Author Archives: Nick Bronson

Problems with Horror in Interactive Entertainment

It should come as no real surprise that as soon as the earliest computer games became associated with narrative and story instead of simply reflexes, consumers saw the emergence of horror themes in games. This has continued into the modern gaming era because, as always, horror remains popular. Alas, as in literature and the movie industry, what looks so easy when flowing from the pen of a Lovecraft or Poe can hide shades of subtlety easily overlooked by the imitator.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to measure what it is about dark stories that gives them such appeal. They are atmospheric and the true brilliance of the masters of the form lie in the shading, the implication, careful setting and not, often, purely in the direct plot. There is a world of difference, one must agree, between a poor B-grade splatterfest movie that attempts to shock and titillate with overdone gruesomeness and a careful work of dark fiction that, though potentially bloodless, slips disturbing implications into the mind and remains to chill the blood long after the story is put aside.

This then is the problem that the gaming industry has faced in creating horror titles, this misunderstanding of the fundamentals of what makes a great horror story. With this in mind, we turn to a quick look at problems specific to this more modern form of storytelling.

Interactivity itself provides challenges for anyone wishing to tell a horror story. We have seen a number of occasions in the last few years of attempts to match horror with the ever-popular first-person shooter and action genres of gaming. These attempts have produced titles that were popular in many cases but in terms of what we would call horror, most fall far short in the terms we have discussed so far. Indeed, the majority of “horror” shooters tend far closer to the aforementioned B-grade splatterfest movies than to anything else.

The fundamental issue is the separation of narrative and gameplay. The gaming industry has come a long way in the past few decades of integrating narrative into games themselves, in some parts of the industry with great success, but by and large there remains a gap between the two. Story is often told in non-interactive cut scenes, episodic pieces of story separated by the game itself. The merits of this approach is really a question for another day, however. In the case of action-horror games this approach, regardless of how blurred the edges, has a special problem.

The problem is quite simple; first person shooters, as a genre, are fundamentally about a larger-than-life ultra-capable hero. There is no reason why this must be so, however, historically it has been so since the earliest shooters and despite changes in setting and attempts to modify this—so that the player is, for instance, a single soldier among many in the trenches of World War II rather than a gung-ho space marine single-handedly destroying an entire alien/demonic/Nazi invasion force, the fact remains that the player is, in the game, uniquely capable and easily outshines the computer generated allies.

In a game like this, this must be so. Very few players would enjoy playing a game where computer generated fellow soldiers take care of all the opposition easily and reduce the player to a walking tour of the trenches. It is a difficult balance for game designers to strike to have both the verisimilitude of the setting combined with the feeling of power and achievement necessary to make such a game entertaining.

This works well in less-serious games where an all-powerful protagonist is accepted as a matter of course and it works reasonably well in more realistic games such as the ever-popular call of duty series. Where it falls over most noticeably is when these games are teamed with the horror genre, in games such as F.E.A.R. and the later games in the Silent Hill horror games, a series that early on was rightly lauded for successfully producing games that were genuinely scary, but which has received a far more lukewarm reception for it’s more recent incarnations.

To use F.E.A.R. as an example, it does check most of the modern horror trope boxes. We have an evil conspiracy, paranormal powers, an overwhelming threat and a creepy little girl of the sort made popular by Japanese horror franchises.  These are all used to good effect in the little “story” episodes where the player sees visions of the little girl in quite disturbing ways.

The effect is ruined however by the sheer capability of the player character. There are creepy sections of the game certainly, however these short vignettes are interspersed among the greater gameplay sections, which consist of the player murdering wave after wave of supposedly “elite” soldiers who seem themselves content to be grist for the mill. The stakes cannot really be raised and the sense of uneasiness is a mere phantom feeling that fades quickly secure in the knowledge that with gun in hand, the player will eventually win the day.

That then is what is missing from most of these modern games. It is taken for granted that the player will win out against all odds. One aspect of horror fiction that is more prevalent in horror than in than any other type of fiction (save perhaps classical tragedy) is that of the losing protagonist. There is never a guarantee that the hero will win the day in horror, in fact for those familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction the idea that one of his protagonists could “win the day” in any meaningful way is nearly laughable. If the player is shot down by one of these soldiers the game ends immediately and sharply. There is no way to continue the story, there is no ‘meaningful loss’, but rather a failure on the player’s part. In fact, it is not really a game ending at all but rather an interruption at which point the player is expected to reload and continue. The protagonist, you see, cannot fail. He is destined to kill all the enemies and proceed to the story’s ending; only the player can fail and in that case it is only a temporary setback, not a true failure.

