Dark Scribe Reviews

Haunted Legends / Edited by Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas

Tor Books / September 2010
Reviewed by: Norman L. Rubenstein

Reading a book or story, to some extent, is a matter of trust. Readers might recognize an author’s name and remember that they’ve read previous books/stories by that author which they enjoyed, or which shocked them, in a good way, or which made them reflect on something. They will then choose to read the new story or book trusting that the same author will provide the same innate qualities in the new story or book which they’d enjoyed previously. The same kind of trust can also occur between a publisher and a reader in the genre-specific specialty presses, where a given publisher might have published a number of books which the reader had read and enjoyed, and, through time, the reader may well trust that a new title from this same publisher will likely provide similar entertainment value.

However, when it comes to anthologies, collections of short fiction by numerous differing authors, if there is any trust to be engendered, it is the editor(s) to whom the readers will turn to for such reassurance. Whether the anthology is themed (where all the stories have some common idea or point of reference that provides a general theme for the stories contained within the collection), or where there is no common theme, and the editor or editors have merely assembled a collection of quality tales they think that readers will enjoy reading, the readers must trust to the capability of the editor(s) to select a range of fiction that does not repeat itself and provides for entertainment and mental stimulation for the readers.

The new anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, Haunted Legends, is a themed anthology. As co-editor Nick Mamatas states in his Introduction:

“Our concept was simple: ask some of the best writers of horror and dark fantasy in the world to choose their favorite “true” regional ghost story, and to rescue it from the cobwebs of the local tourist gift shop or academic journal.” (Haunted Legends, at p. 16)

If Nick Mamatas’ name seems familiar, it should be. He has written two novels and over fifty short stories in the horror and dark fantasy genre, all quite good, and is also a prolific reviewer and columnist who has written many informative articles and interviews and is considered, rightfully, an expert within the genre. Ellen Datlow, the other co-editor of Haunted Legends, is someone who is the very essence of the proverbial “person who needs no introduction”. But, just in case…Ms. Datlow is the preeminent living editor of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, having been doing so for almost thirty years and having won multiple awards for her editing work, such as the Bram Stoker Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Higo Award, the Locus Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and any other award you might be able to think of. Ms. Datlow is one of the very few editors, and certainly foremost among them, whose name is sufficient to trust that whatever anthology bearing her editorial name is placed before a reader, will be a worthwhile expenditure of time to read. As to how the combination of these two major talents have melded, I can only hope that they will continue their editing partnership based upon the results as contained within Haunted Legends. Their idea/theme for the anthology is both clever and of definite interest to those for whom good ghost stories become just that much better and more interesting, knowing they are based upon alleged “fact” or, at the least, actual existing local/regional historical traditions and folklore.

The anthology consists of twenty stories from the following authors: Richard Bowes, Kaaron Warren, Kit Reed, Steven Pirie, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ekaterina Sedia, John Mantooth, Catherynne M. Valente, Carolyn Turgeon, Carrie Laben, Jeffrey Ford, Gary A. Braunbeck, Erzebet YellowBoy, M. K. Hobson, Stephen Dedman, Lily, Hoang, Laird Barron, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, and Joe R. Lansdale. I’m certain that, like me, most of you will recognize at least some of these contributors and that others will be new to you. Again, if one is able to trust to the taste and judgment of the editor(s), then encountering new authors becomes an exciting prospect rather than a potentially worrisome gamble. So it is within the pages of Haunted Legends.

Obviously, to some extent, taste in reading material is subjective, and one person’s favorite story might well be another’s least favorite. That doesn’t necessarily make either person wrong or right. However, it is a measure of the quality of any anthology as to how many, if any, of the stories contained within are disliked by the reader. By such measure, Haunted Legends is a resounding success and deserves a solid “A” in that there was not a single story within the twenty collected that was less than good. Not a single story where the reader wondered “how did this story ever make it into the collection.” This is a feature that, in my personal experience, having read literally hundreds of collections in over forty-plus years of such reading, sets Ms. Datlow’s editing apart from virtually everyone else editing anthologies within the horror and dark fantasy genre. I cannot remember the last time any story contained in any of the numerous anthologies Ms. Datlow has edited ever struck me as being less than good. However, this isn’t to say that Haunted Legends does not contain a number of stories that I found exceptionally diverting and worthwhile reading.

