Review – “Horror Without Victims” edited by DF Lewis

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DF Lewis has always proved himself to be a thoughtful editor that ensures that his books become more than a sum of their parts, and this latest publication from his Megazanthus Press is no exception. It brings an intriguing concept to the table and I couldn’t wait to see how the authors had worked with it.

horror-without-victims_thumbnailHorror Without Victims must’ve been difficult to write for as well as edit. It would be challenging to produce a book of any genre that did not contain a victim in some sense of the word, and while the definition can be debated, I didn’t detect any glib dismissal of the niche guidelines. It has clearly forced authors to think outside the box regarding their submission, and also – I imagine – pruned the editorial slush of trunk stories.

As expected, there’s an interesting mix of traditional and leftfield, elements of the sublime, and stories poignant and disturbing. I was pleased to discover that there wasn’t actually a piece I particularly disliked, but the following are those that stood out for me.

“Clouds” by Eric Ian Steele introduces Evan, a restless and dissatisfied man with a lifelong affection for the sky. He notices while cloud-staring that the buildings of a nearby street – and perhaps the people – seem to be disappearing. He naturally questions his own sanity, and becomes very trying with his concerned and loving partner Emma: a convincingly troubled relationship already. The author’s matter of fact style is peppered with lush but subtle metaphors, and cements an odd but absorbing tale of existentialism that builds to an appropriately inconclusive and ethereal finale.

We meet the gentlemanly Mr Devlin in “The Carpet Seller’s Recommendation” by Alistair Rennie, taking up his first overseas post with a large Istanbul carpet merchant. He takes a river trip along the Bosphorus that takes a terrifying turn, and this 1st person account says much about the protagonist and his attitudes through educated prose. It’s tense, has a grand aura of doom, and a slick pay-off that riffs nicely on the anthology concept. Upon finishing, I immediately read it again.

“For Ages and Ever” by Patricia Russo is an adult fairy tale that bravely succeeds with a 2nd person point of view. It’s set in a strange and strictly rule-based city where nobody is allowed to cry or even touch in public, and concerns a sinister red house that seems to change or even devour people. Asking questions of the reader as myths merge with themes of identity, death and perception, it provides a very colourful journey.

“The day we went down to the beach, Slater insisted that his interest in torture was of a scholarly nature.”

Thus begins “Night in the Pink House” by Charles Wilkinson in which a wheelchair bound blind man and his bidding carer, Topcliffe, are dissecting the anatomy of the scream. It provides a great clash of the erudite and nasty, sinking darker as it progresses and drawing the reader along to a solid and sour-tasting conclusion.

“Point and Stick” by Mark Patrick Lynch is an immediately engaging account of a cash-strapped man who rents a cheap room. Having seen an obese woman in the flat below through a hole in the broken floor, shuffling about and appearing never to leave, he begins to wonder is she’s a prisoner. Voyeuristic and ultimately less dark than I was expecting, this story adroitly puts the reader’s assumptions under the microscope.

Another favourite is the exquisitely evoked “The Cure” by John Travis. This tale follows Lionel, a terminally ill man with nothing to lose who pays a wad of cash to visit a mysterious island via a private plane with blacked-out windows for exclusive treatment. The course begins with new age reflections and hippy ramblings, and as Lionel’s hopes for direct interventions and medicine start to fade, the threat begins to grow. Sometimes the title of this anthology gives us clues as to how things might pan out, but John Travis dodges this pitfall with aplomb and presents a clever, compulsive piece that will please fans of the grisly as well as those of mood and menace.

Continuing the atmosphere of mystery and alien surroundings is “We Do Things Differently Here” by David Murphy. A “meet the parents” situation, it concerns Sally, a young woman visiting the potential in-laws in Efferentia: a picturesque but strange harbour town in which the locals seem to do things back to front. While she finds this quirky in some regards, such as their books being in reverse chronological order, attending a local funeral blows her mind. Despite being grounded in the fantastic, this story becomes quite intense through her increasing sense of being trapped, and tackles some interesting questions to attitudes about death.

“Lord of Pigs” by DeAnna Knippling is a beautifully written yet ghastly and surreal tale involving a child’s uncle – Uncle Chuck – who gets eaten by pigs. There’s an unsettling innocence at play due to the youthfully recalled point of view, and plenty going on beneath the layers of visceral horror for the reader to get their teeth into.

Another strong contribution is “Like Nothing Else” by Chris Morris. This introduces James, a man remembering his first sexual experience in the barn of a dilapidated farmhouse with a reptilian creature, overseen by a scraggy local squatter. There’s some genuinely unpleasant moments, and it questions the essence of humanity and desire, maintaining a psychological and nightmarish tone through to its ugly conclusion.