Compare this with the game Silent Hill 2, considered by many critics and aficionados (as well as myself) to be one of the most well-executed horror games ever made. The issues of saving and loading still apply but the focus of the game is much different. It is still possible to die in combat (a player failure) which requires an interruption whilst the player loads so the protagonist can continue his story; however the protagonist in Silent Hill 2 is a true “losing protagonist.” The game is a journey of discovery for the player where the truth about what the main character has done, the guilt that drives him, and the meaning of the terrors Silent Hill inflicts on him are all discovered during the game.  He is a true incapable protagonist in every sense of the word, not larger than life or a super-human killing machine—in fact, he is so incapable at combat that the player is encouraged to avoid it where possible.  This feeling of isolation, fear and incapability is heightened by the fact that there are some combats that it is not possible to win and where fleeing is the only possible answer.  A truly scary atmosphere is created by the combination of both story and gameplay elements (considering incapability as a gameplay element, which it surely was) working in tandem.

Silent Hill 2 has several endings, based on choices the player makes during the game, and although one might be considered the “good” ending, none could be considered heroic in the traditional sense. Instead with growing horror we are led to realise who we are, what we’ve done and to look at the experiences in Silent Hill in a new light.  Even now, years later, I remember the story with a shudder, whilst many other games have faded into complete obscurity in my memory along with countless forgettable movie plots and stories.

Many games have attempted to copy this formula in the years following including later games in the same series but most have failed to achieve this delicate balance that made the game a true horror experience.  They have focused on the imagery the game produced, which admittedly was frightening and disturbing, but missed the more subtle character of what made the whole what it was. They have improved the controls for the combat engine, which counter-intuitively made combat a more viable problem solution and lessened the feeling of incapability that made the previous game so tense. They added more characters, and even companions, in an attempt to increase the complexity and interest of the story, and in doing so eliminated the feeling of isolation that made the town and its secrets so oppressive.

Narrative games have an additional problem to surmount over the more traditional forms of storytelling; that of the integration of story and gameplay; and it is a problem that is most jarring of all in games that attempt to chill the blood and haunt the mind long after the game is finished. Though the standard triple-a industry brings us titles like F.E.A.R., it has too much money and risk tied up to truly innovate and as we have discussed, the current accepted methods of attaching story and gameplay, particularly in action games, is not up to the greater challenge provided by the subtleties dark fiction genre.  That said, it can be done and well; we simply have to look further afield—to the edges of the games industry, the dark corners and disused cellars where once-popular game genres lie and independent developers work feverishly. What better place for horror’s true place in the gaming industry?

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Candle in the Attic Window

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.

Overall

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.

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Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives

When I received Those Who Fight Monsters, an anthology by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing and edited by one of the contributors, Justin Gustainis, my first impression was one of tentative excitement.

Urban fantasy has a special place in my heart, and the Occult Detective is perhaps the fundamental urban-fantasy archetype. An anthology of this kind is can serve two purposes: The first is to provide a taste of the genre to those that might otherwise be unfamiliar with it, and the second is to provide fans of the genre a chance to discover writers they may not have already come across.

Reading through the table of contents I saw a number of names I knew, though hadn’t read: T.A. Pratt, Carrie Vaughn, Tanya Hull, Jackie Kessler and Rachel Caine; and two that I had read, one of which already had a place on my bookshelf: Caitlin Kitteredge and Simon R. Green.

Equally interesting were the names that were not on the list. When I think of the Occult Detective, in contemporary fiction, I immediately think of Harry Dresden (Jim Butcher), Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton) and Rachel Morgan (Kim Harrison). As a survey of the state of the genre, therefore, it falls down somewhat.

