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Tag Archives: Anthologies
I was eager to get my hands on editor Ross E. Lockhart’s newest anthology, Tales of Jack the Ripper, and I was not disappointed when I did.
There is a definite “weird tale” edge to many of the stories (and poems) in the anthology, which in this reader’s opinion is a GREAT thing. It might even be expected from Lockhart, who also brought you The Book of Cthulhu and its follow-up, The Book of Cthulhu 2. This doesn’t mean you can pigeonhole Tales of Jack the Ripper.
When I cyberstalked Ross Lockhart, he had this to say (before slapping a restraining order on me): “With Tales of Jack the Ripper, I’m not only paying tribute to the 125-year tradition of Ripper literature, I’m also showcasing authors who bring a unique sense of voice and place to their craft. And who offer something new to the Ripper legend.”
You needn’t worry about reheated or threadbare Ripper tropes. Each writer took a fresh look at Saucy Jacky for the anniversary of the terror and fascination he wrought in London in 1888.
Though numinous dread is a thread throughout, there are plenty of “straight (razor)” thriller tales in shades of gothic or gritty noir, and don’t forget transgressive tales of psychopathery (my new word, you’re welcome). There were few spots where I felt certain authors fell into too much telling and bald exposition, but the good in this collection far outshines any such fumbles.
I had my particular favorites, and I know you will too. “Abandon All Flesh,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, stands out with its knife-sharp writing voice, accentuated by a deft twining of Aztec symbolism with Ripper legend to deliver a masterful story.
In “Jack’s Little Friend,” Ramsey Campbell crafted a dizzying psychological downward spiral and showed us all how creepy second-person POV should be done.
Shock Totem’s very own Mercedes M. Yardley actually gave me toes-to-top chills with “A Pretty for Polly.” I won’t tell you any more about her haunting story, read it yerself.
In fact, you need to get up off your lazy duff and buy this collection. Pick your favorite story and come back to argue with me via the “comment” feature below. Go on, I’ll wait here while you click over to the publisher or Amazon and press BUY.
I met editor/author Eric J. Guignard last year in Las Vegas while attending KillerCon. An amiable guy with a great sense of humor and an appreciation for beat-up red Chuck Taylors. We hit it off.
So when he asked me if I’d be willing to review his latest anthology, I said certainly.
After Death is a collection of over thirty tales, all involving what happens upon the departure from this mortal coil. Some of them are good, others are amazing, and a few are merely okay.
The volume opens with Andrew S. Williams’s “Someone to Remember,” which is a wonderful meditation on loss and promises, all threaded through the mythos of Charon, the ferryman. “Sea of Trees,” by Edward M. Erdelac contains some horrific and lingering images and a story that is as jarring as it is resonant. Steve Rasnic Tem, an author I have adored for years, turns in a heartbreaking tale of the abandonment death leaves and those who remain. It is haunting and full of hurt.
In “Mall Rats,” James S. Dorr exposes the hereafter as trapped in the after mall. And in “Forever,” the strongest story in the lot, John Palisano weaves a quilt of sadness, loss, and heartbreak that will leave you reeling. I have no words to express the emotions this tale stirs, but stirs it does and quite violently. Brilliant!
Jamie Lackey turns in the sweet and wonderful “Robot Heaven,” and Simon Clark’s “Hammerhead” is an exercise in reincarnation and revenge that is spellbinding. Steve Cameron gives us “I Was the Walrus,” in which a man follows his past identities to some lofty and surprising conclusions. “Be Quiet at the Back,” by William Meikle, is a humorous parable of the definition of sin and consequence.
There are quite a number of tales I didn’t remark on, not because they were poor, but because they just didn’t have the same impact as those mentioned above. That is the rough cross to bear with an anthology. On the whole, Guignard has assembled a great roster of talent—quite a few of which I had never heard of or read before—and given us a rich and heavy menu of possible aftermaths to the grand finale. You won’t be disappointed.
“Chirality” is, by definition, an object or system that does not match up to its mirror image. Hands are a common example of this. And we all know “mad” to mean insane or mentally ill. The two words that title this brilliant anthology basically tell you that these tales of varying madness and insanities will not be like anything you’ve read before. More than a title, it is a promise and one that is delivered upon.
The twenty-eight stories that make up Chiral Mad are all quite good. I will not go into all of them but will touch on my favorites.
I was not blown away by the lead story, Ian Shoebridge’s somewhat hallucinogenic “White Pills,” and worried I’d be wading through a volume full of that sort of thing; but the second tale, by Gord Rollo, laid my fears to rest. His “Lost in a Field of Paper Flowers” is a tragic tale of transcendental revenge that made me smile. A dark little smile.
