Stephen King

Book Review: Chiral Mad 3 edited by Michael Bailey

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Chiral Mad 3 Book Cover

Chiral Mad 3
Edited by Michael Bailey
Written Backwards/Dark Regions Press 
380 Pages
2016
Review copy purchased online 

I’ve been wanting to read Chiral Mad 3 ever since I heard it was coming out. Having been thoroughly impressed by the stories in the previous volumes, and seeing the all-star lineup unveiled bit by bit before the book’s release made me eager to get my mitts on a copy. This anthology features a mixture of short stories and poetry as well as artwork.

Now, I will say right off the bat that I didn’t review the poetry in this anthology, not because I didn’t think it was excellent (it was). The quality was, unsurprisingly, sublime, but I’ve never felt comfortable reviewing poetry. However, what I will say is that the placement of the poems functioned as a unique complement to each of the stories. As well, the artwork deserves high commendation because it truly enhanced the quality of each of the pieces.

“The Poetry of Life” by Richard Chizmar kicked things off. At first I thought this was a second introduction and I also thought it was non-fiction because of the use of the personal memoir style, which was very believable. That, folks, is what we call an exercise in how to paint a believable character.

Next up, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” by Stephen King focused on a character who gets a letter with some dangerous significance, particularly to his elderly father. Even though said letter contains just a sentence, that one sentence is bad enough that the protagonist decides it’s better kept as a secret.

King has done a masterful job in just a few pages of establishing curiosity in the reader and tension at wondering what’s so bad about this note. Well, for starters, the author of the letter is Katrina, the younger sister of the protagonist. He hints carefully at an incident that occurred in a barn when Katrina was eight years old.

As well, King’s use of language, particularly through the intimate reflections of the protagonist, were executed very well. On a sadder note, it was difficult to observe how relationships disintegrate and how one traumatic event could be the root of so much dissension. When I discovered the big reveal and the contents of the letter, it floored me and broke my heart. If it doesn’t break yours, you have no soul as far as I’m concerned.

“A Rift in Reflection” by Hal Bodner starts with a character, Philip’s, death. Philip finds himself in a graveyard where there is a community of the dead. There, he is reunited with David, his lover who passed away decades ago. We learn more about Philip and David’s relationship and everything seems relatively quiet until there’s an earthquake. This story has a sad, bitter ending.

In “Windows, Mirrors, Doors” by Jason V. Brock, Marion is dealing with the fallout of her identical twin sister’s death. I found this piece to be existential and philosophical, so if you’re into that when it comes to your horror, be sure to read this tale. The creep factor is definitely high, as well.

Paul Michael Anderson takes us into a tumultuous household in “The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim)”, which is about a young man, Ben, who tries to protect his younger brother, Jude, from their abusive father. For anyone who has grown up under similar circumstances, Jude will be a difficult character to take in. He certainly was for me, mostly due to the fact that he made excuses for his father throughout the tale, as well as for the kids at school who were beyond horrid to him.

It was painful to see how hard he worked to impress them and to get them to like him. Ben, who has been accepted to university, is in constant turmoil as to abandoning his little brother but also needing his own independence. The moral is that someone can spend so much time trying to protect someone else only to end up endangering them. This story had a lot of shades of gray both in the sense of the characterization but also in the sense of the reader discovering that a situation that seems clear cut at first is not always so.

“The Black Crow of Boddinstraße” by Emily B. Cataneo is a tale of anthropomorphism that depicts a bird as the main character who goes to a junkyard of unwanted things, convinced that’s where it belongs. However, it has also made a connection with a girl that it sees through a window and hangs on to the hope that perhaps things may not be so bleak after all.

Continuing the bird theme, we have “A Flash of Red” by Erinn L. Kemper that deals with a girl, Claire, who sews a bird feather into her skin. After that, people start paying attention to her including a cute guy. They watch passengers get on buses together and for a while, it seems like things are picking up. She learns, however, that being seen in this new way can also have dire consequences.

Trigger warning: If you struggle with depression, OCD or negative thought spirals, the following story may be difficult for you to get through. “Red Runner vs. The Surgeon, Issue 18” by Jessica May Lin is a very cleverly-told story that breaks the fourth wall, so to speak. Red, the main character, is a comic book hero who is starting to take a life of his own, opposite to his creator’s wishes, and he complains that his creator is forcing him to do dumb things. It’s an entertaining yarn, and even though I could see the ending coming–not to mention, I felt terrible with the sense of inevitability–it’s a well-woven tale that takes a lot of skill to pull off. Comic book fans will dig this one.

