SCREAMS FROM THE DARK Edited by Ellen Datlow

Screams from the Dark:
29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor Nightfire — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250797063
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Amid a period of lots of horrible news, the 2021 debut of the Tor Nightfire imprint has provided a lot of literary relief as a major new outlet for horror fiction. The deeply respected editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has long acquired short fiction for the Tor.com site, and its more fantastic news that she’s expanding that role into the Nightfire realm.

With Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, Datlow compiles an impressively diverse array of dark fantasy and horror stories from an all-star lineup of authors. Indeed, reading this collection feels like the literary equivalent of watching an all-star sports team under the management of a venerated Hall of Famer. Screams from the Dark is a celebration of achievement in dark fiction. It takes a simple theme, gathers a broad panel of award-winning artists under Datlow, and lets them all do their thing. Like in a sports all-star game, some play as seriously as they normally would, some show off a bit, and some just have fun.

For casual fans, or people looking for a specific brand of the game of horror, the results might vary. But, there will surely be something to enjoy. For devoted fans of the genre whose tastes enjoy sampling across the range of the genre, there is unlikely to be a more successful anthology than Datlow and the authors provide in Screams from the Dark.

The theme of this collection, Monsters, is not a new one for Datlow. In 2015 she published The Monstrous, an original anthology for Tachyon Publications that I reviewed here back then. Screams from the Dark serves thus as a thematic sequel, bringing some authors back, but also bringing in new voices that give this a more modern vibe consistent with the latest in dark short fiction. Additionally, whereas that older collection mostly fell within the horror genre, Screams from the Dark, I would argue, draws equally from dark fantasy as horror. For me that is no problem at all. But some may wish for chills – or screams – from the horror side. The only criticism I have of the collection is actually its title. I feel it’s too generic for the specific monster theme, and a bit distant from the style and effects of the stories within.

29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous makes a better lead title, even if less evocative. But that number in there, 29, does reflect the hefty amount of text that this anthology gifts to its readers. Few of the stories here are very short, and also few are super long. Most fit into that perfect short story length to exert their spell. And for discerning readers with diverse stylistic or genre tastes, all 29 of these stories should captivate.

I started the anthology with plans to simply review/mention only my favorite stories. Though I did have favorites, I soon found that would be too difficult, or would shortchange a lot of stories/authors still deserving note. All the contributors in Screams from the Dark offer high quality tales that show off their talent and speculative, dark vision.

So, to the individual stories:

“You Have What I Need” by Ian Rogers – A perfect start to things, an entertaining story of the attack on a hospital ER by viral-infected vampires. The characters and setting, with pandemic relevance, play with the idea of exactly what a ‘monster’ is.

“The Midway” by Fran Wilde – The question of who and what are monstrous develops even more in this story of having to work a real lousy summer job at an amusement park where the electrical power and crowd draw come from sacrifices to an eldritch sea creature. Loved the combining vibes of nostalgia with something just a bit off.

“Wet Red Grin” by Gemma Files – A truly horrific tale set in a nursing home. Vividly written and grim, it delves into family and magic through the threat of a parasitic essence within a dying old woman. One of my favorites for emotional depth, language, and imagery.

“The Virgin Jimmy Peck” by Daryl Gregory – Should be among the favorites for anyone who likes humor with their horror. A cult has implanted a monstrous creation within the eponymous protagonist. The horrific set-up is played lightly, though still darkly, with character silliness and fun nods to horror classics.

“The Ghost of a Flea” by Priya Sharma – Fascinating and well composed historical dark fiction inspired by Robert Hooke’s early micrographs and William Blake’s painting that gives this tale its name. As a microbiologist I was excited to see something alluding to Hooke. Though I’m unfamiliar with Blake, the story here of a couple investigating strange, supernatural killings works even without the historical references as a dark fantasy/crime mash-up.

“The Atrocity Exhibitionists” by Brian Hodge – Another story with connection to the pandemic, this shows even more timeliness in its treatment of self-harm and the allure of the fleeting nature of fame. Such an intense and dark story, that will truly haunt readers.

“”The Father of Modern Gynecology”: J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813 – 1883)” by Joyce Carol Oates – Here, Oates goes the route of dark details from history to reflect on the fears and terror of today. You can look up the real J. Marion Sims, but the fictionalized autobiographical story here shows the monster just as well, with clear parallels to contemporary politics.

“Here Comes Your Man” by Indrapramit Das – Here is a perfect example of how to build tension and make that suspense pay off in a short story. Wit the tale of a young couple who leave their rural home for a festival in the city, Das makes the reader feel the discomforts of culture shock and displacement among things that still have the air of familiarity and safety. Exceptionally well-rendered characters and brutal story telling.

“Siolaigh” by Siobhan Carroll – Set among the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, this story grabs the reader with “A man’s severed arm lay in the surf” and doesn’t let go. Is it a legendary sea serpent that is the monster responsible? The local color of setting and the customs of lore give this tale an eerie, briny atmosphere as it considers what a monster may be.

