'I've tried the rational road, he thought. It led me nowhere. If you had seen what I had...The dirty, pale skin, the empty yellow eyes, the stained, razor-sharp teeth, and worse: the disfigured gray stumps this creature had. Oh, and how it moved - it crept, stalked almost. Shit, if you'd seen all this, then you'd know better'
- 'Never Sleep Again' by Calvin Demmer
in Deadman's Tome: Monsters Exist
edited by Jesse Dedman and Theresa Braun
Deadman's Tome, 2017
As children, we all have nightmares. We have fears we can't rationalize, we believe in the monsters until the bed and that 'thing' living in the cupboard. We keep our lights on and our teddy-talismans close. As a little girl, I had three distinct fears: that a hand would shoot out from under the bed and seize me; that the glassy eyes of my dolls would blink and they would crawl over to me; and finally, that a monster was on my heels when I turned the downstairs light off and bolted for the stairs.
As we grow up, we realize that these monsters do not exist, or at least no longer in these forms. The real monsters are people, they wear human skin and act human in every way, but really they are the monsters we ran from as children. They grew up too. However, in Deadman's Tome: Monsters Exist these monsters are still monsters, the ambassadors of the Lovecraftian mythological horrorplex that makes us shiver and double-check under the bed once again. There are giant rats, spiders, goat-men and all kinds of horrific beasts, both from folklore and pop culture, that will stick with you long after you read this book. Monsters Exist 'features a gallery of iconic monsters' (Mr. Deadman, Preface) and it does not disappoint. I will attempt not to spoil any of these stories, what is the point of a horror story if you know the ending right? I will say this collection was sent to me by Leo X. Robertson so I could provide a fair review, thank you Leo!
The best short stories haunt you long after you have read them, for me personally - though I thoroughly enjoyed all of them - the stories that particularly stuck with me were 'The Voice from the Bottom of the Well' by Philip W. Kleaver (Twitter) and 'Bitten' by Christopher Powers (Twitter). Both these authors struck a wonderful balance between the cruelty of humans and the hunger of monsters. In 'The Voice...', Kleaver introduces us to Johanna, a ten-year-old girl who wakes up once morning to find a voice scratching at her subconscious. She lives with her mother, her little brother Jesse and her father, who is a bully and doesn't have time for his family. In your fairy-tale 'if you go down to the woods today' scenario, Johanna discovers a deep well in the local woods and soon discovers there is something hungry at the bottom. Kleaver creates a intricately complex main character here with a real understanding of how children think. This tale links into our old fairy-tale traditions of dangerous woods that move and shift, while all tapping into our fascination with wells and what truly lies at the bottom. I often find horror writers add depth to the monster but forget the human involved, leaving them paper-thin and not worth caring about, so it was refreshing to feel my heart tugging for Johanna.
Fantastic character building was a big part of what made me love 'Bitten' by Christopher Powers. Here we have a scenario that feels like it has walked straight out of Lovecraft: two men sitting down and discussing a tragic adventure into an exotic, unknown part of the world. Jason's botanist father-in-law Charles lives alone and Jason feels obliged to check in on him. He sits down to listen to Charles' tragic trip to the Congo Basin with a expedition team. There one of his crew ran foul of spiders, he was bitten but otherwise felt fine. The next morning, they found him hanging from a tree, wrapped in web that couldn't be cut or burnt and Charles watched as a giant spider tortured his friend, before finally devouring him. Yet, that is not the end. How this story continues and ends is chilling, the pacing was masterful and Powers uses the environment of the story to his ultimate advantage. In a similar way to horror films, where we are shown the enclosed locations and the neighbourhood so we know just how far our heroes have to run, I was very aware of the house where Charles and Jason sit. With some of the other stories in this collection, the environments were too sprawling and vast for me to get that crucial sense of 'entrapment', that feeling that there is nowhere to run. In 'Bitten' I felt the walls closing in, the locked doors and the claustrophobia of fear.
Many of these stories see innocents fall afoul of monsters, but in some tales we see a strange form of justice play out. In 'A Murder of Crows' by S.J. Budd (Twitter), a serial killer is kidnapped by Morrighan, the goddess of death, who wants to see his debt paid. This story had excellent dialogue and wonderful insight into the human condition, posing such questions as: where does our evil truly stem from? How willing are we to sacrifice what we love in favour of other loves? I only wish this story was longer. It is very short and due to its length, I didn't feel the same connection to the characters as I did others. Otherwise, a very satisfying story where the monster actually tracks down the human monster.
