"Reverie From Hell" by Mark Iacampo
"The Deal" by Denise Dumars
"Glass Lives" by W.K. Pomeroy
"Little Man Lost" by Brian Lumley
"Dodona" by Ralph Greco, Jr.
"Letter to the Editor" by R. Sebastian Bennett
"Mostly Cloudy, Chance of Kurt" by Brian Hodge
"The Disembodied" by Jeffrey Osier
"The Rat King" by Jeffrey Thomas
There are nine stories included, 8 new and a Brian Lumley reprint, as well as quite a few poems. The stories fit quite neatly under the "Dark Fantasy" label, ranging from quasi-SF to contemporary psychological horror. I'll confess up front that "Dark Fantasy", or "Horror", is by no means my favorite sub-genre. Nonetheless, a good story is a good story.
Besides the stories included, there are a number of poems. Most notable is a collection of a dozen of Bruce Boston's Accursed Wives poems, as far as I can tell all reprints. These are always enjoyable. The other poems are of variable quality. The issue opens with "Reverie from Hell" by Mark Iacampo. Xantar al'thok, once a sorcerer of some variety, "advisor to mighty Cintori of Al Baran", has been imprisoned in The Twisted Lands by the loathsome demon T'sath Zumal. This is the narrative of Xantar's foolish quest for the life force of the ancient wizard Yarthorion, and how this led him into T'sath Zumal's clutches. There really isn't much to the story beyond colorful descriptions of atrocities. It's competently done, if stuffed with clichés, and rather overwrought.
Denise Dumars' "The Deal" is a contemporary supernatural horror story. The protagonist, Baker, is a functionary at a small corporation who is also a Satanist. He's negotiating a deal with a Japanese company, and the principals of this company also belong to a "fraternal order", but one much older than Baker's Satanists. To close the deal, he needs to participate in one of their rituals … It seems to me that these stories often follow a formula as strict as any '50s problem story. The only difference is that instead of the reader knowing that the hero will solve the problem, the reader knows that the "hero" will find that he's in over his head, and he'll suffer and die horribly. This piece is competent enough, but there are no surprises, nothing to really make the reading experience special.
W. K. Pomeroy's "Glass Lives" features a sort-of psychiatrist with a special talent: some sort of telepathic or at least empathic link with his patients. He specializes in suicidal patients. This story tells, quite briefly, of a particularly difficult case. There really isn't much to it: he tries to understand his patient, and eventually realizes they share the same talent. He finally convinces him that life is worth living. Again, this was well done, but there wasn't quite enough "story".
Brian Lumley's contribution is "Little Man Lost." Howard Pratt goes home late from work one night, and realizes that he is lost. He doesn't have any idea where he is, even though he must be close to his home. This has been happening more and more often to him. He finds another man in the same predicament, and somehow they help each other out. But Howard soon realizes that this will continue to happen. Lumley winds up with a nice metaphorical point, and with a slight twist on the expected resolution. A decent story.
As I look over my comments to the stories above, I notice that I'm generally damning with faint praise. I think this is not uncommon with small press stories: the best stories tend to go to the high-paying markets, but there is a broad area of competent stories, encompassing the back of the book, if you will, of the major magazines, and the bulk of small press stuff. (And, to be sure, a few jewels sneak by the F&SFs and so on, especially, I imagine, in the "Dark Fantasy" field, with fewer slots to fill.) I must say, though, that that's not the case with the next story in this issue, "Dodona" by Ralph Greco, Jr. I confess I found it unpublishable. It's full of annoying grammatical mistakes (e.g., constant use of "would of" in place of "would've"), the style is flat, the dialogue unconvincing, the pacing is way off (several pointless scenes should have been cut), and I was unimpressed by the characterization. As I read the story, about a man who decides to abandon his wife and his job and head to Mars to commune with the mysterious Dodona, I hoped that the story itself, or the central idea, would be new enough, exciting enough, to redeem the faults in the writing. It was not to be: there is no "new" idea, just a flat, cliched, cheap quasi-philosophical ending.
"Letter to the Editor" by R. Sebastian Bennett is a return to competency, but no more. This piece purports to be an unpublished letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Times Herald, written from the Amesly Home for the Blind shortly before that institution burned down. The writer tells of an operation he underwent for a routine appendectomy. The doctor wears thick glasses and sports a strange pentagram on his forehead … As with so many of the stories, the outcome is entirely predictable. What's missing, in case after case, is a little surprise, a twist, either some special revelation about the characters, some really new horrific idea, or some odd plot turn.
That said, "Mostly Cloudy, Chance of Kurt" by Brian Hodge, does offer a slightly off-center resolution, and some real characters. It's not a great story, but it's not bad. Hodge opens with his narrator contemplating suicide, until he is upstaged by the suicide of a TV weatherman. (This is based on an actual case which occurred in my hometown (St. Louis) a few years ago: a successful local weatherman, in trouble for "stalking" a woman, took off in his private plane and dived straight into the runway. Hodge describes the incident exactly, except for transplanting it to Chicago.) The narrator describes his Generation X boyhood, drifting college years, and the rootless denizens of his rented house. He keeps thinking of suicide, upstaged first by the weatherman, then by Kurt Cobain. But he finally finds a way to put his suicidal thoughts to a good use.
Jeffrey Osier's "The Disembodied" tells the story of Tracy Brookens, a 29-year-old college teacher who gets involved with a scary group of men and their ringleader, Sterling. The men and Tracey take a trip to a small deserted lake in Michigan, and Sterling loses control. The action of the story is merely a recitation of some disturbing violence, redeemed by some fantastical, symbolic descriptions of the lake area, strewn with outsize bones.
The final story is "Rat King", by Jeffrey Thomas. This is a Holocaust story, and not fantastical at all. It is told by a concentration camp guard, about the liberation of Belsen. His British captors make the guard help bury his remaining victims. The guard tries to seduce a homosexual officer, but is rebuffed, and is ironically punished as a result. This is one of the better stories here because of the well-done characterization, though the incidents recounted aren't particularly memorable, and the "horror" is not anything new, though I suppose we can always do with another reminder of the Holocaust.