This time around I was sent an anthology by Innsmouth Free Press to review, a new compilation of gothic-style fiction called Candle in the Attic Window and edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles.
The anthology included a number of poems along with the stories, however they are not reviewed below. Although varying somewhat in quality, I found most of them somewhat disappointing and as a whole, eminently forgettable; luckily, not so the stories.
I am fan of the gothic genre and I find I prefer the creepiness of gothics to a more gory style of fiction or the shock fiction that surfaces from time to time, so I had high hopes for this release.
Without further preamble then, the stories.
The Seventh Picture, by Orrin Grey
H.P. Lovecraft & Robert W. Chambers meet The Blair Witch Project to interesting effect in this story by Orrin Grey. The story focuses around a group of young filmmakers making a documentary about a hack horror-movie creator, whose only claim to fame was the sudden way he died whilst filming his seventh film, The King in Yellow.
The King in Yellow is a fictional device first written about by Robert W. Chambers and incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos by Lovecraft. It is a play whose first act is supposedly fairly normal, but whose second act reveals such irresistible and disturbing truths that even reading the screenplay drives people mad.
The central idea behind the seventh picture—though in excellent Lovecraftian style this is implied and hinted at rather than ever actually explained—is that the filmmaker has somehow acquired a copy of The King in Yellow, and decided to make a film of it; and it was this film they were making when the house burned down and everyone was killed.
The story follows the documentary crew as they spend a night in the half-ruined house and discover that the film was not lost in the fire, as had been thought, but boarded up in a secret compartment along with a long-dead body, presumably the director himself. Overcome with curiosity, they watch the film, and meet the same end that the previous film crew did.
The story was well-told and atmospheric, and was an excellent way to start the collection.
Housebound, by Don D’Ammassa
I think this story was attempting to be quite creepy and scary, which is understandable as the core conceit of being trapped in a house that is constantly changing its layout is one that could lend itself to that sort of story. It doesn’t quite pull it off, however, and, although entertaining, the story seems to me a work of fantasy rather than of gothic horror. There is no real feeling of malevolence from the house, and with good reason as the rather ambiguous ending seems to suggest the house has more benign than evil intentions.
What you end with, then, is more of a psychological character study within the fantastic confines of a magical house. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure it fits with the tone of the anthology; particularly coming on the heels of such a classically gothic story as “The Seventh Picture.”
Stone Dogs, by Paul Jessup
I loved this story.
“Stone Dogs” is somewhat confusing at times. A lot of things are implied and hinted at but not completely explained, which is a common and effective trick of this style of horror, but the central idea behind the story itself was so well-presented that I was disappointed when the story finished. Personally, I think a longer work could be drawn out of this story to great effect.
The story is told through the diary of a young schoolgirl, who we discover from her words is of the low self-esteem, somewhat chubby and unhappy variety (or at least that is how she sees herself). A freak storm closes down the school and leaves the students trapped there, living out of classrooms and sleeping in the gym; a prospect that must be hell for someone who finds school itself is so unpleasant.
The first hint of the fantastic comes from a book that the main character is constantly reading: a work of fantasy that she says constantly changes each time she reads it. What makes the story so effective is the way the protagonist’s surroundings change gradually over time but are never specifically pointed out as “strange.” As the changes happen and she is living through them, she never realises quite how strange things are getting, and indeed at first it isn’t clear even to the reader. By the end of the story we discover that they are no longer simply trapped in a school by a snowstorm, but are trapped in an ice-covered world filled with giants, magic and monsters, whilst around her the school has taken a definite turn toward Lord of the Flies territory.
City of Melted Iron, by Bobby Cranestone
“The City of Melted Iron” is an attempt to modernise the classic “Indian Burial Ground” story, where trappings of modern humanity have been built upon the sacred ground of an earlier culture, unknowing—or uncaring—of the supernatural things that might lurk beneath.
Our protagonist is a worker who lives deep within a factory in a somewhat dystopian mini-society of labourers who seem to live out their entire lives squirming through the iron bowels of the foundry. They aren’t alone in there, however, and with alarming regularity workers end up killed, supposedly by the unquiet spirit of the sacred land the foundry was built upon.
