« Asylum / Mark Allan Gunnells | Main | Catching Hell / Greg F. Gifune »

Shivers VI / Edited by Richard Chizmar

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.

Posted on Friday, April 1, 2011 at 11:15AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend