Tag Archives: Dark Fantasy

Genre-Bending: When High Fantasy Becomes a Horror Story

I’ve been reading (and writing) a lot of horror lately. It’s kind of become my thing. So when I noticed by chance that one of my favorite fantasy trilogies, The Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly), was available as an e-book, I bought it on a whim. Going back and re-reading these books that I haven’t even thought about in years has been more than just enjoyable, it’s been eye-opening. I have lost myself in the plot, gotten caught up in the suffering and joy of the characters, and become emotionally invested in their lives just like I did the first time I read them.

What’s different now (besides the fact that I’m older and supposedly wiser) is that experiencing this story anew, I’ve come to realize it’s not just a fantasy. Oh, there is magic, and good vs. evil, and sword-play. There is even a damsel in distress, until she realizes she is perfectly capable of saving herself. But this is also a horror story, and I never realized it before.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy, starting in my pre-teens. The Big Bad is usually an evil wizard/king/high-ranking royal underling/witch/spoiled but underappreciated heir…the list goes on. But my point is a lot of the time the antagonist is some variation of a human being. Then there are the beastly Bad Guys—dragons or goblins or other mythical monsters, even the magically-created or surviving villains like Sauron or Voldemort.

The main evil in this series, however, isn’t human (although there are those, too) and they aren’t your typical beastie. They’re called The Dark, mostly because sunlight and fire are deadly to them, and so for the most part they only come out at night. They don’t walk, not having legs per se, and they don’t fly as they don’t really have wings. They float through the air with the aid of their own incomprehensible and eldritch magic, with which they can cloak themselves almost to invisibility. They can change their size, from maybe the size of a small mammal, to as large as a house in a split second. They are soft and undulating with trailing tentacles reminiscent of jellyfish. Yet they have grasping claws and dripping acid. And between the space of one heartbeat and the next they can siphon the blood from a person’s veins, strip flesh from bones, or perhaps most horribly snatch the soul from the body leaving a mindless automaton behind.

When I read about The Dark and the descriptions of what they could do, and how callously, I was terrified! They look on human beings as cattle, neither knowing nor caring that the people they feed on are thinking, feeling creatures. Even now, years later, going back and re-reading this series, I get a chill from The Dark. Is it just because the author came up with a really good, scary villain? Or is it also that atavistic fear, handed down for millennia—that fear of what we can’t see but only sense? When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and goosebumps skitter down your spine on dainty spider feet, is it all just your imagination? Or is there really something in the darkness looking back at you, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…?

In any case, I’ve come to the conclusion that genre is just a label, and sometimes an inadequate one at that. On the face of it, The Darwath Trilogy is a fantasy series perfect for a pre-teen to pick up and enjoy. However, underneath is all the darkness and horror someone like me could wish for.

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Gossamer: A Story of Love and Tragedy

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Lee Thompson’s work. He writes fast, he writes hard, and he comes up with beautifully tragic stories that are both engaging and soul-crushing.

Gossamer: A Tale of Love and Tragedy is no different. From the very beginning, we’re tossed into an uncomfortably unflinching look at love and loss. Dorothy is a little girl forced to watch her father denounce her mother as a witch. As the sentence is passed, Dorothy hardens her heart and promises revenge.

The main story has to do when Dorothy has lived several lifetimes. She resides in the small town of Gossamer, guardian of an area filled with people that she grows to care for. Then her loneliness puts the residents of Gossamer in danger, and everything changes.

Lee has a clean, easy prose that still manages to be beautiful. He’s especially gifted at writing women, which is rare to see from a male writer. His portrayal of Dorothy and her aunt are both strong and chilling. Later in the book, we are introduced to two more strong mother/daughter characters, and the ineffectual boyfriend. It’s interesting to see the spine and determination in these women, and how far Lee is willing to push them until they either push back or break completely.

