DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER, by Helen Marshall

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Gifts for the One Who Comes After
By Helen Marshall
Published by ChiZine – 16th September 2014
ISBN 1771483024 – 270 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
– The Hanging Game
– Secondhand Magic
– I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said
– Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects
– All My Love, a Fishhook
– In the Year of Omens
– The Santa Claus Parade
– The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass
– Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta
– Crossroads and Gateways
– Ship House
– A Brief History of Science Fiction
– Supply Limited, Act Now
– We Ruin the Sky
– In the Moonlight, the Skin of You
– The Gallery of the Eliminated
– The Slipway Grey

The disturbing cover of Marshall’s second collection and its feature on i09.com made me eagerly seek this out and I quickly found that it was exactly the type of short fiction that I most enjoy, well written with a distinct shade of darkness. To call her stories dark and unsettling is accurate, but the supernatural and horrific elements of these stories provide an enshrouding tone for the basic character exploration beneath. By delving into a reality of human emotions rather than a focus on the odd aspects Marshall makes her stories graceful and stirring like the similar use of darkness by writers like Neil Gaiman, Karen Russell, or Shirley Jackson.
There isn’t a single story in this collection that I didn’t enjoy and I now will have to go back and read her first collection from ChiZine, Hair Side, Flesh Side, which I expect should be equally as sublime and haunting as this. The stories making up Gifts for the One Who Comes After are mostly unified by character explorations around the theme of family: couples, parents, children. The frequent presence of children gives some of the stories an additional chill because of that sense (correct or not) revolving around the ‘innocence’ of childhood.
The opening story “The Hanging Game” is one of my favorites in the collection, and it perfectly introduces the major theme of Gifts for the One Who Comes After. In this story, children play a grim and treacherous game that has passed down through the generations in their community, a twisted tradition of ritual. “The Hanging Game” was originally published at Tor.com, so I’d encourage you to go read it there for a great sense of what the rest of this collection is like.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

MR. WICKER, by Maria Alexander

22545259Mr. Wicker
By Maria Alexander
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, 16th September 2014
ISBN: 1935738666 – 236 Pages – Paperback
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press


You may recall the fabulous cover illustration of this from when Reading 1000 Lives took part in the Mr. Wicker cover reveal awhile back. Since then Mr. Wicker has earned a 2014 Bram Stoker Award nomination for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. In her debut novel, Alexander draws from mythological sources, particularly Celtic, to form a richly imaginative story that combines elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and historical novels.
In the throes of depression and instability horror writer Alicia Baum succumbs to suicide. Rather than offering any release, she finds herself in a timeworn library before a strange man who speaks of lost memories and a desire born from destiny to have her stay beside him, Mr. Wicker, in this mysterious realm beyond life where he can reunite her with all she has lost. Alicia, despite recognizing this sense of incompleteness within herself that has fueled her mental instability, chooses instead to flee from the uncertain strangeness of Mr. Wicker and his abode. Eternal rest ever elusive, Alicia awakens back to the reality of life, placed in a psychiatric ward under the care of doctors who would never accept her odd experiences.
But, Dr. James Farron has heard child patients in his care whisper in their dreams about the uncanny Mr. Wicker, and overhearing Alicia do the same draws him into serving as her advocate and protector, from her own mind and the corruption of hospital staff. In return he hopes to finally discover the secret to the Mr Wicker phenomena and save his patients.
A synopsis of Mr. Wicker‘s plot simply can not do its intricacies and many layers justice, and too much information can spoil the fun. In a way, Alexander has constructed the novel like a puzzle, and some pieces can be found outside of the novel proper on her website to uncover new secrets and connections. This construction fits well conceptually with the intermixing of genres that Mr. Wicker for the most part manages to handle rather well. She handles the balance between horror, fantasy, and romance rather well, particularly for a first novel. The story was originally envisioned as a film script and the fluidity of events amid the intertwined structure of character-history-reveal shows the marks of this.
My only major quibble is with the extended interlude toward the novel’s end that makes up the more ‘historical’ genre aspect of the novel. Revealing Mr. Wicker’s past, this section is actually one of my favorite portions of the novel in terms of the language and development on its own. But within the whole it ends up breaking the flow of everything around it, not fully integrated into the whole. Personally I can see this historical interlude working well on the screen, but within the book it felt almost a disruptive info-dump of revelation that may have felt more natural interwoven as all other elements of the novel are.
Rather than being the clear-cut villain as I expected, Mr. Wicker is in fact far more complex, full of bittersweet tragedy. The significance of his name will be familiar to anyone who’s seen either of the Wicker Man films or knows that aspect of Celtic history. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Wicker’s corvoid companions. While I knew of their place in Norse mythology, I hadn’t realized that the raven had similar counterparts in Celtic.
Alicia’s allure as a character arises from her opposing dualities. She is drawn alternatively between life and death, between the influence of Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron, fear of her present mind and desire to reclaim past memories. Alicia has moments of strong independence and making clear decisions, but then also times where she foolishly blunders or shows utter dependence on a male character. Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron are (selfishly in one case, more altruistically in the other) each intent on claiming her, either as a sort of property or as a case for care, respectively. For much of the novel Alicia permits herself to be defined in this way, but she ultimately reaches her own self discovery and road to follow, so I’d encourage any readers at first put off by this to stay with the story.
While extremely likable as a character, Dr. Farron is rather predictable and one dimensional, as are the secondary characters of the novel, particularly another doctor who serves as the moral opposite of Farron. To be fair, the unique development of Alicia and Mr. Wicker could also arise from this story’s origin as screenplay, where development of more than a couple characters is simply not recommended.
Ultimately fans of dark fantasy who enjoy a touch of mystery and romance will find Mr. Wicker worth a look, an intricate Celtic knot that Alexander has woven quite well for a debut. I think a tale destined from the start for the page rather than the screen will even more deeply reveal her magic and talent for storytelling.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Raw Dog Screaming Press in exchange for an honest review.

THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY & HORROR (2014), Edited by Paula Guran

21432372
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014
Edited by Paula Guran

Published by Prime Books, 17th June 2014
ISBN: 1607014319 – 569 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:
“Wheatfield with Crows”, by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Blue Amber”, by David J. Schow
“The Legend of Troop 13”, by Kit Reed
“The Good Husband”, by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Soul in the Bell Jar”, by K. J. Kabza
“The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey
“Termination Dust”, by Laird Barron
“Postcards from Abroad”, by Peter Atkins
“Phosphorous”, by Veronica Schanoes
“A Lunar Labyrinth”, by Neil Gaiman
“The Prayer of Ninety Cats”, by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell”, by Brandon Sanderson
“The Plague”, by Ken Liu
“The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning”, by Joe R. Lansdale
“Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella”, by Brian Hodge
“Air, Water and the Grove”, by Kaaron Warren
“A Little of the Night”, by Tanith Lee
“A Collapse of Horses”, Brian Evenson
“Our Lady of Ruins”, by Sarah Singleton
“The Marginals”, by Steve Duffy
“Dark Gardens”, by Greg Kurzawa
“Rag and Bone”, by Priya Sharma
“The Slipway Gray”, by Helen Marshall
“To Die for Moonlight”, by Sarah Monette
“Cuckoo”, by Angela Slatter
“Fishwife”, by Carrie Vaughn
“The Dream Detective”, by Lisa Tuttle
“Event Horizon”, by Sunny Moraine
“Moonstruck”, by Karin Tidbeck
“The Ghost Makers”, Elizabeth Bear
“Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha Lee


