Laura Sanger Kelly does the near impossible here and breathes new life into the tired old tropes of contemporary horror. She manages this in a number of ways, first and foremost by mixing it with the style and tone of authors such as Raymond Carver. There’s the same tired, broken feel to her world as theirs’, the same sense that the characters are sleepwalking their way through the only life they know. Secondly, Kelly sensibly plays her cards close to her chest. The supernatural elements of the story are never identified by name and are used in an unusual way, one which leaves even seasoned readers questioning what they think they know. Finally and crucially, Kelly invests the story with real emotion. It’s difficult not to care for her flawed characters and the choices they’re forced to make, and that’s the real success here. You care, you want to know how it ends, and you won’t be disappointed when you find out.
Michael Ehart’s story, "An Exorcism Straight, Hold The Elvis," continues Kelly’s theme of turning horror stereotypes on their head, but opts for black comedy instead of poignancy. The story follows Joe Dunfar, a fifty-something professional exorcist from a long proud line of them—a line which, given that the job the story revolves around is Joe’s first for two years, will probably finish with him.
Ehart has an easy, wry style and gives Joe a real voice. Told through a combination of first person narration and dialogue, he puts the reader inside the head of a man who has been doing this for far too long and no longer knows how to be surprised. It’s a dangerous move, one that threatens to tip over into 1940s pastiches, but Ehart pulls it off. Not only is he able to give us an unusual and likable character in Joe, but his take on ghosts is both original and well thought out. Like Kelly, Ehart manages to make new clothes out of old cloth and does it well. While the dialogue, which is almost completely devoid of contractions, seems a little stilted in places, this is a fun, evocative story that plays three card monte with the reader’s expectations and wins every time.
Michael Ehart’s second story this issue, "Voice of the Spoiler," couldn’t be more different. It begins with the narrator sitting quietly amongst a group of bodies, then moves steadily backward toward the beginning—both of the incident we see and the narrator’s part in it.
Instead of the Tolkien emulation, so beloved even now by many authors, Ehart instead takes a far calmer, historical approach to his world. There are no guilds here, no huge kingdoms, just people trying to make their way and leave their mark. It’s a stylistic move that reminded me a lot of David Gemmell’s work; there’s the same gritty, personal feel to the story that Gemmell brings to his work. The interplay between the past and present is well handled and the unusual structure provides the reader with a puzzle they are sure to enjoy solving. Ultimately, this is a superior story to "Exorcism" for a number of reasons. Ehart’s style seems more assured here, the central structure and premise are more unusual and involving, and the tone is an unusual one for fantasy stories to take.
Both Ehart’s entries in this issue are worth your time, but "Voice of the Spoiler" is worth slightly more.
Steve Stanton’s "In Defense of Angels" deals with one angel in particular. Herbert is an angel, and a lowly one at that. Working in the Words division, Herbert is assigned to record every word spoken by Harvey J. Rumbottom, and he carries out his job diligently and with a great deal of sympathy for his charge. Which is not necessarily a good thing…
The idea of heaven as a bureaucracy is far from new (Cinema seems particularly fond of it, in particular the superb A Matter of Life and Death), but it’s an idea Stanton deals with well. Herbert’s misadventures in the bureaucratic jungle are well handled and crucially, he’s neatly defined by them. Herbert is perhaps a little too go-getting, a little too dynamic for his own good, and Stanton does a good job of portraying that. However, at it’s heart, this is a light story which feels a little padded. Herbert’s actions are thought out and uplifting, but Stanton takes too long getting to the climax. There’s also a little too much effort put into how Herbert speaks, the celestial wordsmith proving slightly too verbose to hold this reader’s full attention. These problems aside, "In Defense of Angels" is a light, uplifting story that sits well with the other three in this review. It’s a story designed to make you smile, and that in itself is recommendation enough.