The anthology starts off strongly with “Knickerbocker Holiday” by Richard Bowes. This is a very eerie, moody update, set in contemporary New York City relating to the “Headless Horseman” tales that inspired Washington Irving’s famous Sleepy Hollow tale. Another story very worthy of mention is Steven Pirie’s “The Spring Heel”. Set in contemporary England and involving a prostitute and her small band of itinerant friends, this updating of the classic “Spring Heel” legends, often related to Jack The Ripper, is a very enjoyable read. Then there’s “La Llorona” by Carolyn Turgeon. Here a woman whose child has died of cancer, travels on vacation to Mexico and there meets the legendary “Crying Woman” also well known throughout the American Southwest, who supposedly drowns her children to punish her lover in a fit of jealous rage and then repents and drowns herself as well, and whose ghost is said to wander the coastlines of lakes/rivers/bodies of water looking for her children. While some versions of her legend make La Llorona a sympathetic, helpful spirit, others describe her as very dangerous and vengeful, and who will steal the children of others. Here, the author writes an effective and moving new vision of the old legend well worth reading.

Another very entertaining read can be found in Jeffrey Ford’s “Down Atsion Road”. Dealing with the notorious New Jersey “Pine Barrens” area, here we have a winning combination of wilderness, Native Americans, and demons.

Leave it to the always brilliant Gary A. Braunbeck to take the well known legend/ghost story surrounding Resurrection Mary, and give it a unique, clever, and fascinating twist in his “Return To Mariabronn”. The quality continues with a brilliant story, “For Those In Peril On The Sea” by Australian author Stephen Dedman. The author takes a local infamous shipwreck and weaves a story involving a fictionalized version of the Fear Factor TV show, here called “Worst Nightmares” and delivers a supernatural romp guaranteed to shiver your timbers.

The anthology finishes even stronger than it begins, with three extremely inventive and thrilling stories among the final four by three of the finest authors writing in the horror/dark fantasy genre. First up is Laird Barron’s “The Redfield Girls”, which involves a haunted lake, which happens to be a popular tourist destination, located in the Washington State wilderness that was viewed as cursed way back among the ancient Klallam People. Then there’s Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes To Liverpool”. Here, the title tells you all you need to know: yes, it refers to that Chucky, the deadly toy which has been the subject of numerous movies, and which became intertwined with an infamous real-life child-murder in Liverpool in 1991. The anthology ends with a tour de force tale from American horror icon Joe R. Lansdale titled “The Folding Man”. The author takes as his starting point the tales of a mysterious black car or van that means trouble for those who encounter it, and spins a tale that will keep the reader on the edge of his seat.

My apologies to those authors whose included tales were not mentioned in this review. This does not mean that they are any less well crafted or are less enjoyable to read, but merely that a combination of space and the reviewer’s own personal predilections won out. What is important for potential readers to know is that Haunted Legends is a tremendously inventive and gratifying read. These stories are worthwhile for those with merely a general interest for tales of horror and dark fantasy. For those who especially enjoy ghost stories, this anthology will be supremely rewarding. Many of the stories here will stay in your head long after you’ve finished reading the book, and should give the interested reader much to ponder. Bravo to Ms. Datlow and Mr. Mamatas, and one hopes that this will be the beginning of a long-term professional, working partnership that will truly continue to benefit all horror/dark fantasy readers. All it takes is a little trust.

Purchase Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas.

Posted on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 10:20AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Full Dark, No Stars / Stephen King

Scribner / November 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

“When it came to the dark fuckery of the human heart,” one of King’s characters muses as she descends into near-madness in this quartet of novellas, “there seemed to be no limit.” And when it comes to exploring all that dark fuckery of the human heart, no one seems to possess the limitless capacity for such more than Stephen King.  Full Dark, No Stars – the legendary dark scribe’s third collection in the four-novella format following 1982’s Different Seasons and 1990’s Four Past Midnight – explores the frightening lengths to which we’ll go to maintain normalcy and the status quo. Matters of the conscience factor in heavily here, with every action causing a stronger (and deeply consequential) opposite reaction among a cast of archetypal King characters – here ranging from an early 20th-century farmer to a modern-day midlist writer to everyday husbands and wives. 

