One review and the first part of a feature on the Dark Screams mini-anthology series that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-
Mini-anthologies seem to be very much in vogue at the moment, with recent volumes, themed or otherwise, from DarkFuse, KnightWatch Press, and Hersham Horror crossing the threshold here at Case Notes. Already on its fifth volume, the Dark Screams series from Hydra, a digital only imprint of Random House, is edited by Cemetery Dance head honcho Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman. With its eclectic mix of famous names and not so familiar authors, each volume serves up a tasty slice of mostly new horror fiction at a bargain price.
DARK SCREAMS VOLUME THREE (Hydra eBook, 86pp, $2.69) leads off with Peter Straub’s ‘The Collected Short Stories of Freddie Prothero: Introduction by Torless Magnussen, Ph. D.’, a reprint from 2013. Freddie died eight months before his ninth birthday and in his short span of life produced “ten of the most visionary short stories in the English language”. Our academic explains at some length why these stories are so effective though to the reader at first blush they seem like nothing more than the outpourings of a slightly precocious eight year old. It’s a wonderful send up of the kind of stuff academics produce to justify their personal infatuations and make tenure, but at the same time something else emerges, a picture of a very troubled young man, and we wonder exactly what demons Freddie Prothero was fighting against, a reality that in a way has seen his pleas for help almost trivialised by their reduction to literature. The story is a bravura performance from one of the best writers in the field, startlingly original and grippingly written, Straub capturing perfectly the voices of a troubled eight year old and an old before his time academic, using them to play counterpoint to each other.
‘Group of Thirty’ by Jack Ketchum is the story of horror writer Jonathan Daniels, who is invited to address a reading group out in the sticks, but instead finds that he has wandered into a trap set by people who have taken umbrage at the kind of fiction he writes and are connected to a family whose personal tragedy Daniels has used in his stories. They intend to visit some real pain on him, but the tables are turned in a clever and eminently readable story that asks questions about the role of horror fiction and the responsibilities of the writer to his material and his audience. Writers’ block is also touched on in a nicely ironic end twist to the story.
In Darynda Jones’ story, the eponymous ‘Nancy’ is constantly tormented by the ghost of a young boy and has become an outcast and pariah at the school she attends. A newcomer determines to bond with Nancy, and subsequently learns the true identity and intent of the ghost, with a family tragedy and murder that took place years ago at the story’s heart. It’s an amiable tale, lacking the originality and intensity of the two previous entries but never less than entertaining. It touches on the usual tropes of the new kid in school and the outcast template, but does so while managing to avoid the clichés, such as giving the most popular girl in school a heart, and at bottom it’s a ghost story come mystery with the plot driven as much by teenage hormones as the supernatural.
‘I Love You, Charlie Pearson’ by Jacquelyn Frank is more standard fare, with the eponymous protagonist determined to have his way with a cheerleader, convinced that she loves him, or at least will when given the right encouragement. Gratifyingly, but also rather incredibly, the deluded lover gets a suitable comeuppance when the object of his desire and her friend turn out to be not quite as expected and the biter is bit. It’s a readable story, the kind that tantalises our appetite for horror but doesn’t place any cordon bleu cuisine on the plate, instead offering meat and two veg, while kind of hinting that the meat might not be something you’d get down the delicatessen. Not really bad, it’s the sort of tale that would go straight to DVD if made as a film, before achieving borderline cult status and regular screenings in the early hours on the Horror Channel when only insomniacs are watching.
Last but not least we have ‘The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away’ by Brian Hodge in which the narrator and his partner Tara get sucked into the activities of their urban explorer neighbour. But Marni is also an apocalypse freak who sees signs of the end of days in everything, and almost seems to welcome such a conclusion. In the ruins of an abandoned brewery slated for demolition the team encounter a darkness, a nothingness that seems set on consuming the world and starting with them. It’s a beautifully told story, with each step in the drama leading inexorably to the next and a cast of well-drawn characters who never seem less than real. The affair between the narrator and the charismatic Marni feels inevitable, while Tara’s act of revenge tinged sacrifice also rings true, and though there is definitely an outré element to what takes place, with ruins evoked and signs of decay threaded through the narrative, you can’t help wondering how much of what happens is simply an externalisation of the inner emptiness of these people, their lack of any soul. Brian Hodge is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers in the genre, and this story reinforces that feeling, while bringing this anthology to a resoundingly successful conclusion.
(TO BE CONTINUED)