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Friday, March 10, 2017

ANTHOLOGY: "What the #@&% Is That?"

Editors:  John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen 
Title:  What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre
Plot Type:  Horror stories 
Publisher and Titles:  Saga Press (11/2016)

     I'm not ashamed to admit that what drew me immediately to this book was its title—a line straight out of Evil Dead, the Musical that keeps bouncing around in my head even as I write this review. (Click HERE to listen to that show-stopping tune.) I have been trying to get the book from my public library system for months, but even though my library is part of a consortium of 43 library systems across 12 different counties with 12 million items, none of those libraries purchased the book until quite recentlyand then, within the entire system, only four libraries purchased a print copy, and the consortium itself purchased just one electronic copy. I don't know why the libraries didn't purchase the anthology, but I suspect that the #@&%  title had something to do with it.

     The premise of this anthology is quite simple. In each and every story, a character exclaims, "What the #@&% is that?" In the stories, though, the authors use actual words in place of "#@&%," In each case, the answer is some type of monsterfrom hallucinatory black dogs to inanimate objects to a ghost or two. 

     There are more hits than misses in this anthology. I've marked my favorites with sparkling stars. And one last thing: Please don't skip over Douglas Cohen's entertaining introduction in which he takes us on his publishing journey from the first monstrous glimmer to the final product. 

     Fear of the unknownit is the essence of the best horror stories, the need to know what monstrous vision you're beholding and the underlying terror that you just might find out. Now, twenty authors have gathered to askand maybe answera question worthy of almost any horror tale: "What the #@&% is that?" Join these masters of suspense as they take you to where the shadows grow long, and that which lurks at the corner of your vision is all too real.

     Includes stories by Laird Barron, Amanda Downum, Scott Sigler, Simon R. Green, Desirina Boskovich, Isabel Yap, Maria Dahvana Headley, Christopher Golden, John Langan, D. Thomas Minton, Seanan McGuire, Grady Hendrix, Jonathan Maberry, Gemma Files, Nancy Holder, Adam-Troy Castro, Terence Taylor, Tim Pratt, An Owomoyela & Rachel Swirsky, and Alan Dean Foster.

                       THE STORIES                          
Title:  "Mobility"
QuotationJust one small episode in Bryan's terrible, awful, no good, very bad day: "Bryan mouthed the word acupuncture in horror with his cheek pressed against the tablecloth. In an act of great willpower, he lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. What he saw did not prove comforting. 'Are those knitting needles?' "
Summary and Review: 
In this surrealistic, horrific tale, Bryan begins with a pleasant dinner with his long-time fiancee and winds up in a sticky situation in a run-down, isolated dump of a house. What happens in between is mostly awful and truly ambiguous—all at the same time. There's even a nod to the most shocking scene in Stephen King's Misery. This story is not one of my favorites. I have the feeling that Barron was going for some deep metaphorical statement, but I just didn't get it.

Title:  "Fossil Heart"
QuotationClue to the title: "'What's that word you told me about the stars? The light we see that doesn't exist anymore?' 'Fossil light?' "'Yes...that's you. You're not really here. And I'm afraid by the time i find you, you'll be gone.'"
Summary and Review: 
Nan Walker has the ability to go back in time and change the past. Fourteen years ago, her first girlfriend, Chelsea drowned when her parents' car slid into a flooded creek. Only Nan survived, and she has been crippled with grief ever since. So far, she has only been able to go back in time several hours, but she is determined to stretch her abilities so that she can go back and recreate the accident, giving up her own life to save Chelsea. But Nan doesn't take into account the feelings of her current partner, Evie, who—by the way—has been dreaming of hungry black, shadowy dog-beasts ever since she met Nan. Just to make things interesting, we get two "What the #@&% is that?" exclamations—one from Evie and one from a cabbie. Once I figured out what was going on, this turned out to a nicely constructed, if horrific, story of grief, nonacceptance, and the vicissitudes of life.

