Paula Guran Reviews Short Fiction: Weird Horror, The Deadlands, The Dark, and Apex

Weird Horror #2
The Deadlands 10/21
The Dark 9/21, 10/21
Apex #125

I’m still not convinced that its title matches its content, but Weird Horror’s second issue offers a couple of very good stories. Stephen Volk scores high with fantasy “Adventurous”: when Carole’s sexual encounter with Collin is interrupted by her mum’s unexpected return home, the young man hides in the wardrobe. It proves to be much more than a place to store clothes, and the young man finds, well, his destiny. “Feral” by Catherine MacLeod is a story of survival in which a photographer of “feral houses: buildings being reclaimed” revisits the past and shows us an unexpected truth about herself. It’s hard to surprise this jaded old reviewer, but MacLeod succeeds.

Scratching” by Alys Key comes closest to the pulpish feel one might expect from Weird Horror. Confined to home in an old Victorian apartment building during a pandemic, odd things begin to happen when strange noises are heard. Kristina Ten’s “The Dreadful and Specific Monster of Starosibirsk” is a cautionary tale. A village is doomed by chemical waste that ruins the river and killed the sturgeon Starosibirsk depends on for its livelihood. The villagers create a monster that brings back the tourist industry but, as one may well expect, things do not turn out well.

The Deadlands’ sixth issue features two original short stories: “All the Open Highways” by Alexis Gunderson and “Invisible Motels” by Jeremy Packert Burke. Gunderson’s narrator tells of various ghosts that have ridden along with him as, throughout his life, he drives along a certain stretch of highway at night. The names of three of the motels in Burke’s tale of a journey to find a lover echo three of the five rivers – Archeron, Lethe, and Phlegethon – of the Greek underworld. Dante’s Eunoe is another such. The Cardoner Travel Lodge Deluxe probably references the Spanish river where St. Ignatius had a vision of balanced spirituality. The metaphor disappears entirely, though, with visits to the Arno Motor Hotel and Arcade and the Rahma Imperial Motel. The real strengths of the issue are two non-fiction pieces – “Cemetery Postcards” by Loren Rhoads and “Ask a Necromancer” by Amanda Downum – and, although I’m rarely a fan of poetry, four poems by Juleigh Howard-Hobson, Leah Bobet, C.S.E. Cooney, and A.L. Blacklyn.

As editor Wendy N. Wagner points out, flight is the theme of Nightmare #109. In WC Dunlap’s “Caw”, murders of crows are killing off humanity, and a handful of mistrustful survivors are scavenging an existence. To an extent, this one reads like a grade-B horror flick, but it does keep you reading. The same is true of Jon Padgett’s airplane nightmare “Flight 389”, except it might be a The Twilight Zone episode instead of a movie. Dale Bailey’s flash fiction tale of a Victorian spiritualist “I Summon You” is the stand-out of the issue. Intended for Halloween reading aloud, it definitely fits the bill.

Nightmare #110 also presents two short stories and a work of flash fiction. In Adam-Troy Castro’s intriguing “Glimpses in Amber”, a man makes a bargain he may later regret. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s clever and very short (699 words) “Murder Tongue” is inspired by a play on the phrase “mother tongue.” A tattoo takes on a life of its own and reveals the suppressed truth of a truly horrific past in Julianna Baggott’s effective “Inkmorphia”.

The Dark #76 features four originals. In “Send in the Clowns” by Kali Napier, Beth is the single mum of seven-year-old twins, but neither Beth nor the children are exactly “normal” – something she fears will be revealed when she takes them to the circus. A thoughtful story that would have been better served without the personal commentary the author inserts. Minna, of Maiga Doocy’s “In Whatever World You Choose”, doesn’t tell futures with her Tarot cards; she actually shapes futures. When she meets Aubrey, she wants to give the aspiring rock star everything she ever dreamed of, but Minna cannot shape her own future. Nice characterization. The imaginative and original “Nails” by Phoenix Alexander is a very dark fairy tale about a goblin – or, as we learn, a ghhrblin – captured so its nails can be harvested for use as an aphrodisiac. The narrator of “Yǒngshi” by Ai Jiang is a Time Giver whose painting can grant mortals the gift of more time. Now at the end of her life, she learns one final lesson about time and humans. A melancholy but charming tale.

Fiat, Fiat, Fiat” by Eliot Fintushel in The Dark #77 is a straightforward story of good and evil. Benjy’s bullied childhood friend Albert gains certain powers by the simple expedient of murdering people. Benjy knows he has to defeat this evil and does his best to do so. Or maybe none of it happened; perhaps it is just the past misremembered. Nicely done. In Frances Ogamba’s “The Hide’s Effect”, Tega obtains a magic hide that will, supposedly, grant his every desire. He learns, all too quickly, that the hide’s magic lasts only a short time. This is another cautionary tale, but made more interesting by its setting. The issue’s other two offerings are less easily comprehended. Puberty is tough for any kid, but in “Hundreds of Little Absences” by Aimee Ogden, Mandy’s youth is particularly painful. Her mother and then Mandy herself, make “modifications” to her growing body. The story doesn’t seem to be metaphorical – this is horror after all – but I was left wondering exactly (or even inexactly) what was meant. The same was true of “There’s Nothing Left Without the Smoke” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu. Something mysterious has occurred in Nigeria’s Agiga Forest, leaving many dead and the forest burnt. Badmus is somehow involved. And it has happened before. Again, I’m at a loss to figure it all out, but it is still evocative.

Apex #125 offers a half dozen new stories. Joelle Wellington’s “Cottonmouth” is the darkest of Southern gothic, and that is dark indeed. A seductive something in the attic, the young scion of an old family with plenty of wrongs as its heritage, the power of lust, a witch-woman in the swamp. Creepy good. Quack Dr. Matthew recommends that Catherine take a detoxifier in “Next to Cleanliness” by Rose Keating. When the toxins are gone, there’s not much left of Catherine. With the doctor’s “help,” things get worse from there.

In Jared Millet’s science fictional “Discontinuity” breaching time and space with faster than light travel can result in amnesia or maybe winding up in an alternate reality… but not for Captain Lura Maraj. She’s breached over ten thousand times without such effects. Maraj doesn’t even need the drug Reboot on which most other pilots rely. Maybe it’s not amnesia or even alternate reality, though. Maybe something much worse is going on, so Captain Maraj is sent on a mission to the core of the universe. This is lightweight SF, but appealing.

Tara awakens in “Candyland” by Maggie Slater to discover she, her apartment, and everything in it have been turned into candy. But that doesn’t keep her from a lunch appointment with Steph Dorman, a super-successful childhood friend. Cute but cutting.

“Cutting” means something quite different in “Gift for the Cutter Man” by D. Thomas Minton. The desperate Legrue “cuts” for the wet market, providing blood and body parts in exchange for the wherewithal to keep his dying daughter alive. “Living had a price that came due every day….” What will happen when he cannot pay? A bleak story that is not for the faint-hearted.

Wake Up, I Miss You” by Rachel Swirsky is a dream. Or rather the nightmare of sisters Poppy and Terra. It is not so much a story to read as it is one to experience. Beautifully done.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the December 2021 issue of Locus.

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