Gods and Monsters edited by Jason Andrew and Michael Dryer

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"Dea Ex Machina" by Derek J. Goodman
"The Banjo House" by Michael Nethercott
"The Chalk Giant" by Ian Creasey
"Day of the Mask" by Gary McMahon
"The Owl Dreams" by Larisa Walk
"Scorched Earth" by Joel Arnold
"The Labyrinth" by James S. Dorr
"Its Hour Come Round at Last" by Hall Charles
"Thunder" by Dave Bartlett
"Pieces of Pi" by David Bartwell
"Rain Against My Window" by Nate Southard
"Happy Days with Dick and Jane" by Lavie Tidhar
"Magpie" by Gill Ainsworth
"The New Gods of the Lost Children" by Jason Andrew
In this themed anthology, Gods and Monsters, edited by Jason Andrew and Michael Dryer, the old myths and legends come back to haunt the modern world. In "Dea Ex Machina," Derek J. Goodman gives us an interesting take on employee exploitation. William Jorgenson has sold his life and soul to a metalworking factory to pay his family’s debt. But when the spell that keeps him a zombie begins to wear off, he is spared the refresher treatment by a woman responsible for keeping the employees in line and the machine goddess from showing up to devour upper management. Once William realizes he is free, will he leave the factory?

This is a very cool story that skillfully blends a well thought-out magical system with a modern setting. I like the idea of zombiefied workers slaving away for a faceless, soulless corporation, and Goodman’s first-person narration gets you inside William’s head. Well-written, thoughtful stuff.

In "The Banjo House," Michael Nethercott channels H.P. Lovecraft for a story of a group of boys who enter what is thought to be a haunted house. They finding a secret room containing a huge mirror covered with a strange and phantasmagoric tableau. When it mysteriously shatters, one of the boys is caught in the spray of glass, and is scarred in more places than his skin. Years later, the narrator encounters an author whose works remind him of those frightening images from that long-ago mirror, and he becomes obsessed. He tracks the author down and finds his boyhood friend writing furiously, getting the images out of him the only way he can.

This is a well-written Lovecraftian-esque tale, that doesn’t directly use any of old Howard’s. Nethercott’s fine writing style fits both the theme and mood of the story, and would have fit well in an issue of Weird Tales during Lovecraft’s time.

In Ian Creasey‘s "The Chalk Giant," a childless couple camp out on an ancient chalk sculpture’s enormous erection in order to test an old legend that claims that whoever does so will become pregnant. The husband is doubtful, but the wife, Karen, believes this is the only thing that will work. The next morning, Robert is still in doubt, and his wife’s certainty frightens him. "The Chalk Giant" is a well-wrought tale of faith, hope, and love. Besides, you gotta love a story that begins with the line "The penis was enormous, at least thirty feet long." This is what speculative fiction does best, using a fantastic premise to explore the familiar territory of the human heart.

In "Day of the Mask," Gary McMahon takes us into the world of a young, emotionally-imbalanced young man whose parents move him to a farm. Largely ignored, the boy begins exploring the property’s dilapidated outbuildings and discovers a secret room containing a notebook filled with strange writing and diagrams, and a heavy black mask that makes him feel happy when he wears it. His parents want him to take it off, but he refuses, even when he begins to see the ghost of a young girl. He finds two more masks and gives them to his parents.  He tells them that by wearing them, they can all be free of the masks they wear everyday.

While there is some nice symbolism here, this story left me with more questions than answers. What was the purpose of the notebook filled with strange writing? And who was the ghost of the little girl? There is more to this store beneath the surface; unfortunately, the author doesn’t leave any clues as to what that more might be.

"The Owl Dreams" by Larisa Walk takes us south of the border for a glimpse into the hard-luck life of a woman, Eualia Martinez. Eualia dreams about an owl, which she believes is significance. When she rises from bed after being groped by her cousin’s husband, she looks at her face in the mirror and finds that she has been cursed with the appearance of an old woman. To end to this curse, she visits the local curandero, becomes his apprentice, and learns that she too has the gift/curse of magic.

"The Owl Dreams" deftly weaves Mexican folk magic with Aztec mythology to stunning effect. I’m a big fan of Aztec mythology, and I loved learning about another aspect of their religion, especially in such an entertaining way.

In "Scorched Earth," Joel Arnold takes us on a strange river ride with a group of college kids through an area destroyed by a forest fire. Jay, Ann, Kelly, and Patchouli float along, seemingly without a care, except Jay wants to break up with Kelly, and Kelly is pregnant with his child. But none of that will matter before their ride is through, because creatures made of smoke and ash rise from the ruined forest to put an end to their partying.

This is another one of those "weird intruding on the ordinary for no reason" stories, and didn’t really do much aside from making Jay want to stay with Kelly and have a white picket fence life. It’s an OK story, but I failed to get whatever mythological reference might underlie it that merited its inclusion in an anthology about old gods and monsters haunting the present day.

In "The Labyrinth," James S. Dorr flies us to exotic Crete with an American, Carey, and a Frenchwoman, Ariane, who teaches Carey to know ghosts. And in Crete, there are plenty: people who fought and died in various battles, even old Daedalus himself, maker of the labyrinth that contained the fearsome Minotaur. But when Ariane and her brother turn out to be more than they seem, can the ghosts of Crete save Carey before it’s too late?