The collection opens with “1922”, a lush period piece about the desperate choices we make, our struggle to restore order, and the ghosts that subsequently haunt us. Told within the narrative structure of a confession, “1922” introduces us to Nebraska farmer Wilfred James who, as the story opens, is fearful that his free-thinking wife may sell one hundred acres of adjoining land to a hog butchery. When reasoning fails, desperation kicks in and he enlists the help of his teenage son to protect their land and livelihood. Murder and cover-up are quickly eclipsed by a big ‘ole dose of ghostly karma from the grave (or well, in this case). King’s ability to balance horror and humanity is on fine display here as graphic images of otherworldly rodents blend seamlessly with a father’s recognition of his very human failings with his son. You can almost hear Frank Darabont typing away at the screenplay now.

In “Big Driver”, King once again embraces an old-favorite – the writer as protagonist. This time out, readers meet Tess, successful author of a series of chick-light mysteries about a bunch of old women sleuths who solve crimes within the framework of their knitting circle. Following a book club speaking engagement, Tess unwisely takes a shortcut home and runs afoul of the titular character in one of King’s most relentless, brutal stories. But just when the reader starts to slip into the hopelessness of the main character’s violation and circumstances, King infuses “Big Driver” with healthy shots of feminism and adrenaline and takes Tess from victim to vigilante in a thoroughly satisfying mash-up of I Spit On Your Grave and Death Wish. Not for the squeamish.

“Fair Extension” – the shortest of the quartet – is a straightforward deal-with-the-devil tale in which a terminally ill man meets the devil himself, here cast as a roadside vendor who specializes in selling extensions of all shapes and sizes. Envy truly is a green-eyed monster here as Dave Streeter identifies his best friend as the one person he hates in exchange for a life extension. The ensuing reversals of fortune and misfortune in the two men’s lives are at once horrifying and heartbreaking in this morality tale that ably compensates in punch for what it lacks in word count.

Rounding out the collection, “A Good Marriage” is perhaps King’s strongest exploration of husband-wife dynamics since Dolores Claiborne or Gerald’s Game. When a dutiful wife stumbles (literally) upon proof of her seemingly virtuous husband’s dark side, conscience battles loyalty and security. As Darcy Anderson’s sense of right and wrong and that fine line between them blurs and shifts, the story studies with subtle brilliance the power of human resiliency and survival and justification. Like life, it’s compromise – and our ability to be able to look ourselves in the mirror – that ultimately wins in the end.

Throughout Full Dark, No Stars, readers are treated to the usual bounty of King literary riches – from his keen insights into commonplace life events (such as when anagrammed antagonist George Elvid in “Fair Extension” refers to chemotherapy as “knee-jerk triage” in the case of that story’s terminally ill protagonist), gorgeous personifications (such as when “graveyards yawn” in “A Good Marriage”), and sentences so evocative as to simultaneously lull and induce gooseflesh (like “On most nights, the dark was her friend – sleep’s kindly harbinger – but not tonight” from “A Good Marriage”).

But it’s in his Afterword – comprised mainly of an unusually trite recap of where each idea that led to the stories the reader has just taken in came from – that King offers an added gem in what is perhaps the strongest, most concise distinction between literary and genre fiction:

“I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book is set aside (sometimes with relief).”

True to his word, King will coax strong reactions from the tales he puts forth in Full Dark, No Stars, — fear, apprehension, outrage, melancholy, to name a few — and leave the reader scarce time to sort out the literary viscera he packs into every story. It’s in that glorious digestion process afterward that one realizes that the bogeymen that haunt King’s fictional worlds are no slouches when it comes to substantive matters of the heart, the conscience, and the darkest depths of the soul itself.

Purchase Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King.

Posted on Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 08:03PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Curse of the Full Moon / Edited by James Lowder

Ulysses Press / June 2010
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

The werewolf is the middle child of the horror genre, stuck between its older, more accomplished sibling the vampire and the younger, brash upstart, the zombie. The werewolf has never had the classic showcase of a Dracula or the popular tidal wave of a Twilight series. Unlike zombies, it’s not enjoying a resurgence thanks to a popular cable series and books by Brian Keene. In fact, most of the success that’s come the werewolf’s way has been of the cinematic kind — think The Howling and The Wolf Man and An American Werewolf in London.

