BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

CarmillaCarmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This gothic vampire novella is about 25 years older than its more famous subgenre peer, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Le Fanu’s work is not only much shorter, but is written in a more approachable style. The story takes inspiration from an event that is recorded in a book entitled “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al.” (1751.) This tract on spirits, demons, ghosts, revenants, and vampires was written by a Benedictine monk and scholar, Dom Calmet. The story in question involves a village that was said to be having a problem with nocturnal visits from vampires. Try as they might, the villagers couldn’t get this vampiric pest problem under control. A mysterious visitor from the east (usually referred to as a “Hungarian”) stopped into town and offered his services, and – as the legend went – he succeeded in eliminating the vampires. A version of this story is presented late in the novella (Ch. 13) and it’s only then that one learns how that story influences the one Le Fanu writes in “Carmilla.”

The story in “Carmilla” revolves around a young woman who serves as the first-person narrator, Laura. Laura lives out in the countryside with only her father and the household servants. She is starved for interaction with people her own age, and her only female interaction is with the help. Early in the story Laura is excited because a friend of her father’s (the General) is supposed to be coming to visit, and he will be bringing his own ward – a girl of Laura’s age. But that visit is cancelled, and we learn that the girl fell ill and passed away.

When a carriage overturns on the road in front of Laura’s father’s property, it seems that Laura will get the female companion for whom she’s been yearning. The occupants of the carriage that we know of a are an adult woman and her daughter, Carmilla. The woman is unharmed, and says she must make her way to some distant location urgently on unstated business. However, her daughter, Carmilla, is frail by nature and it’s too risky for her to make the remainder of the journey. Laura’s father, a kind man who recognizes his daughter’s loneliness, offers to host Carmilla for a time until her mother can return for her.

Carmilla’s visit starts out well enough. Everything is normal during the day. Over time, Laura recognizes some dismaying personality traits of her visitor (i.e. Carmilla is a bit elitist and narcissistic,) but Carmilla is not without her charms. The nights, however, start getting progressively stranger and more disconcerting. At first, one can’t be certain to what degree something real is transpiring. I thought Le Fanu did a fine job of capturing the hazy hypnopompic world where one isn’t quite certain what is dream and what is reality. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Laura is experiencing a real loss of vitality. Carmilla seems to be suffering similarly, but they have no basis to think this is new. Among Carmilla’s nocturnal strangeness is the fact that she’s a sleep-walker. One night she disappears and it’s thought that she might have been abducted or run away, but then she turns up none the worse for wear.

I’ll let the reader discover for him- or herself how events play out in the story.

Much has been made of the lesbian element of this story. In true Victorian nature, this isn’t at all explicit or graphic. The reader is given no reason to believe anything sexually romantic transpires. All one knows for a fact is that Carmilla is up-front about being into girls. As for Laura, all we really know is that she is comfortable with a certain degree of intimate physical contact from Carmilla that includes hugs and face touching in conjunction with comments of a vaguely suggestive nature. Laura could be a lesbian or bisexual, but she could also just be naïve and / or starved for physical contact. I don’t know enough about Le Fanu’s views to draw conclusions about any ulterior messages he may have intended. While the obvious ulterior intent is erotic, there are some who argue that the story presents an anti-lesbian message (i.e. don’t let your daughter hang out with touchy-feely friends or she’ll get “turned.”) I’m not enough of a literary historian to know whether such intent existed. Perhaps those who suggest this know enough about either Le Fanu or the literature of the time to have a sound basis. However, I don’t think one could reach that conclusion from the story alone.

