Reviews

Short Story: SHARDS, by Ian Rogers – #wyrdandwonder

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Read the story online

A very creepy, quite disturbing tale made even more so by the lack of any explanation about the hows and whys of what happens.

The story starts, quite similarly to many horror movies, with a group of teenagers driving toward a secluded cabin in the woods to celebrate their upcoming graduation and to have some fun. There are many elements that are familiar to followers of the genre: the dilapidated cabin, the isolated location, and a mysterious trapdoor leading toward a dark basement… And yet, the way this story develops leads toward some quite unexpected paths, making the reader constantly wonder what’s at play here.

The very first sentence points toward a tragedy, no mystery here: we know from the start that something horrible will happen here, and that makes the cheer and fun of the outing that the group is enjoying even more poignant, particularly because it’s easy to see these people are very comfortable with each other since they grew up together and have developed a very close relationship.

If the dread of what happens in the cabin is bad enough, what the survivors have to endure afterwards is even more ghastly, because it becomes quite apparent that the evil in the cellar did not remain there, and it wants more of what it obtained. And it does not end with death…

Thoroughly chilling, and quite compelling.

My Rating:

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Short Story: I, CTHULHU, OR WHAT’S A TENTACLE-FACED THING LIKE ME DOING IN A SUNKEN CITY LIKE THIS?, by Neil Gaiman – #wyrdandwonder

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READ THE STORY ONLINE

You would think that any cosmic horror, Lovecraft-inspired story – especially one that has Cthulhu’s name in it – would be full of terror and blood-chilling elements, wouldn’t you? Well, think again, because this short offering from Neil Gaiman pokes fun at all the tropes typical of Lovecraftian imagination and turns out to be a delightfully amusing tour of many of them.

Cthulhu is dictating his memoirs to a human scribe named Whateley who, at least judging by the monster’s reactions, is clearly torn between curiosity and (in larger part) awed fear of his host, who starts by waxing poetical about his birth and the place he used to call home: of course, Cthulhu being who he (it?) is, the birth implicated the death of both parents and “home” is a place where a gibbous moon bleeds into the ocean…

Showing a particularly grumpy attitude, Cthulhu goes on by describing an eons-long party which brought him to Earth, where he proceeded to enslave, rule and consume the hapless inhabitants, until… well, no, I will let you discover by yourselves how the rest of the story goes, it’s far better to go into it with no prior knowledge. And far more fun!

Except for the part about feeding the shoggoth, that is… 😀

If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s narrative style and word choice, you – like me – will laugh out loud at the way they are employed here, turning these cosmic horror themes into a genially entertaining read.

My Rating:

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THE GULP (Tales from the Gulp #1), by Alan Baxter #wyrdandwonder

Stories’ collections can be a little tricky, sometimes, because not all of the offerings might encounter the reader’s tastes, but The Gulp did not suffer from this problem for two important reasons: the five short stories in this anthology revolve around a common element – the Australian city of Gulpepper – and the weird horror theme that permeates the collection, whose almost-Lovecraftian feel makes for a delightfully uneasy read.

Gulpepper is a pleasant seaside city on the Australian coast, but while it might be nice to pass through it, staying there carries a good number of problems: the inhabitants look friendly enough on the surface, but on closer inspection there is something… not right about them, something the casual visitors cannot put their finger on, but still proves unsettling.  The townspeople refer to the city as ‘the Gulp’, often mentioning that it has the tendency to “swallow” people, almost a warning about moving on as quickly as one can…

Unfortunately, not everyone heeds that warning, as it happens to Rich in Out of a Rim: he’s training to become a delivery van driver, and when a mechanical problem forces him and his instructor George to stay overnight in Gulpepper, Rich labels George’s warnings as an old man’s fancy – or even an attempt at hazing the newbie – and so decides to have a night on the town, while George refuses to leave the safety of the truck’s cab.  What Rich will experience cannot be labeled as horror with any certainty – although he finds himself facing some harrowing circumstances – but his exploration of Gulpepper and its inhabitants reveals the creepiness of the town and its people through a series of encounters that lay the tone and set the background for the rest of the book.

