Short Story Review: “A Child’s Problem” by Reggie Oliver

“A Child’s Problem” Reggie Oliver
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsReggie Oliver’s tale of a precocious young boy’s summer adventure reads like a Hammer movie with the gore reined in. What it lacks in blood and guts (“lacks,” perhaps, being the incorrect word, as the story doesn’t need the grue) it makes up in a rich atmosphere and measured, assured storytelling.

“A Child’s Problem” is one of the longest stories in A Book of Horrors, and to boil down its plot to a sentence or two would do it disservice. So I’ll give you the setup: young George is sent to live with his uncle, Augustus, on a sprawling countryside estate. The boy is more than a little bratty, and unafraid to flaunt his status in front of strangers and servants alike, but he’s also intelligent and insatiably curious. Augustus recognizes this and sends the boy off solving riddles about the estate to keep him busy, never suspecting what the boy might be able to uncover.

Oliver is a playwright, and you can feel those stylistic instincts at work in the story’s deliberate pace. It’s not all atmosphere – there are moments of pure horror punctuating the quieter beats – but it is that sense of place that Oliver is most successful at conjuring. “A Child’s Problem” takes time to warm up, but it’s time well invested.

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Short Story Review: “The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle

“The Man in the Ditch” by Lisa Tuttle
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Horrors“The Man in the Ditch” is a tense and unsettling contribution from veteran genre author Lisa Tuttle. It starts with a simple yet disturbing image: a dead body by the side of the road. Or, at least, that’s what Linzi thinks she saw. She can’t convince her husband J.D. to turn around, but the idea of it – and the fact that she saw it so close to the land where the couple is about to build a new home – shakes Linzi to her core and throws a pall over the whole day.

Linzi’s refusal to let the idea go is just another wedge in what appears to be a somewhat shaky marriage. There’s a dark secret between Linzi and J.D., a single misguided act that resulted in a large gap in their marriage. It leaves Linzi on an island, and Tuttle takes a nearly sadistic glee in ratcheting up that sense of isolation throughout the story. In her marriage, in her new home out in the country, in her inability to conceive, and in her absolute belief that something dreadful is haunting her, Linzi is alone at every turn.

This is the kind of horror story that finds true fear in the details, the subtle moments, that quiet pause before the big explosion. It’s the kind of story that stays with you. It’s the kind of story that makes collections like this so damn good.

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Short Story Review: “Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman

“Alice Through the Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsAlan and Alice are a tightly wound couple living in a nice neighborhood. Their next-door neighbors are the kind of neighbors that, once you have them, you hate to lose them. They are quiet and respectful, they keep their yard properly groomed and their conversation to the most polite levels of shallowness and brevity. It’s not hard to live next door to people like that.

Unfortunately for Alan and Alice, the neighbors are moving, and the family that takes their place is the antithesis of everything that was good about the people they’ve replaced. They are mysterious and noisy, and they quickly begin to drive Alice to distraction. She insists one night that Alan go over to intervene, and what he finds is that the people who live next door are nothing like anything they’ve ever encountered.

From that point on, these new neighbors seem hell-bent on torturing Alan and Alice. The play Christmas carols all hours of the day, sometimes the same song on an endless, maddening loop, and always at ear-busting volume. As they unpack their belongings they toss cardboard boxes and styrofoam pieces out into their yard, where it drifts into Alan and Alice’s place like snow.

The stress of the situation quickly crumbles the careful routine that Alan and Alice (and their son and dog) have always lived by. The stress causes fractures in their marriage and at Alan’s job; and the fact that the police seem to take pure joy in ignoring their complaints only worsens the situation.

Robert Shearman’s story is at times an achingly real examination of the strains and breaks that can occur in the wake of the slightest shift in a relationship, whether it’s between neighbors or between spouses. At other times it’s a surreal, nightmarish narrative with its own twisted, borderline insane logic. Are the neighbors real, or are they some sort of manifestation of the pressure that Alan and Alice feel to keep up what is clearly a facade of a partnership? Are their actions justified, or the acts of people who’d crossed the line of sanity long ago and are just now realizing it? I know what I think, but the beauty of a story like this is that you might thing something completely different, and yet we both could be absolutely right.

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Short Story Review: “Getting It Wrong” by Ramsey Campbell

“Getting It Wrong” by Ramsey Campbell
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsThis is one of those stories that immediately gets tagged with the Twilight Zone comparison because of the way it takes something ordinary and mundane and gives it a dark little twist. There are stacks of such stories to be found throughout the abundance of horror anthologies that have been published, and yet that sense of familiarity voracious horror readers are bound to feel when encountering one usually doesn’t mean the good ones aren’t still treasured.