I loved “Scree” by Caleb Wilson. An excellent concept, it features a man stuck on an ever-sliding diagonal scree of boulders and rocks due to some catastrophic shifting of tectonic plates. We find him and the rest of the crumbling world sliding towards the “maw” as he refers to it: the vast darkness of the earth into which all shall tumble. He passes his weeks scavenging the detritus of civilisation drifting down along with him – half collapsed buildings, flat pack furniture, musical instruments – while being careful not to fall into the vicious current of scree and be ground to pieces. Well told, I didn’t want it to finish, and it very much nails the loneliness and strange serenity of any quality apocalyptic story.

Possibly my single favourite of the anthology is “Vent” by L.R. Bonehill. It is the poignant and elegant tale of Imogen, the daughter of a ventriloquist who suffers a personal tragedy. The author doesn’t miss the opportunity to utilise the natural creepiness of ventriloquist’s dummies, and peopled by very solid characters, the narrative deftly weaves a picture both through reminiscence and Imogen’s current situation, where we find her alone with a knife. There’s nostalgia and grief, tremendous humanity and pain, shocks both physical and psychological, and a breath-taking conclusion that I didn’t see coming. Immaculately told, “Vent” ticks all the boxes. Superb.

Following this is “The Yellow See-Through Baby” by Michael Sidman, a quirky ghost story and a veritable triumph of voice, told as it is in the present tense from the point of view of a young toddler. Through the author’s skill, we find ourselves engaging with the child as he sees the titular figure in his room, and it’s through this filter of innocence – the child’s hopes and fears – that this story very much succeeds where it could so easily have failed.

The anthology concludes with a sequence of very short pieces, and of these, I was particularly impressed by Tony Lovell’s “The Callers”: a sad episode of encroaching dementia and its effect on a family. Gentle but quietly powerful, the dignified but downbeat conclusion sums up the nature of such illness. Similarly tackling the ephemeral and fragile nature of our existence is “Still Life” by Nick Jackson. More a flash vignette than a story, it describes a room succumbing to time, detailing the mould and decay. Reminding us that all shall fall, it encompasses the concept of the book nicely.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Horror Without Victims. Although I was occasionally left slightly wanting, there are no bad tales, and several of them are truly exceptional. While it may be cliché to say there’s something for everyone, in this case it’s true. The bleak and grim elements contrast the lighter and more hopeful, and there are mood pieces and snippets of life as well as more traditionally structured stories. And with DF Lewis at the helm, there is always going to be plenty to think about as each story glides seamlessly into the next.

Although most contributors have done a sound job of avoiding predictability, a small problem arises from the theme. It can be quite restrictive and sometimes dilutes the shock of a twist ending as we start to second guess what might prevail, given that there won’t be any victims. Which of course brings us to the question… is this even possible? Horror Without Victims is a quite a concrete statement, so much is down to personal interpretation of what constitutes a victim, both generally and in the context of the fiction. But I think to get too bogged down in this discussion, fun though that can be, is counterproductive. If we simply accept it to mean victim in the brutal genre sense – in that people tend not to end up getting killed, tortured or savaged by something monstrous – then we can kick back and enjoy the eclectic and unusual ideas that these authors have presented.

And I suppose that’s the essence of Horror Without Victims. A selection of talented writers throwing themselves into a provocatively tricky concept, the resultant gestalt of which is a very respectable addition to the editor’s canon.

Recommended.

Review – The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies

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The title of the latest editorial offering from D.F. Lewis – who always delivers considered and interesting fiction – initially sounds like quite a lofty boast. And although this might have been acknowledged with a knowing glint in his eye, its literal meaning actually refers to the theme: all the stories contain or reference a horror anthology of some kind, be it real or fictitious. 

This is tackled in limitless ways and beneath that perfect cover photograph by Tony Lovell (yes, that’s an actual photograph) is some very potent darkness. But as usual there’s a mixture of humour, drama and quiet horror, and some very familiar names on the TOC alongside those less well known. I was impressed by the quality of several of the latter, but the stories that stood out for me are as follows.

Curtain-raiser “It’s Only Words” by Colleen Anderson is a muscular start with the tale of Lloyd, a frustrated and unhappy man who collects horror anthologies. He finally snaps and kidnaps a smug wheel-clamper, but rather than the murderous revenge-against-society one might expect, the results are much more memorable and interesting. I won’t spoil it by revealing the moody sting in the tail of this original piece.

Second up is my favourite story in the book. “Tree Ring Anthology” by Daniel Ausema is one of those unique and wonderful curiosities that always pop up in DF Lewis publications. The extraordinary account of a tree’s life, it is told through an analysis of its rings that map out the residual scars of disease, fire and human intervention. Anthropomorphic, dark and strangely moving, this is a superb piece of unconventional storytelling and a great twist on the theme.

