Review: ‘Sing Me Your Scars’ by Damien Angelica Walters

ScarsSing Me Your Scars by Damien Angelica Walters
Apex Publications (March 9, 2015)

Sing Me Your Scars is a gripping collection of short stories that provides a number of deeply-felt chills without relying on the crutches of common horror clichés and tropes.

In this mix of new and previously published fiction, Damien Angelica Walters focuses less on the boogeymen in the shadows and more on inner demons like doubt, insecurity, and dependance. Don’t get me wrong – this is no mundane collection of inner monologues; we’ve got a snake-headed woman you might recognize from Mythology 101, and a robot model of Henry VIII that lives with a stripper, and women who can sing buildings into existence, and many more such wondrous creations. But every single story,
now matter how outlandish the window dressing may seem, is grounded in the
very real foibles and frailties of human existence.

There are a number of standouts in Sing Me Your Scars. Among them is the title story, a fresh take on the Frankenstein story in which each “contributor” maintains a voice in the increasingly crowded headspace of Victoria, the mad doctor’s tragic creation. “Melancholia” is another strong entry; in it, a woman watches her mother slowly unravel due to Alzheimer’s, tragically unable to see the very real magic her mother is leaving behind. “Scarred” sees a woman with those fabled voices in her head, urging her to cause pain to people around here; when she cuts herself, her hate is manifested as a dangerous, physical thing, but she only uses it on those who deserve…at least, those who the voices say deserve it.

Walters is not afraid to play around with established storytelling techniques, but throughout her experimentation she never loses control of the story itself. There’s nothing here that can be reduced to pure gimmickry – when she does try something out of the ordinary, it’s with a very real and specific purpose.

Sing Me Your Scars is the third entry in Apex’s “Voices” series, their attempt to spotlight new and exciting storytellers. As with the previous entries (Douglas F. Warrick and Maurice Broaddus), Apex proves they have a great eye (and ear) for talent. Walters is a writer that seems prepared to be around for the long haul, and horror fiction as a whole is likely to benefit greatly from her talents.

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.

King, O’Nan combine to make a scary ‘Face’

Stephen King isn’t publishing a new novel this fall, but Constant Readers have had plenty of material to occupy them as of late. One of his most recent releases is this second collaboration with Stewart O’ Nan (co-writer of Faithful), the digital-only short story “A Face in the Crowd.”

“Face” introduces us to Dean Evers, a typical King character if there ever was one. He’s a displaced Red Sox fan, living in Florida and grudgingly pulling for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His wife died months ago after a second stroke, and since then Evers has been floating through a lonely existence, waiting around for something to happen.

“Something” comes in the form of his childhood dentist, a man long dead who appears one night on Evers’ television during a Devil Rays game. There the man sits, looking exactly as he did when Evers knew him decades earlier. That’s bad, but not as bad as the next person Evers sees in the stands, a young boy Evers went to school with. A young boy who would be an old man now, had he lived. A young boy who points at Evers from his seat behind home plate as though he can see him through the television screen and mouths ominous words at him.

That’s bad. And it’s only the beginning.

King and O’Nan have combined seamlessly to produce a Twilight Zone-ish tale of regret. Evers seems likeable enough at first, but as more and more phantoms begin popping up at Tropicana Field a lifetime of selfishness comes to the surface, forever changing our perception of the man as well as his perception of himself. Most will spot the ending from a mile away, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the path the authors take to get us there.

While not as creepy as King’s recent “The Little Green God of Agony” or as visceral as “In the Tall Grass,” his twopart collaboration with son Joe Hill, “A Face in the Crowd” is an enjoyable diversion, a little something else to tide us over until the next short story or novel appears.

Review: ‘Mile 81’ by Stephen King

In Mile 81, Stephen King’s latest digital-only release, a muck-encrusted station wagon parks in an abandoned rest area along a busy stretch of Maine interstate and commences to eat anyone foolish enough to get too close. It’s a simple premise, the basic idea of which harkens back to his novels Christine and From A Buick 8, and the execution of which recalls his short stories from the Night Shift and Skeleton Crew days – the ones he used to call “one-reel horror movies.” It gives him a chance to cut loose on some good, gory descriptions (“He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel’s chicken wings.”), and to pack plenty of his trademark character building into a compact but powerful space.

Above all, Mile 81 is just a fun read. It’s clear that King had a good time writing it, and most of his fans are going to have a good time reading it. It’s also an excellent vehicle in which to deliver a preview of his upcoming novel 11/22/63, but I skipped that. We’ve got too long to wait for me to start reading that now, and I’m already impatient for it. In the meantime, if you haven’t already downloaded this new morsel, go ahead – it’s worth the price of admission and then some.

Cemetery Dance opens eBooks store

'Shades' by Brian Keene and Geoff Cooper is just one of the hard-to-find titles now available through the Cemetery Dance eBooks store.

Small press publisher Cemetery Dance joined the digital publishing party in a big way this week, debuting their own eBooks store with 20 hard-to-find titles on display and many more coming.

CD is in a unique position to make this move a successful one because of the high quality of their back catalog. They’ve worked with virtually every heavy hitter in the horror industry, from Stephen King to Peter Straub to Jack Ketchum to Brian Keene. They’re established enough in the marketplace that their digital line complements their main business, which is quality crafted limited editions, instead of replacing it. And, they have a lot of exclusive material which isn’t already available at a cheaper price point somewhere else.

For example, one of the books now available (in multiple formats, including for Nooks and Kindles) is Shades, the long-out-of-print collaboration between Keene and Geoff Cooper. The original hardcover incarnation is difficult to find, and someone who simply wants to read it would likely pay more than the digital price of $7.99 to get their hands on one. For collectors, the hardcover is still out there; for readers and more casual fans, it’s available for perhaps the first time ever.

I think this move is a great one for CD, and although I’ll be a proponent of the good old-fashioned physical book for the rest of my life, I can’t deny the new possibilities digital publishing is opening up. For authors, it offers exposure to a new audience that can’t risk $40 or more for an unknown quantity, but may be willing to part with less than $10 to give something new a try. More readers = more revenue = better likelihood that we’ll see more work from those writers.

It’s good for CD because it brings them new customers and more exposure, yet it doesn’t hurt their core audience, which buys books as collectibles. In fact, I’m betting that many CD customers will buy the physical book as a collectible, and the electronic version to read so they don’t have to take the collectible out of its shrinkwrap.

Finally, it’s good for readers. We get new, affordable editions of books that we otherwise may not get to read; we get the opportunity to discover new authors while risking less cash; and we still have access to CD’s physical books with their great aesthetic values.

It’s also a (small) victory for Amazon, as this looks like the final push I needed to jump on the Kindle bandwagon. After all, it’s my duty as someone who writes about books to stay on top of these things, right? Works for me….