I love reading short fiction. Since October is the month of Halloween, I focused my short fiction reading on horror stories. I was truly creeped out and I loved it.
Take, for example, Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise (Broken Eye Books), a novella that offers a dose of atmospheric Southern horror in a captivating tale of dark magic and swamp monsters. That magic predominantly surrounds the mysterious Royce family, neighbors to young Caleb and his father, who is the sheriff of the small town of Lewis. The monster is Catfish John, an unconfirmed and much-talked-about urban legend. The story is told in two parts: first, when Caleb is a boy and a deadly fire leads to his meeting Ceres Royce, a girl with untapped supernatural abilities; and then, when Caleb is an adult and sheriff of Lewis, and forced to deal once and for all with the dark secrets of the Royces. The narrative wastes no time making the Southern setting come alive, and only teases the true nature of the dark magic associated with the Royces and its connection to Catfish John. Saving the big picture for Act Two creates a compelling hook for readers to find out what the Royce family is really up to. Catfish Lullaby uses this suspense to great effect and culminates in a suitably epic finale.
Volume 11 of Ellen Datlow’s always excellent annual anthology, The Best Horror of the Year (Night Shade Books), includes lots of unsettling treats. Two particularly outstanding tales bookend the volume. First is “I Remember Nothing,” by Anne Billson, a story that grabs your attention on Page 1 and won’t let go. It’s a about a woman who wakes up in a strange place with a strange man and both of them are spattered in blood. You can almost hear a tense, violin-heavy soundtrack in your head throughout the story; it reads like the start of a really good slasher film. The final story is “Sleep” by Carly Holmes, about a mother, Rosy, and her son, Tom (aka Boo)—or, more specifically, about Rosy’s attempts to prevent her damaged son from doing harm. The appeal of this potboiler is in showing that horror is not confined to the uncommon or supernatural, but may even emerge in the ordinary bond between mother and child. Both Billson’s and Holmes’ stories are ones in which what is truly going on is not immediately evident. Instead, pieces of the plot are doled out one at a time. Building the puzzle is half the appeal of these stories. In between those gems are a handful of others, such as “You Know How the Story Goes” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a creepy tale of urban legends and the perils of hitchhiking. The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 11 also comes with Datlow’s summation of the year in horror—sure to add even more great reads to your stack.
Another new Datlow anthology—yes, she’s one of the busiest editors out there—is Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories (Saga Press). One of the excellent and eerie entries is “His Haunting” by Brian Evenson. It’s framed as a man’s visit to a therapist, in which the patient talks about his encounters with a ghost, with each ghoulish visit more ominous than the last. “The July Girls” by Alison Littlewood is the superb story of a young girl and her relationship with her bullying stepsister; the last act will leave you feeling absolutely claustrophobic. “Icarus Rising” by Richard Bowes is a contemplative story about the ghost of Raphael Marks, a graffiti artist who is first angered by his passing, but then finds a sort of redemption. As told from the ghost’s point of view, it demonstrates there is more to the afterlife than scaring the living. The anthology showcases the variety a single subgenre of fiction can deliver.
How well do you know your friends and neighbors? You’ll be asking yourself that question after reading Richard Chizmar’s suspenseful novella The Girl on the Porch (Subterranean). When a neighbor tells Sarah and Kenny Tucker that someone was ringing their doorbell in the middle of the night, they check their home security camera to see if they have any footage of what happened. The camera did indeed catch something—a terrified woman with a shackle hanging from her wrist and looking over her shoulder as if being chased. The subsequent police investigation leads to lots of questions about the Tuckers’ friends and neighbors, which leads the Tuckers—and the reader—down the slippery slope of increasing suspicion and mistrust.
In Jennifer Giesbrecht’s dark fantasy The Monster of Elendhaven (Tor.com), a monster borne of the sea washes up on the shore of a formerly industrialized, Victorian-era city in decline. The monster, who adopts the name “Johann” and appears outwardly human, is unable to die; attempts to destroy him fail. Johann desperately kills his way along the city’s streets until he meets Florian Leickenbloom, a near victim of Joahann's who wields a dark magic. Florian takes Johann into his employ and home, a large house left to him after his well-to-do family perished from a plague. Johann learns that he is not the only monster living in the city when he and Florian concoct a diabolical plan of revenge. It’s hard to pinpoint what part of the story appeals the most. It could be the gothic atmosphere, or the deviousness of Johann and Florianheir bizarre flirtations with one another. Suffice it to say, The Monster of Elendhaven has lots going for it in atmosphere and darkness.
Readers who enjoy audio fiction should check out Come Join Us by the Fire (Nightfire), a free horror anthology edited by Theresa DeLucci. It’s comprised of 35 individually downloadable short stories that can each be easily consumed during a lunch break or short car ride. But don’t let their short lengths fool you—there’s good stuff here, with depth. For example, “Don’t Turn on the Lights” written by Cassandra Khaw and read by Saskia Maarleveld, is an outwardly simple story about a dark room. But the author’s metafictional reflection on the evolving nature of storytelling dresses it up in a variety of creepy ways. The very first sentence of “In Sheep’s Clothing” by Molly Tanzer, also read by Maarleveld, belies the first half of the story, set in the wake of an apocalypse brought about by genetically modified corn. Then the story really takes a turn toward the weird, layering on additional fantastical elements, which elevate it to something horrific. “Beware of Owner,” by Chuck Wendig, is about a father who really, really doesn’t like trespassers on his property, a situation made all the more unsettling by Ramón de Ocampo’s matter-of-fact narration. “Flayed Ed” by Richard Kadrey, also read by de Ocampo, is about a sadistic killer who targets women in a small 1950s Wisconsin town. Years later, when an old Aztec god awakens at the turn of the 21st century, we learn that perhaps the murders were justified.
To round out my short fiction horror reading, I turned to the October issue of Nightmare, a horror and dark fantasy magazine that always satisfies. Case in point: “Growing and Growing” by Rich Larson, an effective short story about two brothers who late one night find an abandoned baby in the middle of the road. While their hearts are in the right place, they are unprepared for the evil they have rescued. Also in this issue is “The Maw,” by Nathan Ballingrud, a superb story about love and loneliness. Those themes are most evident in the foreground story, about a young survivor assisting an old man in his search for a loved one. The horror comes from the background, a portion of a hollowed-out city given over to vile creatures remaking humans into grotesque oddities like themselves. Legitimate shivers await!