“What is Love But the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” by Richard Kadrey – A date between Caleb and Patti seems to be going along swimmingly, heading for the bedroom, until they each reveal surprising secrets. Kadrey takes an absurd moment that could be played for humor, but twists it into a splendidly macabre romance of the monstrous.

“The Island” by Norman Partridge – The action of the story opens with a vampire aboard a ship, forced to flee hunters in his homeland, in dire and gruesome battle with the sailors. The vampire Count washes onto island that is not an island, shores that seem to gather monsters. The story has a vintage tone that ties to its allusions to the cast of the classic Universal monster films of old Hollywood.

“Flaming Teeth” by Garry Kilworth – Another story with a hidden island to follow the previous, this harkens back to old Hollywood adventures in exotic lands where monsters abound, in this case a corner of the southern Pacific where a giant creature known by a local name that translates into “Flaming Teeth”. It’s an entertaining look at natural predation and what we consider (hypocritically?) ‘monstrous’ from our point of view in the food chain.

“Strandling” by Caitlín R. Kiernan – This story paints a picture of a bleak future sadly too believable, saturated with the “hydrocarbon debris of a thoughtless world.” A lonely, exhausted desolation where mutant monstrosities are born from our monstrosity, and two women cling to one another against seeming inevitability. A beautiful, if dark, tale that features some lovely nuggets on the parasitic – mutalistic continuum of symbiosis that stands at the center of life and the the themes here.

“The Special One” by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ – “They named her Joy, an ordinary name for a child who became extraordinary, at least in childhood.” Filled with luscious text, this story presents itself as a fable on expectations and the pressures one bears to meet them. On the dark side of fantasy, it turns into horror with an unsettling ending that masterfully closes things.

“Devil” by Glen Hirshberg – A second modern-day tale that plays upon classic stories of exotic exploration. Here, the devil refers to the Tasmanian devil, a creature some tourists seek sight of in the wilds of the island, in a place where only train tracks remain from the colonizers who attempted to conquer the wilderness. Predator-prey dynamics and the ghosts of history haunt the unsuspected interlopers.

“Crick Crack Rattle Tap” by A. C. Wise – One of the most impactful stories of the collection, troubling and brutal, yet compassionate all at the same time. A young mother grapples with post-partum emotions, her desires conflicting between nourishing and exasperated. Shamed as flashes of tendernesses give way to resentment, her mind nonetheless turns in horror to a fairy tale rhyme, to rid her aching of its burden. Hardly an easy read in its emotion, this is just a brilliant fable of darkness and melancholy.

“Children of the Night” by Stephen Graham Jones – Light fare from Jones that embraces silliness and humor to have fun with the monster theme. The title evokes the classic line from Tod Browning’s Dracula (or was it even in Bram Stoker’s novel?) However, this one is actually about Bigfoot, and plays fancifully with the typical explanation of sightings of the cryptid as people in ape costumes.

“The Smell of Waiting” by Kaaron Warren – Such a touching and bittersweet story of a girl who discovers she has the power to resurrect life after the death of her puppy, and later, a vicious attack/murder of her mother. While she has this extraordinary power that others might view as ‘monstrous’, Warren forces readers to confront what such abilities might be like when able to provide relief to others, but never oneself.

“Now Voyager” by Livia Llewellyn – Wow, ummm, what? This was my first reaction to this genre-bending offering by Llewellyn. Then I reread it and loved it even more. The story is a science fiction dark fantasy that imagines a far-future Earth where a Princess, member of a deformed royal family looks out over a caldera considering the approaching death of the human Camera of the Gods and the selection of a replacement from among potential novitiates. This gem does so much, and so subtly, with exquisite prose. Are the monsters the alien Gods, or the Princess and her family who look the part and knowingly sacrifice others to a form of slavery? The richness of the story allows interpretations and new discoveries with rereads. An unconventional horror amid the rest of the collection, but superbly uncanny.

“The Last Drop” by Carole Johnstone – A tale that echoes the earlier offering from Oates, this is a fictionalized retelling of historical events and (at least some) characters. Set in the mid/late 19th century, it involves a woman put on trial for murder. In it, Johnstone includes details from actual court transcripts. The modern reader’s uncertainty of the woman’s guilt of the monstrous crime becomes accentuated by appreciations of societal blindness and atipathy toward women.

“Three Mothers Mountain” by Nathan Ballingrud – I have adored everything I’ve read by Ballingrud I think, and this was no exception. I still haven’t read his recent (now maybe old?) collection and really need to. Anyway, this story about witches, repercussions of magic, and the painful choices/sacrifices people make for family has familiar tones and themes for any dark fantasy fan. Yet, somehow Ballingrud manages to make it all seem fresh and evocative.

“Widow-Light” by Margo Lanagan – Fans of modern feminist recasting of fairy tales should adore this short fantasy from Langan. It stands unique among the other offerings of the collection in having perhaps the most hopeful, happy of endings. This is not to say it doesn’t touch upon darkness or horror in getting there, with themes of relevance to today’s reality as much as a fantasy world. I particularly appreciated how this is an original story in the fairy tale style, rather than something based off any particular fable or trope.