But I’ve always liked a good werewolf story. I see a lot of untapped potential in the character. The idea of transformation, of becoming something new and primal and powerful, is rich earth for authors to mine. So I was excited to crack open editor James Lowder’s Curse of the Full Moon, hoping that some of the high-pedigree writers featured would breathe new life into the character. They did just that, as many of the stories find success by playing around with the traditional rules and conventions of the werewolf character.

For example, the collection kicks off with “My Zoondel,” a Jonathan Carroll story that doesn’t include fangs and fur, but instead is a look at how the beasts within some people stay buried so deeply that their true nature isn’t revealed by physical transformation but instead by bursts of unexplained violence.

Charles de Lint’s “Trading Hearts at the Half Kaffe Café” introduces a slew of new approaches to the classic monster, referred to here as “skinwalkers.” In de Lint’s world of klans and codes of honor, the species is divided into those who wish to live a normal human life and those who “still like to hunt.” These opposing worldviews come to a tense head in de Lint’s tale.

Joe R. Landale can always be counted on to put a unique spin on whatever kind of story he’s writing, and he doesn’t disappoint with “The Gentleman’s Hotel.” The story, a highlight of the collection, melds the werewolf story with Lansdale’s signature take on the Wild West. “Hotel” teams up Lansdale’s Rev. Mercer character with May, a professional girl (ahem) with a colorful vocabulary, and Dol, a ghost who’s already fallen on the bad side of the evil invading the frontier town of Falling Rock. The story moves at a rapid pace and culminates in a blistering finale as werewolves lay siege on the hotel where our heroes are holed up. At one point there are two werewolves, two people, two guns and a horse fighting it out in one hotel room. Great stuff, and a brilliant example of what can be done with the werewolf when a writer really turns loose on the material.

“Lila the Werewolf” by Peter S. Beagle examines the difficulties inherent in dating someone who, every so often, simply loses control. Farrell is a guy whose capacity for acceptance has always suited him well, allowing him to get through situations that would have crumbled others. It’s a trait that comes in handy when he discovers that the new love in his life is, in fact, a werewolf. Unfortunately, even Lila’s full moon transformations can’t keep Farrell interested in the relationship for long, and he finds himself in the difficult position of wanting to break up. With a werewolf.

As with any collection, all is not perfect. The title of Matt Venne’s story – “The Brown Bomber and the Nazi Werewolves of the S.S.” – had me anticipating greatness from the moment I saw it in the table of contents, but unfortunately it’s one of the weak spots in Curse. Venne (who is currently attached to the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones) is going for a pulp feel with this story, but really only captures it in the title. The story sees boxer Joe Louis (The Brown Bomber himself) captured by Nazis and taken to a castle deep behind enemy lines, where he’s forced to fight a German-engineered werewolf in the boxing ring. Looking on from the stands is Louis foe Max Schmeling, who was hoping for a rematch with Louis after suffering an embarrassing defeat at his hands in America. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the attempts at humor fall flat, and the climactic fight is anticlimactic, abrupt and disappointingly executed. It’s a shame, because that title is fantastic.

Overall, though, Curse of the Full Moon is a success. Lowder has smartly chosen stories (the majority of which are reprints) that take the werewolf out of the moors and introduce it into a variety of settings and time periods. Silver and moonlight play an integral role in some stories, and are laughed away in others. It all makes for a great mix of moods and approaches that showcase the versatility inherent in one of the classic monsters of the horror genre.

Purchase Curse of the Full Moon edited by James Lowder:

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2010 at 09:44AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

"Becoming One with the Ghosts" / Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Asimov's Science Fiction / Oct-Nov 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud

Though Asimov's Science Fiction seems an unlikely place to find fiction with a dark bent, the October/November issue contains quite a few eerie pieces, including Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella "Becoming One with the Ghosts."

The story set-up is this: When damages force the interstellar spacecraft Ivoire to dock with Sector Base V, its captain expects a brief delay before rejoining the remainder of The Fleet. However, Sector Base V is no longer populated by Fleet personnel. Evidence suggests it has been long abandoned. This is a strange development as the station was active a month before. Now the station's inhabits include visible clusters of floating particles and a small group of explorers in unfamiliar environment suits. Captain Cooper and the Ivoire's 500 crew members are caught in a mystery. Soon they discover an unknown accident has caused the Ivoire's travel time to far exceed the month they believed. Investigation soon becomes two-fold: How much time has been lost, and what has happened in the meantime? The answers are not reassuring.