I enjoyed this story. For writing from 1872, it’s readable, and – as I mentioned – I think Le Fanu does a good job of describing the supernatural elements of the story in a way that captures the surreal feel. Readers of modern vampire stories might be bored from the lack of crimson arterial spray and sundry grotesqueries, but the novella has got some other fine qualities such as how the story unfolds, i.e. how reveals are made. Not to mention, Le Fanu creates a character whose fate one cares about (rather than random redshirts stuck into the story for the express purpose of being slain.) If you liked Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or other vampire fiction, I think you’ll definitely want to give this one a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run30 Days of Night Vol. 3: Run Alice Run by Steve Niles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume picks up at the end of the vampire raid on the Los Angeles FBI offices, a raid whose primary goal is to retrieve the remains of Stella Olemaun. The vampire-savvy agent, Alice Blood, seems to be the sole survivor (more properly, only one not turned into a vampire for Eben Olemaun’s army of the undead.) The balance of the book turns Eben Olemaun’s war in a new direction, toward the European old guard. In the original book, this division is introduced between the old-world vampires who want to remain myth and quietly live out their immortal days, and the hot-headed American vampires who are eager to war and watch the world burn.

I enjoyed this volume more than the previous one, but not nearly so much as the original story. Sadly, I suspect the reason that I preferred it to the last volume is that it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that I had no time to notice that it’s often not clear why characters are doing what they’re doing (or, more damningly, that they sometimes adopt behavior that seems at odds with the character as established through his or her recent behavior.) While I seem to have leap-frogged material and may have missed an answer, I continue to be perplexed by an anomaly from the original book and that’s why Eben is so easily able to defeat any other vampire. He’s vampire superman, and it’s not clear why he should be.

As I wrote in my review of Volume 2, at this point the series doesn’t really distinguish itself among the mass of modern-day vampire stories. The original book, I felt, did build a novel concept that made it more interesting and intense than usual. The book is well-written and gruesomely drawn, but so are tons of other vampire stories. Having read three volumes, I’m over this series, but it is well constructed – if a bit Hollywood.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 2 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night Volume 230 Days of Night Volume 2 by Steve Niles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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[Note: this isn’t the Vol. 2 that follows immediately from the original book.]

I enjoyed the original three-issue “30 Days of Night” series. That book imagines a vampire attack on Barrow, Alaska during the winter when the sun does not rise for weeks. That concept of eliminating one of the vampires’ greatest vulnerabilities while putting the survivors in the demoralizing state of being hunted in the darkness and brutal cold makes for a visceral story.

While I thought this volume was written and drawn well (and quite similarly to the original – same writer, different artist) I have two gripes. First of all, I guess owing to the immense success of the franchise which resulted in many series and sub-series, it’s quite confusing to pick up the order of storytelling at this point. After reading the original book, I read Volumes 2 and 3 (sometimes labeled “Ongoing”,) thinking they would follow up on the Vol. 1 [the original] that I’d read. However, while I could follow the story, there was clearly a substantial gap in time and events. It seems like the Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 that I read (labeled “Ongoing”) were fitted together, but at least one series must fit between this Vol. 2 and the Vol. 1 that I read. Even scanning through a Wiki-page on the overall series didn’t really lend me clarity — though I had no desire or inclination to read through 30 summaries to figure out where this Vol. 2 and 3 belongs. [Especially as I don’t intend to read further as the series seems to have devolved from that gripping and unique Barrow, Alaska plot to being just another modern-day vampire story.]

So, the story of the Vol. 2 that I read is essentially Sheriff Eben Olemaun first feeding his way through a rebuilt [security super-maxed] Barrow before going to Los Angeles to do both more recruiting and turning, and then attacking the LA FBI offices in order to retrieve the remains of his wife, Stella. [My first clue of discontinuity was that at the end of the first [first] volume, Eben is dead and Stella was alive, and in this book those tables were inexplicably turned.] The other “half” of the story revolves around an FBI agent, Alice Blood, who is apparently the FBI’s star Vampire-slayer. We find out that she is the one who killed Stella, though she seems a bit broken up about it. Being the virtuous hero, Alice is also fed up with the bureaucratic moral ambiguity of her employer.

