“… The rich historical detail and vivacity of characters within The Tower of Fools made it both an entertaining and educational read…”
Read my entire review of The Tower of Fools (Hussite Trilogy #1) HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.
Read my entire review of The Tower of Fools (Hussite Trilogy #1) HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.
Birds of Paradise
By Oliver K. Langmead
Titan Books — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789094817 — Paperback — 298 pp.
I’m not typically one to get awestruck by a cover, but even I had to stare impressed with the design on Oliver K. Langmead’s Birds of Paradise for a good while before cracking the book open to begin reading. It’s the work of graphic designer Julia Lloyd, and I want to be sure and give credit for such fantastic, evocative work.
Langmead’s novel takes an interesting premise and runs with it in inventive ways that create a hybrid sort of genre novel, equal parts dark fantasy and heist crime noir, with a dash of John Wick thrown in. The official blurb of the novel dubs it American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia. While I can see the Gaiman American Gods vibe going here, the latter comparison makes absolutely no sense to me. A Biblical story lies within the inspiration, but it is not working the Creation story in any of the ways that any established religion does, whether using the Hebraic version or another.
Instead, Langmead takes the concept of a created perfection in the Garden of Eden, and considers the characters who populated it prior to the Fall. There is Adam and Eve, of course. But, also all of the other created species that populate its land, air, and waters. In particular, all the animals that Adam had a role in naming, intelligences that while not quite human ‘in the image of God’ still have a relatable consciousness.
If these were all created in a perfection, immortal before sin and death entered the world, what might have occurred after the Fall? What if the mortality and the loss of perfection only affected all that came afterward. What if all those archetypes remained immortal, but their perfection became lost and fragmented to all the corners of the Earth? In other words, Langmead spins his own mythological take on the outcome of the Creation story.
Set during the present day, Birds of Paradise follows Adam as he struggles to keep up his existence roaming the Earth and not giving in to despair to end his immortality to meet the fate that all of his children that have come to populate the planet can enjoy. Only one thing keeps Adam driven to continue on, the potential of recovering Eden, finding the fragmented creatures and pieces of its ruins.
Stories of rumors and pieces being discovered start to reach Adam’s ears, and his former animal friends like Owl, or Raven, or Pig start to reunite, coming out from their lives among the human population they’ve learned to integrate into, hidden for centuries. Adam begins to imagine that if he can recapture, and recreate Eden, then maybe the paradise that he has so long been exiled from could finally return. Full of despair and yearning for Eve, the woman he exchanged hearts with, but has since lost sets him on a personal quest for redemption and reclaimed worth.
However, a group of powerful and rich individuals have also set their eyes on amassing the scattered fragments of Edenic perfection, and are willing to destroy anyone that gets in their way, even the archetypical animals who still persist across Earth with deep personal connection to their former home. When these individuals of desire and greed kill another piece of Adam’s cherished past, it sets the First Man on a path of violence, not just to recapture Eden, but to enact bloody revenge.
Langmead writes Birds of Paradise in rich, poignant prose, a beauty that contrasts sharply against the raw, violent brutality of many of its action sequences and the brooding weariness of its protagonist’s soul. This is a dark novel, even pessimistic, where the drive to fight on comes with the near total realization that Eden can’t be recreated, that Adam is doomed to failure, and his soul mate Eve cannot return. Adam’s a man who lives in an eternity of memory, knowing that the perfect good times he once enjoyed are gone. But, the only thing that can keep him going on is that shred of hope that maybe, just maybe he can build some sort of simulacrum of that perfection to at least pretend and experience some bits of joy anew.
And moreso, even if he can’t go back home to the perfect Eden, he is certainly not going to sit by and watch others create a bastardized version of it for their own selfish amusement as they rule over rest of his children. Or let them kill his only remaining friends in the process of their hubris, falling to the same sin as he and Eve.
Langmead’s plot is a very compelling one, and he effectively delves without reserve into the dark emotions of humanity. Personally, I found it all too dark and depressive, the revenge too cold blooded. I felt as though Adam was just as reprehensible and vile as the antagonists of the novel. I just got a better sense of the intense trauma that got Adam to this point of weary despair, destroyed. But I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it, or if I wanted to particularly dwell amid it. However, for those who that strikes better, Langmead does deal in that darkness with aplomb.
