Book Review: Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 edited by Randy Chandler and Cheryl Mullenax

“With such a strong line-up of stories, there is something for everyone in the third volume of hardcore horror.”

Labels. How does the saying go? “They’re only good for one thing; marketing.” They can be very misleading. Take Hardcore Horror, for example. Some fans of horror fiction may be put off by that term. Gore for gore’s sake, shock value, too much blood, not enough substance. However, just as horror itself is best utilised as a broad term to encapsulate a more complex idea, so to is hardcore horror. The variety of tales presented in the latest volume of the Year’s Best Hardcore Horror is a perfect example.

‘So Sings the Siren’ by Annie Neugebauer tells the story of a mother and daughter at a musical recital with a difference. The musician uses a strange and disturbing technique to elicit the music from the instrument. Using a young narrator, and restricting the horror to what the young girl hears and keeping the visual element off-stage, is a great technique expertly employed here by Neugebauer.

Ryan Harding’s ‘Junk’ takes a gory look at the repercussions of webchats when loner Nick picks the wrong victim for his repulsive sense of entertainment. This is certainly one of those stories that takes body horror to its bloody and disgusting limits, but also acts as a cautionary tale to internet trolls who want to take it too far. Stomach-churning, but in a good way.

Loss and isolation play a large part in Robert Levy’s ‘The Cenacle’ when a widow is forced to say goodbye to her husband and immediately wonders what is left for her. The path she follows certainly leads through weird horror as she encounters a group of seemingly like-minded people. But what is their ultimate goal? Levy does a good job of intertwining the visual horror with the existential horror in this tale, further proving the depth of horror and hardcore horror.

As does Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘The Maw’, a mixture of cosmic and body horror. It is bleak in tone as seventeen-year-old Mix works as a guide and scavenger in Hollow City, not actually a city but just a few blocks where the sinister “surgeons” operate. They move from building to building gutting it. Their base of operations seems to be the old apartment block of Carlos, and that’s where they are headed when Carlos’ dog, Maria, runs off. But what will become of them when they see The Maw? Ballingrud’s horrific description is matched only by his expert ability at pacing, drip-feeding the reader the details to keep us wondering, rather than forcing it down our throats.

Luciano Marano’s ‘Burnt’ explores the complex and fraught relationship between Vicki and her mother, Catherine, especially in the aftermath of the deep fryer accident that leaves Catherine’s face disfigured. Her behaviour grows increasingly disturbing, especially in her sexual relationships with a string of men and the attention she pays her son. As you may expect, this has a detrimental effect on Vicki, who eventually takes employment in a burn unit. Marano’s is a disturbing story, yet his exploration of human behaviour is enticing.

Octavia Cade’s ‘The Better Part of Drowning’ takes place in a very unique setting, in a coastal village where the children live below the houses and docks and just above the salt water where danger lurks. But, equally, danger lurks in the shacks above. Cade’s world-building is very impressive, as is her character development.

‘Til Death’ by Tim Waggoner is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as the World After and follows elderly couple Audrey and Edmund. Audrey has become a servant to a mysterious and unseen master who communicates with her telepathically. The main focus of the story is Audrey’s relationship with her dementia-stricken husband and the lengths she goes to to stay with him and care for him, ‘til death do they part. Or, so Audrey hopes. Waggoner’s portrayal of a dedicated husband and wife in a world filled with such horror and terror is very well done. And the vast threat of the cosmic horror is equally well done.

Matt Shaw is known for never shying away from the most extreme horror, if there is a story to tell. In ‘Letter from Hell’, he reaches into the depth of the dark side and delivers a letter written in first-person. It is addressed to the mother of a missing girl and seems to be from a man who may be involved in the disappearance. By using the letter format and first-person, he forces the reader to consider what if the little girl was their own, a chilling prospect for any parent. It is equally wonderfully effective and downright terrifying. It also serves as a reminder that there is quality to be found in self-published work.

‘Theatrum Mortuum’ by Dani Brown is the epitome of extreme horror. X used to be Xanthe, performing on a stage in a club. But before long she finds herself in the basement, where performers are strung out on drugs and subjected to any and all depraved acts of desire of the VIPs. Full of disturbing descriptions and horrific body horror, this is definitely not for the weak of heart, or weak of stomach.

Glenn Gray’s ‘Break’ takes place in Alcatraz as a former doctor utilises his unique knowledge to attempt the seemingly impossible and break free. This is yet another story where the author has done a lot of research and found a way to deliver it in a very entertaining way. Told in excruciating detail from the protagonist’s point of view, we follow every painful second as we will him on to freedom. Gray’s notes on the origin of the story show that sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. But it planted a seed in the author’s mind that blossomed into a great story.

‘Bernadette’ by R. Perez De Pereda is told in the form of a letter, written from a monk to his brother in the year 1224. In it, he details the terrible disease that has befallen his niece, Bernadette, and the horrific extents he has gone to in order to save her life. Perhaps driven by the despair and knowledge that his brother, missing and presumed dead, the monk goes against his faith and turns to dark literature he has confiscated in his duties as a member of the clergy in a troubled time in Spain’s history. This is a tale of questionable morals, and how far one will go to protect their family, especially when they have so little family.

