Dark Scribe Reviews
Reviews of Dark Fiction and Non-Fiction Books, Short Fiction, and Magazines
Ecco / May 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The idea that we have nothing to fear but fear itself – which Franklin D. Roosevelt famously paraphrased in his inaugural Presidential address, borrowing from the line "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" from an essay by Sir Francis Bacon – has been a subconscious thematic mainstay in horror fiction. First-time novelist Josh Malerman builds on this idea of terrors unseen and posits that the imagination may be the most powerful horror of all in his unsettling debut novel, Bird Box.
In a reverent wink to Lovecraft, the apocalypse arrives courtesy of an insanity pandemic that causes the world’s denizens to go stark raving mad and suicidal – a mass descent into personal madness caused by catching sight of something unfathomable that the human mind can neither comprehend nor process. To survive, society turns inward – physically and metaphorically – by retreating indoors, covering windows with blankets and never opening doors without blindfolds.
Bird Box opens masterfully with the introduction of Malorie – the novel’s protagonist – as she prepares for a rowboat trip under the protective cover of what she believes to be a thick fog blanketing the waterway she must traverse to some unknown, unconfirmed endpoint promising safety. The twenty-mile journey downriver – blindfolded – seems all but guaranteed death for her and the pair of unnamed four-year-olds she’s parent to at the novel’s outset.
Alternating between Malorie’s treacherous trip downriver are the events leading up to it – from learning of an unplanned pregnancy amidst the first reports of global calamity to her seeking refuge with a band of fellow survivors inside a suburban home and adapting to this new apocalyptic reality with her housemates. Malerman uses Malorie’s pregnancy as a countdown device to the events that unfold within the house and – in a mastery of subtle foreshadowing evident from the opening chapter – how Malorie comes to be alone with two children.
Even in these alternating chapters where the group dynamics of the reluctant refugees might feel familiar, Malerman successfully layers the more customary elements of the societal microcosm forced together by circumstance – leadership struggles, increasing paranoia, differences of opinion over which new arrivals to let in or not, collective concerns over dwindling food reserves, debates over strategies to better their situation – with fresh touches specific to his story (such as learning to travel outside the safety of their house and perform essential outdoor tasks while blindfolded).
Malerman keenly uses the sensory deprivation his characters must endure to heighten the reader’s own sensory experience. He makes the most of his character’s forced blindness, expertly using descriptions of sound and touch to turn a straightforward run to the water well or rowboat excursion into nerve-wracking sequences that make the reader’s blood run cold. This at times unbearable sensory delirium he subjects his characters to disorientate the reader enough to wonder whether it’s hysterical fear brought on by the power of suggestion or nameless monsters lurking within arm’s length that is the actual threat which will ultimately do the novel’s characters in.
Malorie is a near-perfect exercise in character development and execution. Malerman deftly draws her as a mother compelled into her role as a reluctant drill sergeant who relentlessly trains her children over the course of four years to hear with an almost preternatural acuity. In the hands of a lesser writer, Malorie could come off as a hopelessly bleak heroine, a harsh, emotionless parent hell-bent on teaching her children to confront the reality of an unknown “other” well beyond their developing minds’ comprehension without being able to see it. But Malerman nimbly balances the elements of cheerless inevitability that bears down on his protagonist and the flickering hope that powers her forward despite the seeming futility of her immediate situation and the bleakness of the larger dystopian world around her.
Bird Box reads like a master class in fear and suspense, easily belying its debut novel status and elevating it well beyond its novice pedigree. Malerman adroitly creates tension by stretching moments of terror into anticipatory swells – like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs interminably. He further ratchets up the reader’s overall feeling of unsteadiness by skillfully withholding information, preferring to keep almost every external threat to the characters – from the psyche-shattering creatures they imagine all around them to the actual cause of the mass psychosis that’s rendered the world a global ghost town – ever present but just out of focus enough to be abstract. Malerman uses his characters’ necessary sightlessness to create a literary blindfold that short-circuits the reader’s own processing mechanism that allows them to see through the author’s words. The more he withholds this sense of sight – which runs counter to the human instinct to look even when we’re told not to – he cleverly engages the reader’s own sense of imagination, creating a more experiential read.
Chilling and mercilessly paced, Bird Box is easily this year’s most notable speculative fiction debut. Imbued with an almost elegiac gloom throughout that tints its narrative palette gray, Bird Box drips with an ever-present sense of expectation and dread. Malerman immerses the reader into his dystopian world by blinding them alongside his characters, ultimately heightening the horror and leaving the reader desperate to open their eyes despite the potential consequences of doing so.