The element I enjoyed most in Birds of Paradise included the various animal personalities from Eden who join Adam along the way to various degrees. Langmead makes these characters rich and vibrant, across a spectrum of personality traits that cleverly mimic their animal origins. The concept of these human-like magical Edenic progenitors of the creatures that now inhabit the Earth with us is an interesting one. And there are intersting parallels here in terms of Adam’s place within the context of these other characters – his responsibility to them and the concepts of humankind’s stewardship of Creation, to live as part of the ecosystem with conscious responsibility. Something we’ve failed at. It’s thus interesting that this is perhaps the one thing that Adam recaptures here from Eden, a sense of communion and connection, a reunion.
The other element I appreciated in the novel were the the protagonist – antagonist conflict and the heists of Edenic fragments that fuel it. Strip away the brutality and what we’re left with here is a very brutal noir story, with all its aura of dark pessimism. Langmead kept me engaged in Adam’s melancholic journey because of this plot conflict, with the exuberance of the novel’s villains.
As I think about it more, I usually go for noir that is brutally dark, so why was I a bit more off put by it here in Birds of Paradise? For one, Adam felt a bit too unredeemable for my tastes, I probably would react similarly if he were a corrupt and degenerate PI, for instance. But also it’s the religious aspects of the novel here, the idea that Adam is trying to recreate the ideal of God by doing things that are even more rebellious and counter to Christian concepts, at least. This is my own perspective butting in here, though. Langmead makes it clear that this is not a Biblical reality, God is pretty much absent from things here, certainly the Christian concept. But, it’s harder for me to make that separation and form that disbelief amid a fictional world. I could do it with Norse gods, or with Greek ‘mythology.’ Not so easily with what’s closer and more ingrained.
Birds of Paradise succeeds very well at doing what the novel sets out to do, and for fans of this type of fantasy genre there is a lot of wonderment within its framework to appreciate, enjoy, and ponder.
(with A Night at Old Webb)
By Kevin Lucia
Cemetery Dance Publications — May 2022
ISBN: 9781587678295 — Paperback — 175 pp.
First released back in 2020, Kevin Lucia’s novella Mystery Road now gets a paperback release paired with his 2015 novella A Night at Old Webb. Both stories feature the first-person point of view of Kevin Ellison, a teenage basketball player whose journey into adulthood becomes shaped by two separate ghostly encounters of discovery in the early 1990s.
Going into these stories with little foreknowledge, I had expected them to be horror. They are not. The ghosts here aren’t malevolent, there is neither anything frightening nor suspenseful going on. In fact, were it not for identification of certain characters as literal ghosts, these novellas could be classified as conventional short fiction rather than fantasy.
Though most of Mystery Road is set in 1990, the story begins twenty years later, when the adult Kevin learns that his father has just passed away. The bad news coincides with Kevin’s observation of a mailbox and a narrow drive cutting into the woods along a major hometown road. A memory is struck to those decades prior, when 15-year old Kevin first noticed this OOPart (out-of-place-artifact) while riding his bike to a best friend’s house.
There shouldn’t be a mailbox here, nor any visible pathway at this spot. Kevin never found it there outside that period in 1990, and then never again until here 20 years later. In the intervening years the eerie incident and the discoveries he made following the path into the woods had left his mind, only a dream-like haze of uncertain reality left behind.
The bulk of the novella then passes in flashback as Kevin recollects that period in 1990 when he first saw this mailbox and investigated the roadway into the woods. There he discovers a cabin and a woman in it, who welcomes him in for a visit. Their conversation slowly reveals that Kevin has somehow transported into a setting from the 1960s. And, this woman speaking to him in her kitchen knows his father, but as the high school boyfriend to her daughter.
In this, and subsequent follow-ups with his father, Kevin discovers parts of his father’s past that he never knew, of his father’s own passage from teenager into adulthood. These reveal secrets that are not illicit or shameful at all, just bits of information lost to time and circumstance. Through these discoveries Kevin becomes closer to his father and learns a bit about his own capacity for maturation.
