horror fiction anthologies
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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.
I hadn’t heard of Erik T. Johnson before reading Yes Trespassing, but after reading the glowing endorsement from horror writer John F.D. Taff, whose work I do respect and admire, it set up the short story collection for me in a good way. Rather than give a story-by-story breakdown, what I will say is that Johnson is a writer who knows how to play with the reader’s expectations. One story, “The Black Tree’s Box,” in particular, was well done. It used various elements, including a possibly unreliable narrator, to spin a pretty good yarn. It also plays with chronology of the characters and of events in a very interesting way.
Rather than suffering from the fate of some short story collections that have stories that are all too similar or thematically not very different or make the reader question whether they’ve just read something very similar recently, Johnson’s collection offers a wide variety of stories on different themes and keeps the reader guessing as they make their way through the collection. In addition, the use of hand-drawn illustrations made this book reminiscent of House of Leaves or other books that have creatively incorporated hand-drawn notes and marks to give the overall design a feel as though it has been written down on lined paper, similar to a student’s notebook.
It is fitting that Michael Bailey and his press, Written Backwards, is the publisher of this superb collection. Johnson’s work has appeared in other Bailey anthologies, including Qualia Nous and the recently launched You, Human as well as Chiral Mad 2. From a print culture perspective, this collection makes an interesting use of marginalia or readers’ commentary and annotations as part of the text, not necessarily on the main pages of the stories, but in the front matter and the end matter as well as for the story and chapter titles, which uniquely uses typographical elements and creates a dynamic overall aesthetic element that runs as an undercurrent throughout the book.
If you prefer the type of slipstream or Weird horror, you will thoroughly enjoy Johnson’s short story collection. If you’re looking for a horror collection that features the standard tropes of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and so on, then you should likely look elsewhere because you’re not going to find anything cliched or overdone, or “been there done that” about these stories. Instead, you will find originality, good storytelling, and a compelling collection of tales.