If you aren’t too familiar with the current fantasy and/or horror that is being published today, or if you only know these genres from the novel form, there is no better place to start than this mammoth collection. Featuring varied stories across the genres from both print and electronic sources, regular and individual publications, established and upcoming authors, Paula Guran assembles a great overview of 2014. As typical for these types of anthologies, I wouldn’t consider all of these my favorites of the year – and some of the stories here I had no appreciation for at all – but there is assuredly a good chunk of material  to satisfy most readers here. Even if you don’t normally read short stories, this would be useful for finding authors whose voice and style you enjoy to perhaps then search out a novel you otherwise would never have picked up.
A handful of stories in this were familiar to me from their original printings in the magazines I regularly consume and for the most part they had remained in my mind fondly. Kabza’s “The Soul in the Bell Jar” and “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn fall into this category with tales that feel timelessly familiar yet with beautiful unique voices. I also adored “The Creature Recants”, by Dale Bailey for its take on the outsider ‘monster’ and for being immersed in the world of film and the classic Universal Films Horror. The story isn’t particularly dark or horrific (in the sense of scary), however, and indeed many of the stories in the collection aren’t particularly ‘dark’, so don’t let that term scare you off if you don’t typically go for such tales.
The majority of pieces included in the anthology were completely new to me. Since I first read about it prior to its release I’ve been interested in Nathan Ballingrud’s North American Lake Monsters from Small Beer Press. “The Good Husband” affirms this feeling and his collection now is in the top of my list of volumes to get as soon as possible. I was also particularly impressed by Schow’s “Blue Amber”, Evenson’s “A Collapse of Horses”, and Marshall’s “The Slipway Gray”. (I have a review of a Marshall collection that I read soon after this coming up).
Some of the authors known to me have strong showings here, particularly Tem (“Wheatfield with Crows”), Gaiman (“A Lunar Labyrinth”), and both Lees (“A Little of the Night”, Tanith and “Iseul’s Lexicon”, Yoon Ha). Typically I’m nothing but praise for Ken Liu (I can’t wait to write up the review of his upcoming novel), but “The Plague” failed for me here. I may try a reread, but it felt too short and unfulfilling.
One of the things I noticed in the midst of reading this anthology was a few stories that are written in the second person. Unfortunately I’ve been noticing this crop up more frequently throughout my reading. I don’t know if this is because I’m reading a greater range of short fiction or if it is some kind of trend, but I find it incredibly awful. In general I know most people feel this way and that the stories published with the narration constantly referring to ‘you’ are supposed to be the minority exceptions where this point of view is made to work. Only in the extreme minority of these published cases do I find them worthwhile, and in most of those cases it is just random chance that they do align vaguely with ‘me’.
I previously reviewed the 2014 science fiction entry from Prime Books ‘Year’s Best’ series for Skiffy & Fanty. Both that anthology and the one here were the first I’ve read in the series. Despite reading fairly widely in the genres there was a lot of new stuff here for me to discover and fond rereads. I look forward to the years to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Prime Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

300,000,000, by Blake Butler

300,000,000, by Blake Butler
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0062271857
456 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness flow as diary entries from minds fractured and deranged, 3000,000,000 is at times poetic and profound, vulgar with visceral gore, illuminating, and impenetrable. The main characters are Gretch Gravey, a psychopathic mass murderer/cult leader, and Detective E.N. Flood, the officer tasked with combing over Garvey’s rambling writings and testimonies to penetrate the meaning behind his horrific crimes.
As Flood struggles to understand the insanity of Gravey and his alter-egos his colleagues (and the reader) begins to witness Flood’s own life and mind descend into a similar vortex of madness where rational sentences devolve into surreal images of raw contrasting emotions. Reality and imagination in the minds of the protagonists blur, as do the lines between the plot and the social commentary of 300,000,000 on the fabric of America.
I try to avoid statements such as this, but this novel if any will hold to that idea that most people will either love or hate Butler’s novel. The near incomprehensibility of much of the text, read more for the poetry, frantic cadence, and general feeling of unease that it elicits will not be for everyone. At times I found it fascinating, but as the novel wore on I became increasingly bored and uninterested, dulled to the violence and disturbing heart of it all, which perhaps is an effect and commentary Butler desired to convey to some degree.
Just as Flood becomes affected by the crazed mind of Gravey, so too does the reader. The effect is chilling. In moments where I spent time focused on the novel, and in the dark quiet of the night, my mind tried to construct some logic around the surreal, and began to feel a growing sense of paranoia and discomfort. Butler succeeds well at making this truly creepy for the reader able to immerse into the pages of 300,000,000, particularly in the start of the book. I also appreciated how the horrific depravity and bloodbath behind the minimal plot of the novel seems at times supernatural in nature, yet also reads like that would be a cop-out, denying the utter evil capable by humanity itself.
Eventually, however, the novelty of that experience became old, the effects dulled. After a certain number of times reading dehumanizing words like ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’ to describe people loses its effect. The fragmentation of characters and the unreliability of who is ‘real’ and who is a fragment of Flood’s imagination start to become repetitive and the social commentary on America grows a bit too literal perhaps. A little over halfway through the novel I was ready for it to end. The remainder just reinforced responses I’d already had and there isn’t enough of a ‘plot’ here to really make the latter portions of the thick novel fulfilling from the angle of story.
Readers who really enjoy surreal, bizarro fiction will find this worth checking out, but this is certainly not for those who want a more traditional kind of novel or those put off by disturbing horrors. While I remained welcome to it, the experimental nature of the novel wore thin on me. Finally finishing it I felt far more displeased and unsatisfied than I feel now with the passage of some time. Butler’s 300,000,000 is certainly unforgettable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

