Curated by Nicole Petit
[Please note that this title was sent to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review]
Our ever present cyber-overlord Google helpfully informs me that a ‘Sockhop’ is ‘a social dance at which participants dance in their stockinged feet’; and of course a Seance is where people group around a table and try and talk to the dead. Those certainly aren’t two things that I’d immediately associate with each other, so I was immediately curious about their partnership forming the title of 18thWall Productions latest anthology, curated by Nicole Petit. Although I’ve only recently become aware of the existence of 18thWall Productions, I’ve been deeply impressed by their previous publications that I’ve read, most especially their previous anthology The Chromatic Court, which took an original and oblique angle to the Cthulhu Mythos. That alone was enough for me to accept a review copy when one was kindly offered, although the back-cover blurb and the alluring cover art by Barbara Sobczyriska, which so perfectly evokes the unusual subject matter of the tales contained within the collection, would have easily prised my wallet open otherwise.
[As per my blog policy for anthology reviews, to save myself and my readers time I usually only specifically mention tales that I particularly enjoyed or that affected me in some way, though this should not be taken as a slight against those not included in the following review.]
The collection opens with Son of the Wolf by Kara Dennison, who weaves a tale of the replacement of an old, wooden rollercoaster with a brand-new steel one in a small, sleepy town hoping to get bigger and more well-known. But it isn’t just a rollercoaster being torn down, it’s a town legend; a beloved icon; the familiar old replaced with the unknown new. Lily Bloom, one of two twin daughters of the designer of the new steel ‘coaster, gets to attend the opening of The Son of the Wolf, alongside her father and her proto-goth sister, who morbidly insists something terrible will happen. When it does, Lily becomes embroiled in attempting to appease the spirit of the old ‘coaster and save her father’s reputation. The experiences inside the new ‘coaster are genuinely unsettling thanks to the high quality of Dennison’s prose, and the mystery of the haunting is rather surprising, going in a direction I hadn’t expected. But the focus of the story is the relationship between Lily and her sister, and in turn their relationship with their father. Those complex interactions and emotions are deftly mirrored by Dennison in the clash between old and new, and the effects that social and technological progress have on a local population. It’s an oddly touching story, and a fantastic start to the anthology.
In A Single Wolf, Grey and Gaunt, Sophie Iles delivers an introspective and often sombre tale of a young boy coping with growing up in a fractured, damaged family in post-war Cornwall. His only consolation is his budding friendship with the ghost-like dog he finds running about on a local beach. He names him Lancelot, after the character in his favourite TV show. But local children start to go missing, and found again, mauled and barely alive, with paw prints around them. Just what is the truth behind Lancelot’s ghostly existence? Iles uses Arthurian mythology to great effect here, exploring myth versus reality in regards to the legend of Lancelot of the Round Table, as well as using it to highlight Timmy’s family problems, and the reason for their abrupt move to Cornwall. It’s an intriguing and engaging story, told well by the author, and with a surprisingly up-beat ending that I appreciated as a reader, in a genre that so often defaults to grim and disheartening finishes.
With his entry, Call the Dawn, Dear Brother, Jaap Boekestein moves the action to Las Vegas, always a colourful, exotic and exciting setting; and even more so in the mid-1950s, when the city’s surrounding desert became host to a near-endless number of atomic bomb tests. It’s a fascinating period in American history, and Boekestein uses it as an engaging background to the tale of a trumpet-player recruited by a shady cult to play a song that will – allegedly – prevent an apocalyptic ending for the United States. I loved this story from the start, with its mixture of Las Vegas, Americana, and strange and occasionally unsettling fantasy elements, augmented by our protagonist, the laid back and impossibly cool trumpet-player Clem. I’d rather enjoy more tales with Clem, or the secretive Grand Order of the American Dawn, and hope the author brings one or the other back in the future.
Joe Meek inherits the Earth by Richard Sheppard gives us the tale of a former American Military Policeman-turned Private Investigator living in London. As with so many tales in this collection, we have another evocative backdrop to the tale – this time it’s post-war London in the throes of the infamous (and deadly) London Smog. Our PI is hired to find a secretive inventor, a radio expert and a man intetested in harmonics; and being gay in 1950s London, he’s adept at remaining hidden. Sheppard really nails the atmosphere (quite literally at times) of a London encapsulated and under siege by the smog; a greasy, yellow, toxic creation that Sheppard brings to life so vividly that it practically flows off the pages. It’s also a great story, mixing the oppressive social realities of post-war Britain with the freedom offered by music; but also the dangers of obsession. It’s a grim tale, tinged with sadness, but one that Sheppard makes deeply engaging despite that atmosphere.
