“Childhood’s Dread” by Taye Carrol
Reviewed by Christos Antonaros
When I got Weirdbook #32 in my hands, I thought that twenty-four short stories should be something challenging for me, considering the time I needed to spend on them. Despite my doubts, though, I found this issue relaxing and worthy enough of my concentration, for it includes plenty of great reads and deserves the success accorded the previous issue.
In the first short story, “Childhood’s Dread” by Taye Carrol, the protagonist is a 16-year-old girl living in a town where once per year “the others” are harvesting some of the parents for an unknown reason, and leave behind Christmas presents for the children. To avoid the harvest, the townsfolk have to paint the outside of their houses a specific shade of red. A beautiful story, but the absence of dialog and inner conflict made it difficult to follow, or even sympathize with the narrator until the end. This is an obvious retelling of the Biblical story of Passover, but with adults being taken rather than firstborn males.
Parker, the protagonist of Daniel Davis’ “The Other Neighbors,” is looking for his dog, Rupert, that got lost somewhere near his neighbor’s house. While he gets closer to the property, he will discover a dangerous secret behind their walls. Even though a short story, we receive enough character background to sympathize with Parker and his dog, and there is an interesting twist at the end.
Megan, the 61-year-old protagonist of “Rare Air” by Mark Slade, after five husbands, is on the prowl again for a man-friend to accompany her. She meets Howard King, a mysterious man with a bold way of flirting with the ladies. Despite her friends’ warnings about King’s shady past, Megan will continue their relationship. She will find out, though, that sometimes whispers are like the smoke of a dangerous fire, which should be avoided by any means. The representation of high-society and their festivities is more than satisfying. The character description is excellent, from how a high-society lady dresses to how she reacts in certain occasions. This story also comes with an interesting plot twist at the end.
“The Children,” by J.E. Álamo, is a vignette of an ax-wielding man storming toward enemies to protect the children hidden in a shelter behind him. Quick and gory, as a dark-fantasy-fiction combat scene should be.
Next, we find one of the best stories of this issue, “The Radiant Boy” by Kevin Wetmore. Ray, an astronomy professor, is walking his dog Galileo when he notices a boy whose face is mysteriously glowing. The following day, his son starts talking about an imaginary friend named Wallace, while Ray notices strange phenomena around and inside his house. He will soon find out about the “radiant boys” myth from Victorian times and their grim prophecies. A horror story with realistic dialog and a solid theme, “The Radiant Boys” is the successful combination of science fiction and Gothic folklore noteworthy by the fact that a scientist changes his perspective about reality within six days.
In the short historical fiction tale “A Whisperer in the Woods” by Peter Schranz, Carloman, the only known illegitimate son of Roman Emperor Lothair I, receives a quest from Empress Ermengarde. He has to escort the staff of Saint Emprosse on its way to Milan. During his mission, however, he will be critically challenged, both mentally and physically. The dialog and long, compound sentences of description make it difficult to follow. It would probably work much better as a novelette than a short story.
“They’d killed him once, they’d killed him twice, they’d killed him three times. But he refused to die.” There is nothing more exciting than an opening line which creates a series of questions about what you are about to read. In Andrew Darlington’s “Sweet Oblivion,” which is an interesting blend of crime noir and Japanese Mashu poetry, Dom is a tough nut, but also an alcoholic, recently fired from his job, and currently working as a taxi driver. He finds himself in a life-threatening situation, and a hot pursuit that brings more (supernatural) danger his way with each passing moment. An excellent read with both flawed and genuine characters and a magnificent plot.
“An Unsolicited Lucidity” by Lee Clark Zumpe takes us back to 1961, where the freelance photographer David Arthur Brown is taking part in an expedition to explore the Malagasy Republic. After their arrival and due to technical problems, David and the crew will end up isolated on the island. Soon, however, they will found themselves in an unexplored land, full of deadly secrets in every dark corner. The feeling of isolation and the fact that they lack the technology we are fortunate to have today, heighten the mystery and suspense in a story worth reading until the very end.
