Ghosts of Lost Dreams, Lost Innocence, and Lost Loves

plague of shadows

 

Plague of Shadows: A Written Remains Anthology, edited by J. M. Reinbold and Weldon Burge (Smart Rhino Publications, Fall 2018) is the kind of book writers and readers need. Writers need it because it showcases their work and readers because it offers fresh perspectives on complex subjects.

Plague of Shadows is a theme anthology about ghosts, featuring original stories and poems by the Written Remains Writers Guild, plus a handful of reprints from well-known invited authors.

Starving Time by Jane Miller
Bark of the Dog-Faced Girl by Maria Masington
McMurdo Sound by Billie Sue Mosiman (reprint)
For Number 11 by Carson Buckingham
Powder Burns by J. Gregory Smith
The Bottom of the Hour by Phil Giunta
Neighbors from Hell by Graham Masterton (reprint)
Finding Resolution by Patrick Derrickson
The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown by Jeff Strand (reprint)
On the House by Jacob Jones-Goldstein
No Good Deed by Gail Husch
Haunting the Past by Jasper Bark (reprint)
To Heart’s Content by Shannon Connor Winward
Twelve Steps by Jeff Markowitz (reprint)
Song of the Shark God by JM Reinbold
Dollhouse by Jennifer Loring
The Black Dog of Cabra by Patrick Conlon
The Angel’s Grave by Chantal Nordeloos (reprint)
Vindictive by Weldon Burge
A Hanger in the World of Dance by Stephanie M. Wytovich

 
Not surprising, two of the best original stories are by the editors: “Song of the Shark God” by JM Reinbbold and “Vindicative” by Weldon Burge. Others that  will haunt you are “Bark of the Dog-Faced Girl” by Maria Masington , a marvelous tale about adolescent angst; “For Number 11”, an ambitious tale that mixes history with the supernatural; and “Bottom of the Hour”, an interesting twist on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

 
My favorite story is “Finding Resolution” by Patrick Derrickson. It’s more science fiction than pure horror, even if the spacecraft does have a ghost. But not only is it very well-written, the inevitable ending is so fulfilling and satisfying it brought tears to my eyes. Kind of the way Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” did when I first read it more than half-a-century ago.

 
“To Heart’s Content” by Shannon Connor Winward is my second favorite story in this anthology. It’s  an apocalyptic tale of a lost innocence and a lost love haunting a handful of survivors.

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What I learned about writing crime fiction from reading Stephen King’s The Outsider

the outsider

 

 

Adverbs may be our enemies, but adjectives, action verbs, and similes are our friends.

 
Kill off characters we’ve learned to identify with.  I think this is what King really meant when he advocated killing your little darlings.

 
Threaten to kill off other characters we’ve learned to identify with or care about.

 
There’s no end to the universe. It goes on and on forever, much like some Stephen King stories.

 
Generate doubt and suspicion by demonstrating—show, don’t tell—how everything we believe to have happened in the story thus far may be untrue. Only the willing suspension of disbelief can provide the proper perspective to help set things right. There really are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 
Must and can’t are dangerous words. Psychologist Albert Ellis termed internalizing such words “mental musterbation.”

 
Show that kernels of the truth lay buried—hidden amongst all that chaff that mucks up human perception—and would surely have been evident if only we’d paid closer attention from the very beginning, if only we hadn’t allowed personal bias to color our perceptions. If only Terry Maitland hadn’t shown our son how to bunt. If only we’d never loved eating cantaloupe as a child. If only . . .

 
The keys to good story-telling, like the keys to producing memorable poems and songs, are repetition and rhythm.  Play it again, Steve. And again and again and again. For old time’s sake.

 
“He thinks that if we all tell the same story, everything will be okay . . .If we all tell the same story.” King tells the same story over and over again as different viewpoint characters relate events from their own perspectives. Then he repeats, as often as needed. Soon the familiar world disappears, and a fictional world–a world that resembles the real world but isn’t the same–replaces it with a world that feels equally familiar.

 

Now that you’ve willingly suspended disbelief, anything is possible.

 

Getting lost in a King story is sort of like taking drugs. “Everything still hurts, but you don’t give a shit.” All you want is more of that old familiar feeling you know so well.

 

The Outsider by Stephen King (Scribner, May 2018) will give readers a few sleepless nights worth remembering. Highly recommended.