Each story in the collection focuses on a protagonist, ostensibly the “detective,” who stars in each author’s ongoing urban fantasy series. That said, the way the setting is painted in these stories is almost as important as the story itself. There are fourteen stories in total, not a single one of which was either bad or not enjoyable. Not all stories are written equal, however, and in this particular collection there were four stories that grabbed me from the opening sentence and dragged me through their twists and turns. The authors in this category have made my personal reading list.

DustedLaura Anne Gilman: This was an interesting story about a half-faun private investigator that was an interesting introduction to the Cosa Nostradamus series world, but didn’t really offer much beyond a quick character and setting study. The “mystery” wasn’t particularly mysterious or even very interesting, though the setting itself had some potentially interesting quirks.

Holding the LineLillith Saintcrow: This story was appealing primarily because it showcased a setting that has lost some popularity over the last decade or so. Rather than the “friendly” monsters or the monster-protagonist, in this story we have an old fashioned Hunter, a member of a country-wide fraternity of Hunters. It was entertaining enough, with a brief bit of investigation and plenty of violence.

See MeTanya Huff: Tanya, in this story, manages to take what could be just another pretty, lonely vampire story and turns it into something a little bit more than that. The vampire itself is interesting, since it seems to be the soul and life-force-eating type rather than a simple blood-drinker, but the core of the story is the interactions between the vampire (both before and after it is recognised for what it is) and one of the series main characters.

The big finale could have been trite but managed to avoid that due to the skill of the author; however, I didn’t really connect with this story. Part of that may have been the setting itself, which involves characters working on movies in L.A., which didn’t particularly appeal to me.

An Ace in the HoleC. T. Adams & Cathy Clamp: As someone who reads a fair few of the paranormal police procedurals that have become fashionable in urban fantasy over the last decade, it was fair to say that there was little here that I hadn’t seen before. That said, the story itself was tight, the characters interesting and there were no serious missteps. This was a well-written, entertaining werewolf-investigator story, but unfortunately there was nothing in there for me that really lifted it above its contemporaries.

The Demon You KnowJulie Kenner: Of all the story settings, the premise of this one was the one most designed to make me go, “Huh?” To use the author’s name of the series, because I really cannot explain it any more succinctly than this, this story belongs to the “Demon Hunting Soccer Mom” series.

This particular story focuses on the daughter of said soccer mom who is in the early stages of training to be a demon hunter herself. A bit of standard teenage rebellion and foolery leads her and her friends to a party that turns out to be a front for some soul-sucking demon action. The demon itself was described well, very visceral and quite chilling, and the soccer mom manages to show up in time to kick ass, take names and save the day. It somehow manages not to take itself too seriously (I mean, demon hunting soccer mom?) whilst still delivering a story and setting that pulls no punches. Quite an achievement.

Little Better than a BeastT.A. Pratt: This is a story of wizards defending a city against a beast thought killed centuries before. It started out much as any of a score of other urban fantasy novels and seemed destined to end up on the “satisfactory” list. The story hinted at some potentially interesting political structures behind the scenes, an alternative perhaps to the ever-present, all-knowing “council,” but this didn’t enter into the story so it is difficult to say.

The story was transformed, however, by the appearance not only of the beast, but of the man originally credited with killing it. This relic out of time is highly entertaining, full of bluster, arrogance and sexism, and it quickly becomes obvious that the focus of the story is not so much dealing with the beast, but with this “legend.” The story is worth reading for the ending alone, which absolutely drips with pleasant schadenfreude.

Impossible LoveC.J. Henderson: This story, by virtue of its core premise alone, was fighting an uphill battle with me. I have had something to do with the mentally disabled over the years and, through exposure alone, now tend to take a dim view of anything that trivialises the pain and suffering those families go through. The premise of this story was a single father who has spent years of his life nursing his daughter, who suffers from severe Downs Syndrome, and the revelation of one of his friends that his daughter’s condition is actually caused by a demon who latched on to her at birth. There are so many ways this could go horribly wrong and be horribly offensive that I was ready to bring the hammer down on this story right from the start.

I was surprised, therefore, to find that the story was quite sensitive and, more to the point, very realistic about the emotions and pain suffered by the caregiver in this case. The battle with the demon itself is rather poignant and the ending was done beautifully.

