“An eclectic mix of storytelling styles and different approaches to deliver a broad mix of tales.”
It is a question that has consumed humanity for as long as we have walked upon the Earth; what happens to us when we die? Every civilisation and religion have offered their own possible answer as gospel, whether it be pearly gates or burning pits, paradise or eternal damnation. Some say we can come back, reborn as something new, another chance at life in a new body with the same soul. Whatever your personal belief, the question makes for an interesting premise, especially when put in the hands of a horror author. In this anthology, editor Daniel Willcocks opens it up to eleven authors to put their own unique spin on a possible answer.
‘Dirt’ by Tom Garback is a brooding and dark tale of extreme family dysfunction. Told from the point of view of the son, we are shown glimpses of emotional and psychological abuse by an overbearing mother, overlooked by a downtrodden and alcoholic father, in the aftermath of the death of the mother’s father, who himself casts a long shadow of cruelty. This made for a bold choice to open the anthology, setting a dark and disturbing tone. Garback captures the terrible ongoing cruelty with great detail and a good sense of how far he could push the boundaries without traumatising the reader too much. The revelation of the finale packs an emotional punch, as well as delivering on the unsettling promises made throughout.
Following up to that opener was bound to be difficult. After a lengthy prologue explaining the gruesome history of the pub, ‘Marvin’s Tavern’ by Heinrich Von Wolfcastle introduces our protagonist, Ryan, a hard-drinking community college student down on his luck. When he tries to drown his sorrows at his favourite pub with the aid of the mysterious bartender and her mysterious drink, he witnesses something bizarre in the basement. Before we know it, the story has jumped decades into the future and Ryan finds himself back at the pub, now dilapidated. The rest of the story takes on a surreal flavour with Ryan greeted by friends and strangers, all in good spirits and seemingly friendly with him, only for a terrible truth to finally be revealed. The resolution, reaching back to that one night in the pub—and further—makes for a disappointing finale.
‘Corpse Forest’ by Julie Hiner opens with a depressing and distressing revelation for Willy as she recalls a terrible act committed, and comes to the awful realisation of where she is; the eponymous corpse forest. But she is not alone, and the others do not hold their tongues. Through their interactions, Willy relives vivid memories of truly despicable acts committed in her past, seemingly attempting to fulfill an insatiable need for blood. Through these revelations she is given an opportunity to become something greater than human. But to what end? A troubling tale with elements of suicide, it seems to flow from some really hard-hitting themes to a softer paranormal ending.
‘Wheels Within Wheels’ by Daniel R. Robichaud opens with a serious car accident when Peter awakens to find himself suspended upside down by his seatbelt. Hazy at first, the details quickly return to him, of an animal running into the road and causing him to swerve, to crash and avoid hitting the animal. But he cannot reconcile the size of the animal with anything he is familiar with, leading to a chilling encounter with a would-be rescuer. What follows is a meandering, sometimes convoluted, explanation of the events that have brought Peter to his current predicament, before everything is cleared up by a somewhat touching conclusion.
‘Piece by Piece’ by Daniel Willcocks opens with the end, a man surrounded by a colour darker than black, with memories of some traumatic injury that preceded this moment, and of his Christian mother, trying to impose her beliefs on her unwilling son. Time passes in a manner impossible to understand, until he suddenly finds himself on a tiny isolated island. It isn’t long before more islands begin to appear around him, each home to an individual, none of whom he can interact with or reach. What follows is a long parable about greed and consumerism and man’s quest for self-destruction, following our protagonist’s downward spiral as he fails to learn from the mistakes of his past, even when presented with a potential paradise. These aren’t the feel-good stories of a light at the end of a tunnel and a choir of winged angels. But, of course, this is a horror anthology.
The framing story for ‘Secret Places’ by Harvey Click revolves around a failed marriage and the effect it has on all concerned. Musician Carey is desperate to keep son Tommy on his side following the acrimonious split with ex-wife Denise, and even seems to be using the child in an attempt to force Denise to dump her partner and take Carey back. The bad blood soon seeps into everything when a terrible tragedy befalls the group, leaving Denise to unravel what has truly happened. The element of mystery is implemented well by the author, as we follow a distraught Denise trying to figure out the truth from the lies, leading to a thrilling and unexpected ending.