“The Dead Collection” by Mercedes M. Yardley was one of my favourites. It features a protagonist named Anika who starts to amass a literal band of ghosts that follow her at all times (yes, even in the shower). When someone close to her dies, they become part of her “collection”, including a cat. She has no control over it. For me, this story painted a near-perfect picture of a metaphor for what it’s like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder. People who suffer from this condition feel like they’re carrying around ghosts in their heads, convinced that someone who traumatizes them is actually present even though the logical part of their brain tells them it’s impossible.

I want to highlight one of the lines from this story. It is haunting, chilling, memorable, and tragic all at the same time:

“Living mothers weren’t meant to have dead children.”

The ending to this story delivers one of the saddest gut punching twists in the anthology.

“Watch Me” by Meghan Arcuri is about Elle, a girl who lives across from a woman, Ava, who is a seductress that Elle wants to emulate. In the beginning, we see Elle doing just that but then we backtrack a little bit to find out how she got to that point. Ava’s point of view is even more illuminating, and lets the reader know the whole sordid tale of what’s going on. The ending did seem a bit abrupt for my taste and although I could see the ending coming, it tied everything together in a neat way.

Josh Malerman takes us into “The Bigger Bedroom” with Barry and Brian, both eight, who have moved to a new house with their mom and dad. The bigger bedroom belongs to Barry. It doesn’t take long for things to go downhill, and things do just that when Brian wakes up scared in the night, convinced that he’s hearing his brother’s voice.

There’s a lot of mystery and a build-up to a big reveal at the end. In an unsurprising move, there’s a graveyard near the house with a family plot, and although more astute readers will likely know where the story is going by a certain point, it still had a very disquieting vibe that reminded me of the early works of Stephen King.

“That Perilous Stuff” by Scott Edelman is about a woman who returns to her mother and brother’s house. They’re both hoarders. Although this story was a bit on the longer side and did make me question where everything was leading a few times, the narrative picked up at the midway point when the protagonist set out on a mission that she believed would liberate her mother from her situation and the ending pulled everything together well.

Leaning more towards the science fiction horror spectrum, “3-Dot People” by Gene O’Neill introduces shades of Philip K. Dick. This story concerns a guy with memory loss and a woman, Ms. Jilly, who says she can help him, but as is often the case in stories like these, some characters have a very peculiar definition of what they mean by “help” and this story is no exception.

“Silver Thread, Hammer Ring” by Gary A. Braunbeck is one of my favourites of the bunch. Set after the Civil War of the United States, this story revolves around John Henry, an ex-slave who dreams of a bird-man and wonders if he will become it. His brother, Martin, died under horrific circumstances, which is an undercurrent that runs through the piece.

Racial tensions, Klansmen, and Greek Mythology all intersect in this tale that sees John Henry applying for work at a railroad. He gets the job and is thought to be excellent with a hammer, possessing strength beyond what one man should. Soon after, he and his railroad workers encounter a guy with a bull’s head intent on ruining their work.

We discover that there are two bosses, Minos and Daedalus, warring and these men are caught in the middle. Yes, there is an Icarus if you’re wondering, and he has an interesting role to play. The hammer also has a very interesting provenance that I won’t spoil.

This was also one of the stories that ran longer. While most of the dialogue was good, some of it did veer into ebonics territory. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the fact that this tale didn’t feature a grim ending but instead a redemptive arc.

If you’re into Weird Westerns with high levels of creepiness, you’ll enjoy “The Offering on the Hill” by Richard Thomas, which is very much a man vs. nature story about a gunslinger who wants to get to a mountain but is warned that madness lies that way. For those of you who tend more to the military horror side of things, be sure to check out “Those Who Watch From On High” by Eric J. Guignard.

One of my other favourites was “The Whipping Girls” by Damien Angelica Walters, a stand-out of this anthology. It features Erika, a young girl driving to the Kansas-Colorado state line. She quit her job on a whim and decided to leave her life behind. She is running, and although I thought of many reasons, the ultimate reason turned out to be hard-hitting.

Erika’s mother was definitely on the not-so-nice side, which is putting it mildly. As the story progresses, Erika encounters younger versions of herself and it becomes clear that she is trying to run away from herself. This story combined post-traumatic stress with self-hatred, a potent and explosive combination with anyone who has ever gone through them. The ending, although inevitable, broke my heart.

Capping off the anthology, we have “Seconds” by Jack Ketchum. This story is about a female professor sleeping with her much younger male student. With shades of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, this story highlights the theme that things are not always what they appear to be, and that some characters have histories far darker than they initially let on.

To say that this is anthology has been put together well would not do it justice. The fact that editor Michael Bailey manages to pack so much immense quality and talent in all of his endeavours is truly astounding. If you’re a horror fan, you must make his anthologies a part of your library.

