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.

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

e_chizmar01Random House chose wisely in selecting Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar to edit their new horror anthology series, Dark Screams. Chizmar, as many of you who regularly stop by October Country already know, is the founder of Cemetery Dance, one of the horror genre’s premier publishers, and Freeman is an integral part of that self-same company. Their work with Cemetery Dance has put Chizmar and Freeman squarely in the path of the genre’s biggest names and brightest up-and-coming talents. Who better to put together a lineup of stories that will educate readers new to horror on its vast potential, while still appealing to those who’ve waded deep into the genre’s depths?

To be honest, this first volume of stories is likely going to appeal more to those who don’t already have a bookshelf full of the scary stuff. Experienced horror readers may find that these stories tread some overly familiar paths in terms of the twists and surprises they have in store. On the other hand, Dark Screams Volume One could serve as a fantastic gateway drug to introduce those who aren’t overly familiar with dark fiction to that which they have been missing.

Who better to kick off a new horror anthology than Stephen King? “Weeds” is a story many people will be familiar with thanks to the movie Creepshow, which used this story as the basis for the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” You know the one – it features King as a cartoonish buffoon who falls afoul of a meteor that lands on his farmland. But few will have read this version – it’s never been included in one of King’s short story collections. The movie version sticks fairly close to the original prose, although poor Jordy is not quite as inept as King portrayed him in the movie. It’s definitely reminiscent of King’s Night Shift-era work, and would have been right at home in that collection.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelley Armstrong reunites two old friends, Kara and Ingrid, who share a troubled past. Ingrid’s devotion to Kara has proved uncomfortably strong in the past, and Kara has found herself in a number of difficult situations as a result. When Ingrid shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Kara decides it’s time to take a stand. The story twists in on itself from there, and you’ll probably make at least one wrong assumption about where things are headed before all is said and done.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” features as unreliable narrator as you’re likely to find: Edward James Tolliver, currently residing in an asylum after murdering his wife. Tolliver is keeping a journal at the encouragement of his therapist, and Pronzini structures Tolliver’s entries so that we get a real sense of the hopelessness and paranoia closing in on the man. Tolliver believes that something invaded and possessed his wife, and that was what he was trying to kill – and whatever that entity was, he believes something similar has followed him into the institution. Is he crazy, or is he right? Pronzini does a great job of keeping both his characters and his readers off-balance throughout the story.

“Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark is the most brutal offering here, a visceral tale that provides plenty in the way of action but little in the way of answers. A man wakes up in a subterranean tunnel, and he’s chained by the neck to another man. His chain-mate wakes up in a nasty mood, and begins brutally murdering people who have been chained to the walls of the tunnel. From that simple, unsettling premise Clark spins a violent and unpleasant tale that’s probably going to divide readers right down the middle because of its ambiguity.

Ramsey Campbell wraps the volume of tales up with “The Watched,” a quiet tale that’s surreal and unsettling. A young boy, Jimmy, is recruited by a former policeman to keep an eye on the neighbors. Jimmy is afraid to spy, and he’s afraid not to, and even when the cop is involved in an accident the young boy can find no relief. Although the policeman couldn’t still be at their meeting spot, something is there…and as Jimmy watches, that something seems to be moving closer.

This is a solid collection of quick reads, a nice selection of appetizers that represent the horror genre and many of its incarnations well.

Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘More Than Midnight’ by Brian James Freeman

MidnightBrian James Freeman is one of those writers that someone, some day, is going to call an “overnight success,” completely ignorant of the fact that the guy has been pounding a keyboard for years, honing his craft and developing his voice the way all good writers do.

I say this because Freeman’s 2010 novella The Painted Darkness brought him all kinds of attention, and he seems poised to be one of those “next big things.” That’s what happens when guys like Richard Matheson and David Morrell rave about your stuff – people start looking to see what you’re going to do next. What Freeman has done is offer us a peek at the earlier stages of his career with More Than Midnight, a collection of five previously-published short stories now available from Cemetery Dance. While the stories themselves may not be as transcendent as The Painted Darkness, they’re full of the kind of pulpy goodness that we just don’t get enough of these days.

Take, for example, “Pulled Into Darkness,” my personal favorite of the collection. Freeman gives us the classic setup of a stalk-n-slash movie: A man and his young daughter in an isolated house on a stormy night. On the television, news of a riot at a nearby mental health facility, the very same facility where the man’s wife (the daughter’s mother) has been locked up for allegedly trying to kill her family. Now she’s on the loose, leaving a trail of bodies behind her…and the power just went out…

Think you know where it’s going? Think again. Freeman takes the obvious conclusion and deftly twists it on its head. Granted, seasoned readers of horror fiction will likely spot the twist coming, but by giving us two possible scenarios Freeman keeps us guessing right up to the last page.

