Sinister Landscapes (Book)
Reviewed by Debi Moore
Edited by Alan Draven
Foreword by Andrea Dean Van Scoyoc
Published by Pixie Dust Press
Short stories are a staple of horror literature and a big reason why it's so frustrating that so many filmmakers have turned their backs on what could be a huge source of inspiration. No, instead they'd rather remake, reimagine, or just plain rehash the same old stale ideas over and over again. Which is why Sinister Landscapes, a collection of "Gothic Tales," is such a welcome relief. It offers a respite from the tried and tired with some truly original ideas as well as fresh takes on a few old favorites. The anthology is the brain-child of author Alan Draven (Bitternest review), who spearheaded the project as a means to gain more public exposure for himself and a handful of fellow writers he'd met on MySpace, Facebook, and the numerous other Internet communities and message boards devoted to the genre. His only caveat: no vampires or zombies.
Seventeen submissions made the final cut (Draven included one of his own stories, "Beyond the Doomed Cave," as well), and while they range from ratings of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 knives, overall the book is an admirable mix of mostly dark and unsettling tales with enough variety to keep the reader's attention from start to finish. But there are a couple of bumps in the road. I wasn't overly fond of Eric Enck's "Throat of Stone," David Boyle's "The Broken Spell of Castle Thaddeus," or Charlotte Emma Gledson's "Come Follow Me My Love." They were technically proficient but didn't grab me. In my notes, all three of them earned the comment "Dull" with only "Come Follow Me," a ghost story, meriting any sort of plot description.
Five entries rest comfortably in the middle of the pack:
Thad Linson's "Polite Society" is a spin on the Jack the Ripper legend … with werewolves! It opens the proceedings with a real bang.
"Scotland Yard Demons" by Ryan B. Clark tells of a haunted man who must lose everything to help set free the ghosts of murdered children. It's one of the longer stories in the set but well worth the time.
Right after "SYD" comes Brandon Ford's "Severed," a quick and brutal little tale of revenge that left a very sweet aftertaste.
I also labeled "From a Whisper to a Dream" a bit dull, but author Gordon Anthony Bean managed to elevate his story of two brothers waiting to have their souls eaten just enough to keep it out of the Bottom 3.
Last in this category (and the final chapter of the book) is "Lead Me Into Temptation," Frank E. Bittinger's uneven rumination on a man named Jonathan who is addicted to porn and comes face to face with his childhood fear only to find it just wants us to all get along. It's extremely anti-climactic and provides a rather lame ending to Sinister Landscapes, which is a shame because up until its final few pages, "Lead Me" was on its way toward being one of my favorites.
Ten solid stories wound up with scores of 4 knives or higher:
In "The Widow's Curse" Jessica Lynne Gardner adds some J-horror flavor to the Sinister Landscapes mélange with a strong entry.
Another female author, Jeani Rector, stood out with "The Spirit of Death," in which graverobbers steal a skull in order to perform a ritual that promises eternal youth. The dialogue is stilted at times, but the storyline and other elements are competent enough to overcome that small quibble.
One of the most unusual offerings is Bret Jordan's "Ghost in the Hardware." Say hello to Wayne, our main character, who talks to ghosts via a computer powered by a special electromagnetic device hooked up to a tombstone. "Ghost" is in many ways reminiscent of Pulse -- a compliment since I'm referring to the good Japanese version, not the weak American knock-offs.
"Proof" by Stéphanie J is a lot of fun also. It introduces us to three ghostbusters, Shyla, Teddy and Robert, who uncover the secrets of the Plinth family. As it turns out, Mrs. P was a pagan, and Shyla has freed her vengeful spirit from its constraints. Even better, Ms. J unleashes a nice twist ending that even I didn't see coming.
What Goth collection is complete without its own take on "Beauty and the Beast"? Here we have "My Elf" by R. Vance. While its setting is contemporary, it beautifully evokes the feeling and emotions of the timeless and classic fairy tale on which it’s based.
Which leaves our Top Five:
Sarah Wilson Basore borrows, too, from "Beauty and the Beast" in her "Sins of the Father," wherein a hunted lion-man meets a witch. "Sins" is probably the most gorgeously written and descriptive piece in the lot, elegantly suggesting a time and mood that sweeps the reader away.
Editor Alan Draven surprised me in "Beyond the Doomed Cave" by including one of my favorite things from Gothic times: picture books of the dead. Like Bean's "From a Whisper to a Dream," Draven's story (from which the title Sinister Landscapes is derived) revolves around two brothers but with the addition of witchcraft and a haunted churchyard. The results are quite rewarding indeed.
If you're ever searching for an example of "less is more," look no further than T. G. Reaper's "Final Exam," which is set in a haunted hospital. It tells a lot in its seven short pages.
Definitely the second half of Sinister Landscapes outshines the first, and a prime example is "Visions of Merlot" by Jeff Ezell. Amy visits her grandparents' long neglected cabin to prepare for a fresh start after leaving her abusive, cheating husband. Is some ancient, buried family history about to repeat itself? Join Amy on her spooky journey down memory lane.
Last but certainly not least is Charlie Glover's "The Encounter" about a man stuck at age 25. It's crisp and concise, and I suspect Jerry Hawthorne could give old Benjamin Button a run for his money. Without a doubt one of the best of the best.
As Van Scoyoc writes in the Foreword, which she entitled "Let the Shadows Envelop You…," we're all trying to get to that place and "time when lush details and stunning visuals [grab] you as you [turn] each page, provid[ing] you with eagerly sought feelings of dread." For the most part, the shadows of Sinister Landscapes did envelop me and should do the same for other lovers of the short story format. Looking for something a little different to get your significant other for Valentine's Day? You could do a lot worse than leaving a copy of Sinister Landscapes on the nightstand along with that box of chocolates.
3 1/2 out of 5
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