Published by Gauntlet Press
Know what I love about Valentines’ Day? Those big boxes of chocolate, the kind with different varieties and a little diagram on the underside of the lid that shows you where the coconut creams and pecan clusters are. Of course, there’s always the danger that you won’t like 1 or 2 flavors… Who am I kidding? It’s all chocolate, and I love chocolate in almost every guise.
Big collections of horror short stories, like Masques V, are a lot like those Valentine’s Day chocolates, and this isn’t one of those cheap $3 boxes either. It’s filled with 29 stories by various authors, from big names like Richard Matheson, Poppy Z. Brite, Jack Ketchum, and Ray Bradbury to up-and-comers like Kealan Patrick Burke and Ron Horsley. Each story is prefaced by a brief introduction from the editor, the late J. N Williamson, to whom the volume is dedicated, with a little biographical info and a bit about why he chose the particular story. Williamson also contributed one of the best stories in the whole collection, “The Outcry,” a truly chilling tale of a very particular and unique type of haunting.
From the very beginning Masques V stands out from other short story collections. It begins with a piece by Poppy Z. Brite that Williamson calls “an incantation to the spirits.” I’ve read some of Brite’s work before, though only her short stories, and enjoyed it, but this is something else altogether. Brite writes in a sort of no nonsense way about fantastical things like ghosts and zombies that seems like it wouldn’t lend itself well to our genre. But here, in “Wandering the Borderlands,” she uses that to craft a sort of essay about not the bizarre but the mundane. There are no monsters or ghouls, but she still manages to give chills through a “routine” drowning and some speculation as to why we fear the dead.
The caliber of writing across the board in Masques Vis top notch, even the stories that aren’t quite to my taste. It says something that these lesser known writers can hold their own next to big guns like Matheson and son and Bradbury. Williamson was a savvy editor, and luckily, in those little intros he gives you websites and other info on where you can find those authors if you really like their work. And I don’t doubt you’ll find something to like. The stories here aren’t brutal, except in the sense of what they’ll drag out of you, and they’re not gory, though quite a few of them will make you shudder. The horror here is more in the circumstance, even when the circumstance is that of ghosts, monsters, and murderers … of which there are plenty. I was reminded of old episodes of The Twilight Zone, the ones that were heavier on horror than sci-fi, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
There are a ton of stories here, and going into detail about what each one is about would make for a laundry list review that would no doubt bore the crap out of you. But there are some stand-out stories I definitely recommend you check out, and those I will list.
“The Black Wench” by Ray Russell is a chilly Gothic tale of Elena, a young American woman who inherits an old English manor and travels to England with her small-minded husband, Bud, to claim her inheritance, which turns out to be haunted. But this isn’t just your basic haunted house story that we’ve all read a thousand times before. When Elena learns the truth behind who The Black Wench of Mainwaring Hall really is, both she and Bud are shocked … and you might be too.
“FYI” by Mort Castle is another chilling and disturbing tale, told with a sort of off kilter sing-song cadence that is very unsettling, but not nearly as unsettling as the punch packed in the last few lines. Jack Ketchum pairs with P. D. Cacek for a delightfully twisted cautionary tale of love in the Internet age called “The Net” that is so plausible it could practically be a newspaper clipping. “Stirrings by Kealan Patrick Burke is one of my favorites. It’s a nice, subtle story that’s both haunted and haunting with a nice twist on the old ghost story (there are a couple of those in here … fresh takes on old standards). “The Sheets Were Clean and Dry” by Lucy A. Snyder is a dark and violent story — probably the most violent and gory in the bunch — and extremely powerful. It’s another one of my favorites.
“Moths in Damp Grass” by Tracy Knight is so simple and so bone chilling. It’s about a young boy — a very special boy — whose mother, a nurse, is trying to find him a new daddy using rather unconventional methods. Knight’s writing is strong and evocative, putting the feelings and emotions of the main character right into your hands. It was heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time. I loved it. Ron Horsely’s interesting “In the Empty Country” is very Twilight Zone-y with a nice little feminine twist that I appreciated.
Richard Christian Matheson. If you don’t know the name … well, where the hell have you been? There is no doubt this man is a genius, an amazingly talented writer, and a master of the genre; and his contribution to Masques V just backs all that up further. And how! “Making Cabinets” may be one of the most fabulously well written short stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. The man packs more story into two brief pages than some of the others do in twenty or more. But beyond that it is one of the most deceptive and horrifying stories I’ve ever read as well. I think it will stick with people long after they’ve put it down.
And there it is, folks, the best of the best … and the rest ain’t bad either. Really, you can’t go wrong with Masques V. Out of 29 stories, there wasn’t one I hated. There were some I liked less than others, but that’s about it. And considering how much I liked the ones I liked (seriously, if you don’t listen to anything I say but one thing … read the Richard Christian Matheson story), I’m willing to forgive a lot. And I think you will too.
4 out of 5
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