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.

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.

Short Story Review: “Invisible” by Nancy Kilpatrick

“Invisible” by Nancy Kilpatrick
From The Devil’s Coattails edited by Jason Brock and William F. Nolan
Cycatrix Press, 2011

CoattailsHorror stories are more often than not filled with things unseen. Ghosts, the past, regrets, the threat just around the corner – these are things with no tangible presence, yet they can have a very tangible effect on people.

In “Invisible,” Nancy Kilpatrick examines the ways we find to make the people around us disappear, reducing them to an intangible presence in the hopes of minimizing their impact on us. Sometimes it’s someone considered “beneath us,” a person performing some menial task for us like bringing our food to the table and refilling our coffee cup. Other times it’s someone who needs – or needed – our help.

“Invisible” is also a story about the staggering weight of grief and loss, two other things we might wish we could make disappear. Perhaps we can deny it attention, just as we look away from some people, but these  are things that won’t be denied. Grief and loss have a way of weighing you down whether you acknowledge it or not.

“Invisible” is a quiet, contemplative piece. Kilpatrick teases us through the story with a mounting sense of dread that builds to a subdued but effective payoff. It’s easily one of the most memorable and effective stories in this collection.

More reviews from The Devil’s Coattails.

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

Short Story Review: “Attitude Adjustment” by C.L. Gordon

AAReality television is rarely about reality as it exists now – it’s more often about reality as we want it to exist. You’d think that such concepts would be reserved for the fictional shows, but no, someone, somewhere figured out a way to sell the viewing public content that is just as idealized even thought it is supposedly “real.” And the public loves it, just laps it up.

Thus you have shows on which overweight people lose large amounts of weight in seemingly unhealthy amounts of time; on which people win ungodly sums of money through manipulation, deceitfulness, and their mastery of over-sized obstacle courses in remote locations; in which people pretend to invite you into their lives for a peek at what it’s “really like” to be a redneck or a fashion designer or a movie star, even though “real life” doesn’t involve a handful of producers helping you make day-to-day decisions.

How far will the trend go? How much are people willing to alter their lives via made-for-tv shortcuts in the hopes of getting the kind of life they’ve always dreamed of? We’ve gone a long way down that rabbit hole, but according to C.L. Gordon, there’s plenty of room left on the downward slide.

In Gordon’s short story “Attitude Adjustment,” we’re brought on the set of a show called “Radical Makeover: Attitude Adjustment.” Participants on the show have agreed to a new neurological procedure to help them deal with the issues that they don’t have the ability – or the patience – to deal with through more traditional means. Thus, after a quick operation, the inhibited recluse becomes an impulsive hellion, the over-giver becomes the embodiment of selfishness, and so on and so on. On a set, and in a world, like this, who can be trusted?

It’s a good idea, one that I wish Gordon had delved into a little deeper. This is a short piece of writing, and really only takes a broad swipe at the concepts the author introduces. This is the kind of subject matter in which the more you know about the characters getting these procedures, the more engaged and invested you’ll be. In the short amount of space Gordon gives this story, we don’t really get full characters, just quick sketches. There’s also a little twist at the end, something which I generally enjoy but felt a little out of place here.

To say much more is to give too much away, and I don’t want to to that. “Attitude Adjustment” is enjoyable enough, but it really opened up a lot of questions that I’d like to see explored more fully. Perhaps this is a subject the author will return to at another time. In the meantime, if you’ve got a tiny hole in your reading schedule and ninety-nine cents to kill, you could do worse.