CyberPulp’s Halloween Anthology 2.0, edited by Bob Gunner

cyberpulps-halloween-anthology-2-0-edited-by-bob-gunner coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Cyber-Pulp
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Dennis Kriesel

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I do enjoy reading horror stories, be they campy or serious, so long as they’re good. Cyber-Pulp’s Halloween Anthology 2.0, edited by Bob Gunner, has 34 tales set around the darkest holiday of the year (well, unless you really hate Thanksgiving). To judge the beast as a whole, one must look at the little parts that make it up, which is what I’ve done.

“A Life,” by John Heeder, follows the destructive life of a man named Jackson. He has been most naughty, and while in jail for murder is approached by Lucian, a lawyer who likes good suits and bad people. Lucian, a supernatural being, takes Jackson on a tour of his life, in order to explain the fee for his representation. Heeder has taken a storyline well known from Dickens as the drive for this tale, and as such many of the scenes will not be surprising. Still, overall it was enjoyable to read. Heeder has trouble in the beginning getting the story to flow well; it feels choppy and rushed, as if he didn’t really want to put in the beginning problems with Jackson, but needed to so that the story had a comprehensible plot. Once Jackson meets his lawyer, however, the story becomes smooth, engaging, and entertaining. Though a few other sections are a bit rough, quality storytelling coupled with good grammar usage makes the overall piece easy to read and enjoy.

David Bain’s “A Pleasure to Burn” is tale about Rafe Johnson, a famous movie star with a dark past. Many know about his father’s death, but they don’t know the whole truth. Rafe goes back to the house where the infamous event happened, to confront the demons of his past. Little does he know that Sandra Petosky, tabloid journalist, has tailed him to the house. This story is quite good. Bain develops a thick level of suspense and provides a depth to Rafe that is often lacking in short stories. Though the ending elements don’t compare to the quality that comes before, overall this story is incredibly entrancing. A must-read.

“Scary Black Clothes,” by Alex Severin, is a tale following two people: a woman who is into vampires and a man who thinks the woman is a vampire. The story is brief, so I won’t reveal anything else. Overall, though, the story didn’t work for me very well. Severin uses way too many semicolons (just because it is grammatically legal doesn’t mean you should do it), which sort of gives a poetic flare, but mostly just looks weird and is distracting. The biggest problem I had was in the division of the viewpoints between the woman and man; nothing demarcates when a shift will occur, meaning I often was confused when starting a new paragraph that contained a viewpoint shift. This story does have some good elements. Severin is very symbolic, and his descriptors add to the feel of the tale. Likewise, the last line takes a predictable story and gives it a bit more excitement. Overall, though, this is just too cliche and rough for my tastes.

Amy Grech’s “Damp Wind and Leaves” is about Jeff, an older teenage boy in love with Halloween. His family is hosting a party, and he is dressed up to entertain, since he can’t go out for candy anymore. Grech explores Jeff’s emotions about growing older through the context of Halloween. This story isn’t really horrific, but is an enjoyable read. Neither disgustingly perky nor ridden with angst, Grech offers up a tale that speaks to what Halloween can mean to someone, regardless of their age. The ending is a bit abrupt, but otherwise the pacing and language employed suits the story well. This was a great change of pace to have in the anthology.

“Dark Night of the Black Ghost,” by Tom Johnson, is a tale that takes some elements of horror and blends them with action, adventure, and mystery. Jimmy Malone is helping his father investigate the murder of a medical scientist who conducted cruel experiments on animals. Though Jimmy exists outwardly as one who is independently wealthy, he also functions as a masked vigilante known as the Black Ghost. In this story, he seeks to unravel the mystery of the scientist’s murder. As this plot sounds, the story feels much like a comic book story, and approaching it in that light is for the best. Johnson does put together a decent mystery, and loads the tale with action. Nonetheless, there are quite a few flaws with this story, and overall they detract quite a bit. First is the plethora of grammar and spelling violations (e.g., “it’s” for “its”, “wonder” for “wander”, etc.). If eBook publishing is ever to increase in respectability, then the editing is going to have to match the quality found in most printed books. Some errors getting through are unavoidable, but the quantity in this story just looks sloppy. Some other problems are related to writing style. Johnson’s text often feels wordy, and is overly thick with adverbs and dialogue that comes across as stiff and unnatural. The story also refers back to other events with parenthetical references to the stories which hosted them. Though this would work fine in a nonfiction piece, this is a tale, not a research paper, and as such these insertions just break up the flow and come across as weak substitutes for providing the information directly in this story. Overall, Johnson’s product would be better if the story was a novel and everything about the Black Ghost was provided, or if the story was shorter and more work was done to keep this particular tale self-contained. The mystery and action are interesting in this piece, and in a Black Ghost anthology some of my complaints would be dissipated. As it is, though, this is just too awkward of an insertion in its current form to work for me.

