Dark Tales / May 2008
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
Angels, creepy crawlies, ruminations on death, and the Australian Outback are just a few of themes explored in this twelfth volume of short stories from British publisher Dark Tales. Clocking in at a lean 69 pages, Dark Tales: Volume 12 offers up a smorgasbord of thirteen original works of short fiction with a decidedly British flair.
The collection kicks off with Gary Kemble’s eco-terror thriller “All You Need Is Love,” in which a probe returning from Venus brings back a virus that has those it infects inexplicably grinning from ear to ear and doing some decidedly reckless things. “All You Need Is Love” is a cautionary tale that explores the tenuousness of international relations in a time of global paranoia.
“The Summer Ghost” by Robert Smith is a competent war-time ghost story that underwhelms at first but ultimately delivers the goods in the end with some ingenious spectral role reversal.
Ryan Lambie’s “The Beetles in My House” finds its entomology-loving narrator playing house with thousands of creepy crawlies. Think of the “They’re Creeping Up on You” vignette from Creepshow – substituting beetles for cockroaches – and imagine E.G. Marshall’s character welcoming the insect invasion.
“The Billabong” by Angela Graham is a somewhat disjointed take on marital infidelity in the Australian Outback. Despite its strong sense of setting, the story comes across as muddled as the snake-bitten main character’s increasingly hallucinogenic thoughts. The tale ultimately succeeds at macabre, but one is left with the impression that it’s almost by default.
John Morgan’s “Lights Out” is a clever variation on the idea of hovering between life and death, offering up a genuinely disturbing alternative to white-lit corridors with its grisly otherworldly hospital where the Hippocratic Oath is turned on its head before losing its head altogether. Morgan capably demonstrates that sometimes experimental works.
“Trail of Tears” by T.R. Johnstone is a grim apocalyptic survival story with just a hint of zombie lore that fully engages the reader from the opening paragraph. Think Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome meets The Children of Men.
Christopher M. Geeson’s “Love Thy Spider” is a genuinely creepy little tale about an elderly widow and her unwelcome arachnid houseguest who just won’t seem to leave. Talking spiders can be tricky business, but Geeson pulls it off admirably without veering off into parody territory.
In the fable-like “Angels and Oblivion, author Ben Langley offers an inventive spin on guardian angels that explores the depths of divine intervention – imagined here as a corruptible force. It’s an optimistic story about recovery and redemption, perhaps a bit of misplaced hope here among a collection of dark tales but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.
“Pulling Teeth” by James Brooks concerns a traveling cookery salesman who takes his Williams & Sonoma-like sideshow to the secluded home of an eccentric old woman who has a thing for wild boars and eagle owls. The story, while passable, is the weakest of the lot with some clunky turns of phrase and an odd aversion to commas in setting off introductory phrases that could have benefited from a more thorough line edit. Mechanics aside, there’s an appropriately ghoulish ending that’ll have you glancing sideways at your grandmother’s tube of Fixodent.
The standout of the collection is David Turnbill’s elegiac “The Dream of Aquiline Wings,” the story of a teenage girl literally at war with herself to stop the nightmarish avian transformation taking place within her. Turnbill crafts a beautifully written allegory for adolescence and the ravaging effects of divorce on children.
Sandi Sholl-Ellis’ “A Brush with Death” is a solid, at times poignant, chiller in which a dying woman - who knows death well after a lifetime of obsession - makes a deal with the Grim Reaper. Sholl-Ellis’ keen observations on aging and death are spot-on, as illustrated by this passage in which the narrator is observing the nursing home setting around her:
Now, at eighty-seven, I have heard all the dogmas of death. In the nursing home, they say it can be your friend. I can rid you of pain. It can take you to where there is no smell of yesterday’s shit and piss blended with today’s powdery adult diapers and disinfectant cleansers.
In death you won’t hear the outbursts of madness and confusion that are answered in barely disguised frustration and disgust in the middle hours of the night.
“Lady! Hey lady! Help me.”
“You need to lie down now.”
“Help! Help me. Can you help me? Lady!”
“Just take a sip of this. Swallow it down. There’s a good man now.”
There will be no clang and clamour of aluminum carts rolling on hard, cold institutional floors in death. No murmurings of rubber soled shoes on gurneys.
That’s what people say. Other people
Grief and madness are the central themes of “Famine,” in which author Chris Warmer takes readers from 0 to 60 mph in what starts out as a poignant and thoughtful portrait of a recently widowed man and abruptly switches to an outlandish conclusion in which an elevator and an underwear model figure into attempted cannibalism. Best to hold onto the chair arms when reading this one.
All is not what it seems in David Hamilton’s ambitious “Baltic Afternoon” in which a young girl becomes a pawn in a game of induced memories and paranormal hoaxes in a Nazi-occupied Baltic village outpost in 1944. You may find yourself re-reading the last paragraphs as Hamilton attempts a denouement twist reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.
While the compact and concise scares offered in Dark Tales: Volume 12 are perfect to squeeze in during an afternoon at the beach this summer, these tales are best served up late afternoon with a steeping brew of Earl Grey and a nibble or two of orange scone.
Purchase Dark Tales: Volume 12, edited by Sean Jeffery.