“Sweet Potato” by Joe R. Lansdale – The neighbor of an old woman who likes to set out bird seed, sit on her porch, and then shoot the birds who come each day, decides to take up gardening. When he discovers the perverted old lady dead and decomposing in her yard, he considers whether her body might be put to better use. This reads like a fairly standard contemporary short horror, but Lansdale’s talent keeps it engaging and fun.

“Knock, Knock” by Brian Evenson – A man kills his uncle, but soon a knocking comes on the door, revealing the murder may not have quite taken. This plays well both as a literal horror and as a psychological one of a man being tormented by his monstrous actions. In either case it is another familiar horror theme, but again one handled in just the way, with just the right atmosphere and structure, to make it enjoyable.

“What is Meat with No God” by Cassandra Khaw – I believe this is the shortest story within the collection, but Khaw does a lot within its fitting length. Heavy on hypnotic atmosphere, with an equally dazzling title, the story is a simple one of a monstrous soldier who cannot be killed, whose path of bloody carnage has no deviation until complete. The short length leaves a great deal of ambiguity to the background of the story and its interpretations, leaving a lot of room for the reader to draw conclusions.

“Bitten Himself” by Laird Barron – This one is a follow-up to one of Barron’s most known stories, “The Procession of the Black Soth.” I haven’t actually read that one, to my memory, so can’t comment on connections beyond the reappearance here of the title entity. In this, the protagonist is a deprived criminal/murderer who encounters his doppelgänger, and then cosmic-horror-vibed Black Sloth, to face his eternal punishment. Fans of Barron’s horror won’t be disappointed.

“Burial” by Kristi DeMeester – Something about DeMeester’s writing tends to hit the right notes with me. They are windows into the dark and pain that women have faced, and continue to face in life, tales of finding power and agency in that. Even so distant from my own experiences, the passion of her writing still resonates with me. No different here, a tale of a girl trying to save her sister and herself from a selfish, abusive mother, and her creation of a new mother from that agonizing desperation.

“Beautiful Dreamer” by Jeffrey Ford – In a time of increased partisanship, mistrust, and rancor between those on opposite ends of the US political expression, it is nice to see this short monster story of a horror that might help bridge the divide. Despite its themes, the story is a simple, unadorned one of people protecting themselves/hunting a dangerous mutant creature. Not very dark in tone, it is gory and splatter filled, an entertaining story that creature feature horror fans should enjoy.

“Blodsuger” by John Langan – Datlow saves the longest story for last, a practice that seems common to collections and anthologies. But, it’s one that I don’t really care for much, I’d rather a shorter sip to end things. The title of this one is an Anglicization of ‘bloedzuiger‘, the Dutch word for ‘leech’. (Advanced copies of the anthology used the Dutch spelling for the title from what I can tell.) A horror author tells a tale about an ice fishing experience with his grandfather where he lands a monster from Danish lore, that proceeds to unleash terror. Though I personally found the text too long, Langan certainly does a great job balancing an atmosphere of dread/horror with the nostalgia/mundane of family life.

Screams from the Dark is an anthology I could see easily returning to. Many of the tales bear rereading, and I am sure that personal favorites (or ones that resonate most strongly with me) might vary with time and age.

Datlow concludes her introduction to the anthology with these words, which I find just as fitting here:

What’s most interesting to me as a reader is the range of monstrousness that exists within ourselves and that we impose on the creatures unlike us that we name monsters. Monsters are our mirrors: in them, we see who we hope we are not, in order to understand who we war.

This is why the diverse range of authors, styles, and sub-genre are so integral to the success of Screams from the Dark. Monsters are deeply personal beasts, and the monstrous will change over one’s life experiences, through the political and social upheaval that surround us. Not every story here will likely resonate with you. But, which do, may change. And even at this moment of now, they all offer an empathic glimpse into what others see lurking in their mirrors, darkly.


January/February 2021 Short Fiction Roundup


Here is the first bimonthly roundup up my short fiction reviews from those markets that publish with a greater frequency than monthly or bimonthly. Right now that includes Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Abyss & Apex is another one I will feature, but given that it’s quarterly the January – April content will all just appear with the March/April post.

Given the number of stories, for these I’m only reviewing/mentioning the ones that I enjoy most. I may eventually review Fantasy Magazine fully as it is a more standard monthly publication. However, right now it’s so short, and half the content of the first two issues has fallen into the only two categories of things I absolutely don’t go for. So I’ve included it in this for the time being.

Many of these are available for free to discover if you are not a regular reader of them. I hope that those who enjoy and become fans of the outlets will be able to support them.

I still have several regular January/February issue reviews to put up before getting started on March/April, but they should go up in the near future.