Zahid Zaman’s “Dark Woods” is a story about a man heading to a Halloween party. His car breaks down, and while walking for help he finds a woman trapped and in some sort of ritual. This story could have been good. Zaman conveys a decent amount of suspense, especially at the end of the tale. Though the story is a little too much “tell don’t show” for me to get behind, the narrative approach Zaman uses may appeal to others. However, overall this is just not a very good piece of writing. I hate saying that about a story, but honestly, there is no reason this should have made it into the anthology. I’m not talking about the approach Zaman took; I’m talking about the basic rules to writing. I encountered numerous typos, the worst being so many possessives lacking their apostrophes that I thought that a computer must have stripped them all out. Occasionally Zaman would use italics, but most of the time thoughts were not separate from the overall narration, resulting in sentences ending with the wrong punctuation marks, which only added to the distraction. The worst, however, was when I saw two violations of “there” versus “their”, and a blatant shift at one point from third person to first person and back again. I have no idea if Zaman writes English as a foreign language acquired later in life, but though this piece is understandable, the errors make it impossible to enjoy. Serious editing is needed, and like I said above, eBooks will have trouble being respectable compared to print publication if errors like this can make it through. Some people may be able to overlook these flaws; I am (obviously) not one of them.

“Beware the Death Angel,” by Jason Brannon, follows Wallace, a recent emigrant to the South. His wife calls to have him pick up some candy for Halloween, when he discovers that isn’t candy this town buys. It’s meat. This is a really good story. The suspense is excellent, and Wallace paces the tale well. Some elements I first suspected were overly simplified, only to find Brannon tricking me yet again with another twist to the story. A great read from start to finish, I gladly recommend this one to fans of the supernatural.

Nancy Jackson’s “From the Seeds” is a tale involving a pumpkin patch covering (literally) a nasty secret. As Halloween rolls around, vines spring to life and start killing townspeople. This is the sort of spooky story that ones expects, and wants, to hear during Halloween time. Jackson works with suspense well, and likewise provides ample explanation as to why these vines are killing people. There were a few problems where pronoun usage confused me as to who was actually doing what, but these were very minor. Overall, this is the sort of story I would expect to get out of a Halloween anthology of horror, and expect it will satisfy many readers hungry for the same.

“Last of the An,” by John A. Burks, Jr., is about Jeremiah, a law enforcement officer who is renowned as a hero. A few years before, Jeremiah killed the last of the ‘An, a group of vile beasts that were the opposition in a hard-fought war. Jeremiah knows that there is at least one ‘An left, but to the world they are long gone. The story has a major twist; I predicted it before the revelation (well, part of it), but that doesn’t lessen the story’s entertainment value. Most of the time Burks talks about the ‘An and the conflict against them. There are a number of typos that distract from the story, but for the most part the writing is solid. An enjoyable read.

Mike Sheer’s “Halloweenie” involves a crass Halloween costume, a car accident, and disregarded attempts to get help. Sheer’s story plays off the concept of reality being ignored because of the nature of Halloween. Well-written and sad, Sheer develops his characters adequately while keeping the story flowing along. The ending may leave many annoyed, but I think it concludes the tale in a manner fitting to its overall tone. A great job by Sheer.

“Cafe Sinister,” by Desiree Coulter, follows Blue, a young singer who meets a mysterious stranger on the stage during a performance one evening. That evening is, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Halloween. Though the involvement with the stranger and ending revelation are well written, there isn’t really a sense of surprise to this story. What really stood out for me was the scene involving Blue, the stranger, and the band performing. Coulter really sets the mood behind the music and its emotional impact on people (though I still don’t understand how someone can have a “smooth-gravel” voice). That alone is reason enough to read this tale.

Steve Goldsmith’s “The Flute Playing Tramp” is another story with a musical element, though this one far more graphic and disturbing than Coulter’s piece. Herbert is a homeless man with a talent for music. Decades before, as a child, his musical education was terminated because of the antics of jealous peers. Herbert, grappling with his station and his sanity, takes action. Goldsmith doesn’t waste time in this tale; he quickly develops Herbert so that the reader can understand and sympathize with the situation. As things progress, however, horrific elements manifest that are both shocking and fascinating. This is one of the best stories of the anthology, and I highly recommend it.

