“Tonight I Wear My Crimson Face” by Adrian Cole
Reviewed by Jason McGregor
This isn’t called Weirdbook for nothing, as this massive tome delivers twenty-nine stories of fantasy, horror, and even some weird science fantasies in its nearly 240 pages. Several, especially in the early going, are very colorful and eventful, though that dissipates slightly later on. While only one story especially stuck out, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and would make an enjoyable light reading experience (or a dark one, in a different sense) for many readers.
“Tonight I Wear My Crimson Face” by Adrian Cole
Armand, the street urchin, has been taken into the Theatre Verité by his shadowy patron demon, Maurice de Villiers. Years into this experience, Armand contains several demons which help him with his act of not-so-veritably killing drugged women for the delight of the audience. What he’s actually doing is biting off their fingers for reasons he eventually finds out.
This aims to convey decadence through elaborate prose but it feels more like ordinary sentences studded with insalubrious words. Despite the first person narrative with its backstory (or perhaps due to that, which feels like a monologue more than action), it’s a difficult story with which to engage.
“The House of the Witches” by Darrell Schweitzer
Jezebel, Salome, and Annabel are three of the witches living in their house which is “perched precariously on a basalt spire, far out in the depths of space, an infinite distance from the mundane world, where star-clouds broke against black stone like the froth of an infinite sea.” They’re enjoying their leisure until Satan himself shows up, demanding all follow him in a war against the absentee landlord. Since the witches like things as they are, a brief conflict ensues.
This is a fairly simple and easy tale but also somewhat humorous and imaginative.
“The Bones” by Erica Ruppert
Toni’s in a basement taking a drawing of a dead woman out of the skeleton’s hand. She returns home and deals with her girlfriend, Willa, and her fixation on the drawing. Eventually, she returns to the basement and her destiny.
If that synopsis sounds a little vague, it’s in keeping with the story which lacks context and motivation (and has a predictable ending) but which is otherwise effectively creepy.
“The Idols of Xan” by Steve Dilks
Matt Randall is a half-Earth/half-Baerri warrior fighting on a third world when he’s captured by a group of soldiers led by a beautiful woman. The unit investigates the Idols of Xan when all cosmic hell breaks loose and Randall reveals he’s not quite what he seems and does so more than once.
While not qualitatively up to their standards, some may enjoy this oreo story which opens and closes like a Brackett tale with screamy Lovecraftian badness between.
“Conjurings” by Marlane Quade Cook
This piece, shorter than most of the generally short pieces, depicts Will Shakespeare getting some authentic help with some scenes in Macbeth. There’s not much here, but the saucy witches are entertaining.
“Matriarch Unbound” by Glynn Owen Barrass
Matriarch is an alien who has invaded the Earth and created a part-zombie army to hunt down the remaining human vermin. Concubine is a rebellious component of the alien system who has tried before and is trying again to access the main computer systems to help with liberation but discovers systems have significant inertia.
I’m not clear on how this invasion was supposed to unfold successfully in its early stages and I’m especially unclear on how Concubine was able to be as rebellious as she was at all, much less to survive after exposing her nature. I also can’t let “Zero went to scream” pass when “Zero wanted to (or tried to) scream” was intended. Still, this was an otherwise interesting invasion and exciting revolt.
“The Mouth at the Edge of the World” by Luke Walker
Eleven-year-old Wally follows Marcus and Jane (his fifteen-year-old brother and Marcus’ girlfriend) on their boundary-testing journey to the “edge of the world,” the border where some cosmic horror bit our world in half. Things do not go well.
This was very effective at conveying ordinary kids in extraordinary circumstances and the push-pull of their exploration. The agony of the main happening is even more effectively portrayed. Unfortunately, the “’tis fifty years hence” narrative frame and conclusion didn’t really work for me. Still, the interior story could be a fitting metaphor for our current divisive times and our possible fate.
“‘An Autumn Settling'” by Alistair Rey
A woman has had so much trouble renting her property that she decides to sell it, but finds no buyers. Curious, she moves into the apartment for a time to see if she can understand why. She comes to understand.
While weird, this is one of the more straightforward horror pieces, too. It may appeal to fans of such things, though I didn’t care for the lack of cause and effect in the plot or its ending (which I can’t specify without spoiling).
“I Know How You’ll Die” by K.G. Anderson
There’s a nice idea here in this short-short about a woman being able to see how people will die and being freaked out when she knows the last thing a guy she’s just met will see will be her killing him. (This isn’t a spoiler because it’s dumped in the middle—still not before you’d see it coming—rather than held to the end as the Big Reveal.) However, the way the idea is deployed doesn’t maximize its potential. (This is partly due to its second-person present-tense narration which, in this case, is less a matter of taste and as much an objective problem as anything literary can be.)
