Reviewed by David Brzeski
Having reviewed Eric J. Guignard’s previous anthology, ‘Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations’, I was very happy to be offered this volume to read.
I thought his previous anthology was hefty, but this one is even bigger—34 stories in all.
It opens strongly with a tale by Andrew S. Williams, one of several authors who impressed me in that earlier anthology. In ‘Someone to Remember’, a man waits on the banks of the great river, surrounded by vast crowds of the dead. Charon, the ferryman has long since had his rowboat upgraded to a steam ferry, but still he can only take so many at a time and the backlog is growing. Our unnamed protagonist refuses to cross over, until his beloved Katherine joins him, but he won’t be allowed to wait for much longer.
‘Boy 7’, byAlvaro Rodriguez is very short—just over two pages, but it’s an incredibly powerful little tale of a kidnapped boy, locked in the boot of a car. I’ve read this one three times in total, and I like it more each time.
Another reason to be glad for the opportunity to read this book was that it contained a story by Edward M. Erdelac, an author whose work I’ve come to admire more and more. In ‘The Sea of Trees’, Manabu, an accountant, who having plumbed the depths of despair at his miserable existence, finds his way to Aokigahara Forest—the Sea of Trees, a traditional spot for Japanese suicides. He hopes to go to a better place.
I read ‘The Last Moments Before Bed’, by Steve Rasnic Tem, a few times too. Tem is a long-time favourite short story writer of mine and this one is the same high quality I’ve come to expect from him. I struggled to come up with a way of describing the story, but couldn’t improve on what Eric Guignard wrote in his introduction, so I’m going to cheat & simply quote that… “A despondent man prepares for death each night, hoping the dreams he has will be his release. Or has he died already? The shroud separating what is, and what was, and what is to be, is truly thin—permeable even—and we slip through its folds sometimes without even knowing.”
Lisa Morton is a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award. Her story, ‘The Resurrection Policy’, in which Martin Lavelle discovers that insurance companies can still screw you over after you die, certainly shows us why.
Jack Hollister discovers that the way people lived their lives impacts their afterlives in ways he could never have imagined, in ‘High Places’, by John M. Floyd.
In ‘Circling The Stones At Fulcrum’s Low’, Kelda Crich introduces us to Esmar Tanner, a witch, who is beginning to tire of her endless cycle of deaths and rebirths.
David Steffen gives us a truly bizarre version of reincarnation in his excellent, ‘I Will Remain’. What if a soul does not pass on, is not kept whole after death? What if it is fragmented, shared between countless living things?
Aaron J. French can always be relied upon to come up with something interesting. This time, in ‘Tree Of Life’, he guides us through a kabbalistic view of the transition from mortal existence.
‘The Reckless Alternative’, by Sanford Allen and Josh Rountree is certainly one of the more intriguing stories in the book. Julie, finds herself in a bizarre waystation between life & death, which takes the form of a road trip. She hitches a lift and is picked up by Joe Strummer of the Clash. While stopping at a strange bar, Joe has to choose what he wants to do with his afterlife, while “Coma Girl” Julie has to decide if she actually wants to die, or not. It would be easy to criticise the American authors, for failing to write Strummer’s dialogue all that convincingly. He comes over a bit too American in his phrasing on occasion, but it’s a very clever and thought provoking story.
Brad C. Hodson takes us into the multiple hells of Fengdu of Chinese mythology, where Chan Fei-Chu and his father, Chan Poi-Sui have to face the ancestors they’ve shamed and endure ‘The Thousandth Hell’—which for a father, who hates his failure to bring his son up properly, and a son who hates nothing more than his father is chilling indeed.
‘Mall Rats’, by James S. Dorr, has a great hook of a line at the beginning of the second paragraph—“John thought, sometimes, that they were dead”. John and his friends, Mark and Wendy, had certainly been in the Mall for a long time but most people didn’t seem to be able to see them, except for the old drunk guy who sat next to the dumpsters out back. Wendy always had an answer for questions like, “Why aren’t we in school?”, but John wasn’t quite sure.
I hesitate to say too much about Ray Cluley’s delightfully original, ‘Afterlife’. Suffice it to say that it involves a ghost town of sorts, where the people look forward to finally meeting their creator.
Bureaucracy has a lot to answer for, especially when mixed with expediency. What is to be done with the various mythological followers of outdated pantheons. In the case of Bacchus’ wine-children the decision was taken to dump them in the third circle of Hell—the circle of Gluttony. No, they weren’t actually damned, so they couldn’t be employed tormenting other souls, but it was deemed a vaguely appropriate solution. In ‘Like a Bat Out of Hell’, by Jonathan Shipley, young Revel disagrees and wants out.
In Jacob Edwards’ ‘The Overlander’, a dying man in the Queensland Bush encounters the most contented of ghosts.
Jon Palisano’s ‘Forever’ is a total change of pace. Cute, sweet and just plain nice, it somehow avoids completely falling into the mire of cloying sentimentalism.