“Such Bitter Business,” by G. W. Thomas, follows a book collector after a rare book. This book is an evil magic book, and this book collector carries a gun, knows magic, and is pursuing an alien slug-creature that can take over bodies. Does this sound weird to you? It is, but believe it or not, it works. Thomas blends healthy doses of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and thriller together to make a fascinating read. This has the flair and feel of detective noir, right down to the first-person narration. Thomas provides enough detail to let the reader know what’s going on, but resists putting in so much that the story drags. A great balance of genres so smooth you’d think it happens all the time, Thomas provides something unique and original. Read this story; it’s my second-favorite in the anthology.

A. P. Fuchs’s “Mr. Jitterbones” is about Jack, a homeless man living in London’s East End. It’s been about a year since Jack the Ripper (no, homeless Jack is not the Ripper, so don’t ask) plagued the populace, and homeless Jack is remembering that event and Halloween in general. Later on, Jack meets the mysterious Mr. Jitterbones. Fuchs really makes the reader care for Jack, and the overall suspense is only outdone by the portrayal of London’s East End, from the buildings to the Cockney accents. The nature of Mr. Jitterbones, and the end of the story, left me with more confusion than I care for, but I know some readers don’t mind unanswered questions. The story is good, especially for its historic setting, which offered a good change of pace in this anthology.

“Kenny’s Worst-Best Halloween Ever,” by Leila Eadie, is a feel-good story about Kenny, a small boy without many friends. He’s stuck home alone on Halloween, until a group of strange, friendly kids come along and invite him to walk the street for candy with them. The revelation of the story isn’t surprising, but Eadie puts this piece together so well that it’s just plain fun to read.

Eric B. Anderson’s “Sica” is a story about a family of cannibals. Most of it focuses on how this particular eating preference came to be, and the power it bestows. Anderson’s writing is both dark and solid. He does an alternation style between the events of the family (in third person) and a journal written by Celia (in first person). The tactic is effective and functions well as both an enticing hook and a method to break up the tale. This is quite good.

“Vixen-Naked Ultra-Luncheon,” by Hertzan Chimera, is a graphic, carnage-laden tale. It starts off with Vincent Lavender, a man experiencing some difficulties, encounters Gleeson, a friend from his youth. >From there, the story shifts setting to a brothel where a massive freak-show orgy begins. That’s about all that’s worth saying about the plot. This story didn’t work for me. Chimera has a strong command of the language, and he does paint the settings and events with detailed strokes of shocking gore and absurdity. However, it is just too detailed. Chimera doesn’t leave much for the imagination; he dictates every horror with such precision you might as well just look at a series of pictures. That isn’t a bad thing alone, but there is no story to back any of this up. Nothing explains the unique nature of the brothel, why Vincent agrees to everything despite his reservations, and why Gleeson exposed Vincent to the place at all. In addition, though Chimera obviously knows English well, his vocabulary selection is inconsistent. He uses words that are anachronistic and/or obscure, and words that are quite modern and crude. It all falls short. Dennis Miller can mix the crass with the pretentious, but that doesn’t mean just anybody can mix it all together and expect it to taste good. In summation, this story is a pointless exercise in gore with no substance behind it. If you like splatterpunk, regardless of anything else behind it, this may work for you, but if you want an actual plot look elsewhere.

Angeline Hawkes-Craig’s “The Highwayman of Epping Forest” is the story of Wyatt Campbell, a Scottish highwayman known for his ruthlessness in dealing with those who cross his path, regardless of age or station. After a day of robbing and killing, Campbell decides to camp in the forest. This night is special, as it is the pagan holiday of Samhain. During the evening, Campbell sees that there is more to Samhain than just superstition. Hawkes-Craig handles the written word well; Campbell receives ample development and the settings are vivid without being stifling. Though the course this story takes is neither unique nor surprising, the journey there is entertaining, and that’s all that really matters. Another good read from this anthology.

