October has to be my most favorite month of them all. See here the grey skies, overcast and hung low with a silver outline of a moon beyond them. See here the slow rolling fog across the ground, occluding everything and making the world around us haunted with promises. See here the dead leaves caught in your hair, the twigs snagged on your sweater, the trees reaching out and begging not to die. Like all good little ex-goths turned responsible adult, I find this time of year so pleasing. And because of that, I will focus almost entirely on the creepy, the unsettling, the gothic.
After all, it is only fitting that you read this entire review in the voice of Vincent Price, no? His sinister lilt of the words, each one oozing with menace. Or maybe you should read this in the voice of Christopher Lee, his eyes shining hypnotically as they stare at you. They command you to come closer, closer. I am a huge fan of these old horror films, and this time of year always makes me think of that kind of horror. Not the Saws or the Halloween or the Dawn of the Deads of the world. Not the Evil Deads, nor the Nightmares on Elmstreet, or the rest. This time of year requires more than just the promise of gore at high volumes.
It needs to get under your skin and stay there. And here are the stories I’ve read this month that I felt crawl under my skin and wrap around my bone. Perfect little chillers for a crisp autumn evening. Grab a pint of apple cider, mulled and warm and comforting. Sit back in your favorite chair, and read these stories. I promise you, you will be satisfied.
First up, I present to you an awesome little dark story in Tor.com, City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat by Usman T. Malik. I’m a sucker for nested stories, with a good story teller framing the narrative and tying it all together at the end. These kinds of stories are a tight rope act. Every single sub-story needs to hold up on its own as well as work together with all the other sub-stories. They need to then congeal together within the framed narrative itself, tying it together to create the desired effect in the reader. It is an extremely difficult thing to pull off, and to do so with horror and dark fantasy it is even harder.
The story sings, and unsettles and the atmosphere is pitch-perfect. Watching Malik at work here is like watching a maestro conduct a complex orchestral arrangement, and the joy one gets when not only is it done perfectly, but the emotional core shines through. I applaud this story, from writer to writer, knowing just how difficult it really is to do something like this.
From Tor.com we move onto Baffling Magazine. This is a new magazine, and it has a really gothic feel to the entire publication. From the font choices, to the story choices, to the artistic flourishes, this layout and design would be at home in a German Expressionist film, or an old Hammer Horror movie, or even a Castlevania game. I enjoyed several of the stories here, and highly suggest you check out Velvet by Nino Cipri, Merida, Yucatan: 2060 by Jewelle Gomez, and From the Deep, the Music Rises by Izzy Wasserstein. Just go an read them now, they are short flash pieces and well worth the few minutes you would spend reading them. I think Baffling Magazine will easily become a favorite read of mine in the future, and I eagerly await the next issue.
Speaking of creepy flash, we turn to Daily Science Fiction, with a pleasurable little story by Lavie Tidhar called Static. Tidhar’s famous dark humor is on display in this short story, and he takes down cliché after cliché. The comedy mixes with the foreboding atmosphere, and instead of undermining the emotional core, it enhances it.
After that, let’s turn our gaze to longer stories, shall we? The crows outside my window are cawing, saying that we’ve had enough flash fiction for this month. I always listen to the crows at a time like this, they know what’s best for me. So we’re going to do a first for our monthly short story roundup, and include an anthology. Hopefully, I’ll be able to include more anthologies going forward, and really give a bit more diversity to these short story roundups each month. So what collection is this? Why, dear readers, the perfect one for a month such as this:
Evil in Technicolor, edited by Joe M. McDermott. As I said above, I absolutely love the old horror films by places like Hammer, Americus, or Corman’s class Poe/Price movies, and this collection delivers that in spades. It reminded me of the old Americus horror anthology films, in the best possible way. Each story stands alone, and yet compliments the rest. It was hard to just pick one or two stories to include from this collection, so I’ll break my rule and include three. What? It’s my own rule, and this is the kind of horror I absolutely adore.
I’ve been a fan of Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s work for a few years now, ever since I published her short story Sisters in Grendelsong issue 2. And her story in this anthology does not disappoint, Hammerville is precisely the kind of story I was looking for when I snagged this collection. It captures the gothic camp of the Hammer horror industry perfectly, and acts brilliant bit of meta-fiction as it walks through some of Hammer’s most well-known films (including a lesser known, though still favorite of mine, The Gorgon). If you’re a Hammer Horror fan, you have to read it. It will put a smile on your face, and a chill in your heart.
Another favorite in this collection is Myth and Moor by Craig Laurance Gidney. This one moves away from the meta-ness of the previous title, and instead invokes the feeling you get from watching a really good Hammer/Americus/Poe film. The descriptions pull most of the weight here, and creates that gothic ambiance that I love so much. You can easily picture everything that happens in this story, and the imagery is one of fog and long nightgowns and the ruffled wings of moths. This kind of cinematic resonance is not easy to do in narrative, since it requires a balancing act that could easily eschew towards silly and ridiculous. Not so in this story.
The last story I’m going to allow myself to talk about (though, really, you should just take an evening and read them all, one right after another, and consider it a classic movie marathon in fiction form), is A Thousand Faces Minus One by A.C. Wise. Another writer I’ve been following for quite awhile, A.C. Wise always seems to surprise, and this one is no different than the rest. It starts off with a very powerful image from classic film horror- the man without a face. And like the Black Sabbath song, there is perfect dread in that simple imagery. Who is this who stands before me?
And just like that song, we are taken under, into darkness. A simple figure, carrying all of our fears. Can you picture it? Black cloth over his face, standing in the corner of the room, watching you. You really, really have to read this one.
Okay, and now we move away from that collection and back to the short stories I’ve read elsewhere this month! And why not follow up an A.C. Wise story in a cinematic horror collection with another A.C. Wise story that uses the imagery of film in horrific ways? Check it, you need to read The Secret of Flight in this month’s Nightmare Magazine. It works even better if you read both stories one after another, as I did. It will be free to read shortly, but trust me when I say it’s worth the price of admission to buy that issue of Nightmare. Speaking of Nightmare, another really great story in this month’s issue is The Monkey Trap by Adam-Troy Castro. This contains some of my favorite weird fiction/horror tropes- a forbidden book, a search, a mystery, and consuming obsession. It’s written in that delicate M.R. James/Machen style, optimized for modern ears so that it appears less creaky and easy to read, but still contains that gothic ambiance you can only achieve with that stilted, all too forma writing.
Finally we’re going to round this all off with a story from Strange Horizons. A Layer of Catherines by Elisabeth R. Moore. Unlike the other creepy, spinetingling stories this one jumps forward and grabs you by the throat from one word. It’s an intense, harrowing story about doppelgangers and parallel worlds, and I absolutely loved it.
There. October is done and put to bed. Follow the links, buy something spooky for yourself and curl up under a warm blanket. Ignore that scraping against the door and glowing green eyes, it’s just a cat waiting to come inside and lay next to you, purring. Ignore that shape that seems to twitch and moan outside of your window pane. It’s only a tree, the leaves blown naked by the wind. Ignore the windchimes, the soft whispers of ghosts outside your living room, and that music box song you have stuck in your head.
Paul Jessup – Paul Jessup is a critically acclaimed/award winning author of strange and slippery fiction. With a career spanning over ten years in the field, he’s had works published in so many magazines he’s lost count and three or four books published in the small press. You can attempt to find him at https://pauljessupmain.wordpress.com/