Title:  "Those Gaddam Cookies"
QuotationFirst Lines: "Nobody could bake like Bubbah. The scent filled Jamel's nose, his mouth, and his lungs. He didn't just smell it, he felt it, an instantly peaceful sensation that whirled in his brain and chest. Chocolate-chip macadamia cookies...his favorite."
Summary and Review: 
In this slender slice of a story, Jamel and Rhea are on their way to Bubbah's room on their spaceship to find out why he has missed his shift three days in a row and why he is is not answering their calls. As they approach the room, a delicious aroma permeates the air. But why is Bubbah baking instead of working? Why isn't he answering their calls? And what is it in Bubbah's room that causes Rhea to ask the #@&% question? This is a short but entertaining story that moves along quickly to its weird and violent conclusion.

Title:  "The Sound of Her Laughter"
QuotationFirst Lines: "Two things for you to remember: First, that even the closest of married couples still keep secrets from each other. And second, that we all have pasts we don't talk about."
Summary and Review: 
Hail to Green, the story-telling master. Here, he introduces Alan and Cora, who have been married for almost a year and are still crazy in love with one another. When Cora inexplicably hears the name of Alan's ex-girlfriend announced over the loudspeaker at the train station (although no one else hears it), he is forced to reveal details of his past love life, which leads the curious Cora to the Internet to check up on the woman and then to a journey—all of which lead, inevitably, to disaster. Green's disasters are always fantastical, inventive, and unpredictable, and that's the case here. It's a great story with a punch of an ending. Click HERE and HERE to read my reviews of two of Green's urban fantasy series: SECRET HISTORIES (aka EDDIE DROOD SERIES) and the ISHMAEL JONES MYSTERIES.

Title:  "Down in the Deep and the Dark"
QuotationOops!: " one mentions the unavoidable conclusion that our cherubic six-year-old was outside slaughtering tiny animals in the hour before dawn."
Summary and Review: 
This is a spooky-old-haunted-hotel story with a twist. Our narrator's brother is getting married in said hotel, and she is the maid of honor. Her family isn't thrilled about the marriage for a number of reasons, one of which is that the bride is a single mother of a little boy. (Yes!...that little boy!) As the weekend progresses and the wedding begins, things fall apart literally and figuratively. This one is terrific in the suspenseful build-up, but it ends in a rather weak, fire-lit whisper. The story does, however, win the prize for the most colorful word substitution for #@&% in its obligatory exclamation (voiced by the narrator's eight-seven-year-old Gran).

Title:  "Only Unclench Your Hand"
QuotationFirst Line: "They're killing chickens again in the backyard."
Summary and Review: 
Our narrator is the daughter of a wealthy Manila family, and this is her coming of age story. She is spending the summer in the Philippine countryside with her uncle, a landowner—also wealthy (at least in comparison to the other people in the village). Life is relatively normal (except for the bloody chicken killing) until a local healer uses his magic to cure her chronic headaches. Then other magical events begin to occur, but these involve dark magic...violent, scary magic. Yap provides compelling suspense, quirky characters, and a somewhat ambiguous, but nevertheless satisfying, ending. (Yap's website proclaims that she likes ambiguous endings, so I should have taken that as a warning.) The weakest part was the line that contained the "What the #@&%" exclamation, which didn't flow naturally from its speaker. 

Title:  "Little Widow"
QuotationHeaven's Avengers: "We were hippies only in theory. In reality, we were working on an armed takeover of heaven. The Preacher thought if we meditated white knives into our minds, we'd hit heaven as a unified army, slashing. We wanted heaven for ourselves."
Summary and Review: 
The story begins with three sister wives who survive a suicide cult unlike any cult you've ever read about. As the teenagers calmly adjust to their new, "normal" lives, you wonder how this is going to become a horror story. And then...they visit the traveling carnival and things get dark and dirty, fast and furious, violent and vengeful. This one was just O.K. for me. I loved the three sisters, but the ending was kind of loopy.