Purchase Bird Box by Josh Malerman.
Thomas Dunne Books / July 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
For readers, half the enjoyment derived from today’s horror is in the never-ending quest to find the next malevolent source of what’s going to do us in; for writers, it’s the challenge. In an admittedly jaded age when we’ve all been there and read that, the focus has imperceptivity shifted from pure originality in concept to creative reinvention. Supernatural threats in their myriad forms, serial killers with (literal) axes to grind, and flesh-feasting zombies have long been staples in the modern horror author’s arsenal – but readers quickly tire of uninspired rehashes. Even in the perennial recycle bin of ideas, readers want to find gems of imagination and ingenuity.
A.J. Colucci doesn’t so much invent as she reinvents by dipping back into an older horror mainstay: the eco-horror subgenre. It’s territory she’s explored previously in her debut novel, The Colony, and one with a rich history in horror literature that includes The Rats by the late James Herbert (1974), Killer Crabs by Guy N. Smith (1978), The Portent by Marilyn Harris (1980), and – more recently – The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006) and Fragment by Warren Fahy (2009). In Seeders, the New Jersey native’s sophomore effort, Colucci calls to mind films like The Day of the Triffids and The Ruins with a thoroughly engrossing tale of botanical terror. Imagine M. Night Shyamalan’s atrociously misguided The Happening done right.
Upon the death of her botanist father, Isabelle Maguire travels to a remote Canadian island with her two young sons and a troubled teenage girl under her supervision for the reading of her late father’s will. Along for the ride to Sparrow Island are two other heirs to his estate: Dr. Jules Beecher, a plant neurobiologist and former protégé of the late scientist, and Ginny Shufflebottom, an elderly curmudgeon who was the deceased’s paramour and island companion for the last decade. When the reading of the will is dispensed with, it’s clear the three beneficiaries have separate agendas: One wants to re-create the late scientist’s botanical experiments, one wants to find a hidden diamond bequeathed to her amidst a riddle, and one wants to uncover the truth behind her father’s death. Two of these concurrent story arcs eventually thread their way to a satisfying conclusion; while the third feels tacked on to pad the body count.
Seeders is a decidedly ambitious horror/science fiction hybrid that reads like a Crichton-esque eco-thriller adorned with English cozy accoutrement. There’s a decidedly Agatha Christie vibe that resonates throughout, but instead of bodies piling up in the library, they’re scattered everywhere across Colucci’s fictional, fungus-infested island. And instead of a butler or mistress holding a smoking gun, it’s misunderstood plants doing everybody in with hallucinogenic, mind-controlling mold spores. Hell, there’s even a literary wink to Christie’s beloved red herring device, here in the form of homemade biscuits and a sunken wooden box.
Colucci wisely grounds the novel’s central concept – plant communication with humans – in some accessible real-life scientific theory. It’s this scientific realism that helps the reader excuse the author her convenient genre contrivances – the isolated island setting, the expedient weather event, the self-serving diaries of the deceased mad scientist, a solitary source of communication with the mainland that’s waylaid early on. Even when the reader’s attention is pulled from Colucci’s fast-moving narrative by the occasional heavy-handed environmental sermonizing or the gawky teen love story wedged in here, it’s easy to forgive the author.
Less forgivable is the extraneous character of Ginny Shufflebottom. From the incongruous whimsicality of the character’s surname to her lack of narrative purpose, the elderly Brit seems to be played for either comedic effect or a not-so-subtle homage to Christie’s Miss Marple that – on both counts, unfortunately – miss the mark. As annoying as when she’s on the canvas, it’s even more irritating when she disappears for what feels like chapters at a time. She’s ultimately a character that feels inexplicably appended without function to the cast or larger story.
Fortunately for Colucci – and her readers – these shortcomings don’t eclipse the nail-biting tension generated in this clever cautionary fable in which human egotism is blindsided by ecological rebellion. Horror aficionados will bask in the gory set pieces while devotees of the thriller format will find much to appreciate in Colucci’s breakneck pacing.
With Seeders, A.J. Colucci reaches into the nature-run-amok arena to craft an imaginative, breathlessly-plotted genre mash-up that thrills, chills, and may just have you taking a kinder, gentler approach with your own houseplants.
Purchase Seeders by A.J. Colucci.