In Bobby Cranestone’s “Black Carnival” Sam is a brave boy who visits the carnival with his friends. At the entrance, he chooses the full tour instead of the normal one that his friends chose, but he doesn’t know the real meaning behind the word “full.” Visiting the tent of Aznagel the Magician, he will ask for something more than a cheap trick, a real spell that will scare him more than the scary movies he watches at home. The next hours will teach him that he must be careful what he wishes for. In a few words and a series of weird images, the author describes the scary side of a carnival that only a few unfortunates can see.
As the title indicates in the “The Howard Family Tradition” by P. R. O’Leary, the father has a strange way to bless, and clear of evil spirits, every hotel room his family stays at for their vacation. As his older son grows up he comes to the realization that his father’s tradition isn’t quite so funny, or odd. During his high school years, and while he is about to travel with his friends, his father reveals to him the real story behind the family tradition. The first person narration, the changing points of view between the father and the son and the hidden truth behind the words, heighten the mystery so successfully that it makes you wonder if it is the father’s madness or reality.
Blood, sweat and extremely high temperature could correctly describe the background of “Hell in a Boxcar” by Scott A. Cupp in less than a few words. Bob, Clyde, and Dave are watching an illegal boxing match inside a very hot boxcar somewhere in Texas. At some point, Bob ends up competing against “Tulsa Doom,” the champion, with bare knuckles for one hundred dollars. As good a boxer as he might be, Bob realizes that the six-foot creature before him is an undead monstrosity. We are given an incredibly narrated fight scene, with continuing plot twists and breathtaking suspense in “Hell in a Boxcar.”
From the high heat of Texas, we find ourselves in the snowy and frozen terrain of “Jorogumo” by Kelda Crich, where Skerritt drives with no destination, away from the city behind him and the last two members of his military squad. The scars on his face make him turn his gaze from anyone looking at him, but now he runs away from actual monstrosities far worse and scarier. Going back from the protagonist’s last days, the author describes a war setting and the personal relations amongst brothers-in-arms. To emphasize the suspense and horror, she uses Jorogumo, also known as the binding bride, a horrifying spider-like creature of Japanese folklore. Interesting reading possessed by the spirit of war.
In the flash fiction story “Clay Baby” by Jack Lee Taylor, the protagonist wants more than anything to become a mother, and so she makes a clay baby doll and treats it like a real one. Her husband has an ability called Claymation, which allows him to bring clay miniatures to life. Therefore, she asks him to do the same for her clay baby. His denial, in combination with her eagerness for motherhood, will bring her to use her husband’s forbidden power. Where there’s power, though, there are consequences. Even though this is a very short story, it manages to captivate with eerie images and the strong desire of a woman to become a mother.
In “The Corpse and the Rat: A Story of Friendship” by Joshua L. Hood, we read about a corpse floating in a river, when a large rat lands on its belly. Throughout this unusual trip, the rat will protect the motionless treat it is given. The rat fighting on the corpse against the fishes reminded me of the old man against the sharks, in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The mortifying settings of the corpse and the river instead of the ocean, though, give this story its own voice and theme.
Ellie wants to lose weight in “Getting Thin” by DJ Tyrer, but she doesn’t want to exercise, and so she decides to join the closest diet club she can find. There she meets people with bigger needs than hers, but with an infectious motivation which makes her start dieting as soon as possible. Yet, she discovers that the diet club’s owner follows an unconventional, and simultaneously morbid, diet. Finishing the story, it seemed more like a scene from a larger story. Nevertheless, it was more satisfying than disappointing.
In “Maybe Next Door” by Richard LaPore, the protagonist talks about a World War II story he heard from his best friend’s grandfather, Sadler James. Old James recalls a shadowy couple of door-to-door salesmen, whose every house-visit ended up with the residents going missing. He describes a brief encounter he had with those salesmen. By following the unexplained reaction of a domestic animal, such as Old James’ cat, we are dragged deep into the mystery of those door-to-door agents, but unfortunately we don’t get to meet them.