The second story, Mother in Bloom, deals with two siblings, Maddy and Zack, whose ailing mother just died: firmly set on not letting the authorities know of the woman’s demise, to avoid being consigned to social services, the two of them must find a way of disposing of the body, carrying on as normally as possible until Maddy will turn eighteen and be free to take care of Zack as her guardian.  Having a dead body in the house would be a disturbing experience for everyone, but the changes the kids’ mother’s corpse undergoes are part of the macabre tone of the story, together with Maddy and Zack’s emotional removal from the loss, due to their mother’s character which is often described as tyrannical and spiteful.  And if that’s not enough, the dreadful changes in the corpse point toward a supernatural factor that will compel the two kids (and particularly Zack) toward some truly appalling actions…

The Band Plays On sees a quartet of tourists become enthralled by a local band, Blind Eye Moon, whose performance in town encourages the four of them to stay longer than anticipated, accepting the band’s hospitality in their lavish mansion. A party fueled by alcohol and music leads to some very striking dreams that seem to hint at a dark past and whose cosmic horror quality compels one of the travelers, Patrick, to try and steer his friends away from Gulpepper and the magnetic influence of the band’s members.  But it might be already too late for that, because The Gulp has a tendency to swallow the unwary, indeed. This third story marks a definite progression toward horror, with its hints at vampiric possession and Lovecraftian elements, and it definitely enhances the sense of suffocating dread at the roots of this collection.

The fourth offering, 48 to Go, starts in a very mundane way as Dace, who works as a courier for the gangster lord Carter, is robbed of his precious cargo while trying to woo a young lady.  The only way to get back in Carter’s good graces is to refund the monetary loss, and to do so in the short time allotted by the boss – 48 hours – Dace sets his sights on robbing an elderly couple rumored to have huge sums of money hidden in their house. The man’s plan and preparations have something of a funny flavor, which carries on until the start of his undertaking, when the sheer number of setbacks and unexpected obstacles drives him to become much more than ruthless and callous.  Here the horror is all too human, and despite the lack of supernatural elements feels even more terrifying.

Rock Fisher is the final offering in this anthology and it goes back to a supernatural theme laced with a sizable dash of body horror as expert fisherman Troy comes back home with a strange “egg” which, once set in his aquarium, starts to grow and exert a compelling attraction on him, to the exclusion of any other ties to family or friends.

The Gulp offers a very intriguing – if creepy – setting for these stories, often adding other elements that remain as background detail but hint at much more and show the reader that the well of horror remains mostly untapped here. The dichotomy between the apparently normal surface and the eerie depths of the city and its people is where the uneasiness – and then the fear – comes from, trapping the reader into a compulsive immersion in these stories and the sensation to be just as imprisoned as the hapless characters depicted there. 

After discovering this author and this intriguing collection, I know I will look forward to the upcoming publication of the new collection of stories set in Gulpepper: hopefully I will be able to find my way out once more and not be swallowed by the Gulp… 😉

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com
Reviews

Short Story: BABY TEETH, by Daniel Polansky

Click on the link to read the story online

I previously read a couple of short stories by Daniel Polansky, so his name on this one caught my attention just as much as the promise of a vampire-related tale, which is one of my favorite horror tropes.

Baby Teeth is the story of a vampire infestation in a small town, related by the an adult Graham reminiscing on his teenage yers: back then, his schoolmate Penny died of a mysterious illness and after the funeral Graham felt the need to go back to the funeral parlor, where he was stunned by the apparition of a pale-faced Penny, who however approaches him with a “tangled mess of canines broken glass torn aluminum dirty needles half-sharpened razor blades” before being impaled – by a stranger, named Hercules – clearly a vampire hunter.

