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Gratia Placenti / Edited by Jason Sizemore and Gil Ainsworth

thgpfinal.jpgApex Publications / December 2007
Reviewed by: Michele Lee

Gratia Placenti is the 2007 follow-up to Apex Publications' first Stoker-nominated featured writer anthology, Aegri Somnia. Subtitled "For the sake of pleasing" the stories all incorporate the themes of pleasure and punishment.

The anthology starts off with "Translatio" by Geoffrey Girard, a twisted tale of servitude that starts dark and dives, without hesitation, for darker. Keller and his family are witnesses to the ending of the world. At who’s hands or for what purpose this end occurs are never answered, but there is plenty in the how. Despite plagues of madness, devastating birth defects, ominous things that patrol the cities, and a great liquid shadow-wave - a composition of the tortured souls who have died so far - Keller and his family seem immune. The crashing wave of shadow leaves their home unmarked; the bulbous, tentacled creatures above the streets let Keller pass by unharmed. And the secret of this immunity lies in the visions that Keller experiences and puts into writing. Facing a choice between madness and death, Keller tries to find a way to break free. In an innovative twist, Keller blinds himself halfway into the story leaving a climax rendered in four senses only. Oppressively dark and daringly delivered, "Translatio" is likely to leave readers wondering if this anthology might be more than they can handle.

"Follow the Canary" by Athena Workman is the weird tale of Robert, who buys a faceless human-like creature on the black market that somehow can find whatever its master desires. As the story unfolds, we learn that Robert is on a quest, spurred on by his wife whose bodiless head now nags him to find her missing body parts. “Follow the Canary” is like a trek through a strange world, equal parts science fiction, civil war, and modern day. It’s a genre-bending, shudder-inducing addition to the anthology likely to either be loved for its imagination or disliked for the hyper-focus on what could be a very interesting world.

"Crasher" by Debbie Kuhn turns the theme in a new direction. The story opens as Martin, a Vietnam vet haunted by his memories of the war, tries to find the strength to end the miserable pit of depression that his life has become. As he prepares to pull the trigger, he hears what he believes to be an angel's voice sing out from the church across the street. The beauty of it brings peace to his heart, strengthening his shattered soul against the ongoing assault of painful memories. The voice belongs to Elaine, a retired opera singer and a distant symbol of a better life for the battered man. But Elaine’s songs only bring Martin peace for so long, and the nightmare things that haunt him are unwilling to permit him happiness. "Crasher" brings a shot of bitterness to the theme, turning it from dark things done to please others to dark things unwilling to let others be pleased. It’s an interesting variation on the theme.

David Niall Wilson's "Some Glue Never Dries" also uses the haunting of minds to propel the characters forward. Brad is a man struggling with his past, trying to come to terms with haunting, dream-like versions of memories and the knowledge that his father blames him for his mother's death. Trapped between his therapy session where his remembering helps solidify his progress and a mental plain that seems to hold some hope of rewriting the past - even if is all in his mind - Brad teeters on the edge of revelation and relapse into a fantasy dream world. Compelling and engrossing, "Some Glue Never Dries" is likely to be found on many an awards lists next year.

"The Cutting Room" by Shane Jiraiya Cummings easily surpasses its sex and gore façade. In this tale of a bizarre incident in an autopsy room and a corpse who isn't quite done with the living, Cummings shows not only an innate knowledge of what happens after death but also an ability to twist a story around a reader like a deadly trap. Playful and sexually-charged in all the wrong ways, this tale of dead love puts the stories of necrophiliac morticians to shame.

"Bright Red Razors" by Teri Jacobs combines elements of the two previous stories, focusing on Haley, a woman in a therapy session after she cuts her own eye out. Twisted and addicted to razors, Haley battles her therapist, her need for cutting, and her tormentor - the shadowy Black Angel - in a rich tale that takes cutting past emo and into a different realm altogether. Half the enjoyment in this one comes from the surreal beauty of the language, used as tool, to make this a pleasurably dark addition to the anthology.

"Party Makers" by Adrienne Jones is the carnivalesque tale of Hal, a reclusive screenwriter who, on the advice of his brother, hires a company to populate the birthday party he just invited his ex-girlfriend to with actual attendees. The reader is led through a frustrating maze of bizarre events, barely mentioned participants, and selfish, childlike betrayals, as Hal suddenly finds himself in a sick game of keep-away with everything he has at stake. The thematic pleasure in this tale is split - appearing as jealousy from people who feel they deserve what Hal has, in the very nature of the strange party guests Hal finds he has hired, and in the most carnal translation of the word itself. The story seems rushed and not fully developed, with characters that are mere shadows of what they could be and a climax that comes off feeling far too much like the bickering of children.