With the shared name of author and protagonist, Mystery Road imparts that style of memoir verisimilitude. I don’t know for certain, but I get the sense that Lucia also places the setting of the novella in what seems like his own North East US hometown. Clifton Heights of Webb County may not be the names of these actual places in the NE, but the environment of Mystery Road (and the novella that follows) both are like characters of their own in the stories. Details of the foliage, mountains, houses, and names that ring familiar give the stories a strong sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the time period of the late ’80’s into the ’90s.
Mystery Road is a novella that speaks poignantly to themes of friendship, love, and family. It’s about the bittersweet nature of embracing the future and letting the past fade, whether cherished or peppered with regrets.
Though published five years prior, A Night at Old Webb is set approximately two years after the events of Mystery Road in Kevin Ellison’s life. Now entering the end of his time in high school, Kevin joins friends for a warm summer’s night party at the Old Webb, a decrepit, abandoned former grammar school in Clifton Heights. There he meets a girl, Michelle Titchner, and the two form a rapid, soulful connection. They converse amid the party at the school, and continue talking as they walk into the surrounding woods.
There is a simplicity to A Night at the Old Webb exceeding even that of Mystery Road. But that’s not to say it’s any less impactful. What looks from its set up would be a tale of raging teenage hormones instead becomes about deeper connection. Through that, Kevin again learns a bit about growing up, and some insights into the history of his town and its people.
Together, the two novellas tell symbolic stories about Kevin’s genetic and social inheritances, and the possibilities these might impart for a life ahead on his own. The end of Mystery Road brings things chronologically to a close, coming back to older Kevin and reflections on the death of his father. His journey illustrates that ghosts don’t always haunt, sometimes they reveal themselves at the right moment to help guide passages.
A Mirror Mended
(Fractured Fables #2)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250766649 — Hardcover — 144 pp.
With A Mirror Mended, Harrow hits all the right notes of success from A Spindle Splintered, and then surpasses them with additional fresh melodies of complexity. The second novella the Fractured Fables series picks up five years after the end of the first. Zinnia has spent that time traveling the Sleeping Beauty metaverse, saving Princesses in distress wherever possible. With the years of her predicted lifespan reset by the magical clearing of her misfolded cellular proteins, Zinnia has been able to go on living fearlessly, not having to worry about her own inevitable cost.
But, her activities saving Sleeping Beauties across the narrative realms has come with some costs. Zinnia’s become estranged from her former best friend Charm, who continues to live a happy life with Prim. Zinnia has become exhausted of the constant movement, the reiterations of the same story, slightly changed. She can begin to feel the effects of time passing on her health. And the universes have begun to show signs of becoming increasingly fractured and intertwined in inexplicable ways, fairy tales bleeding in to ‘normal’ reality, with elements even outside Sleeping Beauty.
Celebrating the rescue of her latest princess, Zinnia gazes into a mirror to see an unfamiliar face staring back, and she suddenly is drawn into another universe. It’s one she quickly realizes comes from beyond the Sleeping Beauty cluster. Somehow, she has ended up in a world of Snow White. And the strange face that she saw in the mirror that pulled her there is none other than the Evil Queen.
What makes A Mirror Mended so successful is that Harrow doesn’t simply rehash the types of adventure and themes found in A Spindle Splintered. Readers quickly figure out that Zinnia is not here to rescue Snow White at all, but to help the Evil Queen. The immediate question for Zinnia is, should should save an Evil Queen? Of course, Harrow deftly shows that this narrative is based on a ton of missing information on who this villain really is. Why is she villainous? Why does she not even get a name?
So begins a novella that is an adventure like the previous one, but also a tale of connected self discovery. Zinnia most come to terms with what she has been doing, and the risks they might entail. This includes some critique of her assumptions/actions in the first novella, as well as the collapse of her core friendship with Charm.
The imperfections that remain even when trying to ‘cleanse’ a problematic fairy tale of all its offenses become more clear, serving as a sort of meta analysis of Harrow’s series itself, or the idea of retelling fairy tales in general. Harrow ups the meta joy in A Mirror Mended, having absolute fun with the zaniness of the novella’s premise and its play with narratives and character agency within a narrative that Harrow controls. This really rounds out Zinnia’s journey to a next step in this book two.