This book is full of witches and vampires. It’s full of magical carousals. It’s also full of betrayal, love reciprocated and not, and cowardice. Lee takes the unlovely parts of real life and sets it in a setting so deliciously bizarre that you think you’re simply reading a story, when in fact you’re listening to a man sitting across from you and telling you all about pain.

Gossamer goes down easy and leaves a bitter aftertaste. It’s dark and lovely. I’d recommend it.

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What Happened Here?

Sometimes in one’s life, you run across an author whose vision you see clearly, as if your minds are somehow connected across the vast expanse of the universe. The author’s voice resonates in your mind, the words he or she places upon the written page are the entirety of your hopes and dreams, your nightmares, your fears, your sorrows, your ideals, and perhaps the longing for a happy ending that you know your own life may not have in store.

For myself, that author is Ben Duiverman. The man has captured my soul, has given to me a mirror through which I can gaze and see the humanity that lies within with startling clarity. His writing is that of a fever dream, a never-ending kaleidoscope of terror, introspection, and eventual acquiescence that permeates my own thoughts each and every day.

What Happened Here? is a collection of seventeen stories, each of which ponder the universal questions that we all ask daily. Be it a question of duty, as in “The Sweeper” or “Lost Over Tokyo,” or the issue of culpability and its price, be it historical or otherwise, and its grip over our hearts, like “The Gathering Place” (the greatest story in the entire book), “The Battle of the Bulge,” “Never Late for Work,” or “An Unnatural Death,” each story resonating, building upon the next, constructing a wall of emotional bricks that, by the time you are done reading, is destined to be torn down.

There are inquiries into the depths of darkness that reside in the hearts and minds of each of us, such as “Trick or Treat,” “The Circus Is in Town,” “A Family Portrait,” and “My Domain.” And there are even those that cast a critical eye on society itself, like the deliciously haunting “Dining with Sharks.” And with “Bogeymen,” perhaps the most frightening of all the stories, the author paints (literally and figuratively) the image of the fate which may await us all, and illustrates with startling ambiguity how we very well may be the unwitting authors of our own demise. As in “A Two-Way Street” and “Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” selfishness leads to self-wrought destruction, the bane of man since the beginning of the human race.

This volume, published by the author himself, is truly a great and worthwhile read. It is a paragon of creation and subsequent deconstruction, a masterful work of art using the written word to tear down what we know of reality and to then build it once more in ways we may not have thought of before. Duiverman is a master storyteller, an author with something to say, whose own inner turmoil is laid out for the whole world to see, if we should be brave enough to take that leap along with him. Reading this was a unique and wholly rewarding experience for this reviewer, and it is my hope that any who stumble across this review will take the plunge as well.

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Bring More Lore!

Born in a New Jersey basement in the mid-90’s, Lore was a DIY magazine for dark fiction and fantasy. In their time, they took home a number of awards, including The Dragon’s Breath Small Press Award for Best New Magazine, as well as had several stories from within their pages garner awards of their own.

I must admit, here, that I had never heard of Lore. This is a fact I am now somewhat ashamed of, after reading this, a collection of stories that appeared during their five-year run. I missed out on some quality reading back in the day.

I won’t go through every story in this collection, but will touch upon those that stuck with me most.

Starting things off with Harlan Ellison is always a smart move. Ellison has long been regarded as a master of speculative fiction, and with “Chatting with Anubis” we get a tongue-in-cheek tale of archaeology and spiritualism and the dark threads that bind them.

“The Mandala,” by Kendall Evans, is a bizarre exercise in surrealism as symbolism. Patricia Russo’s “Rat Familiar” is Grimm-style fantasy that is served up nasty and dark, while Jeffrey Thomas’s “Empathy” is a sadly sweet tale of trust, mistreatment and revenge.

Brian Lumley turns in “The Vehicle” which is a lighthearted “fish out of water” sort of sci-fi tale. Donald R. Burleson gives us what might be my favorite tale in the book, “Sheets,” a terrific haunted-house story, and it is exactly not what you think it is.

