I fancied something ghastly to read, so “Stories from a Very Dark Place” sounded like just the ticket.
LL Soares and Laura Cooney are a husband and wife team, and reading this alarming book makes me wonder if they should ever have been allowed – for the good of humankind – to form such a terrifying partnership. Dubbed “the Bonnie and Clyde of the horror genre” by Brian Keene, they have very different voices, but both pack an equal punch, and many of the situations presented here will simmer long after the book is closed.
“In Sickness” is divided into 3 parts: a solo selection of stories from each author, followed by a collaboration. Laura Cooney is up first, and “Wasps” is a powerful curtain-raiser. Here we meet Clint, a young boy who can’t shake off the ghost of a slightly odd and embarrassing girl he’d been forced to play with before her brutal death. It evokes the guilty frustrations of childhood with an uncomfortable poignancy, and concludes with an ice-cold blow.
“The Hirsute You” is a solid monster story before we plunge into “Puppy Love”. For me the most chilling piece in the book, it’s a subtle study of a woman who plays constant psychology with both her rescue-shelter puppy and new girlfriend. It unsettled me for several reasons, and the atmosphere of control and abuse is just as disturbing as what actually occurs. An incredibly effective piece of writing.
Next is “A Crown of Mushrooms”, a slice of self-destructive desire starring Rasputin, the Mad Monk himself, before part 1 concludes with “Number 808”. This is a sharp story with a dystopian flavour about a lonely victim of abuse. The bitterness of exploitation drips from the pages; Laura Cooney writes with her finger on the pulse,whatever the subject matter.
While his wife infects your imagination and unsettles your conscience, LL Soares has more of a lurid attack to his stories, favouring direct jeopardy and letting the actions of his characters speak for themselves.
First we meet Julie in “Little Black Dress”. A nervous, straight-laced girl, she decides to don the fish-nets and dress up as a saucy witch for Halloween. Despite the initial liberation and empowerment, she gains perhaps more than she bargained for. It’s engrossing, with moments of palpable threat that we share thanks to the strength of the characters.
Location is also put to good use in LL’s fiction. “Second Chances” haunts us with a hardened drinker who is drawn back to a beach of blue clay, before we venture inside the “Mating Room”. Here a doctor uses unwilling women in his treatment of a lustful missing link called Billy, and it has a rewarding pay-off for those who can stomach the sexual violence.
“Head Games” is a grisly yarn featuring a troop of intelligent monkeys before we lose all hope in “The No! Place”. This is a triumph, the title referring to a mental refuge into which an abused woman retreats from her vicious boyfriend. Engaging right from the first line, it forces us to share in the helpless plight and makes for a very tense read: certainly not your average abuse/revenge tale. The pitch-black twist might have even made my jaw drop a little.
Closing part 2 is “Private Exhibition”, describing a human exhibit in a public gallery who aggravates her physical wounds and refuses to let them heal. Dealing with need and personal scars, it’s one of LL’s less visceral stories but leaves an appropriately bitter taste.
Part 3 is the collaborative title novella and I was fascinated to see what this marital hybrid entity would produce. “In Sickness” introduces a married couple, Zach and Maddy, deteriorating beneath the weight of their personal demons. They’ve suffered several pregnancy miscarriages, and Zach keeps a pregnant mistress while Maddy hits the bottle, both haunted by ghosts of what could have been. The dialogue is uncomfortably realistic, and the tale juggles rage and tenderness with aplomb. The inevitable descent slowly turns down the dimmer switch towards a conclusion that ends the book perfectly. And that’s in a very dark place indeed.
These two authors clearly love what they do, and that twisted passion has resulted in an unashamed horror collection with plenty of chills. The stories mostly fit the themes of obsession, damaged love and the cruelty that lurks in relationships of all kinds, and their varied styles complement each other. LL Soares makes you afraid of the darkness, and Laura Cooney makes you brood about why.
“In Sickness” indeed, and it’s a good job the authors neglected to include the rest of that particular marital vow. There’s nothing healthy to be found in these pages.
With creepy interior artwork, this collection is available now from Skullvines Press.