“It’s like boot camp for the psyche. In real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers … But the narrative form puts these fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.”
Fear, as editor Josh Viola points out in the anthology Nightmares Unhinged, is human. “Evolution made us this way. Our brains are primed for it. It’s in our bones. Nightmares tap into our most basic emotions and force us to face them.”
It is time, as Viola writes, to get scared again.
Well—sort of. “Horror” is not exactly my thing so it’s very possible I don’t know what I’m talking about.
These are some grisly bits here but to my way of thinking Nightmares Unhinged, an anthology from Denver-area Hex Publishers, is 20 well-written tales with an overall dark vibe. Gore? Some. Cool story concepts with some fresh wrinkles? Why, yes, thank you. There are several that seemed to me, in fact, highly original. And 13 of the 15 writers live in Colorado so this is a fine showcase for this state’s talent.
Steve Rasnic Tem’s understated and perfectly creepy “The Brollachan” starts things off but the horror is mostly by implication in a boy-meets-girl teenage tale with a dark twist. Tem slips in the juicy stuff when you’re not looking, right down to the love bites. A beauty.
J.V. Kyle’s “Fangs” takes a perverted run at a vampire who likes a twist with his blood—anesthetic. The craving leads him to realize that women in white uniforms are carriers of this special something. And soon he is in a dentist’s office and, well, the ending is pure piece of deft table-turning.
In “Be Seated,” Keith Ferrell tells a story about a special chair. The storyteller concedes to his own circumspect style of relaying events and the tale of murder requires full reader attention, no hand-holding allowed.
America is “coming down like dominoes” in “The Man Who Killed Texas,” by Stephen Graham Jones. The one is about “the cough” and a guy named Baylock and a militia holding the line against an insidious and deadly invasion that will test Baylock in a whole host of nerve-jangling ways—family values and all of that.
“Scarecrows,” by Joshua Viola, is brisk tale of comeuppance and justice and plays with the tropes of horror—the edge of town, teenage taunting, and things that come alive.
Mario Acevedo’s “Zou Gou” (Chinese for “lackey”) is a trippy bit of horror mixed with sci-fi—drones, robots, sex and armless human bodies who are part of a creepy experiment in resilience. A wild imagination at work.
Okay, by the time we get to “Needles,” co-written by Joshua Viola and Dean Wyant, we are finally (story #7) digging down in the grisly material. A desperate drug addict named Natalie takes a john, an overly generous man in a Dormeuil suit. Natalie gets hurt—and high. But things are never quite the same. The ending is both gory and gotcha. Think “Alien” on hallucination-inducing steroids.
Jason Heller’s “The Projectionist” is one of my favorites, riffing on nostalgia for old-school cinema versus robotic, remote-controlled digital projectors and the “flickering of fiction” in movie reels. The story features a 12-year-old boy and a movie projector which is like saying “The Exorcist” is about a young girl and her run-in with religion. This projector is not just any machine, but a lifelike thing with special powers. “The projector engulfed the entire booth. It wasn’t a large space, as far as I could tell. The machine filled it like a nest of serpents that had overgrown its terrarium. Instead of snakes, though, tubes and pistons and pneumatic cylinders twisted their way around the central mass of the apparatus, which wheezed and trembled like the torso or thorax of some impossible beast.” With terrific vocabulary, a nifty message and a genuinely scary concept, “The Projectionist” has a knockout a-peel.
Jeanne C. Stein brisk “The Wolf’s Paw” is a battle in Balboa Park (San Diego) between wolves and vampires, told from the point of view of Anna, Stein’s longtime heroine from The Anna Strong Chronicles. Like those books (I’ve only read a few) “The Wolf’s Paw” mixes fast action, strong emotions. It’s feral vs. civilized, both within and without.
Keith Ferrell returns with “Danniker’s Coffin,” a story about a 71-year-old who is a coffin maker’s son and planning to put up a fence around his property now that the neighbor’s house is empty. This thoughtful tale, as much a character portrait as anything else, touches on burial methods, fate, and self-determination. Beautifully written, this was one is practically genteel.