Running WildRachel Caine: A story based on Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, which appears to focus on a type of magic that is more elemental than most. The main character in this series is, interestingly, a djinn who has been stripped of much of her powers and reduced to a mortal form, and all the neurosis that comes with that. The story focuses on an encounter she has with a companion whilst exploring a mountain side. They come across a raw manifestation of elemental power that strips woman of their sanity and turns them into violent, drunken, sexual beasts who tear to pieces any male they come across.

The main character must resist the pull of the magic that seeks to draw her into its army of crazed followers and destroy an immortal force, whilst trying to protect her male companion from death at the hands of the crazed women—or herself.

I found the concept quite interesting and the writing tight, but I was unable to connect with the characters. Part of that is by design; it is difficult to empathise with a being that is by birth completely at odds with our own nature, but I found it made it difficult to enjoy the story as much as I otherwise may have.

Under the Hill and Far AwayCaitlin Kitteredge: Caitlin is an author that was already on my reading list prior to coming across this story, though I must say this is not representative of her best work. It was obviously meant to be a closed-room murder mystery in the fairy courts, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work, however as a pastiche of such it lacked much of both the charm and the cleverness that made those stories so successful. As an urban fantasy story, it was entertaining enough, but nothing special.

Soul StainsChris Marie Green: This was a somewhat sad and mournful tale; however it lacked punch and was ultimately rather forgettable. One of the more disappointing stories in the collection overall.

Hell BoundJackie Kessler: This particular story was excellent on several levels. First and foremost, it was told from the point of view of a succubus, a demon, and one who is not looking for redemption, trapped between conflicting desires or misunderstood. In a complete break with tradition, this is a demon who acts exactly like a demon, and does so very entertainingly.

Over the course of a simple but well-told story, we see the demon underestimate the mortal she is sent to tempt, get caught, but ultimately prevail much to the disgust of her superiors. No punches are held back, the subject matter is tackled without flinching, and all in all it was a fantastically-told story. I plan on looking further into this author’s series novels to see if they contain more of the same.

Deal BreakerJustin Gustanis: The main character in this story, Quincey Morris, is a descendant of one of the men who faced down Dracula in Bram Stoker’s masterwork, and it has since gone on to be a family tradition to work against the forces of darkness in the world. In a modern twist on the Faustian bargain, Quincey is approached and asked for help by someone who made a deal with the dark forces—a deal that expires at midnight on this night.

Quincey’s method for dealing with this is a fascinating piece of philosophy and trickery that works its way around the contract and foils the bad guys. A great story.

The Spirit of the ThingSimon R. Green: Simon R. Green is one of those annoying authors that I simply do not wish to like but can’t help myself. I first encountered him through one of his novels, recommended by a friend, and spent the first half sneering and rolling my eyes at the style and setting and the last half glued to the pages unable to put it down until I found out what happened next. Whatever else you can say about him, Simon is an idea machine capable of keeping up the suspense to keep you turning the pages.

He doesn’t disappoint with this story, another one of the jewels of the collection. In a detective story written with a Noir flair, we follow along an investigation into a crappy bar and a crappier bar owner, who is revealed to be more of a monster than any of the supernatural beings around the place. In a story that would never have a happy ending, we end with a bit of very satisfying vigilante justice by proxy meted out to the exploitative and murderous bar owner.

Defining ShadowsCarrie Vaughn: “Defining Shadows,” by Carrie Vaughn, was definitely the stand-out story in this collection for me. As I have stated earlier, I am very familiar with the typical paranormal police procedural story that are currently being produced in great numbers. This one was exception for several reasons.

The main character was not supernatural. She was not a witch, a werewolf, a mage, a vampire or a trained hunter. She is a cop with an open mind who has discovered there are more things on Heaven and Earth that are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio. This is refreshing and certainly adds an extra element of vulnerability to a character already in a vulnerable position.

Secondly, the monster itself was fascinating. A Filipino vampire with brutal and shocking habits and a truly unique physiology, the likes of which I have never encountered before. This by itself would be—and has been in the past—enough to get me excited when encountered in a novel, let alone a short story.

Finally, the story itself was brilliantly paced and written, from the investigation of the crime scene to the research to the final reveal. It was a morally ambiguous tale where not even the investigator herself was particularly happy with the result, let alone the reader, but we respect her even more for doing what she has to do. In my view, this story embodies all that is wonderful about the genre today.

