01Publishing, $11.99, ISBN 978-0-9839230-5-3
There are many Lovecraftian anthologies out there, but Whispers from the Abyss stands out by mostly succeeding in capturing in high fidelity the sense of cosmic dread that permeates this particular slice of the horror genre. Anthologies live and die by the curation of the editor, so Kat Rocha really deserves a standing ovation in this instance.
Oh, and this review is going to be a long one because there are – count them – 28 stories here, so feel free to go to the toilet or get some snack first. It’s like I’m going anywhere.
Greg Stolze is up first with Iden-Inshi, which has a very annoying, bitchy, and xenophobic biologist who blames all her problems on sexism and racism. Sounds like many people on social media these days, hmm. At any rate, she is kidnapped by Kim Jong Un to his top secret lab, where researchers are forced to experiment on ways that will allow the North Korean dictator to create a cloning technique that will, in a way, allow the man to live forever. DNA from Cthulhu-verse is involved, and because it is so easy to find the protagonist as annoying as can be, I look forward to her impending rape and death at the tentacled clutches of monsters. Wait, the story ends before that all that fun happens? That’s no fun at all.
Jonathan Sharp’s Nation of Disease: The Rise & Fall of a Canadian Legend is a delicious tale of Nation of Disease, a heavy metal duo that went out with a literal murder on stage, when the lead singer brutally turns the programmer and keys dude into a bloody pulp in front a maddened audience. This could be due to the murdered guy messing around with sounds that are not meant to be heard, much less enjoyed, by mortal ears… This one is done just about right, a step up from the previous story – the narrative framing device is appropriate, the pace is taut and fine, and there is an impending sense of a wide-scale terrifying disaster incoming when the whole thing ends.
Mason Ian Bundschuh’s When We Change has a family whose trip to the cabin isn’t going so well. This is a short one, like an extended flash fiction, and it can be just as well a zombie story as anything else. Why is it here? They need something to fill up two pages?
Nutmeat by Martin Hill Ortiz is the obligatory creepy crops and pod people combo story that is found in every anthology like this. This one captures the atmosphere and tone perfectly, although it’s also on the tad predictable side.
Tim Pratt and Greg Van Eekhout – ooh, I love that surname – presents Secrets in Storage, a low-key but chilling tale of a protagonist who makes money by purchasing stuff abandoned in rented storage once these things are auctioned off by the U-Stash-It company, and gambling on finding good things inside that can be sold for profit. The latest acquisition is a chest… that has a fake bottom… that, when removed, reveals stairs leading down into the darkness. Of course that fellow has to investigate, and oh my god. This is a simple, yet effective tale that gives me the creeps. Sure, on paper the whole thing feels implausible and even absurd, but when I read it, the whole thing just sucks me into the darkness. Stories like this usually present a mundane situation that slowly unravels into something unfathomable and terrifying, and this story captures that vibe very well.
Tim Jeffreys’s The Well is the most heartbreaking story here, and it’s also the most viscerally terrifying one. Short, simple, yet gutting, this one is about a man trapped in a situation in which his death is inevitable from the actions of the woman he loves. Okay, there is enough here that can be passed off as Lovecraftian, but at the same time, I have my doubts about it fitting well – ahem – in this anthology. Still, no matter, this one hits hard, and that’s what counts at the end of the day.
The Neon Morgue by Nathan Wunner is more Screamers than anything else, but this tale of machine-centric post-apocalyptic world is alright. I’m not wowed by it, but I’m not repulsed by it either. It’s sort of just here in this anthology, and it’s okay.
Jason Andrew insists that Richard Nixon’s election campaign is funded by his fish-men family in Innsmouth. Fear and Loathing in Innsmouth: Richard Nixon’s Revenge is mildly amusing in a predictable, read this many times already way, but still, how long has that been? Let it go, man. Why do I get the feeling that the sequel, featuring Donald Trump, is in the works?
David Tallerman’s My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Age 7 is a cute yet terrifying tale of a sweet, innocent young lady who befriends the new girl from Innsmouth despite everyone else’s warning, and she is so happy that they will take her to visit that place, where she will be given a chance to feed their god Dagon. I like this, and I hope the great Dagon likes her enough to make her his grand priestess of the apocalypse or something.
AC Wise’s Chasing Sunset is more psychological than cosmic horror, but it’s a gripping, tragic tale of a man who tries very hard to escape his violent, abusive father. This one has a happy ending of sorts, but the whole thing leaves me emotionally drained at the end of the day. Wait, this thing is only nine pages long? That’s… impressive.
I Do the Work of the Bone Queen by John R Fultz feels like the lost chapter of the Necronomicon, which hadn’t really been lost but rather “lost” because it’s just kind of pointless. A ghost discovers that the afterlife is a production line in the Bone Queen’s factory, and no, that isn’t a naughty pun – sadly.
Brandon Barrows’s Suck It Up, Get It Done is about a sewage cleaner who learns that there are… interesting, dangerous things in the tunnels that ordinary people aren’t aware of, but his management and colleague all know and removing these things are just part of the job. I get more Clive Barker than HP Lovecraft vibes from this one, really, but it really doesn’t matter in the end. This one is not too long to be annoying, but also on the too-short side to be effective.
