Grave Possessions, edited by Thomas Deja

grave-possessions-edited-by-thomas-deja coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Cyber-Pulp
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Dennis Kriesel

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Grave Possessions: Horror Stories in the Amicus Tradition, edited by Thomas Deja, is an anthology of fourteen horrific stories tied together under a common theme. In this book, all the stories feature some trinket from a mysterious shop, Amicus’ Curiosities and Mysteries. Deja utilizes a transition element between all the stories, and that provides for an entertaining tie-in often lacking from an anthology. Though such an effort is much appreciated, this book could stand alone on the stories within. Though quality varies story by story (and hence why we’ll look at them all), overall this is one impressive collection of horror.

The anthology leads off with “The Empty Spiral,” by Shikhar Dixit. Norman Pennyworth goes to the Amicus shop and obtains a book and sets out to translate it. The language is like nothing he has ever seen before. What he discovers is something far more impressive, and horrific, than any musty old book. Dixit’s setting of mood and atmosphere is top-notch, though the brief dialogue scenes were hard to understand. The reader sees that Pennyworth is getting into trouble while translating the book, but likewise feels the man’s need to complete the task. Like watching a train wreck, you just can’t peel your eyes away from this one. This was a great story to open the anthology with.

Spencer Allen’s “For Baby” tells the tale of a father reminiscing about his wife when their child was born. This isn’t a bunch of memories full of sunshine and rainbows, however. It seems hubby bought a rattle for his child-to-be, and this trinket starts exerting a hold over his wife. She zealously starts to baby-proof everything, and what begins as almost comical quickly becomes disturbing (the worst has to be a scene with the family dog). Allen knows how to play up the freak-out sort of terror one usually can only hope to find. The very end bothered me a bit; it answers one’s questions, but was a bit corny (I like corn, but most of the story didn’t feel like corn to me, so I found the tactic surprising). Still, a small point, as this was my favorite tale in the whole anthology (how could it not be, I had to check my dog to make sure he was okay after reading it).

“Crazy Ivan,” by Andrew Furguson, follows Susan, a woman who lives in the same apartment building with a man considered crazy (hence Crazy Ivan; get it? If not, well, you probably shouldn’t be reading at all). The man snips off a piece of Susan’s hair (who then becomes a bit freaked). The man attempts to explain why he did so. All throughout, you have no idea if the man is on to something or just crazy (and how Susan will deal with all this). Disturbing in its odd way, the strength of this piece does not lie in horror, but rather in Furguson’s powerful usage of dialogue and overall storytelling. I had a lot of fun reading this one. Most impressive.

Lawrence Barker’s “Number Twenty-Four” follows a second-grade teacher, Margot Kindeschreck, upon her day after she pilfers a key from the Amicus shop. This key, depicting a number of engravings of children, calls to Margot, though she doesn’t understand way. Eventually, one of her students (Thespis) appears. It is after school, and Thespis isn’t talking much (he never talks much), so Margot tries to figure out what’s wrong. She suspects child abuse, but we readers know it must be more than that, and that the key is, well, the key. Barker builds up some good suspense all the way through, and ends in a satisfying way (though a way that begs for another story to continue the tale). Not a lot of explanation happens in this story, and you won’t understand why Thespis does what he does (and likewise Margot). Usually, stories lacking justification annoy me, but Barker has crafted this in such a way that its embrace of the unknown seems deliberate and well done. A good read.

“The Curious Satchel,” by M. F. Korn, D. F. Lewis, and David Mathew, is a curious read. This follows Tom, a private eye, who is hired by a strange doctor to watch over a satchel. Tom has his doubts, but money talks and Tom decides to do the job. Something is in this satchel, and that something seems to involve time distortion, but I couldn’t really figure much else out. Tom has a lot of inner monologue, and though this tries for the noir style, I found it difficult to interpret at points. Likewise, once I thought I understood Tom’s plan of action to deal with the satchel, nothing in terms of action seemed to occur. There is a lot about Tom and his life that doesn’t really play a role. Likewise, the repetitive nature of the tale, while integral to the plot, just goes on for too long. In summation, this story was just too lengthy to hold my interest, and required too much work (yeah, I’m lazy, but I’m the reader so it’s allowed) for me to follow.

Greg Beatty’s “The 200th Minute Man,” is a tale of a boy and his babysitter. Jordan doesn’t want a babysitter, but quickly decides that Angie is cool, especially when she offers to read his fortune. The story flows along like contemporary fiction for quite a while, though don’t let that dissuade you from this; Beatty crafts an entrancing story. I especially liked the fortune telling with a mish-mash of cards from assorted games and collections. The statues of minute men don’t play much of a role (other than they are some of the cards), but the story starts to assume a dark overtone as Angie’s readings progress. Beatty tricked me several times; just when I was sure I knew where the story was going, I was thrown for a loop. So what’s the best part? Jordan at the end of the tale, as he is a lot different than at the beginning. I’ll leave it at that; read to find out how.

“Three,” by Paul G. Tremblay, is an odd tale that is told from three characters’ perspectives who meet up at the end of the story. Trevor is having a bad experience with insects. Rachel is seeing disturbing images in reflections. And Iris is a crazy homeless lady with an obsession over red trash bins and collecting garbage. Now, I really enjoy this approach when it works, and Tremblay does balance the sections out well. The problem is, of the three characters, the only “real” one is Iris. Trevor and Rachel are little more than objects that experience an event; they accomplish nothing, nor do they try. The horror that manifests is disturbing, but it is never really explained or opposed. As such, I wasn’t satisfied by the end of this piece. Tremblay does a good job, especially with Iris, in terms of expressing internal thoughts and fears, but the lack of a reason and the lack of a protagonist hurt this tale.