Though this story is not a bloody tale of alien horror, a Lovecraftian excursion into other dimensional madness, nor a slasher-in-space exercise, "Becoming One with the Ghosts" is no stranger to dread. Here, the dark dealings are of a philosophical bent.

The prose is engaging, and the questions raised are intriguing. Motifs of abandonment, decay, and death populate this narrative. Though no spectral figures surface, the tale reads like an understated ghost story.

Accounting for lost time has provided the genesis for quite a few excellent terror tales, such as L. Ron Hubbard's Fear. Here we find a fresh take on the same theme. Rusch's effort is an engaging tale of a most unconventional haunting.

Purchase Asimov’s Science Fiction (October/November 2010), which includes “Becoming One with the Ghosts” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

An excerpt of the story is also available at the ASF website here.

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2010 at 09:39AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Black & Orange / Benjamin Kane Ethridge

Bad Moon Books / October 2010
Reviewed by: Anthony J. Rapino

Reading a writer’s first novel is always an exciting endeavor. It’s a chance to discover a new talent. It’s a chance to track the author from book to book, watching and noting with pleasure the growth in each new offering. So was my mindset entering the world of Black & Orange, Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s first novel.

Martin and Teresa are nomads tasked with protecting the Heart of the Harvest, a human who holds the key to opening a gateway between worlds in his or her chest. On the other side of this gateway lies the Old Domain. Every Halloween Chaplain Cloth and his “children” – a horde of pumpkin-headed demons – quest after the Heart, which, once devoured, will open the gateway a little wider.

This year is a game-changer, for if even one more heart is lost, the gateway will be wide enough for the Old Domain to spill through into our world, bringing chaos and death.

Helping Chaplain Cloth, who is trapped in the Old Domain until Halloween, are members of his Church who hope for the merging of the two worlds. Teresa and Martin are powerful, but the cards are stacked against them. Teresa is suffering with lung cancer, there are four hearts to protect this year, and Paul Quintana – a new, powerful Bishop – is helping to track them down.

It may be the horror fan in me, but any novel that takes place on and around Halloween gets brownie points. It’s not fair, and it may not be the most professional of confessions, but it is the truth. The truth is also that Ethridge didn’t need the help.

Black & Orange is a fast-paced, yet thoughtful, novel that explores the balance between opposing forces. The colors black and orange may as well be good and evil, or yin and yang. These complimentary opposites play against each other throughout the novel — and within the characters.

The Messenger – the unseen player who tells the nomads what to do – can be God in the way the nomads blindly follow his (or her) will. And Chaplain Cloth, the Devil, prying open a gateway to expel his domain into ours.

And yet, it’s never as simplistic as this. Ethridge, with great care, creates layered, believable characters that aren’t simply good or bad. Each and every one of them has their own needs, wants, and problems. Bishop Quintana is obsessed with a Priestess, whom he would disavow himself for. Martin constantly tries to get Teresa to quit smoking, while she stubbornly resists. The story is never only about whether or not the gateway will be opened, and for this reason alone, Black & Orange is a dynamic and unforgettable novel.

Whether for Halloween, Christmas, or the Fourth of July, in the world of Black & Orange, it’s always autumn.

Purchase Black & Orange by Benjamin Kane Ethridge.

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2010 at 09:35AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

"Footsteps" / Marie Brennan

from Shroud Magazine / Issue 9, Summer 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud

Shroud Magazine's ninth issue opens with Marie (Midnight Never Come) Brennan's variation on a classic fairy tale.

In "Footsteps" readers find a prince searching for a wife, a grand ball attended by masked guests, and a mysterious party crasher who rushes away at the stroke of midnight, leaving muddy footprints.  Of course, we are squarely in "Cinderella" territory. The tale is brief, yet readers will find several different masquerades, a kingdom-wide search for an unidentified lady (complete with specially crafted footwear), a heartfelt proposal, and the big reveal that this is not a happily-ever-after story but a chilling tale of an unwelcome surprise guest.

