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Horror Library Vol 1, edited by R.J. Cavender Book Review | SFReader.com
Horror Library Vol 1, edited by R.J. Cavender Genre: Horror Anthology Publisher: Cutting Block Press Published: 2006 Review Posted: 1/21/2007 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 4 out of 10
Horror Library Vol 1, edited by R.J. Cavender
Book Review by James Michael White
Have you read this book?
Reading new anthologies from new publishers full of new writers (well, new to me, anyway), is something like going trick or treating. Sometimes you find something surprising between the covers of this trick-or-treat bag, and sometimes you find some real stinkers.
Horror Library, Volume 1, is a mixture of surprising treats, disappointing tricks, and simple mediocrity -- and it's the latter kind of stories that are most in evidence here. Many are not outright bad, they're just not very distinctive, and therefore not all that remarkable in a market that, like everything else, thrives not upon the pale, the colorless, the uninvolving, but rather upon the stark, the livid, the engaging.
Horror, after all, is about evoking dread, discomfort, things beyond the pale. It's even about shocking revelation, whether of self or of society, in which the exploration of evil, and our reaction to it, speaks to common humanity in both its darkest and brightest forms. Horror doesn't just tell us what we're afraid of, no matter the forms of its sublimation, but at its most effective tells us who we are as human beings as we participate in the vicarious resistance to the terrible, and as we sit back, comfortably safe as readers, and evaluate its predations upon the innocent, calculate at some level how we might improve our own odds in a world gone madly wrong.
Which brings us once more to this collection and these stories. Some work well, and some work very well, to do these things, and it's as they serve this function -- the exploration of the terrible -- that the collection achieves its most effective moments. Yet many more of the stories function at far simpler levels, merely telling average sorts of stories in average sorts of ways, neither saying to the reader much nor demanding much. In this manner the majority of the stories are structural examples of how one might compose a particular kind of genre story, yet lack the compelling nature of their betters because they reach no farther than the common, touch nothing deeper than the commonplace, achieve not at all the spellbinding that, in the end, remains the most difficult trick of all in any genre.
Those curious enough to look in new places for new voices will find rewarding fiction here, but a lot of what they find will also be the work of writers still learning the craft.
So now to the stories themselves:
Palo Mayombe in Matamoros
by Boyd E. Harris
Based upon a true story, several true ones, in fact, Boyd Harris reaches high and comes up short in a story interweaving accounts of real crime, African magic (the "palo Mayombe" of the title), murder, and all the possibility that playing off of real horrors in the real world might afford. Except instead of using such accounts to achieve a Harlan Ellison-like epiphany of social-commentary proportions -- wherein the story might function as "a fantasy that explains reality in a way reality cannot explain itself" (Ellison speaking of his similar "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" -- we have merely an account of horrific crimes ending with the most trite of observations: bad things happen ... they could even happen to you. Well, yeah. No revelation, there.
The triteness of the ending defeats the force of the story's opening account of torture and death, reducing the realm of story potential to little more than a nightly news cast. In the face of terrible crimes and the consequent search for meaning -- at least one we can't fathom for ourselves -- we are left wanting a better explanation than the one we're given. It isn't here. The power of fiction goes unused.
by Jed Verity
An example of pitched hysteria and stuttering storytelling -- the latter often a device intended to heighten anxiety, yet here coming off more like, well, a stutter -- we have this fellow named Oren confronted in Poe-like fashion with something tapping, as if someone were gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. What is so long put off, opening that door, tells us that the main character is a nutball or the story an overamped attempt at wry humor. After all, Oren finds himself seriously freaked out by an utterly common event, a knock at his door, and so we have to wonder why -- why on earth is he so knocked off-kilter by something so mundane? Once the door is finally opened, however, we're confronted with a sufficiently startling something-or-other to both get our attention and make us wonder just who this Oren fellow is, and why Verity doesn't get more mileage out of the seeming confluence of clue, "...found himself scratching his own scars..." and potential revelations like, "Its mouth was sewn shut...", and, "...somehow familiar eyes."