JournalStone / January 2014
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Lady Diana Furnaval, Lisa Morton’s thoroughly engaging heroine at the center of this first book in a planned trilogy, had her humble beginnings in short fiction. She first appeared in “Diana and the Goong-Si”, Morton’s contribution to Midnight Walk, an anthology she also ably helmed as editor back in 2009. Here’s what this writer had to say about his first meeting with Lady Furnaval in his review of the anthology:
“…an exquisitely detailed story of a British noblewoman who travels to China in 1880 in search of her missing husband. Morton crafts a mesmerizing cross-genre tale that blends ancient Chinese culture with the undead and vampirism within an authentic historical context of the late 19th-century opium-for-tea trading industry between Britain and China. Infused with great humanity, ‘Diana and the Goong-Si’ possesses the delicate period sensibilities of The Painted Veil and the hair-raising psychic vampirism elements of One Dark Night.”
Indeed, that introduction to m’lady Furnaval left my literary taste buds watering for more. Morton – perhaps taking the concept of leaving readers wanting more a little too far during the ensuing five-year wait – finally rewards readers with the first of three full-length Lady Diana horror adventures.
Netherworld is a non-stop theme park ride, every bit as kitschy as it is thrilling. Morton writes with a genuine cinematic flair, her background as a screenwriter coming in handy as she plots adventure after adventure for her Victorian-era leading lady. Remaining true to Furnaval’s short fiction roots, Morton keeps the essential backstory intact while expanding on it: Furnaval is indeed a young widow who –having reason to believe her presumed-dead husband is trapped between worldly dimensions – travels from England to India to the Far East of the Orient to America’s burgeoning West on a mission to close supernatural portals and fend off an impending demonic apocalypse. Along for the ride are Lady Diana’s trusted sidekicks – a young Chinese sailor named Yi-kin and a gray tabby with extrasensory prowess named Mina.
As Lady Diana and company make their way (literally) across the globe, they run afoul of myriad monsters and assorted spooky spine-tinglers. All manner of which – from trapped spirits and bloodthirsty vampires to reptilian underground dwellers and a malevolent Hindu goddess – are along for what feels like a deliriously demented ride through an adult version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. That Morton can also effortlessly weave bits of social commentary into the narrative (classism, racism, sexism…all present and accounted for) without the heavy-handedness that would plague lesser writers helps sets Netherworld apart from its genre brethren.
Morton masterfully opts for a straightforward narrative style in Netherworld, which gives the novel an instant readability that lends to the feeling that the book is marked by a running time instead of a page count. Like a literary set designer, she uses a commanding economy of words to fashion exquisitely grotesque set pieces that lend to the urgency of Lady Diana’s many harrowing otherworldly predicaments while bestowing the novel with a classic horror sensibility. Think Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula with the energy of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, lovingly brushed with a Tim Burton veneer – and starring Angelina Jolie in her action movie heyday.
Series can be a tricky business, but Morton successfully concludes Lady Diana’s first set of adventures satisfyingly enough (even managing an appearance by a real-life literary classic late in the third act in a wink to the some of the novel’s obvious inspiration) while leaving the door (and more than a few unearthly portals) open for her further supernatural escapades.
Purchase Netherworld by Lisa Morton.
Harper / September 2009
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Inexplicably, Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan’s Bram Stoker Award-winning third novel – has languished in my to-be-read pile for far too long until recently. I claim inexplicability because I fell head over heels in love with Langan’s work after The Keeper (2006) and its sequel-of-sorts, The Missing (2007), so it’s a bit of a mystery why I hadn’t moved this one to the top of the pile long ago.
The titular character – surname Lucas – moves into an apartment building called The Breviary. Intrigued by the building’s rare Chaotic Naturalism architecture and drawn to its bargain-basement rent, Audrey seems willing to overlook the fact that the previous tenant in 14B – a famed opera singer – drowned her four children in the apartment’s bathtub before slitting her own wrists. It isn’t long before the haunted apartment building and its creepy denizens – think Rosemary’s Baby meets Cocoon here – begin to command the rising architect to build a mysterious door. As Audrey’s Woody Allen-esque neuroses and obsessive compulsions ramp up to full-tilt, she – and the reader – begin to question her sanity.
Audrey’s Door is an interesting departure from the author’s previous efforts. Whereas both The Keeper and The Missing had a strong, almost claustrophobic sense of place from which the characters had little respite, Audrey’s Door doesn’t immediately give the reader a sense that its characters are trapped or even in grave danger until well into the third act. Despite increasingly outlandish, hallucinogenic nightmares and a sense that she’s losing control, Audrey never seems confined by the building. Her freedom to go to work, travel cross-country to Nebraska to tend to an ailing relative, and even traverse the city mid-hurricane detracts somewhat from that sense of physical isolation that so marvelously plagued the characters in her first two novels.
