Humans are the Problem: A Monster’s Anthology
Michael Cluff & Willow Becker (eds.)
Weird Little Worlds
I decided to review Humans are the Problem: A Monster’s Anthology because the core concept – as described in the back-cover blurb – rather intrigued me. Essentially, the collection presents a series of short stories – 22 in total – in which traditional monsters like vampires, trolls and even the venerable tooth fairy reclaim their agency and take back their power in worlds which need some kind of “inhuman intervention” as the blurb puts it. I was fascinated by the idea of stories in which humans are the actual monsters in comparison to those creatures that have traditionally filled that role, as it seemed like a concept that had a huge amount of potential for inverting some of the strongest – and stalest – tropes of the fantasy genre. Add in the gorgeous and eye-catching piece of cover art for the anthology, and the fact that the Table of Contents included a host of highly talented authors, such as Gemma Files, Gabino Iglesias, Michaelbrent Collings and John Langan (amongst many others) and I was eager to dive in and see what the anthology had to offer
I always enjoy when an anthology has an introduction, and When Humans Attack: A Concerning Prologue is a short but insightful piece by editors Michael Cluff and Willow Becker which highlights just how monstrous humans can be, and just how human monsters can be when considered from another angle setting the tone for the coming stories. The first of which is Root Rot by Sarah Read in which the focus is on the venerable Tooth Fairy, stealing teeth away from the clasped hands of children and from beneath their pillows. Only this isn’t the saccharine and sanitized version of the tooth fairy humanity is familiar with; instead, Read presents us with a genuinely unsettling creature, skeletal and distinctive, one which hunts for teeth in order to create the nourishing broth it needs to sustain itself. A horrifying monster that I was instinctively repelled by; and yet, Read demonstrates her talent as an author, and the overarching theme of the anthology, by demonstrating how humans are harming such monsters. Humanity’s invention of something so simple and fundamental as dental care has robbed the tooth fairy of its natural sustenance, and leads it to undertaking desperate actions that bode poorly for all involved. It’s a brilliant story, expertly told, and a fantastic opening to the anthology. It’s followed by Taffy Sweet by Michaelbrent Collings, which is one of the more disturbing and bizarre horror stories that I’ve ever come across in my time reading in the Horror genre – and I’ve read my way through the Weird, Bizarre and even Extreme Horror subgenres. Taking a fresh look at the notion of the creature hiding under the bridge (or an underpass in this case) Collings gives us a tale that encompasses fear, loathing, fractured familial relationships and monstrous creatures preying on innocent others; and then suddenly flips it around at the last second to disorientate the reader. A shocking and surprising story in equal amounts, it’s put Collings firmly on my radar for future reviews. Calvin Cleary’s The Dawn Woman opens with Sam, a young boy trying to discover more about his older sister, who died when he was eight years old; he goes through the boxes of her belongings stuffed in the attic by an increasingly-alcoholic and withdrawn father, and in a nice nod to modern realities, Cleary has the boy unpack the boxes via a YouTube channel, streaming to an audience of thousands. His latest video sees him unpackaged a strange grimoire filled with an indecipherable language, and a note from his sister about the titular Dawn Woman. There’s also a USB drive with an eerie video that seems to include that strange woman and a trapped prisoner. Uploading the footage to YouTube makes Sam go viral and even get a book-publishing deal with a book about the Dawn Woman, but the video also has an unsettling effect on society: murders, hate crimes, and even multiple cults dedicated to the Dawn Woman. Sam protests that she isn’t actually real, and yet is she? Is Her voice real to those in the cults? Or to him? While I’m not familiar with the monster involved in the story, Cleary weaves an intriguing story that cleverly blends ancient mythology with the corrosive effects of modern technology and social media influence, and I’d love to see a sequel answer some of the questions left open by the tale.
