Tales From The Lake – Volume 5
Kenneth W. Cain (ed.)
Crystal Lake Publishing
[Please note that the publisher sent me a copy of this title in return for a fair and honest review]
I absolutely love the idea of a Horror anthology where the theme is that there is no theme for the stories it contains. In a world where it seems like every anthology published in the genre seems to have some kind of theme, or angle, or take on Horror as a whole, it’s distinctly refreshing to find a publisher who has decided to go back to the basics and give writers the freedom to submit whatever story they think is worthy of inclusion, without imposing the artificial constraints of having to stick to some kind of thematic guidance. It also speaks of a confidence in the readers that will pick the anthology up – a belief that there doesn’t need to be a specific overarching theme or trope to pre-filter their interests, and that the Horror genre itself as a whole will provide amazing and entertaining stories. There are so few of these anthologies around that it’s worth celebrating every single one – and publisher Crystal Lake Publishing even have a series of them, titled appropriately enough as Tales From The Lake. I’ve been a fan of Crystal Lake Publishing for some time now, and when I was offered the opportunity to review an advanced copy of the fifth volume in the series, you can bet that I jumped at chance. Volume 5 is a whopper of a title, containing a total of 25 short stories and poetry pieces, and I’m very happy to report that, as with all Crystal Lake Publishing titles, the quality is uniformly high.
My usual standard in anthology reviews is just to highlight those stories that I felt really deserved recognition, or affected me in some specific way – and with 25 separate stories and poems to review, that’s something I’ll be sticking to scrupulously for this review in particular. We’ll start with Umbilicus from author Lucy Taylor, a short story that takes on the always-nightmarish trope of lost or kidnapped children. These are always difficult reads for me as a parent, especially if well-written and imaginative, and Taylor certainly hit both of those points for me with this story. Ideas of kinship, guilt and the time-worn bonds of long-term friendship serve as effective anchors for the story. It’s a story of redemption, and the price to be paid for a form of redemption that might actually not be what a parents actually craves; but also, cleverly, a look at whether a parent would care that they recovered a child that might not actually be what was first thought. The search, and the roiling emotions that accompany it, are described in very moving and often deeply evocative language; and the outright element of horror that appears in the last few pages is imaginative, particularly the notion of occult creatures that feed on pain, suffering and despair.
In The Weeds and the Wilderness Yet, author Robert Stahl has written a story of love, loss, gardening and the wilderness that really resonated with me. I have a love-hate relationship with my garden at the best of times, and there are times when it seems like such a gargantuan task that it could quite literally consume me, even after its consumed my time, labour and even emotions. So I loved this story of love, loss and grieving; it takes the common ideas of rebirth and reincarnation, and merges that with the dirt and grass and foliage of a garden to create a deeply twisted and imaginative tale that has some particularly haunting and quietly unnerving moments. The ending in particular had me wincing in discomfort, and I look forward to finding more tales from Mr Stahl given how much I enjoyed this short story.
Moving into the post-apocalyptic subgenre of horror, The Color of Loss and Love by Jason Sizemore is a fascinating take on a hoary old trope in the subgenre. Reminding me of classic movies like The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the background to Sizemore’s quiet, slow-paced and mind-bending tale is that the Sun has turned crimson and send much of the world’s population insane, driving survivors to hide in isolated areas. So far, so stereotypical, but Sizemore’s genius lays in his characters – rather than the usual lone-wolf ex-military prepper being the protagonist, we have an elderly, retired couple living in a distant cabin. Hearing a distant radio call, they reluctantly leave the safety of their shelter to try and save some other survivors. It’s a unique take that I haven’t seen before, and it works so well because it plays against the usual tropes – the couple aren’t well-armed, can barely move at times, and are genuinely terrified of what they’ll find. It’s a fantastic subversion, and touchingly written at times, and that’s before Sizemore throws in a twist that slowly but deftly builds up, as the husband begins to experience gaps in time, memory loss and dislocations. It’s delightfully ambiguous as to what is happening – whether it’s dementia or something caused by the sun – and the ending had me rereading the story several times to try and figure out what happened. Highly recommended.
Maggie by Andi Rawson is a piece of micro-fiction alongside longer short-stories, and despite the tiny word-count it not only holds its own against those tales, but positively shines in comparison. Given how short it is I really can’t say anything without spoiling it comprehensively, but suffice to say it’s a chilling and unsettling piece of horror, and an exemplar for how micro-fiction should be done, sharply written and packing a surprisingly deep and cutting story into so few words.
The nature of the monster protagonist in Allison Pang’s A Dream Most Ancient and Alone initially led to me skipping the story in my read-through of the anthology. How the creature survives, feeding on a certain type of person that unwarily paddles in the murky waters of the shoreline it inhabits evoked a deeply horrified and visceral response from me that led to me going to the next story. But despite that, something about how the opening pages had been written drew me back in, and I’m glad that they did, as this is a slow-burning and often deeply unsettling story that stayed with me long after finishing the last page, and the anthology as a whole. I don’t think there are many writers who could make such a monster seem sympathetic given its nature, but Pang deftly achieves this by looking at the strange flickers of humanity the mudmaiden experiences as a result of its feeding habits. Add in a strange, predator-prey pseudo-relationship between itself and a young girl that meets it without immediately being gutted, and the result is a powerful, thoughtful and masterfully written story tinged with sadness and loss that’s one of the highlights of the anthology.
