Alan Draven (editor)
260 pp. Pixie Dust Press. $14.95
Pub. Date: 7/4/2008
Reviewed by Paul Stotts
Gothic fiction. The name evokes creepy imagery: wild overgrown graveyards, dark sinister castles, screams coming from the attic, and evil threats lurking, killing under a moonless night. A bubbling concoction of romance and horror, of love and lost, of the deadly and the melodramatic. Decay infests its walls and the supernatural roam its grounds. Always searching for more victims. For more blood.
Sinister Landscapes—an anthology edited by Alan Draven—revives the genre for a modern audience, offering a new, fresh take on gothic horror. Eighteen tales of terror and romance. Of witches and demons and ghosts. Somewhere—maybe up in a belfry, or out on a foggy moor—Horace Walpole is smiling, punching the air in exuberance. It lives, he screams. It lives.
The horror anthology starts off with Thad Linson’s excellent Jack the Ripper-inspired tale Polite Society. Fresh from the scene of his latest atrocity, Jack discovers there are scarier things than himself roaming the night. Linson plays beautifully with the Ripper mythology, envisioning an answer to the question of why Jack the Ripper suddenly disappeared. Clever, atmospheric and engaging, Polite Society shines.
Sarah Wilson Basore’s Sins of the Fathers channels the spirit of
Religious overtones shade Throat of Stone, Eric Enck’s tale of a mysterious well and the creatures that come forth from it. Some of Enck’s language is convoluted and unclear, more performance art than storytelling. Writing to impress, rather than writing to entertain. Still the story is interesting. It just isn’t very rewarding.
Gothic meets the Orient in Jessica Lynne Gardner’s The Widow’s Curse. Although interesting and well-written, the tale feels abbreviated.
Scotland Yard Demons by Ryan B. Clark is a well-executed and engaging tale of psychological horror. A guided tour of a tortured mind. Ex-Scotland Yard lieutenant Ian O’Rourdan is a shell of a man, alone and emotionally shattered, tortured over the last decade by an incomprehensible evil. An evil he must now finally confront.
There’s justice. And then there’s witch-style justice. Not very pretty, but damn effective. Nothing screams retribution quite like a well-executed spell. Brandon Ford scores with the excellent Severed, a brutal reminder of the dangers of ticking off magical hags. Ford’s story is like the perfect three minute pop song—fast, satisfying and memorable—hitting all the right notes, never becoming predictable. It’s delicious fun. The kind one savors, lips smacking in appreciation, a warm glow rising from your satisfied belly. It’s a real treat.
Nothing good usually comes from grave-robbing. (There are exceptions. Some people get buried with their iPhones.) It’s also an activity you don’t normally do with your lady love. A romantic evening usually doesn’t involve cemeteries, corpses and shoveling muck. Unless you’re in a strange relationship. Like Cody and Kirsten who spend their Date Night digging up human remains for a black magic ritual in Jeani Rector’s The Spirit of Death. Oh those wacky kids! The story is nicely written, but predictable; the end twist is evident from early on. Still, Rector has crafted a strong entry, deliciously wicked, fun and enjoyable. Unlike crypt raiding.
A circle of hooded figures chanting in an old creepy castle, thunder rumbling outside. Might as well tattoo the word EVIL on your forehead. In big, block letters. Because that never leads to anything good. And neither does David Boyle’s uninspired entry, The Broken Spell of Castle Thaddeus. Boyle’s writing lacks direction and purpose, flittering around instead, going no where. Interesting ideas are wasted. Opportunities are missed. A firmer editorial hand would’ve helped focus the story.
The collection rebounds with Gordon Anthony Bean’s serviceable From a Whisper to a Dream. In a creepy old house, Anthony waits. Waits for those who’ll eat his soul. (Now there’s a downer.) Not willing to offer up a soul smorgasbord, Anthony decides on a different course of action. The story’s engaging and enjoyable, but lacks the dramatic tension that would take it to the next level. It screams for more pizzazz, something to elevate it and make it pop for the reader. Something to make it memorable.
Instant messaging can be dangerous. There are online predators, grifters—and according to Bret Jordan’s entry Ghost in the Hardware—ghosts waiting on the other side of the chat window. That problem with your OS—don’t blame Microsoft, blame that pesky poltergeist living in your motherboard.
