Crystal Lake Publishing
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*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review ***
Lisa Morton’s story “LaRue’s Dime Museum” kicks things off and starts in a very Cthulhu-meets-1940s pulp mood. The main character, Julie, starts off by finding some old photographs of a travelling circus and she finds out from the modern-day shop that the place, LaRue’s, closed sometime in the 1960s. Fans of Lovecraftian horror will enjoy this story. Julie has a bit of an obsession with film noir movies from the 1940s and the Humphrey Bogart type. Pretty soon, she starts to see some of these people from the old photographs and thinks she’s going mad. There is a definite plot twist towards the end and I found this story to be an enthralling introduction to the anthology overall.
Next up, “Wildflower, Cactus, Rose” by Brian Kirk starts with the point of view of the child of a woman who has had a botched surgery gone very bad. Both of them struck me as possibly turning out not to be human, particularly the child. The unreliable narrator trope is a running undercurrent throughout the piece, which adds interesting layers. The imagery is also very vivid and well-described in this tale of the perils of corporations and their effect on the environment in the name of profit.
Probably my favourite story in the anthology was by Hal Bodner, “The Baker of Millepoix.” It starts off with a man, Henri, who, after losing his husband, Marc, moves to the small French town that Marc was originally from. I enjoyed the foray into French culture and language, even if the dialogue and a few characters tended toward the over-the-top at times. Nonetheless, the incorporation of opera was a nice addition. Henri becomes a baker and beyond that I can’t say much without giving away the plot, so I will say that if you enjoyed the film Chocolat, you will appreciate this story, although this one has a decidedly more interesting twist.
Legend Clive Barker’s offering is called “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” and begins with a (trigger warning) woman who is attempting to kill herself. It’s a story that reads like a hallucinogenic experience, a quality that some of the other tales in this anthology share, and again the theme of the unreliable narrator is executed here, pretty much to perfection.
The first of two poems from the sublimely talented Stephanie Wytovich, “An Exhibition of Mother and Monster,” was a fascinating composition and a good bridge to the next story, John Langan’s “Madame Painte: For Sale,” which makes what I’d have to say is one of the most interesting uses of garden gnomes that I’ve seen in fiction.
Next up, we have another living legend’s tale, that of Neil Gaiman, called “Chivalry.” Within the first third, I recognized the piece as a riff on Song of Roland, the epic poem that tells the story of Roland’s quest for the Holy Grail. Essentially what happens in the Gaiman piece is an old woman, Mrs. Whitaker, buys the Holy Grail (without knowing what it is, of course) at an antique or thrift shop of some kind. But instead of Roland coming to her house and asking for the relic, Sir Galahad does (spelled as Galaad in this story).
The story is, of course, intended to come across as comedic to a certain extent, but Gaiman, being the absolute master he is, juxtaposes the humour with the more serious elements of the tale very well. Continuing the train of living legends featured in this anthology is Ramsey Campbell, with his story, “Fully Boarded.”
Canadian Erinn Kemper follows with her story, “In Amelia‘s Wake,” a sort of supernatural Grapes of Wrath type story involving what really happened to Amelia Earhart set in Alberta, Canada, in 1937, right before World War 2.
Readers who have a penchant for historical mysteries, particularly those having to do with Ms. Earhart, with an Unsolved Mysteries vibe, will enjoy this tale.
One of my perennial favourites, John F. D. Taff, has a story of a Concentration camp survivor called “A Ware That Will Not Keep” that involves a supernatural element from Jewish mythology, and that’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil it. This is another case of a story where the protagonist’s grandfather, Lev, may not be telling the complete truth and reinforces the message that everything, but especially revenge, comes with a high price. Taff’s offering is one of the strongest the anthology has to offer because of how he utilizes story structure so well.
Patrick Freivald’s offering, “Earl Pruitt’s Smoker,” is an ominous tale set in the world of beekeeping, and has a very creative spin on hive hierarchy with a creepy, unsettling ending thrown in for good measure. Following this is the second of two amazing poems by Stephanie M. Wytovich, this one even more evocative than the first, and it’s called “As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party.” The imagery was magnificent in this one, as well.
Lucy A. Snyder’s story, “Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummys,” reads like a cautionary tale for authors and takes place in a setting most are familiar with: at a writer’s convention or conference, albeit in this case a fictional one. Any author who has ever sold books at a convention in the dealer’s room will be familiar with the scenario that begins the story. The protagonist, Miss Bower, is trying to keep busy over Halloween weekend at this convention purposely so that she can preserve her sanity as much as possible owing to a tragic event that befell her a few years ago, but we don’t know what at first. The story also deals with themes of mental health issues and it reads like a hallucinogenic trip. Still, the story is full of surprises.