Who We Are by L.H. Moore is set within a secretive government facility containing a variety of monsters and boogeyman held there because they’re much too dangerous to humanity if left uncontained. One of the boogeymen in the facility, Prime, is both a merciless killer and a scientist of sorts, apparently responsible for creating some of these strange creatures. After escaping and butchering unsuspecting humans and being captured again, the hooved Prime begins to question his creations, and their purpose in life. It’s an incredibly short tale, one of the shortest in the entire collection, but it’s a unique and engaging story by Moore that I’d like to see more of in the future. It’s followed by Aquarium Diver by Philip Fracassi, another story featuring a secretive base, though this one is a seemingly-abandoned military installation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains surrounded by electrified fence and guarded by heavily-armed troops. They’re protecting a gigantic cube known as the Aquarium, holding something formally known as The Specimen, but known by the grunts guarding it as the Big Booger. A gigantic red blob, constantly moving and testing its cage, kept there since it rolled through a small town decades ago. A small team monitor the creature – and more than monitor it, they hope to communicate with it. But when their experiment goes horribly awry, it becomes apparent that they have all underestimated The Specimen. A delightfully grim and thought-provoking homage to a classic of the B-Movie creature feature genre, Fracassi’s story is one of the best in the anthology. Georgia Cook’s Nothing Personal is an interesting story, focusing on protagonist Michael and how relationship with his brother Charlie and mysterious girlfriend Jen, with her unsettling behaviour. When Michael reluctantly agrees to accompany them both to a remote rural cabin, he has no idea that he will become intimately familiar with Jen’s terrifying secret, and why wailing, glass-shattering screams echo across the lake by the cabin. Not to spoil this great story, but it’s about time someone made use of the monster featured in the tale, and Cook does so with energy and a vivid imagination. Unlike many of the stories in the collection, Woof by Patrick Barb introduces the monsters right away: lycanthropes, or werewolves for those less cultured. The Kurtz brothers lead a group of hunters who track, kill and skin werewolves, usually with great relish. But when one hunt leads to an unusual situation, and the youngest Lurtz offspring decides to try and introduce himself to the lycanthrope captive, Barb demonstrates that humans are often more monstrous than the things they claim to hunt to defend themselves. An intriguing take on an over-used monster in the urban fantasy and horror genres, one that manages the difficult feat of presenting the sort of new and original angle needed to revitalise werewolves.
If Wishes Were by John Langan opens with Diane taking the body of her deceased partner, Marla, to the family farm she had asked to be buried in, before she died of cancer. Or at least that’s the story Diane has concocted for any guards trying to stop her from trespassing on land newly-purchased by the state. But there aren’t any – and Diane is able to enter the farm and bury her love with her beloved horse – only for something incredible and genuinely shocking to occur. It’s an unusually dialogue-heavy story, as well as slower-paced and richly atmospheric, all of which combine to give it an introspective and thoughtful take on the monster genre – unusual to say the least. Langan’s story is probably the tale that stayed with me the longest – and that’s saying something given the overall quality of tales in the anthology. On The Other Side Of The Veil is by Gabino Iglesias, an author I’ve heard so much about and yet, to my dismay, not been able to read before now. It has an intriguing set up – protagonist Sandra is a paranormal investigator of sorts, filtering out the cranks and medically ill to focus on those unfortunate souls haunted by monsters and other strange occurrences. Investigating her latest case – an East Side apartment occupied by a tall, black, featureless creature that can walk through walls – she lays out a plan to deal with it. What happened next, however, was so genuinely unexpected and shocking that I sat there open-mouthed for a good few moments. Iglesias completely threw me, in a way I’ve rarely experienced reading horror – and that’s when I knew just how well-deserved his reputation as a writer is. Add to that a fascinating narrative about how technology gamifies and commodifies spiritual knowledge and turns it into something to be exploited without proper knowledge – akin to being able to build a nuclear bomb without understanding the correct safeguards or theoretical knowledge – and you have a story that is the beating heart of Humans are the Problem.
The amusingly-named Epic Trolls by Auston Habershaw introduces us to a world where monsters and humans uneasily co-exist with each other, though humans haven’t taken that knowledge well, and routinely use flamethrowers, poison gas and other horrifying weapons to ‘control’ the monster population. Schoolkid Corey takes a shortcut through an underpass to avoid some bullies and gets caught by a troll – and only saves his life by agreeing to let the troll follow his social media. That bargain comes into its own, however, when the bullies graduate to cyberbullying and relentlessly mocking Corey online and something happens to them in return. However short-term relief turns to long-term anxiety when it becomes clear the price to be paid for collective mourning, where the deceased’s negatives are erased and their positives overwhelmingly promoted. It’s another thoughtful and thought-provoking story in the collection, with Habershaw providing another refreshing take on the monster genre. It’s followed by The Man of Seaweed and Reeds by Corey Farrenkopf takes place in and around a bird sanctuary, which is an unusual and distinctive location for a horror story – all the moreso thanks to its unique occupant, the titular former apex predator known by its nickname of Reeds and the last of its kind. Under threat of their remaining lands being brought out by developers, tours featuring the unique creature are all that’s keeping the sanctuary afloat and their birds and animals safe; but as Reeds becomes more and more desperate for food, sanctuary keeper Fred faces the ultimate dilemma: do you interfere, or let nature take its course? A short but fascinating story from Farrenkopf, another author now on my radar.