James Cain’s “The Drain” is about a date going bad. Real bad. Brian and Mary go into a park, where some strange sounds are stemming from a drain. When the two draw near, a monster appears and kidnaps Mary. Brian runs, but once going home decides to arm himself and get Mary back. Overall, this story works decently. It is a bit slow at points (we don’t need Brian developed to the extent he is; his background plays no real role in this story), but overall Cain keeps up a good pace. The scene before the monster appears and the scene when Brian is tracking it are the best in terms of suspense and storytelling. The “twist” ending wasn’t all that surprising, but does fit well with the style Cain used for the story overall, and offers a good, clean ending (well, “clean” is debatable, depending on how you use the word).

“Master Key,” by Stephen D. Rogers, is about a woman on the way to her parents’ funeral. She’s late, as she ended up getting delayed. During her hindrance, she obtains a key from the Amicus shop which can supposedly open any lock (and hey, it gets her into her car, so it seems plausible). Rogers spends a lot of time on the woman and her view of herself and her family. This works well, as this tale is one of emotion. Rogers puts in some suspense once the woman enters the funeral home (after everyone else has left), but really this is more of a darkly romantic tale, and that’s where its strengths shine through. Sad but enjoyable, the flow of this piece is drastically different than anything else in the anthology, and a welcome change of pace.

Christine A. Verstraete’s “Dead Books, Old Things and Circus Dreams” is about Myra Madison, a young girl fascinated with the sequined performers of the circus. She receives a book as a gift with all sorts of pictures from a circus, one which supposedly disappeared years before. At school, Myra sees a flyer for the circus, the very circus from her book. She sets off to join it. The horrors don’t really get going until Myra joins the circus, where she is taken under the wing of a former elephant trainer (which is what Myra wants to be). Bad things happen at night, though, and Myra is warned about being out at night. Her curiosity gets the best of her, and she soon learns what happens at night. This story has a lot of levels that Verstraete doesn’t explain, and that works (they aren’t critical to the tale, and having little things “hinted” are always a fun touch). However, the very end of this tale could have used some more explanation, as Myra’s final act shown to the reader doesn’t really make much sense from any psychological or physiological action presented in the story. A bit more would have helped that. Overall, this is a strong, entertaining story, and a definite fun read.

“Booby Trap,” by Ed Lynskey, is about Ben Knuckledrag, a scavenger and low-level thief. He hears about an old lady who he finds to be an eligible target for a robbery, and sets out to make his fortune. Lynskey gives time to both Ben and the old lady’s viewpoints, and that helps. The ending scene is a great conclusion, and overall this is a piece that entertains in a pulp-style telling. The biggest drawback was the dialogue. The attempt to portray dialect succeeds in revealing such a thing exists, but I found it inaccessible and burdening to read. Most of the story doesn’t have this problem though, and so if you like pulp horror you should like this.

James Dorr’s “Store Teeth” is about William Arcola, a man who has to get his teeth pulled. They are replaced by some special, permanent dentures. These teeth are so special, they behave like living beings. William starts to figure this out, but eventually things get out of control. This is an obvious vampire tale, but the unique approach Dorr takes is commendable. The problem is, since it is clearly about a vampire, the buildup to the climax felt slow and overly explanative. A great deal is made about Ben and Ms. Celaeno (the dentist’s assistant who has similar teeth to Ben’s new set) and their relationship; this is well developed, but the length just feels more like one would want in a novel, not a short story. The story has a great conclusion, and I love how Dorr reveals new and interesting things about the teeth all the way through the tale.

Allan Guthrie’s “The Bunker” follows Kevin, a young man bent on avenging his brother’s murder. Kevin has all the good tools for revenge: listening bugs, disguises, and even some trusty explosives. He gets caught, however, and thrown into a bunker. That’s when the sounds begin. Kevin’s plan isn’t wholly clear, but it is interesting to see him in action. The bunker comes across as high on the creep factor, thanks to Guthrie’s expert telling. The ending, alas, leaves something to be desired. It isn’t clear if what Kevin saw and heard was real or an illusion, but given the reality of how the tale concludes, I am left to ask, “Why?” It just didn’t make sense. Still, with such great action and well-done dialogue, this isn’t a story you’ll want to miss (unless you hate good dialogue and action, in which case you’re reading the wrong anthology).

The last story is “The Final Drawings of Elliot Tobitt, Animator,” by Kevin James Miller. Tobitt is found dead in his studio, having been completing an animation different than his other works. One that is realistic, as opposed to his zany cartoons that made him famous. Miller’s tale bounces to the views of a host of characters; so many that I worried I’d never keep them straight. My concerns were unfounded. Miller provides enough information during each shift for the reader to understand, and he reveals the relevance all the characters have to Tobitt quickly, efficiently, and strongly. The ending is disturbing in its surreal happenings, but again, Miller comes through with an adequate explanation of what is going on. The characters all receive appropriate development and are expressed in interesting ways. This isn’t the sort of story that usually appeals to me, but Miller’s skill with the pen makes me glad I read it. A nice tale to conclude with.

Overall, Grave Possessions is a strong horror anthology. It consists of a mix of authors who all have their own approach to the subject matter, and the diversity in content is most welcome. Personally, I favored the tales which used the objects from the Amicus shop as the source for the plot, but I guess I just like stories where freaky objects cause bad things to happen. Also of note is the quality copy editing. That always seems like such a minor thing, but broken grammar and bad spelling drive me crazy (I only recall encountering one typo in the entire book). This anthology is definitely worth the purchase price, if you have any sort of taste for horror. Bravo to Mr. Deja and the authors edited within.

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