Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Shadows Edge edited by Simon Strantzas

Simon Strantzas is a name that weird horror fans should be familiar with. To date he has had three excellent collections published: Beneath the Surface, Cold to the Touch, and Nightingale Songs. Shadows Edge marks Strantzas's first foray into the realm of anthology editing. According to the afterword, the idea for this book has long been fermenting in the dark depths of the Canadian author's mind. This month marks the end of the long wait, and Strantzas's dream project will be shipping within a few weeks.

Shadows Edge is an anthology dedicated to exploring the concept of thin places. These are spots where the barrier between our world and another world is thin enough to allow a parting of the veil. The place that just doesn't feel right, the place where a shadow is not just a shadow and things may or may not be hiding in the corner. Breaks in reality. These are the types of places that Strantzas is interested in. He has assembled fifteen authors, many of which should be known to regular readers of weird horror, for the purpose of taking readers on a tour of these shadowy, in-between places. I admit I was rather taken by the theme of the anthology, and was quite looking forward to digging into this one. With this in mind, it's safe to say that Strantzas and crew delivered the goods quite admirably.

The anthology opens with Prologue: The Nineteenth Step written by Strantzas himself. This short piece of fiction keeps the horror vague, and serves to set the stage nicely. A couple move into an old house with the intent to flip it for a nice return, but it isn't long before they notice something odd about the staircase. What is initially a curious observation quickly becomes a source of real terror. The ability to take something as mundane as a staircase and turn it into something so ominous is something only a master can pull off, and it's a shame Strantzas's wonderful opener has to be so short.

Joel Lane's Echoland follows a young musician named Diane and her growing obsession with a land glimpsed  during a childhood bout with fever. She joins with two other men who have also glimpsed the mysterious place (all during close calls with death), and together the three of them decide to do whatever they can to reach the city. The story follows their growing obsession with reaching the city and their descent into a drug-filled, sedentary lifestyle. It's a moody tale, and by the end it becomes clear that sometimes finding what we seek is not always a cause for celebration.

Michael Cisco writes The Penury, a strange tale of two childhood friends and their reunion. Cisco's writing is strong, and the story is not as straightforward as some of the others in the book, but is quite rewarding with rereads. Cisco is definitely not a writer for everyone, but his masterful way with words makes for an enjoyable read.

Tinder Row is a fine example of Richard Gavin's style of weird horror. Gavin has an easy style of writing and a wicked imagination which are both on full display here. Reid returns to his hometown only to come across a woman from his past, now a derelict. Taking pity on her, Reid coaxes her to lunch, but feels trepidation when she requests to be dropped off at Tinder Row, a dead-end street by the town's viaduct. The street has become as derelict as the woman, and Reid sticks around long enough to see if there's any validity to the local legends surrounding the place. The horror strikes true, and Gavin sets the stage well with the decrepit section of town. Definitely a favorite.

Daniel Mills is an author who has been featured on The Arkham Digest before, and for good reason. Typical of Mills's tales, The Falling Dark takes place in the past, and centers on a lonely man who has a bit of an obsession with a neighbor girl. It's quite a superb tale, with moments that are quite intense, and more going on under the surface of things.

The Old Church is a story that should appeal to anyone who finds it uncomfortable to attend church services. Gary McMahon takes readers to a church service which at first glance seems pretty normal. As the main character begins to pay attention to his surroundings things start to become altogether more sinister. McMahon is a powerhouse of British horror, and this story is one of the more frightening stories in the anthology. McMahon ratchets the suspense expertly. One of my favorite stories here.

D.P. Watt is the first author in the anthology of whom I am not familiar. After reading ...he was water before he was fire... I am now determined to become more familiar with his work. The story concerns a city man who decides to go camping, which is rather uncharacteristic of him. He becomes enchanted with a certain cove, and it isn't long before the place's magic has a hold on him. Watt's story is masterfully narrated, and shows a rather dark imagination. Another favorite.