“Deep Woods” is Aaron Michael Ritchey’s quick tale of three girls in a pickup on the way to the old, familiar “cabin the woods” with creaking doors and a freak. Ritchey uses fast flourishes to set the scene and the monster. “A fringe of hair and balding, gnarled flesh. Pulpy, misshapen brow and cheeks. Wet mouth.” Yes, there will be axes. Yes, blood will fly. The final score is freak, _ and alive girls _. What? You thought I would tell?
Dustin Carpenter’s “Diamond Widow” offers a dark turn on black widows everywhere, insect and human. Logan “the stock broker” is lured into a lair of jewels where the pressure, shall we say, gets intense.
“Deep Woods” would also work as a title for “The Camera,” by Joshua Viola, a story about a couple that encounter strange items and creepy rangers in the woods. But all the world is a stage, it turns out, even way out in the middle of nowhere where fear can be exploited for maximum effect.
“Lost Balls,” by Sean Eads, is a pleasant little tale of golf except it’s not only the balls that go missing. This is a twisted take on “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and acknowledges its roots within. Yes, “balls” has multiple meanings. Trolls, knives, testicles, and bargains with the world. The next time you hit a ball out of bounds, you might just go ahead and kiss it good-bye. Take your penalty and move on.
“Something about company affairs seem to jumpstart, well, company affairs, if you know what I mean.” That’s our narrator in “Bathroom Break” by J.V. Kyle about a fling with Linda, all suburbs on the outside and all Goth on the inside. That’s true for the house where she lives. And more. Our hero thinks he’s good at solving problems but overlooks cleaning up at the wrong time. Linda’s talents and inner drive can’t be underestimated.
“Marginal Ha’nts,” by Edward Bryant, is a touch of genius. Brilliant concept, brilliant delivery and spot on with day-to-day willies. Now we have an explanation for the “lukewarm hauntings and tepid terrors.” Moving to a new house? I think every real estate agent in the country should pass this out at closing. Enough said. The ending gave me a laugh.
“Juarez in July was like standing over a barbecue pit,” thinks Stuart near the beginning of “Delicioso,” by Warren Hammond. Here in Juarez, Stuart stands out as a “star” with white skin and American accent. Stuart is on the prowl and, at home behind the triple locks of his rooftop apartment, he has a whole toolbox by the sofa with what he needs. You know, a carrot peeler. And knives. “So many knives.” You know the rule about mentioning a knife in a horror story—it will get used. Hammond’s skills at taut storytelling are in full display here.
New librarian Emma has “outgrown the eyeliner and The Cure albums, but her infatuation with devilish things” remain. She’s being trained in Joshua Viola’s “The Librarian” and encounters a strange customer with odd habits. This one is part genie-in-a-bottle with a happy ending. Say what?
In Mario Acevedo’s “Gurgle Gurgle,” legalization of marijuana in Colorado and the standard yearnings of high schools boys are pureed in a frothy, funny story that also plays off genies and magic lamps, this time in very direct fashion. Genies take everything so literally, of course.
And, finally, Gary Jonas’ “Truth Or Dare” plays with unusual neighbors, mysterious basements and that common little habit of kids being carved to pieces. This one is not child’s play. You get the picture.
Jonas’ piece might be the final story, but it’s not the last piece of beautiful writing—that honor goes to Edward Bryant’s powerful and moving tribute to the late Melanie Tem, the author of a dozen or so novels and many, many short stories. The tribute to this remarkable “fantasist” will inspire awe—and make you want to read her books.
Don’t be afraid; check out “Nightmares Unhinged.” Is it boot camp for the psyche? Maybe. One reader’s squirm-inducing passage is another reader’s yawn. But there are some nifty tales here, well-told. Basements, deep woods, Goth-loving officemates, well, you still might want to think twice.