Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror 2006, edited by Angela Challis & Shane Jiraiya Cummings

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“The Memory of Breathing” by Lyn Battersby
Image“Tumble” by Trent Jamieson
“Fresh Young Widow” by Kaaron Warren
“The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr. Wu” by Rjurik Davidson 
“Pater Familias” by Lee Battersby 
“Heart of Saturday Night” by Adam Browne 
“Malik Rising” by Paul Haines 
“Aspect Hunter” by Anthony Fordham 
“Eight-Beat Bar” by Chuck McKenzie 
“The Greater Death of Saito Saku” by Richard Harland 
“The Red Priest’s Homecoming” by Dirk Flinthart 
“Hooked” by Martin Livings

I love dark fantasy. I like horror, too, but I love dark fantasy. In my mind, it’s the most entertaining form of fantasy there is, for even when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the darkness is no less terrifying. Especially when there is no guarantee that said light isn’t the shining eyes of a monster ready to squish you into goop. So an opportunity to review an anthology of dark fantasy and horror stories was like a chance to play in the sandbox. And this particular sandbox had many interesting booby traps within….

“The Memory of Breathing” by Lyn Battersby may well leave you in tears. In the near future, corpses can be brought back to a state of animation through the continued injection of a drug. Capital crimes—such as rape, murder, and (ironically enough) suicide—are now punishable not only by death but also by an added term of post-death labor, thanks to the Right to Life lobby. Enter little Rebekah Holyoake, child murderer, now a corpse. Except she doesn’t possess the same symptoms the other animated corpses have: for one, she continues to act as if she’s alive. But her new post-death “life” may come to an end if the Right to Death lobby manages to overturn the ruling that allows the dead to be re-animated.

This story will touch you to the very foundation of your core, regardless of which side you are on in today’s Right-to-Life/Right-to-Death issues. Battersby takes a (hopefully) impossible situation and uses it effectively to show where both sides are right and wrong, while also leaving the final thoughts on the subject for the reader to decide. I, for one, was certainly left re-examining my own thoughts on the issue.

Mr. Grieve hunts down a supernatural mass-murderer in “Tumble” by Trent Jamieson. Like in any dark fantasy tale, no one is pure or virtuous, especially not Mr. Grieve. He has blood on his hands, and a lot of it. And he’s an addict in a world where the cities themselves cause addiction—an addiction that has turned him into an involuntary lawman for the city, Wish. And Daniel, the mass-murderer, will prove to be the toughest criminal he’s ever had to track down and kill.

While not heavy on the action, Jamieson instead delivers a dark mood and atmosphere that works perfectly with the bizarre setting and characters—who are believable despite their strangeness. The twist at the end follows a logical outcome, but was too expected and a bit common for such stories. Overall, however, the story is worth a read.

Marla, the town’s Clay-Maker (who inters the dead in clay to be lined up with the other clay statues against a cement wall), is grief-stricken over her husband’s murder in “Fresh Young Widow” by Kaaron Warren. Most of the story felt like infodump to describe the setting and characters, and there was just way too much clay-making going on—not to mention a lack of consistency in the townsfolk’s belief structure.  However, that may have been intentional to demonstrate how some beliefs are often inconsistent. Marla does prove that revenge can be a real bitch and does so in a clever way. Others may enjoy the story, but I wasn’t too impressed.

“The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr. Wu” by Rjurik Davidson is a tale done in first-person POV with a stream of consciousness slant. Don’t bother trying to make sense out of it, just enjoy it for the surreal strangeness that it is. Don’t look for an antagonist, and don’t expect the protagonist to do much. As for plot, forget it. To say any more risks spoiling it.

“Pater Familias” by Lee Battersby is a nice, dark piece of flash fiction. A nameless investigator interviews a nameless doctor regarding the records of the whereabouts of the bodies of various nameless children killed via a craniotomy on the behalf of various nameless mothers who didn’t want to die in childbirth. While the storyline and ending is appropriately dark, gruesome, and shocking; this reader was a bit disappointed at not seeing one single name for anyone in the entire story.