Bottles by James Dorr has Maria as it’s protagonist, a Puerto Rican teenager from a reform school, hired out as domestic help to a strange older man. His habits worry her, especially his strange, esoteric book collection and his habit of assembling and meeting with a cell of anti-communist loud-mouths in his living room every week. To make things worse, Maria finds herself in a white-dominated neighbourhood with no friends, at least until she meets Emanuel, a Puerto Rican like herself. Together, they are able to piece together her employer’s strange motives and mysterious collection of bottles, whose existence leads to sheer danger. Set against a background of white privilege, anti-communism and outright racism, Dorr writes an engaging and unique story that has a genuinely surprising ending that caught me off-guard.
Josh Reynolds’ contribution, Unquiet in the Earth, was by far the story I was most looking forward to reading in Sockhops and Seances. I’m a huge fan of his Royal Occultist setting, and the novels and short stories set in that universe, and was excited to see one set several decades after his existing stories. Ebe Gallowglass used to be the apprentice, and so it’s great to see Reynolds advancing the plot to where she now holds the prestigious – and ill-fated – position of Royal Occultist. Interestingly the position has degraded significantly since the end of the Second World War, and is no longer as influential as it was. Subsequently there’s a darker tone to this than previous tales, which gives it a grittier edge and flavour; there’s the carefully vague comments about the fate of Charles St. Cyprian, Gallowglass’ predecessor, and also the deeply intriguing notion of knowledge degrading the further down its passed between master and apprentice. As for the story itself, it’s something of a departure from the atmosphere of the Royal Occultist stories that came before it; the advent of the Cold War brings in some delicious ambiguities and political realities, which as always Reynolds deftly blends together with some fast-paced action and engaging banter laced with black humour.
Moving through Sockhops and Seances, The Case That Baffled The Boy by Josh Wanisko is certainly one of the stranger stories I’ve ever read, though all the more enjoyable as a result. Wanisko takes the cliche of the Boy Genius Detective and then moulds it into some original and disturbing directions. It’s unsettling throughout, driving in the sort of weird horror I’ve come to expect from publisher Muzzleland Press, and is bolstered by engaging writing and strange, surreal characters. By the end I eagerly wanted more from Wanisko and this unique world that he had created. Following on, Khloros by David M. Hoenig is a short but multi-layered tale that looks at the relationship between two boys – one black, one Jewish – that develops as they explore something that glows green in a bunker on the golf course they work at during the day. It’s touching at times, mixing together ancient mythology with Cold War paranoia, and the love to be found in friendship, and is perhaps the story that has lingered with me the longest after finishing the anthology.
The anthology closes with a novella-length tale from Jon Black, Totmann’s Curve. Although I’ve only recently encountered fiction from Mr Black, it’s made a serious impact on me; especially with his tale The Green Muse in The Chromatic Court, a Cthulhu Mythos anthology also from 18th Wall Productions. The background to Black’s latest story is illegal hotrod racing in the hills of a backwater Texas county, and the complex spiderweb of relations between the key drivers and racers in this small community. Black expertly develops these relationships within the various groups that exist within the racers, and deftly creates a multi-layered atmosphere of adrenaline, paranoia, ritual and family; all of which constantly blend together into a complex mishmash as races take place. Black does all of that exceedingly well, but the heart of the story is the race itself, the heart-thumping, gut-clenching, gear-crunching duels between drivers, and these are beautifully written; Black gets into the heads of the drivers, their hopes and fears, while also writing some incredibly tense racing sequences. Then there’s also the grim mystery of the titular Totmann’s Curve, and the strange girl suddenly appearing during races. To near-fatal effect to the drivers who encounter her during races. It’s a cracking story, distinct and engaging with a great cast of three-dimensional characters, and really evokes the 1950s atmosphere that the anthology has as its theme. It’s a great way to end the anthology.
Sockhops and Seances is clearly another winning anthology from publishers 18thWall Productions, and a real credit both to the publisher and editor Nicole Petit. Petit has collected together a deftly-curated set of stories that intelligently and skillfully evoke the potent mix of racism, nationalism and cultural, social and political change that scythed through the United States (and other nations) in the 1950s, leading to some fantastic tales that cross multiple genres – from outright Horror to Fantasy and many others. This is a must-have anthology for any fan of those genres, or for anyone that can appreciate stories set within the barely-controlled political and cultural chaos of the post-war decades.