Chilling Tales 2: In Words Alas Drown I
Edited by Michael Kelly
(Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing, Fall 2013)
Reviewed by Lillian Csernica
In his introduction “Breathing Fresh Life Into New Monsters,” editor Michael Kelly states, “In my introduction to Evil Did I Dwell, Lewd I Did Live, I postulated that not only was Canadian dark fiction as good as any being written, but that it was, for lack of a better term, distinctly Canadian. A type of fiction writing that held a certain disquieting solitude. And I believe that to be true. Indeed, some of the subtleties and nuances may be lost on the less sophisticated reader – not you, of course! – but they are there just the same. You just have to peer a bit deeper into the abyss. That’s why I believe we need volumes like this. Books that showcase Canadian talent, and books that take chances.”
If you buy this anthology, that’s what Mr. Kelly says you’re going to get for your money. Assuming, of course, you are not a “less sophisticated reader.” I can’t help wondering who Mr. Kelly was thinking of when he wrote that. Logic says he must be referring to at least some part of the audience for dark fiction. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that insulting potential readers is not the best way to build a following for your next volume of stories. Let’s take a look at the twenty-one stories included in this volume and see if they do indeed “take chances” as they “breathe fresh life into new monsters” with “subtleties and nuances.”
“Black Hen A La Ford” by David Nickle
This is the story of a bizarre family reunion told through the eyes of Granny Ingrid, the matriarch who has plans of her own for the various reconfigurations of responsibility among the most significant family members. Ingrid’s private thoughts about the relatives she interacts with shed important light on her motivations and on the family as a whole. Each character is well-drawn. There are suggestions of Scandinavian culture, allusions to ritual magic and sacrifice. Something is definitely going on under the cheerful surface of family gossip and the potluck feast spread out on picnic tables. That suspense plus the growing clarity of Ingrid’s private agenda lead to an effective ending.
“The Dog’s Paw” by Derek Künsken
If a Middle Eastern girl commits any infraction against the rigorous standards of decency, one of her father’s limbs will turn into that of an animal. The only way to reverse the transformation, i.e. to restore honor, is to kill the girl by public stoning. U.S. Ambassador Lewis is there to further the U.N.’s Convention on Family Honor by convincing the fathers to kill their daughters despite the families’ grief and resistance. Perry, Lewis’ aide, is the protagonist who is in training to continue Lewis’ work. The local police insist on prosecuting the families for murder. Perry follows orders out of admiration and respect for Lewis and uses the threat of withdrawing international aid to make the police reframe the cases as honor killings. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Lewis’ cynical lack of respect for the murdered girls, the suffering families, and the local law enforcement leaves Perry confused and conflicted. Why the girls’ “indecent” behavior results in the transformations isn’t explored at all. Why animal limbs? Why the fathers? Why not some visible mark of shame on the girls themselves? And what exactly is the U.S. getting out of this?
“Snowglobes” by Lisa L. Hannett
Jimmie and Janie are high school sweethearts who get married and live a normal, happy life. Even though Jimmie does not want children and Janie seems to agree, Janie keeps getting pregnant. Her references to the children don’t make much sense, but in a deliberate, creepy way. Janie develops a need to collect snowglobes, and then glass paperweights. There’s some hidden meaning here that’s connected to the children. Everything is made clear in an ending that is so freaky I had to go do something else for a while. I say that as a compliment. The truth behind Janie’s strange references and odd collections sneaks up on the reader, all those weird little moments dovetailing into a shocking climax. This is a truly chilling tale.
“Meteor Lake” by Kevin Cockle
A former executive permanently damaged by a sleep study takes off on his own after his life collapses. He ends up in a nowhere motel and starts to either hallucinate or genuinely experience some horrible state of alternate reality. Not much plot here, and the story ends where the tension really begins. There’s potential in the premise, but it goes undeveloped.
“In Libitina’s House” by Camille Alexa
A teenage boy is hung up on the strange girl next door who happens to be named for the Roman goddess of death, plague, and funerals. Libitina makes Wednesday Addams look like Malibu Barbie. There’s just no reasoning with teenage male lust, so despite his mother’s disapproval, the protagonist keeps visiting Libitina, bringing a cake or pie or casserole. Strange deaths surround Libitina, so these condolence gifts are ongoing. One day Libitina rewards Our Hero’s devotion with an invitation to share some privacy in her basement. Fans of Saki and Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson will enjoy what happens next. Creepy and atmospheric with a narrative style that’s rich and strong, I’m happy to say this is a good story.