“Getting It Wrong” is one of the good ones. Ramsey Campbell introduces us to a man named Eric Edgeworth, a self-professed cinephile with a failed video store in his rearview mirror. These days he supports himself with a job at a local cinema, where he lords his movie knowledge over the crew of much younger and far less interested employees who view him as an annoyance and little else. So, when one of them calls him up, asking that he help her answer a movie trivia question for a game show he’s never heard of, he assumes she (and the pompous sounding guy acting as the show’s host) are simply pulling a prank on him. When he’s warned that he’s only got three chances to answer a question correctly, he gleefully and deliberately gets it wrong. The fallout from his decision turns out to be terrible for his coworker and, eventually, for Eric himself.

Campbell’s story is entertaining, and could serve as an object lesson in how to efficiently set up a premise, flesh out the main characters, and bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. “Getting It Wrong” is exactly as long as it needs to be – no fluff, no filler. It’s not a classic by any means, but it is an enjoyable addition to Book of Horrors.

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Short Story Review: “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” by John Ajvide Lindqvist

“The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” by John Ajvide Lindqvist
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsA father moves himself and his son into a small house as part of his efforts to help them get over the death of his wife, the boy’s mother, lost to a car accident several months before. The boy, 11, is retreating into the world of violent video games, and the father is desperate to make a connection with him. That connection comes in the form of a piano, the only thing they have left that belonged to the boy’s mother. When the boy grudgingly agrees to take lessons, the father is relieved – until he discovers that the connection being made is not between father and son, but between the boy and something malevolent that still calls this house its home.

John Ajvide Lindqvist is the author of the novel Let the Right One In, which has been adapted twice for film (as Let the Right One In in Sweden and, in America, as Let Me In). As in that story, a palpable sense of isolation comes to life here, an isolation realized not only in the depiction of the brutal winter enveloping this small house, but in the very real season of loneliness these characters are trudging through. There’s a brief moment of hope when the father first listens to his son’s tentative plinking at the piano, but its quickly snuffed out as both of them realize the music is coming from a place deeper and darker than they can possibly understand.

Although Lindqvist’s story isn’t the most original idea in the world – it is, after all, a take on the concept of “you got a great deal on this house because something BAD happened in it” – his execution of the idea is all that matters. This story is truly scary, the kind that makes you turn on an extra light or two as you’re reading it (and, maybe, you’ll leave those lights on when you go to bed). It’s that rare piece of writing that doesn’t just present a situation in which the characters feel fear; the reader feels it too, and quite strongly. That’s the strongest compliment I can give a piece of horror fiction, making this another standout story in a collection that continues to top itself.

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Short Story Review: “Tell Me I’ll See You Again” by Dennis Etchison

“Tell Me I’ll See You Again” by Dennis Etchison
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsA young boy taps into a primal survival instinct as he tries to move beyond an unimaginable tragedy. He’s helped by a young girl, a friend, who seems to be tapping into a primal power of her own.

Dennis Etchison’s story feels more like a sketch of an idea as opposed to a full-blown narrative, but that’s actually part of its power. The spare nature of the prose adds to the story’s haunting tone. With what feels like a minimum of words, Etchison is able to portray grief and melancholy in a very real, immediate way. This is truly “quiet horror” at its finest, and the dramatic difference between this tale and some of the earlier, more visceral selections in A Book of Horrors only strengthens the collection’s overall impact.

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Short Story Review: “Roots and All” by Brian Hodge

“Roots and All” by Brian Hodge
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsWhen cousins Gina and Dylan return to their Grandma Evvie’s house after her death, they are surrounded, nearly suffocated, by an overwhelming sense of memory and mystery. This little country house out in the middle of nowhere was the scene of many summer vacations, packed in tight with all of their siblings and cousins, rambling around the woods and listening to the old woman’s stories. It was also the last place they saw Shae, Dylan’s sister, who disappeared one night and was never seen again.

Their return is a bittersweet one; not only does it dredge up their feelings over Shae, but they’re also confronted with unwelcome changes in the surrounding area. What was once home to a community of hardworking farm families is now a haven for meth labs, stinking portable trailers tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the surrounding forest. It’s especially an offensive to Dylan, who’s seen the worst humanity has to offer on several overseas tours with the military, and in his current stint as a prison guard; this place was always something of a haven for him. But, as he’s about to find out, the land has a way of looking out for its own, and those stories his grandma told about the Woodwalker have more than a hint of truth to them.

