Independent authors would do well to take a page from Darkest of Dreams, a collection of short stories written by four different authors. The prospect of writing a 100,000 word novel, which provides around 300 pages of entertainment, requires a serious time commitment. To say nothing of the costs associated with investing in editing, proofreading, and cover design. Pooling resources with three other authors allows burgeoning writers to take the craft for a test spin. It allows experienced authors to take even greater risks with their craft. Instead of experimenting with unusual story structure or points-of-view or prose styles for weeks on end with nothing to show for the effort, an author can spin out a few short yarns and package them with other authors to see how the market reacts.
Collections like this also provide a service for the reader. If the avante-garde nouveau-bohemian lit-crit experiment fails, the reader has only invested a few minutes in the attempt, and not all of his costs are sunk. Three more authors remain in the package, at least one of which is likely to provide some entertainment value. So it is with this collection, which appears on its face to be a horror collection, but which includes a few stories that owe more to fantasy or science-fiction than the blood-soaked monster horror suggested by the cover.
Clocking in at 140 pages worth of entertainment, Darkest of Dreams makes for a nice ‘sampler package’, and like all sampler packages it includes a few great items that everyone is sure to love and a few clunkers that remains after the good stuff has been picked over.
Christopher Warren writes dream-like experiences of men sliding down the descent into madness. The End of Yesterday features a man trapped by the gibbering threat of his undead mother as he contemplates escape via the business end of a gun barrel. The Shower Thing, presents a tale within a tale that seamlessly segues between the echoing alien confines of a darkened, empty shopping mall and the anxious vulnerability of standing in a shower with the feeling of being watched. Corpse Theory paints the vivid experience of a man desperately resisting creatures that only he can see, a man who flees to his basement and hides from the sane world behind soap carved talismans. Although the three characters come to different ends, they all share that off-kilter worldview of men whose in advertent brushes with eldritch horrors only makes sense to themselves and to readers who are in on the secret.
Nathan Dabney writes gripping monster fighting action tales which stand out from the more bleak fare on display from the other authors. His protagonists range from battle-hardened veterans to half-men/half-monsters, but all fight to push back the creatures that crawl out of the dark spaces of the earth. Whether it’s poison breathing beasts in the sewers or demonic slender-men preying on children, in Dabney’s stories men don’t sit and wait for the end – they pursue the end and fight back. Dabney’s stories of raw action and stubborn resistance even in the face of defeat make for excellent palette cleansers after the usual doom and gloom endings of the traditional horror stories of this collection.
Connor Goff’s offerings consist of people slowly recognizing the jaws of traps that take the form of otherworldly surroundings. The Midwife presents a nurse caught up in a dream-like existence caring for one elderly patient until something goes very wrong and she starts to notice the cracks in the façade of her small world. The young boy at the center of Warmth experiences a very inhuman sort of puberty, but still has to endure the usual struggles of being raised by a single mother and the jealousies that arise when her heart is divided between her son and her lovers.
William Harmar’s shot stories read more like vignettes, small slices of a larger story that hang, unfinished. Whether it’s the opening negotiation of a deal with the devil or questions about what really happens to the brain after a few hours in a sensory deprivation tank, Harmar’s entries into the collection aren’t so much stories as they are thought experiments. His, Battery Life, hews the closest to a traditional narrative, but begins and ends with the main character caught up in a trap. Watching the man rationalize away and attempt to justify the mistakes that led him to his grisly end makes for an interesting style of mystery – a man investigating his own soul as doom approaches is a novel idea – but serves as more of a character study than a story with any recognizable structure.
Those descriptions are vague so as not to give any significant plot points away, but the real mystery here is, “How do these stories read?”
As mentioned above, some are great, some are not. As a guy with no great love for horror, I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. My particular favorite stories are the action tales of Dabney. If I want to know what goes through the minds of crazy people, I’ll just read Jezebel…or Marvel comic books. If you are looking for bleak horror that makes it hard to turn out the light, then this collection will definitely scratch that itch. The writing is eerie and atmospheric, and for the most part favors the ‘show, don’t tell’ model, although a number of instances of ‘imply, don’t show’ crop up that undercut the tension and suspense. Specifically, Harmar has a tendency to substitute vagueness for uncertainty in a way that leaves his tales far more ephemeral and light than the subject matter demands. Concrete words that conjure up unsettling objects do more to inspire dread than indeterminate words meant to confuse. Although a little rough as a writer, Harmar’s concepts are sufficiently creepy, and the man shows a lot of promise. If he can tighten up his descriptions, he will be one to watch in the future.
So if you are a horror fan looking for new authors to keep you up at night, you’ll find one here. I don’t know which one you’ll find, but the overall quality of this independently published collection speaks well for the democratization of art brought about by Amazon and the self-publishing model. Not all of these experiments work, but the ones that do will leave horror fans satisfied and eager to find more.