I love a good horror story—I love those shivers that run up or down my spine when I’m reading to find out what evil lurks in the gloomy cellar or up in the dusty attic… or in a brightly-lit arena. And I’m sure I’m not alone, as tens of thousands of horror fans have made the likes of Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, John Skipp & Craig Spector both well-known and probably well off money-wise. (I even love a good horror movie as long as it’s not just a slasher—you can keep your Saw franchise; gratuitous violence in graphic detail ain’t my cup of blood. I don’t mind blood and dismemberment, but don’t rub my nose in it for no reason.
So I was chuffed when a Facebook friend, Matthew Hollis Damon, sent me a new horror anthology—25 Gates of Hell—in which he appears; and I was even happier when I discovered another friend, Gregg Chamberlain, also has a story in it. And, after reading the whole anthology I’d have to say that, on balance, this is a very good anthology—not perfect, mind you (perfection’s a hard mark to hit), but very good overall. (I’m talking about the contents; I the package itself could use a bit of work.)
Before I delve into the stories, I’d like to say something—as an editor, copyeditor and proofreader—about the package. It was published by Burwick Anthologies, and the cover was designed and typeset by Brian Scutt (Figure 1). I’m assuming that Burwick Anthologies is owned and operated by R.L. Burwick, who has the poem that is the last fiction in the anthology. The cover’s simple and pretty well done. The contents of the book really need work: there is a need here for a copyeditor/proofreader and maybe a book designer. There’s no colophon with editorial or publishing information—in fact, I still am not sure who the editor or editors are. The headings and the text are all the same sans-serif font, giving it a sameness that could be broken up with a bit of typographic effort. Titles could have been bolded and/or in a different font, for example. There’s a bit of italic here and there, but mostly medium Roman type similar to Arial; only the authors’ names at the “About” section are in bold type. And proofreading is also lacking; some of the authors don’t seem to know that “sank” (not “sunk”) is the past tense of “sink,” and similarly don’t know that “led” (not “lead”) is the past tense of “lead.” Commas, double quotation marks, and periods likewise are not used properly. Even one title (“The Ecstacy of Gold”) is misspelled.
*PLEASE READ**: I’ve just been informed, and I probably forgot: the copy I received was an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy), which means some of the errors I remarked on were corrected in the final copy. So if you bought this from Amazon or some other venue, it’s probably got many fewer errors than I said. Mea maxima culpa for forgetting it was an ARC! (And I’m also told it’s a volunteer “labour of love,” so nobody got paid for the graphics, typesetting, or editing. They’ll only make money if the anthology sells.) So keep that in mind when you read my review.
I know some will call me a “grammar Nazi,” but I prefer to be like King Canute, tryng to hold back the tide (of grammarless barbarians?). Steve Perry said it best: “Written language is a poor means of communication on its best day, and keeping it as sharp and clean as possible is a never-ending task.” Anyway… on to the contents. Remember that I’m not a critic per se, I’m a reader, and these are just my opinions. And I’ll try not to give you any major spoilers.
“A Child’s Game” by Brandon Scott
“The Ecstacy Of Gold” by Jill Girardi
“I’ll Come Back To You” by Brian Keene
“Ghost in the Machine” by Rich Restucci
“The Pipes” by Ksenia Murray
“Prime Directive” by Dane Hatchell
“A Hint of Lavender” by Liam Bradley
“Now Hiring Smiling Faces” by Erik Henry Vick
“101 Days” by Marie Lanza
“The Repossessed” by James Dorr
“Billabong” by Catherine McCarthy
“The Niche Thing” by Alex R. Knight III
“Wintertide” by Brian Scutt
“Hotel California” by Davina Rush
“The Inhabitant” by Flint Maxwell
“Lest We Forget” by Chris Daube
“The Last Day” by Matthew Hollis Damon
“Anxiety” by Shane Woods
“Hook, Line and Sinker” by Janine Pipe
“Inner Beauty” by John West
“Lunchtime for Benny” by Christy Aldridge
“Alive Inside Me” by Nicholas Catron
“The End of the Study” by Gregg Chamberlain
“The Reporter and the Serial Killer” by Steven Hartman
“Mad: A Poem” by R.L. Burwick
“A Child’s Game” by Brandon Scott isn’t one of the best stories in the book; it has a bit of a problem with consistency. A child is found by his mother holding a bloody hammer and the family cat’s been beaten to mush. Neither of the parents seems to react the way you’d expect. A bit of a muddle here.