Fantasy Magazine – Edited by Arley Sorg & Christie Yant

“Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind” by C.E. McGill (Issue 63, January 2021) – A stunning fantasy that seems to cover familiarly trodden territory at cursory glance, but weaves together several deep themes into a modern direction. At story’s start the protagonist, Oz, is about to commit suicide, only being stopped by a knock at the door and the arrival of an official group from town. His name has come up in the draw for choosing the next sacrifice to the god of the mountain. Oz’s journey to the mountain leads to greater self-discovery, reconciliation with his past, and a lesson in sacrifice. I love how the tone of the story feels set in conventional current world, yet with elements of magic and fantasy, or the beliefs of another era. This fits perfectly with Oz’s life journey.

“Kisser” by David James Brock (Issue 64, February 2021) – This story will resonate with any who have had the stress dream of teeth falling out. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it right before going to sleep! However, where the story could go full down the route of horror, it only brushes against dark fantasy in its setup, a man who finds his teeth actually coming out. A great character study that investigates how the man’s obsession with peripheral details of life (including outside of control) can compound to be more harmful than letting go – and how he might move past that.

“Flight” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Issue 64, February 2021) – Written from the third-person point-of-view of gray parrots, this story shows the interactions of these birds among one another in a community being changed by humans. The story revolves around the general theme of disruptions of natural processes by humans, the uncertainty and unbalance it creates and how other animals may adapt. It also illustrates how the cruel violence and disregard of intelligent humanity goes beyond the ‘red in tooth and claw’ (or beak) of biology. Beautifully written.

Daily Science Fiction – Edited by Jonathan Laden & Michele Barasso

First time I’ve ever reviewed something from this treasure of an online story outlet. So, I’ll start off by just saying in general they are something fans of SFF should subscribe to (it’s free), and if you enjoy it, consider supporting. With a story every day, usually flash-fiction length, they publish a fair amount that is solid, if not Earth-shattering. Occasionally there is something I’m not a fan of, and sometimes there is something that really resonates. Here’s a couple that did:

“The Union” by Tim Yu (26th January 2021) – Regarding this story that features an impending alien invasion of Earth, the author notes: “If we really faced an existential threat and had to unify, what would be the new benchmark normal to unify into? How would we funnel all of human diversity into that normal?” The optimist in me says that I don’t know as this is the most likely answer, but with the sadness of profound realism I feel it’s up there in probability. Well written, and I hope to see more from Yu. Perhaps a story with marine biology next?

“Echo Recovery” by Jennifer Linnaea (5th February 2021) – Beautifully written SF/Fantasy about relationships, making music together, and grief. The Songmaster of the Great Theater at Noti Station accompanies a reptilian-like Vhatian singer named Gyen to Gyen’s hibernation pod after the unexpected death of Gyen’s human song-twin Digne. While Gyen can flee the emptiness in repose until a new song-twin matches to him, The Songmaster, who was in love with Digne, cannot escape the grief process and going on with the business of writing music and managing the dual species singers. The language and emotions of the story are like music.

Strange Horizons – Edited by Vanessa Rose Phin

“Yearning” by Maya Beck (4th January 2021) – A man guides a group of sharecroppers through a ritual they dub firesouling or firesailing, a passage of the spirit into the bodies of ancestors past and descendants future. Through this they observe, and yearn for, what was and what might be. Even with violence past there are visions of a hopeful future. A wonderful piece of Afrofuturism within the fantasy genre that makes a good story with a strong voice.

“A Serpent for Each Year” by Tamara Jerée (1st February 2021) – Perfect flash fiction on grief, death, and celebrating the passage of time in a life.

“Ootheca” by Mário de Seabra Coelho (15th February 2021) – Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a weirdly surreal fantasy with tinges of SF and a nod to Kafka. It explores relationships amid personal tics or details that one might focus upon in another, and judgements that humans make based on happenstance or accepted norms.

Tor.com – Irene Gallo (Publisher), Chris Lough (Director), and Bridget McGovern (Managing Editor)

“Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller and edited by Jonathan Strahan (6th January 2021) – “My mind had no need for pronouns. Or words at all for that matter. This person filled me up from the very first moment.” Music can open up whole new worlds and one person can change how you look at the world. Sam J. Miller’s writing can do these things too, like the voice reaching out over the airwaves in this, speaking of a hopeful future possible. Though I get none of the pop culture references in this, despite growing up in the time period, Laurie and Fell’s story is universal, beautiful and uplifting.

“Shards” by Ian Rogers and edited by Ellen Datlow (27th January 2021) – Four out of five people survive a horrific Evil-Dead-esque night in a cabin in the woods. The horror does not end there. Excellent chilling story that confronts the absurdities of horror tropes. It looks deeply into how what becomes glossed over, or moved past, upon the dawn of the morning after, and the cue of the credits, might be the most horrifying of all. In some ways this starts as a sequel, but going places far different than the original, familiar tale.

“Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” by Lavie Tidhar and edited by Jonathan Strahan (10th February 2021) – I have to admit that Tidhar is one author who writes wonderfully, but whose stories have just never seemed to fall into a style I appreciate, or carried a message that personally resonated. This, a mashup of horror and mystery staples, does fit squarely into two of my literary loves, and it works simply in how entertainingly intriguing the characters and set-up are. I’ll have to go back now and read the first story featuring this character. Once upon a time I would have found this needlessly long, but novelette/novella length has grown on me, particularly with recurring protagonists like these and the clever spin of the plot.

“The Tyger” by Tegan Moore and edited by Ellen Datlow (24th February 2021) – On the night of a wedding reception, a museum comes alive in ways different than before for twelve-year-old Jules. The story does not go in the direction I had expected from its summary, and ends so profoundly and amazingly that a synopsis could not do it justice. The title references Blake’s famous poem, of course, but Jules’ symbolic journey through the museum into adulthood features a prehistoric bear, rather than tiger, to make a fine atmospheric impact. And then again, the tyger here may be something completely different.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Edited by Scott H. Andrews

“As Tight as Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick (Issue #320, 1st January 2021) – This is set in the same universe as the new Orbit Books novel The Mask of Mirrors, which I’ve had my eyes set on recently. But, until now, I had no idea until now that the author is a pseudonym for writing pair Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. Can’t recall reading Brennan, but I really enjoyed Helms’ Missy Masters novels for Angry Robot Books. Anyway… in this, Ondrakja sees a young beggar girl on a street corner and sees value in saving her from circumstances. “She knew what happened once someone vanished into the depths of Nadežra’s brothels.” The keyword there, is ‘value’. This serves as an introduction to the fantasy world of the novel, and the intrigues of its characters, that makes you curious to read more.

“Daughters with Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – Beautiful and evocative fantasy that plays with the individual and the collective ‘we’ within the framework of a wolf mythology. Beyond that, it speaks to human injustices and rights of self-authority. It takes a moment to really get into this and make sense of what is occurring, but also, I think my mind wandered from paying attention to subtle reveals of information at first, being just enraptured by the flow of the language.

“Bast and Her Young” by Tegan Moore (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – A historical story around the ascension of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh, and her consolidation of power amid realization that she is not the first female Pharaoh. It is nice to see a retelling of Egyptian history/mythology, as it seems less common in fantasy than Greek or Norse. Moore gives Hatshepsut’s voice a bit of a modern colloquial twist that I at first found odd, but grew to appreciate.

“Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand” by R. K. Duncan (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A dark chilling tale that explores the degrees of exploitation that can occur when creating art from the emotional hurt (or literal ghosts) of others, and from oneself. Rich language and turns in this story make it an engaging, compelling read.

“The Guadaloupe Witch” by Josh Rountree (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A witch finds confronted by a young man sent by her former husband to kill or capture her. The young man is a childhood friend of her now deceased son, her beloved she is now on a mission to restore. While the plot of this story is familiar, it proceeds in a tender and assured way that shows the true power of the eponymous witch.

“Quintessence” by Andrew Dykstal (Issue #324, 25th February 2021) – Deep within winter-covered Highfall peak, miners of a resource called quintessence are kept functioning and alive through expensive injections of red, rationed by the mining Company, but administered on-site by a witch. Loren’s brother-in-law Clyde is sick and dying of ‘crack-up’, but the newly posted ‘old’ witch Gristle refuses to provide Loren with additional red to save him. Wonderful world-building and characterization here, and exploration of consequences of the well-intentioned going too far in desperation. And the secret evils of corporations in search of profits.


THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, VOLUME SEVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

Edited by Ellen Datlow
Night Shade Books – August 2015
ISBN 9781597805759 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: Edelweiss


Contents:
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“Winter Children” by Angela Slater
“A Dweller in Amenty” by Genevieve Valentine
“Outside Heavenly” by Rio Youers
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix
“Allochton” by Livia Llewellyn
“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
“This is Not For You” by Gemma Files
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey
“Past Reno” by Brian Evenson
“The Coat off His Back” by Keris McDonald
“The Worms Crawl” by Laird Barron
“The Dogs Home” by Alison Littlewood
“Persistence of Vision” by Orrin Grey
“It Flows from the Mouth” by Robert Shearman
“Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor
“Departures” by Carole Johnstone
“Ymir” by John Langan
“Plink” by Kurt Dinan
“Nigredo” by Cody Goodfellow

