Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From The Road
D. Alexander Ward (Ed.)
Crystal Lake Publishing
What makes an exceptional publisher? I’m certain that there are a hundred factors, if not a thousand, that must all be balanced in the right way to ensure that a publisher is both successful and publishes high-quality titles: good relationships with authors, paying royalties on time, ensuring the correct contracts are drawn up and are enforced correctly, paying suppliers, artists, illustrators and other professionals, advertising their titles in print and online, including social media – these are just a fraction of the things that must be done to ensure a publisher is successful and can remain in business, and I’m sure I’ve missed out many others. Certainly from my point of view, both as a reader and now as a reviewer as well, a publisher can only truly be labelled as ‘exceptional’ if they are able to consistently publish high-quality publications that stand out from their competitors; that’s a difficult enough job as it is, and even more so when you start to look at genres such as Horror and Dark Fantasy which are jam-packed with indie presses and publishing houses that are constantly bringing out new titles for the marketplace.
But after reading titles such as The Ghost Club: Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror; Twice Upon An Apocalypse: Lovecraftian Fairy Tales; C.H.U.D. Lives!: A Tribute Anthology; and Welcome To The Show: 17 Horror Stories – One Legendary Venue, I’ve become convinced that Crystal Lake Publishing are an exceptional publisher within the Horror genre; and it’s not just my opinion, as their efforts recently being recognized with the award of a prestigious Bram Stoker award for their anthology Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders, which I hope to review in the near future. But once you reach those heights it can be incredibly difficult to maintain that quality and consistency, and when I picked up one of the publisher’s latest releases, the anthology Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From The Road I was curious – could it stand up to the other titles I’ve listed above?
(Incidentally, if you’re interested in finding out more about how publishers operate, especially smaller indie publishers, then please do check out The Horror Show with Brian Keene podcast. Mr Keene and his co-hosts often interview publishers to discuss how they work, the positives and the negatives, and they’re always fascinating and hugely informative; their latest interview with a publisher, Pete Kahle of Bloodshot Books, is especially good).
Well, fortunately the good news is that the answer is an unambiguous Yes – editor D. Alexander Ward has brought together some fantastic pieces of horror fiction to craft a deeply enjoyable and often incredibly haunting anthology based around the theme of travelling along the highways and byways of the world. I always start with a title’s cover art, as that’s always the first thing that catches the eye of a reader, and the cover art for Lost Highways is another great choice by the publisher. Designed by Matthew Revert, the majority of the cover is pitch-black, the darkness broken only by the vague outline of a car, headlights dazzling the reader in a distinctly menacing and sinister manner. It’s a great piece of art that really brings out the overarching themes of the anthology, and I also enjoyed the weathered, beaten-up paperback look that Revert gave the front and back covers that gives it something of a timeless quality. In addition the layout of the text on both covers, by Lori Michelle, really meshes well with Revert’s artwork, particularly the anthology’s title; picked out in the dots of light that are used on those electronic LED warning signs used to warn drivers about roadworks or hazards, it automatically grabs your attention and stands out.
Moving onto the content of the anthology, it opens with a short but rather interesting introduction by Brian Keene, in which he discusses the nature of humanity’s obsession with roads and trails, and the lurking horrors they can lead to, as well as providing a short discourse on Centralia, a ghost town in the heart of Pennsylvania abandoned after a mining vein caught fire and caused raging fires, toxic gas and sinkholes. Its inhabitants have long fled, but there remains a closed-off section of highway running straight through the town, now broken and covered in graffiti, and it’s the single man-made feature that time, nature and the mining disaster has not been able to erase. I’ve looked at pictures online and it’s a fascinating, eerie view that I’d love to visit one day, and the way that it just stretches towards the horizon – cracked, broken and leading simultaneously nowhere and everywhere – is a brilliant lead-in for the stories that feature in the anthology, and the themes that they evoke. After the introduction, and before the first story, there’s the first of several full-page, colour images that feature in the anthology; although not linked to any of the stories in particular, they’re all highly evocative and help to set the tone as you read. Francois Vaillancourt’s Follow the Sign is a particularly creepy image that could very well have acted as an alternate cover for the anthology.
As always with anthologies, I try and highlight the stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which affected me in a certain way, rather than going through each story in turn like some kind of detailed book report. Where The Wild Winds Blow by Matt Hayward was the first story to strike a nerve with me, primarily because of the incredibly effective bait-and-switch that he pulled at the end of the story. The majority of the narrative is a hugely atmospheric piece of quiet horror, as a drunkard cycles back to his home from his local drinking hole and encounters a mysterious mist that seems intent on evoking every negative emotion and memory he has ever experienced; it seems like Hayward has delivered a very well-written but fairly conventional story based on the trope of occult forces focusing on a particularly bad person; but then the last few pages of the story completely changed the nature of the mist, suddenly making it incredibly impersonal and simultaneously broadening the story arc to end on a hell of a cliff-hanger. An excellent story, and one of the best to be found in the anthology. Following on from that is Not From Detroit by Joe R. Lansdale, and quite frankly this is absolutely the star piece of fiction in the entire collection. I’ve never actually read anything by Mr Lansdale before, although I’ve heard nothing but praise for his works, particularly from the likes of Mr Keene, and as such I was quietly intrigued to see what the story would be like. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was blown away by the story – it’s a beautifully written, master-crafted piece of fiction that evoked a huge array of emotions from me as I read through it, and is incredibly touching. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read a horror story that actually had me smiling by the end of the last paragraph. It’s a masterpiece, and I am rapidly looking for further titles by Mr Lansdale.