The protocol is the most important issue for the protagonist of “Containment Protocol” by Leeman Kessler. As a guard, his only duty is to watch a container behind Plexiglas and its sole sleeping occupant. He is forbidden from turning his gaze for a single second until the next shift comes. It might seem like tough duty at the beginning, but soon enough he gets used to it, up to the point that he even likes it. As a full-time security guard myself, many years ago, I sympathize with the protagonist and the tricks you need to come up with to spend the endless, boring hours. On the other hand, I would like to have learned more about the mysterious occupant of that container.
An immense rock appears in the center of Triple Creeks county in the short story “Under a Rock” by Lori R. Lopez. The courageous Zelda, the new librarian, gets close enough to touch it, while she ignores the warnings of the crowd. What appears as bravery, however, turns out to be pure curiosity. Isn’t it curiosity that killed the cat, in the first place, though? Reading the story, it made me wonder which is more lethal for Zelda, a rock with supernatural intelligence, or the human selfishness and megalomania buried deep into bureaucracy and elected authority? The dialog reveals a solid background and impressively detailed characters, in an intriguing combination of horror and science fiction. Definitely, one of the best stories of this issue.
In “The Children Must Be Hungry” by L.F. Falconer, Maggie is a single mom left by her husband, trying to raise her three children. Rhonda, Maggie’s next door neighbor, decides to help by buying the groceries for her. When Rhonda arrives at Maggie’s house, she sees more than enough to call Child Protection Services. However, some things are not always like they seem. A nice read which grabs the attention from the beginning.
Marley and Casper sit around a fire, sharing a 25-year-old single malt scotch in the story “The Road to Hell” by Kevin L. O’Brien. In a post zombie apocalypse era, the solution against the purge turned against the living after finishing off the walking dead, and it seems that one of these men was responsible for this risky and hazardous decision. The grim environment in which the characters find themselves is so successfully described that it enhances the horror every post-apocalyptic story carries with it. It seemed like reading a postmortem report of humankind.
In “Maggot Coffee” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen, the protagonist attends a funeral where he accidentally swallows two maggots with his coffee. The maggots infiltrate his brain, create visions, nightmares, and sleepwalking incidents where he wakes up in graveyards. His slow transformation will guide him to a new life path and role that he could never have imagined. By using first person narration, the authors guide us through the protagonist’s situation and leave us with an eerie feeling the next time we drink our coffee.
As much as you like animals, would you ever shelter a baby werewolf? Carol is called to answer this question in “Baby Mine” by Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen. After receiving a wolf puppy as a gift from Bart, a friend and potential love interest, she discovers with the first full moon that she shelters an orphan girl. She will have to choose between keeping Elsa, the puppy, and returning her to her natural parents. Another worthy-to-be-read story in this issue, where both characters and plot are not just attractive, but evolve. An addition to its excellent overall quality comes the Native American folklore of the Winnebago Tribe and the wolf children, which is rarely used by any author.
In the short horror story “In Blackwalk Wood” by Adrian Cole, Phil’s wife has a terminal sickness despite her young age. He meets O’Riordan, a neighbor whose wife has died in a car accident. The man tells Phil that there is a way to save his wife. All he has to do is attend the local Halloween festival on October 31st. Although he is not a strong believer, Phil will make his last leap of faith for his wife’s sake. A beautiful story with genuine dialog and detailed spooky descriptions. The author uses one of the many myths surrounding the Halloween tradition, and he does it exceptionally.
This Weirdbook issue concludes with the short story “My Longing to See Tamar” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, where we walk inside the protagonist’s dream, through a labyrinth. At the same time, he recalls and longs for a former lover who died years ago, and who used to live above a similar place. With few words, we are introduced to a place that resembles a Turkish spa, and we feel like we need to comfort a man in love.