The Substance in the Sound by WB Stickel has an interesting premise – two men discover slumbering shoggoth-like things while fishing in a cove, only to entrust their discovery to the very person that will send them to their doom. The execution is uneven and unsatisfying because the whole premise is too big to be contained within a short story format.
Kelda Crich has a great story in Stone City, Old as Immeasurable Time, as the protagonist is determined to find her way into an ancient temple for her own personal reason, even if doing so can doom the world. I like this one, but I wish it had been longer so that I can find out what happens in that temple.
Nick Mamatas’s Hideous Interview with the Brief Man is too gimmicky for my liking, and it goes on and on interminably like a stand-up comedian who is unaware that things just aren’t working. This is my one clear dud in this lot.
The Sea, Like Glass Unbroken by Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a nice title and a poetic, lush kind of narrative but it’s basically a tale of a demented crazy ex-girlfriend of a sea god. Isn’t there a less clichéd story for the author to bestow her lush kind of poetry on?
James Brogden’s The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread combines British snottiness and comedy in a way that suggests that he’s trying to get a Cthulhu-flavored Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy spin-off going. I don’t mind seeing that, to be honest. This one is mildly amusing and stops short of being really interesting by coming to an end so soon.
Take that, Brightburn: the protagonist in Lance Axt’s Henry experiences his own The Neverending Story adventure, only instead of Falkor he finds a Great Old One. This one feels more like a prequel than anything else – the best thing of this story has yet to be told, and it’s actually quite cruel of the author to leave me hanging like this. Finish this story, damn it!
Aaron J French’s story My Stalk is about some fellow who grows and eventually worships a mushroom stalk that keeps growing up and up… I don’t know if this story is an acid trip or a metaphor for a man’s worship of his penis, but the whole thing is a surreal, over the top kind of poetic loveliness that I wholly approve of. That mushroom cap floating down from the sky should have been hilarious, but instead, I can only bask in the grandeur of the Sky God.
Lee Finney’s Give Me That Old Time Religion is about a holy man from an, er, interesting branch of Christianity that include snakes in the act of worship. Snakes that apparently speak the language of Cthulhu, and yeah, while Aaron J French makes his story a fun acid trip, this otherwise pretty gripping horror story has me instead laughing at the denouement.
Chad Fifer’s amusing Afraid of Dobermans, I like, but I seriously question why this one is in this anthology. It’s not even horror by any stretch of imagination.
Kat Rocha’s The Jar of Aten-Hor is the usual story of a scholar who gets too obsessed with her mysterious artifact and ends up going bonkers as a result. Nothing really new here, but this one gets a solid thumbs up from me for its narrative tone and its ability to capture that sense of dread-cum-fascination of the unknown perfectly.
Jeff Provine’s The Floor is about a flipper who finds a grisly site of some kind of undoubtedly sinister ritual at his newest property. This one’s okay, but I keep getting flashbacks to a parade of hideously bad The Conjuring Universe movies while reading this one. It’s not the author’s fault that the whole haunted house premise has been reduced into a joke of loud, lazy jump scares and that stupid, stupid doll for me, but yeah, this one is not doing it for me.
Dennis Detwiller gets a two thumbs up from me for incorporating a lesser used aspect of the Cthulhu mythos – the time-traveling Yith – in Waiting, but the story kind of ends in an anticlimactic manner. If we’re going to have a sucker punch ending, it still needs to somehow make sense in the context of the story. The ending here is pretty much the author slapping me and going, “Got you!” Got me… what? And where? This one is just the author going “Boo-yah!” in a way that leaves me scratching my head rather than applauding in delight.
Sarena Ulibarri’s Other People’s Houses is again another story that reminds me way too much of those awful, awful jump scare movies these days, but it has a good premise. Only, the protagonist’s motives to end up in the sticky situation that kick-starts the whole mess are pretty silly. It’s hard to overlook the contrived set up to fully appreciate the whole thing.
Erica Satifka’s You Will Never Be the Same is about the things that lurk between dimensions, things that humans come into contact with when they develop inter-dimensional travel. This one’s alright, but I’ve already experienced and enjoyed the longer and far superior version of this story – Event Horizon.
Finally, Josh Finney’s Death Wore Greasepaint. This one is pretty hilarious as it’s about an entertainer on a kid’s TV show using those kids to summon a leviathan, whom the kids lovingly call the Octopus King, up from the depths. I feel that this one could be a little tighter, as there are scenes that drag on and on forever, but overall, this is an entertaining story that works well as the anthology closer.
On the whole, Whispers from the Abyss is a real blast of a read, as even the not-so-great stories manage to entertain in their own way. Well, except for one story, ahem. I also like the variety in the tone and style of the stories, with most of them channeling well the many nuances of cosmic horror without coming off like a rote regurgitation of tropes, and it’s a wonderful trip. This is easily one of the better Lovecraftian anthologies that I’ve paid money for!