“Day Pass” by Ian Rogers
Kaye lives in a facility that’s called a clinic but functions more like a prison. Her doctor grants her a day pass to visit her mother and daughter. She wears an anklet that takes the idea of house arrest one unpleasant step farther in order to make sure she doesn’t miss curfew or try to escape. There are passing references in the story to patients who have gone missing and to some kind of training camp. Those sparked my interest, but the mysteries go unsolved. The wild flashback/climax explains how and why Kaye was committed to the clinic. It also creates even more questions that go unanswered. I’m all for ambiguity and suspense when they advance plot and/or character, but not when I’m left with a bunch of loose ends.
“Gingerbread People” by Colleen Anderson
A retelling of Hansel and Gretel with modern tragic elements. Their parents are textbook dysfunctional. Hans turns out to be a sociopath who forces Gretel to whore for him and gets her hooked on cocaine. Her repressed anger at his exploitation of her manifests as a violent streak they enjoy venting on the homeless. The bad witch figure is replaced by a good Jewess who takes Gretel in and tries to help her get out of the life. Gretel bakes gingerbread cookies compulsively. What they symbolize changes as the events of the story unfold. In Ms. Anderson’s bio, it says, “Gingerbread People” came from reading about real life sociopaths Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Ms. Anderson has put her reading to good use, creating a story that is horrifying, realistic, and very well done.
“The Slipway Grey” by Helen Marshall
An African grandfather tells his granddaughter about the two times he met Death in the form of a grey Zambezi bull shark. He survived the meetings because of a special meditation technique he learned from his best friend Jurie. The grandfather lived to marry Ouma. When old age finally claimed her and she saw Death coming, she told the grandfather what she saw. This is a wonderful story told in a poetic voice, scary and beautiful and sad and satisfying.
“Crossroads Blues” by Robert J. Wiersema
The guitar player protagonist comes right out and says he makes a deal with the Devil. What follows includes the typical sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll set pieces and double crosses. It’s really one big flashback. At no point does the guitar player seem to get any real enjoyment out of his fantasy come true. The twist at the end might have worked if the tone of the story was not so relentlessly flat and cynical.
“The Flowers of Katrina” by Claude LaLumière
Katrina can see the ghosts of What Might Have Been. That makes it difficult to be around the real, failed versions of people. One day she discovers that flowers can fill the void. Lewis sees connections between people, and he sees a really strong one between himself and Katrina. Much to Katrina’s relief, Lewis has no ghosts. Katrina can’t believe life could really be so perfect. Her mounting anxiety and bad dreams drive her to do something drastic. I was sorry to see this story fall apart toward the convenient, predictable ending. Katrina starts out strong and interesting, but the minute she turns her life over to Lewis, she becomes a victim, even to the extent of allowing Lewis’ physical abuse. The bad dreams and anxiety attacks start so abruptly I had to wonder if they were a complication deliberately contrived to build a setup for the messy climax.
“Heart of Darkness” by Edo Van Belkom
Two brothers are on the phone discussing the fact that one needs a heart transplant but he’s not very high on the list to receive one. The dying brother gets an anonymous phone call from an organ seller offering him a heart for the right price. The brother briefly considers the moral implications of where the heart will come from. Finally he accepts the deal. The end of the story violates the third person limited point of view in order to show the reader where the heart came from. I can’t say I was surprised.
“Fiddleheads” by Douglas Smith
Andy isn’t quite right in the head. He blames himself for the disappearance of his brother Martin two years ago on a family trip. The tragedy caused the boys’ parents to get divorced, compounding Andy’s self-hate. The story trails off into Andy thinking up a plan to replace Martin. His attention keeps returning to the grave of the family cat in what might as well be a neon sign reading, “Foreshadowing.” Sure enough, Andy finds a replacement for Martin but things turn ugly when the replacement wants to go home. The ending seems to imply that Andy is going to end up a serial killer because he’ll have to keep bringing home replacements for Martin until he finds the right one. That’s just a guess. The story elements are weak, failing to build to a strong climax.
“Dwelling on the Past” by Simon Strantzas
Harvey has lost his wife to a car accident that left his daughter on life support. He is haunted by the bloody specter of the daughter. The bulk of the story involves Harvey trying to find out where a group of Native American protesters have hidden an earth mover on restricted property. Harvey works for the corporate developers who want the land the protesters are defending. Harvey ends up falling into the trench beneath a long canopy that’s much like the skin tents or the earth works created by Bronze Age tribes and his personal ghosts meet up with ancient payback. The story is too long and unfocused. It feels like two different stories were shuffled together without proper attention to continuity and dramatic escalation.
