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dark forces, but the narrator is interested in the ten-year anniversary interview Sarah did that suggests the film was originally made as a form of documentary, and subsequently expanded and fictionalised.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: “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: “Fail-Safe” by Philip Fracassi

Review of Philip Fracassi, “Fail-Safe”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 327—343. Purchase Here. Originally published in Behold the Void (JournalStone). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

This was great. A twelve-year-old boy has a mother with an infectious Jekyll-and-Hyde situation going on requiring her to be (willingly) restrained in a sort of reverse panic room when the change is upon her. The boy’s father instructs him in the protocol of how she is restrained and handled. But he’s only twelve and going through some changes himself, and one bedtime, just when Mother senses an upcoming episode, he starts to sulk to cause a delay. When he wakes up, Mother is in the panic room as usual, but Father is acting strangely….

There’s a great tension within the story and the mention of Schrödinger’s cat is telling, because towards the end, when the boy must make some important, grownup decisions, several possibilities exist simultaneously – what state(s) are his parents in, and how will he decide what to do? Only by opening the door can he find out. Or he can wait for the final (fatal) fail-safe to kick in.

Lots of fun. The only thing I wasn’t too sure about was the switch that allows time to be added to the fail-safe. Couldn’t the boy have just added more time, and then allowed help (which is on the way) to finally come? Either way, another excellent contribution to the anthology.

REVIEW: “The Granfalloon” by Orrin Grey

Review of Orrin Grey, “The Granfalloon”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 315—326. Purchase Here. Originally published in Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, edited by Scott David Aniolowski and Joseph S. Pulver Sr. (PS Publishing). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

Nice, simple story that is interesting and satisfying, even if it does peter out a bit at the end. Madeline (Mads) is an expert in occult spaces (and places) who has been invited to contribute a lecture to her old colleague Constance’s college classes. Mads had an affair with Constance when they were both young(er) and has since developed a drinking problem, complicating the situation. When Constance takes some of her students (and an erotically-charged Mads) on an extra-curricular fieldtrip to an old movie theatre (The Granfalloon), whose oddball owner disappeared years before, things get weird.

The story is thought-provoking and atmospheric, and I wish it were a bit longer — the exploration of the theatre is great and although the story effectively reflects on how we may be corrupted by the (various) media around us and our constant need for meaning and answers (and hence become part of granfalloons I suppose), I felt the story would have been served by a more visceral and less reflective end.

REVIEW: “Harvest Song, Gathering Song” by A.C. Wise

Review of A.C. Wise, “Harvest Song, Gathering Song”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 295—313. Purchase Here. Originally published in For Mortal Things Unsung, edited by Alex Hofelich (Escape Artists, Inc.). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

Nice bit of cosmic horror that tied me in knots. Seven veteran (and damaged) grunts and their captain go looking for some special ‘honey’ in a cave that used to be in the desert but is now in the Arctic (bloody caves, always moving around), as the military want to get hold of it. Turns out whoever has a sip of the honey can go days without feeling pain or resting, so it’s useful stuff in a conflict-riddled world. But the captain has sampled the honey before and wants it for her own reasons….

It’s a really interesting story, involving elements of addiction, PTSD, fabulism, hallucination and the bonds forged under pressure. And how you can lose yourself, and each other. There are some great moments and I really enjoyed the beginning, though I did lose the thread a bit towards the end as the honey got thicker. I like the central idea — that a species/intelligence/civilisation could build a memory, or a map, of itself using other life forms as recording devices, sacrificing them in the process (sort of, I may have missed something), but I find confusion can detract too much from the story and the horror, which is what happens here. A stimulating read overall, and probably the closest to ‘horror sci-fi’ that I’ve come across in the volume so far.

REVIEW: “You Can Stay All Day” by Mira Grant

Review of Mira Grant, “You Can Stay All Day”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 279—294. Purchase Here. Originally published in Nights of the Living Dead, edited by Jonathan Maberry and George A. Romero (St. Martin’s Griffin). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

I should say up front that despite being something of a horror fan, I’ve never liked zombie stories or films. Ditchwater, dull as. Having said that, this is a good story and if zombies are your thing, you’ll love it. Cassandra is a zoo worker with responsibility for the big cat enclosure. The cats know something is wrong before she does, but when she finds a dead groundskeeper shuffling around the enclosure moat she quickly twigs. After that things pretty much unfold as expected. I liked the naturalistic morality lesson at the heart of the story, about humans messing ourselves up badly but nature ultimately reverting back to the ‘wild’; eventually, things will be back to normal (even if we’re not).

REVIEW: “Shepherds’ Business” by Stephen Gallagher

Review of Stephen Gallagher, “Shepherds’ Business”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 261—277. Purchase Here. Originally published in New Fears, edited by Mark Morris (Titan Books). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

A lovely story set post-WW2. A locum arrives on a Scottish island to replace the dying GP and faces a few challenges from his initial cases, including a mother grieving a stillborn daughter, her desperate husband, and an old shepherd about to give up the ghost. It’s a little quaint and cosily written; reading it was like taking a warm bath, and I enjoyed it immensely. The horror element is mild but disturbing and I found myself reflecting on the story quite a bit. I wish it was a bit longer, as I would have been keen to linger with Dr Spence. I’ll have to check out Gallagher’s books.

REVIEW: “There and Back Again” by Carmen Maria Machado

Review of Carmen Maria Machado, “There and Back Again”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 257—260. Purchase Here. Originally published in Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) For the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) edited by Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer (Skyhorse Publishing). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

I find it hard to get flash fiction to work for horror. This story is (I think) 1500 words, so perhaps on the long side for flash, but similar challenges exist — the need to develop the character, build the plot with limited space. This is a good story but didn’t make a lasting impression. The (vampiric? monstrous?) protagonist is fed people by her mother, who gets them paralytic with killer cocktails first. When the mother dies, the daughter is forced to fend for herself. There is much to admire here, though I was unconvinced by the ending. At heart it’s a redemption story, an illustration that we don’t have to be the monsters we are made into, but I felt there wasn’t enough space in the tale to justify the decisions made.

REVIEW: “Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson

Review of Rich Larson, “Dark Warm Heart”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 239—255. Purchase Here. Originally published at on April 12, 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

As others frequently note, one of the joys of reading anthologies is discovering authors you haven’t come across before. Rich Larson has an incredibly impressive publications list for someone who’s been writing for less than ten years, but I haven’t (I don’t think) read anything by him before. Dark Warm Heart is a wonderful story and a great introduction. It’s a wendigo tale: Kristine’s ‘s husband Noel has returned from fieldwork in the far north of Canada having been caught in a bad snowstorm and miraculously survived. But he has little appetite and is obsessed with transcribing the interviews he’s conducted with the Inuit to learn more of their folklore. He does seem quite keen on nibbling on Kristine, though.

The story is well-written with great pacing, and the ending was pleasantly surprising. I’m not overly familiar with wendigo folklore or wendigo psychosis (though I’ve read a bit about it now) — for those with more knowledge the tale might be a bit predictable but it wasn’t for me. The most chilling part was the translation of the wendigo folk tale; only a short paragraph, a series of short statements like a song or poem, but with a real sense of menace. Very enjoyable.