I don’t think I’ve ever quite read a short story like A Life That Is Not Mine by Kristi Demeester, and I’ve been wrestling with it for quite some time after finishing the anthology and moving onto other titles. There’s a great deal to sympathise with in the life of the protagonist, a high school teacher who finds herself stuck in a monotonous, lifeless and repetitive life of going to work, teaching sullen, uninterested children and then returning home to a dull evening before retiring to bed, and while I’m fortunate that I’ve never quite had my life devolve to that level, Demeester does a first-rate job of evoking that cycle of despair that I could easily recognise. But then as the days go on and the story advances, things begin to blur together, Demeester expertly blurring perception and reality together until the reader is as disconcerted and uncertain as the protagonist, unsure whether the end of the story is a mental breakdown or the coming apocalypse. Mr Hugsy by Robert Ford, is another great story, which takes a deep dive into the functions (and dysfunctions) of a family unit as it fractures apart, and the effect that this has on each member of the family. Focusing on a fast-paced and desperate road trip by a father and his semi-estranged son as they race across the country, Ford does an excellent job of portraying a disintegrating father-son relationship, and how the complex, ever-changing and often deliberately hypocritical morality of an adult clashes with the simple, monochrome morals of a young child – with unfortunate circumstances when said child has access to incredibly powerful occult powers.
Orrin Grey is an author who has deeply impressed me with their writing, and as such when their name comes up in an anthology, I know their offering is going to be something remarkable. No Exit is no exception to this rule, a powerful story tinged with sadness and grief as a young woman delves into her traumatic past and investigates the murder of her younger sister at the hands of a violent cult. This is a highly emotionally-charged and evocative tale, and the idea of an anonymous rest stop being the location for a murder-suicide bid is a powerful one – how many rest-stops are there in countries across the world, dingy, anonymous and desolate places where anything could happen? Grey effectively puts across to the reader the melange of emotions that would come with such an investigation, and also unflinchingly portrays the trauma, both to individuals and the family unit as a whole, that would be inflicted on a family by such a death. There are some interesting ideas in the story, and Grey even manages to evoke some last-minute sympathy for the cult leader, which isn’t something that can often be said. It also has (something) of an up-beat ending, which is a crucial choice by the editor given the contents of some of the stories coming after it.
Jim’s Meats by Kelli Owen follows on, and it’s a deeply enjoyable tale that harks back to the classic horror films of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s – a couple don’t realise they’re out of fuel until they’re in the middle of nowhere, and are forced to turn into a small, isolated town to try and find a petrol station. Instead they find a seemingly-abandoned houses and a single gas station attendant who wants them out as quickly as possible. Gleefully harkening back to films like The Hills Have Ears, Owen delivers a pared-back, tense and terrifying story as the couple flee from the town’s murderous occupants with a suitably gory and sinister ending, and it’s obvious from reading it that the author had a lot of fun with it.
I don’t think I’ve ever sworn before in a review, but Bracken Macleod’s Back Seat completely and utterly fucked me up. After I finished reading it, I closed the Kindle app and didn’t read anything else the entire day – instead I went and hugged my children and my wife, because I felt completely and utterly drained, emotionally and mentally. Macleod has meticulously crafted an incredibly soul-wrenching and disturbing story, all the more horrifying because there’s absolutely no cosmic or occult factors involved; instead, Macleod turns to the unthinking brutality and selfishness of human nature – the desire of humans to place short-term gains over long-term tragedy – as the inspiration for his story. Great writing, haunting characterisations, but you’ll never quite be the same after reading it.
Coming towards the end of the anthology, I was impressed by Titan, Tyger from Jonathan Janz, which was a fantastically mind-bending and reality-bending tale that deftly merges the dark, impulsive side of humanity with harrowing details of domestic violence, and an occult creature that takes an interest in punishing both itself, and others who commit such horrendous acts and refuse a chance to change their ways. That Pilgrim’s Hands Do Touch by Damien Angelica Walters, is a quietly tragic story that drills down into the nature of familial relations, and the effect on a child when a parent leaves; Walters makes use of the rather intriguing backdrop of a series of artistic installations shaped as shrines becoming inhabited by actual deities to examine the journey of a young woman as she searches for her mother, who left the household years ago to make pilgrimage to these gods, joining tens of thousands of others. The imagery that Walters evokes is quite effective, particularly the pilgrimage around the shrines, thousands of people simply walking in a circle around the shrines to visit and watch them, and I’d love to see another story set in this universe because I feel like there’s a lot of potential.
Dew Upon The Wing is another high-quality story from Rachel Autumn Deering that looks at love, loss and illness through the lens of a woman undertaking a road trip to visit her dying mother, only to encounter a mysterious stranger who accompanies her to her destination. There’s a lot to unpack in the story, especially as Deering’s characterisations are so detailed and emotionally-charged, and there are layers that mean the story deserves multiple re-reads in order to understand everything the author is invoking. And finally, to close out the anthology, we have The Widow by Rio Youers, a name I recognise from The Horror Show with Brian Keene; Mr Youers’ story is just as interesting as his discussions on the podcast, presenting a fascinating look at one woman’s attempt to recover from the tragic death of her husband during a supposed road traffic accident, only to begin to descend into obsession and conspiracy theories about the nature of the road itself. There are some quick and brutal action scenes scattered throughout the story, married with some candid observations on the nature of obsession and tragedy, and a deliciously ambiguous ending that puts the entire narrative into question.
Another brilliant anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing, Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From The Road is a title that the publisher, editor, illustrators and authors should be extremely proud to be involved in, and deserves to be on the shelf of every horror fan. There are some truly brilliant stories in this anthology, along with stunning internal illustrations to accompany them, and it’s a credit to the publisher that they’ve yet again published such a high-quality title.