“House of Death,” by Angela Preuss, follows four kids (Aaron, Joel, Rosa, and Bridgett) who are at a deserted house to spook it up for Halloween. The house was once home to a Satan-worshipping murderer, and as the legend has it, after five years time something else is to happen. Of course, it has been five years. Preuss offers up a campy Halloween tale. She gets the pacing right, and the descriptions fit well for the style. However, this isn’t tongue-in-cheek (or if it was, it wasn’t blatant enough to be clear), and as such there are just too many errors than I can forgive. Formatting is mostly strong, but some of the dialogue elements were incorrect. Not that this mattered, because the dialogue was really fake anyway (I’m sorry, but I’m not going to believe that someone will say, right after throwing up, “They are dead. It’s going to be all right, though.” Even a campy story can have good dialogue). In addition, some of the actions taken are pretty corny. Again, this would work great if this was a spoof or something, but it isn’t. Having someone be a “dead on” accurate pocket knife thrower just breaks the flow. The last action scene, where Aaron meets the killer, is so contrived that I couldn’t believe how blatant it was at just wrapping everything up. In summation, this story is sort of fun (and it could have been a whole lot of fun, if it had taken a humorous approach on purpose), but one can only laugh so much at bad storytelling before it gets old.

Dan Foley’s “It’s in the Bag” as about Pete and a demon. They go way back, you see, and this story covers there first meeting and why Pete continues to visit the demon every Halloween. This is just a fun story that is perfect for the anthology. Foley writes well, both in form and style. It isn’t revolutionary, nor is it trite. It’s just one of those good things that livens up your day. I had a lot of fun with this.

“Iris,” by Marcia A. Borell and James C. Wardlaw, deals with loss. First and foremost is a mother and her missing daughter. Secondly is a father, who first loses his dog, and then finds out he lost his daughter. I just couldn’t get into this tale. Borell and Wardlaw make the setting vivid (particularly the landscape), but I just couldn’t feel any emotion. None of the characters seemed real, and the dialogue was cliche in its phrasing. The father’s daughter just sort of appearing on the scene only added to the confusion, a confusion that never really sorted out by the end.

James S. Dorr’s “Lobster Boy and the Hand of Satan” follows a group of carnies, three in particular. These three decide to go out, disguised as children, for Halloween, performing tricks while robbing the folks that let them in. Lobster Boy, one of the carnies, is the pilferer. His deformed hands cause a bit of trouble, however, with one particular old lady. Straightforward and predictable, the story is a nice read because of how well it is written. Dorr develops Lobster Boy enough so that the reader both sympathizes and dislikes him. This is another good example of what I’d expect to find in an anthology such as this.

“October Skulls,” by Tim Curran, is another story involving theft. Rainey wants to hit an old man’s house. He’s seen the safe and knows the guy has money. Rainey’s partner is in prison, so he takes along Cryer, a guy who’s pretty big but also pretty dumb. As the two rob the house, which has a sort of pumpkin decoration fetish, they begin to notice things aren’t so simple. Curran has a great story here. Well written, vivid, developed, and entrancing, this just flew by for me. One scene in particular, where Rainey is trying to leave the house, was so suspenseful that it blew me away. This is the best story in the anthology; read it.

Constance Gelvin’s “The Disappearer” is about a man who kills kids on Halloween. The reasons for this (besides the obvious mental imbalance) date back to a past Halloween when the man was ridiculed. Despite all this, I didn’t enjoy this story. It rambled about and felt slow, but wasn’t extreme about it. Gelvin has all the elements needed, and obviously has the story structured appropriately. I think the biggest problem was the language. A writer takes a risk when they elect to use dialect to impart a certain feel to the reader. This is pretty common to attempt in dialogue, but sometimes authors try to do it in narration, too. I’ve seen it fail in both forms, but in the latter format it tends to be a major gamble. Gelvin uses a southern tone in both dialogue and narration, with the end result being a headache for the reader to wade through. It’s just too much.

“Ole Hallows Eve,” by L. Marie Wood, is the retelling of a time when a father and child went out amongst the walking dead. Or, I think it is. Wood writes the entire thing in a very heavy dialect, which was too distracting for me to ever really get into the tale. Likewise, it is written in the form of a person telling a story, meaning this piece suffers from a case of “tell don’t show”. The story is quite brief, so this particular tactic isn’t too disruptive, but combined with the dialect it was just too much for me to enjoy. The story is sound, though, and I imagine others may enjoy it more than I did.

Lisa Mantchev’s “Through a Gently Revolving Door” follows Vera, a lonely woman who wants to have a child. Her husband takes her to a boring corporate event on Halloween, on board a ship. Vera gets a little much to drink, and starts seeing a little girl running about. She tries to follow. Mantchev’s story reads well and fits into the anthology’s theme nicely. A bit predictable but a solid telling, Mantchev provides a tale that could help make horror a respected genre, if more like it appeared.

