gutted horror anthology

Book Review: Behold, edited by Doug Murano

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Behold anthology cover art

Behold 
Edited by Doug Murano
With a Foreword by Josh Malerman 
Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Get the book here

* Please take a moment to support the Thunderclap campaign for Behold *

*** 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.

Book Review: Gutted, Edited by Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward

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Gutted anthology book cover

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories
Crystal Lake Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-945174-65-0 (PB); 978-1-945174-26-1 (Kindle)
$15.99 (PB), $3.99 (Kindle)
Page count: 380
Release date: June 24, 2016
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*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

Thanks to an exciting promotional lead-up, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. It was absolutely worth the wait. This book is not just a regular anthology. It’s so much more. This volume of tales is a veritable feast for readers of dark fiction. Before I get into the meat of the review, I wanted to take the time to mention how intricate and stunning the artwork in this book is–everything from the cover to the illustrations within. Please read this interview with Luke Spooner, one of the talented contributing artists of Gutted.

We kick things off with a foreword from Cemetery Dance magazine founder Richard Chizmar who notes, “There is beauty all around us, and there is horror all around us. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference.” I cannot think of a better way to some up this anthology.

“The Morning After Was Filled with Bone” by Stephanie M. Wytovich sets an incredibly dark and absorbing tone that encapsulates the entire anthology. I admire good poets, and this is poem that demands to be read. Wytovich’s use of language is so vivid to the point that I felt her character’s sorrows and pain jumping off the page at me. As well, the way she juxtaposed words was nothing short of phenomenal. To top it all off, there was a huge gut punch at the end that will leave the reader reeling long after they’ve read this poem.

Brian Kirk’s entry “Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave” was my favourite of the entire bunch. I thoroughly enjoyed his Bram Stoker Award®-nominated novel We Are Monsters so it gave me great joy to read more of this author’s work. We find out that a failed comedian has discovered his kidnapped daughter’s whereabouts after she had been missing for six years.

“Every beautiful creature…lives inside a cage.” 

The horrid monster who abducted her kept her in a box that stunted her growth and inflicted irreparable damage in many ways. To say that she is nowhere near the same is an understatement. Kirk also uses calculations/formulas, for lack of a better term, in the story, which I felt enhanced the overall reading experience. This story intensifies as the sickening details of the plot continue and I can honestly say that of all the stories I’ve consumed over the years, I cannot think of a single more tormentful and disturbing ending for a character.

Next up we have “Arbeit Macht Frei” by Lisa Mannetti, which, for those who don’t know, the title is a reference to a slogan that appeared on the entrance of concentration camps such as Auschwitz. It means “work sets you free.” This story is set at a concentration camp with a young girl, Eligia, whose name means “choice.” She is definitely an unreliable narrator with questionable motives but it was fascinating to follow along with what happened to her.

To say I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman is another understatement. His contribution, “The Problem of Susan,” is a dark spin on the works of C.S. Lewis. The dream sequences in the story were quite imaginative and disturbing and framed the entire narrative well. If you’re a fan of Gaiman’s work or of dark and twisted fairy tales in general, you will enjoy this tale.

Christopher Coake presents the reader with “Dominion,” which is about a girl, Hannah, who has been assaulted on a camping trip with her boyfriend and some friends. They have plans to go to a house, Dominion, where weird things have happened. Far from turning into an overdone tale of teenage horror, this work will make the reader think hard about what is real and what isn’t and if what Hannah is seeing is reality. This story had a very interesting ending and connection to Hannah’s visions.

I have been a longtime admirer of Bram Stoker Award®-winning author Mercedes M. Yardley’s prose, both long and short, and her story “Water Thy Bones” is no exception. The way Yardley describes how a skeleton can be exposed and free is freaky but beautiful at the same time.

“There’s a loveliness to bones.”

Her tale concerns a guy, Michael Harrison, who is obsessed with bones. Nikilie, a sad girl, has dealt with extreme pain her whole life. Her outer beauty has garnered her much unwanted attention over the years, something for which she has punished herself.