A week of short story collection reviews, and the second of a horror anthology edited by the hardworking Ellen Datlow. This seventh volume of the Best Horror of the Year series came out last summer; Volume Eight is now available as well, though I haven’t gotten to read it yet. For fans or the curious,  you can currently enter to win a copy of the new volume in a Goodreads’ giveaway courtesy of Night Shade Books (entry deadline of 12th August 2016).
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In the sea of short story anthologies Volume Seven  is excellent, and it represents the variety of horror short fiction well. How you define horror and your expectations of the genre may cloud your appreciation of this. But if you are a regular reader there shouldn’t be any big surprises in the kinds of stories here or the authors included: genre leaders who frequently appear in horror anthologies, certainly those edited by Datlow. Horror is not always synonymous with scary or supernatural, so there is a range of tales in the collection which brush against other labels within the continuum of genre – such as crime, or ‘mainstream lit’.
As always with such variety most readers won’t love everything here, because reading has that personal component and none of us are clones of Datlow. (Or are some of you out there? Hmmm, that would explain her prolific output of quality…) For me there were several stories in Volume Seven that I just didn’t care for. It also features a relatively high number of entries I had read previously, most notably three from the Datlow-edited Fearful Symmetries (reviewed by me here). Those three in question are all excellent, but I know readers may have an issue with such recycling. I didn’t mind too much as I read them far enough apart, but even to me it seemed a bit too high in overlap. Then again if you aren’t a regular reader of this stuff, you won’t mind a bit!
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This volume begins with Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” one of those Fearful Symmetries stories. Mixing the occult, black-market antiques, and a criminal underworld the story is dark and entertaining, in a manner that reminds me, with its bayou setting, of Albert E. Cowdrey’s fantasy/horror often found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ballingrud’s story is just as entertaining and the prose is even more magical. The aforementioned magazine is the source of another of my favorite stories in this volume, Dale Bailey’s “The Culvert”, which deals with the creepy, dangerous explorations of childhood and the connection between twins. Robert Shearman’s stories are always inventive and creepy (I previously reviewed his collection They Do the Same Things Differently There), and his offering here of “It Flows from the Mouth” is no different. Highly recommended. Langan has a story here, “Ymir” that fits in mythological fantasy more than horror. I didn’t really care though, as it is an entertaining tale.
One thing I was happy to note in this anthology was the inclusion of two stories from John Joseph Adams’ Nightmare magazine, a relatively young sister to the SFF Lightspeed. Each month this outlet puts out a small selection of quality horror fiction, along with some nonfiction such as essays on what ‘horror’ means to various individuals. The two stories included here may not have been my favorite from that year from its electronic pages, but they are quite good. “This is Not for You” by Gemma Files is from their Women Destroy Horror! special issue that I still haven’t managed to read, and I hope the rest of it is as interesting and well done as Files’ story. Valentine’s story “A Dweller in Amenty” is a poignant and powerful one on the concept of ‘Sin-eating’.
The biggest, and most surprising, disappointment in the collection is “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. I had high expectations as I like Kiernan’s dark fiction, and lots of other readers were calling this a favorite. Its language is utterly melodic and beautiful, but I found it ultimately un-engaging beyond that, the story predictable and flat. On the other end of the spectrum “Plink” by Kurt Dinan impressed me greatly. Psychological horror that touches the sometimes difficult relationship between teacher and student, it perhaps connected with me even more because of my academic profession. Dinan is utterly new to me though he’s appeared in other collections before, such as Paula Guran’s 2010 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. He recently had his debut novel for young adults released (Don’t Get Caught), and that’s now on my  to-read list.
This wasn’t my favorite collection edited by Datlow, but it was still very enjoyable overall and it reinforced some favorite authors in my memory for future reading decisions. Most fans of horror fiction or interested newbies should certainly give it a look, but if you extensively read the genre there will be better anthology options out there of original material of course.

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

THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
 –
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
 –
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

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

BLACK SWAN, WHITE RAVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

22910783Black Swan, White Raven
The Snow White, Blood Red Anthology Volume IV
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Published by Open Road Media, 30th September 2014
(Originally Published June 1997)
ISBN: 1497668603 – 368 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“The Flounder’s Kiss”, by Michael Cadnum
“The Black Fairy’s Curse”, by Karen Joy Fowler
“Snow in Dirt”, by Michael Blumlein
“Riding the Red”, by Nalo Hopkinson
“No Bigger Than My Thumb”, by Esther M. Friesner
“In the Insomniac Night”, by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Little Match Girl”, by Steve Rasnic Tem (Poetry)
“The Trial of Hansel and Gretel”, by Garry Kilworth
“Rapunzel”, by Anne Bishop
“Sparks”, by Gregory Frost
“The Dog Rose”, by Sten Westgard
“The Reverend’s Wife”, by Midori Snyder
“The Orphan the Moth and the Magic”, by Harvey Jacobs
“Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs”, by Don Webb
“True Thomas”, by Bruce Glassco
“The True Story”, by Pat Murphy
“Lost and Abandoned”, by John Crowley
“The Breadcrumb Trail”, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Poetry)
“On Lickerish Hill”, by Susanna Clarke
“Steadfast”, by Nancy Kress
“Godmother Death”, by Jane Yolen


