High Strange Horror: Weird Tales of Paranoia and the Damned
Jonathan Raab (ed.)
In my ever-expanding reading in the Horror genre, my newly-discovered passion, I’ve come across some fantastic publishers in the genre that are delivering incredibly high-quality, imaginative and (crucially) horrifying titles. Unnerving Magazine, Crystal Lake Publishing, Infected Books, the Sinister Horror Company – these are all example of publishers that I have encountered and which have deeply impressed me with their catalogue of works; and that’s primarily because of the consistency that they’ve demonstrated. Fantastic cover art, highly competent editing, and a carefully curated selection of authors, not to mention the superb stories delivered by those authors, are all components that these publishers have merged together to unfailingly deliver high-quality products in a genre where that isn’t always guaranteed. It’s been a joy to work through their back-catalogues, reading such good horror titles and discovering new authors, but the flip-side of the coin is discovering publishers that haven’t always been able to keep up that consistent level of quality. As such, when I do find a new publisher in the genre, I find it best to read a number of their books before deciding whether to add them to my own list of Exemplary Publishers.
By the time I had finished reading High Strange Horror: Weird Tales of Paranoia and the Damned I was absolutely certain that Muzzleland Press deserved to be on that list. I first discovered them through one of their latest publications, the excellent video game-themed horror anthology Terror in 16-Bits, and followed that up with a review of Mer Whinery’s intense, slow-paced slice of Weird Western horror, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun. They were both fantastic publications in their own right, but I also found that they demonstrated the dark, almost sardonic sense of humour that is laced throughout the publisher’s titles. While it’s nothing overt, there’s definitely a deliciously wry sense of dark amusement running through everything I’ve read from them so far, rather like the knowing smirk that a serial killer offers their victim before gutting them. I have to admit I’ve really come to enjoy it, as it gives the publisher a unique angle on the genre that I haven’t come across before.
That dark, humorous edge is once again present in High Strange Horror, much to the benefit of the anthology. It begins in the cover art for the title, which once again is of an incredibly high quality. Very much reminiscent of the art style of a graphic novel, the title is outlined in the harsh, brightly-coloured neon lights of a highway motel sign, with some wonderfully strange and oddball symbols in one corner providing a clue to the anthology’s theme of paranoia and conspiracy. In the other corner, a stereotypical ‘grey’ alien peeks out from behind the curtain of a room’s window. It’s a brilliantly evocative effort by artist Peter Lazarski, and something I wouldn’t mind having framed up on the wall of my study.
Moving into the contents of the anthology itself, High Strange Horror packs a lot of stories in – 15 in total – to ensure you get the best value for your money; this is especially note-worthy when you consider that the book is both available on Kindle Unlimited and ridiculously cheap to purchase. As always with anthology reviews, I only focus on those stories that really entertained or affected me. The opening tale, Investigations from Michael Bryant, is a fantastic opening which embodies many of the themes within the anthology; it’s a short tale, but it skilfully plays on the tropes of the Men in Black and the intense paranoia caused by encountering them, with a particularly creepy ending. The following story, So You’ve Lost Your Edge, Now What? By Charles Martin and Will Weinke demonstrates the variety of horror to be found within the anthology; this is a thoughtful, slow-paced and deeply existential form of horror, asking the reader to imagine the quiet despair from losing your creative ‘spark’ and trying to get it back. There’s an unusually ambiguous ending, which I really liked, and also some subtle links to other works by the authors, which is always a bonus.
One of the strangest tales in the anthology – which, given some of the stories produced by authors in this collection, is certainly saying something – is editor Jonathan Raab’s Frosty Pyramid treats. About the only way I can describe it is “It’s like They Live if it had been focused on Illuminati-themed breakfast cereal that controls the population” and that doesn’t even begin to describe the horror-laced insanity in this short story. It both plays up to, and satirises, conspiracy theorists and their insane theories, but then ramps up the paranoia, confusion and mind-bending nature of these theories to the extent that I still don’t entirely understand what happened to the poor protagonist. It’s hugely enjoyable, however, with that dark, biting edge I mentioned at the start of this review. The Dead Wait by Toni Nicolino follows on, and suddenly twists the anthology again by providing a down-beat, elegantly-paced story of a man lying in a bed, waiting for death to come from aggressive cancer. He’s visited by spectres from his past, those he has treated poorly (or worse) and tries to make sense of their messages; at first it seems like Nicolino is simply writing a very personal, very deep story about the soul-destroying progress of cancer, but it then progresses into a wonderfully atmospheric tale of the terror of isolation, terminal decline when completely alone, with a genuinely unsettling ending.