Self discovery is also central theme for the Evil Queen, who Zinnia chooses to name Eva. Eva must discover how far she is able to go to ensure self-survival, particular when she suddenly realizes there are other people who may actually care about her. Eva is a fabulously multidimensional character that drives the novel forward and ends up saving the woman who has played the savior heroine these last five years, Zinnia. And only through letting herself be saved does Zinnia save Eva.
This is all so meta! A recursiveness and eternal knot formed by the two women. The struggles within each of them become entangled their relationship. That entanglement is itself they key for the progression of each to self resolution. It’s an absolute inversion of the saving trope that was the focus of the first novella, one that was predicated on someone saving another so that the other can have personal agency. Here, full agency is only achieved through a partnership of sorts, a giving up of agency. It’s meta, an apparent absurd contradiction. Yet, it is also the basis of the concept of marriage.
A Mirror Mended succeeds on so many levels, even down to that symbolic level that the title evokes. It’s a love story of Zinnia and Eva, the foundation of a true partnership without the loss of choice or control for either party. The individual shards (lives) of a fractured mirror become united into something whole that reflects back an image of the other – just like that moment that initially pulled Zinnia into Eva’s seemingly hopeless story – staring into a face that is not your own, but that together make a tale for the ages.
I’ve probably drifted way too far here into the realms of analysis over that of review, forgive me. But this is what I really, really loved about A Mirror Mended. It’s simply brilliant on multiple levels, meta and all.
Even without all that, A Mirror Mended is simply an entertaining adventure filled with great language, rich characters, humor, and deep human emotion. Harrow’s choice to make this more about the villain than simply another princess in distress story is essential to its success. But atop that I also adored her inversion of the Snow White tale by having Zinnia and Eva end up in a universe where Snow White has become the one-dimensional villain of the story, like some Disney aesthetic Lady Bathory.
Another final detail of A Mirror Mended that I really enjoyed were the original silhouette illustrations by Michael Rogers. I forgot to mention that style of illustration that appeared included in A Spindle Splintered. That first novella included doctored illustrations whose originals were done by Arthur Rackham, a fairy tale illustrator often mentioned in that text by Folklore nerd Zinnia. I had no prior familiarity with Rackham, or fairy tales in general. I don’t think I could even explain what the plot to Sleeping Beauty is prior to reading Harrow’s first novella. Though I enjoyed the whimsical alterations to Rackham’s silhouettes, they didn’t quite fit with the text of the novella where they were placed. In A Mirror Mended I liked that a similar vibe could be attained without having to use pre-existing ones inverted and fractured.
Somewhere I noticed mention that this would be end to the Fractured Fables series. I’m not sure if that’s true, or I misunderstood, but I would hope that if Harrow can find new directions to take the idea, or new themes to delve into, that she would. A further fracturing and entanglement of fairy tale metaverses could prove interesting if used symbolically for new relevance. But if not, I will continue to reread and enjoy these two little gems.
A Spindle Splintered
(Fractured Fables #1)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — October 2021
ISBN: 9781250765352 — Hardcover — 128 pp.
Today is the publication date of the second book of Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, so I’ll have reviews of both novellas today in celebration. I first encountered Harrow’s writing with some of her short stories and immediately felt drawn to their intelligence and passionate zeal. Even when they fell within a sub-genre of fantasy that wasn’t among my favorite, like the fairy tale, I still found them to be interesting perspectives riffed in a fun, inventive way. I read her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January feeling the same, and her next novel sits on my purchased TBR shelf.
The Fractured Fables series is excellent because it distills the best of Harrow down to the novella length. I was once a complete novella skeptic, but I’ve realized works like this can do it well, giving characters and worlds a chance to breathe, but limit unnecessary padding.
A Spindle Splintered introduces readers to Zinnia Gray, a young woman about to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, the upper limit of years her doctors expected her to survive. Zinnia has a genetic disease brought on from industrial pollution, a ribosomal (chaperone-associated?) disorder that leads to cellular accumulations of misfolded proteins throughout her body. Her curse of a young death has led to a personal affinity with the story of Sleeping Beauty, even though it is “pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it,” and pursuit of a degree in folklore.