Sua Dao looks for her lost brother on the gang-infested streets of Thailand in “Heart of Saturday Night” by Adam Browne. A serious tale done in an irreverent style, this reader didn’t know whether to laugh or cry…or just toss the story aside and go get pizza. Something kept me reading, but I’m not sure what. Browne’s story is simultaneously a lesson on how not to write and how to make it work anyhow. Assuming, of course, it worked. I’m still not sure on this one. Perhaps I’ll read it a second time just to figure out what the heck I just read—then again, perhaps not.

In “Aspect Hunter” by Anthony Fordham, Earth is under assault by self-aware, demonic icebergs, and their only hope is a time-hopping loner and his intelligent yak sidekick. The most entertaining story in this anthology, this reader enjoyed it immensely. While the plot was simple and straightforward, there were enough twists and turns to keep you wondering what could possibly go wrong next. The characters were three-dimensional and engaging (the mutant yak is the coolest of them all). Even the demonic iceberg, Lokboksfrost, seemed to have its own personality. And the reveal of Ellen’s future fate was a nice touch of added humor. While a great fantasy adventure well worth reading, I was left wondering how such a story fits as dark fantasy/horror—perhaps because humankind is ultimately fighting a losing battle.

“Eight-Beat Bar” by Chuck McKenzie reveals the dark side of music when used as a form of Chinese water torture. Jake, a former club DJ, is in Hell, and his torture comes in the form of the one song he hates the most getting played nonstop for eternity. But if he can last long enough without going nuts, he can get promoted to his torturer’s rank. How he attempts to avoid insanity and how his torturer, Helvis, attempts to counter him, is what makes this story stand out above the standard “waking up in Hell” stories.

“The Greater Death of Saito Saku” by Richard Harland is a tale of honor and courage set in ancient Japan. Saito Saku is an aging samurai who has enjoyed the gifts of the villages he protects for many years. But now the villages are threatened by a monstrous gokami. He sets out to defeat the monster, knowing he is past his prime and will likely die. His only fear is that he will die in defeat and thus bring dishonor to his family.

Harland’s tale is rich in imagery and expression, with characters you can feel sympathy for. He shows the cultural aspects of ancient Japan through action and dialogue and from the viewpoint of Saito. This reader found himself rooting for Saito and the gokami both, and Harland brings the tale to a satisfying, if sad, conclusion.

“The Red Priest’s Homecoming” by Dirk Flinthart is another adventure tale with a dark twist. Antonio Dellaforte is the upcoming heir of the Dellaforte family fortune in Venezia until the Red Priest reveals himself at a masquerade ball and claims his birthright. Is the infamous “Red Priest” a brigand and a fraud, or does he have a legitimate claim? Is it the family fortune that he’s after, or something else? Antonio intends to find out, and what he uncovers is a sinister plot that could bring an end to the entire Dellaforte clan.

This story has it all: swashbuckling fights against supernatural baddies, political intrigue, familial feuds, and twists and turns galore. Flinthart delivers vivid imagery and three-dimensional characters, complete with detailed backgrounds, in a manner that is smooth and seemingly effortless. While some parts are gory, it is not gratuitous and serves to enhance the dark setting of Medieval Italy. “The Red Priest’s Homecoming” is dark fantasy at its best.

“Hooked” by Martin Livings is Peter Pan as you’ve never read it before: a modern-day urban crime drama. It’s a witty, if dark, story that flows well with a dash of dark comedy. An entertaining read, even if only for its “Aha!” moments that make you slap your forehead and giggle with devilish glee. To come up with a tale this twisted and pull it off is a testament to Livings’s ability as a writer.

Overall, I found Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror 2006 to be a very entertaining and, in at least one case, enlightening read—an anthology worth adding to your collection.

[Editor’s note: “Malik Rising” by Paul Haines was reviewed previously by Scott M. Sandridge for Tangent when it appeared in the Sept/Oct. 2005 issue of Shadowed Realms. Read the review.]

Publisher: Brimstone Press
Price: $19.95
ISBN: 0980281709