Inevitably we come face to face with the creature and are asked a simple question. The answer leads the protagonist not only to survive but to prosper, though he can’t help but think about the cost he may have paid to do so.
In the end, the story was not a bad one, but did not stand out from the pack and ended up being mostly forgettable.
The Shredded Tapestry, by Ryan Harvey
This story pulls an expectation switch on you by beginning like a werewolf story. We have a lonely foreigner, pursued through a dark forest by a strange beast and eventually finding sanctuary at a strange old monastery whose monks are not overjoyed to see him, despite being from of foreign extraction themselves.
From there we are drawn into an interesting, if somewhat familiar, tale of abuse and betrayal that has led the monastery itself to be haunted by a spirit of vengeance risen from hell itself, and a monk turned to dark arts to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. The underlying tale is a little too well-worn to be overly engaging, but the story is told well and the ending is quite satisfying.
Desideration, by Gina Flore
This is a dark and disturbing tale of obsession and a supernatural predator. A lonely woman spends her evenings watching out her window for sight of a strange man who comes by occasionally and seems to look straight up at her. She is torn with longing, both emotional and physical, for this stranger whom she bumps into, seeming by chance, on several occasions.
Gradually she finds herself sickening, unable to rise from her bed but just as unable to stop watching for the stranger. As she reaches her weakest, she finds him at her door.
Short, moving and well-written.
Victorians, by James S. Dorr
I have heard it said that the purpose of art is to evoke an emotional response. If this is true, than “Victorians,” by James S. Dorr, is a successful work of art, as it certainly evoked a response from me. Absolute disgust. The story was wholly unpleasant.
There was nothing wrong with the writing, which was quite competent, and the story itself was well-framed and -executed, but I found the content itself repellent on a deep gut-level, something that only one other story has ever made me feel.
The story itself follows a man who has grown up and got married, and in so doing come into his inheritance—the family home. He hasn’t been back there ever since he was a very young child, when his father died and his mother disappeared, but as he reenters the house memories flood back. He remembers his father’s death, he remembers his part in the events, and he finds his mother.
He is cleverly compared to his father through his meeting of a local waitress, and events are set up to repeat themselves.
New Archangel, by Desmond Warzel
“New Archangel” is a fairly typical ghost story sent in Alaska and follows across a century or so, from Russian occupation to the destruction of the castle involved.
The story is well-told through the use of letters and dispatches, slowly revealing the events that led to the haunting and the consequences of the haunting in a disjointed fashion. It is clever and entertaining, but at its heart there is nothing really original in the story and it left me somewhat wanting.
The Snowman, by E. Catherine Tobler
A story of a woman haunted by the love she let go, told through the eyes of her niece who has come with her parents to her aunt’s house after her death. The house is haunted by the spirit of that lost love, now a spirit of ice and snow, until the niece is able to show how the love was remembered, regretted and never forgotten.
The imagery in this story was quite effective, however it did seem at times somewhat disjointed and could have benefited from a clearer, or perhaps lengthier, buildup.
In His Arms in the Attic, by Alexis Brooks de Vita
“In His Arms in the Attic” is an emotional character study of a woman destroyed by the death of the one she loved, to the point that life itself seems pointless. In her desperation she returns to the townhouse of her childhood in New Orleans, a place suffused with Vodoun magic and supposedly host to a strange ghostly ball each year on the night of Mardi Gras. Her memories of childhood lead her to believer that here, in this place, her dead love will be waiting for her.
The buildup is poignant and well-written, which unfortunately left the ambiguity of the ending a little disappointing. The piece reeks of gothic atmosphere, however, and is a quite entertaining story.
Hitomi, by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas
Stories of insomniacs going mad or seeing reality as-it-truly-is are not new (there is even a game based on the idea) but they are not overly common, either, and this one is particularly done well. The protagonist, long without sleep, takes lodging at a strange house seemingly inhabited by the author of a novelette written during the Edo period and her cats.
Drawn into the strange supernatural house, he is faced with the true horror of Hitomi and finds himself forever unable to escape.
Very short but filled with atmosphere, this story was quite satisfyingly gothic.