Any good editor would follow something as light as Palisano’s story with something much darker. Bentley Little’s ‘My Father Knew Douglas MacArthur’ certainly fits the bill. When one particular soul discovers that there’s no Heaven, no Hell and no God, he doesn’t quite react as expected.
We swing all the way back to sweet again with Jamie Lackey’s endearing tale of ‘Robot Heaven’. The androids and talking appliances have a sort of ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ by way of Pixar feel to them, especially in the character of Toasty.
‘Beyond the Veil’, by Robert B. Marcus, Jr. is cited by the editor as one of his favourites in the book , and I have to agree. A man finds that he is cursed to relive his life, over and over again. He can instantly jump back and forth between various times in his life, both good times and bad, but he cannot move beyond—and he cannot die!
David Tallerman’s ‘Prisoner of Peace’ is one of the more powerful stories in the book. A man sits in a dark cell, cycling through periods of trying to remember and periods of trying to forget. His one constant is the certainty that he doesn’t want to see the thing on his bunk.
It’s not particularly rare to find writers using the concept of every religion having their own Heaven, but I think Christine Morgan’s ‘A Feast of Meat and Mead’ is the first time I’ve seen anyone explore what might happen if you should find yourself in the wrong one.
The ever reliable William Meikle gives us an amusing little morality tale in ‘Be Quiet in the Back’, which would have fit nicely in one of those classic Amicus portmanteau films of the 60s and 70s. John Davidson had been a teacher in life—a good teacher! But what about those children who sat at the back—the ones he paid less attention to?
Most of the stories in this anthology concern themselves with what happens to us when we die. In ‘Cages’, Peter Giglio addresses what happens to us when God dies… and in His absence, mortality is cancelled.
In ‘Hammerhead’, Simon Clarke examines the possibility that grudges, could carry on through to the next reincarnation… that conflicts between two souls could actually be eternal.
Kelly Dunn’s excellent ‘Marvel at the Face of Forever’ is certainly one of the nastiest tales in the book, involving as it does the very gory and painful torture and death of the protagonist. Despite this more modern emphasis on blood and gore, this tale of vengeful gods is actually more reminiscent of an older style of storytelling from the pulp era, or earlier. Imagine if Clive Barker had written the darker tales of Clark Ashton Smith, or Lord Dunsany.
If Kelly Dunn’s story was one of the nastiest, then Trevor Denyer’s ‘The Unfinished Lunch is certainly one of the strangest. What if, when you die, your soul simply leaks into whatever is nearby at the time? What if that thing somehow is able to be in places other than where it was at the time of your death?
Several of the stories in this volume have touched on reincarnation in one way or another, but ‘I Was the Walrus’ by Steve Cameron goes further. What if a single soul, jumping back and forth through space and time was everyone who ever lived?
Really good people go to Heaven. Really evil people go to Hell. The thing is, most of us fall somewhere in between… and what about those people who were evil, who did something really bad, but genuinely repented and became good, worthwhile citizens of the world? What if the Devil had them earmarked for a spot in his eternal fires, and wasn’t happy to let them go? In ‘The Devil’s Backbone’, by Larry Hodges, one such reformed character tries to make the lot of all such repentants better—by giving them all ice-cream.
So far in this book, we’ve seen stories where humans have souls that survive beyond death. We’ve seen others where animals also have souls. One story even has robots with souls. In ‘The Death of E. Coli’, Benjamin Kane Ethridge examines the ultimate fate of the souls of micro-organisms.
The chances are that we’ll all die, leaving something undone that we really should have done. In ‘Final Testament to a Weapons Engineer’ an old man has a heart attack while shovelling snow, leaving something in the garage that may have tragic consequences if he can’t find a way to fix it.
The general level of quality in this anthology is high, but I’d been waiting for a stand-out story and this is it. ‘Acclimation Package’ by Joe McKinney is a science fiction thriller, involving a dead man brought back to life by scientific means. It’s one of the longer tales in the book, but not as long as I would have liked. The ideas in this story should really be given room to breath in a full-length novel.
In ‘Hellevator’, Josh Strnad suggests that the anticipation of punishment might be worse than the punishment, in fact, sometimes, the anticipation might be the punishment.
The editor initially rejected Allen Izen’s ‘In and Out the Window’. I can see why. I can also see why he changed his mind. It’s odd, and it stays with you. It’s a common failing of humans—not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. It may not even be limited to humans.
The final and longest piece in the book is ‘With Max Barry in the Nearer Precincts’, by John Langan. If Joe McKinney’s contribution deserves to be expanded into a full novel, then this is worthy of an entire series. Langan’s writing is evocative of an earlier period of literature, and this story would comfortably fit amongst those earlier tales of supernatural literature that so influenced Lovecraft and his circle. In around 10,000 words, John Langan has created a mythos worthy of any of the grand masters of weird fiction.
If the stories were not enough, I also have to mention the artwork. I liked the cover by Kevin Scott Sutay, from a design by Eric J. Guignard well enough, but Audra Phillips, who contributes a full page frontispiece and a page header illustration for every one of the 34 stories in this book, really stole the show for me.
Eric J. Guignard has once again proven that he is a force to be reckoned with in the world of editing anthologies.