But Langan gives the reader a sense of a very different kind of isolation, one that’s less physical and more cerebral, by imbuing her story with the overriding theme of holding on to things that should be long let go of. The notion that what holds us back is a sometimes the overwhelming inability to get out of our own heads drives much of the conflict in Audrey’s Door. The result is paradoxical; the physical haunting caused by The Breviary almost takes a back-seat to the characters’ internal struggles. This lessens the traditional horror elements of the story, yet strengthens the subtler, more universal horrors within the characters themselves giving a more immediate, less fantastical sense of relatability to the characters’ plight. Audrey, a fully-drawn, beautifully flawed heroine, is holding on to her mother – both in memories and the physical sense. Her boyfriend, Saraub, is holding on to a dead-on-arrival documentary project, while his mother stubbornly clings to outdated cultural traditions that prevent her from accepting Audrey and strain relations with her only son. Audrey’s boss at the architecture firm holds on to crippling guilt and regrets about her abilities as a mother in the face of a family tragedy. New friend and fellow Breviary dweller Jayne holds on to long-standing insecurities. Even the kooky assortment of tenants who populate The Breviary are desperately holding on to their youth to grotesque effect. So, while The Breviary is busy exercising its own literal demons, each character finds either doom or redemption by confronting their own.
Langan wisely opts to make The Breviary a character onto itself, both endowing the apartment building with a rich and colorful sense of history and personifying its physical structure to such a degree that it appears to live and breathe. This allows the building itself to be more an active participant in the hauntings it inflicts on others versus remaining a mere receptacle for the malevolence at the center of its history:
It happened so slowly at first, none of them noticed. The walls hummed. The stained-glass birds and mosaics sometimes took flight. The hallways constricted like throats. Hinges creaked. Nightmares flew loose from their authors and inhabited the building like cold air.
That Langan’s work skews heavier toward the more literary leanings of Peter Straub versus the more mass market trappings of, say, Bentley Little makes it easier to overlook the fact that this is dark fiction in which the rewards come in subtle, character-driven moments versus a series of grisly set pieces or overt shock. Although Audrey’s Door lacks some of the creepier horror elements that permeated both The Keeper and The Missing, the tremendous humanity with which Langan draws even the most minor of characters will enthrall. Read a chapter like “Baby’s Breath” in which one of the characters meanders through the house late at night considering each member of her family and you’ll quickly find yourself pleasantly disoriented, as if you’ve stumbled into a gorgeous piece of literary fiction of the highest caliber.
Audrey’s Door may be indicative of Langan’s greatest strength as a dark scribe: Elevating what’s essentially a tried-and-true horror story at its core to a wholly unique literary hybrid that almost defies categorization.
Purchase Audrey’s Door by Sarah Langan.
Tor Books / March 2011
Reviewed by: Mark W. Worthen
Before there was Lestat, before Jean-Claude, before Bill, Eric, Russell and their True Blood crews, and long before Edward and his family arrived on the literary scene, there was Ragozcy Franciscus, Count Saint-Germain. In the late 70s, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, the Grande Dame of the Gothic Vampire, created what is surely the first of the characters of his kind — archetype of the heroic romantic vampire figure.
According to her official website, Yarbro read Dracula at an early age, and immediately became a vampire aficionada. Later, when she began to write her own vampire, she desired to create a different kind of bloodsucker, one who wanted – needed – to involve himself in the affairs of humans in order to become more a part of the world he feels somewhat alienated from. She moved away from the “Dracula model” and is repeatedly credited with having laid the ground work for the vampire as a romantic figure rather than a frightening one.
Saint-Germain first saw light (so to speak) in the 1978 novel, Hotel Transylvania, a work that placed the man in his native area for the first time and introduced readers to the melancholy character – alchemist by day, mysterious figure by night – dressing in black and gray adorned with fabulous jewels, many of his own making. It is rumored that Saint-Germain is based on a true historic figure, one equally shrouded in mystery and carrying the same name and title.
