Book Review: Peel Back the Skin (Edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson)

The table of contents in Peel Back the Skin reads like a red carpet marquee of some of the greatest authors writing horror today.

PeelBackTheSkin_tradepaperback_coverThe short lifespan that Grey Matter Press has enjoyed to date has been something of a phenomenon. It’s been just over two years since the publication of their freshman entry, Dark Visions: Volume One, and in that time they’ve published a total of seven themed anthologies of speculative fiction. Soon to be eight with the publication of Peel Back the Skin on 7 June of this year. They’ve also published the full length novel, Mister White, by John C. Foster and a collection of novellas by John F. D. Taff entitled, The End in all Beginnings. That large body of work in such a short time is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but what takes it from merely remarkable to phenomenal is the top shelf quality of every single book they’ve published.

The table of contents in Peel Back the Skin reads like a red carpet marquee of some of the greatest authors writing horror today, but it becomes quickly evident as you read the book that none of these authors was chosen for the star power of their names alone. In the original submission call, Grey Matter Press asked for monsters of the human variety but they left the interpretation of that criteria pretty wide open and the authors who made the cut did so with remarkable creativity and originality. Every single story in the book is in a class of its own, standing independently from the others. Yet, thematically speaking, Peel Back the Skin is a thing of brilliance, each story complementing or enhancing the stories around it.

There are monsters of many varieties here, each one of them completely unique in its own special way. There are those of a ghostly nature as in Jonathan Maberry’s gut punch of an opener, ‘Mystic’, about a tortured private investigator who metes out justice for the defenseless dead, or William Meikle’s masterful ‘The Lady of the Minch’, featuring a red door with dark mysteries behind it, and an old man who lives in the memories of a better past. Then there are human monsters, terrifying in their own right, exemplified by such stories as Tim Lebbon’s heartrending ‘The Protector’, in which a young man learns how to face a personal demon, or the painfully chilling ‘Superheated’, by Yvonne Navarro, a story with a shocker of an ending that will freeze your blood. In ‘Family Bible’, Ed Kurtz offers us a glimpse into the lives of a fanatically religious family with a gruesome rite of passage that every son must go through.

Some other standout stories in this tome of dark wonders don’t fit any mold and follow their own direction with exceptional results. One such is ‘Moth Frenzy’, in which Stoker nominated author Lucy Taylor brings us an old Native American myth with a terrifying twist. Another is Durand Sheng Welsh’s ‘Life, or Whatever Passes for It’, the story of an AWOL Vietnam vet who meets an old man that holds the secret to the Fountain of Youth. But even eternity may not be worth the steep, terrifying cost.

Peel Back the Skin, which started out strong with Maberry’s ‘Mystic’, finishes just as powerfully with ‘The Long Bright Descent’ by Erik Williams. It’s an expertly written, fast paced and entertaining tale of two ancient beings that clash in an eternal struggle for the survival of humanity. It’s also an obviously well thought out conclusion to an exceptionally well structured and entertaining read that might just be the best anthology Grey Matter Press has published to date. That’s saying quite a lot, considering the consistently stellar quality of their previous anthologies and other publications. They’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they’re the real deal when it comes to top-notch, accessible, and entertaining dark fiction. Stoker nominated editors Sharon Lawson and Anthony Rivera seem to just now be hitting their stride, and one can only imagine what they might have in store for us going forward.


Publisher: Grey Matter Press
ebook: (334pp)
Release Date: 7 June 2016

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