Trouble is, these dots don't connect, and the prose is bad in ways that may humor some but will probably put off too many others.
by Paul J. Gitschner
Chaps in prison gotta get out and they get one shot before the axe falls, buddy, but it's by talent show with only one winner. To say more of this extremely short story would simply give away a surprise that really isn't surprising (has something to do with the title, after all), but potentially worse is that the prisoner protagonist seems to have a theory about this contest that his own actions don't support: he explains that "no one had the valuable knowledge of what had been the clincher in the previous years," then goes on to say that he paid for such knowledge. Wait a minute. He has reasoned that what makes a contest winner cannot be known, then tells us that he paid someone for a secret that cannot be known? Eh? This could be made to work with more words, but there are too few here to sufficiently explain and support the deliberate taking of a bad decision. Admirers of short-short stories may dig this groove, but for others it'll be just a touch too shallow.
Little Black Box
by Eric Stark
Strangely reminiscent of the persecution-without-explanation Kafka world, and early Philip K. Dick prose and machination, this story marches smartly right along to tell the tale of a mathematician and his wife caught up in a strange series of appearances at their home one day of little black boxes. Curiosity turns to consternation turns to outright fear in as cold and meticulous a manner as the appearance of those wee black boxes. Those seeking explanations won't get them, and those seeking to extract sense or meaning from an otherwise well-enough done tale will have to stretch far to try and find it. Some stories, after all, are much, much more about the simple nature of their events than they are about things deep and profound. This is one such story.
by Vincent VanAllen
Jokes, if they work, are great things. Entertaining things. But joke fiction, when it doesn't work, leaves readers feeling tricked, often badly tricked, and this story is a case in point. Here's why: if a story's setup arrives imbued with X number of dramatic possibilities built in as a result of its opening moves, it's the writer's job to pick the best among those possibilities and wring them out for all they're worth. What we have at the beginning of this story is a cancer-stricken protagonist returning to the U.S. from Mexico to meet his brother after a last fling with, and final farewell to, life. Yet it turns out his brother can provide for him a curious new wonder drug, an outlawed one at that, which kills every pain and "inhibits instinct."
This sounds like a collection of good ideas, and they give the story powerful directions to take, even significant ones, but instead VanAllen dodges such possibility and goes for a joke ending involving a lemon of a car, sourly defeating dramatic possibility and horror itself. Result: the ending comes off looking like either the easy-way-out authorial solution to knotty and emotional story issues, or the punch line to an inadequately set up joke that doesn't invite us along for the ride as much as it simply turns us into gawkers at a crash.
by C.J. Hurtt
Short-short fiction, flash fiction, just doesn't do it for me, and this extremely short story hasn't changed my mind. Goes something like this: Claire and Paul are out driving one night when they speak of a statue and its mysterious properties before finding out firsthand whether or not those rumors are true. End result, this tiny tale comes off more like a fragment than a finished story, and the inconclusive conclusion, though avoiding mere statement of the obvious, also avoids any real opportunity to nail down something cool.
by Michelle Garren Flye
What does it take to run a successful business? Lisa learns the answer from her grandfather, Manuel Gutierrez, who runs a cocoa farm in Central America, supplying American chocolatiers with an unrivaled product. The answer is almost as plain as the fact that this is a horror story, which thus limits our options, after all. Yet this is a well-executed start of a story, and it's that "start" that is the main problem. A very interesting idea is engaged, but not given room to fully develop. Result: readers may feel teased in a, "You can have a bite of my chocolate bar, but not the whole thing," kind of way.