“The Bridge,” by Kevin A. Christinat, is about a man and woman who go to visit a supposedly haunted bridge outside of Wichita, Kansas. Nothing is encountered, but after the visit the man starts to have terrible dreams about the woman supposedly haunting the location. As time goes on, the dreams get worse, and the man’s resolve grows. This story is really good. Christinat tells it in first person, and that really helps, especially when the dreams start to set in. The ending is a great twist, both surprising and fulfilling in how it ties everything together. The emotions feel real, perhaps because Christinat mixes in the mundane with the suspense (and hey, life has a lot of mundane moments). This is a blast to read, and I highly recommend it (my forth-favorite story).

Pasquale J. Morrone’s “The Pumpkin Man” takes the reader into the life of Bobby, a boy forced to move to the country. His family’s economic status being higher than other townsfolk, he finds himself without any friends. On Halloween, while pursuing candy, an old woman introduces Bobby to her creation: The Pumpkin Man. Just what this Pumpkin Man can do doesn’t manifest directly with Bobby, but its importance nonetheless is conveyed to him. Morrone presents a brief, compelling tale professionally told. Another strong addition to the anthology.

“The Ticking of the Clock,” by M. J. Hewitt, is about Adrian, a clock vendor trying to deal with a very annoying clock that is driving him insane. Or, that’s what I think it is about. Hewitt tries to impart the feelings of insanity Adrian has to the reader, but the effort, though obvious, falls well short of what is needed. This story is plagued by a feel of run-on sentences, combined with bad grammar and an almost sporadic flow. The idea is a good one, but this really needed some working over, by Hewitt and/or the editor, before it actually appeared for public consumption.

David Lester Snell’s “Tooth Decay” is about a boy, Mikey, who is pressured by some bullies to knock on a spooky house’s door. Upon doing so, he sees a kindly old lady, who has a couple tricks up her sleeve as well. I didn’t see where this was going originally, and credit to Snell for making such a unique and entertaining transition. A nifty little moral included, too. This is another fine story; I’m glad it was included.

“Guardian Bear,” by Philip Robinson, is about a cult-like hold an author has on a huge fan base. Guardian Bear, unknown to anyone, publishes a novel that is available every Halloween. Only 1.5 million copies are printed, and their ink disappears shortly thereafter, requiring the books to be read immediately. To one person, something special happens after she finishes her book. Robinson dedicates a great deal to portraying the mystique Guardian Bear has, and that is definitely the story’s strong suit. I particularly enjoyed the scene where a reporter and an anchor discuss the books and their hold over people. Robinson puts everything into a solid context (well, except that I couldn’t accept that copies of a book that disappears wouldn’t have a huge demand; even purists would likely want the text to refer to again, if the books were any good), and it really is a lot of fun to consider the possibilities. This story has the potential to lead into something longer, as I’m sure Robinson is aware.

C. Dennis Moore’s “Terrible Thrills” is about one of those spooky Halloween CDs, the ones with the sound effects. Divided into two parts, Moore presents the reader with a very vivid accounting of the power of sound. Or, in this case, the supernatural power of sound. Detailed, involved, and direct, this is another major success in this anthology. Tied as my third-favorite story.

“After the Beep,” by Megan Powell, is about a woman whose protective father insists she have a cell phone. The only problem is calls keep coming for an Eric Sears, who the woman assumes to have been the past possessor of the phone number. Annoyance leads to humor, which leads back to annoyance. It all appears fairly normal, except for the diversity and type of calls that come in for Sears. The seriousness of it all comes through at the very end. A good read with solid storytelling (the first person element worked wonderfully), I wanted more to read, since it was getting quite interesting. A definite success; read this one (tied as my third-favorite story).

The final story is Bob Gunner’s “Double-Feature Midnight Movie.” It starts with a girl, April, inviting her neighbor, Jonathan, on a double-feature double date at an old movie theater. The horror itself revolves around this theater, and a tragic accident that happened there. A good deal of the story focuses on Jonathan and his feelings about April. Although this has some uplifting qualities, it just doesn’t matter to the meat of the story. Also, the nature of the theater’s past force a great deal of it to be told, rather than shown, which dilutes its effectiveness. When bad things start to happen around Jonathan and company, it all flows nicely and has a satisfactory conclusion.

This anthology is a success overall. There are a few stories I didn’t like, and a few that just shouldn’t have been included, regardless of taste, but most of the tales are decent or better. It’s those “betters” that really make reading this a lot of fun. It’s free to download, so anyone who wants to sample some of these Halloween moments has no reason not to.

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