Poor Butcher Bird by Gemma Files was a story I was looking forward to, as I’ve been a fan of Files’ work for absolute ages, and she certainly didn’t disappoint, with a story that focuses on a creature akin to the butcher-bird, expert at deceiving its prey until it strikes. Our protagonist infiltrates a bizarre cult, hiding in an abandoned basement and worshipping the strange creature they keep locked away inside a red lacqured cabinet, their activities awash with blood and gore. She makes the cult think that she’s one of them – debased and debauched, worshipping the powers provided by the creature in the cabinet – but secretly has her own agenda that will see even more death be unleashed. It’s a superb tale, with that unique sense of eerie, unsettling atmosphere Files always imbues her stories with, as well as memorable characters and a multi-faceted plot that keeps you hooked until the very end. Moving towards the end of the anthology, next up is Crack of the Bat by T.J. Tranchell which features an undead baseball player emerging from his grave, an unexpected yet utterly delightful sentence to write. While that’s a great concept in of itself, Tranchell deftly blends it together with unfulfilled vengeance and racial injustice in the American Deep South of the early 20th Century to create a punchy and emotive story that greatly impressed me, though I wish it had been longer. A Clean Kill by Justin Guleserian sees a late-night car accident strand an injured hunter and his daughter in an isolated rural backwater; and what appears to be a home offering aid and respite turns into a horrifying structure filled with clockwork traps the two struggle to escape from, all the while questioning who built the death house – why. An unexpected but disquieting tale, it’s one of the best in the collection due to Guleserian’s dark imagination and excellent prose. In Johnathon Mast’s The Fingernail Man schoolkid Marcus wants to do a report on the titular Fingernail Man, the mysterious creature in this dystopian world that kidnaps men, women and children – to such an extent that depopulation has caused major cities like Chicago to undergo deforestation. It was an intriguing concept already – but then Mast absolutely knocked it out of the park with an inversion of common monster tropes, turning a genuinely horrifying creature into something of an antihero I found respecting in a weird way. Absolutely brilliant story, and Mast is also on my radar from now on.
Mea Yulpa by Gordon Linzner is a very short but rather intriguing story about the clash between a research scientist and the tulpa- or willed being – he created. Linzner writes the story in a strangely fragmented yet innovative style that shows the link between the two beings, and includes some fascinating ideas that deserve to be explored in greater detail. In the House of the Elementals by Lisa Morton sees the intersection of two characters: spiritualist Maria, and a nameless, featureless, vaguely humanoid Elemental, who seeks her help. Together they must find another creature like the Elemental, one that had become angry with humanity’s treatment of the planet and plots devastation. I liked the idea and loved the execution, particularly the interplay between Maria and the Elemental, and would definitely be interesting in seeing more from that universe. Die Booth’s Passed On features a modern take on a classic monster in the genre, with a protagonist who is curious about the magnetic and charismatic stranger they’re dating, and a secret about to be shared between them. The Blanch by Dominick Cancilla sees the author exploits the fascinating natural concept of pareidolia – seeing faces in patterns when they aren’t actually there – to create a new form of creature that can’t be seen by humans; not just camouflaged, but genuinely invisible. Creatures that have evolved such defensive mechanisms over millenia – and will do absolutely anything to keep them a complete secret. It’s a short but genuinely shocking story that really caught me unawares, and really is a perfect piece of short horror fiction that makes me interested to see what else Cancilla has written. The penultimate tale in the collection is My Friend Nessie by J.H. Moncrief, which tackle one of my favorite cryptids: the Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie. Schoolteacher Beth saves one of her class from being bullied over her belief in the Scottish aquatic monster, only to find out that Maggie believes that not only is Nessie real, but her best friend. She certainly needs a best friend, given the terrible domestic situation she and her mother face, but it soon becomes clear that being friends with Nessie brings certain benefits that will finally allow Maggie to feel safe. It’s nice to have another upbeat story in the collection, demonstrating that sometimes monsters have upsides for humans. Finally, the collection closes with Laurel’s First Chase by Christi Nogle, an unusual and often unsettling tale in which a mother and daughter observe some of the hunters who have set up camp in their domain – though it soon becomes clear that their domain is vast and inexplicable, and as inhuman as the two women themselves. Notions of parenthood and family are deftly blended together with the inhuman and monstrous to create a unique and compelling story that I needed to read several times to truly appreciate – the perfect story to close out the collection.
This has been a lengthy review for Humans are the Problem: A Monster’s Anthology – one of my longest – but the sheer quality of the stories contained in this anthology, and the work done by its illustrators and editors, demands no less. The superb cover art and striking monochrome illustrations that accompany the stories, by illustrator Mahesh Hirugade, bring the stories to life, providing pen portraits of key moments in each tale, and further enhance the incredibly high quality of the stories themselves. Editors Michael Cluff and Willow Becker have gathered together some of the most talented writers in the Horror genre and commissioned some absolutely fantastic and mesmerising stories that manage to single-handedly revive and refresh the monster genre and its many tired and ancient tropes. Humans are the Problem is a brilliant collection of horror stories, the sort of tales that are needed to keep the Horror genre as fresh and vibrant as it is at the moment, and I am greatly looking forward forward seeing what the editors and publisher Weird Little Worlds do in the future – I’ll certainly be watching closely.