Review: ‘Dark Screams Volume Two’ edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

DS2Dark Screams Volume Two edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Hydra (March 3, 2015)

Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar continue their mission of educating new horror readers, and enthralling old genre-reading vets like myself, with this second installment of their Dark Screams anthology series. As with the first volume, the editors have picked these tales without a definitive theme in mind, giving them free reign to choose stories based solely on their ability to evoke fear. In this they have succeeded, putting together a compilation that is, on the whole, a more satisfying reading experience than it’s very good predecessor.

Volume Two opens with a classic reprint by Robert R. McCammon, “The Deep End,” a good old-fashioned monster tale the likes of which the author built his early career on. People are dying in the local public pool, and one grieving father takes it upon himself to figure out why. What follows is a textbook example of how to build a short horror story: the father investigates the mystery, discovers something that no one will believe, and finds himself as the sole person in a position to put a stop to the madness. The resulting encounter is tense and gripping, a strongly executed finale written by a master who was just finding his groove.

“Interval” has the unenviable task of following up the McCammon piece, but Norman Prentiss is more than up to the job. A plane has gone missing, and a young airline employee works through the night, walking a tricky line between offering too much or too little hope to the exhausted family members waiting at the airport for news. There’s a man there who at first seems to be helping, offering comfort to those who are grieving, but something about him seems…off. Prentiss makes his reveal at just the right moment, transforming the story from a straightforward account of the unique hell that is waiting for bad news into a surreal, effective nightmare.

“If These Walls Could Talk” by Shawntelle Madison was frustrating in one way, because it featured a horror heroine making a classic horror heroine mistake – not suspecting the one person she should suspect of causing the trouble around her. That issue aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” that contains some genuinely creepy moments.

“The Night Hider” by Graham Masterton is a dark brother to another classic tale: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. In fact, just as I was making that connection in my mind, Masterton pulls Lewis and his beloved novel directly into the story. There’s a wardrobe, yes, but instead of leading the way to a magical kingdom, it serves as the hiding place for a man; a dark, burned man with revenge on his mind. Masterton’s brutal shocker is my favorite story out of this collection.

Richard Christian Matheson closes out Dark Screams Volume Two with “Whatever,” which chronicles the rise and fall of an American rock ‘n roll sensation. Matheson tells their story (which, while not exactly horror, is – like the story of many musicians – a tragedy) in disjointed fashion, spelling out events in snippets of conversation, memos, a reporter’s notes, song lyrics and interviews. It’s a difficult technique to pull off but Matheson makes it work, mixing up voices and writing styles to great effect. Technique without story is just empty showmanship, but Matheson’s story has a strong backbone: the familiar-yet-engaging story of a rock band trying to make more than some memorable party anthems, and the many ways in which success and scrutiny can rip the tightest bonds apart. It’s not scary, but somehow it works, and it makes for a fine closer for this collection.

Freeman and Chizmar continue to showcase the versatility of horror with their Dark Screams series. I believe the duo have three more volumes in the works, but I’m already hoping the project continues after those are done.

A Halloween Treat from Kealan Patrick Burke

DeadLeavesKealan Patrick Burke is a favorite here in October Country, an extremely talented (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) writer who combines a keen eye for detail and atmosphere with an innate understanding of the importance of the human element in horror fiction. He’s got a deep catalog of stuff out there, but if I had to recommend my favorites I’d include his update/overhaul of the hillbilly slasher genre, Kin, as well as his excellent Timmy Quinn series: The Turtle Boy, The Hides, Vessels, Peregrine’s Tale and Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn).

Those are all longer works, and they’re all excellent, but Burke’s greatest strength as a writer may be his short story work. So it’s great news indeed that Burke has made a collection of his Halloween-flavored short stories, Dead Leaves: 8 Tales from the Witching Season, available for free from Smashwords through November 1. In addition to stories like “Carve the Pumpkins,” “Tonight the Moon Is Ours” and “The Tradition,” he’s included a list of his favorite books and movies for the Halloween season and a new introduction.