‘Sheol’ by Paul Stansfield begins by introducing us to our main character, Keith Moody, who dies while having an unnecessarily detailed dream. At first, he imagines that he is still dreaming, trying to manipulate himself and his surroundings in a dull, dismal place along with countless other naked wretches and strange invertebrate creatures. Unfortunately, for Keith and for the reader, what follows is his exploration of this new, boundless, never-changing landscape. With only other lost souls for company, and no need to eat or sleep, Keith simply wanders around the dull, dismal surroundings, trying to come to terms with this hellish place (a quick google search revealed that Sheol is, in fact, a place where the dead go in the Hebrew bible). In one strange scene, he even considers having sex with another lost soul, only for an ex-lover to conveniently appear out of nowhere to satisfy his desire. But even this doesn’t go to plan. In short, it is a grim tale where not much happens.
‘The Cold Dark Forever’ by C.W. Blackwell opens with a promising premise; a couple of brothers on the run in the hills of rural California in 1924 with stolen loot and—in Calum’s case—a life-threatening injury. They stumble across the remains of a man they assume was out looking for them, who appears to have been mauled by dogs who, in turn, belong to an enigmatic young girl. What at first Billy takes for salvation proves to be something altogether more sinister, with the girl offering to help treat Calum’s wounds in her own, special way. An entertaining take on the question of the what awaits us in death, with a delightfully dark, occult twist.
It opens with the disturbing image of a burning child pleading for the help of our main character, but ‘The Fork in the Road’ by J. Thorn then takes a more expected route when our unnamed protagonist comes around behind the wheel of a speeding 1977 Corvette, heading along a highway toward that fork. The circumstances surrounding his being in the car, and the vision of the burning child, form the mystery of the story, with the mysterious female passenger riding shotgun not giving anything away. As is suggested by the title, he must make an important decision, with significant consequences. But first he must remember who he is, and what is at stake. A gripping tale exploring the importance of our choices and the sacrifices some must make.
‘The Bus’ by M.B. Vujačić is delivered in an epistolary style, with diary entries made in a notebook by Steve, who finds himself on a strange bus journey with a group of strangers surrounded by nothing but endless road in every direction. The situation goes downhill rapidly, with familiar divisions of race and gender taking precedence over the predicament of where they are, and where the bus is headed, and typical stereotypes abound. Steve continues to document the deteriorating relations between individuals and groups without ever making a stand to defend those targeted by the stronger personalities. It makes for grim reading as the worst of humanity plays out in the confined space, with brutish men forcing themselves on weak women, while Steve simply takes notes. The single setting makes for an intriguing idea, but here it simply forces us to endure the most wicked acts of depravity that the human mind can conjure, given the cast available, and the ending offers little redemption for Steve.
In the final story, ‘Click for Ascension’ by Thomas Kodnar, we meet Sheila as she takes her final breath. As with the other stories, this is only the beginning of the story. Yet, unlike the other stories, Sheila finds herself in a more familiar surrounding upon her death. While she still senses a body, an existence, it is unlike anything she has felt before. Whereas most of the other authors leaned toward the spiritual and existential questions posed by the afterlife, Kodnar offers a more scientific take, while still delivering the horrific imagery we would expect. It makes for a unique take on the theme of the anthology on which to end, but the “action” of Sheila’s experience could leave some readers underwhelmed.
As with all short story anthologies, some stories will resonate with some readers more than others. Some may forego a more action-heavy narrative for a more experimental story-telling experience. All readers will come to an anthology with different expectations and fiction preferences. And Willcocks has definitely collected together an eclectic mix of storytelling styles and different approaches to deliver a broad mix of tales. All fill the requirements of the theme, exploring the question of the other side and what awaits us. Some of the authors offer more exciting takes on the topic than others, but each is interesting in its own way.
Publisher: Devil’s Rock Publishing
eBook: 243 (pps.)
Release Date: 19 October 2020
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