REVIEW: “Lost in the Dark” by John Langan

Review of John Langan, “Lost in the Dark”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 379—422. Purchase Here. Originally published in Haunted Nights, edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton (Blumhouse Book/Anchor Books), 2017. Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

An unusual and original story, and the longest in the anthology. A university lecturer is meeting one of his previous students (Sarah), who several years before wrote and directed a massively successful horror film (Lost in the Dark) that has since become a movie franchise. Some of the film seems to be based on true events wrapped up in an abandoned mine, cultism and the imprisonment of dark forces, but the narrator is interested in the ten-year anniversary interview Sarah did that suggests the film was originally made as a form of documentary, and subsequently expanded and fictionalised. The story here is a summary of what is known about the true events behind the film and its villain (Bad Agatha), some of the actors involved, and some details on key scenes from the film. This all sets up the meeting with Sarah effectively, when we find out the truth behind the documentary that was originally filmed when Sarah and her crew visited the abandoned mine. We are left with a mystery at the end as to what exactly happened and who really had a rapport with the spirit of Bad Agatha.

It’s a great tale to finish the anthology. All the sections of the story were effectively interwoven and the gradual reveal of what (may have) happened is deftly done throughout. There is some interesting reflection on the nature of horror stories and films, how stories and myths propagate and change over time, and the industry of horror that has developed over recent decades. At first we wonder why Sarah (and indeed some of the others) may have been so keen to develop a film based on a relatively traumatic event they experienced, but the ending hints at some explanations for this. This is a story that I am sure I will revisit many times.

REVIEW: “Eqalussuaq” by Tim Major

Review of Tim Major, “Eqalussuaq”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 361—377. Purchase Here. Originally published in Not One of Us #58, October 2017. Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

An interesting take on the idea of aural horror, which I haven’t seen much of — I remember Ramsay Campbell writing an interesting story featuring this (Hearing is Believing) but can’t recall much else. In this piece, Lea is a work-obsessed audio engineer (sound recordist?) who has been recording rare sounds of nature in Greenland (the movements of underwater icebergs etc.). When a rare shark species turns up she rushes to record it; and when it attacks her she somehow, in a way she doesn’t understand, makes a bargain with it to take someone else instead. When she returns home, to her somewhat ignored little boy, the odd screams of the shark seem to follow her, interfering with her recordings and ultimately her life until someone has to pay a high price to silence them.

This was a tremendous story and the internal conflict between Lea’s more devoted love for her work and her dutiful love for her son is well-handled. The idea and location of the story are original and innovative aspects of the tale, and it didn’t unfold quite as I expected so I was pleasantly surprised by the end. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Sabbatical” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Sabbatical”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 182-199 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story surprised me. After story after story of misogyny, male privilege, and general assholeish behavior, this one featured a character (Gage) willing to call out such problematic behavior in a fellow character (Thad): The first time I’ve seen this behavior explicitly commented on in the book. What a refreshing change!

This was also one of the few stories where the psychology of the story worked well one me — there was a constant wondering of why? and what will happen next? and even a bit of how?.

I don’t think these two things are disconnected: By framing Gage as someone who is not a jerk, Thorn makes me care about him and what will happen to him, and the uncertainty on this latter count is unsettling, and thus provoking, and successful.

(Originally published in Dark Moon Digest, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Starry Crown” by Marc E. Fitch

Review of Marc E. Fitch, “The Starry Crown”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 345—359. Purchase Here. Originally published in Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric G. Guignard (Cutting Block Books, 2017). Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

A research student travels to the Deep South of the USA to look for the mysterious origins of the hymn/folk song ‘Down to the Valley’ or ‘The Good Old Way’ (usually referred to as ‘Down to the River to Pray’ in popular culture, I believe). He ends up in ‘Evanstown’, South Carolina, once home of one Llewellyn Cobb who may have originally written the song. He’s told to seek out the oldest Baptist church in the town and in doing so comes across a religion involving the sacrifice of young black boys by the (respectable) white community to appease something old and eldritch that lives in the river valley.

