Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson
(Grey Matter Press, January 2015)
Reviewed by Lillian Csernica
“Omniscopic” by Rhoads Brazos
Davis watches his brilliant former professor Boas getting seriously drunk in a bar favored by physics graduates. Boas insists he’s found a way to measure eternity. The mathematical proof is sound, but Davis requires empirical evidence before he’ll be convinced. Inside the warehouse where Boas maintains his lab, Davis finds a large tent that houses what Boas refers to as his “omniscope.” What follows is a very complicated and well dramatized description of the device and how it works. Davis is both fascinated and horrified by what Boas has accomplished. Boas seems strangely ambivalent about his success. When Davis finally pries parts of the truth out of Boas, horror pulls way ahead of fascination.
Call it science fiction, call it horror, call it a weird tale. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. The scene in the lab is just amazing. The key strength of this story lies in the dialogue. Davis’ questions and his insistence in abiding by what’s already been proven in the realm of physics plus Boas’ incomplete replies, his arrogance, and his resignation equal a growing understanding for the reader that cranks up the suspense. If the story has a flaw, it would be Davis lacking depth as a character. Boas is fully realized. This makes Davis suffer by comparison. Even so, Davis is a sympathetic protagonist. As a dedicated scientist, he will not stop until he understands exactly what Boas has done.
“Some Other Day” by John F.D. Taff
Dad and Nick mourn Mom’s death. They both keep seeing a shadow that might be her ghost. Nick wants to go outside and play catch. Dad can’t handle doing this because Mom was the one who always played catch with Nick. Dad isn’t ready to take over her role in the family in addition to his own, so he puts Nick off, saying it looks like it might rain. They’ll play catch “some other day.” Soon the rain stops. It stops so completely drought sets in, causing water rationing, crop failure, panic and death. The extreme conditions bring Dad and Nick closer together.
The central idea of the story is weak. Nothing is said about how Mom died or why, which would do a lot to lend depth to the paralyzing grief both Dad and Nick feel. In this age of global warming, the drought complication works, but it’s not carried out in a manner that ties into the story’s overall theme. The ending feels tacked on and pointless, a sudden twist not grounded in the story’s supernatural content.
“Haunter” by Hank Swaeble
Matthew Chambers, a young and promising architect, searches the imaginary construct of his house for a woman who remains unnamed for a third of the story. He has to find her and put an end to the way she keeps tormenting him. The narrative of his search alternates with the voice over of a news broadcaster reporting on a double murder. The news report fills in pieces of the unfolding story as Matthew fends off the horrifying memories that distract him and interfere with his search.
The plot combines scenarios familiar to every horror reader. The unusual setting has potential, but Matthew and his nemesis carry out their assigned roles without any fresh strategies. The confrontation scene consists of dialogue that rehashes events known to both characters. Instead of Hero Faces the Monster, we have a domestic squabble with added gore. The predictable ending is telegraphed two thirds of the way through the story.
“Burial Suit” by John C. Foster
The son of a man murdered by gangsters abandons his everyday life to go after the killers, taking his dying cat with him. First on the son’s To Do list is stealing his father’s body from the funeral home where the body awaits preparation for burial. The son dresses his father in the father’s favorite suit, then goes on the hunt. All he knows is a last name, but he’s a very thorough man. What happens next is a series of events that are set up very well by seemingly casual details in the son’s back story. The payoff is a grim but satisfying ending, Raymond Chandler meeting Robert McCammon.
“Nine” by Aaron Polson
Beth is an anthropologist, the foremost authority on the M’busai, a tribe of the lower Congo who no longer exist. When a boy of that tribe turned nine, the M’busai cut off the little finger of his left hand. Beth has two sons, Nate and Gabe who are eight and six, respectively. Their father, Charlie, died late one night in a car accident, having gone out to buy pain pills for Beth. Charlie’s death is the catalyst that prompts Nate to create a game where various objects are put inside plastic Easter eggs, then hidden according to a very complex method. Beth can’t handle life as a single mother. She begins to see ghosts of M’busai warriors on her front lawn.