While I adore fantasy, retellings of myths or fairy tales aren’t the flavor that I’d first go for. Other than a handful of really well known classics, I’m not generally familiar with the source material, leaving at least one level of a retelling inaccessible for my appreciation. But, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to try something a bit different from my favored norm, particularly when Ellen Datlow’s name is attached as editor. Terri Windling is just as respected, but I am far less familiar with her work. Probably because of this branch of fantasy in which she specializes.
And I was just enraptured from the moment starting this classic collection. Though I hadn’t heard of it before, Datlow made a comment on Twitter regarding how she was glad it was available again and in eBook form for those (like me) whose radar didn’t pick it up in the late 90s. After reading this I’ve since picked up all the other volumes from the series during an Open Road Media sale and look forward to enjoying them all.
The stories in this volume at least vary nicely in style and tone from the more serious to the light-hearted, and mix up the genres from an expected fantasy to something closer to science fiction or mystery. Beyond even the stories, there are also a couple of poems. Try as I might, I still can’t manage to get much appreciation out of poetry. I have gotten better, but still a long way off. So I didn’t read the poems in this. Nonetheless I’m glad they are there because I think the art form would give great opportunities for briefly retelling the cores of fairy tales. And these fairy tales, already existing ‘classically’ in myriad form, really are about some general ‘core’ elements rather than any given specific details of the plot.
While some of the stories stick to classic messages, perhaps in a new setting or from a new point of view, a large number serve to invert or recast elements that in this era would be considered problematic due to things like race or gender, or use the existing shell of a classic tale to create something wholly new that empowers and speaks to a group of the population that the tales of old rarely did.
For me personally on the two ends of the spectrum I cared least for “The Trial of Hansel and Gretel” and “On Lickerish Hill”. I found the former, casting the eponymous characters into a courtroom drama, to simply drag, and for the Clarke they style of the language was too much (though I managed her Strange & Norrell novel just fine).  My most beloved readings here were “Godmother Death”, “The True Story”, “The Dog Rose”, “No Bigger Than My Thumb”, and “The Black Fairy’s Curse”. Many of those I enjoyed most fall into that category where a basic assumption from the original tale is taken and inverted to show a novel perspective or truth previously hidden or, within the confines of the story, ‘suppressed’.
Honestly I could list even more of the contents that I enjoyed, but the simplest thing is to let you find this and discover them all for yourself, if you haven’t already. Or perhaps to discover them all again. Whether this volume or (it is probably safe for me to speculate) any of the volumes of the Snow White, Blood Red series, you’re sure to find a good deal thought-provoking and entertaining.

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

“Cyber Monday” eBook deals from Open Road Media

You’ll likely hear about lots of book deals today, but this is one that may not make it across your radar, so I thought I would share the info:

Open Road Media has provided me with many great Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, and Literary fiction eBooks (and physical copies) for review in the past, but these just brush the surface of the large catalog of quality works they have available, particularly many wonderful reissues.

Their normal prices are quite fair, but if Cyber Monday splurging is your thing and you are looking to discover/rediscover some books at a REALLY cheap price, today is the day, with more than 2,000 Open Road ebooks on sale. Today only, readers can get amazing deals of up to 80% off regular price.

You can find my reviews on the books that I’ve gotten from them under the Open Road Media tag category. One addition, My review of Black Swan, White Raven is still coming, but it and most of the other volumes in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s collections of fairytale-inspired fantasy stories is included in this big sale. I really loved the first of these, and will be taking advantage of this sale to pick up the rest.

I also just noticed several of Sherman Alexie’s works in the literary fiction section. If you haven’t ever read him, please get one of these and remedy the deficiency. Now.

To start browsing, you can find their editorial selections of best picks here.

Finally you can also browse selections at your retailer of choice, such as on Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo.

Women Destroy Science Fiction!, Edited by Christie Yant

Women Destroy Science Fiction!
Lightspeed Magazine #49 (June 2014)
Edited by Christie Yant
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
ISBN: 1499508344
488 pages, paperback (special ed.)
Published 1st June 2014
Source: Personal purchase

Fiction Contents:

“Each to Each”, by Seanan McGuire
“A Word Shaped Like Bones”, by Kris Millering
“Cuts Both Ways”, by Heather Clitheroe
“Walking Awake”, by N.K. Jemison
“The Case of the Passionless Bees”, by Rhonda Eikamp
“In the Image of Man”, by Gabriella Stalker
“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick”, by Charlie Jane Anders
“Dim Sun”, by Maria Dahvana Headley
“The Lonely Sea in the Sky”, by Amal El-Mohtar
“A Burglary, Addressed By a Young Lady”, by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall
“Canth”, by K.C. Norton
“Like Daughter”, by Tananarive Due
“The Greatest Loneliness”, by Maria Romasco Moore
“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree, Jr.
“Knapsack Poems”, by Eleanore Arnason
“The Cost to Be Wise”, by Maureen F. McHugh
“Salvage”, by Carrie Vaughn
“A Guide to Grief”, by Emily Fox
“See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!”, by Tina Connolly
“A Debt Repaid”, by Marina J. Lostetter
“The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced”, by Sarah Pinsker
“#TrainFightTuesday”, by Vanessa Torline
“The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23”, by Rhiannon Rasmussen
“Emoticon”, by Anaid Perez
“The Mouths”, by Ellen Denham
“MIA”, by Kim Winternheimer
“Standard Deviant”, by Holly Schofield
“Getting on in Years”, by Cathy Humble
“Ro-Sham-Bot”, by Effie Seiberg
“Everything That Has Already Been Said”, by Samantha Murray
“The Lies We Tell Our Children”, by Katherine Crighton
“They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain”, by Rachael Acks