Post-mortem photos. Now that’s creepy squared. Like having to kiss your 103 year old aunt—who smells like rancid tuna, and has wandering milky eyes. Taking pictures of dead people in lifelike poses—and scrapbooking them—is just wrong. Forget-me-nots that should be forgotten. Kodak moments from hell. Post-mortem photos up the creep factor in Beyond the Doomed Cave, Alan Draven’s engaging contribution to the collection. The story is wonderfully atmospheric and cinematic; Goonies meets a horror film. The ending felt rushed, though. Almost anticlimactic; the dramatic final confrontation over in a blink. Still a worthy entry, and an enjoyable read.
Ghost Hunters. It’s not just a show; it’s an adventure. These intrepid paranormal researchers are always searching for answers, hoping to find proof of the existence of ghosts. Hunting ghosts with a crateful of technological whizbangs. But what happens when the hunter suddenly becomes the prey. When the ghost starts hunting the ghost hunter. Stephanie J examines this ironic role reversal in her excellent tale, Proof. Stephanie writes with a clear, concise style, sucking the reader in with the story’s simplicity, only to spring an ending twist that’s completely unpredictable. And completely awesome. A definite high point in the collection.
T.G. Reaper’s Final Exam reads like an afterthought. Less a story than a collection of imagery, lacking narrative substance, and not generating much interest. It’s too short; the ideas underexplored. There’s a germ of a good story here, requiring a more complete treatment. It’s also another ghost story, one of many so far in the anthology, making Sinister Landscapes feel unbalanced. More ghost anthology, than Gothic.
And now for something completely different. How different? Think Stephen King’s Misery meets a World of Warcraft geek who lives in his parent’s basement. Poor Melinda Shelly. Kidnapped late one night on a desolate road, she wakes up strapped to a gurney, paralyzed, her lovelorn kidnapper insisting she’s his elfin bride. Gothic and crazy elf-obsessed geeks. (Turn off the lights. I’ve now seen it all.) It’s an unusual combination that R. Vance’s My Elf embraces gleefully. And although it sounds odd, the story’s a whole lot of fun. It’s fresh air on a stifling hot day, the wind cooling your face. The ending disappoints, petering out anticlimactically. But the ride to get there makes up for it.
Divorce can be messy. Amy’s had a particularly difficult one. One that’s inspired her to pack her bags and leave the city behind. A fresh start’s what she needs. Time alone, up at her family’s cabin. But sometimes problems aren’t easily left behind. Sometimes you bring them with you. Jeff Ezell’s Visions of Merlot is a fine vintage, light, full-bodied and fairly enjoyable. It’s creepy cabin horror. With a twist. The twist saves it, making this a fine wine to drink deeply rather than tasteless swill.
The joy of family vacations. The fun. The excitement. The camaraderie. And the curses? Come Follow Me My Love—Charlotte Emma Gledson’s contribution to the collection—is a family getaway straight out of The Shining, scary and filled with madness. Sure the kid here doesn’t write “Redrum” on the mirror, but it’s still creepy. Gledson’s flowery writing covers up a paint-by-numbers narrative, nothing unique or interesting standing out in the story. It just is. Which isn’t enough.
The Encounter by Charlie Glover examines the dangers of falling in love. And not the dangers you’d imagine. Short, succinct and clever, The Encounter rocks, dusting off a place for itself in the collection’s highest tier. A very worthwhile read.
Jonathan’s addicted to porn, needing skin flicks like a huffer needs correction fluid. It’s a terrible thing. And it’s quickly destroying Jonathan’s life. The dangers of being a porn junkie highlight Frank E. Bittinger’s excellent Lead Me Into Temptation, the final tale in the collection. The story is misplaced in a Gothic anthology, having no kinship with that genre. But why nitpick when the story’s this good. A case of saving the best for last, Bittinger’s story is the most polished and effective, a gem that serves as emphatic punctuation to the book. An exclamation point.
Like most anthologies Sinister Landscapes is a mixed bag, some stories are good, some merely average. Some of the stories also don’t feel particularly Gothic. And only a few adequately capture the mixture of romanticism and horror found in older Gothic literature. The effort is there, though, and editor Alan Draven and his capable group of writers should be applauded for paying homage to the venerable genre.
Final Grade: 72 out of 100
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