All the stories in this volume are strong. Some skirt the edges of the Horror estate, while others wander that bizarre and weird landscape on its outskirts. “The Challenge From Below,” a group-penned tribute to Lovecraft, as well as many other pieces, have never been reprinted before this. And a few are nearly science fiction. All, however, have a classic feel and mature voice.

This is old-school writing.

As of 2011, Lore has resurrected itself. I would have loved the magazine back in its heyday, so I hope to follow them, now, and keep up with what they put out.

This volume can be purchased through the Lore website.

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Silas

I’m not a dog person. I don’t exactly dislike dogs, they are sometimes cute or endearing, but mostly I just tolerate them. They are dirty, slobbering, noisy, needy creatures who add little to my life. I just don’t get the attraction of dog ownership.

Robert J. Duperre is a dog person. It’s obvious from the outset that Silas, Duperre’s third novel, is a story about a man and his dog told from the perspective of someone who genuinely loves dogs. On this level, Silas succeeds magnificently.

But Silas is much more than that. It is also the story of a man who has lost control of his life, and is desperately careening down a path he did not map out in advance. Ken Lowrey is frustrated in his stalled career as a writer and soon finds himself in the emasculating position of managing his wife’s successful business as her employee. Even the most ardent egalitarian would find this a tough pill to swallow.

Ken lashes out, often irrationally, against his wife, other employees, and even his own image before finding himself on the brink of a total meltdown. He is quite literally at the end of himself when his wife, seeking a surrogate for the children Ken does not want, brings home a black lab. Silas.

Despite his initial misgivings about the dog, Ken quietly develops a bond with Silas that goes beyond simple companionship. The relationship progresses from owner and dog to master and companion to father and son, and all of it is set against a background of missing children, alternate realities and a difficult journey of self discovery. What starts out as a mundane recount of an unexceptional life turns into a thrilling adventure that is as classic as any in literature.

Ken and Silas set out to solve the mystery of disappearing neighborhood children, and get caught up in a fantasy epic that involves a race against time and multiple dangers, climaxing in a chase scene that was a terrific page-turning thriller.

Was this book without flaws? No. The narrative was sometimes choppy and episodic, mostly early on while we are finding out what sort of a man Ken Lowrey is. Some passages are stilted, although overall the writing is very competent. But in the final analysis of any tale, a great story can overcome quite a bit of mechanical flaws. Duperre has written a very fine story here that features several unique takes on old tropes and an energy that is undeniable. He had this non-dog person in tears by the end. Generating that kind of emotion with your prose is what every author should aspire to. Robert J. Duperre has accomplished it.

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By Wizard Oak

Like the old song says, I love a parade. Who doesn’t? The Halloween parade that opens this destined-to-be holiday classic by Peter Crowther is both terrific and terrifying. By Wizard Oak, published in a limited numbered series by Earthling Publications, is the wonderfully warped story of a small town called Magellan Bend. Once upon a Halloween, something very bad happened…something not many recall. The witches came and terrible things occurred: children were devoured and all traces of their being with them.

Now, eight years later, the only survivor of that incident has awakened from a long nap and things are growing dark once more. The witches are coming back for what they left behind, for who they left behind, and it’s up to him and his girl—along with a good witch—to save the day.

With By Wizard Oak, Crowther has crafted a bizarro fantasy that paints the most deliciously vile witches I have read about in a long, long time. These grody bitches are nasty business. Led by an elephantine witch named Great Depression, the army of black clad, pointy-hat-wearing hags stalk through small-town streets and between the fabric of time on their quest for the one that got away.

I really don’t want to elaborate much more, as it would give away too much, and while this is not a perfect book, it does deserve the service of some secrecy. It offers hokey humor and great word play, subtle creeps and balls-out scares. The writing style is fluid and flows as a movie playing behind your eyes, which in my opinion, is the way the best books should be. I found myself thinking on these witches all week. How horrible they were, with their cracked skin, sores and warts, and their scabrous fingers and mouths. Dear sweet lord, those mouths!

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