There are some horror stories that are so mind-bending and chock full of twists and turns that I’m not certain what exactly happened, even after reading them a few times. It can be a difficult aspect of the genre to pull off; poorly written or without any framework for the reader to draw on, and the mysterious can just become frustrating. Fortunately Guardian by Paul Michael Anderson manages to pull it off in style, giving us the tale of a man endlessly pursued through different times and dimensions by a strange, terrifying creature. The dimension-hopping was an engaging trope, especially when the man’s entire identity changed every time he jumped; and there’s this wonderful expression of trying to get lost in an anonymous sea of humanity each time that was laced with desperation and sadness. Add in a curious relationship between man and creature, and you get a well-paced and quietly engaging tale that I enjoyed despite not having a clue what was going on half the time.
Another highlight of the anthology is In The Family from author Lucy A. Snyder. The first-person narrator can be difficult to pull off at times, but done right it can pay dividends, as it does here. Snyder uses the point of view to deliver a story that initially appears to be aiming for the very personal, quiet horror of helping someone reconnect with a loved one they’d never really known; but just when you think you have a handle on the story’s direction, Snyder absolutely flattens you with a series of deeply intimate and shocking twists that genuinely shocked me. Then there’s an absolute sucker-punch that comes out of nowhere in the last few pages, escalating the horror still further and providing the perfect ending to such a fantastic short story. In The Family is one of those stories that justifies the purchase of an entire anthology on its own, and absolutely deserves to be in the ‘Best of Horror’ collections when they’re created for 2018.
I always think that the freshest, most original horror stories come from authors who decide to take a stale trope of the genre and give it a good, hard shake and turn it inside out and sideways – and that’s exactly what Michelle Ann King does with Dead Bodies Don’t Scream. It takes the over-done concept of ‘sacrifice one to save another but there are occult consequences’ and plays around with it. The core concept is one that I don’t want to spoil with an in-depth review, but it’s very well-written and characterised, and there’s more than enough psychological and body horror to satisfy even the most jaded fan of the genre. There’s also an intriguing ending, which I’d like to see expanded upon in further works by the author. The Monster Told Me To by Stephanie M. Wytovich reminded me of Silent Hill, one of my favourite horror game franchises. It’s a creepy, deeply atmospheric and character-driven piece of horror fiction, with a deeply sympathetic protagonist in the shape of Bria, returning to her hometown to try and right wrongs done in her childhood. I loved the questions and corresponding half-answers that Wytovich provided, giving the reader some idea what had caused so much trauma in Bria’s life while leaving just enough to the imagination. I also emphasised with the emotional and physical abuse she’d obviously gone through, and the feeling of never quite being able to escape the results of that abuse no matter how far you run which runs through the core of the story.
Another shorter story in the anthology is Starve a Fever by Jonah Buck – two men try and rescue a third from prison so that he can go on the run, only to find that he’s been experimented on by the shadowy owners of the prison facility. It’s a short but sharply-observed piece of body horror, with some wonderfully gory and bile-inducing imagery, and overall a nicely executed story. I was delighted to see that he story after that, Voices Like Barbed Wire, was written by Tim Waggoner. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Wagoner, ever since I picked up his Nekropolis series and found a hugely dark and imaginative slice of something that could only be described as ‘hell-noir’, and I knew his stories are always ones to remember. This one is no exception, merging some elements of extreme and body horror with an eerie take on memories and the very human desire to try and forget painful ones. What if you could have bad memories physically removed, at a seemingly insignificant price? But what if there were other side-effects you wouldn’t be aware of? Waggoner conjures up a weird, strange and deeply surreal take on the subject, with some fantastic characterisation for the small cast in the story, allied with disturbing imagery that’s made me want to avoid fast food in the near future. It’s one of those stories that also felt like part of a wider series – and hopefully it will be one day in the future.
There’s another author that I know, when I see their name in an anthology, that their story is going to be incredibly engaging – and that’s Gemma Files. From my encounters with her stories, particularly the amazing The Church in the Mountain from the recent Lost Films anthology published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Files’ story in this anthology, Always After Three, displays the same hallmarks – high-quality writing, a relatable protagonist, and a terrifying and memorable horror that begins here as a very minor, almost ignorable irritation. I’m sure we’ve all lived in buildings with neighbours who have annoying or disturbing habits, but Files has found a way of effortlessly escalating those minor, private irritations into something far more chilling. She highlights the uncomfortable truths about disregarding neighbours issues because they’re hidden behind doors and walls, and how those doors and walls can be both anonymous and isolating. There’s a slow but inevitable build-up as the story progresses, an atmosphere that becomes more hostile and paranoid as things occur, amplified by the difficult pregnancy the protagonist is going through; my wife went through the same sort of hell, which made it even easier to sympathise with. Files also has a way of using complex language and ideas in a way that makes them easy and relatable for the reader, adding depth and texture to the overall horror. It’s a deeply horrifying yet satisfying story, and is once again a story worthy buying the entire anthology just to be able to read.
Finally, I must highlight the amazing piece of micro-fiction that came towards the end of the anthology, which is The Midland Hotel by Marge Simon. I’ve never come across the idea of a sentient hotel before, but it’s a fantastic hook for a story, and Simon plays it extremely well. There are so many great little stories in this short burst of fiction, as we play witness to the dark musings of a capricious, bemused god playing with the human insects infesting it. It’s short – too short for my liking as I wanted much more when it ended – but it’s rich with dark humour; and while I hadn’t heard of the author before this anthology, I’ll be looking out for them in the future.
Taken all together, Tales From The Lake – Volume 5 is an absolute triumph, a wonderfully inclusive celebration of the best that the Horror genre can produce, unhindered by the constraints of themes or specific topics. The individual stories within the collection are uniformly of a very high quality, and have been expertly brought together and edited by Kenneth W. Cain and Crystal Lake Publishing. I can only hope that we see far more of these volumes from CLP, representing as they do some of the best writers in the genre – and several stories that deserve to be included in annual ‘Best of Horror’ anthologies.