An Embarrassment of Riches is the twenty-fourth installment in the Saint-German series, and Rakoczy Ferancsi, Comes of Santu Germaniu, as he is known in this time (he changes the order, spelling and pronunciation of his name to match the language of the area where he resides) arrives in Praha (Prague) in the latter half of 1269 A.D. Exiled from his native earth, he arrives in Praha, capital of Bohemia, as an exile from the court of King Bela of Hungary, the current boundaries of which encompass Ragoczy's lands, Santu Germaniu, and the people in his fief who live there. King Otakar II of Bohemia is away expanding his territories, leaving his pregnant queen, Kunigunde, who happens to be Bela’s daughter, to rule over the city.
Rakoczy takes a fixer-upper mansion in Praha, and, after revamping the place, he moves in and begins to make jewels for the queen. Not much time passes before Rozsa, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting comes to offer Rakoczy a proposition. If he will take her as a lover to fulfill desires her husband cannot satisfy, she will not cry rape, which would result in his burning at the stake and suffering the true death. He accepts her proposition. But she is cold, aloof, requiring him to service her, but not giving him the closeness and intimacy he requires to stay alive, not only painting him into a political corner, but denying him even the opportunity to derive sustenance from or even enjoy his position.
When not with Rozsa, he provides the requisite jewels for Queen Kunigunde, but is additionally forced to fill the coffers of several others scrambling for political position, including the local bishop, a few strategic courtiers and Rozsa herself. Finally he is tapped to provide monetary resources for the king’s battles. Such a project does not prove terribly difficult for Rakozcy; his expertise in alchemy enables him to make any jewel except pearls in his athanor. He bakes them like cookies, but the time consuming process forces him to spend most of his days in his laboratory as a result.
Tongues wag at his riches, and court intrigues ensue, including another liaison with a younger lady-in-waiting and a visiting young woman who attempts to throw herself at the count. All the events in the book come to a head in the final forty pages. In the end, Rakoczy realizes that an embarrassment of riches (of more than one variety) is not necessarily the answer to his problems.
Yarbro has a unique way of telling her stories. She often chooses what at first appear to be long scenes where people only talk and do a mundane project or service for someone, such as rubbing the pregnant queen’s feet in the height of summer — but it is during these scenes she often reveals crucial information to either advance the plot, add to the local color that influences the situation or both. During the first two parts of the book, there is a subplot in which the bishop must decide if the rat infestation in Praha should be taken care of by killing the rats, despite the fact that they are creatures of God. He ultimately decides the disease-ridden beasts should indeed be exterminated. The counselors of Praha appeal to Rakoczy, at which time he reveals his knowledge of poisons. Since poison is often the weapon of choice for assassinations, this adds to the precariousness of his situation as he and his servants fall under suspicion first by the bishop, then by the court.
The richness of historical details in Yarbro’s writing are dead-on accurate. In fact, she has a reputation for researching the time period, costumes, architecture, language, customs and technology of each book long before she begins writing it. One characteristic of the Saint-Germain novels is that Yarbro likes to place the reader in as authentic an environment as possible. So you get elegant descriptions of everything. One of Yarbro’s strengths is weaving in these descriptions either with action or scenes portraying daily court life. But Yarbro is too savvy a writer to let each scene serve only a single purpose. As such a multi-tasker, most scenes will perform three or more of the following chores: Describing traditional behavior or customs, portraying clothing or architecture, providing information that will, of course, become important in advancing the story. There isn’t a single scene that only accomplishes one purpose. At first read, the descriptions make some of the prose seem heavy, but it is not. It is tight and provides the reader a fast interesting read — which is not common among writers of historical fiction, who frequently tend to lean towards the ponderous.
Upon reading this book, your first instinct will be grab a dictionary or to look things up on the Internet. Don’t. Quinn Yarbro will make it clear exactly what she’s talking about, and if she doesn’t, she’ll tell you what it is in her introduction — skip the intro at your own risk. But as she trickles in her plot details, showing people get dressed, you will learn words like bleihaut, chainse, soler, and pectoral.
As dark scribe John Skipp often points out, “All art is a Rorschach test.” For me, then, I’m a history geek and a vampire nut. You have to be a little of both to really get into this, which is why Yarbro’s work appeals particularly to a cult following — a massive cult following to be sure, but cult nonetheless. If you’re like me and enjoy this kind of book, An Embarrassment of Riches gets a B+ for story — it does move at a slightly more sedate pace than say, Blood Games, for example. But I give it an A (as always) for its historical accuracy. If you only marginally like vampires, or do not care for slow-building horror or fascinating historical details, you’ll probably be better served choosing something else altogether.