Rhys Hughes’ “Tears of the Mutant Jesters” is a pleasant diversion from the more serious material involving a book with appendicitis (a vestigial echo of the time when books ate grass). A short tale, it  brims with clever wordplay and wry humour.

In “Horror Stories for Boys” Rachel Kendall presents a powerful story of a man suffering from migraines who must visit his dying father and face an abusive past. The author managed to make me feel that bitter-sweetness of nostalgia – even though the past evoked isn’t mine – and although light on plot, this is mature and emotional writing. Of a similar calibre is “Midnight Flight” by Joel Lane about an old man losing his memory, searching for a book he recalls from childhood. Both these tales satisfy with very brittle emotions and atmopshere.

One of the longer tales, “Residua” by David Mathew is the intriguing story of a possibly-innocent con who becomes attached to a book called Ghostly Gallery in the prison library. He starts to encounter characters from it in real life, also baffled by the intentions of an oddly benevolent guard who seems able to read his mind. It notches up the tension and curiosity well with strong, fleshed-out characters and snappy dialogue. There’s a lot of subtle fear in this story, and when some horrible truths come to light, it pans out into an absorbing journey of damage with a cheeky punch-line.

 “The American Club” by Christopher Morris follows a young man named Daniel who discovers that his eccentric writer of a father is in a coma following a car accident. Daniel finds a letter from his dad instructing him that in the event of his death, he should to burn all his fiction, the majority of which is unpublished. This is a top class mystery that unravels with perfect pace and likeable voice, and has a tense finale that leaves an unsettling aftertaste.

The book ends on a high note with “All His Wordly Goods” by D.P. Watt, the ghostly tale of a man who works in a charity shop and discovers that a donated volume – the Supernatural Omnibus – refuses to leave him alone. Well written, and suffused with a creepy, small town claustrophobia, this tale also nails that fragility of lost childhood.

Although I was never once bored or annoyed, some of the tales felt slightly overlong. “The Apoplexy of Beelzebub” by Colin Insole and “The Pearl and the Boil” by Rosanne Rabinowitz both have brilliant concepts, but I’d prefer them to have been realised in just a few less words. And although I very much enjoyed “The Rediscovery of Death” by Michael O’Driscoll – a slick piece of paranoia and obsession concerning a small press stalwart who discovers the publishing opportunity of a lifetime – I predicted the pay-off well before it arrived.

A small complaint is that the actual cover is glossy and rather thin, not the pleasing matte quality card to which I had grown accustomed from Megazanthus Press over the last few years. Obviously this isn’t a reason to be put off a book, but a robust feel to a volume always improves the whole experience for me.

But despite these minor grumbles, I very much enjoyed “The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies”. Infused with a genuine resonance, the book treats us to a gamut of chills, sprinkled with intelligent humour. The tales are thoughtfully layered, and I was also pleased to discover that that title concept wasn’t restrictive or the cause of any deja-vu: these writers think outside the box. I also felt a strong theme of loss. Several of the stories contain bittersweet visits to the past, grief or an aura of yearning that lends a more sobering atmosphere than the editor’s previous Nemonymous series: chills and melancholy often replacing the whimsy.

While there’s possibly something for everyone, this book will have special appeal for the anthology-devouring genre bookworm. Visit the dedicated website here.

Review – Nemonymous #10: Null Immortalis edited by DF Lewis

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“Short Fiction by Various Authors” reads the pleasingly simple cover. This book has the air of something that is comfortable with its quality, and doesn’t need a corny byline to carnival-bark you into purchasing.

Null Immortalis contains 26 stories presented by steadfast editor D.F. Lewis. It is volume ten of the quietly intelligent Nemonymous series; anthologies of weird fiction in which the listed authors are not assigned to the stories until the subsequent instalment. As this is sadly the swansong of the series, the mystery is no more and the authors are credited in the traditional fashion.

Null

The loose theme is simply the cover photograph and title, to be interpreted in whatever way the authors saw fit. The submission guidelines also required a character named Tullis, or Scott Tullis: the winner of a previous Nemonymous competetion to be immortalised in this way.

But on to the actual content. The first thing to say is that there are no weak links. All are thoughtful, precisely composed pieces – these authors take pride in their work, as does the editor – but I will mention a few that particularly appealed.

“Lucien’s Menagerie” by David M. Fitzpatrick certainly stood out for me. One of the longer works, this is a taut ride of impending doom. In order to inherit her cruel ex-husband’s house, a woman has to spend a night there with several creepy exhibits and memories of her miserable past. It’s genuinely unsettling and I love the way it keeps us guessing as to whether the events are supernatural or trickery.