At first mention of the mean-spirited rednecks and little green aliens in J.A. Konrath’s “Them’s Good Eats”, you think you know where the story is headed; but fans of Konrath know better than to expect something predictable. When Jimmy Bob (a man a little too obsessed with anal probes) brags to friend Earl about torturing his pigs to make the resulting meat a bit sweeter, a silver spaceship shows up out of the blue and the obvious expectations of the story are for a bit of turnabout on the cruel rednecks. But Konrath isn't content to predictably spin the characters’ actions back on themselves here and give the reader the story they anticipate. Likely to make readers feel a little bad for laughing at the stereotypical hicks, this story gives fans a good dose of Konrath's dark humor, perhaps enough to leave them wanting more.

"Something Wet" by James Reilly is one of the first stories in the anthology to take the theme in a direction many would expect - into the realm of sex. Les is an unlikely leading man, a virtual porn star in a virtual sex flick in which the viewer’s head ends up superimposed on Les’ porn star body as they travel through virtual carnality. Approached by the disfigured husband of a former co-star, Les agrees to help him make “a Dark”, a term used here for an video, that will help him restore the intimacy between him and his wife. Only someone has death on their minds. Reilly’s tale keeps the twists coming, climaxing in a bloody, dark mess of reader satisfaction.

Bev Vincent's "Popup Killer" starts with a scene familiar to many a Web surfer. When protagonist Nate gets an annoying popup ad that refuses to go away, he follows the link to Truist.corp, where the enigmatic Al asks him for a name of someone in his life whose removal would make Nate's life better. Scoffing in disbelief, Nate clicks off. But Al’s words linger, and Nate eventually revisits the site and gives up a name. The next day, like dark magic, an annoying co-worker named Ted never existed, and only Nate and Al seem to remember the name at all. Al insists that Nate should give him more names, citing three to five as the average number of names that the people Al helps surrender to him. But Nate’s life is not enriched by the erasing of these bothersome forces in his life, and he soon learns the expansive affects of Al’s strange ability to eliminate lives. “Popup Killer" is instantly familiar to the modern Internet user, and it ventures into a cavernous electronic world rich in raw genre material yet to be fully mined by writers of dark fiction. With “Popup Killer”, Vincent brings a well-written, cautionary tale to the star power of Gratia Placenti’s pages.

"Only Spirits Cry" by R. Thomas Riley is the poignant tale of a boy who wants to save his mother from dying. In this story that’s more fantasy than science fiction, the boy is privy to a strange swamp populated by remnants from Greek mythology. Within the framework of a larger theme that expands on the old adage "You can never go home", Riley writes a tale in which the reader can indeed go home again, where a man can become a boy again and once more venture into the unknown to save the mother he loves. The story moves back and forth between past and present, which some readers may find disconcerting. Fairy tale-like in its mood and atmosphere with mythical creatures that feel authentic and easy to connect with, this addition to the anthology holds the dark and light sides of life in balance, never quite letting either side take charge.

"The Listening" by Neil Ayres is a softer, more tragic story than the previous entries. For protagonist Iain, a trip to Ireland brings back memories of his wife, Sara, who disappeared while six months pregnant with their first child. Whether Sara’s disappearance was of her own doing or at the hands of a malevolent force is unclear. While Iain eventually finds solace with Sara's friend Gem and a life of relative happiness, Sara's disappearance nags at him like an unresolved betrayal. The gentlest story of the bunch, "The Listening" successfully captures the feeling of gradually fading memories, where even the bad times are softened by an eventual, reluctant happiness over the course of time.

Concluding the anthology is Mary Robinette Kowal's futuristic "Tomorrow and Tomorrow", the tale of Tuyet, a cleaning woman working on a space station hoping to earn enough money to buy her ailing son a new set of lungs. A tale of the desperate things people do for the sake of others, this story presents a sympathetic character who is sucked into a murder plot after the fact, and is too deeply involved by the time she realizes it to change the outcome. With more than just her own life at stake, Tuyet is tragically doomed by either path she takes.

The Gratia Placenti anthology is yet another fine example of the quality behind the Apex name. Like its predecessor, it's likely to be well-regarded as a fine addition to the genres the stories within are both inspired by and an homage to.

Purchase Gratia Placenti, edited by Jason Sizemore and Gil Ainsworth.

Posted on Tuesday, December 4, 2007 at 05:33PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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