Just because An Embarrassment of Riches is about vampires doesn’t mean it will be your cup of tea. But if you like vampires and history, spies, steamy love scenes, court intrigues, backbiting and infighting, you should be all over this work of literary and fictional art.
Purchase An Embarrassment of Riches by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.
Apex Publications / December 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The proliferation of zombies in pop culture has forced conversation, debate, and reflection on what the human race would do if it actually found itself in the middle of a bona fide apocalypse in which the flesh-eating living dead walked the earth. Would we fight for the survival of our race? Would we hunker down with loved ones and wait out the inevitable? Would we party like it’s 1999 all over again? If you’re one of the characters in Mark Allan Gunnells’ Asylum, you’d get down – and go down – on that hot trick you’ve been eyeing all night at the neighborhood gay bar.
There’s got to be something said for a novella that begins with front-seat fellatio and ends with bareback anal sex. The descriptor attention-grabbing certainly comes to mind. But such bold provocativeness can only carry a story so far, so it’s fortunate that Asylum delivers ample zombie savagery for the hardcore devotee of the undead.
The set-up strays little from the classic zombie formula: A group of disparate strangers find themselves holed up against throngs of the risen dead. In this case, the setting is a gay club and the characters run the gamut from an awkward college kid and his worldlier flamboyant BFF to a maternal drag queen and a burly pony-tailed Vietnam Veteran-turned-barkeep. Thrown into this zombie stew for flavor are an African-American go-go boy sporting both a G-string and an English accent, the requisite stable gay couple, a buffoonish lothario and his self-doubting fag hag who harbors an unrequited love, and a club DJ whose deep-seeded fundamentalist background is resurrected by some zombie trauma.
If you’ve seen Dawn of the Dead or read any of Brian Keene’s books, you know what comes next, and Gunnells ably demonstrates some fine chops for the zombie sub-genre. As the titular establishment is besieged by the ravenous undead, Gunnells provides all of the requisite flesh-chomping, appendage-ripping, and organ-gnawing that fans of zombie fare have come to expect and crave.
Gunnells straddles a fine line between preachy and persuasive when it comes to the social commentary woven throughout, and some readers may find it difficult to swallow his logic of a zombie Armageddon somehow acting as an aphrodisiac. That said, Asylum reads like the literary equivalent of a John Waters-Quentin Tarantino collaboration on a grindhouse zombie flick, and it wears its sense of contagious Dawn of the Dead-meets-The Birdcage celebration proudly.
Does Asylum add anything groundbreaking to the puzzlingly popular zombie sub-genre? No, but LGBT readers will undoubtedly appreciate the most front-and-center representation since Keene’s largely asexual protagonist in Dead Sea. And, best of all, Asylum levels the playing field between hetero- and homosexual apocalypse survivors — both proving utterly stupid at times opening those damn doors some other character begs them not to.
Purchase Asylum by Mark Allan Gunnells.
Cemetery Dance / December 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud
Shivers VI is the weighty new edition in Cemetery Dance's theme-free, horror fiction anthology series. The table of contents boasts an impressive collection of authors, including Melanie Tem, Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Brian Hodge, Lisa Tuttle, Brian Keene, Peter Straub, and Stephen King. The collection itself is a mixture of reprints and original fiction, and on average the good stories outweigh the unremarkable.
"Serial" by Jack Kilborn and Blake Crouch is an odd choice to begin the anthology with. This reprint is still available as an e-book — downloaded several hundred thousand times for Kindles and other e-readers last year, and has even been expanded into an e-novella called Serial: Uncut. The story itself is quite grim, gruesome, humorous, horrifying and well told. It takes the conceit of melding two rival hitchhiking cautionary tales–the murderous hitchhiker and the murderous motorist–and then blurs them together. To its credit, it does so in a way to distinguish it from David J. Schow's "Pick Me Up", which I've long assumed to be the ultimate statement on this particular monster mash up. "Serial" tells a brutal story, one that turned my stomach yet kept me reading.
"The Crate" by Stephen King is this volume's biggest selling point. The story appeared in a 1979 issue of Gallery magazine as well as a handful of anthologies over the years, but it has not found its way into King's prose collections. A comic book adaptation was featured in the Creepshow graphic novel, since "The Crate" formed one of the memorable pieces from that film. The story deals with two professorial acquaintances, a shrewish wife, and a janitor whose unlucky loss of a tossed quarter leads to the discovery of the titular storage container (and its monstrous inhabitant). The story is firmly entrenched in EC Comics territory, and is as much fun to read as the best in King's Night Shift collection.