Gary McMahon delivers another sliver of shimmering disturbia and repressed memory with “Seven Pictures in an Album.” While Monica O’Rourke’s “Five Adjectives” is a brutal diorama of denial and avoidance. Chris Hertz gives us firebug lovers in “There Are Embers.”
Eric J. Guingnard turns in “Experiments in An Isolation Tank,” a tale of inheritance, madness and perception, all darkly shaded in Lovecraftian hues.
In Julie Stipes’s “Not the Child,” a young mother sees the harbingers of death in her neighborhood and discovers it was not by accident. Jeff Strand’s “A Flawed Fantasy” takes the picking-up-a-strange-woman-at-a-bar trope and changes the game with a clever ending.
Jack Ketchum turns in a squirmy tale of marital discourse, nosebleeds, and strange visitations with “Amid the Walking Wounded.”
And then there is “Need,” by Gary A. Braunbeck. (Deep breath.) This might be the best short story I have read years. Its premise is simple: We are all saviors and we are all monsters. Told out of chronological order, it chronicles a tragedy in a town and the mark the heartbreaking event made on those who live there. It’s a haunting tale, one I found, and still find, playing on my mind. It hurts.
None of these stories are bad. Not a single one. Some resonated with me more than others, but that is to be expected. The writing is topnotch, and the subject matter is widely varied and innovative. These folks dug their toes in and went for big game. They have the trophies to show for it.
And if a collection of outstanding horror is not motivation enough for you to plunk down your hard earned money on Chiral Mad, I offer this enticement: All proceeds go to Down’s Syndrome charities. So buy a copy. And another for a friend or relative. Maybe a few more to sock away for Christmas gifts. Support the cause and read these stories.
I applaud Michael Bailey for publishing this…
The Horror Society is an online group where like-minded writers, artists, editors and other professionals meet to discuss their love of all things horror. Dangers Untold is an anthology conceived by Scott Goriscak and edited by Jennifer Brozek. This anthology does not contain the usual monsters; rather, the editor wanted unusual monsters and situations, and the contributing authors delivered.
The anthology starts with a great story, “Haunted,” by Erik Scott de Bie. A man sees his life in mental snapshots, conversations and interactions burned into his brain. He cannot escape them, or edit them; he constantly relives every embarrassment, every mistake he’s made. When his girlfriend tells him something he knows he’ll never be able to forget, he takes care of the newly-made memory in a horrific way.
If you’re afraid of flying, that fear will be reinforced big-time when you read Jason V Brock’s “Black Box.” Remember the episode of The Twilight Zone that featured William Shatner as an airplane passenger who saw a gremlin on the wing? In “Black Box,” that was based on a true story—and it’s happening again.
You wouldn’t think that cute and cuddly stuffed animals could be creepy, but you’d be wrong. In “Innards,” by Erik Gustafson, a little girl discovers that her toy animals come to life—but not in the cute, Disney kind of way. These plushy animals have TEETH.
The last story, “Man with a Canvas Bag,” by Gary Braunbeck, is gut-wrenching, especially if you’re a parent. I can’t really tell much without giving a lot away, so I’ll just say that this story is the best one in a book of great tales. It’s obvious what’s going to happen, but you’re powerless not to read it because it’s so gripping. Fantastic story.
Dangers Untold is one of the best anthologies I’ve read this year, put out by a little group a lot of people haven’t heard of yet. If you love anthologies as much as I do, this is one you definitely need to add to your collection.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The editor and publisher of this anthology, Robert J. Duperre, occasionally writes reviews for Shock Totem. The book also features work from Duperre as well as stories from Shock Totem publisher K. Allen Wood and editor Mercedes M. Yardley.
While horror has traditionally been associated with gore and the supernatural, it often finds it’s most fertile soil in ordinary themes that we are truly frightened of.
We can all enjoy stories about vampires or zombies, but those things don’t scare us much because no matter how skilled the author is at creating what Coleridge referred to as the “suspension of disbelief” we know that we can put the book down and walk away from it knowing that those things are not real.
But we’ve all been lonely. Even the most misanthropic among us would find it difficult if not impossible to survive in a state of total isolation. It’s why of all the cruel and unusual punishments we inflict on criminals, one of the most feared is solitary confinement, which can often create symptoms of psychosis in otherwise normal inmates.
In The Gate 2: 13 Tales of Isolation and Despair, published by T.R.O. Publishing, editor Robert J. Duperre offers us a varied assortment of horror tales. Some of them have supernatural elements, others don’t. Some are grim, some are humorous, some are creepy. The common thread running through these stories is the theme of isolation. It tinges the humor with sadness and makes the supernatural more believable.