“You’re the only one who loves me from the inside out.”

When she meets Michael on a subway train, they establish a rapport and recognize in the other person a mutual desire. This story was a refreshing departure from the common thread in horror stories of wondering if a character will get themselves out of danger in time.

Next up we have “A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken” by Paul Tremblay, the Bram Stoker Award®-winning author of the novel A Head Full of Ghosts. This story read to me like someone completing a tabletop role-playing game like “Clue” in some ways. It concerns Fiona, who revisits the house in which she lived as a child. The story is a stark reminder that try as they might, some people can never outrun the ghosts of their past.

Another author whose short fiction I enjoy a great deal is Damien Angelica Walters, who presents us with “On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes.” This tale is about a young girl, Hannah, who has some dark secrets. We also get her mother, Leanne’s, point of view for a dual perspective on the situation that is unfolding.

Hannah moved with her family to a new town against her will and since then, things have gotten far worse. Walters has done a wonderful job capturing the mindset of suicidal teenagers who lose hope and feel helpless to change their situations. This story also has an ending that will make your stomach drop.

“Repent” by Richard Thomas concerns a troubled main character who has done some very bad things from the outset. I thought the use of first person present brought a sense of immediacy to the prose in this story. The protagonist unfurls his list of misdeeds and reveals college indiscretions up to the point that he becomes a police officer then tries to convince himself that a wife and family will change him for the better. I won’t spoil what happens in this story, but suffice it to say this is a tale that will keep you guessing until the last moment.

Many people cite Clive Barker as their favourite author, and certainly he is one of mine and has been for many years, so it was a joy to see he also had a story in this anthology. “Coming to Grief” is about Miriam who has returned to the small town she loathes because of her mother’s funeral. She escaped at nineteen and hasn’t had occasion to look back until now.

This story was, for me, a reflection on how people try so desperately to bury their pasts. While some people allow their pasts to imprison them because it’s the only thing that seems to give their lives meaning, Miriam is not one of those. Still, she cannot help but be submerged in her deepest childhood nightmares. Although Barker doesn’t get into all the specifics of what happened to Miriam, he doesn’t have to–he paints a clear picture of someone who finds her past deeply unsettling and is desperate to outrun it.

It would be difficult for anyone to follow Clive Barker, but author John F.D. Taff does so in a masterful way with his story “Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare.” It concerns a kid who just got a new bike from his parents as well as two quarters from his mom for emergencies and a pack of baseball cards from his dad. Although it didn’t take long for it to became clear what was going on here, this tale will tug at your heartstrings as it did mine.

Kevin Lucia’s story “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda” is about Whitey Smith, a cemetery caretaker whose wife, Maria, passed away. He dwells on their celebrations of the Day of the Dead instead of Halloween and this story presents an interesting foray into Mexican folklore.

Another Bram Stoker Award® winner, Maria Alexander, presents “Hey, Little Sister” about a guy who is soon to be married and he visits his disabled sister, Sophia. This is not an easy tale to stomach but will evoke an incredible array of anger and sadness from the reader.

Author of the smash hit novel Bird Box, Josh Malerman offers readers his tale, entitled “The One You Live With.” Like the previous story, it offers a disturbing glimpse into the far-reaching effects and damage that parents can have upon children. Read this interview he did on the website Horror Novel Reviews.

Rounding out the anthology we have British horror legend Ramsey Campbell and his story “The Place of Revelation,” which is about a kid, Colin, whose uncle encourages him to tell dark tales, particularly one involving a boy who goes down a forbidding passage. What lurks around the hidden corners of this tale is terrifying indeed.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Gutted is a masterful work of dark fiction and that it deserves to be nominated for every major award from the Bram Stoker Award® to the Shirley Jackson and many more. Even if you’re not a fan of anthologies, if you are a horror or dark fantasy fan, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book. Crystal Lake Publishing has done a phenomenal job with this in all aspects, and I hope this title does very well for them.