Filler content with dark screams – Part 2

And following on from last Friday’s post, here’s the second part of the feature on the Dark Screams mini-anthology series that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-

DARK SCREAMS (continued)

DARK SCREAMS VOLUME FOUR (Hydra eBook, 80pp, $2.69) opens with a reprint from 1992, Clive Barker’s ‘The Departed’. It’s an elegant and meditative piece in which the spirit of a young woman comes to terms with her death and the loss of her son, with an atmosphere and feeling of gentleness that brings to mind such classics as The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Lisa Morton’s ‘The New War’ is the story of a WW2 vet who is in his nineties and in a hospital where he believes one of the nurses is intent on killing him with her pet demon. Having drawn us into Mike’s troubled mind, Morton plays her cards close to her chest, keeping the reader off balance as to whether his situation really is supernatural in nature or simply a combination of dementia and insufficient medication, ending on a note which seems to imply it doesn’t really matter, what counts is the will to soldier on. The ideas here are familiar, and the story won’t win any prizes for originality, but it’s well done and doesn’t outstay its welcome, albeit seeming to offer more than is finally delivered.

‘Sammy Comes Home’ by Ray Garton is a small town story in which the local pets disappear only to return home with strange growths, which then burst to unleash some alien life form. It’s a rather predictable piece, though made stranger for the lack of any explanation as to what is happening to the pets, but credibly executed, with a welter of splatter effects and strong sense of a world in peril. What elevates the story is the emotional aspect, with a father having to explain to his son what is happening to the much loved family dog, not only that but justifying to himself the execution of whatever has taken Sammy’s place in the bosom of their family. The need for hard choices and being able to live with the consequences are what underlie this story and give it authority.

Cindy is the name of ‘The Brasher Girl’ in Ed Gorman’s story and she is a femme fatale from the wrong side of the tracks who lures narrator Spence into her web. At first Spence is more than happy to be so lured, but then Cindy introduces him to her friend, an alien entity that lives in a well and uses its mental powers to compel the couple to commit criminal and increasingly violent acts. It’s basically Badlands with ET’s evil older brother thrown into the mix, though of course you could take the view that really the alien is simply an invention of the couple that provides them with an excuse for acting like complete shitheads. The narrative is never less than gripping, exploring what goes on between these two lovers, the subtle interplay of power between Spence and Cindy, showing how jealousy can undermine even the most corrupt of relationships (irony intended) and obsession can poison a life. The story was originally published in 1995, but reads as fresh as yesterday’s newspaper headlines, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aggression loaded page of it.

Last up we have ‘Creature Feature’ by Heather Graham in which after hours visitors at an SFX convention find themselves in deadly danger when a figure of Jack the Ripper comes to life. Fortunately one of the visitors is an FBI agent who can communicate with the dead and a friendly ghost is on hand to help them out. It’s a rather silly scenario to my mind, like an episode of Scooby Doo with added gore effects, the end reveal working somewhat less effectively than it should and slightly disappointing. On the plus side of the scale, I was rather taken with the setting, which was appropriately minatory as laid out on the page, a hall filled with monsters, and I liked the characters, so derived some enjoyment from the story even if I couldn’t quite believe in it fully.

DARK SCREAMS VOLUME FIVE (Hydra eBook, 89pp, $2.69) begins with ‘Everything You’ve Always Wanted’ by Mick Garris, a story that takes up nearly half the length of the book and is highly entertaining. It’s the first person narrative of film director Jack Tarrington, whose career went on the skids after his big budget bid for the big time flopped. Years later he’s still living off the royalties and kudos from indie hit Taxed, but thoroughly disillusioned with life, horror, and Hollywood. He accepts an invitation to attend a convention as guest of honour simply because they’ll pay expenses, but once there finds the attention gratifying, particularly when a young wannabe goes back to his hotel room with him and they have the greatest sex of his life. But afterwards he finds that his penis is infected, the pain getting steadily worse as the story unfolds, with horrific consequences for our hero. Sex partner Marion Crane is the embodiment and symbol of everything that Jack wanted from life, the things he tasted once but then had taken away from him, or rather threw them away. Deprived of his manhood, in an act that seems emblematic, Jack realises his mistake – “I’d sought a career, not a voice” – the ways in which he has betrayed his younger, idealistic self. It’s a vibrant story, lush and expansive, with Garris casting a jaundiced eye over the whole convention/celebrity scene, with sad has-beens trying to milk a few dollars more out of their past fame, and Jack commenting on the futility of this even as he embraces aspects of it as his own last hope. The plot grips hard and thunders along like a runaway express train, but never jumps the rails, with explicit sex and a surfeit of gore as part of the deal, and a fully rounded character with an engaging voice in the figure of Jack who is on a journey of self-discovery. He is perhaps a little too cynical to be truly liked, but never less than believable, and at times his persona speaks to aspects of our own natures. Taken at surface value, ‘Everything’ is very much an in your face, gross out horror story, but underneath that surface layer it’s a tale that has important things to say about creativity and commercialisation, the bastardisation of one in hock to the other.

After that grand opening salvo, Kealan Patrick Burke’s brief ‘The Land of Sunshine’ was almost fated to disappoint. It’s a slow and minutely detailed account of a man’s attempt to discover how and when his marriage went wrong, to find some way to put the pieces back together again and reach that land of sunshine he’d once experienced, and as far as that goes it’s a good story, but not much of a codicil to what went before. ‘Mechanical Gratitude’ by Del James is another quiet ghost story, the tale of a man and the two great loves of his life, his wife and his Camaro, and what he will do to protect them. It’s engaging and readable, a pleasant story with a murder at its heart, but no great shakes in the grander scheme of this volume. We get more going through the motions with ‘The One and Only’ by J. Kenner, the tale of a rich young man who is lured to New Orleans by the spirit of a voodoo queen. It’s an okay time filler, but doesn’t offer anything new and the reader will probably work out what is happening way before any of the characters, leaving us little to get excited about beyond competent characterisation and scene setting, though even in those departments the author doesn’t give us anything special.

Far more interesting, and the other rewarding story in this volume, is Bentley Little’s ‘The Playhouse’, a haunted house story with a twist. A real estate agent finds herself fascinated by the playhouse in the backyard of a property she is trying to get off the books. Time inside its walls seems to pass at a different rate, with hours and days going by outside while she experiences only minutes. Eventually this fascination leads her to question her own existence and what it means to her. There’s almost a House on the Borderland feel to the action, as time rushes by in the world outside, and threats to the sanctity of the playhouse are dealt with forcefully, with Little providing a masterly end stroke, one that seems to imply the playhouse is a building that stands outside of time. I was intrigued by this story, and the way in which Lois is sucked into something that seems wholly threatening, but only from the perspective of the reader. It was a fit ending to the latest volume in this promising series.

Now if only they could come up with some covers that do the contents justice.

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