One Small Bite
by John Rowlands
Here's another well-written yet incompletely realized story, and in it we have a botanist conducting research in Brazil in 1918, who then returns to England with a flea-bitten monkey and hints of impending disaster. Now, the story isn't unfinished -- it has a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but it seems to beg taking advantage of its earliest parts in its later ones, tying the solution to potential disaster to the Brazilian experiences of the protagonist in such ways that grander conclusions might be achieved than presently are. Except the story doesn't do that, doesn't achieve its own potential, and so stays smaller than it should.
by Mark. E. Deloy
Some stories are flash-in-the-pan entertainments -- well done enough that you forget there's nothing really there till it's over -- and thus they function as the literary equivalent of cotton candy. Deloy's "Momma's Shadow" tells of the experience of a little boy whose mother dies and literally comes back from the grave. Question is, was she really dead to begin with? That this questions seems convincingly dealt with helps move the story while at the same time giving readers a sense of dread, just in case things aren't as hunky-dory as they seem. This being horror, you might well imagine that what seems calm is not, what seems peaceful is not. Thus the expected arrival of cataclysm isn't a fault at all -- that's what these kinds of stories do -- but the fault here, though a minor seeming one, is that though the story is well told, it's an all-too-common one that doesn't rise appreciably above many, many others like it.
A Hell of a Deal
by Marcus Grimm
An entertaining trifle, "A Hell of a Deal" tells about a young fellow looking to buy his first house, and the one-trick-pony show here involves a devilish realtor and what happens when you don't follow good advice. That the crux of the conflict depends on whether or not certain papers were signed may well be a flaw of omission, and that I haven't gone back to reread the story to see whether it's there or not may be another kind flaw in a story that briefly holds interest but can't sustain it.
by John Peters
Don't pick up strange women in bars. Not only is that the moral of this morality tale, in which Jack Kellum picks up an alluring siren in a place where no one else seems capable of noticing her, but it's the constantly recurring kernel of woe kick-starting many a tale. Using a common idea, though, doesn't always a common tale make, and here the literary hand reaches though a Clive Barker-esqe "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament" early structure and into a world of magic, tawdry sex, and victims, to finally grab an ending of disappointing simplicity.
Oh but what does that mean, disappointing simplicity? There is a species of story known as the "suffer and die" kind, in which main characters wallow in misery before dropping dead. The best of these stories do not merely recount suffering, but do so in ways that evoke a sense of greater purpose, and so through the depiction of suffering have something interesting to say. Not so here. Instead, we have an average specimen of the suffer-and-die type of story tinged with fantasy and horror. Though we might imagine the purpose is to demonstrate that, in the horror universe, good does not always triumph, what might make this even more interesting is to use the opportunity to explore the nature of evil, the particular evil, in this story. Doesn't happen. An average story, averagely told, reaches an average conclusion.
Under the Floorboards
by Cordelia Snow
An example of how handling common ideas in uncommonly good ways can yield excellent and moving work, Cordelia Snow's "Under the Floorboards" captures a sense of sorrow, childhood's unquestioning acceptance of the strange, and leaves us with a lingering sense of melancholy in this story about a young girl, her imaginary playmate, and the dismal home life in which she finds herself.
A Sunny Day Turns Dark
by Chris Perridas
A story from the suffer-and-die school, this one moves along in extended sex-joke mode as its beach-combing protagonist suffers a mysterious rotting disease in the space of about two-and-a-half pages. Some will find this amusing. Some won't. Once again, a demonstration of how very difficult it is to make an extremely short story satisfying.
The Remembering Country
by Kevin Filan
Part mystery, part dream, a few more parts memory, "The Remembering Country" offers us a psychologically scarred man in Doug McKenna, whose visits with a psychologist and lightning-quick involvement with a local girl help him overcome an identity-wounding trauma. Though McKenna's hookup with the local girl seems forced in ways that can only be called "service to plot," most of the rest of this tale works with an assurance that achieves sharpness where it must -- at the moment of climactic self revelation -- while falling short in a denouement that, though necessary, seems an awfully paltry one, given the building force of what we've just read.
by Ian R. Derbyshire
Luke gets lost in a snowstorm in a broke-down car. Tries to hike to safety. Collapses. It looks like curtains for him, but no, he's saved by a "young, beautiful, dark-haired woman." Or is he? Well, it's a horror story, and it's short, so if you think you see the easy way out, you're probably right. Too bad it doesn't make sense, and manages to do so in several ways at once that may fleetingly, all too fleetingly, remind you of "Bluebeard."