 

Lies is a Great Read

Lies

 

Lies by T. M. Logan (St. Martin’s Press, September 2018) piles complication atop complication atop complication as one lie leads to another and yet another.

Joe Lynch and his wife Melanie appear to be the perfect London couple, living a dream life. At least, Joe thinks so. They’ve been happily married nearly ten years and have a four-year-old son, William. Joe’s an English teacher at a private school, Mel’s an executive at a large retail chain. They own their house, two cars, and they have lots of friends.

Joe’s life begins to fall apart when he accidentally discovers Mel meeting her best friend’s husband at a motel bar. Ben Delaney is rich, handsome, smart, and ruthless. They have a super-smart fourteen-year-old daughter named Alice who sometimes baby-sits William. Ben and Beth have been married for 15 years, and Mel was maid of honor at their wedding. He’s owner and managing director of a software development company that specializes in creating computer games, and Ben loves to play games.

Why are Ben and Mel meeting at a motel when both are supposed to be working?

When Joe confronts Ben in the motel parking lot, Ben denies meeting Mel. Then he becomes angry and shoves Joe against his car. Joe shoves back, and Ben trips over his briefcase, loses his balance, and slams his head hard into the concrete. Blood oozes from his ear and Ben appears either unconscious or dead.

Joe tries to call an ambulance from his cell phone, but there’s no signal. William sees the blood and begins to suffer a severe asthma attack. Of course, Joe has forgotten to refill the inhaler he kept in the glove box, and he must drive William home and find another inhaler before the boy chokes to death. Save Ben or save his son? His son is infinitely more important.

When Joe returns to the parking lot to help Ben, the man and his Porsche are gone.

Mel returns home at her usual time on Thursday night, He mentions he’d seen her car at the motel and she quickly denies it, claiming she was playing tennis after work with Hilary Paine. When Joe insists he saw her with Ben, she admits she lied because Ben asked her to meet him to discuss a sensitive personnel problem she’d promised to keep secret.

Joe begins to have doubts: If his perfect wife lied to him, is then the rest of his perfect life also only a lie?

When Beth reports Ben missing to the police, Joe could become a suspect if he admits he was the last person to see Ben alive. Mel urges Joe to lie to the police, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

Joe turns to the internet to prove Ben is still alive, but technology is Ben’s strongpoint, not Joe’s. Someone has hacked Joe’s Facebook account and posted lies about him.

Told entirely in the first person from Joe’s POV, readers will easily identify with Joe and feel his pain as lie after lie comes to light and a noose is tightened around Joe’s neck. Is nothing and nobody what they seem?

Lies is a great read, fast-paced and unputdownable.

 

Baby Teeth is a Must Read

cover127477-medium baby teeth

 

Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage (St. Martin’s Press, July 17, 2018) is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Although seven-year-old Hanna displays the full spectrum of autistic behaviors like not vocalizing and destructive temper tantrums, she’s Daddy Alex’s little angel and Mommy Suzette’s devil in disguise.

Not unlike Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, this is more than a simple story about parental denial of their child’s murderous intent. It’s an extended metaphor of human fears, human limitations, and our failure to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Just as there’s a good mommy and a bad mommy inside Suzette, there’s an evil, conniving, manipulative Hanna and there’s also the reincarnation of Marie-Anne Dufossete, a girl who was burned at the stake five centuries ago for witchcraft, for casting spells and poisoning people. Is Hanna possessed? Is the murderous Marie-Anne real? Or is she merely the sign of a personality split in a deeply-disturbed highly-imaginative seven=year-old?

As Hanna is expelled from school after school for violent behavior, Suzette is forced to home school her daughter. Hanna’s idea of fun, however, is to hurt other people, especially mommy. She plots to get mommy out of the way so she can have daddy all to herself. Alex, of course, refuses to believe Suzette when she tells him Hanna acts psychotic and needs professional help. When Alex is around, Hanna behaves like the loving daughter he wants her to be.

Stage effectively alternates chapters between Hanna’s POV and Suzette’s, allowing readers access to their innermost doubts and fears. It’s a brilliant kind of she said-she said non-verbal teeter-tottering that builds suspense all the way to the end and beyond.