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On Authors, Vulnerability, and the Importance of Honesty

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author writing handwritten notebook
Credit: user annazuc/pixabay

This morning I read a guest post from a few years ago on Writer Unboxed by YA bestselling author Robin LaFevers. It’s about the expectations aspiring writers put on ourselves and the importance of not giving up (but not delivered in a hokey way at all).

It gave me pause to think how grateful I am every time I read a blog post from an author like this who, instead of claiming that she never endured heart-wrenching struggles like the rest of us, chose to be brutally honest in sharing her journey. Every time I read a blog post like this it makes me feel inspired to keep going just when things seem like they’re at their worst.

One of the things I hated about the old model of author promotion, the one I viewed as a kid and teen, mostly pre-Internet and before I ventured into the wide world of publishing as an employee, was the illusion that authors created.

You know the one I’m talking about. This mask they used to don of public confidence–a mask that made it seem like they were invincible, like they could do no wrong, like they had no fears and no insecurities and that they were perfect. They perpetuated popular myths and made it seem like they never had any trouble coming up with ideas, they never struggled with self-doubt, they never struggled to balance work and family.

This old style of author interviews created a ridiculously unrealistic image that no one could possibly ever live up to. But in the past five to ten years, there has been a huge shift in terms of an openness that writers haven’t displayed before with the advent of blogs, conferences, podcasts, and more. Even Stephen King said in a hot-off-the-presses Rolling Stone interview that even he still fears failure.

Him! Stephen King! One of the most successful, mega bestselling, top authors IN THE WORLD. And he still has to grapple with the fear that his next book may not be as good as his last one, or that it won’t sell as many copies, or that he’s “losing it” with each year that goes by.

We need more writers to be like this. We need more authors like Chuck Wendig who get into the nitty gritty, who reveal to us their most profound joys but also their darkest sorrows because it helps to show us that in many ways, they’re just like us. It reminds the rest of us that we are all vulnerable and flawed, that we all grapple with our inner demons, that we all have issues.

I used to venerate authors in what I can only describe as borderline deification. I looked to them as gods who could do no wrong and myself as one insignificant puny little mortal (I still do, but that’s a different story).

One of the most profound experiences I had was being in attendance years ago when Stephen King came to Canada to receive an award from the Canadian Booksellers Association. Strombo was the emcee, Margaret Atwood spoke, and Clive Barker spoke.

That was the first time I heard the famous story about how Stephen King said in the 80s that he had seen the future of horror and his name was Clive Barker (he was right). But what resonated with me the most was how vulnerable Barker seemed on stage when he was talking to the audience–not in a shy, introverted way or in a way that suggested he was afraid of public speaking (nothing like that at all).

It was more of an understated quality that reflected his gratitude at having been put on the map in large part due to that King quote. And although a King quote still carries huge weight these days (just ask Nick Cutter), at the time he said this about Barker, it was different–it was like he was decreeing some kind of prophecy that no one could have predicted.

But what struck me was Clive Barker’s intense display of gratitude, that sense that even today he counts his blessings and that he knows that although he is in a league of his own when it comes to writing talent, he’s still incredibly humble and doesn’t take any of what he has for granted. Every writer in the audience that night shared that moment with him. It resonated with all of us and had a global, sweeping effect.

I like seeing vulnerability in an author and not for negative reasons. I’ve met some truly vile and despicable people who feel good about themselves not by elevating others but by dragging people down.

They get their jollies by kicking others while they’re down. These people are douchenozzles. No–the reason I like seeing vulnerability in an established “top of their game” authors is because it’s a reminder that they don’t take anything for granted.

It’s a reminder that they aren’t trying to put aspiring writers down. They’re being honest with us and saying “I know how you feel, and despite all my success, I still feel that way, too.” Granted they probably don’t feel it nearly as much as we aspiring writers do, but it’s reassuring to know that even they, at that top level, don’t strut around with confidence all the time.

By contrast, there are some authors I know who, despite not having success that reaches anywhere near the mega bestselling authors of the world (or even mid-list authors, for that matter) insist on strutting around like they are all that, flaunting themselves and their successes in other people’s faces.

They insist on acting like narcissistic jerks who are somehow “above” other aspiring writers. They act like arrogant knobs whose social media profiles are a junkyard of posts all relating to how “awesome” they are, and how everyone else should envy them. The guest posts and blog posts they do are a ragtag collection of “me, me, me.”

Yawn.

So, authors, whether you’re mega superstar bestsellers or someone at the bottom of the totem pole just starting out, do us all a favour and keep showing us your vulnerability. Show us your scars. Show us your battle wounds. Break the cycle of feeling like you have to pretend that everything is okay and that you’re perfect all the time and that you never go through self-doubt or panic.