“Fair Shopping” by Jack Lee Taylor
This short-short of a bereaved couple arguing in a grocery store contains one of the more remarkable hugs of all time and may be an effective translation of miscarriage into horror fiction but just had too much revolting bathos for me. (Oddly, it’s also the second present-tense story in a row in a magazine that only contains four of them, though, in this case, it doesn’t create any special problem.)
“Black Aggie” by Marina Favila
A woman has split up with her husband after their daughter died and heads out to the reputedly magical statue of “Black Aggie,” retracing the steps her daughter had taken many Christmases before, in search of she knows not what.
This second tale of the loss of a child (albeit an adult one) focuses on pain and despair rather than outright horror and evokes that well enough, though it feels more like an ordinary fantasy than a “weird” tale.
“The Chroma of Home” by Arasibo Campeche
Kromel is a shapeshifter who is hunting Marko, the would-be usurper. After an incident with a bird, he finds Marko amongst the goblins and they have their showdown.
The magical concept of shapeshifters drawing the things they imitate and needing to be in contact with those drawings is interesting but the core of the tale hinges on whether Kromel has blood on his hands for turning the people he’s hunted over to the executioner despite never having killed any of them himself. The moral crux isn’t all that complex but the tale gets very preachy.
“The Last Resort” by Dean MacAllister
Jimmy and his wife have had a rough trip and just want to relax in their hotel room, but it isn’t ready yet. While the wife takes a nap, Jimmy chooses to go to the bar and have a chat with the pretty lady he sees there. When she invites him to follow her, he’s all too happy to oblige but he has a couple of reversals awaiting him,
The weirdness of the staff is well done and prepares us for the fantastic nature of the tale despite everything else seeming prosaic at first. Jimmy’s a bit of a cardboard character and the resolution is familiar and unsurprising, but it’s still structurally sound and entertaining enough.
“The Crypt Beneath the Manse” by S. Subramanian
When restoring a church, one of the team comes across a letter from a priest in 1888 and that letter tells us a vampire tale dealing with gruesome small-town murders.
While some of the details of this vampire mythos are not common, the basic story isn’t too remarkable for yet another vampire tale.
“A Winter Reunion” by C.M. Muller
Old widower Ing is on his way to a family reunion, driving through a terrible blizzard. He pulls over to await help and sees something which inspires him to leave his car and results in his ending up at a house in which an old woman appears to need help, so he takes her back to his car. Finally, he comes to a realization.
The character of Ing and his feelings and reveries about his loss are well done but his actions in the story make little sense and the ending is unsurprising.
“The Stravinsky Code” by Leonard Carpenter
A symbologist is drafted by an NSA agent to help her solve the mystery of a choreographer being murdered by having his neck snapped and then having his body forcibly arranged into the shape of a pre-Nazi swastika. It turns out that someone is using dance moves to convey coded information that results in something maliciously magical.
I have no familiarity with The Da Vinci Code so, if this is making any commentary on that, I wouldn’t know. This piece aims for a humorous tone which seems out of place for this magazine though I reviewed an anthology called Conspiracy! a few years ago that it would have been perfect for. Its main problem is the easy but still clever ending.
“She Talks to Me” by Matthew Masucci
This short-short describes a guy bringing a ouija board home to meet the folks. This is a decent idea which might have been made into something but it starts out confusingly and then seems to make a non sequitur move.
“Wings of Twilight” by L.F. Falconer
A professor sees mythical creatures everywhere. At the orders of his university, he’s taking a rest and his wife’s booked them a cabin in the woods. When he smashes a fairy, thinking it’s a bug on his neck, the situation turns perilous.
This story initially seems like the second or third humorous one out of the last three and that odd tone stays mixed into the story down to its horrific end, the combination of which, at least in this instance, didn’t work for me at all.
“A Pantheon of Trash” by Thomas C. Mavroudis
An old man goes about his daily routine, disturbed by trash which seems to be everywhere and which often appears to be other things. This is an uneventful tale with an awkward style.
“Juliet’s Moon” by D.C. Lozar
Romeo the Rapist, Gay Paris, Juliet the Hag, and a Freaky Friar run around scheming and murdering in this revision of the familiar tale (the second upending of Shakespeare in this issue).
Perhaps the best way to describe this tale is that it has a similar effect to that of pop country singers covering songs made famous by Janis Joplin. Also, even in a group of stories full of wrong words, misspellings, and/or typos, this one stuck out.
“The Gargoyle’s Wife” by Jean Graham
A woman buys a “well-endowed” gargoyle statue that speaks to her, promising to kill her husband, who is a vicious, cheating B-movie star. She’s hesitant about the prospect but eventually makes her decision.