It’s a gripping story involving some sleuthing, and deftly explores elements of racial tension in the South and the systematic and unequal valuation of life. At the end, the narrator notes that if this tale were published as research it would be laughed off as fiction, and so he has presented it as such….

This piece is thought-provoking and entertaining and I was very impressed with it. There was one odd bit referring to ‘Walker’s house’, which I think should be ‘Cobb’s house’ so I’m guessing the Cobb character was called Walker at one point in the story’s history, unless I’ve missed something. A nice slice of Southern Gothic.

REVIEW: “Economy These Days” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Economy These Days”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 164-179 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content warning: Domestic violence against children

This story seemed somewhat out of place in the anthology, as it lacked anything that struck me as typical of the horror genre.

I did have to laugh when I read this:

He’d submitted résumés and cover letters to no less than two hundred openings. A total of three potential employers requested interviews. No call-backs (p. 165).

Not because it was funny, but because of all the tropes in the book, it is this one that is the most scary, because the most true. They say “write what you know”, and it is clear from this — and from other hints in other stories — that Thorn knows the academic trajectory quite well.

But otherwise this story of a struggling academic seeking to find an alternative means of financial support is violent without being either psychologically or physically scary.

REVIEW: “Words in an Unfinished Poem” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “Words in an Unfinished Poem”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 1-21. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The gunslinger waits in the saloon for the one person who can help them find the final word that will finish their poem. Sewn into their coat are the shell casings of every person they’ve ever killed, each inscribed with a single word, a poem ever changeable and rearrangeable.

We never learn the gunslinger’s name in this story, but we learn so much more about them…the curse that haunts them, the grandmother that raised them, the memories that they cannot escape. This is not a “pen is mightier than the sword” story but rather a “the pen is the sword” story, as for the gunslinger their words and their bullets are one and the same, each as deadly as the other.

This was a beautiful and sad story, told with glittering words.

Happy birthday to us!

Exactly one year ago, we launched SFFReviews — happy birthday to us!!

In the last year, our team of reviewers has reviewed around 480 pieces. Most are pieces of fiction–speculative, fantasy, horror, sci fi, romance, queer–ranging from flash fic all the way up to novellas, but we’ve also reviewed poetry and nonfiction in the context of some of the anthologies we’ve reviewed.

We’ve reviewed stories by award-winning authors, stories that have been selected for their year’s “Best Of” anthologies, stories by authors for whom this is their first publication. We’ve reviewed stories in pro venues, in semi-pro venues, and in emerging venues that hope to one day reach those levels. We’ve reviewed stories published by mainstream publishers as well as ones that have been self-published or published by small presses. Want to read our most-read review? It’s of George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell’s anthology Abandoned Places. Want to read a review that was missed by most of our readers when it was first published>? Then read our review of Henry Stanton’s “Mother Imago”.

Throughout, we’ve worked hard to emphasise the personal and subjective nature of the experience of reading a story: We don’t try to be objective in our reviews, we don’t provide ratings or stars or statements of comparative quality, because there is no way to separate a story from the person reading it, and so every individual’s experience of a story is going to be just that — individual. We’ve tried to be sensitive to when the content of the stories or our reviews may be distressing to certain readers, and to treat all the authors we’re reviewing with respect and kindness, even when we think the story fell short of our own personal hopes for it.

A site like this wouldn’t exist without a huge number of people contributing to it. Thank you to Charles Payseur for giving us the idea in the first place. Thank you to all of our dedicated reviewers, past and present, whether they were able to review many stories or only a few. (Want to join us?) Thank you to everyone who has followed us on Twitter or Facebook, who has read, liked, linked to, tweeted, and shared our reviews.

But most of all, thank you to all the writers who have written these stories. Without you, we wouldn’t have anything to review. You make the world better through the stories you write; all we do is try to boost the signal a bit.