Hodge’s story is a true page-turner. There’s an immediate sense of the place Hodge is writing about, and he perfectly captures the nearly idyllic childhood days Gina and Dylan spent at Grandma Evvie’s place. The Woodwalker feels like an authentic legend, a variation of the kinds of stories we all were told as children by well-meaning adults who looked to folklore to explain the mysteries of the world, instead of sending us off to “Google it.” It’s a sad, melancholy story with a truly heartbreaking discovery at its core, and thus far I’d call it the most effective story in this collection – a real standout in a book full of them.

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Short Story Review: “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter

“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” by Angela Slatter
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

HorrorsI love stories that explore old-world traditions, bringing to light the customs and techniques that are fading fast in the technology-driven world we live in today. In “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” Angela Slatter writes about burial customs that are all but lost to us – the covered mirrors, the coffins stuffed with lavender and locked with gold clasps to make sure the dead stay buried. Those traditions are far removed from today’s sterile, brightly lit funeral homes, the polished sheen of mass-produced caskets, and the impulse to expedite the grieving process rather than embrace it.

In times past, bucking tradition was done at one’s own risk, which is part of what makes Clatter’s character Hepsibah so compelling. She’s a woman in a man’s trade, brought up in the craft of coffin building by her father, who passed his knowledge to her reluctantly after realizing he’d never have a son to teach. Hepsibah is also courting taboo by falling in love – or, at the very least, lust – with the daughter of a recent client.

Hepsibah’s infatuation with the young Lucette appears to be mutual at first – at least, until Hepsibah’s job is done. It’s then that the coffin-maker discovers Lucette’s attentions may not have been as genuine as first believed. It’s also then that young Lucette comes to discover that Hepsibah’s knowledge can be used for dual purposes – either to break the spirit’s tether to the earth, or to leave the door open for them to come back home.

“The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” is my first exposure to Angela Slatter’s work, and I truly enjoyed the way she works in the tradition of quiet, gothic horror. Succinct and atmospheric, it’s a welcome introduction to an author I hope to read more of in the future.

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Short Story Review: “Ghosts with Teeth” by Peter Crowther

“Ghosts with Teeth” by Peter Crowther
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Peter Crowther uses a technique I happen to love in penning his contribution to A Book of Horrors – he starts out at a low point for the story’s characters, and then backtracks to tell us how they got there. In this instance, we join a man named Hugh as he wakes up lying in a destroyed room of the house he shares with his wife, Angie. There’s blood on the floor, the sound of sirens is in the air, and someone is banging on the front door.

Hugh and Angie’s house is one of only 17 in the small town of Tuboise, Maine. Hugh and Angie have just returned there from a trip, and they’ve found things to be immediately off-kilter. People that were standing right there just a second ago are gone in the blink of an eye; neighbors are spotted in windows, and they appear to be screaming; and they receive a number of cryptic warnings as they make their way home, most of them boiling down to “They’re here.” Before long, Angie has disappeared and Hugh has come to realize that there’s really no one around that he can fully trust.

“Ghosts with Teeth” is filled with what I call “nightmare logic” – things shift and change with little rhyme or reason, and Hugh is the man trying to wake up and make sense of it all. The story is creepy and surreal, and Crowther layers in the tension with each passing page, leading to a startling conclusion that brings us full circle to the story’s opening pages. It’s another strong entry in a roster that is so far batting a thousand.

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Short Story Review: “Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

“Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint” by Caitlin R. Kiernan
From A Book of Horrors edited by Stephen Jones
Cemetery Dance/PS Publishing, 2012

Caitlin Kiernan’s contribution to A Book of Horrors is a creepy little tale of misdirection and hidden intentions. In it we meet Billy, a young man who picks up a cute girl hitchhiking all alone on a dark road. She says her name is Aiden, but we learn that she’s had other names in the past, like Blaise. We also learn that her past stretches back farther than even she can accurately remember – all she remembers for sure is that there has always been fire.

As the two ride the highway together, Billy begins to notice little things about Aiden, like the way she smells faintly of woodsmoke, and the way she seems to know every myth and story there is about fire. In fact, their conversation is decidedly one-sided as Aiden fills the night with a virtual monologue about all things combustible.

Through it all, Kiernan is building up a palpable sense of tension and dread until Billy (and the reader) is in desperate need of some form of release. When he suggests getting a motel room for the night, he (and, again, we the readers) might think we know what form that release is going to take, but Kiernan is too clever to take the easy route. It turns out Aiden still has more fire stories to tell – and that there is a very specific reason for her to tell them.

“Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint” is a wonderfully mysterious little story with an ending that is both surprising and satisfying. It’s the second strong entry in A Book of Horrors, which is batting a thousand so far and building up some serious momentum as we move deeper into its contents.

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