It’s hard to tell whose story this is. Nate, who creates the game with the plastic Easter eggs? Beth, whose methodical world fell apart once she became a single mother? The inclusion of so much detail about the M’busai tribe seems to point to some larger meaning, but that meaning isn’t made clear. I kept expecting something to be made of the fact that Nate will soon face his ninth birthday. Given the reason why Nate creates the Easter egg game, the true purpose behind the finger-cutting ceremony would fit in thematically and tie together some layers of meaning. There’s no real resolution to the plot threads. The story doesn’t end so much as it just stops.
“Penumbra” by Jay Caselberg
Adrian is a ghost. All he can think about is Jennifer and the wonderful future they were going to have together. He sees no reason why they can’t still be together. It will take some effort on his part, but she’s worth it. After all, they were meant for each other. What follows is Adrian’s ectoplasmic aerobics regimen. He keeps at it until he reaches the strength he needs to make contact with Jennifer. Then comes a rather nasty twist.
Adrian is not a sympathetic protagonist. His pedantic tone and his total certainty about the perfection of the love between him and Jennifer gets cloying. This is a clever and deliberate tone, part of the set up for the twist. I wish I had been able to read this story before I read Hank Swaeble’s “Haunter.” Then I might feel greater appreciation for the way this plot is carried out in such a fresh, vivid context. I will say the last line of the story did indeed give me a shiver.
“Foxhole” by JG Faherty
Pierre and Gaston are the American-born sons of Haitian refugees, both soldiers with the Allies in a world of near-future conflict and technology. The story opens with them under fire from enemy mercenaries in the Venezuelan jungle. Grossly outnumbered, most of their platoon dead, Pierre and Gaston have only each other to get them through the rough terrain and unseen enemies that stand between them and the Allied HQ in Guyana. I could say the ending is telegraphed, but that doesn’t really weaken the story. The nightmarish details of the environment along with the gory facts of guerilla warfare make the setting all too real. Pierre is a likable hero with his mix of Creole and English and his absolute loyalty to Gaston. By the time I got to the end of the story, the last line brought tears to my eyes.
“Drowning” by Gregory L. Norris
Edgard Palmviest survived floating adrift in the icy waters of the Atlantic after the Titanic sank. Thirteen years have passed, full of nightmares about drowning and the sense of being pursued by a ghost. There’s a psychic around the corner from his tailor. Determined to know the truth, Palmveist consults Madame Cataldo. What she tells him prompts him to make some changes, but attractive alternatives derail his escape.
Speaking as someone who has thalassaphobia, I have to tell you this story creeped me out in a big way. The details of Palmveist’s escape from the Titanic are fully realized with all five senses. The scene with Madame Cataldo is tense with good atmosphere. Given all this, I was quite disappointed when the ending fell flat and left me feeling unsatisfied.
“The Weight” by Jane Brooks
Leigh Ann has a serious spinal condition that puts her in the hospital. While the doctors discuss the options with her husband Rob, Leigh Ann drifts in and out of consciousness thanks to the pain medication. Into this borderland of awareness comes her mother Fanny, reassuring her and promising to take care of her. There’s something wrong with Fanny being there. Leigh Ann must fight her way past the pain and the medications and her own mother’s voice to figure out exactly what that is.
Most of the story is about Leigh Ann’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. Fanny is a real piece of work, a narcissist who’s an expert at manipulating the people around her, especially Leigh Ann. The hospital context with its heavy medication provides just enough ambiguity, making one wonder if Leigh Ann is an unreliable narrator. Is Fanny real? Are these just bad childhood memories mixing with adult anxieties? Excellent characterization and dialogue. The realism of the codependent relationship between mother and daughter is the true horror in this story.
“Harder You Fall” by Brian Fatah Steele
Madelaine has no idea why she sees dead people. After years of drugs and psychiatrists and mental hospitals, Madelaine escapes, only to fall into the hands of Jacob Cavallaro, another necromancer who’s willing to train her. Cavallaro has a private agenda as well, one known to the dead who hate him and fear him. Cavallaro and his reluctant apprentice use their powers to make ghosts tell them information that gives the necromancers access to the ghosts’ wealth. Sick with self-loathing, Madelaine is determined to find a way out.
This is my favorite story in the anthology. Great plot. Strong characters. Perfect settings. The mechanics of necromancy in the world of this story are fresh and chilling. The suspense is great, right up to the bizarre climax. And yes, the ending is completely satisfying. Well done, Mr. Steele.
