Book Review: Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward

“Enough big-hitters to propel this collection to the top of any horror enthusiast’s to-read list.”

Crystal Lake Publishing has taken the horror and dark fiction world by storm, introducing quality writing by both fresh new faces on the scene and those who have been feeding us nightmares for years. They’ve found their place—somewhere wedged between horrific tales and beautiful literature, and they were recently nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories is their newest collection of sleep-obstructing tales that are sure to leave you, at moments breathless and vulnerable, and at others, optimistically hopeful. No matter how dark the tunnel, light finds a way to break through these pages, illuminating any chance of redemption.

The collection kicks off with a poem by Stephanie M. Wytovich titled ‘The Morning After Was Filled With Bone’. There couldn’t be a better opener for the book. It’s an elegantly-written, yet hard-hitting piece about empowerment and letting go and was the driving force behind the anthology’s wickedly stunning cover art. ‘Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave’ by Brian Kirk speaks to the unconditional love a father has for his daughter and expressing that love in an unspeakable way—the only way his previously-captured and tortured daughter will understand. This story threw in some rather uncomfortable one-liners from a comedic protagonist who was only to trying to make light of events that can only be described as indescribable. The added awkward humor only propelled the story. Lisa Mannetti’s ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is a story surrounding Nazi concentration camps and touches on how far people will go (or won’t go) for the sake of others when faced with dire circumstances. This story started out a little slower but closed beautifully.

‘The Problem of Susan’ by Neil Gaiman—is a new spin on an old childhood favorite, adding a dark and deathly tone with disturbing imagery to the fantasy. The story delves into an aging woman’s deep remorse and the guilt of surviving while her loved ones perished. Christopher Coake’s ‘Dominion’ is a campy-type tale with young partying protagonists who end up exploring an old mining-turned-ghost town. The youngest of the group—Hannah—at the green young age of seventeen has already come to face her biggest fears: rape, isolation, an insecure yearning to be accepted. But she isn’t alone in this desolate town in the middle of the desert and soon finds help from some unexpected former town-folk. The characters in this story are so deep and real—developed in a very short yet subtle way—this story has strength even without the ghostly element. Mercedes M. Yardley’s ‘Water Thy Bones’ shows that love is more than skin deep. Beneath the flesh lies the most beautiful masterpiece of them all—the human bone structure, porcelain white, frail, and oh so lovely. It takes a special kind of person to truly be able to love all of you, inside and out.

‘A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken’ by Paul Tremblay was one that stood out as his writing style and characters are unlike anything else contained there within. You’re left in a house, haunted by both ghosts and memories, mulling over which are more terrifying. Tremblay has a way of making anything he writes—no matter how horrifying or disturbing the content—fun to read. This one, he formatted like a classic choose-your-own-adventure book. His characters are light and likable and most importantly—relatable in an ungainly human kind of way.

Immediately following Tremblay’s tale is ‘On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes’ by Damien Angelica Walters. This story sheds light on bullying in our new digital world, as well as portrays the importance of parental understanding and open communication, something parents often struggle with. Sometimes we overlook seemingly obvious tell-tale signs of heartache, while assuming everyone—those closest to us—and everything will be alright. Or we simply just avoid the effort it takes to mend; it’s easier to let alone and let the storm pass. This story was the most emotionally wearing of the collection, leaving the wind knocked from your body, trying to muster enough air to ask: what if? The deep, dark depths of Richard Thomas’ mind provides a haunting story in ‘Repent’. How black can a soul become before there is no turning back? This story exemplifies Richard’s voice and only confirms his relevance in modern dark fiction. Following is ‘Coming to Grief’ by Clive Barker where a young woman—home for a loved one’s passing—comes face to face with her vividly terrifying childhood fear. Barker’s words are experienced and mature, with simple and realistic dialogue and subtle story-telling. He is a true master of his craft.

John F.D. Taff takes you back to your childhood, when things were simple, with his tale ‘Cards for His Spokes, Coins for His Fare’ as a young boy gets the nicest ten-speed on the block that ultimately leads him to his end. This was a fun Stand-By-Me’esque read, although pieces of the resolve were revealed a little premature as the suspense could’ve stayed hidden longer, adding strength to the emotional ending. Amanda Gowin’s piece ‘Cellar’s Dog’ is a story about animal and human cruelty and one person’s compassion toward a hideous-yet-helpless beast. The beginning pages are filled with a frightening hillbilly racism and stupidity which fly off the page with a required authenticity. It isn’t until there is mention of a Playstation that you realize you aren’t trapped inside a 1960’s nightmare.

‘When We All Meet at the Ofrenda’ by Kevin Lucia places you into the center of a Day of the Dead celebration, full of painted on ghoulish faces, and with the hopes of reuniting with someone you cared so deeply for who had passed on to the next world. Lucia truly painted a living picture with his words and great imagery. Maria Alexander’s contribution ‘Hey, Little Sister’ speaks to revenge at its worst and the passion, tumultuous emotion, and regret that precedes and follows your decision. ‘The One You Live With’ by Josh Malerman is a compelling read—Malerman’s story-telling style unique and refreshing. This tale leaves you with the spooky realization that there are two yous, but which are you? It is stories like this that make Malerman a writer to watch for. Finishing off this collection is Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Place of Revelation’—a story of a young boy who has a supernatural gift (or perhaps curse) of story-telling. As with any great story, the teller of such story must truly believe in what he is telling, no matter how horrific the images that appear to him are.

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories is another notable release by a publisher that is making waves in the horror and dark fiction world because of books like this. Although there are a few slower moments, all the stories wrap up nicely and close strong, and there are enough big-hitters to propel this collection to the top of any horror enthusiast’s to-read list. All of the stories contained inside are good; most of which are great. All of them—every flesh-shedding, bone-revealing story—are eerily real, horrific, and grotesquely and beautifully human.



Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Print (380pp)
Release Date: 24 June 2016

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