Dark Voices: A Lycan Valley Charity Anthology
Theresa Derwin (Ed.)
It’s always an honour to be approached by a publisher and/or an author to review a title in any genre, but I was especially honoured to be approached to review, and spread the word about, the Dark Voices: A Lycan Valley Charity Anthology from LVP Publications. As the Introduction by Theresa Derwin highlights, not only is the purchase of this title raising funds for breast cancer awareness and research, but it is also dedicated to the memory of Vicky Stock – a writer, volunteer and fundraiser – who passed away from breast cancer in early 2017.
Cancer in all of its vile forms is something that can affect anyone in society, and I’ve had several close family members suffer from cancer diagnoses, including breast cancer, so this is a cause very close to my heart. I would have happily reviewed any cancer charity anthology, regardless of genre, but the fact that it was a dark fantasy and horror anthology was a bonus, as was the fact that the majority of the stories contributed to the anthology are by female writers. As the Introduction again highlights, they are an under-represented community of writers in the dark fiction genre – indeed, most genres – so it was also great to see so many talented writers that I could help highlight.
The first thing that struck me when looking at the review copy is that utterly gorgeous piece of cover art by illustrator by Luke Spooner – a young woman stares over her shoulder into a mirror, the glass stained and fractured; the colours Spooner use are bold and vivid, particularly the highlights, and the expert blending of image and title fonts really evoke a distinctive and evocative theme for the stories to be found within the anthology. As with all of my anthology reviews – and particularly so given the bumper-sized nature of Dark Voices – I’ll be focusing here on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which stood out for one reason or another.
Smiley Roaches by Linda D. Addison is the first piece of prose in the anthology, and it’s certainly an interesting and engaging start to the collection, with Addison presenting an intriguing, slow-burn story that very effectively plays on themes such as disabilities and the notion of being an outsider in social circles. The invasion of a strange, almost post-apocalyptic society by strange alien creatures nick-named ‘Smiley Roaches’ is the set-up for the story, and develops through the deft characterisation of the protagonist and her brother. The society that Addison sketches in seems real and alive despite the relatively short length of the story, and the creatures that invade – almost passive-aggressively – are quietly unsettling, primarily because no-one knows why they appear or disappear despite their numbers and relatively benign nature. It’s clearly a story that has a lot more to tell, particularly in the class-conflict themes that start to be developed in the latter pages, and I’d love to see more.
To Sing of Love and Lust, Ashes and Dust from the pen of Diane Arrelle is another character-focused story, this time looking at the fate of a screwed-up kid who moves with his family to a dead town in Jersey, built around a series of huge cemeteries for the dead soldiers coming back from the recently-ended Vietnam conflict. It’s fertile soil for any number of different angles, and Arrelle weaves a compelling story about a racist, cowardly, and above-all damaged young man who tries to prove himself to his peers and ends up entangled, and increasingly obsessed, with the ghost of a young girl buried in one of the cemeteries. The increasingly gory and macabre ways in which he attempts to buy the affection of the spirit are very well-written and often shockingly depicted, and it was difficult not to emphasise with him in certain ways, and the damage he’d suffered permanently as a result of his upbringing. A well-written and atmospheric ending really seals the deal for this story.
With its raw, guttural and deeply shocking opening, leading to the violation of sacred family ideals and the unnatural death of a beloved family pet, How It Died by Sara Dobie Bauer rapidly became one of my favourite stories in the entire anthology. Although the idea of using a damaged, alienated, potentially supernatural child as the focus for a horror story is a well-worn trope, Bauer really imbues it with a huge amount of subtle and haunting details, and a general atmosphere of dislocation and anguish that I was drawn to incredibly quickly. There’s some fantastic descriptive writing and characterisation, including a slightly stilted and almost unnatural way of speaking by the protagonist that leaches into the pages themselves and really makes the story stand out from the others in the anthology. An incredibly surreal yet heart-wrenching ending had me pondering its meaning for hours afterwards, and left me desperately wanting more – from the story in particular and Dobie in general.