False North by Ian Rogers is another story about a man going out into the wild. Some people prefer to go for a drive to clear their head, while some prefer the go for a run. The narrator prefers to go hiking, by pulling over his car and just going off into the woods. False North chronicles what happens when he hikes where he shouldn't. The narrator stumbles across an empty cabin holding nothing but a compass that doesn't seem to work properly. The story is short, chilling, and has an air of mystery throughout.

Lisa L. Hannett is the second author in the book of whom I am not familiar. Morning Passages was definitely an eye-catching story to mark my introduction to her work. The story is confusing, and I'm honestly not sure I can say what exactly happened, but it is written with great skill, and is very disturbing. Hannet definitely made my skin crawl and I look forward to rereading this one and finding more of her work.

R.B. Russell pens what may be my least favorite story in the book. At The End of the World takes place at a carriage house located on a shingle beach. A man's estranged brother returns to England and moves into the small dwelling, where he relates his story during a heavy coastal storm. The story itself is not bad, but compared to the others failed to really make an impact on me.

Within One Ruined Realm is a story by W.H. Pugmire, the prose-poet of the Lovecraft Mythos. As usual, Pugmire writes a dreamy short story that's dripping with gloom. This time around Pugmire brings readers to a certain street in Paris (and a perfect example of a thin place) that any Lovecraft fan should be familiar with. Short, and beautiful.

Livia Llewellyn has the distinction of being the author of my favorite story in the collection. Stabilimentum is a story that seems eerily familiar. Maybe it's the shudders that come whenever I see a spider invading my living space, or Llewellyn's uncomfortable play on apartment living, but this story gave me the chills from the first to the last page. Llewellyn builds the tension from the first moment Thalia notices a spider in her bathroom. As the horror builds it also becomes more and more surreal, and by the time the story reaches it's final moments it has become something else entirely. Excellent.

Some Other You by Michael Kelly features a protagonist suffering from extreme paranoia and depression. Things come to a head when he sees his ex-girlfriend walking with a man who in every way resembles himself. Kelly does a great job of building the paranoia and giving readers a glimpse into the gray, tense world of the protagonist.

Steve Rasnic Tem writes a story that seems touching when compared to the horrors of all the others. Lost in the Garden of Earthly Delights features an interesting narrator who seems unsure of himself. This narrator relates a few strange events that have lately occurred in his life, one of which involves black mold in the shape of his father constantly reappearing in his shower and the other involving his encounter with a homeless man at the shelter he volunteers at. It's an interesting story, and Tem's talent as an author is on full display although the story lacks the horrific punch that many of the others have.

The True Edge of the World takes readers to a misty Scottish island. Peter Bell writes an impressive story of a couple who takes their vacation in a land of ancient mystery, where folklore and myth are based in truth. This was another story which really stood out to me as a great example of a place where the border between our world and another is stretched to the thinnest. Bell utilizes Gaelic folklore to craft his dark tale, and the setting is perfect.

The anthology closes strongly with John Langan's Bor Urus. Langan's story toys with the thin places concept not by looking at the where of thin places, but by looking at the how. The narrator becomes fixated with the idea that the chaos of thunderstorms is when the wall between worlds is breached, and this is when it's possible to glimpse or even cross over into this other place. The narrator has a few experiences and as he grows so does his fixation. After one near encounter he becomes a different man, until a hurricane hits and he finally gets the validation he has always been seeking. It's a powerful story, and another favorite.

These sixteen stories make for a powerful journey into the shadowy corners, the in-between places. Strantzas wisely chose the fifteen authors present in the book to be a part of the anthology, and every one of them brings a worthwhile story to the table. Some of the horrors are more vague than others, but they are horrific nonetheless. A true horror fan should have long ago felt the attraction to the thin places of the world, and therefore can't do without Shadows Edge on their bookshelf. I couldn't recommend this one enough.

Shadows Edge can be ordered from Gray Friar Press: HERE

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