REVIEW: “Be Prepared to Shoot the Nanny” by Rachel Kolar

Review of Rachel Kolar, “Be Prepared to Shoot the Nanny”, Metaphorosis: The Complete Stories 2017, edited by B. Morris Allen (Metaphorosis Books, 2018): 31—39. Purchase Here. Originally published at Metaphorosis Magazine on 20 January 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

I have noted elsewhere my general distaste for zombie horror, but if it has to be done, this is how to do it! There’s a nice bit of humour here along with (as in the last story) some observations about a society awash with guns and middle-class self-obsession. It’s a post-zombie apocalypse world; things have returned to some semblance of normality, but anyone who dies comes back as a zombie until they are killed again. Miranda is a somewhat hateful, overbearing middle class parent, judgemental and casually racist, who is upset that her ‘kill switch’ has recently died. Having a kill switch is a necessity for childcare arrangements (for the middle classes), as you can’t leave child alone with a nanny in case said nanny croaks it unexpectedly and eats the child. So two are needed, so that one can shoot the other in case of sudden death. It’s a great setup. As there is only one nanny available today, Miranda decides to work from home to act as kill switch herself, and of course because she’s so overbearing and interfering — though with the best of motherly intentions — she makes what should be a normal day into a catastrophic one.

Miranda is a bit of a caricature I suppose, a tad overdone and bordering on sociopathy, but to be honest, if she is a ten, I personally know people who are at least a seven. It is telling that the first thing she thinks of when she realises she’s mistakenly killed an innocent non-zombie and might go to prison is that little Henry won’t be able to get into a good school, or a private one, so is essentially as good as dead. And then of course there is the implication of how easily mistakes can be made when guns are everywhere. Great story!

REVIEW: “Business as Usual” by N.R. Lambert

Review of N.R. Lambert, “Business as Usual”, Metaphorosis: The Complete Stories 2017, edited by B. Morris Allen (Metaphorosis Books, 2018): 21—29. Purchase Here. Originally published at Metaphorosis Magazine on 13 January 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

Ah, I loved this. A chilling story with some insightful social commentary on gun control in the USA. In a system which is set up to ensure the rights of individuals to have weapons outweighs the rights of others not to be killed by them, this story takes the next step of considering what happens when a company offers personalised bullets delivered by mail order. “There’s a bullet with your name on it!”

Our protagonist (Andy Wright) has signed up for e-mail alerts whenever someone orders a bullet with his name on it, and he gets an alert one morning before he leaves for work. Shortly after, he gets another, and another…. Obviously there will be thousands of Andy Wrights in the USA, but either there is a glitch in the systems or someone is sending one of them a message. Cue a long and unhelpful phone conversation with the company that sells personalised bullets, which will be familiar to anyone who has tried to call customer services for a major company, while the e-mail alerts come rolling in and Andy begins to panic. Maybe needlessly, maybe not. But the story effectively highlights the anxiety and helplessness that the easy availability of weaponry for the majority of the population must create for many. It’s well-written, the tension mounts nicely and there’s a bit of grim humour in there.

In the author’s notes at the end, Lambert states that the story was drafted in 2015, though of course things remain pretty much unchanged. I read it just as the debate on 3D printing of plastic guns was making the news headlines, and it didn’t seem like much a stretch from here to this imagined future. Recommended.

REVIEW: “Snow Queen” by T.R. North

Review of T.R. North, “Snow Queen”, Metaphorosis: The Complete Stories 2017, edited by B. Morris Allen (Metaphorosis Books, 2018): 15—19. Purchase Here. Originally published at Metaphorosis Magazine on 6 January 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis

A dreamy story about enchantment and desire. When the snow queen comes to town, she takes away with her an adolescent boy that the protagonist has a crush on. After a long journey to find him, the girl is changed, and so is he. But then the snow queen sees her, and falls in love with her and her independent spirit.

It is gorgeously written and falls firmly on the literary side of fantasy. I enjoyed the story, though I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more if I was more familiar with the ‘snow queen’ fairy tale and films, as I felt some of the meaning and symbolism passed me by. I was also unsure why the journey of five years and a day to reach the queen is presented as it is. A poetic story and anyone who appreciates the blending of fairy tales and literary fantasy should check it out.

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).