The plot is straightforward and perhaps predictable to anyone familiar with the "Grim Fairy Tales" from Haunt of Fear comics. The Rule of Three tells savvy readers how many balls there will be. This tale's appearance in a magazine dedicated to the macabre tells us not to expect a straight "Cinderella" retelling. However, the story remains enjoyable due to its descriptions, its playful skewering of the familiar, and several enjoyable turns of phrase. Just take a look at the first line:

"Among the noble flowers that have gathered for the ball, the hopeful young ladies in lavender and spring green and pink, she stands out like a rose, red-black as venous blood."

How could readers resist venturing on?

Since 1993, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have edited several anthologies that offer dark re-imaginings of fairy stories (like 1993’s Snow White, Blood Red). Brennan's tale hearkens back to those anthologies in all the right ways; it uses the familiar to weave a well written dark fantasy.

"Footsteps" is a tasty treat, a literary morsel to be savored for its rich sentences, its images, and the way it builds to a chilling conclusion.

Purchase Shroud Magazine, Issue #9 (Summer 2010), which includes “Footsteps” by Marie Brennan.

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2010 at 09:30AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The Painted Darkness / Brian James Freeman

Cemetery Dance / December 2010
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Brian James Freeman has gotten a lot of attention for the way he's gone about marketing his new book from Cemetery Dance, The Painted Darkness. In case you're one of the few who hasn't heard — he gave it away. Every word, available for free as a download. There was no gimmick. There was no agreement required that those downloading the file would turn around and purchase the physical book when it comes out in December. Hey, he even gave it to this reviewer twice — not long after I downloaded the electronic version, he was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of the printed product.

So, while we've heard a lot about the way Freeman is publicizing his work, we’ve yet to hear a lot about the work itself. I have no doubt that's going to change as we march closer to the publication date, and I'm happy to be among the first voices moving beyond the cry of "It's free!" and into the realm of "It's great!"

Because it is, you know. It's an ambitious piece of storytelling that delves not only into the mysterious act of creation itself – something that many in Freeman's audience will be able to relate to – to something we can all relate to: the crippling power of childhood fears. The fact that it does all this in quiet, understated tones reminiscent of the likes of Charles L. Grant makes it all the more amazing, moving and powerful.

Henry is a painter, living in an old rural farmhouse with his wife and young son. His attic is his workspace, and lately he's been spending a lot of time up there – even more than usual – painting canvases that he promptly turns to face the wall. He can't remember what he's painted on those, and for the time being it doesn't seem important. On this particular day, he's poised in front of another blank canvas, seeking that thin entryway into the state of semi-dreaming that he enters when he works. It's not coming easy, though, as there's more than art on his mind — his wife, upset at the amount of time he's been zoning out and working lately, took off with his son last night, and he hasn't heard from them since they left.

Eventually, though, he eases into work, only to be brought out of his reverie a few hours later as the boiler in the cellar begins making ominous sounds. As he breaks away from painting to take care of the boiler, Henry finds that the threads of a childhood memory are beginning to come back to him — a memory that ties right into the core of his artwork. Freeman presents that memory to us in a series of flashback chapters intercut with the chapters following present-day Henry, allowing us to discover the incident even as Henry is recovering its memory for the first time in his adult life.

In The Painted Darkness, Freeman is doing far more than telling a scary story (although he is telling a scary story, and doing it quite well). He's looking at the questions that all artists are frequently asked. Questions about where ideas come from, and whether something imaginary becomes real once the artist brings it to life. Writers in particular talk often about how their "real" and "imaginary" worlds blend together — how often have you heard writers say that their characters speak to them, or that they feel less like they're making something up and more like they're transcribing events that are really taking place? If characters in books seem real to readers, imagine how they must seem to the one that created them.

For Henry, the reality of his creations is even more, well, real than most. And as the events of this book unfold, both in the present-day sections and the flashback, we begin to understand how dangerous that reality is, and how important his work has become.

Freeman balances both narratives expertly, dovetailing them together at the end so that we are presented with one cohesive, impactful story. Jill Bauman contributes a series of black-and-white illustrations that perfectly convey the mood of the tale.

The Painted Darkness is a quick read, but it’s one that sinks in and stays with you for a while. Artists will have a special appreciation for Freeman’s views on the nature of creation, but anyone who has an appreciation for the work that artists do – not to mention the appreciation of a good old-fashioned spook story – will enjoy this book.

Purchase The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman.

Posted on Monday, December 13, 2010 at 09:25AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint