When I was in my early teens, probably fifteen or sixteen, I recorded a movie from TV called Gothic (1986), directed by Ken Russell. The film presents a fictionalized account of what may have happened on that fateful weekend during the summer of 1816.
Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) invited his fellow Romantic poet Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) to the Villa Diodati in Switzerland along with Mary Godwin* (Natasha Richardson) and her half-sister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) as well as Byron’s personal physician, Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), who later wrote and published The Vampyre (1819). During this time, Mary Shelley wrote her most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818), one of the earliest horror novels.
Even though I already had an obsession with horror fiction by this age and devoured countless books and films, this movie, Gothic, fueled a dark fire inside of me to want to write from a place of fear and stoked my love of the supernatural. The film prompted me to read the novel Frankenstein to experience it for myself, and it has stuck in my mind ever since.
Fast forward to many years later, and my path as a writer has been a bumpy ride to say the least. But, to quote the immortal Freddie Mercury–one of my all-time heroes:
“I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face. But I’ve come through.”
The past decade has had both ups and downs for me, but this is a huge “up” for which I will be eternally grateful. When I found out I was selected to be this year’s recipient of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship–one of four given by the Horror Writers Association–it blew me away. I could not believe that they chose me.
Writing is a lonely profession. There are many pitfalls, and it’s not an easy thing to undertake. From time to time, writers need something–a sign from the universe, from somewhere out there–that what we do matters–that even though believing in ourselves seems impossible at times, we can do this.
I feel so honoured to have received this prestigious scholarship, and I am proud of all my fellow scholarship recipients this year! Congratulations also to John C. Mannone (HWA Scholarship), Ashley Dioses (Dark Poetry Scholarship), Kelly Robinson (Rocky Wood Nonfiction Scholarship, one of two recipients), and Stephanie M. Wytovich (Rocky Wood Nonfiction Scholarship, one of two recipients).
Along with Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley was one of the first women to kick open the door and pave the way for other women writing genre fiction. Although the unbalanced ratio between female and male writers in horror continues to be an issue, the past fifteen years has seen an explosion in more women being published in the genre, and this trend is here to stay.
There are a plethora of women whose works spring to mind when I think of who is doing amazing work in this genre, and will continue to do so for years to come. Stephanie M. Wytovich is one. Mercedes M. Yardley is another. Among my favourites include: Eden Royce, Maria Alexander, Kristi DeMeester, Paula D. Ashe, Rebecca Jones-Howe, Chesya Burke, S.P. Miskowski, Jessica McHugh, Lucy A. Snyder, and countless others.
It is my hope to one day join the ranks of these amazingly gifted and talented women. In the meantime, excuse me while I go off and do one of these:
* In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was still known by her maiden name, Mary Godwin, because she was Percy Shelley’s mistress at the time and not yet his wife.
Bram Stoker Award®-winning editor and writer Eric J. Guignard helms the newest addition to the Horror Library series of books from Cutting Block Books, Horror Library Volume 6. One of the things I appreciated most about his stewardship over the anthology was his decision to include little blurbs before each story to introduce them. I have enjoyed this technique in other anthologies he has edited, and thought it was a great idea to incorporate it here as well. Guignard wrote in one note of the anthology that he had a mandate to uphold whereby he tried to publish as many new and/or previously unheard of authors who are not as well known in the horror genre, so although you are not going to see such big names of the titans as Clive Barker or Stephen King, do not let that fool you because this anthology has an extremely high calibre of stories.
We start off with a disturbing ghost story entitled “I’ve Finally Found You” by Garrett Quinn. Con is a troubled young man who is still struggling with the death of his mother. He soon finds out that sometimes it’s best not to poke around where one shouldn’t, and in this particular case, it involves him messing with a CB radio that he believes may be able to help him communicate with his mother’s ghost. If you are chomping at the bit for the new season of Stranger Things to return as I am, this story will slake your thirst in the meantime.
Jackson Kuhl presents “Cartagena Hotel” about a small town in Texas called Ophir where construction workers are disappearing but the reason is unclear and the reader is not sure who is telling the truth or what is truly responsible for the disappearances. Although I felt that the pacing was a bit rushed toward the end of the story, I liked the disturbing implications of this tale.
Next up, “The Night Truck” by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime is the tale of a woman who must heed the consequences of what happens when she ignores her grandmother’s superstitious warnings about darkness in an old house. This is the perfect story to read around Halloween.
Connor De Bruler takes the reader all the way to a Tuscan village in Italy with”Il Mostro” (in Italian, this means “the monster”). Two friends, Earl and Ethan, are wandering around a village when they go to a restaurant where the only other people are the bartender and a man from France. The protagonists are struck by the oddity and unnaturalness of the place, particularly as it concerns a mural that seems like it could be from a Guillermo del Toro movie. Although I was initially a bit confused as to whether Earl and Ethan were tourists on vacation or if they were running away from something, the main theme this story emphasizes is that if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.
Bentley Little reminds us just how unnerving plumbers can be in “The Plumber” while Josh Rountree offers up a World War I tale of historical military horror in “Snowfather.” Next, veteran author Jeffrey Ford presents a semi-autobiographic tale called “Five Pointed Spell” about a protagonist who has traded his city life in New York for farmland in Ohio so he can support his current wife’s dream job. This story does a great job capturing the consequences of people who say they want to live off the grid and be in remote areas who then find that actually, they don’t like it very much and it was not how they imagined when they begin to settle in. Although the ending struck me as a tad anticlimactic, I think it also has a clever edge because it is one of those stories that leaves the reader to guess at the implications of what has actually happened.
For those looking to satisfy their airplane horror lust, John M. Floyd’s “The Red-Eye to Boston” will do the trick. This story is a testament to why it is probably a good idea to minimize speaking to other people on airplanes.
Raymond Little takes readers back to the glitz of 1930s Hollywood in “Elsa and I,” a story in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the present for the protagonist.
The first of my two favourite stories from this anthology is “Mother’s Mouth, Full of Dirt” by Rebecca J. Allred. This story deals with a little girl, Vilte, who believes her dead mother still lingers around the house she shares with her physician father. The reasons for the demise of Vilte’s mother are, although easily inferred from the backstory, also shrouded in secrecy. The creep factor is very strong in this tale, and although I was not expecting “tooth horror,” which is a kind of subgenre I have noticed in the past few years, this story takes an excellent and creative spin on that motif. Also notable was how well Vilte fills the role of unreliable narrator.
In “Predestination’s a Bitch,” Sean Eads presents the only humorous horror story in the anthology in this tale of a disgruntled IT worker, Clyde, who finds that his colleague, Roger, tells some off colour jokes that turn out to have very real consequences. I struggled with the offensiveness of some of the jokes at first, but toward the end, I felt that Eads did a good job building up suspense and tension and helping the reader realize the danger that is unfolding at the same moment as the protagonist.
My number one absolute favourite story of this anthology came from Marc E. Fitch, and it’s called “The Starry Crown.” The main character is a doctoral candidate working on his dissertation. He has left behind the comforts of campus life to do field work in the Deep South. More specifically, he is studying folk songs from the southern states “that had neither a time or place of origin not a known composer.” He is particularly interested in songs sung by slaves and slave owners, backwoods preachers, and so on. He is determined to find out the meaning of the lyric “starry crown” in a song that is shrouded in mystery. Fitch mentions a real book, G.H. Allan’s Slave Songs of the United States and explains some of the possibly fictionalized backstory of why this starry crown song confused Allan. He got it from someone called Cobb in South Carolina.
Rather than continuing to describe my ever-increasing interest in the plot, I will sum up by saying that this is another story that warns the reader that it is possible to uncover too many stones in the search for the truth and that even if we do manage to go to great pains to find it, sometimes the results will make us wish we had not. This is a disturbing, unsettling, and phenomenally well-written story. I hope to be able to read more work from this author in the future.
Vitor Abdala presents a short, but creepy tale of cyber stalking in “Instant Messaging” that is another cautionary tale while JG Faherty presents a criminal who gets summoned by the Devil to work for him on “The H Train” only to realize the true price too late.
Another of the memorable stories for me was “Kalu Kumaraya (My Dark Prince)” by Jayani C. Senanayake. This tale deals with the mythology of Sri Lanka, a kind of dark and morbid love story but in a good way. The protagonist invents an imaginary friend as a child, which seems innocent enough until this “friend” starts causing a lot of trouble in the real world. Kalu seems to function as a sort of dark genie. He makes life very difficult for the protagonist, particularly as it relates to her ability to form relationships with boys her age. Once the myth gets explained toward the end, ultimately it seems that some cycles are not that easy to break, which I found disturbing indeed.
Lucas Pederson’s “We Were Monsters” deals with an alternating timeline between the present and 1994 when the protagonist had an aunt (who wasn’t actually a blood relative) who was into vampirism. He and his group of friends soon dub themselves after all the Universal monsters and encounter a disturbing creature that would make all those movie beasts shriek in terror. This tale also ends on an ominous note.
Another favourie for me was “Waiting for Mrs. Hemley” by Thomas P. Balázs, a tale of psychological horror that has shades of The Silence of the Lambs. There is a particular quote from this story that I wish I could frame, which is when the protagonist, a psychiatrist, says: “The unconscious is a bottomless chasm of trauma and repression.” This tale turned out to be one of the most interesting and unconventional–definitely not at all typical–takes on zombie fiction that I have seen in years.
The ghosts of the past continue to haunt yet more protagonists in Jay Caselberg’s “The Ride,” this time concerning a guy, Jason, who lost his girlfriend four years ago when she went missing, but he has been suspicious of the authorities ever since because they never found a body. When a person goes missing, there is always the weight of the dread where their loved ones wonder if the person is dead or if there is still a possibility that they are alive. Will they ever see that person again? It is maddening and frightful to contemplate.
