After an introduction by editor Mark Morris this second ‘Flame Tree Book of Horror’ gets off to a flying start with “The God Bag” by Christopher Golden in which a gay son learns something of his ailing mother’s relationship with the Almighty and how she gets her prayers answered. Despite the predictable nature of the story’s final twist it still has considerable power to shock, and at the back of it all is a disturbing evocation of dementia and the last days of a sufferer. Matthew Holness gives us an unsettling tale of abuse seen through a lens darkly in “Caker’s Man”, a neighbour insisting on gifting children with his cakes. Holness is superb at capturing the lives of children, the ways in which they mimic adults, and adds on a truly sinister aspect to the story in the unwelcome presence of the neighbour, his unspoken but minatory designs on the family. Priya Sharma’s “The Beechfield Miracles” is perhaps the best story in the anthology. Set in the near future and a fractured Britain, it tells the story of Jasmin, the Second Coming, told through the eyes of a cynical journalist who veers between exploitation and belief. The characters are engaging and the events described grip the attention. Beautifully constructed, with incidents that parallel the Gospels, the story is a compelling read, one that strikes deep regarding human nature and the opposition between the best in us and the worst, ending with a truly chilling prediction of what is to come.
The protagonist of Dan Coxon’s “Clockwork” digs up the parts of an automaton in his garden and then uses it for revenge. This is a strange piece, albeit in the best way, one where events unfold at a leisurely pace with the author involving us in the character’s obsession, before twisting the knife and showing what is truly going on, culminating in a moment of hoped for but unsatisfactory catharsis. In “Soapstone” by Aliya Whiteley, mourning the death of a friend and ex-lover, Jen returns to the haunts of their student days and become involved in a game where she always wins. I’m not sure that I quite understood this one. It’s a mess of conflicted emotions on the part of Jen and friend Tyler, with the game possibly a metaphor for the kind of life she wants but can never have. In the end it felt all a bit too abstract for my liking. Toby Litt’s “The Dark Bit” tells the story of a yuppie couple infected by thread that nobody else can see and their self-mutilation in an attempt to deal with the problem. There’s a delightful matter of fact tone to the telling, with things steadily escalating until the couple are completely out of control, and you suspect that the violence they visit on themselves has become an end in itself.
Rose in “Provenance Pond” by Josh Mallerman has three imaginary friends, but one of them may be something more than that. This is a delicious, subtle tale, one which evokes the wonder and innocence of childhood, but with an understated ending that changes everything. “For All the Dead” by Angeline B. Adams and Remco van Straten is set in the coastal village of Soltcamp, a community dependent on the sea, and is told from the perspective of a young woman waiting for her fisherman intended to return. It’s an engaging piece, written with verve and a keen appreciation of the kind of life where everything is dependent on the mercy of the elements, with a striking finale as the sea answers the protagonist’s desires but not in the way she hopes. In “The Girl in the Pool” by Bracken MacLeod two burglars find a young girl drowning in a pool, which causes them to fall out and one to reconsider his life options, but with a supernatural sting in the tail. It’s an engrossing story, and I liked the characters of Rory and Tod, with the former involved in heavy soul searching, while the actions of the girl and final twist introduce an element of the truly weird to proceedings.
Jeremy Dyson gives us the story of Brosnan, whose fear of anaesthetic leads him to recover early memories; he is terrified by those of “Nurse Varden”, which seem to be a premonition of his own death. I liked this story, it’s involving and you will Brosnan to succeed in his quest, but at the same time it felt slightly convoluted, as if the end result was attained by a needlessly circuitous route, so not entirely satisfactory. Lisa L. Hannett gives us a delightful variation on the story of Sleeping Beauty in “If, Then”, with a gardener seeking to find a cure for the maid he loves, whatever the cost to others. It’s a tour de force of storytelling, with the man’s desperation along with the probable futility of his love and the verdant fecundity of nature coming across with passion. In “Aquarium Ward” by Karter Mycroft parasitic bugs spread through the use of a new form of drug and a rogue doctor seeks the source of the infection. The story has a lot of interesting ideas, and is underlaid by a paranoid fear of what the authorities are doing behind the scenes, though to my mind it is all presented a little too obliquely to succeed entirely, albeit perhaps the very nebulousness is what is meant to unnerve the reader.
The eponymous protagonist of “A Mystery for Julie Chu” by Stephen Gallagher is a student with a profitable sideline in purchasing antiques. She has a talent for ‘tainted magic’, finding items with a horrible history, in this case a Mr. Disco radio that transmits messages from the dead. It’s a story that is strongly characterised, with the various members of the cast brought to vivid life on the page, and a thoroughly convincing plot, one that opens up the reader to possibilities previously not thought of, such as the market for ‘aberrations’. One of the best stories in the anthology. Kirsty, returning home from an “Away Day” team building exercise where she was odd girl out, gets led astray by her satnav. Lisa Tuttle gives us a story that is gratifying, not least for its evocation of how it feels to be the outsider, with Kirsty getting her just desserts at the end, this time with a difference.
Peter Harness’ story “Polaroid and Seaweed” is about Daniel Shirt, abandoned by his mother and bullied at school, who conceives of a true mother, one who lives in the sea. It’s a macabre and surreal piece, with plenty of shit and piss, and in the end I don’t think the pieces added up to anything greater than the sum of their parts. While there were lots of good elements, for me they didn’t coalesce into a completely satisfying story. Set in Berlin, “Der Geisterbahnhof” by Lynda E. Rucker starts as an attempt to tap into the power of the numinous through exploring an abandoned subway station and evolves into a ghost story of sorts. Beautifully written, it is a story that hints at much more than is revealed, the whole shot through with an ineffable sense of loss and sadness. In John Everson’s story his friends hide “Arnie’s Ashes” but all the same he keeps coming back in a story that is two parts gore to one part melancholy, a bittersweet threnody for things and people consigned to the past and yet never truly let go.
In “A Brief Tour of the Night” by Nathan Balingrud, Allen can see and talk to ghosts, doing so on his nightly rounds, but it’s a poisoned chalice. This is a brilliant, heartfelt story, one that takes the ‘I see dead people’ trope and runs with it, giving us something that is both unsettling and comforting, with a final twist that drives the agony deep. Frank J. Oreto’s “The Care and Feeding of Household Gods” has a house husband creating a private pantheon to help him cope with life’s troubles, but deities demand sacrifices, which leads to complications. Once you get past the ridiculousness of the basic premise, this is a fine story, one where you can never be sure if something is actually happening, or if it’s all a case of coincidence and the protagonist’s warped belief system/psychology. The end twist deftly pulls the rug out from under reader expectation. Last but not least we have “Yellowback” by Gemma Files which has a topical feel, as a new disease spreads, with lockdowns and vaccinations, and the victims developing yellow masks, while a serial killer runs riot, the whole tied into the King in Yellow mythos. It is, as you’d expect from Gemma Files, an ambitious and demanding read, one that drags the reader kicking and screaming into its world and forces us to see things differently. A fine end to an excellent anthology, one that bodes well for the future of this series.