Also including a novel excerpt, nonfiction, personal essays, artist gallery,  and author spotlights

 ‘Women don’t write real science fiction.’ ‘That isn’t what a story written by a woman should be like.’ ‘If women try to write science fiction they will just destroy it.’
Many things out there seem to be an all-male’s club (or predominantly so). It kinda boggles my mind that statements like those above were ever tossed around in the field – or that they even are still today. Compared to the past there are a lot of women science fiction writers out there, as this collection testifies. Part of any issues I feel come down to the matter of the definition of science fiction. What is ‘real’ science fiction? There is no single answer, and to some the answer is a sub genre that may be called hard science fiction which ultimately will come down to facts related to physics.
As there appears to be fewer women in the ‘hard’ sciences (a separate problem in itself) it comes as not too big a surprise then that there aren’t many female science fiction writers that could be put in that category of ‘hard SF’. Yet, even when they could, it seems like their inherent gender make people consider them something else.
Take Margaret Atwood – a writer whose stories feature reasonable futures based on present-day scientific reality (a relatively narrow, but common definition of hard SF as put forth recently for example by Norman Spinrad in Asimov’s). Her work is easily classified as hard science fiction. But she herself eschews the label, preferring to call her work speculative fiction to avoid the negative associations of ‘science fiction’ with a particular kind of space story and an interest in scientific details over a more human or literary picture.
Whatever the definitions and whatever the reasons why some have an issue with women writing science fiction, the stories here prove that one should be overjoyed if they continue to find voice in ‘destroying’ science fiction.
The stories included here make this easily a year’s best of collection in itself. They are varied in tone from the humorous to the serious, and in genre from hard and futuristic to the more fantastic (alternate) historical. As such, unless you enjoy a wide range of types of stories, there may be some stories in here that just don’t interest you despite each truly being top-notch. I personally had my favorites within each section of new fiction, reprints, and flash fiction. And there were some I just didn’t enjoy though I recognized their merits as intended. However, even if you only like a particular kind of story in the SF landscape, the collection is well-worth the cheap admission price.
I particularly liked the opening story by Seanan McGuire. Out of all the stories in this collection I feel this one significant to discuss due to its embodiment of what the entire collection represents.
There are conflicting expectations in a collection with the theme this Lightspeed issue has. On the one hand one has the expectation that the stories will relate the female-specific condition within the confines of the genre. They ‘should’ feature female characters that aren’t stereotypes, they ‘should’ deal with feminist issues, they ‘should’ focus on matters unique to female biology and social practices built around that.
Yet, on the other hand the point is that women writing science fiction should be no different, no less worthy or capable, than men writing it. And the point is that there is no single thing that women writing science fiction ‘should’ write about. If a female author writes a story with no female characters that says nothing about her gender, does that matter? Does it by virtue of her gender automatically become a feminist work even though the story itself is so devoid?
Seanan McGuire’s “Each to Each” is brilliant in its playing with expectations of what females are, the roles they ‘should’ serve, and how they are viewed both by others and by themselves. These sorts of themes echo throughout the remainder of the collection, whether explored implicitly or explicitly. The stories (and the nofiction in the issue) don’t offer any kind of clear answers to the matters of dealing with gender disparities, or of dealing with the general Other. Instead they offer a celebration of what all is possible with women writing science fiction. That celebration shows that women writing science fiction is just simply humans writing science fiction – a world of disparate experiences and possibilities, with aspects that no one really has a premium on beyond the fact that each is a personal story, unique and meaningful each to each.
They are women, but they are not just women. They are Charlie Jane Anders. They are Rachel Swirsky. They are Marissa Lingen. They are Nisi Shawl. They are. And listening to their voices is the closest we can come to understanding them, and for that their talented and competent voices deserve to be heard, however they choose to raise them.
One of the things I really enjoy with Lightspeed Magazine are the author interviews that accompany each story, that highlight the individual and personal nature of each story. These give insight into the author’s inspirations, writing process, and at times show interpretations which may coincide or be different from the reader’s. The other nonfiction here includes a host of personal essays. I found these okay by and large, though I do wish there were one or two longer and more in-depth essays or analyses rather than the more brief or superficial feel that some of these had.
If you haven’t picked up this issue yet, I really encourage you to do so, and to look for the two upcoming Women Destroy… issues featuring a Fantasy and a Horror focus, and the Queers Destroy… issue that will follow.
Decades ago a large part of science fiction was not just about technological or scientific speculation but also social speculation, a means to explore the disenfranchised and the Other. It is nice to see something returning in full force to this purpose.
Five Stars out of Five

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
ASIN: B00EXOT73U
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:

“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five