Night Dogs from Matthew M. Bartlett is a mysterious, surreal descent into the nature of being a corporate drone, following someone who works at the sort of corporation that features in horror and adventure games, filled with monsters and amnesia-riddled workers and disconnected corridors. It’s a very disconcerting story to read, as Bartlett deftly weaves back and forth and makes it very difficult to judge what is real and what is imagined by the protagonist; it gets weirder and weirder as the tale progresses, all the more so because the author has a talent for describing occult activities in a very dry, matter-of-fact way. Then we move into The Pirate-Ghost of Hole 19 by Doctor Gaines, which again reverses course and moves from occult, creeping horror to black comedy. A group of teenagers are playing mini-golf when they’re suddenly confronted by the eponymous Pirate-Ghost, who mentions a mysterious hidden hole. I really can’t describe any more of the story because of the very weird twist and turns it takes, especially in the last few sentences, where the story takes a complete change in direction with disturbing implications.
Puca by CRJ Smith is another memorable story, particularly as it’s one of those rare stories that actually demonstrates a knowledge (and understanding) of lesser-known folklore. It begins as a standard, tropey sort of story with two young guys getting lost in back-country Ireland and finding a mysterious village and its equally mysterious inhabitants. I’d assumed I knew where it was going, enjoying the good pacing and characterisation anyway, only for Smith to pull the rug from under my feet and introducing a very biting, satirical edge of ancient folklore meeting modern corporate culture. There are some fantastic stories in High Strange Horror, and it’s difficult to choose a favourite, but certainly Delve by Matthew D. Jordan stands out above almost all of the others. From the opening paragraph, which sets out a seemingly impossible situation and grabs your attention, Delve is an incredibly enjoyable and unsettling story by a very talented author. It takes the stale, tired trope of the Multiverse Theory and turns it on its head while simultaneously turning it inside-out; instead of people deliberately travelling around the multiverses, there’s instead just some random poor bastard being haunted by murderous alternate versions of himself, and his world disintegrates as he tries to cope with it. It’s brilliantly paced, hugely imaginative and downright hilarious in places; you really feel for the protagonist as he desperately reaches for a solution, never quite understanding what’s going on or why, and I’d love to see something else from this universe.
I’d like to think it’s common knowledge by know that Afghanistan is a quagmire for any army that tries to invade it, whether in the 21st Century or the 19th. Brought Low by J. Howard Shannon is a rather clever and engaging short story that looks at the costs of being a soldier serving in that land, and what the effects might be on soldiers when so much blood has been shed over so many centuries. It’s tense, horrifying and features some all too plausible action scenes, as well as some disturbing and intriguing characters. The Authors note says it’s based around a secondary character in a currently unpublished novel; and I’d like to go on record to say that I’d love to see it published.
Towards the end of the anthology, I need to acknowledge two very good stories that really stood out for me. The Vampire Sea by Amberle L. Husbands is a great slice of 19th century gothic horror that deftly plays on the nature of evolution versus creationism, and the immense social pressures that established religion could bring to play on those who advocated for evolutionary theory – and truths even more fantastic, unpalatable and terrifying. The Churchmen and their dark-tinged glasses are deeply unsettling as antagonists, bringing to mind a religious version of the Men in Black myth, and their rambling diction brought a chill to my spine as I read the story. Finally, the last story in the collection is from Mer Whinery, author of the brilliant Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun, also from Muzzleland Press. Whinery presents The Projectionist, a disquieting and slow-paced piece of horror writing based around the projectionist of a small indie cinema, and a devil’s bargain he’s presented with. Whinery continues his ability to instantly generate a tense atmosphere, and as the story unwinds, and the awful, horrifying details of the bargain are revealed, you’re really drawn into the story. The imagery he presents in the latter-half of the story is incredible in its imagination and the way it’s written, creating something that is deviant, utterly repulsive and yet compulsively engaging despite that. I was appalled and captivated at the same time, and it’s one of the best things Muzzleland Press have ever published.
High Strange Horror is a fantastic anthology, and a real credit to Muzzleland Press and editor Jonathan Raab in particular. The themes of the collection are firmly established within all of the stories it features, and even those I didn’t enjoy as much still had a solid understanding of what the anthology was aiming for. The cover art is gorgeous, the editing top-notch, and the anthology has so many stories that stand out for a variety of reasons, not least because of the variety and high level of quality on display. Delve by Matthew D. Jordan and The Projectionist by Mer Whinery are absolutely the stand-out stories in the anthology, worth the purchase price on their own, and I cannot recommend High Strange Horror enough.