"The Last Beautiful Day" by Brian James Freeman is a somber piece about grief, and using art (in this case photography) to work through grave personal loss. The horror here is less about the murderous or the monstrous (as exemplified in the anthology's first two stories) than the shattering effect of losing a child. The piece is brief, the prose is serviceable, yet I found this grim and meditative story a little too short to fully explore its themes.
Kealan Patrick Burke's "Cobwebs" posits the chilling goings-on in a retirement home. Alfred Ross wakes to find thin webbing on his mouth, and soon discovers his comfortable (one might say terminally boring) existence inexplicably changed. When his chess friend "The Cowboy" passes in the night, Ross grows to suspect unnatural events at work. This tale thematically echoes Joe R. Lansdale's "Bubba Ho-Tep", and yet the story it tells aims for mysterious instead of mojo. Burke's prose is strong, though the plotting visits familiar ground. The atmosphere is rich, and the characters are nuanced.
Norman Prentiss' "The Old Ways" succeeded in pushing my buttons almost right away and never letting up. Lisa finds herself stuck in a town where the men try to dissuade her doing "man's work" around her house. When she tries to buy tools from the hardware store, she's told to let her husband do the buying as he'll be using it. When she tries to scrape paint off the gutters, an elderly neighbor tries to do it for her and suffers a heart attack. Lisa is stuck in a very strange little hell, and as this quirky story unfolds, her world grows increasingly absurd, claustrophobic and chilling. The emotions are immediate and accompanied by sharp satiric jabs at chauvinism. This story has teeth, and knows how to use them.
Brian Keene's "Waiting for Darkness" is a flash fiction piece, with memorable imagery and a tongue in cheek touch of EC comic book horror. While the protagonist's predicament – he is buried in the sand and abandoned as the tide rolls in – invokes another segment in Stephen King's Creepshow, it avoids that film's zombie resolution.
Glen Hirschberg's "Like Lick 'Em Sticks, Like Tina Fey" is well written and complex. Sophie and Natalie are sick and on the run together, playing Thelma and Louise. Their travels deliver them to a Waffle House in Georgia, and what they find there changes everything. This story relies on its reader to fill in the blanks about its protagonists' affliction, and while it steers clear of outright clichés, it treads a little too close to one of the genre's most overused staple monsters for my taste. The writing and characterizations are quite good, and the dialogue is quotable.
"Ghost Writer in My Eye" by Wayne Allen Salee is a brief, humorous piece about the relationship between artists and their creations.
Alan Peter Ryan's atmospheric dark fantasy "Palisado" uses eerie winter imagery and reader's genre expectations to set up one ending while delivering another. The prose communicates the wintery cold as effectively as Dan Simmons' The Terror.
"Stillness" by Richard Thomas uses rich imagery to tell a layered story about survival and personal apocalypse. The prose is lyrical, if occasionally baffling.
Brian Hodge's "In the Raw" is a powerful piece of storytelling. Renny gets out of prison and tries to go straight. However, working every day rendering bone meal from dead animals can wear on any man's soul. When his trouble making uncle shows up with promises of a big score, he finds the temptation too hard to resist. "In the Raw" is an uncompromising piece of crime fiction, with a twist ending that actually surprises.
"I Found a Little Hole" by Nate Southard tells the story of a young boy who discovers a friend while playing in the yard. This friend is buried in the ground, however. The story, though brief, has some striking images.
Post-apocalyptic nastiness informs Scott Nicholson's "Fallow." Denyse Hammen is caught in a day-to-day struggle to survive a nuclear fallout poisoned world. She finds her life forever changed when she comes across a baby goat suckling its dead mother's teat. The story following this discovery is slow but tense.
Al Sarrantonio's "Last" uses a science fiction backdrop for a pursuit and conspiracy tale. Mathis' memories have been expunged by a radical medical routine to make room for occupational programming: Mathis has become a hunter, and his mission is to find a criminal called Shields. Over the course of this brief story, he does just that, though what he finds is not what he expects. In Twilight Zone fashion, this story builds to a twist ending revelation as to the Mathis-Shields' relationship and the purpose behind Mathis' hunt.
"Mole" by Jay Bonansinga exposes a special investigator for the Vatican to a bizarre occult murder mystery, where the solution requires dickering with the infernal. He soon discovers the contacted unclean spirit wants to play stoolpigeon, if a deal can be struck. While I'm often uninterested in this sort of Catholic horror, Bonansinga's story has enough intriguing things going on to set it apart from The Exorcist and its clones. The conclusion leaves things plenty of hanging plot threads for a lengthy follow-up.