I’ve followed Burke’s writing from the beginning, and I can tell you that this collection is worth a whole helluva lot more than the “nothing” that he’s charging, so please take advantage and check it out. I think  you’ll discover, as I did several years ago the first time I cracked open my copy of The Turtle Boy, that this is an author worth reading.

Review: ‘Dark Discoveries’ #26 – ‘The Weird West’

DD26CoverDark Discoveries #26
Winter 2014

Dark Discoveries magazine has put out some great themed issues during its 10-year run, with topics including “Comics and Pulp” (#16), “Extreme Horror” (#19) and “Horror and Rock” (#22). The latest issue continues this trend with one of my personal favorite genre mashups, the “Weird Western.”

A quick glance at the cover, which boasts names like Gary Braunbeck, Norman Partridge and Quentin Tarantino, told me there was going to plenty for me to like inside. Braunbeck’s story, “Ungrateful Places,” turned out to be the highlight for me. It’s the story of a boy named Edward, a social outcast who leaves his
village and becomes a war hero. When he returns, savaged by injuries that cost him his face, he almost immediately settles back into his role as the village nobody. It isn’t long before he begins seeing ghosts of gravely wounded soldiers, and soon he has a choice to make – let others feel the pain he’s felt, or sacrifice himself once again to spare those around him. Braunbeck proves again he is one of the best at wringing pure, real emotion from words on a page, and this story reminds me all over again that we just don’t get enough new work from him.

Partridge is another one of my favorite writers, and he brings his uniquely gritty vision to Dark Discoveries with “Fever Springs,” a rousing werewolf tale that involves a greedy, amoral banker, a band of bank robbers, and a bloodthirsty shapeshifter.

Tarantino’s involvement comes in the form of an interview about his recent film Django Unchained, and while it’s not exactly timely it’s an interesting chat with the always engaging filmmaker.

The issue is rounded out by stories from Hank Schwaeble and David Liss, several nonfiction pieces, and a lengthy article by Stephen King expert Rocky Wood examining King’s use of Old West imagery that not only hits the obvious notes (The Dark Tower, The Regulators) but touches on some little-known nuggets like George D X McArdle, a humorous western novel King began and abandoned in the 1980s.

It’s a solid issue overall, and worth noting that it marks the end of Dark Discoveries founder James Beach’s role as editor-in-chief. Beach has poured a lot of love and sweat (and, no doubt, a lot of money) into the magazine over the years, shaping it into a respected title of consistent quality. He’s managed to feature some of the genre’s heaviest hitters over the years, but always made room for new voices. When I was first dipping my toes into the genre journalism waters years ago he gave me the opportunity to interview a couple of writers, Jon Merz (#4) and Joe Hill (#11), and even published a contest-winning short story of mine, “Pun’kin,” back in issue number 17. So perhaps I’m a little bit biased when I say “Job well done, James.” But I said it anyway. And while Beach is leaving the day-to-day duties behind he’s promised to remain involved, and is leaving the magazine in good hands with JournalStone Publishing and new editor-in-chief Aaron J. French.

So, here’s to another fine issue of Dark Discoveries, and to whatever they bring us next.

Short Story Review: “Wolverton Station” by Joe Hill

WolvertonI’ve never traveled abroad, but I think I’d be able to relate somewhat to Saunders, the main character of Joe Hill‘s short story “Wolverton Station.” He’s in a strange place, unsure of some of the things he’s seeing, and getting more overwhelmed by the minute. Of course, I imagine my feelings would stem from things like the strange food or the language barrier rather than, you know, wolves who walk upright, wear business suits and casually slaughter my fellow passengers.

Hill’s story, previously published in the 2011 Subterranean Press anthology Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy and recently released as an ebook single, mixes a little Twilight Zone with a little Tales From the Darkside and a substantial dash of
sociopolitical commentary to produce a solid if unspectacular horror tale. Saunders is an executive for a restaurant chain that specializes in coffee, and he’s come to England to oversee the chain’s first steps in expansion. This means finding locations that are near mom ‘n pop type operations and crowding his way into the market. Saunders makes no bones about his methods, and Hill does little to try and paint the man in a sympathetic light. So really, it’s no big deal when a wolf in a nice suit sits next to him on the train – we’re pretty sure Saunders is going to die, and we really don’t care.