Getting around to my second gripe, it’s that this isn’t really a satisfying story arc as a standalone entity, it’s just carrying a story through. To clarify, I’m not saying it doesn’t stand alone because I’d missed who knows how much of the preceding story and didn’t understand. In that sense, I thought they actually did a great job of making clear what was going on without getting bound up in a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. What I’m saying is that this book gives one a chain of action without providing much understanding of motivation. I will grant that my not understanding the motivation in the first chapter is probably the result of not reading the immediately prior issue. However, I didn’t see much convincing motivation for anything in this volume. I saw that Eben wanted his wife’s head and torso back, but as he seems to have zero of the devoted husband and law enforcement professional left at this point and is just monstrous killing machine, it’s hard to know why he would care.

Long story short, I thought this book was alright, but not particularly satisfying and that the ordering is quite confusing. I picked up all three volumes I’ve read on Amazon Prime, so no great loss there. However, I mention that so no one else expects the Volume 1, 2, and 3 presented on Prime to present a contiguous story. Continuity issues aside, I don’t think the story still distinguishes itself from the massive number of modern-day vampire tales available today.

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BOOK REVIEW: 30 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles

30 Days of Night, Vol. 130 Days of Night, Vol. 1 by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story takes the run-of-the-mill vampire tale into more chilling territory by setting it in Barrow (a town on the northern end of Alaska that sits within the Arctic Circle) in the dead of winter when weeks pass without sunlight. The vampires, thus, figure they have a month to feed without having to hide from the light, or risk being staked to death in their sleep.

On the day of Barrow’s final sunset of the year, the Vampires send in a scout to destroy all communications – starting by stealing and burning all of the residents’ cell phones. As I thought about this after reading, it was one of several points that strained credulity, but I have to say the visceral setup these people being trapped in darkness while being hunted kept me from being too skeptical at first reading. (I don’t know what cell service is like in Barrow but it seems like eliminating a tower would be more probable means of success than steeling a huge number of individual phones. To be fair, the scout does knock out the central communication hub as well, and maybe the reader psychology of being without personal communication (a cell phone) in the world we’ve grown accustomed to makes this course more intense – if absurd.)

The vampires, literally, chew through most of the population in short order. We do get some sense of the futile resistance put up by locals – particularly the protagonist and sheriff. [I would assume in a town like Barrow everyone over six-months-old possesses at least one firearm, and that likelihood is not disregarded, which makes the inconsequential resistance more chilling.] While the pacing feels slightly fast, it does get the scenario down to a manageable few to be hiding out together in a single building. (There is another major vein of strained credulity with regards to the people hiding out while maintaining core temperature, but – again – it was engrossing enough that I wasn’t much distracted at the time.)

I give the resolution high marks for being clever and gripping, but I will say that it felt to me like it unfolded too quickly and was too easy. I suspect that that may have to do with this being a serialized story. While I will say that the story is successfully wrapped up as a stand-alone arc (no mean feat as this is often a fail in serialized graphic novels or comic books,) the one eye toward setting up the continuing story arc may have contributed to this ending’s rushed feel. (Or maybe it was too much story for the allotted pages.)

I found this to be an intense and riveting read. If you like vampire horror, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good IndiansThe Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Release: May 19, 2020

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Stephen Graham Jones’s new book shows the unfolding fate of four close friends, American Indians of the Blackfeet Nation, who seem to have run afoul of something in the spirit world. I say “seem to” because the author is skillfully strategic in how he unpacks the story and how he presents reality (blending a hard-edged reality of life for Indians on and off the Reservation with the surreal in a way in which the reader isn’t quite sure what’s real.)

This is horror, and it chills and terrifies as horror readers might hope for, but it’s not just horror. (By that I mean it’s not the gruesome elements that make the book, they just make it more visceral.) The story builds characters that one is fond of and can empathize with, and it even sneaks in a moral (which is the best way for a story to have a moral.)

We learn about the demise of the first friend, Ricky, in a prologue — an end that everyone believes resulted from Ricky getting beat to death by some modern-day cowboys outside a bar. There is a ten-year jump cut, and the first half of the book tells us about Lewis, who has moved off the reservation and is living with a pretty non-Indian woman that everybody – including Lewis – realizes is out of Lewis’s league. Lewis is increasingly losing his mind. We know that, but what we can’t be sure of is whether it’s the run-of-the-mill kind of losing one’s mind, or whether it’s the kind of crazy that is the only reasonable response to an even more insane world.

