“The Chamber” is the first story in this collection and is about Karl, someone who has done bad things but he’s trying to make amends. He was a Nazi in a concentration camp and says he was just following orders, but what he did continues to sicken him. There are corpses who come back to life, but the larger threat seems to be the fact that Karl’s post-traumatic stress disorder makes him unable to tell the past from the present, which has dire consequences for his family.
“Valerie’s Window” starts off with a girl, Valerie, who is scared of a nearby monster, trying not to be seen by it. Someone called Jasper has kept her as a sort of prisoner for some time under the guise of ‘protecting’ her and still has the nightmares that remind her of how she ended up here, abducted, in the first place–sadly, she’s not the only one who this has happened to. To say that this piece is full of despair and misery would be an understatement.
“A Window to Dream by” involves a guy, Seth, who finds himself attracted to a possibly Cthulu-inspired squid-woman of some kind in spite of the fact that he’s married and ends up being a tale of sexual obsession while “Each New Day Unknown” follows a scientific experiment mixed with some black magic gone haywire. Next up, “Under a Drift of Snows Lies Another World” revolves around a widowed man coming to grips with the loss of his wife, Claire, and recounting their far-from-perfect marriage with a twist.
“Blackbird’s Breath” has echoes of the previous story, also dealing with couples and loss of a wife, with a splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell Tale Heart thrown in for good measure. Anne loved birds but Henry doesn’t share her sentiments. At one point, he has to tend to an injured bird and all I will say is that for readers who have difficulties with animal cruelty, it’s going to be a hard one to take for them so they may wish to pass it over in favour of another tale.
“Desolate” continues the theme of discordant family relations and has shades of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle. Next up, “Lost in the Woods,” as the title suggests, follows a protagonist, Allie, who is on a particular wooded path that we know from the outset is not going to lead to anywhere particularly good. The theme of familial loss is also a strong undercurrent in this piece, and explores the age-old notion of what if we could bring our loved ones back from the dead.
And if you thought that was dark, “Final Breaths” makes things even darker, this time dealing with the mother’s pain at the loss of a child. If that topic is a trigger warning for you, as well, this story is not going to be an easy one to get through. Needless to say, it’s one of the more disturbing pieces of the collection.
“Closer” is about a guy named Travis who is out hunting even though it has never particularly appealed to him in contrast to his father, who pretty much lives for the thrill of the hunt. The story, however, focuses more on their strained relationship and how despite the fact that Travis’s father has been less than kind to him, Travis is still desperate for the old man’s affection and approval.
The impact of the ending had resonance, but what followed immediately after was a little bit on the confusing side as there seemed to be a logistical issue. Still, like most of the stories in this collection, “Closer” is short, punchy, to the point, and delivers a sharp impact in a big way.
Along with frayed family relationships as one of the dominant themes in this collection, birds are another big one. This is something that continues in the story “Flocking Birds,” which is about Chad, who is at the dinner table with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Angie. Jane is quite keen on taking issue with everything Angie does, so this seems to set up a tale of mother-daughter conflict. It turns out that Angie has had a past issue with posting nude photos online, the cause of which seems to stem from her insecurities about her physical appearance and wondering if she’s pretty.
The metaphor here appears to be that while Chad constantly refers to worrying about birds outside, he is referring to his wife and daughter. The imagery that shows Angie’s bony body and implications that she might be anorexic are also bird-like to drive home the theme. While this story had a good build and an inevitable ending that seemed projected, it ended too soon and felt like there needed to be more build-up to the eventual conclusion.
“Pirouette” is another tale of domestic abuse, this time from the point of view of young Maddie, who does ballet as a coping mechanism for the awful arguments her parents have while “Of Both Worlds” seems to follow a mythological creature like the Minotaur or Grendel who can’t go out into the sun anymore. We learn through them that once upon a time there was a boy called Rylak who was a ‘malformed freak’ according to one of the humans who has invaded his lair. He has no choice but to reveal himself to them, and as you might guess, it doesn’t end well. It’s a fair attempt at trying to establish sympathy for why the monster becomes a monster.
“Breathing Cave” seems to explore some of the same territory as the previous story with a different group of teenagers in a cave. Soon, the main girl in the story is alone in the dark cave, her friends having disappeared, and the question becomes if she will survive, but of course, tales like this one never end well.
“Soul Tapped” follows an older protagonist, Henry, who reminisces about a son he has never met while he is being pursued by unruly teenagers. He’s something of an unreliable narrator, and when he finds his way back to the retirement home where he lives, there’s some trouble with another one of the residents. When the nurse comes by to check on him, Henry tells her that he thinks he has witnesses a ghost stealing the soul of one of the more overweight residents, but in the moment, it seems as though Henry may have been the one attacking this guy. I knew there was an elaborate setup for some twist and when it came at it at the end, it struck me as a tad underwhelming. Still, the story elements were interesting.
“The Water People” is about Chandler, whose wife has just left him. He speaks of having dedicated much of his life to research about ‘the water people’ near Chesapeake Bay and how he saw one when he was five years old. His wife finds out the hard way that she should have trusted him more.
“Water Snake” follows Sawyer, who is fishing, but he’s faced with several water snakes hurrying towards him. It’s a struggle for survival and how just when you think an experience is over, it can come back for you despite your best efforts.
“Buried Beneath the Old Chicago Swamps” continues the other dominant theme in this collection, which is that of creature features–stories about squid-like or reptilian creatures and monsters. This time around we follow the mishaps of a group of children who seem to have stumbled upon a witch’s house, but they also speak of “not having seen the Earth’s surface until last year, so their memories and knowledge may not be so reliable. It seems to be a post-apocalyptic tale set after some great calamity has beset the Earth and turns into a creature feature with the children’s survival becoming the question mark and follows an interesting path.
One of the other things I noticed about the collection is that it has been organized in such a way that stories with similar elements are grouped together. Thus, “The Bad Men” is another tale of post-apocalyptic suggestions, this time about a guy, Roger, who left Earth when in his early twenties, and is more of a sci-fi horror fusion.
“Parasite” is about Aiden, whose brother Neil has a habit of crying wolf, but when Aiden’s ex-fiancee, Jasmine (who, incidentally, appears to have been unfaithful to Aiden) gets involved, they have to make sure he’s okay, but of course, it’s far from okay. He’s been infected with some kind of alien life force and they need to get as far away from him as possible, but it’s a very complicated situation. There’s also lots of Cthulhu-inspired material in the monsters featured in this collection, and this particular story is one example of that.
“Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women” is slightly more comical in its horror as Jesse and his friends need to fight alien-esque crab creatures with some, ahem, interesting tools while “The Benefit of Being Weighty” starts off with the protagonist chastising himself for ignoring the fact that bad things happen when the skin under his wedding ring throbs. The consequences of one such occasion ensue.
Overall, Embers is a well-constructed and put together collection of horror stories from Kenneth W. Cain that marks another quality release from Crystal Lake Publishing.