This is an anthology of 24 horror short stories. Horror is a simplification; there are several cross-genre pieces (e.g. dark sci-fi, dark historical fiction, tales of the weird, etc.) as well as stories that have a realistic—but dark—tone. However, it’s all fiction linked by a visceral darkness.
These stories have all been previously published in various magazines or collections, and they were all written during the decade between 2005 and 2015.
1.) “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels: A celebrity awakens in a hospital after a drunken crash that necessitated reconstructive surgery. It slowly dawns on him that the clinic isn’t what it seemed. This is an intriguing and distinctive tale.
2.) “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe: A horror writer has the family of an old friend to his house. He tells them that it’s the “least haunted house in the Midwest,” despite a gruesome history that suggests a place where evil comes to play. This was among my favorites. The horror writer character is well-developed.
3.) “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge: It’s never good when someone calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to bring a shovel. But sometimes it’s even worse than expected. I’ve read this one before. It’s a great premise and an engaging story. This anthology includes both stories that feel like they are realistically set in the world we know, as well as speculative fiction pieces. This feels like the former, but makes a shift.
4.) “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren: There’s a myth among anorexics of the Ash Mouth Man, whose kiss robs its victims of the ability to taste pleasant flavors. A dentist of a different ilk takes up with this mythical man. I’d place this one more as a tale of the weird than horror, but it’s on the dark side of that sub-genre. It’s well-written.
5.) “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle: An abduction and abuse victim tells her story of being locked in a closet, but no one believes the part about her fantastic escape. This is a gritty and evocative piece.
6.) “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files: This is an unconventional approach to story. The information content is conveyed by way of a file from a parapsychology institute after a coroner’s inquest of a psychic medium’s death proves inconclusive. I sometimes like this approach. Reading through a file fills a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, and offers the challenge of piecing together events oneself. This story was solid, but not my favorite of the bunch.
7.) “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick: A man out walking in the middle of the night stumbles onto the scene of a young girl under attack. Strangely, there seems to be a metallic substance pouring between the girl’s mouth and that of her attacker. This is crime fiction with a supernatural twist.
8.) “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle: A Royal Air Force air crew in Zanzibar shows off for some ladies with dire consequences. This one is in the realist vein. It feels like a story one might be told in a bar by a particularly gifted storytelling veteran.
9.) “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan: This tale seems to take place in the Hansel and Gretel universe. An unsavory merchant of the illicit woos a witch, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. This is a compelling story in the dark fairy tale sub-genre.
10.) “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy: This one has a 19th century vibe, not only because that’s when it’s set, but because it’s conveyed through documentation as was a popular approach of the era. In this case it’s a newspaper’s reprinting of the diary of an individual from an ill-fated cross-continental convoy. (i.e. “Clay Party” as in Donner Party.) The diary approach worked well, being both easy to follow and having an authentic feel.
11.) “Strappado” by Laird Barron: Two hip and cosmopolitan lovers attend the performance art event of an artist deemed trendy and edgy by the in-crowd. The performance doesn’t work out for everybody. This was evocative, and was, perhaps, a cautionary tale about being too up for trendy and edgy activities.
12.) “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones: A snake-oil salesman knows something that the locals don’t, and it’s not about the efficacy of his product. This is another of my favorites. It’s a Western with a supernatural twist.
13.) “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver: A Professor with some mobster relatives attends the funeral of one such gangster. The Professor is willed a Ming vase that he’d once admired, but ends up tangled up in the dealings between the deceased and a mysterious “spiritualist.” The spiritualist, Mr. Pigsny, is masterfully portrayed as both a quiet professional and spine-tinglingly creepy.
14.) “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley: A big, strong man and a little girl meet, and team up with, a party of four survivors in a demon-infested dystopian wasteland. Whether the odd pairing are truly allies, or, if not, what type of threat they present is not as was expected and made for a thought-provoking piece. I found this tale to be clever, and it revealed an unexpected theme.
15.) “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M. Rickert: A little girl makes enemies by cruelly dispensing with little forest creatures–fairies, perhaps. Her parents debate what they should do to stave off the wrath of their neighbors of another species. The title says it all. This is one of those stories that tactically reveal information to keep the reader wondering.
16.) “The Shallows” by John Langan: It’s not so easy for me to describe this story. There’s a lot going on. It’s what I’d call busy. The part of the story that resonated with me was about a stray dog that a family adopts only to have its (apparently-negligent) owner come and retrieve it. This was among my least favorite entries, but it was solidly written.
17.) “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska: A newly-wed man waits at Heathrow airport for the grandmother of his Polish wife. That present-day event brackets a flashback from the grandmother’s youth that helps to explain what seems like inexplicable old-world behavior. This is one of the shortest pieces, but it’s an endearing tale–even with the dark events of the flashback.
18.) “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn: This is an intense story about a family of four who go on a vacation that’s a sham. The mom and dad pretend they are taking the kids to Canada in their RV only to detour into remote parts of the Pacific Northwest. The depravity quotient of this family is high. Much of the story is brutally realistic, but there is a supernatural element with regards maps, which appear to be marked up differently to each member of the family. The maps play an important role in the unfolding of the story. This story is well-written and gripping, but, unlike the bulk of the works herein, it’s not PG-13.
19.) “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon: This is the story of a father and son living in a zombie apocalypse-ish—after the mother died. That may make this sound like one of the more derivative stories in the bunch, but the author creates a unique zombie “apocalypse.” This isn’t the dark and gritty world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Here, the zombies are more of an inconvenience—like wild animals that get into one’s garden–rather than a swarming threat to life and limb. This is both an interesting take on the sub-genre, and an intriguing commentary on humanity.
20.) “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman: A girl requires the execution of her dolls from both her brother and later her new husband. She says she cannot love them fully as long as the dolls are there taking in her love. Creepy, that’s the word for this one. It has a lower body count (of living things) than many of the stories, and yet it’s as disturbing as they come.
21.) “Interstate Love Song” by Caitlin R. Keirnan: A couple of homicidal girls pick up a hitchhiker as they ride cross-country. There are some interspersed flashbacks that show that this isn’t their first rodeo, but, still, it doesn’t go like the others. This is a page-turner.
22.) “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix: Wouldn’t it suck to die because the post-Cold War bureaucracy didn’t have institutional memory of one of its doomsday technologies—especially one that lived next door? This is one of my favorites. Besides the fear factor, this story has a dry humor that I found amusing. Like a few of the others, this story manages to make a commentary without detracting from its entertainment value.
23.) “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud: A bookstore owner / occultist who used to work for a crime boss is strong-armed back into the life. What he stumbles into is even worse than he expected, but he makes a decision that will dramatically change his life. This was also an engaging story as well as a strong entrant in the anthology.
24.) “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey: A couple of burglars badly overestimate the ease of robbing an old man and what will come of it. It starts out a bit like a creepy version of “Home Alone”–with an old man instead of an eight-year-old, but then takes a turn into territory darker than Wild Bill of “Silence of the Lambs” fame.
This is a strong collection. There are several stories that have that cinematic quality that make for gripping reading. There weren’t any pieces that I didn’t at all care for, and there were several that hooked me.
I’d recommend this collection for those who like dark fiction.