Title:  "The Bad Hour"
Quotation—An unwelcoming town: "Half a dozen massive concrete blocks had been laid across the road and onto the soft shoulder. The blocks on the left and right had steel hooks set into the concrete, and heavy chains looped from the hooks to enormous pine trees on either side of the road. A dirty signpost reading STOP HERE FOR DELIVERIES had been plinked with bullets...There was no other hint that Chesbro lay ahead—only the certainty that whatever might be down that road, outsiders weren't welcome."
Summary and Review: 
A masterful writer presents a terrific story with a "Twilight Zone" vibe and a heartbreaking twist at the end. A battle-tested Iraq war veteran takes a long bus ride to see her former lover, a fellow soldier, in his tiny Vermont hometown. What happens next is an inventive and horrifying answer to the "What the #@&%" question. Sometimes the PTSD a soldier brings back from war manifests in a truly terrifying manner that is beyond the imagination of anyone but a horror writer as talented as Golden.

Title:  "What Is Lost, What Is Given Away"
QuotationFinal Line: "...I heard another sound, high-pitched, impossibly distant: Joel Martin, screaming—still screaming—for all he had lost, all he had given away."
Summary and Review: 
The basic ingredients: a high school reunion, a student/teacher romance that ended very badly, and magical math that disrupts time and space. This one starts out in a straightforward manner with a man attending his ten-year reunion and running into the teacher, who has had some hard times since his il-fated romantic interlude. Gradually, the story morphs into a spooky scientific theory based one of Jorge Luis Borges' stories, "The Aleph." Langan re-imagines the trope of the teacher-pupil affair and its unintended result (a child) in a truly original manner. The narrator has just the right voice—tentative, uneasy, disheartenedto tell this tragic tale.

Title:  "Now and Forever"
QuotationThe problem: "Then the sightings started. A pale creature lurking the corridors of the engineering module. Scrapings on hatches. Clicking sounds from air ducts. How it got aboard, we didn't know. You'd think something like the Fiend couldn't hide on a ship so small, but it was like a splinter of nightmare driven into the flesh of our reality."
Summary and Review: 
This is the story of a family marooned on a space ship far out in space. A couple and their son and daughter are the last survivors of a much larger group, the others having been killed—eaten by a murderous monster that somehow got on board. The author relentlessly builds the suspense as the father (our narrator) has to enter a dangerous part of the ship to retrieve medicine that could save his daughter's life. Will the fiend get him? Will it get his son? Will his daughter live? Can we trust that the narrator is telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth? This is a well-told story that is filled with nail-biting moments that sent chills down my spine.

Title:  "#connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere"
QuotationClues in the time stamps: "Something weird with time stamps. Can't focus on it much. Walls here DEFINITELY warm to touch. #connollyhouse" 
Summary and Review: 
I was certain that McGuire would give us a great story. This one is a terrific haunted house tale told solely through tweets and retweets as four ghost hunters enter the Connolly House on Long Island, a decrepit mansion in which seventeen peoplemostly childrenwere murdered more than a century ago. The tweeter is Boo Peep, and she is accompanied by her friends, Dead Hot and a pair of siblings: Scream King and Scream Queen. Their adventure begins when they enter the house and discover that it is icy cold inside, even though this is July. Boo Peep is tweeting the entire adventure out to her followers. Then, mysterious hashtags begin to appear out of nowhere to append themselves to Boo Peep's tweets: #somethingiswrong, #weshouldntbehere, #getoutwhileyoucan. Needless to say, the hashtags have it right, and the situation rapidly disintegrates into scenes of abject terror. What a great story! So inventive of McGuire to bring the twitter world into the horror genre. Note: Be absolutely sure to watch the progression of the time stamps on the tweets or you won't get the full goose-bump experience. Click HERE and HERE to my reviews of Mcguire's OCTOBER DAYE SERIES and INCRYPTID SERIES.