The story goes on by depicting the strange alliance between the grumpy Hercules and Graham, whose intimate knowledge of the realms of Dungeons & Dragons predisposed him to acknowledge the supernatural with easy acceptance. Graham is the classic “nerd”, more interested in books than sports, and a couple of veiled mentions hint at some hazing by the stronger boys, but when he understands that a vampiric threat might have been claiming victims in his town for decades, he’s eager to help Hercules in his endeavors. Not that it’s an easy feat, because, in Graham’s own words, he’s not hero material, and yet we see him being quite invested in the search, even when his fears – and his feelings of inadequacy – might get the best of him.

Baby Teeth feels almost like the outline of a larger tale, and it would be easy to ask for more, but still it’s an intriguing story with a good pace and some interesting character work, confirming me that Daniel Polansky is an author to pay close attention to.

My Rating:

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THE ANGEL OF KHAN el-KHALILI (Dead Djinn Universe # 0.2), by P. Djelì Clark

While searching for a short story to act as “intermission” between books, I saw this second short offering in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series (you can read it online on Tor.com) and the first paragraph totally captured me with its mysteriously evocative tone: written in an unusual second person POV, it details the journey of young Aliaa searching for a miracle to save her sister, the victim of a factory fire and now dying of her grievous injuries.

Knowing that the granting of such a momentous wish from a djinn would carry its own uncertainties, since djinns are fickle creatures, Aliaa seeks the help of an angel, one of the enigmatic beings who hide inside huge,  human-shaped constructs, and to do so she roams the bazaar’s streets at night.  The description of the deserted night-time market, in opposition to its bustling daytime activity, is one of the best parts of this story: as it happened with the previous one set in this same world, I am in awe of Clark’s descriptive skills that not only paint a picture of this sector of Cairo, but bring to life the sounds and smells of it, making it the perfect setting to Aliaa’s desperate search and to her fears and insecurities.

Once she finds herself in the presence of the angel, the young girl discovers that the payment for the requested miracle might be more than she is ready to pay, and that it will require a painful soul-searching that translates into actual physical pain: the main theme here is that of revealing one’s secrets and guilt, of bringing them to the surface and – maybe – letting go of them, even though the process of gifting them to the angel sounds both painful and gruesomely mechanical.

Mixed with the personal details of Aliaa’s life there are some intriguing peeks into Cairo’s evolving society, one where women are striving for emancipation and the right to superior learning, but are also struggling to turn those dreams into reality by working themselves ragged in factories, where laborers’ conditions are dreadful and accidents a daily occurrence.  Aliaa – and her sister Aisha, or their co-workers – are the other side of the coin represented by the more emancipated Fatma el-Sha’arawi, so that, through these two loosely connected stories, we gain a more detailed knowledge of the social background of a city whose eyes are turned to the future but whose roots are still firmly set into the past.

I am quite intrigued by this series of short stories, and very much look forward to the others that await me down the line…

My Rating:

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GOOD NEIGHBORS (The Full Collection), by Stephanie Burgis

I received this story collection from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

It’s always a welcome surprise when Ms. Burgis so kindly asks me to read and review her new works, because I know that I will always discover delightful stories where a thread of magic is woven with one of romance that even this grumpy old curmudgeon cannot find fault with 😉   (as a matter of fact, I quite enjoy these light-hearted forays into romantic territory…)

Magic is indeed a focal theme in this collection of stories set on a parallel version of 19th Century England, one where this element is commonplace, as in Ms. Burgis’ equally engaging Harwood Spellbook series, but with the difference that here magic is not an integral part of society: anyone caught with such abilities or marked as “unnatural” is either ostracized or wiped out, depending on the mood of the neighborhood.  