The remainder of the book tells us about Gabe and Cassidy, the two friends who’ve continued to live on the reservation and are still in close contact. Gabe, we learn, has a failed marriage that resulted in one child, a girl with prodigious talent for basketball. He’s prone to over-drinking and was issued a restraining order to keep him from going to his daughter’s ball games – an order that fails to keep him from attending but succeeds in getting him to tone down his expressions of pride and support. Cassidy is shown as the responsible one, but one is led to believe that is the recent result of a relationship with a woman, Jo, who has had a calming influence on him. Jo’s success in straightening out Cassidy creates a strain in the bro-mance between the two friends.

I don’t read much horror, but was hooked by this book. The characters are developed and interesting enough that one isn’t just waiting for the moments when the axe drops (that’s an expression, don’t expect actual axe-induced fatalities.) In between, one is enrapt with questions like whether Gabe can thaw his relation with his daughter, and whether the next generation will end up better off, worse off, or the same as that of the four friends. Throughout there’s this issue of the characters having one foot in the past (traditional Indian tribal life) and one in the modern world, and that is an uneasy and unappealing spot to be in – too little of the community and confidence of the tribe and too little of the wealth and well-being of modernity.

I highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God PanThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This speculative fiction novella mixes horror and sci-fi in a genre-bending work of intrigue. When I started the book, I was surprised to learn that it was from the last decade of the 19th century. The opening chapter, which is what I credit as science fiction, presents an argument that reality as we know it is just a veneer beyond which we cannot experience, and it’s stated not unlike what one would hear in today’s cutting-edge science and philosophical discussions. (e.g. It wasn’t greatly removed from what one might hear from Donald Hoffman, for example.) The mad scientist of the opening chapter proposes that he can, with “minor” neurosurgery [to the extent there is such a thing,] open the doors of perception to make available what lies beyond our reality. We are left to think that he has only succeeded in a lobotomization.

The rest of the book is more the Victorian Era horror that one is likely to hear the story described as. We are introduced to a series of mysteries that will gradually be tied together and related back to the book’s opening. A gentleman is approached by a beggar who – it turns out – was his classmate and should have been a well-to-do landowner, but who reported being ruined by having fallen in with the wrong woman – a not unusual story until one delves into the particulars. We further learn that a man had been found dead at this couple’s property before the woman disappeared. Later there are a series of murders that have a certain demographic of society all atwitter.

Despite the shortness of the work, it does present jumping perspectives (not within chapters, but between them.) However, it’s not hard to follow, though it’s a bit jarring when the first PoV change hits because it involves a new cast of characters and it isn’t clear how the events tie together. The reader who sticks with it will be benefited by the shift.

This book was widely panned in its day, more for its shocking sexuality than its horror elements. However, it should be pointed out that the author uses strategic ambiguity for this matter, so there is no graphic sexual content. For example, one character may whisper in another’s ear the acts of depravity, but the reader is left to fill in the blanks according to the twistedness of their own particular psyche. For readers who enjoy the freedom to fill in the blanks, this is an interesting approach – others might not like the withholding of detail.

I enjoyed this book. It’s readable, despite the era from which it came. As I said, in some sense, it’s ahead of its time. The non-linear plotting builds the up the intrigue nicely. I’d highly recommend it for readers of weird stories, horror, or speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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POEM: It Must Feed

It’s there.

Down deep

the dark deep

without at drip,

a drop,

or a peep.

Silent as a kingly tomb–

or a sleeping mother’s womb.

It sits as still as a blind mole rat–

but seething like a vampiric bat.

And if that door should open,

there is a truth unspoken.

It will go out to feed.

Spawning a terror stampede.

Gobbling, gobbling–no tasting, just killing.

No time to savor the fear it’s instilling.

It must feed.

BOOK REVIEW: Nightmares ed. by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern HorrorNightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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