“The Ecstacy Of Gold” by Jill Girardi is, except for the misspelling of the title, one of the strongest stories in the book. I enjoy stories set in other cultures, like this one. One thing I have a problem with, and that’s the protagonist cutting someone’s forearm off with a machete. I’ve used one to clear brush, and cutting through bone might not be that easy. Otherwise, nicely done—some unexpected turns in this one.
“I’ll Come Back To You” by Brian Keene embodies one of my favourite hypotheses, that of the parallel universes, and the “Mandela Effect.” A chilling little number, and well done. (However, the Statue of Liberty is indeed on Ellis Island, a Google search just confirmed, not Liberty Island. Further confirmation for parallel universes, eh?)
“Ghost in the Machine” by Rich Restucci is a fairly long science fiction story involving the dead… and what you might do with them. It’s also got a kicker ending. I liked it.
“The Pipes” by Ksenia Murray is yet another “parallel universe” story, this one involving drainage pipes. When you’re young enough, and small enough, you can crawl through many drainage pipes under roads… and what might you find on the other end? Pretty good story.
“Prime Directive” by Dane Hatchell is also SF. It involves a certain type of man (hardly anyone’s favourite kind) and expensive android playdolls of the female persuasion. When a sexual fantasy goes too far, what can happen? You’ll find out.
“A Hint of Lavender” by Liam Bradley is a story of young lovers… except the guy can’t (isn’t allowed to) touch the girl at all. He’s kind of a jerk, though, and like the protagonist in the previous story, has a problem following rules. The ending here is suggested rather than overt, though, and no reason is even suggested for what happens. Good enough.
“Now Hiring Smiling Faces” by Erik Henry Vick is a waitress’s story. Kat Beauchard gets a job at a strange BBQ place. But she obviously never read fairy tales, even though she knew the “curiosity killed the…” saying. Hey, Kat, ever hear of Bluebeard? Well written, but way too long; we were ahead of her most of the way.
“101 Days” by Marie Lanza is set in Louisiana’s bayou country. For most of us “damnyankees” (that’s what they used to call us in Florida when I lived there… “us” being anyone who isn’t—I mean, ain’t—from the Deep South) it’s a small step from hearing “Rougarou” to “Loup-garou”… yep. It’s a werewolf story. And a very well done story, too. I never knew about rougarou, either, before reading this.
“The Repossessed” by James Dorr is written in a pseudo-19th-century style. It involves resurrectionists (“grave robbers,” “sack-em-ups”), revenge, and a bit of voudon thrown into the mix. Like “101 Days,” this story taught me something… I’d never heard of the Warburton act of 1843 before. You can thank Mr. Warburton for doctors being able to cut up unwanted corpses in teaching colleges rather than in secret, like Dr. Fronkensteen. Pretty good story, too.
“Billabong” by Catherine McCarthy takes place in the 18th century rather than the 19th like the story above; you can probably guess from the title where it’s set. (“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong….”) It involves some indigenous peoples meeting Europeans—who look like ghosts with their white faces and white sails and clothes—and discovering that ghosts really aren’t nice people. But the billabong they establish their permanent camp by isn’t one they should be abusing. (A billabong is a body of water… there’s more to it than that, but that should suffice.) Some legends are true legends. Well done.
“The Niche Thing” by Alex R. Knight III involves Randy Bremish and what he thinks is a ghost haunting his house. I’m not sure I followed this one; it seemed to end too abruptly and I didn’t get the point. Maybe I’m being dense here. But how does the title tie in?
“Wintertide” by Brian Scutt appears to be one thing, then turns into another thing. I can’t tell you what it turns into, but although it’s pretty well written, it definitely needs work. A mysterious something becomes a bear in mid-paragraph, and the tip-off at the end is not hinted at earlier, really. It’s okay, but could use a bit of a rewrite.
“Hotel California” by Davina Rush is just a prose rewrite of the Eagles song. Her interpretation follows the song pretty closely and, in my opinion, not all that well. Anyone hearing the song would already have formed their own mental story, I think. This for me was a “why bother?” story.
