Wednesday 23 September 2015

Book Review: Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar – 'Dark Screams: Volume Five'

'Dark Screams: Volume Five'

Edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar of the esteemed Cemetery Dance Publications, the fifth instalment of the 'Dark Screams' series brings together five new tales of terror from Mick Garris, J. Kenner, Kealan Patrick Burke, Del James, and Bentley Little. The book draws together these novella length stories into a single collection that gives you a little more meat than your standard compendium of short stories, which allows the writers a little more room to manoeuvre without strict word counts holding them back. The stories are loosely tied together by love, lust, rejection and matters of the heart which creates some interesting scenarios.

The first story in the collection is also its longest. 'Everything You've Always Wanted' by Mick Garris is about a horror director who has come to a convention to be honoured for his most famous slasher flick. But a mysterious female fan takes his story down a different path with a high price to pay for it at the end. This is real pulp TV anthology material. While the writing style is nice and heavy on description, it is completely over the top in terms of its content, which keeps it quite light. In fact its almost like its an homage to The Twilight Zone in it's execution. It could have had a lot of fat trimmed from it to give it a little more punch, but it does make up for it by getting pretty visceral when it needs to.

'The One And Only' by J. Kenner is a nice blend of the classic ghost story and a heavy helping of New Orleans Voodoo. Heartbreak, rejection, and the hand of fate guide the story which is intricate in it's construction with a lot of details and events tying into each other very nicely. I've not encountered J. Kenner before, but I'll be keeping a look out for more. It's heavy on atmosphere and good old fashioned gothic scares that tries its best to keep clear of the obvious clichés. The conclusion is a little predictable, but it is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Kealan Patrick Burke's 'The Land Of Sunshine' is the shortest offering in the collection but the one that word-for-word packs the most punch. It's heavy on symbolism, double meaning, and dense atmospheric description. It's a very psychological and satisfyingly literary piece about a man racked with guilt and haunted by the accusing silence of his mute wife who sets out to find what he has lost. It has heavy nods to the melancholic remorse of Edgar Allen Poe, and with that ringing in your ears it does kind of plod along before its conclusion. Yet in terms of language and construction it is a powerfully written piece.

'Mechanical Gratitude' by Del James is another pulp TV anthology style short stories that keeps to a classic format. It's familiar, comfortable and has one or two nice surprises, and a pretty good conclusion. It sounds on the surface that it might be unmemorable, but James' tale of vintage car enthusiast Arnold and his passion for protecting his '68 Camero and his wife is a very enjoyable read that feels like it is over all too soon. Not the most challenging story in the collection, but well written and a surprisingly fine page turner.

Bentley Little's 'The Playhouse' is hands down the strongest story on offer in 'Dark Screams: Volume Five'. A simple set up of a real estate agent drawn to an old playhouse in the back garden of a house she is trying to sell soon becomes a mass of warped realities, distorted time and very memorable characters, with a great ending that almost asks you to decide what happens next. It's descriptive, engaging, wonderfully bizarre, and stays with you long after you've finished. I'll never look at a children's playhouse the same again. It's an expert exploration into the uncanny that is worth the price of admission alone.

I've not had the pleasure of reading the previous four volumes in this series, but I will be exploring them further based on the strength of this collection. There are certainly some stories stronger than others, but each one is written well and has its own merits. But for those who wan something scary to read in time for Halloween, 'Dark Screams: Volume Five' would be a good bet.  

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