USE ONLY AS DIRECTED, Edited by Simon Petrie & Edwina Harvey

In case you missed it, here’s my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty (that was posted last week) on the collection Use Only As Directed. But an accidental spill on my brand new laptop has put my Internet abilities largely on hold for the last week, delaying my link to it here. Thankfully books help combat such traumatic, and expensive, incidents. Next time I will use my MacBook only as directed, with drinks far, far removed.

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“…The latest anthology from Peggy Bright Books, edited by Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey, Use Only As Directed features Australian and New Zealand authors – of whom over 50% are female – crafting short stories around the titular phrase that one commonly reads on instructions for everything from medicine to the latest gadget.

The anthology’s predominant characteristic is its well-balanced diversity in authors and styles, with an array of female, male, and nonhuman characters and a range across genres from horror to fantasy to science fiction…”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

Contents:

  • “Dellinger”, by Charlotte Nash
  • “The Blue Djinn’s Wish”, by Leife Shallcross
  • “The Kind Neighbours of Hell”, by Alex Isle
  • “Mister Lucky”, by Ian Nichols
  • “Home Sick”, by M. Darusha Wehm
  • “Always Falling Up”, by Grant Stone
  • “Yard”, by Claire McKenna
  • “Never More”, by Dave Freer
  • “Fetch Me Down My Gun”, by Lyn Mc Conchie
  • “Uncle Darwin’s Bazooka”, by Douglas A. van Belle
  • “The Climbing Tree”, by Michelle Goldsmith
  • “Large Friendly Letters”, by Stephen Dedman
  • “Future Perfect”, by Janeen Webb
  • “The Eighth Day”, by Dirk Flinthart

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“Wonderwall”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Kronia”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“Echo”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Permuted Press
ASIN: B00DX0F4L4
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

In “Suffer the Children”, DiLouie successfully provides readers with a horrific scenario, the start of civilization’s collapse when all the children in the world drop dead. Then he ups the ante by making the situation get even worse. He does this with writing, with language that is chillingly conveyed without hesitance or sugar-coating. The result is a terrifying ride through a parent’s worst fears realized (creepy and personally moving even for someone without children) and the rapid decay of individuals into monsters, embodying genetic selfishness at its most extreme.

The novel, in this way, is exceptionally powerful horror, built upon a basic human fear tied to our reproduction and sense of family, told at a great pace and keeping fans of the genre entertained. However, a significant criticism lies in the fact that this horrific scenario playing out in the novel seems utterly fabricated. DiLouie spends small sections later in the novel to try and give a rational explanation behind the events. More developed (and modern) than a similar type of attempt in a similar kind of story, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, DiLouie makes a similar error of trying to give definition to a horrific event of fantasy (a negative ‘miracle’). The explanation has a reasonable basis, but still fails to explain the facts of the plot, not least of which is the simultaneous death of children en masse within time zones, traveling a morbid constant wave around the globe.

The plot thus feels very artificial, set up precisely by an author to maximize the horror and the worst of humanity that ends up being brought to surface. Similarly, DiLouie employs characters that end up feeling increasingly like puppets. On the one hand this is because the adults become puppets of sorts within the actual plot. But also they begin to act with extreme personalities and defects that simply seemed designed by the author.

If the reader is able to maintain enough suspension of disbelief to ignore or look past the ample set up and card tricks being employed in plot and character within the novel, they will probably love this. If these kinds of details and authorial maneuvers negate or take away from positive aspects of the novel, the reader will be disappointed. There is exceptional horror and deep rooted human fear here, writing that will pull at the heart-strings of emotions. But this can only be enjoyed if you can look past the fabrications that are so clearly in play to produce the effect.

Three Stars out of Five