Post Mortem Press, $4.99, ISBN 978-1476038551
Torn Realities brings together 19 stories, all inspired by the creepy kind of horror that HP Lovecraft used to serve up when the man was alive. The trouble with such anthologies is that many authors assume that including monsters with tentacles or dropping buzzwords like “others” and “Dark Ones” will do the trick, but capturing the atmosphere requires a bit more than that. Some of the authors here succeed, while others stumble a bit.
Oh, and the much publicized Clive Barker story is actually an old one, Rawhead Rex, originally published in the third volume of his Books of Blood series as well as made into a movie that, like most of the movies based on Mr Barker’s works, wasn’t that good. But I’ll get into that later. Most of the other stories here have also been previously published elsewhere.
Editor Paul Anderson kicks off the show with Gray Areas, which is actually a recap of HP Lovecraft’s legacy and how the man’s works influenced later generations of horror writers, including Stephen King. Well, there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been covered in other rah-rah tribute pieces, including the admission of the late Mr Lovecraft’s racism in the man’s writings.
JW Schnarr provides the real start of the show with Opt-In, a story that manages to be both heartbreaking and creepy. Set in a world where advertisers are legally allowed to use the voices of your loved ones to sell stuff to you, Patrick Terran is still reeling from the grief and guilt of losing his beloved Angela when they started calling him using Angela’s voice, selling him everything from deodorants to foot powder. He soon looks forward to receiving these unsolicited advertisements, as it is his chance to hear her voice again, and it’s not long before his obsession leads him down a very, very dark path to a place called R’lyeh. This one hits all the right notes as it delivers the chills where it cuts the most: viscerally, straight into the heart rather than relying on gore and carnage.
Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There covers a familiar ground: a clone, created specifically for space travel, is currently on a one-way flight as part of a space exploration initiative. The purpose of this mission is never laid out clearly, but it doesn’t matter. This one is basically about the insanity that can stem from the unbearable loneliness in space, made far worse with the realization that this trip is one way – you are not expected to go home ever again, and you’re actually supposed to feel honored to be picked for this, something that you are created to do. The spacecraft hits a very dark place ruled by mysterious beings that seem to embody her greatest fears. Whether this threat is real or a figment of her imagination… well, that’s the whole point of this story, isn’t it? This one may not be something I haven’t read before, but the author’s narrative works very well. This story is another one that drives chills that are more visceral in nature – the scariest kind, if you ask me.
C Deskin Rink is next with Ankor Sabat. This one has a knight, obsessively seeking his lost beloved, losing sight of his humanity and committing all kinds of atrocities. It incorporates some body horror elements, but the whole thing is more about the darkness that lives inside one’s heart, one that perverts one’s morality and perspective. This is an okay read, but the editor’s foreword unfortunately spoils the story considerably and forewarns me of the “twist” that is to come. Bad move, Mr Anderson.
By the Side of the Highway by Philip Roberts is about a guy who is trapped in the same spot and the same time by the highway, unable to leave no matter how hard he tries. I’m not sure how this is inspired by HP Lovecraft, and the editor’s introduction fails to convince me that it belongs here. This one is a forgettable story that limps to an eye-rolling denouement. Something tells me this one would have been so much better if it had been written in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
In CM Saunders’s The Art of Lucid Dreaming, the protagonist is tormented by nightmares, and this person’s efforts to understand and explore them only lead to… well, unhappy things, let’s just say. This one is all about chucking horror buzzwords and tropes at me, and the whole thing has a whiff of pretentious hipster does HP Lovecraft to me. Yawn.
And then it’s Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex. I personally don’t feel that this is one of his better works, and I suspect that the reason it’s here is because the monster that gives this story its title is fashioned as a primordial, monstrous demigod that is near unstoppable. But that’s where the similarity ends. This one is all gore, with characters showing up only to be killed as the monster goes on a rampage across a quiet small town, and the author includes elements designed to shock, such as children getting eaten. I get desensitized by the increasingly monotonous non-stop gore after a while, and only experience a “Finally!” kind of relief when the whole thing finally ends.
Brad Carter’s The Midnight Librarians starts out solid, as three kids sneak into the high school library after dark for some vandalism, only to learn that, yes, libraries can be terrifying too when the lights go out. This one has a charming Goosebumps on crack vibe, only to be ruined when the author introduces the villain as some cackling loony that kills indiscriminately. Really, there is no reason for her to kill those cops unless she plans to go on a rampage soon, so the “twist” seems to be inserted solely for the sake of a bloody denouement.
I can only guess that Kathryn Board must have had a bad day with disagreeable statements on the Web when she wrote The Troll That Jack Built, because an Internet troll finds himself coerced by what seems like a malicious sentience that exists in his PC and mobile phone to commit increasingly destructive trolling online. This one is more sci-fi horror than HP Lovecraft, and I’d dispute its inclusion here if it wasn’t so forgettable that I can’t be arsed to muster the enthusiasm to even start.