Alex, born in Sweden (he insists his last name be pronounced Yensen, not Jensen), celebrates traditional Swedish pagan festivals, like building a Walpurgis bonfire on the night of April 30. He uses Swedish terms of endearment for both his wife and his daughter. Suzette, born in America of a Jewish mother and a mongrel father and raised by her grieving mother after her father’s untimely death, appreciates living in a multi-cultural household and learns enough Swedish to reciprocate. Hanna, too, knows Swedish as well as English, but she refuses to talk. She keeps her thoughts bottled up inside herself until they explode in violent outbursts directed at Suzette.

And when she does talk to Suzette, she speaks the French of a long-dead witch that was burned at the stake.

Baby Teeth is a must read for anyone who loves psychological suspense at its finest.

 

SF Adventure and a Romp Thru History

time shards

Time Shards By Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald (Titan Books, February 2018) is the fast-paced kind of rip-roaring sf adventure Doctor Who fans will love. It’s set in England and includes a time-traveling doctor of astrophysics called Merlin capable of regeneration when killed and whose companions this episode are a present-day American college-age girl named Amber, an American journalist from the 1890s who calls herself Nellie Bly, a British WWII-era SAS commando named Blake, a bumbling Oxford professor who’s both a coward and a fraud, and a displaced Celtic Druid named Cam who speaks only archaic Welsh or Gaelic, plus a smattering of imperial Latin.
Amber, attending a cosplay convention in England, is ill-prepared to survive the cataclysmic event that first shatters earth’s time-line and then jams broken pieces back together in random order. Now dinosaurs roam the English countryside, Cromwell’s roundheads burn witches at the stake, and giant scorpions prowl the woods.
Amber stumbles from one horror into another, only to be saved at the last possible moment by Blake or Nellie or Cam or Merlin.

Cam thinks Amber’s a faery queen when they first meet because of her cosplay costume. Although he’s technically two thousand years older than her, they appear to be the same age and he becomes enamored of her charms.   Stearne, a 17th-century roundhead witch-finder, believes her a witch because of her costume. He spends half the book trying to torture her or pursuing Amber and her companions to tie them all to stakes and burn them as witches.
The story is a wonderful blend of adventure and history lesson that’s a joy to read. My only disappointment came during the final pages when it was evident I would need to buy at least one more book in the series to learn all the answers and find resolution. Can Doctor Merlin restore the time-line? Will technology be the savior of mankind or its destroyer? Inquiring minds want to know, and I will buy the next book because I love the characters and care about what happens next.

4 Outstanding Stories in Dark Screams 9

Dark Screams 9

 

Dark Screams: Volume Nine edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar (Hydra, January 2018) includes three new stories and three stories originally published in Cemetery Dance Magazine. Since the editors of Cemetery Dance edit this anthology series, it’s easy to see how they’re able to put out dozens of anthologies in just a few years and edit a magazine, too. They have twenty-five years of reprints to choose from and only need to add three new tales to create an anthology.

There are four outstanding stories in this anthology.

Best of the bunch is “Torn” by Lee Thomas. Although it’s a reprint from 2012, it has a great plot embellished with all of the tricks of the storyteller’s art: fully-developed characters, multiple mysteries to solve, dire time constraints, apt metaphors, and believable personal conflicts between husband and wife, neighbors, and first responders. It’s the longest story in the book, and it’s an almost perfect story of human compulsion and how compulsion can tear a person apart. Sheriff Bill Cranston fights monsters to save his family and his town, and the monsters are a lot different than anyone expects.

Almost as strong but not as long, “The Blackout” by Jonathan Moore is an original supernatural revenge tale that reads like a police procedural. Detective Nakamura investigates the disappearance of a girl’s corpse during a storm that’s blacked out electrical power in Hawaii and finds more in the dark than he bargained for.

“The Dead Years” by Taylor Grant is a haunting tale of a modern-day Helen of Troy and the price of beauty. It’s also original to this anthology.

“Invitation to the Game” by Kelley Armstrong is well-written and suspenseful with a couple of nice twists. It’s also original.

“Summer of ‘77” by Stewart O’Nan and “Variations on a Theme from Seinfeld” by Peter Straub, both reprints from 2009, were competent but disappointing.

The four outstanding tales make Dark Screams: Volume Nine worth the price. Consider the other two stories an added bonus. Highly recommended.

 

The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know

 

 

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.