Chests are not what have “six-packs” (or it’d be pretty damned weird if that was intended), people don’t say “effing” at the height of a rage, and I wonder how this story would be received these days if the genders of all involved were reversed. Still, the basic scenario is a popular one and this example may appeal to some.
“The Melting Man” by Justin Boote
Kevin’s trying desperately to calculate and maneuver his way to an optimal commute to work but all for naught, as a guy dressed for winter boards the bus and sits right across from him on a fine summer day. Kevin’s afraid he’ll have to endure inane, if not insane, conversation but his experience is actually much worse.
The depiction of the melting man is well done but I have to wonder why a melty guy would dress as though he were cold. That aside, this tale is all in the service of a moral, however nice of one, and the ending is anticlimactic.
“Dead Waves” by Sean McCoy
A kid (the narrator) and his dad go ice fishing with Mr. Parsons, who’s been having a rough time, including a divorce. On the way, they talk about the kid’s interest in ham radio and how Mr. Parsons was in the First Signal Brigade in Korea. Once they get to the ice, things go well at first but when Mr. Parsons gets upset at his bad luck and they then see an apparition on the ice, things don’t go so well.
I think I see how the radio and fishing and guys’ lives connect, but it isn’t immediately intuitive to me and, if they don’t connect, that would be a flaw, but the story is very well-written in general and quickly engaged me and never let go. The situations and natures of the three characters are introduced quickly, seamlessly, and without infodumps in the first scene. Such infodump as there is comes in the second while actually in the car where it naturally arises because what else are you gonna do while riding in the car? Later, the dark, cold fishing experience is evoked very well in both its good and bad parts, and the ending isn’t overly oblique but doesn’t belabor the obvious and seems inevitable. Good stuff.
“The Proposal” by J.D. Brink
James is in love with Pauline, like Charlie Brown and “that little red-headed girl,” except he’s convinced she loves him, too. They’d been working on a dig in Egypt when a scaffold collapsed, a cloud erupted from the broken tombs, and Pauline ended up in the hospital in a coma. But she’s out now, and our man goes to visit her. It’s not surprising that, after such a trauma, she’s a little… different.
James is a bit too dim of a bulb to make an interesting protagonist and the scenario is too familiar and ends too predictably.
“Dark Energy” by Kevin Hayman
While chasing a fugitive, Dawson and Jameson crash land on a desert world and lose almost all their supplies. Along with survival (and a nod to still catching their fugitive), their main concern seems to be the fidelity of their girls back home. This concern soon reaches maddening proportions and matters aren’t improved when they keep finding crashed ships and evidence of more madness.
This science fantasy horror is all very “been there, done that” and ends, not only in a predictable, but a cursory way.
“Christmas at Castle Dracula” by S. L. Edwards
The reader seems to be the viewpoint character, listening to Dracula’s five-page monologue about how he’s Christ-like and people really need to grasp the concept of the brotherhood of man.
This piece had no action and was not exciting.
“There Was Fire” by M. Ravenberg
Harlon, the twenty-year-old painter, goes to a whorehouse for the first time and meets a fiery redhead. He’s a hunk-a hunk-a burning love, with a fever from his muse, but he’s got nothing on her.
This may appeal to some though I imagine many different people would be offended in any number of ways. As an expanded depiction of the usual metaphors, it has its effect.
“Them” by Sharon Cullars
Somewhat akin to “The Proposal,” friends Kayla and Tom were on a dig (this time for dinosaurs in Arizona) with a couple of co-workers when they all experience something strange. Now, back home, Kayla finds out that Tom is missing and his family has been brutally murdered. This prompts a realization in Kayla.
The “incursion from beyond” element in this wasn’t very convincing to me, the amnesia seemed like strictly a device of narrative convenience, and the repeated use of “it’s” for “its” was distracting, but it might work for some who aren’t bothered by these things.
“For Love of Lythea” by C. I. Kemp
Faron, the magician, has sworn one unbreakable Blood Oath to keep his titular goddaughter safe from harm and another to his king, Mallios, to use his magic only as the king demands. This creates a fascinating problem when the lecherous, bloodthirsty king decides he wants the goddaughter.
Unfortunately, when the magician contacts Lythea with magic and tells her to flee, he’s already broken his oath and I’m not convinced that his larger solution doesn’t do so as well, no matter how Jesuitical one gets with it. Even from the start, I’m not sure how Faron gets away with resisting Mallios or why Mallios gives him three more days when Faron ought to be able to make her materialize in an instant. Regardless, this is all ultimately in the service of another revenge fantasy against another cardboard villain.
More of Jason McGregor’s reviews can be found at Featured Futures.