Zinnia’s life-long best friend Charm arranges a Sleeping Beauty inspired party for Zinnia’s monumental birthday, held in an abandoned factory tower, complete with an antique spinning wheel – even if the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and original Grimm tale predate its invention. When contact with the prop causes Zinnia to black out and fade into a faux Medieval Europe setting, complete with a confused fantasy Princess named Prim, a version of Sleeping Beauty with a hyper-real, idealized radiance. Zinnia wonders if the misfolded proteins have finally obliterated neurons into hallucination, if her body is simply in the process of giving up the ghost.
But no, all signs point to this being real, and Zinnia finds she’s even able to text on her cell phone to Charm, seemingly across universes. She and Charm reason that Zinnia has discovered the ability to shift across a multiverse of fairy tale universes through some sort o object-induced narrative resonance. Zinnia knows the fate that awaits Prim: one curse of lost agency broken by another, marriage to a man she neither knows nor desires. Zinnia can do nothing to save herself from biological fate, but she realizes she just might be able to do something to save Prim from Prim’s curses before trying to return to home reality. And one thing Zinnia has learned to do well is running from her own problems by focusing on fixing others.
The premise of Zinnia’s fantasy adventure here is utterly absurd, defying logic in ways that the characters – and Harrow – readily admit. Charm comes up with ‘explanations’ for what is happening to Zinnia, how the magic of multiverses works. But really, it’s all a big MacGuffin (as admitted in meta call-out in the sequel novella) to facilitate the adventurous fun. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 music in your head: “If you’re wondering how she hops ‘tween worlds, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself it’s just a farce, I should really just relax.”
The obvious large theme of the fun romp that is A Spindle Splintered would be the feminist one: a sisterhood of support between female characters who each face their own particular curse or demon that tries to hold them back, that tries to eliminate their agency as individuals with any choice in their futures. For the novella length, Harrow does remarkably well balancing character relationships, and their growth (particularly Prim’s.) We get the friendship between Charm and Zinnia, the partnership between Zinnia and Prim, and as the novella goes on, a budding romance between Prim and Charm.
But, another aspect of that sisterhood comes up with a visit by Zinnia and Prim to the ‘evil fairy’ who originally put the curse on Prim. Here, we see Harrow’s focus on the untold stories of secondary characters in classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. These tales give little to no motivation to characters, and usually no background history. This leads to the reader forming assumptions. As a student of folklore, Zinnia knows all the stories, and knows the caveats. Yet, she also cannot help but make assumptions. The Fractured Fables sequel to A Spindle Splintered plays with this idea even more, but we get hints of it here as well.
Retellings of fairy tales in modern ways is nothing new, and ‘modern’ of course is relative as time continues on. Harrow acknowledges this within the multiverses of Sleeping Beauty stories by at first mentioning, and then literally brining in, the ’90s era retellings featuring ‘strong women’ who kick ass. I became reminded as I read A Spindle Splintered of the anthology series of fairy tale retellings edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, starting with Snow White, Blood Red in 1993. At the time, many of the stories in that were viewed as cutting edge, attempts at casting less problematic versions of the classic fairy tales, ones that inverted or ‘righted’ biases and inequality. Of course, viewed now many of these now have their own problematic issues that remain from the older tales, or that were created anew through the reimagining.
And that brings me to what I see as the second major theme of A Spindle Splintered, and the series as a whole: the concepts of ‘saving’ someone and ‘agency’. How do these play together? Who deserves to be saved? Are there actions that make someone no longer worthy of being saved? Does saving someone – even with the best intentions – create other problems? How much of saving is interference, and when does that interference act to inhibit agency in the other? Is one’s personal agency reduced if allowing oneself to be saved by another?
From A Spindle Splintered to its sequel A Mirror Mended, Harrow begins to show just why this series is called Fractured Fables. Zinnia’s activities in helping trapped women find freedom is still an interference that disrupts other things. I’ll get to this more in the review for A Mirror Mended, but it begins here in the first book. Just as Zinnia’s well intentioned changes have imperfect effects, so too are retellings of fairy tales to try to make them less problematic an imperfect endeavor. Assumptions still remain, characters are still short-changed. What seems to work now, may still have issues reveled in retrospect. One can’t do everything in a story with absolute equity. So too can Zinnia not save everyone, or completely save herself.
But, that doesn’t mean the effort is not worthwhile, that the adventure shouldn’t be had, that righting injustices and fighting for others to have choice over their lives should be abandoned.