“The Hair Dress” by Sandra Kasturi
A woman from a hot climate is stuck in a cold climate with her husband and his obnoxious relatives during the Christmas holidays. She has an annual cycle of nightmares that feature landscapes which grow hotter and hotter as winter progresses. On Christmas morning the relatives surround her and demand she open her gift from her husband. These people are cardboard buffoons with no individual names, just a noisy mob. Inside the gift box is a pile of long golden hair. It’s a designer dress, purchased online by the husband because it’s supposed to keep the wearer very warm. This story doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The nightmares, the weird relatives, and the creepy dress are loose ends that go nowhere.
“Weary, Bone Deep” by Michael Matheson
The younger brother sees a monster take his brother’s soul and drag it down through a grill in the basement, so he sits by the grill in the basement in the dark, keeping watch. As the story moves along, several hints are dropped regarding how violent the father is to the point of implying he inflicted the injuries that killed the older brother. The monster is just a manifestation of the younger brother’s anxiety about the same fate befalling him. I thought child abuse stories were on most editors’ “Do Not Want” lists.
“Honesty” by Rio Youers
A man does not put money in the honesty box at a roadside stand where he picks up a bouquet for his wife. There’s a warning written on the box. As soon as the man drives away, the weird stuff starts happening. He does make it all the way home, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe. Fans of Ramsey Campbell will love this story. I know I did!
“Homebody” by Gemma Files
Homeless college-age girl Kay roams around, looking for a house she’s heard of that will give her shelter. Problem: the “house” moves around too. You have to know what you’re looking for to find it. As winter sets in Kay gets sick and it turns into what is probably walking pneumonia. She meets up with a guy who found the “house,” but it threw him out. He talks like the house is alive and will accept or reject possible occupants. Kay keeps drifting, on the lookout, until she finds the red door that is the entry to the “house.” This feels very slipstream. It’s not often a slipstream story features a female protagonist. On one level the story could be considered allegorical in terms of the spiritual malaise of the technological world and what really constitutes the feeling of coming home.
“Road Rage” by Bev Vincent
Wayne is trying to get to his daughter’s soccer game through bad weather, uncertain landmarks, and other drivers who won’t give him the right of way he so clearly believes he deserves. When the inevitable happens, Wayne checks the driver in the other car and feels no pulse. Completely lost with no cell phone service, he tries to find his way back to the right road. A truck appears behind him and the chase is on. This is an undistinguished example of the punishment plot.
“The Salamander’s Waltz” by Catherine MacLeod
Tom is an art dealer. Maya used to be a talented painter. Tom and Maya are driving the five hundred miles north to Tom’s business meeting. That’s odd in itself. Maya thinks it’s also odd that Tom asked her to come along. Tom is having an affair with Naomi, which Maya found out by reading his cell phone messages. The car breaks down outside a little town on the coast much like the little town where Maya grew up. Maya blends right in with the locals, who recognize her name and even own one of her paintings. Tom does not blend in. I had my suspicions about where this story was going the minute Maya says it’s the vernal equinox. Not a good day for a hostile outsider to be passing through a small town that shows all the signs of a water-based cult. This is a familiar story with a predictable plot, but I have to say it’s well-written. The small town culture and the secret signs that go back and forth do work. The tone is gentle and inevitable, in contrast to a “Children of the Corn”-type plotline. One point left me confused. The salamander is the creature associated with the element of Fire. Given the heavy water-related content of the story, I didn’t understand the title.
“Goldmine” by Daniel Lemoal
An investigator from the Dept. of Health answers Ms. Patten’s call about the house of the old man next door who is a serious hoarder. The sound of a woman crying out leads them to believe it might be the old man’s daughter in some kind of distress. Once Ms. Patten and the investigator are inside, the mess gets worse and worse. Cut off from the front door, they go down into the basement hoping to escape through the sliding glass doors. I tell you, the minute I see the word “basement” in the horror stories being published these days, I might as well stop reading right there. Only once have I ever read a horror story where the hero was smart enough to take one look at what was in the basement and run like hell.
“Fishfly Season” by Halli Villegas
Neil and Marisol move to the all-WASP suburb of Grand Beach where Neil grew up. Marisol, being half-Mexican, doesn’t fit in. She starts seeing things, a phantom woman with blue glass beads for eyes, a man with a bloody hammer at the hardware store, horrible items on the canape trays at a party. There’s no clear indication if Marisol is really seeing these things or if she’s just hallucinating due to dehydration or heat stroke. The end of the story strikes an ominous note, but there’s no clear implication.