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Reviewish stuff

Some time ago I read the horror anthology Gathering the Bones. The idea of the collection is to gather some of the best of US, UK and Australian horror short stories.

I think they've done a mostly good job. There's traditional horror here, punchy mini-thrillers, existential loathing, mind-fucks, dark satire, even an illustrated story by Gahan Wilson.


I'll give each story a few words, and a rating from zero to four stars. The grading system is really just a way for me to focus on each individual story and consider why I like it, since I'm often a fairly unreflective reader. Those stars may not do a thing for you, potential reader.


(There's a theoretical fifth star for life- or genre-changing stuff).


The Hanged Man of Oz -- Steve Nagy ***

The opener is an increasingly dreamlike tale about the 'fact' that you can a hanged man at a certain point in The Wizard of Oz movie. It is a sad tale of being caught in a destructive pattern and falling prey to fiction.

The Bone Ship -- Terry Dowling **

This story has a cool historical angle, dealing partly with POWs during the Napoleonic wars.. It involves a piece of scrimshaw, a ruthless collector and a small-town lady with a dark secret. It is a decently thrilling piece, but not really a memorable one.

Li'l Miss Ultrasound -- Robert Devereaux ****

Remember that dark satire I talked about? This is it. You can probably guess the central conceit: children's beauty pageants taking to their insane conclusion and all the sexualization that comes with it. It is well-written and deeply unwholesome.

The Intervention -- Kim Newman ***

Someone described The Intervention as ”The Trial for the Dilbert generation”, and I can't do better than that. A well-functioning man is caught in a nightmare of well-meaning torture. Chilling.

Blake's Angel -- Janeen Webb *

A decently-written piece about an angel in captivity. There is not much in the way of plot though, and more than anything this feels like an overstretched vignette. The imagery is vivid, but the piece feels lacking in substance.

The Obedient Child -- George Clayton Johnson *

A short short story that makes us fear for the safety of a little girl, then twists. The twist is nowhere near clever enough, nor is terribly shocking. Maybe I'm getting jaded.

Sounds Like -- Mike O'Driscoll ***

A story about a man whose nervous breakdown takes the form of acute hearing. It feels like a homage to Poe's Tell-Tale Heart, and manages to very eloquently show us a man whose sanity is unraveling, and has some darkly sensuous passages describing the sounds of putrefaction.

The Wind Sall Blow For Ever Mair -- Stephen Dedman ***

An Australian story about revenge from beyond the grave. It is very much a traditional theme, and the story doesn't hold many surprises. It is however very engagingly written, and uses some powerful folkloric images (both Scottish and Aboriginal). You'll be glad you've read it.

"The Mezzotint" -- Lisa Tuttle **

This story is a nod back to M. R. James' classic The Mezzotint, about a painting that changes gradually to show something ghastly.

In this story, a woman discovers a picture in her boyfriend's study which leads her to discover that her life and her relationship aren't what she thought.

The dreadful discovery is done in a way that I can only describe as naff though (even if it is a non-supernatural call-back to the idea of the changing image), and it makes an otherwise good idea fall a little flat.

The Lords of Zero -- Tony Richards **

A piece about urban squalor, and the things that may creep in to fill the void of council flat existence. It's well-written, but feels like it should have been longer. More could've been done, but not it just feels a bit unfulfilling.

Smoke City -- Russell Blackford ½

This sucks. It's a story at the intersection of Vampire Street and Cyberpunk Avenue. It feels like reading from a catalog of rivethead fashion, liberally sprinkled with adjectives. There's a lot of flirting, action and vampires, and yet it manages to be dreary.

Moments of Change -- Thomas Tessier ***

Thomas Tessier writes realism very well, and when the uncanny and horrifying does appear, it feels as wrong as it should. This story about a retired man who discovers something terrifying on a night walk. You can see the end coming a mile away though, which takes a little of the edge away.

The Big Green Grin -- Gahan Wilson ****

A story illustrated by the great Gahan Wilson can only be a winner, and this one certainly is. It is a modern fairy tale about two siblings and their encounter with a monster in a vacant lot. Absolutely charming.

Both And -- Gary Fry **

A tale of psychological and entirely un-supernatural horror, and about how the persecuted become the brutalizers. The central character is well fleshed-out, but the story never gains much momentum.

Love Is a Stone -- Simon Brown **

A dark fantasy story about a young man who falls in love with a sorceress. The main character is a medical student, and we jump back and forth between his reminiscences of the past and his current situation where he seems to be performing a surgical procedure on himself.

The story has some riveting descriptions, and the early courtship between the main character and the sorceress is very compelling. However it feels like the author ran out of time towards the end, as the events that makes the climax happen seem rushed and not entirely believable.

Memento Mori -- Ray Bradbury ***

This is vintage Bradbury. If you like his wry style and florid only half-believable dialog (like I do), you'll like this. If you don't already like the man's style, this won't redeem him.

The story is about a man's encounter with a couple of gothically-clad spinsters who seem to take immense pleasure in going to funerals. It feels like a comforting blanket with skulls on it.

The Mistress of Marwood Hagg -- Sara Douglass *

A story which takes place in 16th century England. It deals with revenge by supernatural means, and mud. Lots of mud.

The problem with this story is that it is predictable and repetitive. ”I could've written this” you think. ”And I would've left out SOME of the mud.”