A person does not simply “get over” something as unsettling as this. At best, a person learns to live with it but to do that, one has to move through it, and that is definitely easier said than done. Jason decides to investigate in Scotland, because he knows he is not going to be able to let this go. This trip makes him feel productive–like he is taking action and like he is doing something, so he can give himself a semblance of control over the situation, or as much as it is possible to have control in a situation like this. In the end, he learns that sometimes it is best not to investigate too far because a person may not like what one discovers when going poking around for the truth and that some things are best left buried and unexplored.
Ahna Wayne Aposhian gives us the trope of the old woman who comes to people in nightmares and sits on their chests, preventing them from breathing, in “Old Hag.” The protagonist, Wendy, used to have a happy marriage but since her night terrors, her husband has become unsympathetic and brusque. If you like your body horror in hefty doses, this is the tale for you.
Another of my favourite writers, Edward M. Erdelac, gives us a memorable tale called “Hear the Eagle Scream.” Edward writes an interesting brand of historical horror that spans many different interesting locales and characters and this story is no exception. This time around, a man named Jim Thiemann is the owner of Longview Ranch in Scurry County. Although I initially placed this story as Wild West setting from the 1800s, it was probably closer to the early 20th century.
A man named Horace comes up to Jim telling him he’s the man for the job that is being advertised on a sign outside the ranch. Although skeptical at first, Jim gives Horace a chance and is very pleased with the results. This is one of those brilliant twist stories in which the reader spends most of the time convinced that the protagonist is in some kind of impending danger only to find out that the real source of trouble is far from what is expected.
Finally, to cap things off, Carole Johnstone presents “Better You Believe,” which is mountain horror at its finest. If you enjoyed The Abominable by Dan Simmons or The Ruins by Scott B. Smith, you will get a kick out of this story.
This anthology deserves 6 out of 5 stars. It is always difficult for any anthology series that continues to sustain momentum and to show that each new volume is even better than the last, but Guignard was the absolute perfect choice to be at the helm of the newest “Horror Library.” He has a spectacular ability to select stories that are all fantastically well-written and of such a high calibre that is rare to find in anthologies. Even the stories that did not interest me as much in Horror Library Volume 6 were impressive and I was stunned by the fact that there is not a single dud in here.
I think that Volume 6 deserves a lot more attention than it has been receiving as far as reviews and reader reactions go, because Guignard has done a masterful job. You are not going to find another horror fiction collection out there that tops this one except possibly Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror (now up to Volume 9), but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this anthology is on par with hers in terms of quality. This is one of the best horror fiction anthologies of the year and I truly hope Guignard gets the recognition he deserves particularly with regard to awards.
The line-up that wrapped around a block outside The Danforth Theatre in Toronto wasn’t for a band or a celebrity, but rather it was for celebrated and beloved author Neil Gaiman, who is on what is being proclaimed his last signing tour. That is to say, the last multi-city promotional book tour in which he is going to do mass autographings. He’s shown pictures of having to dunk his hands in ice and let them soak because he has pre-signed so many copies in preparation for signing tours, not to mention the autographs he does on the spot for those who stand in line and wait to get their books signed.
I was delighted to see that by the time I heard about the event and checked the website I could indeed actually register and that tickets were still available. In the past I’ve been very disappointed by sell-outs that seem to happen within five minutes of Gaiman events in Toronto. Anyway, this time around I got lucky and even though my seat was on the balcony level, it was a real pleasure to hear Neil Gaiman read from his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane as well as giving the audience a sneak preview of his forthcoming children’s book, Fortunately, the Milk, which comes out next month.
Some of the highlights included the interviewer, Mark Askwith, himself a Toronto legend in the comic book community, calling Gaiman Toronto’s boyfriend. As well, Gaiman related an amusing anecdote involving Shirley Maclaine and his famous mop of hair. And one of the best lines from his upcoming book, Fortunately, The Milk involves the main character saying to another character, “You’re a Stegosaurus.” When you get to that scene in the book, it’ll make a lot more sense and will be much funnier in the context of that particular scene.
I heard that the event didn’t end until two o’clock in the morning (yikes!), and that it did indeed live up to the standards of Gaiman’s other signing events, which are notorious for stretching on and on for hours with the signing portion, which he graciously obliged to. They called up rows with a lottery system, which was also interesting. For those that stuck around to get their book(s) signed, I’m told it was well worth it, and I imagine it would be. One of my co-workers, also a Gaiman aficionado, got her book signed with a charming little drawing from the author, which was also a highlight.
Overall, it was a great, well-organized event and at least I can say I saw Neil Gaiman when he came to Toronto even if I didn’t get the chance to meet him, which I’m sure would have been a spectacular treat, but one never knows what things may come in the future.