This story is more about the Carey’s learning experience than his end success, and it’s very well-done. The exotic locale is a refreshing change of pace and lends a touch of the exotic and strange to "The Labyrinth," even without the many ghosts Carey sees.

Celtic gods come back to haunt the present in "Its Hour Come Round at Last" by Hall Charles. A college professor and his wife move to a quiet New England town. But when they have their first child, they learn too late that followers of the Celtic god, Grannus, want to make their baby his human vessel.

There are some good twists and turns in this story. Charles does a great job of misdirection while setting up subtle clues to foreshadow the outcome. Nice references to obscure (to me) Celtic mythology too. And reinforcing what I learned long ago from Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft: small New England towns are no place for outsiders.

What’s the word? Thunderbird. In "Thunder" Dave Bartlett settles down for his twilight years, a sad, intelligent man who wishes he had done more with his life. Well, he’s about to get his chance, because a Native American thunderbird just landed on his house in a sudden storm. The bird takes him on a mystical journey through time where he learns that everything he knew about the world (which turns out to be quite a lot) is wrong. The Vikings went to California, flying saucers supervised construction of the pyramids, and a plane from Atlantis crashed in the Sahara.

Basically, it’s every conspiracy theorist’s and cryptozoology nut’s wet dream, but what sells it is it’s effect on our main character, Leonard, who has finally been pushed to go explore the world. And that’s ultimately what saves it.

David Bartwell‘s "Pieces of Pi" is the strange tale of Todd, a born-again operating systems programmer, who gets into an argument with a coworker over the exact numerical value of pi—which God tells Solomon in the Bible is equal to 3, not 3.141592653 as we learned in Geometry class. Todd believes that if the Bible is the literal truth and word of God, then pi must equal 3, in spite of what everyone else says. He even prays that God will make pi equal to 1, which will change some fundamental constants of the universe that people will immediately notice, such as black holes becoming visible to the naked eye, and going around a rain puddle becomes quicker than going through it.

I don’t quite know what to make of this one. As far as its place in the anthology is concerned, it’s the only story to bring in the Christian God. But I found Todd creepy, if not utterly pathetic, not because of his beliefs, but because of the way he handles his crush on a coworker that his cubicle neighbor ends up dating. And the ending is intriguing, but feels like wish fulfillment. It’s a so-so story, not the best in the bunch.

I said earlier that I like stories that feature weird things happening for no reason. Nate Southard‘s "Rain Against My Window" is one of those, but lacks the emotional heft to sustain it beyond the speculative element. A torrent of leech-like creatures rains on a family’s home in the middle of the night, and the terrified occupants attempt to flee. The mother is killed, and the father and son are trapped in the car. The end. 
This tale reminded me of Stephen King’s wonderful Nightmares & Dreamscapes story "Rainy Season," in which frogs rain on a small town and dissolve with the rising sun. But where that one sizzles, this one plops. There’s nothing tying the speculative element to something emotional in the characterization of this family and no "Man, that was freaking cool!" mind candy either.

"Happy Days with Dick and Jane" by Lavie Tidhar is one of the best stories in this anthology. Dark and twisted, it’s an adult look at some treasured childhood characters, now older and into black magic, as well as threesomes with a couple of friends, in Jane’s case.

Dick finds a book that teaches him how to sacrifice animals in exchange for temporary magical abilities. But as his lust for more power grows, he needs bigger and bigger victims. As we all know, when you take from something like that, it demands much, much more in return.

This is a neat story, a grownup take on the classic kid characters we grew up with, and is just sick and twisted enough to have your old first grade teacher pulling her hair out. Nicely done.

In "Magpie" by Gill Ainsworth, Bronwen is going to give birth to a pig-child, the product of her unholy union with Mocca, the pig-god of fertility. She wants to get an abortion but is talked out of it by her doctor. The baby is born with the usual horrific results.

This is another so-so stories, thankfully short and ultimately forgettable.

"The New Gods of the Lost Children" by Jason Andrew is my second favorite story in this anthology, after Tidhar’s "Dick and Jane." It’s well-written, with an original, intriguing concept; this one sticks with you well after you’ve closed the book and bears rereading.

The Blue Lady and Mr. Bang are chief deities in a modern-day pantheon conjured by orphaned children raised on the streets. Elizabeth is a grad. student in psychology studying the children as they tell their stories of these street gods. But she learns all too late that these particular deities are real.

There are some cool concepts in this story, and Andrew did a good job of fleshing them out and putting an interesting spin on them. The gods were credible, having elements of the mean streets. For example, Mr. Bang, a version of Death or Satan, looks like a gangsta rapper. The mythology is intricate and well designed, just like every mythology throughout history. It reminded me of Lucius Shepard‘s wonderful novel, A Handbook of American Prayer. Check this one out if you can. You won’t regret it.
Publisher: Simian Publishing (March 2006)
Price: $15.95
Trade Paperback: 280 pages
ISBN: 1411681019