2015 has been a productive if somewhat frantic year for me, and yet here I’ve reached the end of the calendar with several projects not quite finished. The upside is that I will have a lot of new stories to promote in 2016. For now, please enjoy this double-feature book review of two fantastic anthologies that came out in 2015—The Library of the Dead, edited by Michael Bailey and published by Written Backwards Press, and Paying the Ferryman, edited by Margaret L. Colton and published by Charon Coin Press.
First, The Library of the Dead—a collection that holds as its thematic centerpiece a mausoleum wherein the ashes of the dead are interred in book-shaped funerary urns. Each short story involves a character whose remains are destined for one of these urns. A librarian who acts as both host and a kind of mortician leads the reader through this selection of exquisite tales, depicting death not only as the greatest of finalities, but possibly the wildest of collages.
The anthology brings together an A-list of bestselling and award winning horror authors, as well as a number of new names. Although all of the stories are top quality, I will pick my five favorites to give readers a glimpse of the anthology’s insightful and entertaining contents:
A master of the oblique when it comes to character development, Lucy’s Snyder’s Cthylla offers a heroine who is anything but a Mary Sue. Daughter of a mother who is the star of a cult classic horror film titled Cthylla and father who is a software mogul, young Kamerynne struggles in her late adolescence to find her place in life in spite of (and partly because of) her parents’ success. When a new housekeeper arrives, Kamerynne falls in love with her enigmatic and mysterious daughter, Natalya. But Natalya is keeping a secret from her new lover, a secret that somehow appears to be connected to the tentacled monster from Kamerynne’s mother’s film. Though Kamerynne attempts to use her family’s resources to run away to Los Angeles and protect Natalya from her secret’s mounting threat, disaster strikes her family, and Kamerynne has to look to her inner resolve and work to develop new strengths and skills. The climax of this story does not disappoint, and once again we are shown that any anthology where Lucy Snyder’s name appears is guaranteed to contain stellar work.
Rena Mason’s Jaded Winds has everything I like in world-building—a broad cast of characters, an atmosphere of gray ethics, and a mesh of competing motives. Set in San Francisco’s nascent Chinatown, just before the great earthquake, Jaded Winds tells the story of Ming Li, a ruthless businessman haunted by the ghost of the wife he strangled. Ming has ambitions to fleece his business partner Lew Hong, deceiving him in a real estate contract despite the ruin it will bring to his family. Pursued not only by the ghost of his wife but The Fox Demon, a mythological creature that itself knows the art of enticing with a raw deal, Ming’s character arc brims with a tension that includes a mix of violence, erotic allure, and narrative slight of hand. I got the feeling reading this story that I would like to read a longer work by this author, so astute and well-wrought was her pacing.
Sydney Leigh’s Night Soliloquy tells the story of a night club performer who renders deadly nocturnes on her concert flute. Told in a pleasantly meandering monologue by the club’s bartender, a man well connected with San Francisco’s elite, the story’s playful near romantic opening changes to a mounting sense of dread as the club’s clientele start dying one by one. With an excellent sense of portraiture when it comes to the murder scene, Leigh’s story proves an innovative serial-killer tale with just the right touch of the supernatural.
With The Last Things to Go, Brian Keene and Mary San Giovanni pen a strangely wistful tale about a woman who grieves for the lover she lost to war. At first she struggles with the emotions that surround re-reading his letters, the painful memories of being so close to someone who has suddenly and irrevocably vanished from her life. A subtle transition occurs when there is a sea-change in the main character’s consciousness. With an uncanny ability to create drama with mental action alone, events take a surreal turn. Readers stumble through the fog of the ephemeral nature of identity itself until the authors set them gently down in a place both horrific and bittersweet.
Tears of the Dragon, by Michael McBride, presents an astonishing piece of historical fiction centered on a prison camp in Manchukuo, Imperial Japan’s name for its colony in northern China during World War II. The narrative ostensibly tells the story of Doctor Himura, a scientist who is confessing his war crimes to a post-war audience in the United States. As the narrative unfolds and the reader discovers the prison camp’s horrors wrought with jarring detail (such as the wrapping of children in blankets crawling with fleas infested with bubonic plague), it is revealed that there may be more to the doctor’s motives than first imagined. McBride handles a difficult subject with style and force, and without being contrived, brings about a cathartic yet believable conclusion.
Next we move to Charon Coin’s Paying the Ferryman, which supplies a near seamless thematic segue from The Library of the Dead. From a book wherein at least one character in each story is destined to die, we switch to one where the stories feature characters who are already dead. Beginning with an eloquent introduction by Hal Bodner, Paying the Ferryman showcases a diverse set of new and talented authors who imagine what tales might be told while crossing the river Styx. Here are my five favorite pieces:
Melody’ Romeo’s Malefactor paints the portrait of Malachi McGrath, the ghost of a serial killer who wishes to torment the victims that got away by haunting them. Unfortunately for him, Satan’s minions pursue him all the while, hoping to claim his soul for their own. As the chase unravels, Romeo proves capable of adroitly changing POVs between victim, killer, and demons. She gives us well-developed characters, including edgy detective Brooke Livingston, attack survivor Ashley Walker, and even Lord Satan himself. Though McGrath gives the demons a run for their money, a Dantean fate awaits him. The story’s ending is solid, yet arrives too soon, so intriguing is the world the author imagined.
30 Days in Hell by Rick Scabrous proves one of the anthology’s most tightly plotted pieces. It imagines a hell where one Damion Edwards must die thirty different ways before moving to the next level. The author’s descriptions of the man’s experiences at these “death stations” come off as both funny and frightening. From the Injection Booth to the Rabid Dog Booth, the reader gets to vicariously enjoy some pretty gruesome endings until the story’s actual ending merges one of the booth’s themes with an all too real consequence.
Herika R. Raymer’s Repetition starts as a somewhat soft, almost comforting vision of the afterlife. At the story’s opening one might almost call it New-Agey. This changes when the author unveils startling connections that exist within a series of reincarnated lives. A mind shattering horror awaits when the truth of the story’s version of rebirth is revealed.
Armand Rosamilia’s Black Tooth Grin gives us a mash up of a rock’n’roll ghost story and serial killer thriller. Deceased eighties rock star Gilmartin is a hungry spirit who wanders to gig after gig, year after year. He becomes confused as to why he’s less and less recognized, and with his eighties-fabulous attire and hair, even made fun of. The way he flays wayward fans alive in alleys and isolated backstage rooms, however, is no laughing matter. A psychologically disturbing tale with tasteful vignettes of music nostalgia, Black Tooth Grin can be enjoyed on this plane of existence, and Dimebag’s and Lemmy’s alike.
The Mai’tas Prophecy, by Jerry Benns, reads like the opening chapter to a fast-paced urban fantasy novel. It tells the story of a down-on-his-luck rake named Michael who gets hit by a car during a drunken ghost tour in New Orleans. Skeptical and acerbic, the protagonist refuses at first to accept that he himself has become a ghost. When a tour guide with top hat and cane named Jonathan begins to show him the ropes of being dead, Michael discovers the afterlife requires more courage and fortitude than he could ever have imagined. For he must leave his heckling aside and face the Mai’tas—shadowy, soul-devouring spirits that prey upon the newly dead. Benns delivers a tale with solid action, a mysterious and soulful cast of characters, and the right amount of sardonic humor. It leaves the reader satisfied with its resolution, yet intrigued to read more stories taking place in this world.
Carl R. Moore’s collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales will be published in 2016 with Charon Coin Press.