Harrow’s start to the Fractured Fables series begins to explore this all, to ask these questions of its characters and its readers. But, no clear answers are given; I don’t think clear answers even exist. It’s about the exploration and doing one’s best. And that, at its heart, is what A Spindle Splintered is about, even on its surface level of entertainment, of celebrating supportive female relationships. It’s an exploration of possible worlds, of characters finding their way through hardships to do the best they can not just for themselves, but also for each other.
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.
Read my entire review of For the Throne (Wilderwood Book 2) HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.
Read my review for Book 1 of the Wilderwood Series, For the Wolf, HERE
For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789 — Paperback — 437 pp.
To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.
Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.
Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.
With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.
Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.
For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:
It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”
The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.
For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.
The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.
Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.
However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.
I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.
Read my entire review of All the Horses of Iceland HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.
Children of Demeter
By E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — August 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331 — Paperback — 186 pp.
Sociologist Sarah Bisset needs her sabbatical not just for an academic recharge, but to find herself again following tragedy and betrayal. Her husband has died in a car accident, and with him in the vehicle was the mistress she didn’t know he had. She uses the insurance money to buy an infamous property in rural Wisconsin, a destination for her sabbatical research, but moreover an escape from her routine life and a home soured with memories of her duplicitous husband.
The purchased farmhouse and its lands are the former homestead of the Children of Demeter, a mysterious counterculture commune that led a seemingly peaceful hippie existence within the small community before disappearing overnight without trace or explanation in 1973. Partnering with a podcast that features stories of the unexplained (that is run by the son of her longtime friend) Sarah sets out to investigate the history of the agrarian hippie group and its enigmatic leader, interviewing longtime residents of the town and scope out the property, its lake, and the adjacent caves. Each bit of an answer they find only brings more questions.
Already confused by a personal relationship clouded in deception, Sarah begins to notice oddities around the house that begin to lead her to further question her identity, and her sanity. The secrets of the property and the twenty-five mostly women and children who once called it home come coupled with inexplicable oddities: signs of someone – or something – living in the basement, barren land where nothing will grow, a psychedelic mural depicting a strange creature coming from the lake, and a hostile neighbor who appears to want a dark past kept hidden.
I previously read and reviewed E.V. Knight’s The Fourth Whore from Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title that impressed me in its feminist themes and vibrant writing despite not being the genre of story that I’m particularly partial to. The plot of that novel necessitated a harsh, almost vitriolic tone and style, making a novel that while thought provoking and high quality, wasn’t ‘fun’ to read, or bewitching in that pleasurable way that some horror can do for me. Horror like a gothic ghost story. When I read the plot synopsis of Children of Demeter I knew this would probably be something I’d adore, a beloved sub-genre in the hands of an author who writes engagingly and who can place powerful feminist themes in an interesting light. Children of Demeter didn’t disappoint that expectation.
The mysteries of a possible haunting, the secrets of an old property and the uncertain nature of this cult of fertility and harvest make for a classically captivating gothic horror. Knight puts an interesting spin on this by tying it in with psychedelic hippie culture. At heart of the novel is not something of ghosts, monsters, or the true story of the cult’s past. It’s the nature of Sarah, her identity as a person, as a woman. It’s a psychological, or perhaps even a social, horror story, though those other paranormal elements do get their due, secrets become revealed. The journey toward that is just coupled to Sarah’s rocky path to self-rediscovery, both literal and metaphorical.
The only aspect of the novel that didn’t really work for me was the podcast angle. As a concept of the plot it works fine, the issue becomes Knight’s incorporation of the podcast dialogue into the novel. There is a cheesiness to the podcast presentation that takes away from the tone of the novel and Sarah’s point of view. It also ends up serving as a way to reveal information about the past quickly in the form of interviews. But, that doesn’t have as satisfying an effect on the reader than if these details were divulged in another format than a verbatim oral transcript.
Aside from these moments, the creepy slow build up and the ultimate climax of the novel play out pitch perfectly in a successful combination of mythology, classic horror, and modern themes. Knight has won the Bram Stoker award already for horror, but after reading this I feel as though she’d also have great things to contribute to the mystery/suspense genre. Children of Demeter could almost classify in that realm over horror. If mythology, mysterious cults and gothic tones are among your cherished elements of fiction, check this one out.