Tarocchi dei d’este, by Martha Hubbard
This story, set in what felt at least like the old Italian city-states, focuses around a part of Tarocchi cards (similar to modern tarot cards) hand-painted and so beautiful they draw whoever looks on them into an obsessive need to possess them.
Much attention is paid to the interplay of the court where the story takes place, and the jealousies and ambitions that twist through it. The story is told through the point of view of three main characters: a scheming servant, his mistress, and his naive niece.
The mistress, who collects Tarocchi decks, sends her servant to fetch her latest acquisition. When he arrives, he finds the painter driven mad by the deck and having murdered his lover. Falling under the thrall of the deck himself, he immediately begins scheming to acquire the deck for himself.
Events unfold in succession from there, interweaving the motivations of all the characters brilliantly to create a believable tale of lust, betrayal and obsession that leads to the destruction of them all. Definitely one of the highlights of the collection.
Elizabeth on the Island, by Joshua Reynolds
This story reminded me a great deal of a classic story by H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider.” It is a story of the monster unknowing, trying to come to grips with its surroundings and understand its purpose. It has an excellent atmosphere and a very ambiguous story that hints, rather than explains, the backstory quite effectively.
Dark Epistle, by Jim Blackstone
This was definitely one of the standout stories in the collection, tied with “Liminal Medicine” (see below) for the number one spot. “Dark Epistle” is set in the Holy Land and follows a spy sent by the Pope to determine the extent of the heresy of the Knights Templar.
In another story reminiscent of Lovecraft, this time similar to “The Mountains of Madness,” the protagonist is introduced to some of the secrets of the Templar order and sent to discover the truth for himself to a secret temple, beneath the city. There he discovers the horrible truth of the third “day” of creation.
Liminal Medicine, by Jesse Bullington
Rural Cambodia is not a location I have seen often represented in fiction, but as a setting for this gothic story of a doctor returned to her birthplace it works fantastically. As she returns, she has to face not only the beliefs of the locals, beliefs she has long since discarded as an educated modern woman, but she has to face the truth of what happened to her parents, and the truth about the witch who serves as healer to the community.
On the Doorstep, by Leanna Renee Hieber
An ultimately forgettable story about a psychic during the Civil War era, forced at the end of her life to break the strictures placed on her to save the life of a man whose life isn’t worth saving.
Frozen Souls, by Sarah Hans
A story of a Chinese woman immigrant posing as a man in order to get work blasting on the mountains. An accident leaves her in danger of death, but she is rescued by the unquiet spirit of one of the famous Donner Party. Her secret comes out and the foreman, about to rape her, comes face to face with the spirit himself.
An interesting story, but somewhat pale in comparison to other stories in the collection.
Nine Nights, by T.S. Bazelli
This is probably the creepiest story in the entire collection, and the one that is most likely to haunt your mind afterwards, leaving you disturbed and disquieted. A young girl is present at the funeral of her cousin, only to find her body being invaded by her cousin’s spirit. Gradually a secret of the family is revealed and black magic leaves two souls fighting for a single body. The ending in particular is terrible and well-written.
Vodka Attack!, by Meddy Ligne
This story was far too upbeat and off-the-wall for a gothic story and traded dark, creepiness for a somewhat lighter tone. It seems strange to consider a story set on the eastern front of World War II as “light” in tone, and certainly there is death and gloom in the story, however the story doesn’t seem to be able to grab hold of that gloomy atmosphere and ends up feeling like it doesn’t really belong in a gothic collection.
That said, it’s not a criticism of the story itself, which focuses on a Siberian shaman who uses vodka to turn a captured Nazi POW into a “man-dragon.” It’s over the top and highly entertaining, if somewhat lacking in goth.
The Ascent, by Berit K. N. Ellingsen
Occasionally you can read a story and respect what they are trying to achieve, but be unable to connect with it at all. This is a story like that. Ostensibly about free-diving, risk-taking and having to face fear when things go terribly wrong and our expectations about safety are subverted by the unknown, but it took a long meandering time to get to the point. In the end, it just seemed to fizzle out without really invoking the emotional response I suspect it wanted to.
Not a great way to end the collection.
Some of the stories in this collection were fantastic, some were not so great, but on the whole this was a collection brimming with gothic atmosphere and attitude and well worth a look for any fans of the genre.