I considered 'Kelpies' by Leo X. Robertson (Twitter) as a 'sister story' to 'A Murder of Crows'. Neither tales are what I would call 'horror stories', but they both analyse the minds of men and their relations to women, one in a murderous context and the other in a lustful. In 'Kelpies' a man who has a pregnant wife back at home, but gets lured into a lake by a mysterious woman. This one bad decision pulls him into the sleezy underwater strip-club of the Kelpies, where the men are free to leave any time they like: but they never do. Because life down below is more appealing than the one crippled with responsibilities above. This story sits between two bloody dark creepy tales, so it was refreshing to find humor in this slower-paced story. Again this is quite a short tale but it has punch and wit to it that make it very entertaining.
Two of these stories focus on that 'stopping on the high way' vibe we get from horror films like Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes. In 'Playing Dead' by S.E. Casey (Twitter) and 'Criatura' by John Palisano (Twitter), both protagonists stop on the way to their destination, warning us of taking an unknown path or making an unscheduled stop! In 'Playing Dead', possibly the most surreal in this collection, family-man Harry pulls over to visit a 'shanty tent city' carnival that has set up in the middle of nowhere. While he explores the carnival, where people wander from tent to tent in a trance like state, we are give hints about 'the devil monkey of Dover'. This may also be one of the few stories to play with flashbacks and time-warping, which Casey does very well. Clarity may not be something this story offers, as I found myself still a little confused at the end, but - always being one to find the positive - I believe this is intentional. Casey creates for us the mind of a severely traumatized man, at the end I was unsure whether the events had actually happened or whether Harry's mind had translated them that way. I enjoy stories that keep me guessing even after the final word and I found this is one I wanted to re-read again in order to solve the mysteries left in my mind.
'Criatura' is undoubtedly one of the most gruesome stories in this collection. Here we find Chuck stranded in the middle of the isolated Canyon County when his Jeep Cherokee 'Bertha' fails him once again. Here he is ambushed by a group of 'Criatura' who force him to do an unspeakably gross act before letting him escape, however this act has horrific consequences. The attention to detail in this story is perfect, even if it did make me want to gag a few times! I also found the first-person narrative voice very impressive, full of Chuck's distinct personality, who even in the face of terror will continue to crack the odd joke or witty comment. Similar to 'Kelpies', the monsters possess human qualities, begging the question: how we are really all that different from these creatures?
The last 'pairing' of stories I will make is 'Eclipse at Wolf Creek' by Sylvia Mann and 'No.7' by William Marchese (Twitter). Both of these stories feature teenage boy protagonists who get themselves mixed up with dangerous creatures. In 'Eclipse at Wolf Creek' - a strong contender with 'Criatura' for the gross-gore factor! - Buddy spends his days looking after his zombie-like Grandmother while his dad works, often spending days and weeks away. His Grandmother often warns him about the 'Mothmen', which he believes are merely folkloric fantasies of her ailing mind. Of course as this is a horror collection, we know different. While our hunting Buddy and his friend Preston trespass onto forbidden territory and of course find themselves contending with the very creatures his Grandmother warned him about. This whole story should have the subtitle: listen to your elders. The story was predictable, but the writing more than made up for what I felt was an inevitable outcome. It was very well-paced, the characters clearly defined and I enjoyed a theme that I hadn't seen prior to this tale: the fear for the monsters within ourselves. The Grandmother is terrifying due to her mind's rapid decline, she walks around the house, bangs on doors and screams about Mothmen; Buddy has to wash and clean his grandmother, he himself a prisoner of her condition. Buddy himself wrestles with his feelings towards Preston, which is hinted to be romantic. While I want to strongly stress I consider neither dementia or homosexuality 'monstrous', this story was reflective of what we as humans consider our hidden selves, whether they are coaxed out by illness or by choice is a matter left to the characters.
'No. 7' harks back to a Frankenstein experimentation with a blend of wartime horror thrown in. Jake and his friends are approached by army man Rick who has risen up from the sand so he could return Jake's father's dog-tags to Jake. Rick and Jake's father were part of a project to bring dead soldiers back to life, however they were each designated a demon. I enjoyed the mix of themes in this story, there were very human concerns - such as missing fathers and the need to fulfil promises - but also let the demons haunt the story through atmospheric ways, rather than getting too up-front-and-personal. Atmospheric tension is a difficult beast to tame and I felt this story did it extremely well. The teenage boys were larger than life, Jake's friends were the voices of reason to argue against Jake's reckless desire for closure.