And why doesn't it make sense? Too little explanation. The villain has motives at two places in the story that are utterly contradictory and no explanation for the contradiction is given, nor even a hint of why the villain desires to perpetrate villainy. And, when the literary clock runs out on this tiny tale and the final scene occurs, you'll find yourself asking, "Why did that happen?" Alas, the reason seems to be that the image -- involving hungry beetles -- is cool, befits in a minor way what preceded it, but does less to help tell the story than it does to merely stop it.
by Curt Mahar
Geriatric humor horror, this dark trifle pits the good will of a Boy Scout against that of an aged book collector and cookie baker whom said Boy Scout one day helps across a busy street. Nothing here is as innocuous as it first seems, which is fine for engaging readers with minor surprises, but the real heart of the story remains the little old lady's book collection, her relationship to it, and all of the other unanswered questions that surround it. Instead of exploring why those books are important, what they mean to the woman who owns them, we get a routine account of trickery and murder, the latter of which, in the absence of a good explanation regarding its purpose, merely twiddles away what could have been a much more interesting story, leaving a pretty routine one instead.
Dark and Stormy Wishes
by Bailey Hunter
Jack's wife Sherri is a nuisance and a bother, but one night it's her demand that he investigate a stranger on their front lawn that sets the stage for the fulfillment of his deepest wish. This stranger, Heman Black, is a granter of wishes, come to see their daughter, Jessie, who declines the meeting. Jack sends Mr. Black on his way, but keeps the man's business card, a fateful decision if there ever was one. See, despite Jessie's claim to no longer want Mr. Black's service, Jack finds himself tempted. What unravels from there on is a tale of the perils of wish fulfillment, here every bit as cataclysmic as that depicted in W.W. Jacob's classic, "The Monkey's Paw," only without the panache.
One Button Eye
by Jason Robert Beirens
Not sure what Beirens is attempting, here, but I'm convinced it isn't working. The story doesn't make any sense. That said, here's what's going on: we start in fantasy land as a Raggedy Ann type character works on a clay sculpture, then we end up in the real world before quickly, very quickly, finding ourselves in fantasy land once again where we're told that the character is working on a golem as a means of escaping her unreal world and into the real one. This seems to say that what we might otherwise believe to be an unreal world is in fact the primary world of the story and that the character therefore wishes to escape a fictional world and enter a real one. Or something like that. Maybe. Dunno. Seems either that there's just not enough here to grasp what's up, or I'm insufficiently schooled in whatever code Beirens is transmitting in his story to get it.
Las Brujas Del Rio Verde
by M. Louis Dixon
Sometimes an otherwise okay story can disappoint with an ending, and that's what we have here. American fellow Gerald doesn't get much respect from his wife's Panamanian relatives while visiting them and so decides to prove his mettle by one night investigating the distant sounds coming from a nearby river that throw his wife's family into fear, causing them to mutter about witches down there and losing one's soul if foolish enough to look upon them. You might say the gauntlet is thrown down and Gerald, sophisticated city boy whose tale of suffering at the mercy of an armed robber merely makes the in-laws chuckle, marches off bravely to get his red badge of courage, as it were, by facing alleged spiritual terror. The account of his nocturnal trip is one part "The Blair Witch Project" and, ultimately, several parts disappointment as the discovery he makes affects him to inexplicable purpose. It's the latter outcome, a staple one for such stories, that begs appropriate explanation and, if not explanation, at least convincing set up. Alas, no such thing occurs, leaving us with an ending that stretches no farther than the common.
The Puppet Show
by Rick J. Brown
Great and creepy SF horror set in an ill-defined post-apocalyptic world, we meet Mark Petrov and his young daughter Leyna as they travel through a decaying city to take in a puppet show at the local theater. The usual post-apocalyptic marks are assigned -- plague, fear, paranoia, ruin, decay -- and in this milieu we are introduced to The Grinding Machines, foggy references to an invasion of some sort, and creepily-assembled-from-the-parts-of-other-human-beings "Refurbished" ones who are either shambling go-betweens from unseen invaders to humans, or simply stumbling automatons of no great purpose. There's fleeting romance, atmosphere, and an effectively building sense of dread as the mathematician father does what he can to protect his daughter in a world gone inexplicably topsy-turvy. And that's where the story bumps against its own limits. Though Petrov was a mathematician working for SETI in an attempt to communicate with the invaders, and though he might have been in a position to provide some insight into just what the hell, exactly, happened, he doesn't. Thus we find ourselves in a nightmarish world with virtually no explanation. There are reasons to write stories this way, and there are reasons not to. Brown plays his literary cards a little too close and makes what should be a satisfying story a pretty good, but ultimately frustrating, one.