Young Mia, the main character, is an inventor with a special knack for metal to which she can apply her peculiar kind of magic, but her skills have already exacted a heavy toll when her former fellow citizens discovered her true nature and turned against her and her father, burning their home to the ground and grievously wounding the man.  Now that the two of them have found a new place to live, Mia is firmly set in keeping her abilities well hidden, but she did not take into account the persistence of her next-door neighbor, necromancer Leander, whose misshapen undead minions she keeps finding on her doorstep…

Given the shortness of the four stories that compose this collection (Good Neighbors, Deadly Courtesies, Fine Deceptions, Fierce Company) I don’t want to dwell any longer on the actual plot, which despite its light, humorous tone is also able to touch on some very serious themes like the fear of anything we perceive as different or the double standards of people in power.  I can however concentrate on the character of Mia who, like many of Stephanie Burgis’ heroines, presents a captivatingly grouchy disposition on the outside that hides a generous, selfless soul ready to help those in need – be they human or otherwise.  Previous events – and the consequences they visited on her father – made Mia quite wary of outside contact and a virtual recluse, which forces dashing Leander to launch a well-organized campaign to tear those barriers down and turn the two of them first into allies and then into… well, something else. And he has a lot of ground to cover because, in Mia’s own words:

I was not some fluff-headed flibbertigibbet who could be flustered by a bit of close darkness and a handsome, teasing necromancer.

While the first two stories, which are also the shorter ones in the collection, remain on the light side, the longer third and fourth deal with some quite dramatic issues concerning the frame of mind of the so-called “good citizens” of a nearby town (I always shudder whenever the word “purity” is used as it is in this instance) and Leander’s harrowing past. There is clearly a thematic progression here that moves from the introductory stories where the characters are presented, to the more complex, more layered study of the world they live in, a world in which “normal” people feel threatened by supernatural creatures for no other reason that they are different – and no matter how much fanciful humor is laced throughout the story, there are several thought-provoking issues here that belie the apparent lightness of the collection.

These four short stories were previously presented on Stephanie Burgis’ Patreon between 2020 and 2021 and are now collected in a single volume that will be available from February 2nd, 2022. My hope, after reading them, is that the author will write some more to expand both on this intriguing world and on Mia and Leander’s story. I will look forward to them.

My Rating:

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Short Story: HOME: HABITAT, RANGE, NICHE, TERRITORY, by Martha Wells

A Murderbot Diaries story set after Exit Strategy

Click on the link to read it online

It’s been a while since I visited the Tor.com section that lists short stories, and my return to the site was marked by an exciting find: a brief tale by Martha Wells set in the Murderbot saga, and more precisely right after Exit Strategy. You can imagine how I whooped with delight at this discovery…

What’s interesting in Home: Habitat… is that the POV for once is not Murderbot’s but rather Dr. Mensah’s as she deals with the double trouble of dealing with her PTSD, after her kidnapping at the hands of GrayCris operatives, and of making her compatriots in Preservation Alliance accept the Sec-Unit as a worthy individual rather than a killing machine.

The usual “gang” is all here, of course, the group of humans who accepted Murderbot as one of their own, and as usual it’s a delight to see them and witness their exchanges, but the different focus of this story helps us see MB from a different perspective, particularly where its body language is concerned: the way it prefers not to meet the humans’ gaze directly, or its insistence in forwarding outlandish weapons requests, which sounds more like a way of joking with Mensah rather than anything else. Not that Murderbot would ever admit to making a joke or trying to ease the good doctor’s spirits, of course… 😉

Still, there is room, despite the brevity of the tale, for some intriguing considerations about MB’s status – and that of its brethren: the Corporate Rim’s way of doing business has implemented a form of slavery that might be hiding under the guise of contracts, and more civilized institutions, like Preservation, do all they can to guarantee other humans’ rights; again, on Preservation A.I.s are assured of their rights as citizens thanks to their self-awareness. But, as Mensah muses at some point, Murderbot falls between these two extremes, and as such it’s not considered worthy of protection: it’s totally new territory and she’s determined to change the rules because she – as her other companions – has perceived the potential in what others see only as an instrument of death.

