NOTE: I feel I should make a full disclosure about this review. I had some involvement with this book. The publisher is a good friend and colleague. He asked me to read the manuscript for errors and I am credited in the book as line editor. However, I had no editorial control and received no compensation whatsoever. I think my review is objective but I wanted to be honest.
I recall a reader online critiquing some of the horror stories of Ambrose Bierce. This person acknowledged Bierce’s skill but felt his stories were hindered by the fact that most of them are set in the western United States. The reader felt the west was simply not creepy enough. I don’t entirely agree but it did remind me of some things I’ve felt while reading Bierce. For some reason, California gothic simply doesn’t seem to work as well as New York gothic or, especially, New England gothic. However, the American south, while very different from a creaky old colonial mansion in Boston, has its own special brand of creepy. This anthology showcases that brand at its finest.
One of the great things about this collection is that it doesn’t yield to regional stereotypes. Southern readers who expect some sort of reduction of their area as filled with backwards rednecks will be pleasantly surprised. In fact, one of my favorites, “Them Riders” by Eryk Pruitt, includes a delicious twist on the idea of the spirit of the south as intractably racist. Similarly, Caitlin Cauley’s tremendously disturbing “Canaan” does not come off as a tasteless movie of the week despite its explosive look at sexuality. Instead, it is a tragic tale of weak human beings, ruled by stifling conventions, who ultimately destroy each other as they grasp for help.
Some of the stories do wallow a bit too much in seamy atmosphere. There are some pieces that kind of blend together. For the most part however, the authors go in all sorts of fresh and surprising directions. Highlights other than the previously mentioned stories include Zachary Honey’s nasty shocker “Her Prince Charming,” a highly original take on the ghost story titled “Long Gone Girls” by Rose Yndigoyen, and the beautiful, achingly sad “A Sleeping Place” by A.A. Garrison. There are many other gems to find but I want to close by mentioning my favorite in this collection, Shane K. Bernard’s “The Phrenologist.” I DEFINITELY will not give anything away but let me simply say I have rarely read a short story so chilling, full of wisdom, and wickedly funny. However, Bernard’s piece is the best of a truly excellent bunch.