by Vince Churchill
A mysterious sex plague provides the only hope for sexual gratification for a repressed woman in this tale deliberately tweaking the rape myth via choice of the central character and a modus of parasitic inflammation that is more than a little reminiscent of the similar plague in William S. Burroughs' "Cities of the Red Night," in which that disease, too, drives its victims to sexual frenzy. Except here there seems to be little purpose beyond taking an interesting idea to its very quick and foregone conclusion. Though the ending pits desperate and amoral choice against immoral injustice, this final contrast merely hangs, tripping over an oddly out-of-place theistic reference, and then the story simply ends, snipping off any potentially lingering interest.
Wings With Hot Sauce
by Fran Friel
Reading like a combination of fan-fiction and an enormous in-joke that I'm not in on, this story depicts Lucifer ("Lu") as a henpecked lug with a wife named Hillary (yes, that's right, and if you're thinking this one is that Hillary, you'd be just as right) who stops off at the local pub for a momentary respite from the wife. Marilyn Monroe is there, and Hitler, too, but aside from the name-dropping, they serve no real purpose in a story that seems as much, or as little, about an allergic reaction to hotwings as anything else. That's the trouble with jokes. Sometimes they work, sometimes not.
And Mother Makes Five
by John Mantooth
Hardboiled detective meets humor horror in this fun, no-time-for-subtlety, clash between viewpoint character, Cleveland Walker, and a demon bent on making its entry into the world through the toilet in Walker's pizzeria. The appearance of a mystery man, operating here in said hardboiled detective mode, may or may not save the day, depending on whether or not Walker can talk the kid he just fired into returning. An effective choice of viewpoint succeeds in misdirecting expectations in an otherwise straightforward battle between good and evil.
by Sunil Sadanand
Excellent conjuration of mood and atmosphere propels Sunil Sadanand's "Insensitivity" past mere plot-mongering and into more literary registers to tell the anguished story of paraplegic gunshot victim, Dennis, as he pines for a woman he will seemingly never have, nor in the ways he wants to. The title derives from his quest to feel, relates to his strange attempts to regain physical sensation, and even resonates with the one thing it does seem he feels -- which is soul-searing anguish in the face of torment he can do nothing about -- and finally connects directly to the consequences of his pain. As an examination of the casual infliction of torment it succeeds, and as an examination of how the flames of evil are fanned, it succeeds all the more.
by John Lovero
Telemarketer Ed keeps seeing a "missing child" sign inside his favorite bar till one day, on a whim, he decides to call the phone number on the sign. That's what's called an inciting incident, kiddos, making that phone call, and all of the other incidents that the call incites become more bizarre, more frightening, until it's apparent that Ed hasn't contacted merely a bereaved parent, but something else entirely. Wondering just who or what is on the other end of that line, and what will happen next as a result, is what helps generate interest in this tale of a guy quickly finding himself in over his head.
A Violent Descent Into Livid Territory
by Esteban Silvani
A by-the-numbers variation of the "it was all just a dream" story, this one is about an insurance agent, Frank McGraw, and what happens to him during a late night at work, involving a nasty run-in with a client.