Title:  "The House That Love Built"
QuotationDead or alive?: "...when I pull up to my house, it's past three in the morning. I call it Schrödinger's House because when I'm present, my wife seems to exist in two states simultaneously: as Karen and as Angela." 
(A diversionary activity: Click HERE for a video presenting a scientific explanation of the reference to Schrödinger. Click HERE to enjoy Sheldon explaining it to Penny in the final moments of this Big Bang Theory video. Or, if you already know all about Schrödinger's cat, click HERE for a slightly disturbing, but satisfying, video in which the cat gets its revenge on Schrödinger.)
Summary and Review: 
The male narrator, a long-haul truck driver, tells the story in his first-person voice. He finds peace only when he's on the road because when he is at home, his two wives make his life very complicated. That's as much as I can tell you without spoilers, but, trust me, this guy, who (except for the two wives) seems rather normal at the beginning of the story, is way more unhinged than you can imagine. The horror in this story is hinted at rather than being spelled out in (metaphorical) bloody letters.

Title:  "We All Make Sacrifices: A Sam Hunter Adventure"
QuotationMeet Sam Hunter: "My office smells like Lysol and Jack Daniel's. The two smells are related thematically in ways that define me, sad to say. The Lysol for cleaning up some of the messes I've had to make. The Jack Daniel's for helping me try to forget."
Summary and Review: 
I have reviewed a number of Maberry's stories in various anthologies and have enjoyed them all. (You can type his name into the "Search" box in the upper left-hand corner of my Home Page to read my reviews of the stories in those anthologies.) Although hard-boiled PI Sam Hunter looks like "Joe Normal," he is not normal—and definitely not human. When a rich mob lawyer comes to his office begging for help in avenging his daughter's gristly murder, Sam finds himself in the middle of an unlikely and unexpected pack experience that promises to have a violent outcome. This story is an urban fantasy/noir detective mash-up rather than being pure horror, and in this case, that's a good thing—a great thing, in fact. Maberry, unlike one or two of the other authors in this anthology, provides a complete story package: a fully drawn protagonist and a compelling story line that plays out in a steady progression of emotion and horror, leading to the violent climax and epilogue that complete the resolution. This is my favorite story in the book. In fact, I enjoyed this story so much that I plan to read Maberry's story collection entitled Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files (published 12/2016). Click HERE to go to its page where you can read an excerpt by clicking on the cover art. Sam and his family are also featured in Maberry's DEEP PINE TRILOGY. Click HERE to go to that Amazon page.

Title:  "Ghost Pressure"
QuotationThe Lithuanian nightmare: "...she's this thing, called a Slogutė or a Nakinėja...This creature that, like comes through the keyhole and oppresses people while they're sleeping."
Summary and Review: 
Gavia Pratt specializes in helping people die. Currently, she is in Toronto, vetting and coaching caretakers who assist mostly elderly people through the last days of their terminal illnesses. When one of her caretakers comes to her with a strange and unbelievable tale of a nightmare that is haunting her patient, Gavia has no idea that that nightmare will soon be hers to deal with. This story begins in a relatively straightforward manner, but once the nightmare story line is introduced, things get woo-woo rather quickly. For me, the final scene didn't quite gel, but maybe I just missed the point.

Title:  "The Daughter Out of Darkness"
Quotation—First lines of Dr. Seward's diary entry: "Some hold that there is more darkness in women. that they are the daughters of Eve; they are weak and easily seduced by the tantalizing power of evil. Some say that is why Dracula was able to scale the walls of my asylum and make Mina Harker his own."
Summary and Review: 
Holder's story comes in the form of a lengthy diary transcription authored by Dr. John Seward, who was one of Mina's suitors in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Seward runs a lunatic asylum in England, and he is a dedicated scientist. He loves technology and could be considered a 19th century tech geek. In his diary, Seward uses flashbacks and present-time sequences to tell the story of his failed first marriage to Eliza and his current marriage to Mary Holder (who provides a closing addendum to Seward's transcription). In essence, what we have here is Part II of Stoker's vampire story with a new blood-sucking villain and a feminist angle. I've never been an admirer of fanfiction, particularly when it's based on the classics, so this story didn't work for me. But if you are a devotee of Dracula or 19th century vamps in general, you might enjoy this fantastical story.