”…they are all aware of what they are and what’s been done to them. But the only choice they are ever offered is obedience or pain and death”

In the overall lightness of the series, this is a very serious consideration and one that sheds more light into Mensah’s determination to insure Murdebort’s acceptance into a more civilized society.

An unmissable addition to the wonderful Diaries continuing tale.

My Rating:

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Short Story: BADASS MOMS IN THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, by Rae Carson

Click on the link to read the story online

It’s been quite some time time since I read and reviewed a short story, but this one caught my interest when I saw it mentioned by fellow blogger Andreas: among the themes that never fail to catch my attention are vampires and zombies, and although I would rather not dwell on what this says about me 😀 I have to admit that in this case the mention of ‘badass moms’ did pique my interest, and I was not disappointed.

In this version of our world, the zombie apocalypse happened some ten years prior and the survivors have found ways to keep going, despite all those encroaching, mindless flesh eaters. There is one big problem though: when a woman is near childbirth something seems to act as a powerful lure for the zombies, and such is the case for Brit, whose child is ready to come into the world. As the contractions start, she and her mate Marisol run toward the ‘birthing hideout’ where they will be safe – more or less – from the ravenous hordes: a shipping container in an abandoned rail yard.

Badass Moms is a short, quick and breathless story whose value lies more in the questions it poses, like the choice of having children in a world gone mad – and bloody dangerous – and the way in which life always tries to go on no matter what. I also enjoyed the brief (too brief…) glimpses of this survivors’ enclave that seems to be composed of women only, hardened by hardships and loss but still able to tap into their humanity and compassion when the need arises: “Eyes up, knives ready” is their mantra, but it’s more a declaration of courage than a show of ruthlessness, and I liked the picture this painted.

My Rating:

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IF IT BLEEDS, by Stephen King

In recent times I have gone back to reading the works of Stephen King after a long hiatus due to a few less-than-satisfactory novels, so now I’m looking forward to seeing what I missed so far. The more recent The Institute and The Outsider seemed to mark the return of the old “King magic”, and when I saw that one of the short stories included in this volume featured the character of Holly Gibney, who also had a role in Mr. Mercedes (another happy find), I wasted no time in acquiring If It Bleeds.

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The first story in this collection is MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE and from the very first pages I could see that it was indeed a “vintage King” sort of tale.  Teenager Craig earns some pocket money by doing a few chores for eccentric neighbor Mr. Harrigan, whose habit of gifting Craig with lottery tickets finally pays with a huge win: to show his gratitude, Craig uses part of the money to buy an iPhone for Mr. Harrigan, whose initial disdain for technology quickly turns into fascination for the opportunities offered by the Web. At Harrigan’s sudden death, a sorrowful Craig decides to slip the phone into his friend’s jacket before the coffin is closed: what he would never have expected is to still be able to stay in communication with his old mentor – well, sort of, since this is a King story…

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone possesses the classic flavor of most of Stephen King’s narrative: first of all the story in set in a small town, peopled with the kind of quirky characters that are the author’s trademark; then there is the weird element of the phone calls going through even when the cellphone battery should be all but dead. Most important is of course the description of the world through the eyes of a growing teenager: King is one of the writers who can portray younger characters with both understanding and authenticity, and Craig is no exception, particularly in the poignant representation of his grief at the death of Mr. Harrigan, and the very human desire to hear the old man’s voice once again through the voicemail recording on the phone.  Last but not least is an interesting consideration on our relationship with technology and the way it’s changing us – to use old Mr. Harrigan’s own words:

Thoreau said that we don’t own things; things own us. Every new object – whether it’s a home, a car, a television, or fancy phone like that one – is something more we must carry on our backs.