“Mirrorworld” by Martin Rose
Jude serves Salazar divorce papers. Salazar shoots Jude and traps his spirit inside a “black magic mirror.” Selling such mirrors is what Salazar does for a living. Oddly enough, Jude still has his very much alive canary Jenny in the breast pocket of his suit. Salazar has a toddler named Amanda caged inside her crib. When Salazar has to go out, he doses Amanda with cough syrup that puts her to sleep. Something else lives inside Amanda’s body and tells Jude a way to escape.
The premise is clever, but there are logic flaws. How did Jenny end up inside the mirror too? Why doesn’t she need food or water? As for Amanda, why doesn’t she eat or need a diaper change or babble or cry? Is she a child or not? Alive or not? If Salazar makes his living selling “black magic mirrors.” why doesn’t Jude ever see Salazar making preparations or contacting clients? The ending of the story doesn’t work mainly because Salazar’s powers aren’t explained, so neither are their limitations.
“March Hays” by Matthew Pegg
Sam Meachum is a soldier wounded in WWI. Lily is a childhood sweetheart, daughter of the gentry who own March Hays, and now Sam’s nurse. Sam recovers and stays on after the war ends and the estate is restored to its former splendor. Lily marries Edward, who seems a good match until he runs through their money and starts drinking too much. Sam has a plan for dealing with Edward. It involves a rather strange feature of the main house, one Sam becomes aware of thanks to some local folklore.
This is a sweet story, and I did enjoy the ending. The one drawback is the strange feature of the house that’s the key to Sam’s plan. It really doesn’t fit with the rest of the story in terms of tone or theme. It has the feeling of something added in to make the story a better fit for guidelines specifying horror content.
“High Art” by Karen Runge and Simon Dewar
Raymond While hires a hit man to kill his wife Justine so he’ll be free to live the good life with Stacey, the bombshell of the local news station. Everything seems to be working out just fine until Raymond discovers exactly how the hit man killed Justine. Matters go from bad to worse in a very graphic way.
This is a good crime story, rather heavy on the gore. Unfortunately, the ending is trite, predictable, and it does not fit the rest of the story. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of coherent narrative. That would be fine if Raymond is somehow losing his mind, but his sanity is still intact. The supernatural element comes out of nowhere and derails the suspense.
“A Pirate’s Ransom” by Jay O’Shea
Somali pirates find an old-fashioned freighter adrift, its crew all dead due to something terrifying that froze them to death. The story is told from the point of view of the pirates’ interpreter. The plot is familiar in terms of how whatever killed the freighter’s crew might still hanging around waiting for new victims. The geographical setting and the use of intense cold work well at updating this familiar horror scenario. The interpreter’s insight into the details of what has driven these men to become pirates and the unspoken rules of their profession is what really makes this story worth reading.
“To Touch the Dead” by Paul Michael Anderson
Gregor is a Memory Coordinator. He works for the People’s History Project, reading the psychic residue on possessions recovered by the Project. Such objects are usually recovered from the sites where people died, so the final memories are often intense and painful. Gregor cares too much about the people whose memories he reads. That compassion has already cost him a great deal, and it’s about to cost him even more.
Quiet, poignant, the narrative alternates between Gregor’s present reality and the events that he reads off the recovered objects. Gregor is a wonderful protagonist, lonely and broken and full of despair but unwilling to stop caring about what happened to these people he meets only in memories. The climax of the story is beautiful.
“You Only Die Once” by Stephen Graham Jones
A girl and her boyfriend Joshua die when he runs a red light in his Monte Carlo. They find themselves in a surreal world populated by the dead. Joshua is a zombie without the feeding habits. The girl divides the people of this world into four types according to how they’re coping with the supernatural laws that govern this world. If they can find a shadow that’s dark enough and dive into it, they might be able to escape.
There’s not a lot of plot or story here. The girl doesn’t have a name or much backstory, so she lacks depth as a protagonist. The worldbuilding has some interesting aspects, but that’s not enough to make up for the other problems. The ending lacks real tension or resolution.
A final comment on the anthology as a whole. In many anthologies, the “About the Author” often appears at the end of each story or in the back of the book. Here each story starts off with “About the Author.” That would be all right if it wasn’t for the fact that every author has appeared in at least one other anthology from Grey Matter Press. Given that there are sixteen stories here, the constant reminders about this or that book from Grey Matter Press take on the feel of commercial breaks between each story. I found that to be an annoying distraction.