Other notable offerings include Kristi DeMeester’s “The Wakeful,” which was probably the most disturbing story for me in the anthology and involves a school teacher getting entangled in the creepy life of one of her young female students. If you want disturbing body horror, look no further than this tale. Furthermore, there is a reason why DeMeester has been one to watch for the past few years.
Also notable was “Through Gravel” by Sarah Read, which deals with an underground-ish people, the Kindred, and how they have struggled to reproduce for more than eight years so when they finally do, it is very momentous, but also fraught with much angst because there is a lot at stake here. This story is a wonderful example of the ‘beautiful horror’ theme that Murano started with Gutted, which I also reviewed.
Last, we have Richard Thomas’s story, “Hiraeth,” a memorable, post-apocalyptic tale with shades of Cormac McCarthy that I found to be thematically similar to the Sarah Read story, so if you enjoyed her story, Richard’s will also prove to be gratifying and was a perfect way to cap off this anthology.
Behold marks yet another stellar anthology of horror fiction from Crystal Lake Publishing. Editor Doug Murano has assembled an intricately quilted patchwork that collects a unique combination of well-written stories that continue the theme of beautiful horror established by his previous anthology, the underrated and remarkable Gutted. As with any anthology, some stories will resonate more with certain readers, and everyone will have a different list of favourites, but the pages of Behold contain memorable tales you won’t soon forget.
Every since Volume 1 of this wonderfully useful series, I have devoured each of the “Writers on Writing” books from Crystal Lake Publishing, each of which focus on different aspects of the writing life. This time around, although I was sad to learn that Volume 4 would be the last of the series, I was thrilled to see that this tome deals with a broad mixture of topics ranging from poetry to networking to description.
Blunt Force Trauma: How to Write Killer Poetry by Stephanie M. Wytovich
Although I don’t write poetry, I am fascinated by the poet’s process and I find that there are always some useful nuggets to be gleaned that may also be applicable to prose. I have been a long-time admirer of Stephanie Wytovich’s poetry, especially her wonderfully devastating and impactful poem in “Gutted,” which you should also read, so I was interested to see her breaking down the notion that poetry is like blunt-force trauma. It is an “assault on the body.” She describes poetry as the “exploration of the wound,” which I thought was a very evocative analogy.
While she describes her early efforts as a tad melodramatic, it taught her to be honest and it gave her permission not to hold back. These are two things I still struggle with as a writer, so it was very liberating for me to read that poetry could be so cathartic. I loved her phrase “the demons that had been following me for years.”
One of the things I admire most of about Stephanie and her work is that she is not apologetic or demure about it. She is bold and brash. I have known many established writers who have tried to put down the work of younger writers or to dismiss the credibility of anything they have to say or any advice they may have to give, which I think is rubbish, but I am glad we have folks like Stephanie out there who give a brave face to younger writers who are maybe not as comfortable in our own skin yet.
Her systematic breakdown of steps to writing killer horror poetry is magnificent in its detail. As she suggests at the very end, “expose the wound, examine the fear, and close the case.”
Happy Little Trees by Michael Knost
In his piece, Michael Knost focuses on imbuing characters with depth, details, and layers to make them jump off the page and be memorable to readers. He makes analogies to forests and trees to illustrate his points, as well as painting and Photoshop, and he very much emphasizes the notion of relational influence. If you’re antsing for more tips on how to do characterization better, be sure to check out his piece.
In Lieu of Patience Bring Diversity by Kenneth W. Cain
Kenneth W. Cain talks about the virtues of patience in a writer and how it encompasses all the areas of a writer’s career from waiting to hear back on a submission to award nominations to gaining a readership. He also discusses considerations of how detailed to get when it comes to descriptions, which I thought was useful especially as he related it to the importance of creating characters that the reader will sympathize with.
Networking is Scary, but Essential by Doug Murano
The style and direct approach of Doug Murano’s entry in the volume, which is all about that scary word–networking–helped to make it seem a little less daunting. He also discussed some of the marketing innovations he came up with while doing PR for the Horror Writers Association, which is very useful for authors to note.
His section on strategies should is excellent and many authors will find it useful.
Are You In The Mood? by Sheldon Higdon
Focusing back on the writer’s craft side of things, Sheldon Higdon’s entry talks about how to establish mood in a story as well as the subtle differences between mood and how it builds into atmosphere. If you struggle with description or you’ve been told you write purple prose, check out Sheldon’s piece.
