Dark Horse Books, $19.99, ISBN 978-1-61655-427-9
Carnivals hold an interesting place in horror. A carnival is a safe space for outcasts reviled for their outlandishness, but at the same time, driven by innate nature or constant oppression, many carnival denizens can also be vicious and even inhumane. It’s a place of exotic wonders and unspeakable horror. That’s the theme of this anthology.
However, while from all appearances Nightmare Carnival is a collection of horror stories, most of the stories here offer visceral fears rather than gore. That’s my kind of horror, as I often feel this kind of horror is far more indelible and hence rewarding.
N Lee Wood’s opening story Scapegoats embody the dichotomy of the carnival perfectly. Told from the perspective of a carny named Mae, this is about how a circus encounters hostile bullying in a town that ends up costing the carnies dear – and the carnival ringmaster’s retaliation, which shocks Mae into tears. This is a good one, as it shreds the heart and sends chills down my spine with equal ease.
Priya Sharma’s The Firebrand unravels a tragic triple deaths in a carnival from decades ago, mostly through the point of a view of a historian. Henry Ellard is half in love with one of the victims, Rebecca Saunders who is known as the Phoenix, and has spent his entire life dedicated to unraveling the reasons behind her death as well as those of her husband and her brother-in-law in what seems like a circus stunt gone awry followed by Rebecca and her brother-in-law apparently experiencing spontaneous combustion. This is a rather predictable tale, but I love its stark portrayal of the poetic beauty of love as well as its futility; in the end, Henry gets some answers, but that’s all he has. He has lost his marriage, became estranged from his daughter… all for some answers that will not keep his heart warm in his old age.
Nick Mamatas is back to his old tricks. There is a good story in Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip as a carny wrestler takes on the KKK, complete with an ending worthy of applause… if he hadn’t once again bogged the whole thing down with distracting, annoying meandering off-tangents and “Look at me! I’m smart!” gimmicky narrative techniques. Is this fellow writing to entertain his readers or to pull himself off in public while reading aloud his stories to himself? If it’s the latter, have a decency to at least not charge people for the dubious pleasure.
AC Wise’s And the Carnival Leaves Town is a dark, haunting mystery revolving around several disappearances that coincided with the arrival and departure of a mysterious carnival. There aren’t many direct answers here to be had, but that’s actually a good thing as this gracefully written story showcases both the intriguing mystery and the heartbreaking loneliness of the protagonist that can only be filled by a visit to the carnival.
Terry Dowling’s Corpse Road is… about some Illuminati-like, possibly inhuman folks in a carnival that are actually the villains responsible for space accidents. I think I am missing out on a lot of the inside jokes that the author seem to be aiming for. What’s the point? Who knows – I don’t even know where the point can be found in this one. This one also goes on and on and on, much to my consternation. Often, I feel like just skipping straight to the end, but somehow I still read every page. I have no idea why – maybe it’s some spooky compulsion that comes with reading an anthology like this one.
Joel Lane’s Last of the Fair isn’t a horror tale as much as it is a look into the psyche of a not-quite-together fellow as he tries to sort out his feelings for a woman, feelings that are muddled by some dread-cum-lust that he felt for a particularly unnerving attraction he saw at a carnival. I sincerely hope falling in love – or lust – isn’t as unnerving in real life as it is here, but still, I enjoy the atmosphere, poetry, and palpable psychological tension in what is essentially the protagonist’s non-stop psychobabble.
Glen Hirshberg’s A Small Part in the Pantomime. Ugh. This author must have read Nick Mamatas’s story and said, “You think that’s annoying? Hold my beer, brah!” What could have been a taut and frightening tale in which the carnival is actually a malevolent force rather than the manifestation of someone’s fractured mind or groin drama is completely ruined by the interminable, annoying, meandering intrusive rambling and back-and-forth of a cast of very unlikable twats as they turn what could have been a tight horror tale into an interminable, tedious tale of a bunch of morons cackling and trying to be funny only to flop like beached whales. Because of the constant, rambling efforts of the author to show off how awful he is in creating conversations for his characters, this story ends up being so long that the reading experience soon resembles a Chinese water torture session.