So we are left with 'Master Vermin' by Wallace Boothill (Twitter), 'Legend Trippers' by Theresa Braun (Twitter), 'Wicked Congregation' by Gary Buller (Twitter), 'Lake Monster' by Mr. Deadman (Twitter) and 'Bloodstream Revolution' by M.R. Tapia (Twitter). As this has already been a long review, I don't want to delve too much into each one, yet I do what to do each story justice as they were all fantastic and deserve notification. These five stories can be summed up as the 'folklore fiends' in this collection, as each one conjures up a monster straight out of legend, whether on a local scale or a global one. These are certainly the fearsome five, the most horror-inspired tales of thrilling chase and sudden death.
In 'Master Vermin' we see a neighborhood going downhill as more wealthy types move in and destroy/gentrify the local areas. While walking the streets at night, Baltimore resident Pete is lured by a intoxicating smell down dark alley ways, along with many other people, until he reaches Calloway Homes, a long-term housing project. Pete realizes some of his fellow humans are filled with the bubonic plague, but the worse is yet to come. Because this is the Rat King's turf and he does not suffer fools. This was a fantastic story to kick off this collection, a proper monster-flick tale of human corruption vs. monstrous creatures. This story had a very solid introduction and took its time, Boothill didn't rush into his monster-scenes and allowed 'rest periods' within the narrative, such as when Pete bumps into a homeless woman called Bernice or has a meal with his friend.
'Legend Trippers' continues the thrilling monster ride within its larger than life nightmare denizens, this time in the form of the 'Goat Man'. Train-driver Jaxon nearly hits a boy perilously close to the tracks, who claims to have been 'legend tripping' with his friends, including a girl called Natalie who is still missing. The boy claims to have seen the 'Goat man', a local legend about an escaped circus freak who bewitches innocents and sends them to their deaths. Jaxon embarks on a mission to find Natalie with her cousin Marla and a hungry cameraman in tow. Unfortunately they find exactly what they are looking for. Without giving too much away, I really loved the twist at the end where we see the events unfold from a ghost's point of view. I thought it was a bold and risky maneuver on Braun's part, as changing the narrative voice from third-person to a first person plus a character-change can easily jar the reader. However, I felt this was masterfully done and I enjoyed the fact we were removed from our main protagonists mindset, that we were no longer privy to what was going on in his head.
'Lake Monster' tells us a tale of lakeside horror and that old Jaws-inspired fear we have of what lurks below the water. Two buddies - Gary and Willie - go away for a fishing weekend, joking about local rumors regarding the contents of the lake and missing persons cases in the area. Of course, those rumors are proved more than true. I thought the dialogue was the strongest point in this story, the relationship between the two characters really made this story wholesome before it nose-dived into horror, I wanted the faux-married pair of middle aged men to survive (do they or don't they?). The environment was also wonderfully illustrated, I even felt the chill by the lake!
In 'Wicked Congregation' we get a different take on the fairy-tale myth crossed with sacrificial offerings. Cool and collected William, who is the last in a line of High Peak Rangers who keep the monsters at bay, must perform the horrific ritual to keep the world safe from harm. He is tormented by the terrible childhood memories regarding the last ritual, where his mother and unborn baby brother were stolen away from him. The setting of this story reminds me of quaint yet creepy churches in English woodlands and country villages, while the fairies are nothing like the cute pixies plastered across children's media. The pacing is quite meditative, we know pretty early on what is going to happen, the question is whether William will go through with it. I found this tale was less about the monsters and more about the human cost, both in blood and moral purity. How far would you really go to save humankind?
Last but not least we have 'Bloodstream Revolution' by M.R. Tapia, whose novella 'The Die-Fi Experiment' I will be reviewing next. In Mexico, civil war between revolutionaries and Federalists has left the unnamed-narrators village dirt poor and death rich. The Chupacabra's are creatures who live off the village's livestock, leaving goats intact but sucked dry of blood. The main character wants a blood revolution against the government, the Federalists, all the men and women who fight or die or run in the name of things he doesn't believe in. He only believes in death and he prepares for this revolution, locating a hollow tree and surrounding it with livestock. His wish is granted when the Chupacabra's descend upon the village after another bloody attack from the Federalists. I will leave what happens to your own reading, but I really loved the intimacy of this piece and what constant war can do to people. This seemed to be less about the monsters and more about the culture, illustrating the lives people are forced to live and how in the end it doesn't matter who is on top, it always ends in death. This was a powerful short story, illustrating how maybe we shouldn't ally ourselves with flawed humans, but honest monsters.
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I strongly recommend it to anyone who loves a good chilling story! My only criticism - and it is minor - would be a thorough edit, as there were unfortunately quite a few spelling/grammatical errors throughout the book and I was saddened to see them present in what otherwise was a brilliant collection. I would make a fantastic gift for anyone remotely interested in this genre - dare I mention Christmas? So get your copies while you can!