James S Dorr’s The Calm is about some soldiers in 1755 coming upon a village unnoted on their maps, and discovering the true reason why the locals all hole up in their strongly barricaded homes the moment the strong winds calm down. This one is a classic no-nonsense horror story that incorporates eldritch terrors well. The tropes come together well here, and if the whole thing feels like a well-executed script for an episode in an anthology horror series, well, that’s its charm, I feel. This one is solid.
Gerard Houarner’s Casa De Los Cadáveres tries to combine noir and horror by having the protagonist return to the family his late father fled, in order to score some much-needed money by helping them out, only for the protagonist to discover that the family business is a bit more… unsavory, let’s just say, than the usual drug dealing and such. But yikes, this one takes forever to reach any build-up, and the author’s narrative is long-winded and full of unnecessary details, with the added bonus of a denouement that feels most anticlimactic after making me wade through all that twaddle.
Kenneth W Cain’s In the Shadow of the Equine has a father and son spending some time in an island when the whole tourist party is interrupted by creepy people who want to stick evil squids on these tourists’ heads, in order to turn them into zombie-like minions. You know, the whole thing sounds cool when I put it that way, provided that the story is narrated with the author’s tongue firmly against his cheek. As it is, this one is just silly, with muddled-up imageries. A horse… in an island? And what’s the link between octopus and horse in the Cthulhu mythos anyway? This one could have easily been a zombie story. Oh, and I see the revelation coming from a mile away.
Visions of Parin by Joseph Williams is another “people go mad in space” story. This one is alright, but I’ve come across better similarly-themed stories before. Hmm, I now feel like watching that 1997 sci-fi horror flick Event Horizon again.
Amsterdamned by Mitch Richmond is basically about Cthulhu going into the flesh trade to get a supply of fresh victims. This one is more about demons than primordial horrors, and in fact, the whole thing feels like the prologue of a series revolving around a demon-hunting bloke. This one is another alright story, but on the forgettable side.
Lee Davis’s The Residents of Mossy Rock is about a guy looking for his friend only to find the friend in the clutches of folks that worship and give themselves to spooky Dark One-y things. As a regurgitation of “creepy people in an isolated village” tropes, this one is alright, but surely the author can do something more interesting with his time.
Δπ (Delta Pi) by Matt Moore is a nice rebound after consecutive forgettable stories, as this one goes back to evoking the unnerving, visceral fears one may have that somewhere, just somewhere outside one’s consciousness or perception of space and time, malevolent dark forces exist. And in this story, all it takes is the right solution to various mathematical equations to unleash the great unknown into our world. Our protagonist is torn between witnessing the nature of the great unknown or to flee, naturally. This one has the atmosphere right, the build-up is solid and suspenseful (impressive, considering that it is a short story), and it ends at just the right bone-chilling note.
Next, Jessica McHugh presents A Ride in the Dream Machine, which is about a machine that allows one to discover and indulge in destructive tendencies that one doesn’t know or refuses to believe exist. Not exactly an original premise, and the execution feels like another slap-dash “Muahahaha, this is another evil pr0ject sponsored by dark forces!” story.
Bob Mustin’s The Offering combines stalker-ish obsession with… depression? Loneliness? Mayan culture appreciation? I have no idea, and I also have no idea how this one is supposed to be a horror story.
Jeff Suess’s Hollowed Ground is next, and it’s a gorgeous, dark, and yet touching story about a soldier during the War between the States that stumble upon an odd fellow who makes it his mission to remove a finger from every corpse the man comes upon. There is a higher purpose to such an act, as the soldier will learn. This one has eldritch horrors, but it is also a heartfelt tale of friendships, the fragility of life, and how war can devastate all sides involved and bring out the worst from even people we thought to be our friends and loved ones, but perhaps, life can still go on and there is still a purpose to do so. This is easily the best story of the bunch – it’s just really, really good.
Finally, Allie Marini Batts closes the anthology with The Seventh Plague, which is about the world on fire, evil is laughing, muahaha and all that, and I can only scratch my head and wonder whether I’m supposed to be in awe or something. Like CM Saunders’s story, this one is all buzzwords. Murderous strangles! Screams! Dark deities! We all swallowed up by shadows! Yes, yes, so the author can cackle like Skeletor on drink-all-you-can day, whatever.
All things considered, Torn Realities is a mixed bag, but the good ones are really good, and the weaker ones are at worst forgettable. And, of course, what is easily forgotten won’t leave much lingering bad aftertaste. Hence, this is one entertaining anthology. I’ll take it. Hastur cf’tagn.