This is a great collection. Some stories I liked better than others, of course, but none were duds, a relative rarity among independent anthologies. I especially liked how each author approached the theme of isolation from such different angles. Each story is also accompanied by a full-page illustration by Jesse David Young.
In the first story, “Plastic,” author J.L. Bryan gives us a funny and poignant take on the post-apocalyptic man who finds himself alone theme that we’ve all seen before. Bryan’s version is a fresh spin on the common topic, and genuinely comical. Daniel Pyle’s “Night-Night” is a nifty little story that kept its twist well hidden.
In one of the most literary stories, Steven Pirie offers us a gut-wrenching insight into the casual cruelties that many people inflict on people who are isolated within themselves by severe injuries. All of the stories here are well written, but Steve’s “Does Laura Like Elephants?” stands out as a real gem.
K. Allen Wood’s “The Candle Eaters” is a classic and very effective look at a Halloween tradition with an unusual spin. And in one of the creepiest stories of the volume, Mercedes M. Yardley offers us “Black Mary,” a very effective story that I really can’t summarize without giving it away. You’ll just have to get a hold of this volume and read it along with all the rest for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
“’Til death do us part” takes on a whole new meaning in the wedding-themed anthology, With This Ring, I Bleed, Dead!, edited by Charlotte Emma Gledson and Lyle Perez-Tinics for Rainstorm Press.
In this short collection (just shy of 140 pages), ten authors share tales of love and loss, murder, lust, supernatural beings, and revenge. Like most men, marriage scares the hell out of me. The horrors within these stories definitely reinforce that fear.
As a reader, I have a love/hate relationship with new anthologies. They expose me to variety of authors and styles, but so many of the stories within tend to range from “I’d love to see more from this author” to “Can I have the last fifteen minutes of my life back?” Unfortunately, this collection is no different. After reading the first couple stories, I wanted to throw my Kindle through the drywall. It read like so many of the self-published works out there that have never crossed an editor’s desk. But I wanted to be fair to all of the authors and read through to the end.
I was glad I did. There are a few real gems in this book that gave it some redemption. While I’m not going to offer a review of each individual story, I will say that my favorites here include “Wendy,” by Bruce Turnbull; “The Axe Bride,” by The Nightmare Jane; and “The Bonds of Love,” by Danica Green.
As a whole, the concepts behind the stories were great. I really wanted to like every one of them; however, I must admit that some authors’ sub-par writing (point-of-view slips, plot holes, etc.) really made it difficult to do so. I wish I could endorse this one, I really do. Even at the $2.99 e-book price (the paperback sells on Amazon for almost $13), I don’t think the few well-told stories here are worth paying for—and sifting through—the rest.
Earlier tonight, John Skipp won the Stoker for his epic of an anthology Demons: Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed, which Mercedes has an excellent story in.
A well-deserved win for a great editor and a fantastic anthology. Congrats to all involved!
Later this month, at this year’s Bram Stoker Awards™ banquet, to be held at the World Horror Convention in Utah, Mercedes and I do battle. To the death!
Okay, maybe not to the death.
And maybe it’s not so much a battle.
But we are both lucky enough to have stories included in an anthology up for a Stoker Award. That’s worthy of a battle roar or two!
Demons: Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed, edited by John Skipp, features Mercedes’s short story “Daisies and Demons”; while my story, “A Deeper Kind of Cold,” appears in Epitaphs: The Journal of New England Horror Writers, edited by Tracy L. Carbone.
Though some would call me biased, I think both anthologies are worthy of the nod. As I’m sure the other three anthologies up for the award are. So may the best one survi—win! May the best one win.
In other news, John and I have had some very short pieces—by me, “Skipping Shingles”; by John, “Wishes” and “Always Never Enough”—published in Necon E-books’s just-released Best of 2011 flash fiction anthology.
This e-book features all winning and honorable-mention entries from their monthly flash fiction contests throughout 2011, plus a few additional stories from the cover artist, Jill Bauman.
As well, Sideshow Press has finally released the seventh installment in their Black Ink series of extreme fiction (i.e. not meant for children or the weak-stomached). This one features John’s disturbingly twisted “Peter Peter,” which he calls a “tender and sweet, family-friendly tale about the wages of sin.”
I also hear he’s selling bridges in New York.
If any of these books interest you, click on the cover images to purchase.
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.
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.
Dusted – Laura 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 Line – Lillith 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 Me – Tanya 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 Hole – C. 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 Know – Julie 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 Beast – T.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 Love – C.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 Wild – Rachel 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 Away – Caitlin 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 Stains – Chris 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 Bound – Jackie 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 Breaker – Justin 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 Thing – Simon 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 Shadows – Carrie 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.