book and certainly the grimmest, albeit the worst of the wet work takes place off the page. On a whim The Bagman gives his victim an hour in which God may come to save him, but ultimately it is Death who arrives with unexpected consequences for both parties, the story obliquely suggesting the need for bad men, that the sociopaths and their ilk are part of the plan, though we are also left with the thought that possibly the plan isn’t really all that good: the story, however, is.
In ‘The Death of Death’ by Tanith Lee a young woman seeks out Death with the intention of infecting him with life, the story undercut by philosophical speculation about the role and purpose of Death in the greater scheme of things. A similar theme of Death being replaced plays out in ‘Symeon’ by Bill Zaget, but not as effectively, the story a bit too lacking in focus for its own good. Brian Lumley’s brief ‘Old Man with a Blade’ isn’t so much a story as a teaser for the author’s Harry Keogh books. Finally we have ‘Population Management’ by Tom Dullemond, featuring a society in which an individual’s demise is announced in advance by robots so that the subject can tidy their desk etc. In this case our protagonist is a young bureaucrat who can’t quite believe what is happening to him, who thinks that the game has been rigged and will do everything he can to avoid his fate; Dullemond’s account of the society leaves gaps which the reader can fill, with inferences to be drawn, and the end of the story delivers a gratifying payoff.
These stories and the others that I haven’t discussed, demonstrate that Death can be good fun in the right hands, but all the same if any young women in mini skirts ask me to take to the dance floor in the near future I think a rain check might be in order.
Kilpatrick’s last two anthologies for Edge have featured the vampire, and it’s a monster to which she appears particularly drawn as a writer. VAMPYRIC VARIATIONS (Edge pb, 239pp, $13.95) is her second collection of vampire themed fiction. It has an introduction by Tanith Lee and the stories are divided into two sections, ‘Old School/New School Undead’, in which traditional and modern interpretations of the vampire are explored, and ‘Sex and the Mourning After’, which consists of stories with a strong erotic element.
Leading off the first half of the book is ‘The Vechi Bărbat’, which is pitched as the tale told by a young woman imprisoned in a mental asylum and accused of killing all the people in her village, the plot a standard variation on the ‘you all think I’m mad, but you’ll see’ formula, done well and touching on the idea that folklore has information on how to contain such ancient menaces and modern science intrudes at the peril of all. Written in the first person, ‘Berserker’ tells of Dracula’s exploits in London, his insights into the ‘modern’ condition, and with the release of the eponymous wolf from the zoo the story offers a contrast between tainted civilisation and the freedom of the wild, albeit one that is highly biased in favour of the latter.
There’s a comedic slant to ‘Bitches of the Night’, with the creator of vampire brides becoming their henpecked victim, the story delightfully droll and using vampirism to take a tilt at machismo, with a hint of Louis/Lestat in the figure of the whiny male vampire, who feels so hard done by. ‘Vampire Anonymous’ has the appealing conceit of a vampire blog, where the likes of Byron and Countess Bathory tell of their past for the benefit of an admiring public, who don’t seem to quite realise how they are being picked off, the story firmly planted in the modern world and showing how vampires could utilise technology to gratify their bloodlust, ‘grooming’ their victims online.
The shortest and also the weakest tale in the collection, ‘Necromimicos’ is a gothic mood piece in which a vampire lurks in cemeteries hoping to be reunited with her beloved, or something along those lines. In ‘La Diente’ a Mexican migrant gets in touch with her vampiric powers and uses them to secure better employment terms from the American family she lives with, the story by inference hinting at different aspects of the predator and prey relationship, showing how vampirism offsets and/or mimics the economic tyranny of the wealthy elite. ‘Traditions in Future Perfect’ is set in a near future where vampires have been ‘outed’ and satisfy their appetites by offering a service to humans, providing those with terminal conditions a peaceful passage into death, only appearances are not always what they seem to be, with a subtext of the story dealing with the tension between hunter/gatherer vampires and farmer vampires, giving the piece a slant that could be equally applicable to the human condition.
The second part of the collection contains longer works and kicks off with the novella ‘Lover of Horses’, in which vacationing Suzanne is abducted by gypsies and taken to a remote area of France where a vampire waits to consummate the love that has bound them together through numerous incarnations. The story bears an affinity with that of Jonathan Harker, in the way in which Suzanne’s efforts at escape are continually thwarted, but also with echoes of the eroticism and passion present in Coppola’s interpretation of the relationship between Dracula and Mina. Sensitively written, and from the perspective of a character who isn’t entirely sure what she wants from life, other than not to be kidnapped and forcibly ‘seduced’, this was a thoroughly engaging read.
‘Time’ takes a look at vampire traditions with emphasis on ‘courtship’ rituals and the way in which power changes hands, its ‘young’ protagonist seeking to overturn the old ways and establish something better and more compassionate. And, of course, though it’s written about vampires the story has wider implications, touching on any situation in which the dead hand of tradition prevents us finding better ways to manage our affairs.
Finally there’s the novella ‘Wild Hunt’, in which a blind psychic becomes involved in a vampire power struggle, affianced to one bloodsucker and hoping that her mediation will ensure both her own survival and his victory, the story deftly melding sexuality and power, one feeding off the other, the two inextricable. There are many fine touches to this story, such as having a blind person as viewpoint character, giving her muddled impressions of what is taking place, the way in which the vampire is unable to take advantage of his captor, both for sex and blood, the reminders of human vampirism placed in the text, and the final happy ending which shows that even vampires can learn and change their ways. This story was a strong end to an excellent collection, one that shows there is plenty of life left in the vampire archetype.