Title:  "Framing Mortensen"
QuotationFirst sentence, which sets up the conflict: "Once I had become wealthy enough to buy miracles, I used one to obtain the living head and shoulders of my longtime enemy, Philip Mortensen."
Summary and Review: 
Our narrator is out for revenge of the most painful and degrading kind. After magically getting custody of his enemy's head and torso, he places it inside a painting (more magic) within his very private study and tortures Mortensen in unspeakable ways. Usually, a story based solely on revenge doesn't end well for the vengeance seeker, so there is a certain amount of suspense as we hold our breath waiting to see what will happen next—to Mortensen and to his abuser. Not one of my favorites, but still, a well-told tale.

Title:  "The Catch"
QuotationNeal finally gets his answer to a lifelong question: "I know I'm a monster but still don't understand why."
Summary and Review: 
The protagonist, Neal McConnell is a mild-mannered research assistant at a university library, and in his spare time, he is a psychopathic serial killer with fastidious, meticulous "carving" techniques that reminded me of Dexter Morgan. Neal specializes in kidnapping college jocks and their girlfriends and then butchering them in his well-equipped secret "surgery." The first part of the story plays out as standard horror until Neal realizes that something about the female half of his current pair of victims is very, very strange. At that point, the tale takes a turn into the Twilight Zone. Although parts of the story are gory and, therefore, hard to read, I did enjoy the inventive double twist at the end.

Title:  "Hunters in the Woods"
QuotationThe bitter truth: "...the real reason the people in charge make games of life and death is...because they can and because it amuses them."
Summary and Review: 
In a nod to recent YA series in which dystopian societies pit young people against each other in mortal combat (e.g., Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent), two young men are dropped into an isolated northern forest with instructions that each man must kill at least one human or be killed themselves. Since they have pledged not to kill one another, their only hope is to find at least two people in this vast wilderness and then to have enough courage to murder them. This is another story that made me think of Twilight Zone. It's a creative take on dystopian fiction, with two sympathetic protagonists and a wild, if ambiguous, ending.

Title:  "Whose Drowned Face Sleeps"
QuotationSo, what kind of a story is this?: "This is a murder story. It's the story of how I killed myself." ... "This is a ghost story. Did I say that? No. It's a love story. But all love stories become ghost stories if you watch them long enough."
Summary and Review: 
The narrator (who calls herself R.) tells the story through alternating scenes of past and present events and stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. R. is not so much unreliable as she is unidentifiable. She takes us through her sad story of a failed love affair and repeatedly describes a death scene that varies in time and place, but always includes water. This one was a bit too woo-woo for me, but if you like getting lost in fantastical interior monologues, you'll probably enjoy the story. I did enjoy the authors' eloquent use of language. Here's my favorite: "...a voice as sweet and malicious as a drugged daiquiri." That brief simile tells you everything you need to know about the speaker, doesn't it?

Title:  "Castleweep"
QuotationFirst Line: "The walls weep, but only on nights when the moon is full."
Summary and Review: 
William Edward Cort, a wealthy, arrogant young American and Shelley, his latest girlfriend, are on vacation in West Central Africa when their guide, Yacouba, tells them of a centuries-old ruin with walls that weep. When Cort insists on traveling through the jungle to see the ruin, Yacouba—obviously frightened and sorry to have ever mentioned the ruinbegs him not to go. But you know the drill. The rich guy goes wherever he pleases because he's always in control of the situation. Except that his control doesn't extend to deserted, spooky ruins on a full-moon-lit night in the depths of the African jungle. Even though I knew from the beginning that Cort's trip would end badly, Foster does a great job of stretching out the suspense until Cort and the reader learn at the same time why everyone stays far away from this place.

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