In “Love is the Drug” by Andrew Hook, the title is quite literal. Told via a futuristic interrogation, this is off-kilter SF about the nature of love and conflict, and one of those sharp stories that leaves a chill and draws you back for a second curious peek.

Mike Chinn’s “A Matter of Degree” is one of the more simplistic tales in which a disgruntled employee attempts to human spider across a dangerous bridge. A compelling read, it neatly ties in the theme of the anthology.

“Only Enuma Elish” by Richard Gavin finds a reclusive man whose life changes course when an elderly neighbour draws him into a world of arcane knowledge. It’s immediately engaging and the magic sits comfortably with themes of self, inevitability and our place in the world.

Joel Lane’s “The Drowned Market” is a short tale about a damaged writer. Before you groan, it rises from the swamp of this particular cliché with a haunting and original finale. Conclusions are definitely a strength of this anthology. Other examples include “Holesale” by Rachel Kendall – which concerns an ex-con market trader who sells miniature black holes – and “FIRE” by Roy Gray: the ruminations of a man facing execution by firing squad. I finished both with a wry smile of admiration.

Another peak is “The Toymaker of Bremen” by Stephen Bacon. In this polished work, a boy loses his parents on a trip, and is strangely adopted by a rural family and their house of toys and creepy artefacts. The 8-year old’s innocence regarding the sinister descent makes for a powerful read and I didn’t want it to finish.

Speaking of point of view, “The Green Dog” by Steve Rasnic Tem is an exquisitely told piece about the eponymous dog, its ageing master and a ghostly mirror. It’s a reflective and poignant journey, and the 3rd-person perspective of the dog is a joy.

Special mention also goes to a couple of stories that capture the essence of Nemonymous. The concept of D.P. Watt’s “Apotheosis” involves a mysterious collective of writers of which the protagonist is, or a least yearns to be, a member. Also, “Haven’t you Ever Wondered?” by Bob Lock stars our uncredited editor, DF Lewis. It’s a referential and dark story that draws together the previous anthologies; a tasty gift for the series faithful.

I would recommend this book to anybody who enjoys an anthology to savour. The subtleties, the synchronicity, the love of language. It cares not for genre, other than the general blanket of weird fiction, and blends imagination with startling humanity. The stories are ordered so that themes sometimes leak from one to the next, but best of all, they credit the reader with intelligence. There is no unecessary explanation of thread or coincidence. Null Immortalis is a respectful equal, not a weary teacher.

Review – Nemonymous #9: Cern Zoo edited by DF Lewis

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The latest in editor D.F. Lewis’s Nemonymous anthology series, in which the authors are listed but not attached to the particular stories, is a cauldron of interesting ideas. Whether sf, fantasy or just plain strange, the 24 literary stories should provide something of interest to anybody with a love of the written word.

N9This volume being loosely themed around the title Cern Zoo, we have several tales featuring animals (of the real, the supernatural and the fantastic) and several references to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. But what really brings this anthology together is colourful imagination and crisp writing.

There are 2 tales set in British pubs – “Artis Eterne” and “City of Fashion” – both of which bring an extraordinary establishment to life. From the spooky, silent man propping up the bar in the former, to the claggy, dripping walls and clasutrophobic heat of the latter, these are memorable settings, animated by the weird and wonderful people who frequent them.

Of the title-themed stories “Mellie’s Zoo” is an evocative and convincing journey into a dusty, abandoned zoo through the eyes of young girl and the childhood monsters that lurk within the rusty cages, herself and possibly us all.

“Window to the Soul” depicts an uneasy future in which neuro-technology offers tremendous reward but with ultimately depressing consequences.

“Salmon Widow” is a rich and very human tale about an elderly lady and her visits to a quaint country retreat. Ghosts, memories and longing collide in a tale full of strong characters and powerful imagery.

In the excellent “Turn the Crank” – more of a traditional horror piece – buskers and entertainers find their high-street routines shattered by the arrival of a creaky old organ-grinder and his creepy, stuffed monkey.

Also worthy of special mention is “Devourer of Dreams”, a dark and unsettling story about a boy’s discovery of an exotic monstrosity owned by his father, and the terrible price that can come with the promise of success. It’s a serious theme tackled by a gruesome imagination.

That’s only a fraction of what’s on offer, and all the nemonymous authors involved have brought something worthy to the feast. Many can be read at face value or should you choose to, enjoyed for their satire and metaphor. This is an intelligent anthology devoid of cheap thrills, but the scattering of flash throughout is nicely arranged to bring humour and a pleasant diversion from the heavier stories.

Cern Zoo is a banquet. A cornucopia of flavour and texture, of many courses and layers. Just beware of the cockroaches lurking in the salad.