And that’s all for this collection. It was well worth the read and I would recommend it wholeheartedly for any fan of the urban fantasy/occult detective genre; even more so if you are unfamiliar with the genre and would like a taste as to what it’s all about.

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Rigor Amortis

It didn’t take me long to decide what should be my first review here on Shock Totem, I was sold from the moment I saw the capsule description. “Horror and Erotica. Zombies and Romance. Rigor Amortis.”

After reading this I literally had to sit for a few moments and simply absorb the idea. Writers are supposed to be giant idea factories and if you read a lot of genre material it is easy to feel that there are no really new ideas. There are new twists on old ideas, new ways of looking at old ideas, but it’s easy to get used to pigeonholing; Space Opera, Epic Fantasy, Zombie Apocalypse. Yawn. But Zombie Erotica. I mean, Zombie, the gruesome, rotting dead; and Erotica…the explicit and often graphic depiction of sex.

We’re talking about Zombie Porn and it most certainly is both graphic and explicit, but also so much more. This short-story anthology is packed full of some of the most heartbreaking romance and vicious revenge stories I have read in quite some time. The book is split into four sections, dividing up the stories by theme. The broad themes are romance, revenge, risk and raunch—though this is quite a subjective division as many, or most, of the stories contain more than a single one of these elements. Certainly the best ones in the collection do.

My favorite story in this collection is “Obligate Cannibal,” by Kay T. Holt. It is drawn from the “Risk” category, probably unsurprising in that it downplays the more gruesome aspects of Zombies to provide what is, at its heart, a strange science-fiction romance between the Obligate Cannibal of the title and a partial cyborg. Sounds strange but it honestly works and made for what was the most entertaining story in the collection, eschewing the shock approach that is the heart of some of the other stories.

“Swallow it All,” by Jennifer Brozek, was another notable story, this one in the “Revenge” section. This one was quite short but it managed to provide a truly unlikeable antagonist who has had his wife raised as a zombie. It isn’t made explicit but seems likely that she died after he murdered her. Just enough details are provided about their situation that I couldn’t help but approve when he meets his deserved, and messy, end.

I will mention two other stories now, not because they were necessarily the best in the collection, but because both of them flipped the standard idea on its head somewhat. The first was “Forbidden Feast at the Armageddon Café,” by John Nakamura Remy, in the “Risk” section. This strange story focuses on two zombies eating dinner in the apocalypse café, as one of them wrestles with his conscience as he slips further into temptation, drawn along by his illicit lover. The story focuses on combining the main protagonists internal conflict along with detailed, and inventive, descriptions of each course, whose climax is a bound and struggling human, grabbed while having sex so that his brain is flavoured by both sexual stimulation and fear chemicals.

The other, “Urbanites,” by Pete “Patch” Alberti, in the “Raunch” section, was not among my favorite stories in the collection, but it deserves a mention for two special points. First, I found the concept itself quite interesting. A group of Zombies, acting like young urban professionals, head out clubbing (to an orgy) and plan to swing by “Survivortown” for a quick bite to eat on the way home. It’s light and somewhat self-parodying. The other reason it deserves a mention is for having the funniest first line of any story in the book; of any short story I’ve read in quite some time in fact. “I can’t find my penis,” Mike said. “How am I supposed to go to a fucking orgy if I can’t find my penis?”

I went into this collection looking for something different, something surprising, something I’d never read before. I got it, in spades, and it’s worth a look for the pure novelty of it if nothing else. There are some good and some not-so-good stories, as you expect from any anthology, the writing is solid throughout and every story, with one exception, had at least an interesting idea backing it.

The exception, in this case, was “Second Sunday in September,” by Steven James Scearce, a story about a society girl planning to go ahead with her marriage despite the fact that her fiancé has risen as a zombie. I suspect it was supposed to be witty and perhaps satirical or biting, and it did manage to drum up the atmosphere of a Jane Austinesque setting; however, I found the idea and the execution both somewhat inane.

I recommend this book to lovers of the grotesque and anyone who wants their horrific spiced with something different from the “usual.” A word of warning, however, this is not a book for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. I am neither, yet after reading the sum of this collection I was visited by some very unpleasant dreams drawing on the graphic depictions within this book. You have been warned.

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