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The second story, THE LIFE OF CHUCK, is a truly weird one and I struggled to understand it until the end, where everything became clear: for this reason I prefer to say as little as I can about it, since it must be appreciated first-hand.  This tale is composed of three separate parts that move backward in time and focus on the figure of Charles “Chuck” Krantz,  his too-short life and the way it affects the world.   There is a definite surreal quality to this story, and not just because it retraces time from what looks like the end of the universe to a fundamental episode in Chuck’s life.  The key to the whole scenario lies in understanding how our experiences contribute to the creation of the world around us and how they can influence it – even in ways we cannot imagine…

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IF IT BLEEDS, the longest piece in the anthology, is loosely connected to The Outsider in that it shows the existence of a creature similar to the novel’s shape-shifting predator, one thriving on the pain and anguish brought on by tragedies – and when there are none to feed on from, creating them to satisfy its hunger.  Private investigator Holly Gibney, now the head of the Finders Keepers agency, sets on a dangerous chase that might cost her her life.

My first encounter with Holly Gibney was in The Outsider and back then – before I read Mr. Mercedes, where her character appears for the first time – I was unable to truly appreciate her for lack of background information. Now that I know where she comes from and what makes her tick, I can say I enjoyed very much her personality, her constant struggle with the psychological problems afflicting her and her tenacity in overcoming them – not to mention her dogged determination in finding the creature and, if possible, freeing the world from the danger it represents, no matter the personal cost.   Where If It Bleeds is a unique blend of horror and detective work, its true strength lies in the depiction of Holly and the double struggle with the investigation on this elusive and dangerous individual on one side and with her not-so-understanding family on the other.  If nothing else, this story made it even more imperative that I read as soon as possible the other two novels following Mr. Mercedes, because I want to learn more about Holly.

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The last offering is RAT, a story imbued with a strong sensation of deja-vu, in the sense that there is a very ominous progression in the journey of struggling writer Drew Larson whose previous attempts at a full-length novel have ended in misery and depression.  One day Drew is struck by a fully-formed idea for a novel, and to be certain that no distractions will interfere with his creative processes, he retires to an isolated cabin in the mountains, where a huge storm and a dangerous bout of flu will threaten both his survival and his mental sanity.   

Anyone familiar with King’s own The Shining will feel certain that the sinister line-up of circumstances is bound to create the “perfect storm” that will have nothing to do with the one raging outside the cabin and everything to do with the man’s reactions to the dread of writer’s block.  Unlike Jack Torrance in The Shining, Larson is not besieged by his inner demons – apart, that is, from the terror of finding himself stuck again at a loss for the right words to express himself – but faces a weird encounter with the titular rat, and the possibility of  striking a fever-induced bargain with unforeseeable consequences…

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This collection represents the fourth volume in the journey of my “reconciliation” with Stephen King’s works, and the progression so far has proven to be quite positive. Let’s hope it keeps going strong 🙂

My Rating:

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Short Story: SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD, by Carrie Vaughn

 

SINEW AND STEEL AND WHAT THEY TOLD

Click on the link to read the story online

 

It’s beyond difficult to write about this story without saying anything about it that would constitute a spoiler, so the best way to try and persuade you to read it would be to quote its first sentence:

I am cut nearly in half by the accident. The surviving fibers of my suit hold me together. I am not dead.

Graff is a scout runner, from the ship Visigoth, and some catastrophic accident almost killed him, but that’s only the beginning of the whole journey, because once he’s retrieved by his shipmates and brought to the infirmary the real weirdness begins.

This short story is mostly played between three characters: Graff himself, doctor Ell and Captain Ransom. They have to come to terms with a momentous revelation, one that might change forever their perception of the past and inform their decisions for the future – no matter how their choices will go, there will be a huge change in the way the three relate to each other.

I liked Graff’s voice: it’s both humorous and self-deprecating and so very humanly scared of what the future will hold for him. Just as his true reason for being where he is, for doing what he does, is a poignant one that’s bound to resonate with everyone who loves stories…

Yes, I realized I’ve used a lot of words to say practically nothing, but if you choose to read this one you will understand why, and I hope you will love it just as much as I did.

Happy reading.

 

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