What if Every Novel is a Horror Novel? by Steve Diamond
Angling more toward a philosophical bent is Steve Diamond’s piece, which seeks to define what horror is, which is no easy task. He encourages readers to stretch their defintions of what constitutes horror and rightly so.
Description: You Can’t Win so Why Play by Patrick Freivald
Patrick Freivald tackles why writers over-write so often, particularly when it comes to description and throwing too much detail at the reader, and how even though writers want the reader to have a very specific vision in mind of what they want people to see, the results sometimes get muddled in translation onto the page. Freivald also addresses incorporating sensory descriptions into prose, so it’s a worthwile piece to check out.
Long Night’s Journey Into…This? A First-Time Novelist’s Odyssey by William Gorman
Being a novelist for the first time is usually not an experience that goes particularly easily for the writers who manage to get there. I cannot believe he had a correspondence with Clive Barker (how fortunate!), who told him to write a novel at one point, which made for a magnificent story. He discusses why the novel-writing process turned out to be so difficult for him. I think the piece is one that established pros as well as hopeful newbies can benefit from.
I Am Setting by J.S. Breukelaar
Getting back more toward the craft side of things, we have a piece devoted to setting and description. This part of the volume was a very useful breakdown of setting as well as what to do with fictional world-making and building.
Finding Your Voice by Lynda E. Rucker
To cap off the volume, we get a piece about that ever-elusive concept of authorial “voice” from Lynda E. Rucker. So often writers are told to develop their voice, that their voice isn’t strong enough, that the voice of the piece is highly derivative or a pastiche, but many writers are left scratching their heads and wondering just what the heck “voice” even means. It’s something that this piece helps to simplify into something more understandable. She also has some wonderful suggestions as to how to find one’s voice, so it’s well worth reading through.
Things start off with “Hecate” by Adam Lowe, which is about the Greek goddess of witches, Hecate. The language in this poem is very evocative and the poem ends on a creepy note.
Next up we have “The Life of Death” by Mark Sheldon. It starts out on a more humorous note. It’s anachronistic on purpose, making similes to modern-day references. This is the origin story of Death, real name Mortimer (nicknamed Morrey). It’s a sad tale, ultimately, but humanizes Death, which makes things more interesting.
“Stumps” by Jeff Strand is about an immortal main character but immortality doesn’t mean he can’t be killed or wounded. The price is incredibly steep to maintain his status. Others figure out what he can do, and although it’s a grim tale with macabre elements, there is humour, as well, and it was one of the best pieces of the bunch.
In “Death Squared” by Rena Mason, two boys, Billy and Trent, ride their bikes to the house of a female classmate who recently committed suicide. Trent learns the hard way that once you damage someone badly enough, you can never take it back. When you remain faithful to someone you know is as horrible as Billy is, you can never erase that stain from your soul no matter how hard you try to scrub it off. I also enjoyed the ominous note upon which this story ended.
“The Culling” by Richard Thomas reminded me of The Lottery and The Hunger Games. In this twisted tale, the townspeople sacrifice their own to appease beasts. There’s a wonderful twist at the end that I won’t spoil, but this story was one of the more memorable ones.
Robert S. Wilson introduces a main character who can stop death from happening in “The Death Catcher” but the thing is that after people cheat death, they don’t feel as good as they thought they would. This story had a definite sci-fi bent to its horror and reinforced the theme that a person can try to cheat death but won’t get very far.
“Spectres” by Taylor Grant is about Matt, who seems to have just come out of a coma. It’s also more in the sci-fi horror vein. He wakes up with someone else’s memories after volunteering to spend ten years frozen in a statis. He learns the hard way that everything comes at a price, and I thought this story ended on a very effective gut punch.
“Der Engel Der Liebe” by Dean M. Drinkel is historical fiction tale set in Vienna in 1870. This is another story that wastes no time making circumstances absolutely horrible for the characters involved. If you like stories of Jack the Ripper, you’ll enjoy this macabre tale.
Next up is “Do No Harm” by Joe C. McKinney, which is about a doctor who gets kidnapped by vampires so that he can figure out why a boy they ‘turned’ isn’t transitioning into a full vampire. He’s got his work cut out for him and the results turn out to be very interesting.
To cap off the anthology, we have “Non-Returnable” by the late Rick Hautula. In it, a bookstore employee is worried that her boss will fire her. He hassles her about a physics book she decided not to buy, but her life starts to take on some truly bizarre turns. It’s very fitting that this story would be the last.
Overall, Fear the Reaper is another good quality anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing that features great horror stories centering around the theme of Death and they’re all very diverse so there is something for every horror reader to enjoy.