Dark Shadows on the Moon, by John B. Ford

dark-shadows-on-the-moon-by-john-b-ford coverGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Hive Press
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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There’s this huge orchestra, see, and in it are all the expected instruments and sections, yeah yeah, all the brass and strings and woodwinds and percussion and even some vocalists, and looking at all that stuff you think, “Wow, 35 stories in this little orchestra of a book and from it all the conductor is going to give us some cool strains of horror.”

At center stage steps one of the percussionists, maybe he (or she) is nattily dressed, a really competent-looking soul, and this percussionist holds a triangle, sparkling, gilded, eye-catching. And this percussionist dings that triangle and oh how that sound pierces your soul and makes you shiver and think, “Shazam! this cat knows what he’s doing!” then he dings that triangle again and again and again and again and again and a-frikkin-gain, maybe with an occasionally plucked violin string or vocalist groan for accompaniment.

This lasts for the whole show, those 35 stories, and you think a third of the way through it, “Oh my God, this fellow isn’t going to make use of the rest of the orchestra; he really digs that triangle.” Then, by the end, you discover that, hey, you’re right.

This is somewhat my experience reading John B. Ford’s Dark Shadows on the Moon. It’s a swell-looking package with lots of tiny stories in it to remind you why there’s a “short” in short story, after all, but the bell that keeps dinging here is: characters suffer and die. Nothing really wrong with that, in theory, except most of the time you don’t really care, which is a problem, and there seems to be no real point to it, which is another problem.

The result is that many of the stories come off looking as if they’re dodging the hard work of being about something, and being so in such a way you care about the characters, their suffering, and can draw some sort of point from the tales. Now, I suppose we could view these as existentialist / nihilistic works that exist only to remind us of our own unavoidable suffering and torment, but that looks like excuse-making. What really seems evident is that the stories remain so short because the usual stuff about characters striving against adversity, even though they may ultimately fail, isn’t there; they are engaged against forces they cannot hope to defeat and that crush them, easily. One or two of these types of stories are okay in isolation, but a whole batch of them becomes tiresome, and there are a whole batch of them here, including numerous and disappointingly similar takes on the old Sargasso Sea stories…

Bearing that in mind, there are some good works here, and even an excellent one or two. “Strange One Off the Rails” is tip-top, managing to accompany Ford’s golden-age-of-horror prose style (which is consistently well-done in all of the stories, I might add) with a literary air imparted by the effects of obscurity and symbolic repetition daring your interpretation. It’s about a guy who meets the ghost of an old steam engine engineer who laments their passing and replacement by the newer diesel rigs. This one has something to say about paying respects, and it’s so spare you’ll be tempted to wish for more, but some things, like ghosts, must remain fleeting.

“A Visit to the Gooja Bird” is a story about a terribly depressed guy who dreams of the titular Gooja Bird and how his depression is cured, and what makes it work is not its optimism but that it has something to say which is at once fantastical and interesting and surreal; there is a sense that a story has transpired and that in two brief pages you’ve been on a meaningful journey.

Among the darker tales the best are “The Rose of Lamia” and “The Darkest of All Healings.” In the former, the narrator dares fate thusly, “Forces of goodness or evil I challenge, enlighten me, enrapture me with the complete knowledge of all.” Thereafter, he quickly finds himself crossed over the threshold of dreams into a land of darkness where he meets Destiny, a weeping and pale woman in whose sunlit garden grows the white rose of lamia. She weeps for her garden which perpetually withers and dies around that rose, and when the narrator wants to kiss her, she tells him first to sniff the pallid bloom. When he does, things take Ford’s usual doomward direction, except here it works because there’s a sense of story transaction, of a process completed between the text and reader that seems much more a satisfaction than a cheat or an easy exit, plus it has all the Joseph Campbellian monomythic qualities an archetypal critic could hope for. Too bad the editor didn’t lop off the ending couplet. Who needs to be reminded that Destiny awaits us all?

“The Darkest of All Healings” is an engaging take on the narrator-who-has-amnesia story, though it dips its bifurcated tongue into downright cliched imagery to at last pull the veil off who the narrator eventually meets after, asleep in his bedroom one night, he is awakened by an evil yellow-faced figure who tells him, “Your presence is demanded; the Healer has summoned you!” Thereafter the narrator travels to meet the Healer, wonders who he is, and delights in the suffering of others — all of which makes us wonder if this is the kind of guy Rosemary’s baby would grow up to be, and … well, you get the picture. The success here derives from the out-of-the-ordinary character and the nature of his identity, not to mention his amusing mixture of shame and guilt when taking pleasure in the torment and pain of others. You could say the ending is unexpected, except in this collection it really isn’t. But it is nonetheless a successful and satisfying one because it is so antipodal to the usual form.

There are a few other stories worth a passing nod amid the collection, but on the whole what you’ll find are a handful of lively ones amid a lot of mediocre ones. Whether or not you’ll enjoy the offering depends on your appetite for stories of a kind that an editor once described as “all mousetrap, no mice.”

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