Melanie Tem's "The Shoes" is a powerhouse of emotional honesty, particularly attentive to human failings and regrets. At its heart is Nicole, a nurse-in-training whose simple observation about an AIDS patient's footgear upsets her world. "Cool shoes," seems an unlikely invitation to either a haunting or the threat of self-destruction; however, it becomes just that. "The Shoes" combines the best elements of ghost stories and psychological horror tales to create this book's standout piece. It is a shame it takes readers 247 pages to get to it, but the story is well worth the wait.
Shivers VI's other female author, Lisa Tuttle, offers a surreal and chilling take on loneliness and relationships with "Bits and Pieces". Though body parts aplenty occupy this story, it manages to avoid being a simple splatter fest, eschewing the gruesome in favor of thoughtful, soul numbing chills. Fay wakes up after a one night stand to find her lover gone, but his foot left behind. She soon discovers this is a recurring issue--body parts in her bed after amorous evenings — and having no idea what else to do with these discarded parts, Fay saves them. Soon, she finds herself trying to assemble a perfect mate, though a few important pieces remain to be collected... Though the ending is a tad predictable, getting there is dark delight.
New neighbors move next door to an elderly woman in David B. Silva's contribution, "Trouble Follows". Here, a boy with a nasty dark side runs rampant, and what might have been another Bad Seed knock-off takes on a chilling freshness with a supernatural exploration, which recalls both William Hughes Mearn's eerie poem "Antigonish" and a darker bent on Robert Lois Stevenson's "My Shadow." The star here is the narrator's voice.
Conspiracy and paranoia reign in Robert Morrish's "Keeping It in the Family". The story begins with a sister coming to stay with her brother because of her degenerative MS. Following her death, the plot takes a hard left turn into the supernatural, and the story becomes a bizarre and affecting piece about grief and disease that harkens to the sort of creative sf-horror found in better X-Files episodes.
Taking a line from Stephen King's "The Breathing Method" for his title and theme, Bev Vincent's "It is the Tale" centers on five college kids who gather to tell scary tales. Events turn gruesome and gleeful when four of the friends conspire to scare the fifth one out of his mind only to find their bad intentions leading to an unexpected end.
Rounding out the collection, Peter Straub's "A Secret Place: The Heart of A Dark Matter" serves double duty. First, it is a short story about murderous mentors and students (more precisely: masters and apprentices). Second, it fills in some background on a character featured in his recent Black Quill Award-winning novel. A Dark Matter has proved a rich vein for Straub, appearing in two similar-but-different editions (apart from the Doubleday release, Subterranean Press published an earlier draft as The Skylark limited edition), and Straub's contribution to Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman's Stories anthology employed that novel's guru character. "A Secret Place: The Heart of A Dark Matter" (which originally appeared in a limited edition from Borderlands Press) is both complex and simplistic, eschewing a complicated plot in order to delve into its characters' twisted psyches. When Keith Hayward gets in trouble for killing a neighbor's pet, his Uncle Till is the man to set him straight about the importance of getting a secret place if his nephew is going to continue pursuing his bloody interests. Keith soon does as Uncle Till suggests and gets himself a slave to serve his whims (his beleaguered fellow student, Miller). He soon learns such a secret place is both literal and metaphoric. What follows are two intertwined stories about dominance and submission: in one, Keith plays apprentice to Uncle Till, in the other, Keith plays master to Miller. The narrative builds to a bloody Christmas encounter between these two storylines. While serial killer tales are pretty much a dime a dozen these days – plot wise, there's little in "A Secret Place" that hasn't been seen before – Straub presents some interesting psychology and relationships. On its own, the story is a well done education-of-a-killer piece, but taken as part of A Dark Matter's cycle of works, it assumes a greater resonance. The key to this story's success is found in Straub's craft--the words are assembled well, the sentences are lovely, the paragraphs are a treat to read, the metaphors and symbols are rich, and yet these things all work toward building the story's characters. The heart of this dark matter is both disquieting and seductive.
All told, the sixth volume in the Shivers series presents a wide ranging blend of horror fiction. There's something here for most interests. While I am disappointed in the short supply of contributing authors that aren't straight white guys, plenty of chills and thrills repaid my invested reading time.
Purchase Shivers VI, edited by Richard Chizmar.