We then come to Cue: Change from Chesya Burke, which I found to be one of the most thought-provoking pieces of horror fiction that I’ve ever read, and which almost-constantly challenged both my perceptions of the often-stagnant zombie genre, and also my privileges as a white male in society. The story opens with a rather bog-standard take on the zombie genre – some kind of ill-defined plague begins spreading throughout the United States – but before long it begins to push you off-balance by presenting a Person of Colour (PoC) take on the post-apocalyptic genre, intermeshed with some sharply satirical and well-aimed jabs at how the rich and white view PoC citizens in general. Observations about the comparative safety of the undead versus the police state, for example, had me feeling distinctly uncomfortable and questioning my own biases and circumstances; that had never really happened previously, but this story did a fantastic job at provoking me, over and over again, in a way that was simultaneously jarring yet not condescending or off-putting. I’ve genuinely never come across such a unique and challenging interpretation of the living dead – the story stuck in my head long after I’d finished the story. Cue: Change is a must-read story and by far one of the highlights of the anthology.
The next story to impress me was Bear With Me by Lynn M. Cochrane. What, exactly would you do as a very young child if a beloved stuffed toy – indeed, the classic stuffed toy, the humble teddy bear – was suddenly possessed by a malignant force bent on injuring and potentially even killing its young owner? Personally I’ve no idea, but it’s a genuinely unsettling concept, especially as Cochrane takes the wise decision to set our viewpoint as the child itself. The child’s naivety and innocence really comes across, the naivety of no-one actually understanding why the teddy bear is inflicting such awful injuries, and as the story progresses it became harder and harder for me, as a parent, to read it without becoming drawn in and deeply enmeshed in the emotions it was skilfully invoking. There were moments when I felt genuinely anxious for the child’s safety, hoping there would be a happy ending while understanding that there likely wouldn’t. Excellent stuff.
On the lighter end of the range of stories in the anthology is Ruschelle Dillon’s hilariously dark Is That Your Wife Or Are You Just Happy To See Me? I never thought I’d be writing the phrase ‘a man’s haunted penis sends him begging for help to a psychic’ but there we are, oen never knows what the future holds, exactly. Even now just thinking about the idea makes me chuckle out loud, and the premise is aided by Dillon’s eye for acid-sharp dialogue and imagination for weird horror. It’s such a ridiculous and over-the-top story that I loved it, and it’s by far one of the funniest horror stories I’ve ever read.
There are only a few horror authors whose work will make me pick up a title automatically, and Amber Fallon is one of them. I’ve loved all of the pieces by her that I’ve read previously, and as such was eager to see what she had produced for the anthology. Tell Me How You Die is one of the shorter tales in the collection, but Fallon manages to pack a deeply engaging and quietly disturbing story into that word-count, putting the reader into the shoes of a young couple who take advantage of the male’s clairvoyance to rob houses. The small-scale nature of the crimes is a nice inversion of the ‘mystical powers’ trope, the writing is tight, fluid and vibrant, and the ending is both shockingly unexpected and disquietingly abrupt, leaving me questioning the exact nature of the clairvoyancy and desperately wanting more from that universe.
Stuck Record by Charlie Hannah is one of the most subtle and engaging pieces of quiet horror fiction that I think I’ve ever encountered, mixed with a healthy dose of time travel and spiritual possession thrown in for good measure. It features some fantastic characterisation and an excellent plot that slowly but surely evolves, twisting and turning so that you’re never quite sure where exactly it’s going – until it suddenly reveals its final twist and sucker-punches you. Another stand-out story in the anthology, and another one with some unresolved threads that I’d really like to see followed up by the author. Penny Jones then delivers The Farm, a charmingly sinister tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy that rapidly gets out of hand as time goes on. Some really impressive characters that feel fully fleshed-out despite the short length of the tale, and Jones demonstrates intimate knowledge of how children can become jealous if parental attention is taken away from them, deftly bringing the reader into the mindset of a deeply damaged woman forever obsessed with outdoing her younger sister. The story only gets more chilling as it goes on, focusing on a dysfunctional family and the way its fragile facade shatters into a bloody and heartbreaking finale.