Jeffrey Ford’s Hibbler’s Minions is one of the very few straightforward horror tales here. This is about a carnival of freaks being terrorized and killed one by one by possibly demonic, intelligent fleas. It’s better than it sounds here, but at the same time, its no-BS horror approach feels less interesting compared to many of the other stories here.
Dennis Danvers’s Swan Song and Then Some is certainly interesting: a carny falls for a beautiful woman who sings a most haunting song that sends chills down her listeners’ spines and touches their souls indelibly… as she plunges down to her death. Yes, she does, but she always comes back to life for another performance the following day. This story brings up the possibilities of how sometimes dying could very well stimulate the final burst of creativity to create wondrous types of arts, and the price that comes with having the ability to capture this glorious moment every day. The ending is exactly right – perfect – for this story. Is this horror? Not really, not in the conventional sense, but it does flirt with a tantalizing, morbid yet possibly irresistible aspect of the dying process that is dark and elegant enough to be almost terrifying in how much it all makes sense.
The Lion Cage by Genevieve Valentine is about… lion phobia, I guess? This one has a silly, even absurd premise, and the author’s efforts to turn a carnival into a menacing place of irrational forebodings has been done so much better by many other authors in this anthology.
Stephen King’s creepy fans would insist that that man invented scary clowns and the horror genre, but if you ask me, I’d take Stephen Graham Jones’s absolutely gorgeous, disturbing, and all-too-frightening The Darkest Part over you-know-what any day. Sure, there are some vile, frightening rapist pedophile clowns here, but if you read this one, you’d wonder whether the clowns are real or simply manifestations of victims of abuse unable to free themselves from the vicious cycle of becoming abusers themselves. This one does everything right to me – the rising tension, the pacing, the atmosphere, the heartbreaking denouement – all of this breaks my heart and shatters my soul.
Robert Shearman’s The Popping Fields is a too-long, increasingly uninteresting tale of a fellow who makes balloons for kids and his unhealthy attachment to his daughter that prevents the poor dear from having a normal teenage phase. I love the author’s narrative here, as it’s lush and atmospheric without being too melodramatic or purple, but I have zero interest in making any emotional investment in the eye-rolling antics of the protagonist. The author probably intends that character to be a tragic, lonely figure, but this fellow starts out normal and sane only to abruptly become an evil family member in a VC Andrews story.
The next two stories are absolutely, gorgeously Lovecraftian. Nathan Ballingrud’s Skullpocket… I won’t say too much about this fabulously haunting and very, very dark tale so that I won’t spoil it. Let me just say that this one is one of my absolute favorites of this lot, possibly even one of my favorite anthology entries ever. I have no complaints whatsoever with this one, as I’m all full of love for every word in every page of this story. Livia Llewellyn’s The Mysteries is about… a woman willingly getting impregnated by some cosmic thing while having her life force or something being sucked by some kind of vampire great-great-granny? Whatever, don’t care, as the whole thing isn’t developed well enough for me to become too attached to it, plus the author employs some unnecessary narrative tricks overused by literary wannabes to further obfuscate the story. Who cares? It’s a story about a fat woman being pregnant with what could have been the spawn of Azathoth or something. Nobody is going to give the author a Pulitzer Prize so come on, ditch the pretensions.
Finally, Laird Barron presents the most basic kind of horror in the closing story Screaming Elk, Mt – something that resembles a very average monster-of-the-week episode of The X-Files with an eye-rolling overpowered female protagonist who speaks, sorry, quips non-stop as if she’d on Tweeter or Tumblr trying way too hard to emulate a cool character from a CW show. This is supposed to be a hardened, adult woman, mind you, so I can only guess the author should probably branch out from plumbing how characters converse in young adult novels and TV shows and, I don’t know, maybe get inspired by something more adult for his adult characters. Just a suggestion, really.
The stories here work for the most part, hence I am a happy reader. I consider giving Nightmare Carnival five oogies at various points in this anthology, especially after reading the better stories, but then I will come across a dud that comes off as far worse because it is sharing an anthology with those superior stories. I would still greatly, and gladly, recommend this anthology to folks seeking visceral horror or just plain disturbing tales, so four oogies sound just about right.