“The Inhabitant” by Flint Maxwell is kind of an odd one. The protagonist is never named (just called “the boy”), and although the story is a “monster in the closet” story—and how many of us had monsters in our closets, eh?—there’s no apparent reason for what happens. The story leaves us with more questions than answers. Also, the boy seems young for his age. I think this could be better with some work.
“Lest We Forget” by Chris Daube is about a mythical “Feradano” bridge in New York (probably chosen so that it sounds like the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, a bridge that fell apart because of sympathetic vibrations), and its construction. It’s about the men who built bridges back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the men who profited from their labours. A story of greed and revenge. Well written.
“The Last Day” by Matthew Hollis Damon is about Frankie, who lives in an apartment called “Ainslie,” (an AI) with a beautiful, sexy wife named Charlene, and works in the American United Countries for His Eminence Lord Rodnick. His work is like play, and he’s up for a promotion. His life could hardly get better, and yet Frank is dissatisfied. Nothing seems to mean much anymore. Hmm. I think Frank’s in for a bit of a wake-up call! A good SF/horror story, one of the better stories here.
“Anxiety” by Shane Woods isn’t as scary as it is sad. It’s well written, but I felt really down when I finished it, because I felt for the protagonist, James.
“Hook, Line and Sinker” by Janine Pipe is a bit of an anomaly, but you might not see it, but it’s not your standard “slasher.” There are two cops—a man and a woman—and a violent killer who kills with a hook (you may have seen something like this in a movie). We find out why he kills and who he is, but that’s nothing you’ll find in a movie. It’s disturbing, because it breaks the “horror rules.”
“Inner Beauty” by John West—speaking of disturbing, this one might be a bit much for some people. Mary’s been captured by a serial killer and she thinks she can talk her way out of it. But she’s wrong, and for reasons you probably won’t guess. (There are echoes of a scene in the 2020 movie His House in this story, though I’m sure it’s a coincidence.) Poor Mary.
“Lunchtime for Benny” by Christy Aldridge concerns a kid named Benny who inadvertently gets caught up in a food fight in the cafeteria, thanks to another kid named Simon. Their punishment is not something you’d ever think of, however. You can kind of see this one coming, in a way.
“Alive Inside Me” by Nicholas Catron is another SF story. Chris is a soldier in a Space Command “cube” orbiting Saturn. To pass the time and keep them on their toes, the soldiers play a VR-type game where they hunt each other. Chris keeps winning the game and the others, particularly his friend Marek, don’t like that. I guess even friendship has its limits. Well done.
“The End of the Study” by Gregg Chamberlain is straight SF; it involves a scientific study of an alien from a crash-landing. Well written, but I’m sorry to say I was way ahead of the author on this one. (But I’ve been reading—and writing—“Twilight Zone”-type stories for decades.)
“The Reporter and the Serial Killer” by Steven Hartman
“Mad: A Poem” by R.L. Burwick is a bit of doggerel (mostly a simple aabbccdd etc. rhyme scheme, although it breaks up here and there) that didn’t work for me. I think it could have been done better in blank verse; some word choices seemed forced by the rhyme scheme.
A couple smallish things about these stories; one is that writers, especially, should know the difference between “lie” and “lay.” “Lay” is a transitive verb that needs an immediate explicit subject. I cannot “lay” there; you cannot “lay” there, and he/she/it cannot “lay” there… unless you lay bricks, or eggs—or a person, sexually. You must “lie.” Secondly, I don’t believe human flesh, from what I’ve read, can convincingly emulate beef in a “sloppy joe” sandwich as mentioned in a couple of stories. The textures are wrong and the meat is, I believe, too light-coloured to pass for beef. (That is, if you believe as I do that sloppy joes are made with hamburger, or ground/minced beef.) Just sayin’. I do like a bit of reality with my fantasy, you know. These little caveats don’t mean this is a bad anthology; it’s not. Just my little bit of OCD creeping in, because that’s how I am.
Anyway, well done overall; if you want a good horror anthology, you could do much worse; this one’s available on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca in both Kindle and paperback format (possibly on other sites as well; I didn’t check). And one other thing: they could have linked the author pages with hypertext; it was used to link the table of contents to the stories, at least in the Kindle version.
Comments? You’ve got ‘em, I want ‘em! Comment here or on Facebook, or even by email: stevefah at hotmail dot com. I really want to hear what you have to say about this, so let me know! Compliment me, correct me… heck, even bust me! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!