Hey, not all horror stories have to be about the hero that gets away – sometimes they can be about the scumbag who gets what he deserves. Saunders is the kind of guy who went to a monastary and came away with the revelation that a burger joint across the street would have made a killing. While he’s adept at making great business decisions he’s made some poor life choices in his time, and he makes a couple here that seal his fate.

“Wolverton Station” is a minor note in Hill’s overall (brilliant) catalog, a fun, quick piece that would be right at home in a pulp magazine. It doesn’t hold a candle to the stories in his collection 20th Century Ghosts, his novels, or his work on the series Locke and Key, but for a buck it’s definitely worth a download and a half hour of your time.

Short Story Review: “The Wooden Box” by Steven Lloyd

TheWoodenBox-6Steven Lloyd dedicates this story to Ronald Kelly and Joe R. Lansdale, authors with two of the more distinctive voices you’ll find in contemporary fiction today. It’s clear their influence is strong as Lloyd attempts to emulate them throughout “The Wooden Box.” While he perhaps falls a bit short, you can’t blame him for aiming high, and his attempts do result in an entertaining if familiar tale.

Mack Grainy lives a hardscrabble life on his farm with his wife, Nora. Nora is sick – very sick, in fact; Mack is building her coffin when the story opens. She’s nearing the end of a long bout with cancer, and she’s asked her husband to do one final act of kindness for her. As Mack prepares to carry out her wishes, he reflects on their relationship and looks ahead to a life without her, a new reality he’s not sure he’s ready to confront.

In “The Wooden Box,” Lloyd has penned a bleak tale punctuated with moments of sweetness. Death hangs heavy over the story, and the author does a good job of detailing the last quiet hours of the couple. There’s a stumble here or there as he tries a little too hard to evoke the particular rhythms of Landale and Kelly, but when he steps back from that the story works, and is definitely worth a read.

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.

More reviews from A Book of Horrors

*A little background on Short Story Reviews, and why I’m doing them this way*

Short Story Review: “Afterlife” by Stephen King

“Afterlife” by Stephen King
Tin House
Summer 2013

TinHouseSummer2013To the Constant Readers among you, “Afterlife” is probably old news. King read the short story during his appearance at UMass Lowell in December 2012; over 3,000 people heard it that night, and the rest of us heard it almost immediately after thanks to YouTube. Still, there’s a difference between hearing new King and reading it, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who was happy to hear the story would be printed in the summer 2013 edition of Tin House.

“Afterlife” introduces William Andrews, a man who appears to have led a life as ordinary and vanilla as his name, at the moment of his death. There’s a white light, yes, and just enough time for Andrews to muse on the origin of that light. He’s been preparing for his death for a while, doing a little light reading on how that light might be the brain’s reaction to the sudden loss of oxygen, or perhaps its final, desperate scramble to compute what death is doing to its host body. As he’s considering all of this, the light fades from his vision, and Andrews finds himself staring at what comes next – a long hallway, a bulletin board covered with pictures from a company picnic, and an office door with the name “Isaac Harris” on it.

In this particular King story, “what comes next” isn’t filled with angels or demons, gold-paved paradises or smoke-choked hells. Instead you get a dreary office and one of King’s classic blue-collar types: the overworked, underpaid stiff who has to eke his way through a literally endless workday. You also get doors (a King staple, as any Constant Reader worth his salt will tell you) and decisions.

The basic conceit behind “Afterlife” reminded me a little of the waiting room scene in Beetlejuice, and the story has even more in common with the Dark Tower series than its use of doors as time- and dimension-travelling devices. All of that is up to the reader to discern, so I won’t delve too deep into it here. Suffice to say that “Afterlife” finds King exploring the themes that interest him in a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing manner. I don’t know that this particular story will ever rate among the essential pieces of King’s work – in fact, I’m pretty sure it won’t – but I do know that such an opinion won’t stop Constant Readers from seeking it out. I’d recommend you do so now…just in case you don’t get another chance to, somewhere down the line.