The Right Men -- Michael Marshall Smith **

A story about a man who works as a gopher for an übermensch, or at least a man who considers himself to be one. It has some good ideas, but it doesn't quite gel, and it didn't really manage to keep my interest.

The Raptures of the Deep -- Rosaleen Love ***

This story almost eschews a coherent narrative to provide a stark image of the end of life as we know it. This is done very well, and the reader is treated to a disjointed story of a threat from the uncharted depths of the ocean which will rise and devour us all. Like a Cthulhu couched in scientific terms, but no less maddening for that.

Out Late In the Park -- Steve Rasnic Tem ****

This is a surreal story about a group of old men playing in the park. On one level it is about dealing with the alienation of old age with dignity, on another it is about that alienation itself. In any case it was a deeply engrossing read.

Bedfordshire -- Peter Crowther *

This story left a sour taste in my mouth. It is well-written in the sense that the dialog is very natural for characters that span a man's life, from the 1930s to the noughties. It is emotionally engaging, if sometimes a little long.

What put me off it was not the fact that it dealt with sexual abuse of a child, and the consequences of this in the character's life. Rather it's that the ending seems to turn the main character's suffering and coping into a cruel and not particularly clever joke.

Mr Sly Stops For a Cup of Joe -- Scott Emerson Bull ***

Mr. Sly is a distant relation to Hannibal Lector and his ilk. A charming human monster standing behind you in line at Starbucks. The story won't change your life, but it is a great ride.

Finishing School -- Cherry Wilder *

A story about a vampire girl who goes to a prestigious all-girl school, but then discovers her true calling. I'm pretty sure I'm not the target group, but the story felt very unenganging. There was neither conflict nor interesting dialog. It felt pointless.

Jennifer's Turn -- Fruma Klass **

A scifi parable about health care. The characters have good distinctive voices, but the setup and the climax are not terribly engaging, and more than a little predictable.

Mother's Milk -- Adam L.G. Nevill ****

An ill-lit tale about what I can only term a family of mutants and their house guest/prisoner. It owes something to Ramsey Campbell's stories about Severn Valley, but is certainly its own creature. The story has a desperate quality, and the main character's attempts at escaping and recapturing something (his humanity maybe?) makes for pretty affecting reading. I took a break after this one.

No Man's Land -- Chris Lawson and Simon Brown ****

An ever-shrinking number of British soldiers in the trenches of WWI fight their German counterparts over a small plot of land. In between attacks they try to make sense of their situation and ever-present death. It is a very sad and moving piece.

The Watcher At the Window -- Donald R. Burleson ***

A story of memory and identity decaying. There is something powerfully hopeless and unreal about the story, a bit like waking from a nightmare and trying to make the world make sense. Also a bit like going back to your old home town, the few familiar faces old and all the storefronts boarded up.

The ending feels a little rushed though, which is why I don't give it four stars.

Coming of Age -- Joel Lane ****

An British-Indian couple's teenage son goes missing, and we follow the husband as he tries to find the boy, and at the same time tries to make sense of the disappearance, of his own life, and finding less and less to hold on to.

It is a story about the loss of meaning, and it packs quite an emotional punch, I think. The horror emerges slowly and feels inevitable.

Picking Up Courtney -- Tim Waggoner ****

This was one of my favorite stories in the book. It deals with a man who may be going mad, or the world turning mad around him.

The opening situation is a conversation between the main character and an old lady. The conversation takes a turn for the strange, and then the disturbing. It felt very powerful, perhaps because I've often felt, as the main character does, that a social situation has stopped making sense and become a frightening ordeal.

Watchmen -- Aaron Sterns ***

A young bouncer at a nightclub finds himself embroiled in a culture of brutality and violence. It is a very immediate story without too much literary 'trickery'. In that sense it fits the subject matter well.

Gardens -- Melanie Tem ****

A story about a sick woman who visits her childhood home (and garden!) after her mother has died. Melanie Tem paints some pictures with words of this garden, it seems magical, poisonous, grand, and obscenely lush.

The horror in the story is of the creeping variety, the slow feeling of unease. Then when I thought I had the full picture

Under the Bright and Hollow Sky -- Andrew J. Wilson ****

Another favorite of mine. The story is framed as a found text, letters and email correspondences detailing a journalist and horror fan's research into a Scottish cult horror writer.

Several members of Edinburgh's genre authors (including the author of the short story itself) appear as informers and interviewees, giving the story a self-referential quality which could come across as dopey, but works really well. It is obvious that the author has taken the basic writer's advice, and writes about what he knows.

Unlike many investigative horror stories, I never wondered why the main character didn't turn back. The mystery seemed that compelling and the conclusion inevitable. Through the main character's increasingly distracted letters to his estranged girlfriend, he becomes an emotionally resonant and compelling character, and not just a necessity for the plot. Highly recommended!

The Dove Game -- Isobelle Carmody ***

A mysterious story that does not quite get resolved. This is not a bad thing though, as it seems that the central character and the situation he inserts himself into both in sore need of resolution. It is an ethereal story about trying to make sense of pain and loss, and to some extent the futility of communicating this pain to others.

Tiger Moth -- Graham Joyce ****

What a great ending! A nice and uplifting story about a man meeting some apparitions and changing his life. Horror is a versatile tool, and here it is used to highlight everyday life and the opportunities we have.


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