Now, that sort of sums up what the story's about without giving things away, but here's why trying to tell such stories is usually a bad idea: No matter how they vary in reaching their ends, they all invariably share the same end. Yet it's one best approached not as the terminus of the story, but as an important obstacle to overcome. To merely end on an all-too common revelation halts matters in the realm of the commonplace instead of reaching past it. Reaching past it can make better stories. After all, "The Matrix" didn't merely stop when Neo discovered that the life he thought he was living was just a dream. The story moved on and excelled for it. "A Violent Descent Into Livid Territory" neither moves on nor excels.
by D.X. Williams
Here's one of the rules of horror: Dead people are evil, especially when they come back from the dead. Knowing this, you'll also know that Jack and Natalie's desire to prematurely bring their medically resurrected daughter back home is probably not a good idea -- and that it will not be a good idea in ways beyond those merely warned about by kindly Dr. Kelly, the girl's duly concerned physician.
Thus what unfolds becomes a routine trip through evil-dead land as the strangely adamant father ignores all good advice, refuses to acknowledge reality, and ends up paying for it while the bad seed snickers.
That's another one of the rules of horror, too, by the way: otherwise intelligent characters sometimes suffer situational lobotomies at the convenience of plot. Here, though, pop's situational lobotomy is thinly supported by his great love for his daughter and the desire to overcome the psychic wounds that her death inflicted upon him. "Thinly," though, is the operative term. We're told of Jack's great love for his daughter, but there's precious little here to make us believe it, and certainly nothing to make us feel it.
A great opportunity to explore the nature of the father/daughter relationship -- and to thus explain why pop is so nuts for her -- occurs when the daughter tells the mother that the father hated the mother. This dramatic opportunity fizzles into nothing, despite its Electra complex potential, and gets pushed offstage by a fairly ordinary desperate battle to the death. Ultimately, it is the reduction of what is not ordinary through the filter of ordinary handling that makes for a merely ordinary tale.
by Sara Joan Berniker
Molly and Richard dream about getting rid of their baby with the same sort of normal desire for peace and quiet that many a parent has had. Then one day a case of mistaken identity, exterminators, and the wishes made in a dream cross paths. That most readers will know by the midpoint where this story is going isn't the problem. What seems diminishing is that the very shortness of the tale seems to have robbed it of any potential for richness, if not deeper exploration of, and by, its initiating dream.
by Matt Samet
Matt Samet's "Skull Farmers" succeeds exceedingly well at putting us into the mind of a villain who offers neither apology nor explanation for his villainy beyond the great ending lines that nail things ever so stupendously down: "Because this matters. Because this matters to me. Because this is what I do."
And what does he do? Well, let's say he shares a curious gardening habit similar to that of T.S. Eliot's Stetson from "The Waste Land." You remember that one, it involves corpses, after all. Thus this great big fellow would rather watch a stranded motorist struggle in a snowstorm than lift a finger to help him, and when the poor sod comes knocking on his door, he would fain let the chap enter but for circumstances a touch beyond his control. No matter, that failed visitation. He's a patient one, and often rewarded for it.
Though readers will appropriately root for the victim, they'll just as likely find themselves fascinated with the psychology of evil as depicted here. With the exception of one or two minor confusions, first-rate stuff.
by R.J. Cavender
A snuff film killer catches a case of conscience in a story evoking a strong sense of pathétique in its account of the terrible days of our narrator and a buddy, Dodger, doing their awful work for Stu and some creepy clients who happily pay for footage of people getting horribly tortured and killed. It's what they do to a particular victim, Amanda, and how she reacts throughout, that haunts one half of the dynamic sicko duo. There's rhythm here, thrumming through the prose, and it's for this that readers will wish for more grounding of the primary character, wish to know more about him and who he is and how he came to be and why, because in that rhythm is a voice that has something to say. That we learn nothing of the narrator beyond his turning point leaves us no reason to feel moved by his psychological transformation from heartless killer to one with a bad conscience. Yet to evaluate the story solely on the merits of character development would be unfair, because the dramatic force of "Scavenger Hunt" depends less on his transformation and more upon the story's critique of and commentary on genre (and those who read it). But there's the problem: just as the primary character seems ill defined and ambiguous, so too the lacerating message in this art -- as if the telegraphic transmissions of setting, detail, circumstance, theory, leave out a few too many dots and dashes. Thus an interesting idea finds its possibilities dulled by a lack of sharpness. What we're left with is a pretty good case of literary "might have been."
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