You get the sense that Freeman was having a ball writing these, telling his own little campfire tales and hoping they’d find an audience. His enjoyment is infectious – just try reading the scene in “Among Us” when the mysterious bosses of a giant law firm begin undressing and intoning “Join Us!” in front of a batch of newly-minted partners without relishing the realization that things are about to go bad for someone. These stories are full of little moments like that, and if you’re like me you’ll enjoy every one.

I have one suggestion for those able to snag a copy – don’t read these stories in the order they are presented in the book. Take a look instead at the copyright page and read them in the order they were originally published. What you’ll get is a glimpse of a young writer gleefully playing with everything the genre has to offer while laying the foundation for what’s likely to be a highly successful career.

I can’t let the review end without giving a tip of the hat to the illustrations of Glenn Chadbourne, whose insanely detailed black-and-white drawings serve as the perfect punctuation marks at the end of these stories. Top it all off with a mesmerizing cover by Vincent Chong and you’ve got a total package that’s well worth hunting up.

Essential October Reads: Brian James Freeman

It’s become an annual tradition here in October Country to share my Essential October Reads, those works that best capture the essence of the Halloween season for me. This year I’ve asked some of my favorite authors to share their own Essential October Reads with us. 

Today we’re joined by author/editor/publisher Brian James Freeman with a look at a haunting tale of loss that he says is perfect for the season.

When I’m asked about Halloween books every October, The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan is the first title that comes to mind, probably because it’s the one book I will read each and every year.

Stewart O’Nan is one of the best writers working today. From his first collection (In The Walled City) and his first novel (Snow Angels), I was hooked. He’s successful with everything he decides to write including non-fiction (such as The Circus Fire or Faithful, co-written with Stephen King), a novel in stories (Everyday People), and even a novel written in the super tricky second person (the terrific A Prayer for the Dying).

The Night Country could be his most powerful book to date.

From the opening lines (“Come, do you hear it? The wind–murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees.”), this is a book that’s both lyrically written and a real page turner.

I don’t want to get into the plot too much, but The Night Country is a story about death and life after death — both for the dead and for the living. This book is about people who are haunted by their pasts, both literally and figuratively.

This is a book about ghosts and broken dreams and people trying to put the pieces back together after a tragedy.

The story is poignant, evocative, powerful, touching, and chilling.

It’s not a happy read, but it’s an important one.

I highly recommend you give The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan a try this Halloween, or anytime you’re in the mood for a dark, carefully crafted novel that blurs the line between literary and genre.

Brian James Freeman may be one of the busiest men on earth. In addition to his many duties at Cemetery Dance Publications (including working as the managing editor of Cemetery Dance magazine), he’s the owner of Lonely Road Books and a prolific writer to boot. His latest novella is The Painted Darknessand he’s just published a short story (“Monster Night”) as part of Cemetery Dance’s “13 Days of Halloween” eBook celebration.

More Essential October Reads

Random Link Roundup: Tim Lebbon joins with Hammer, Abarat excerpt, and more

I’ve got another assortment of links and tidbits for you today, so let’s jump right into it.

Tim Lebbon is one of those authors that’s an automatic buy for me. He’s published in a variety of genres, from horror to fantasy to YA/adventure, but all of his works showcase a rich imagination and great character building. He’s just announced on his blog that he’s returning to his horror roots with Coldbrook, a new apocalyptic zombie novel that promises “the end of this world…and others.” It’s being releaseded by the new Hammer Films  publishing imprint, and I can’t imagine a better place for it. The book is set for a March 2012 release.

Much closer to release is Clive Barker’s Abarat: Absolute Midnight, the third volume in the series I’ve been discussing quite a bit around here lately. HarperCollins has made a massive new excerpt of the book available online – as in 150 pages massive. If you can’t wait for September 27, you can check out the excerpt to tide you over.

Finally, I’ve got a new article up at FEARnet about author Tom Piccirilli – if that name doesn’t ring a bell, check out the article and find out why it should. You should also check out the new blog of Brian James Freeman, author of The Painted Darkness and Blue November Storms and editor/marketing guru over at Cemetery Dance, has started a new blog. He’s promising lots of behind-the-scenes peeks at his own writing process, publishing projects at CD and his own imprint Lonely Road Books, so it should be well worth frequent visits.