Latin America has had a well-documented struggle with drug cartels and gang violence for decades, and it only seems to be getting worse. With ‘West of Matamoros, North of Hell’ Brian Hodges has combined this with a cult worshipping Santa Muerte and dropped rock band Los Hijos Del Infierno into the melting pot to deliver an enthralling tale. Each member of the band is fully realised in Hodges’ story as they struggle to come to terms with their predicament. And the description of the visual horrors is unflinching.

In ‘Reprising Her Role’ by Bracken MacLeod, a cameraman working for a director of “questionable” morals reacts badly to the actress on the set of their latest low-budget porno. Ignacio thinks he recognises her, but it can’t be the woman from one of their past movies, as that didn’t end so well. MacLeod wastes no time in getting right into the gory story of an everyday man haunted by his past. But he doesn’t rush the revelations of the story, allowing the reader to watch as Ignacio’s world steadily unravels to its natural conclusion.

Douglas Ford’s ‘The Watcher’ opens with narrator Jake lamenting the break up of his long-term relationship due to what he sees as his ex-girlfriend’s family’s racism. But when he meets army vet Dave on the beach and they share a beer, he thinks he’s about to be given an instant pick-me-up, especially when Dave introduces him to “free spirit” Brenda. Jake thinks he’s in for a night he won’t forget and, in a sense, he isn’t wrong. He chooses to ignore the warning signs and dread until he’s in the thick of it. Ford does a good job of building tension throughout the story, from Jake’s encounter on the beach until the final gruesome revelation.

First published in an anthology of work inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Tim Curran’s ‘Scratching from the Outer Darkness’ wears it’s influence on its sleeve. Simone, a blind woman who lives alone with her guide dog, Rocky, begins to hear scratching, from within the walls, the shadows. People. It is passed off as heightened aural sensitivity to make up for her lack of sight. But when horrifying events from around the world, including mass murder and mass suicide take over the nightly news, and Simone hears neighbours discussing a book of forbidden text, she fears something far-reaching. Fans of Lovecraft will love this tribute.

Known for his winning mixture of horror and humour, Adam Howe delivers a typically top-drawer tale with ‘Foreign Bodies’. Told from the point of view of Hollywood fixer Joe Conklin (“The A-list gets Ray Donovan; the lower end of the alphabet gets me.”) as he is summoned by troubled children’s entertainer, ventriloquist Buddy Mortimer, after he has a “mishap” with a gerbil. You may feel that you know where the story goes, but fans of Howe’s work will attest that you can never take anything for granted and the ride is always worth it. He has a talent for filling his stories with colourful and entertaining characters and witty dialogue and this is no different. It will have you laughing and wincing in equal measure.

‘Adramelech’ by Sean Patrick Hazlett takes a look at demon possession and its effect on one man throughout his life. Haunted by strange dreams, narrator Mr. Brooks awakes to find he has filled a book with arcane symbols and strange drawings. When he seeks help, the presence makes itself known and Brooks finds himself trapped. But he is nothing if not patient. Hazlett captures the language of the era very well, the setting seemingly late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It fits with the type of story. And the reader may be surprised to learn how much of the demon Hazlett based on real historical records. It is clear that the author did his homework to deliver an entertaining story.

Daniel Marc Chant’s ‘Ultra’ takes a look at the idea of violent video games and what effect it can have on the human mind. But he also blends it with mind control and futuristic virtual reality and the dog-eat-dog world of the stock exchange. Wilbur is stressed from work as a trader, but he blows off steam with a harmless game of Nazi Hunter. But what happens to him when he is introduced to the world of Slut Slayer? Chant explores this concept, and the human psyche, in this exciting and thought-provoking story.

‘Tree Huggers’ by Nathan Robinson is a creature feature where a group of environmentalists chain themselves to some trees to make a stand against industrialists. But they don’t reckon on the strange visitor that appears as soon as they have swallowed the keys, and rendered themselves defenseless. The dialogue between the very different characters – from die-hard tree huggers to the guy who just wants to impress a girl – is great, as too is Robinson’s character development. And when the visitor makes its presence known, the blood really flows, the gore beautifully delivered without being over-the-top. And it also has a great ending.

Scott Smith’s ‘The Dogs’ begins with Rose indulging in the dangerous practice of finding sexual partners on Craigslist. This leads her to Patrick’s apartment, and his three dogs. She puts his nervous behaviour down to his eagerness to please, but of course there is a much more sinister reason. Smith delivers a suspenseful and disturbing story with the three dogs at the centre, especially in one particularly horrific scene. The author plays with the roles of the characters to provide an unexpected ending to a good story.

With every anthology, even the year’s best, each reader will have different reactions to each story. There are some they will enjoy more than others, and some that they may not enjoy at all.  But the good news is that, with such a strong line-up of stories, there is something for everyone in the third volume of hardcore horror. Whether you prefer your horror blood-soaked or subtle, infused with humour or offering a peek at terror on a cosmic scale, fantastic monsters or monstrous humans, you’ll find it here.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Red Room Press
Paperback: 317 (pps)
Release Date: 4 May 2018

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