In Bobbi from author Calypso Kane, I found one of the more unusual pieces of horror fiction I’ve come across – not weird horror, per se, just unique in its imagination and the manner in which Kane sets out the narrative. It’s actually rather difficult to describe, and really needs to be read to be properly appreciated. Somehow the author perfectly merges the diary entries of an upbeat, naive and ever so slightly ditzy woman called Bobbi with an increasingly chilling and unnerving narrative that involves a mysterious woman, the gift of a metal ring, and a murder that leads to ghostly activities and haunting events that are all portrayed in these delightfully macabre diary pages. A must-read in the anthology.
I’m not a fan of vampires, to be honest, as the trope seems to have been played out almost completely by the surge of vampire-related fiction in the past few years. I recognise how ironic and perhaps hypocritical this sounds, given that I relentlessly consume zombie fiction at an incredible rate; but if all vampire horror fiction was as original, imaginative and beautifully-rendered as The Hungry Living Dead by Nancy Kilpatrick, then I’d surely change my mind. It’s a stark, bleak and utterly nihilistic portrayal of what it would actually like to be a nosferatu in the modern day; there’s no gorgeous, pale-faced creatures, no opulent clothes or hordes of brainwashed servants. Just a lonely, bitter and obsessive creature stalking the dregs of humanity, living off of the thin, unnourishing blood of poseurs who clothe themselves in third-hand habits gleaned from popular fiction about vampires and who act like infants. Superbly written, particularly the wonderfully-depicted scenes of the protagonist getting painful glimpses of a good life – one lived to the full before it became a vampire – by feeding on blood of party goers who artlessly and uncomprehendingly mimic the habits of those who have no choice but to dwell in the dark and feed.
The next tale is from Christine Morgan – of course I’m going to review her story if it’s in the anthology, she’s one of the best horror authors I’ve ever come across! Torch Songs In Purgatory demonstrates her sublime skill as a horror author, delivering a densely atmospheric and eerie tale of a singer in a seedy, dimly-lit club who begins to suspect that reality isn’t quite what she thinks it is. She begins to notice the presence of a stranger at the VIP table; there’s something about him that draws her attention, even as she attempts to grapple with feelings of deja vu and the sense that she has never, ever actually left the club. It’s a slow-burning tale that ramps up the tension and subtle unease expertly, as is to be expected from Morgan, and the protagonists confusion becomes entwined with the reader as Morgan works her way into a fantastically engaging cosmic horror take on the noir detective genre and the duality of romance. Superbly engaging and worth the price of purchasing the anthology alone in my opinion.
The final story that resonated with me was The Dead Girl by KD Thomas. There have been very few short stories that have shocked or chilled me. There have been some that have really affected me, including Back Seat by Bracken MacLeod, which had me stop reading for an entire day; but even Back Seat didn’t have me openly swear in surprise at the end of the story. Yet that’s what happened when I came to the final line of KD Thomas’ contribution to this anthology. To try and explain would ruin this excellent and deeply unsettling story, so I will instead demand that you read it first before any others in the collection, to bathe in its brilliance.
In conclusion, Dark Voices: A Lycan Valley Charity Anthology is a superb collection of Dark Fantasy and Horror fiction from female authors, a community that – as the Introduction so rightly states – continues to be underrepresented and disenfranchised in the genres. While there are numerous anthologies that vary in quality, many stories being only average, perhaps even included only to up the page count, that’s absolutely not the case here. Every single story is a gem, excellently written pieces of dark fiction showcasing some of the best imagination and writing skills to be found in the Dark Fantasy and Horror genres, and it was a privilege to be asked to review it.