“A remarkable, varied, and wholly worthwhile anthology of dark fiction!”
Subtitled ‘Encounters with the Uncanny and other Magical Things’, Jason V Brock’s A Darke Phantastique, published by Cycatrix Press, is a hefty tome indeed. Great big anthologies of quality original dark fiction are always to be welcomed, and a quick perusal of the contents list here confirms that we are likely to have quality in abundance from established authors like William F Nolan, Joe R Lansdale, the late Melanie Tem, Ray Garton, Dennis Etchison and many others. The other thing that is immediately evident on flicking through this beautifully produced volume is ambition. A Darke Phantastique is not just a collection of stories, but a cornucopia of different prose forms organised into five discrete sections within the book.
Beginning with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury that’s as relevant now as it was when it was written in 1951, we move swiftly on to a second, lengthier, and far more academic introduction from the editor himself, in which he confirms our suspicions that he has ambitions for this volume to be not so much a straightforward anthology as a literary odyssey. But does he succeed?
Section One, entitled ‘Magical Realities’, kicks off with Paul Kane’s ‘Michael the Monster’. Poor little Michael is so monstrous he is only allowed out on Halloween night when his appearance won’t upset people. Needless to say Michael is no ordinary boy. In fact he’s a product of an extremely expensive gene splicing process, and there are others like him that are keen for every day to be Halloween. It’s an excellent start to the book and Kane achieves just the right balance between horror and sympathy (not always easy to do) to get the tale to work. Brock’s own prose piece ‘A Darke Phantastique’ follows and is pleasingly entirely different from the opener, preparing us for a book in which it would seem literally anything of a dark fiction nature might pop up. There are too many excellent pieces on offer in the pages that follow for me to list them all, but special mention deserves to be made of Ray Garton’s ‘Lizard Man Despatches’, about a chap whose talking pet lizard is predicting the end of the world, and William F Nolan’s ‘The Last Witch’ which rounds off Section One with a tale of transformation that is as good as anything this legendary writer has ever done.
Section Two is called ‘Lost Innocence’ and highlights include Erinn Kemper’s ‘The Claim’, set in the gold rush days of the Wild West, Misty Dahl’s tiny slip of a tale ‘Forgetting’, and Lawrence Van Hoof’s Neil Gaimanesque ‘Birth of an Apocalypse’. Melanie Tem’s story ‘Timbrel and Pipe’ is a beautifully written fever dream fertility fantasy that merely serves to emphasise what a great talent we have now lost.
The talented Lois Gresh opens Section Three, ‘Forbidden Knowledge’, with ‘Old Enough to Drink’, the tale of a young girl and her encounter with the mysterious Dr Curall. It doesn’t go the way you might think. Jason Maurer’s ‘In Your Dark’ presents its tale of monsters in the form of an academic scientific article, and Wade German’s poem ‘Lords of Chaos’ breaks up the prose pieces nicely with something dark and dramatic. Determined to include as many different examples of the storytelling form as possible, section three finishes with Greg Bear’s ‘Genius’, a screenplay that was commissioned for the ‘new’ version of the television show The Outer Limits but never produced. It’s easy and fascinating reading (not all screenplays are) and fits in perfectly.
With two more sections to go – ‘Hidden Truths’ and ‘Uncanny Encounters’ there just isn’t the space to go into the wonders on offer in the rest of the book, suffice to say it includes new tales by Dennis Etchison, Nancy Kilpatrick, the irrepressible W H Pugmire, Gary Braunbeck, Steve Rasnic Tem, a Christmas ghost story about a haunted house by Joe R Lansdale, a rare fiction piece by ST Joshi and a whole load of story notes that provide fascinating reading as to the inspiration behind the stories.
As well as fiction, the book is peppered throughout with some marvellous illustrations, topped off by a beautiful cover from Samuel Araya. A Darke Phantastique really is a remarkable piece of work, a vital and relevant snapshot of the current state of dark genre fiction. It is indeed a literary odyssey, but it’s so much more than that as well. At the time of writing, it has been shortlisted for the Bram Stoker award for best anthology and it thoroughly deserves it. If there are any copies left (it’s a limited edition) then you are advised treat yourself to this immediately.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
Publisher: Cycatrix Press
Release Date: Out Now