Dark Screams: Volume One edited by Brian Freeman and Richard T. Chizmar
Dark Screams: Volume One is the first of at least four volumes of short horror anthologies that are projected for publication through August 2015. The books are being published as ebooks only through Random House’s digital-only genre imprint, Hydra, for a bargain price of $2.99.
Volume One starts out with one of the most popular horror writers ever: Stephen King. “Weeds” was originally published in Cavalier, a “men’s magazine,” in 1976, and has never been reprinted until now — though it did become a part of the movie “Creepshow,” with King himself playing the role of Jordy Verrill. Jordy is the protagonist of “Weeds,” a not particularly intelligent man who farms a spread situated on Bluebird Creek in New Hampshire. He’s alone at twilight on the Fourth of July when a meteor flashes overhead. It lands close enough that Jordy feels the thump in his feet, and his eyes light up with dollar signs. Those fellows at the college might pay good money for this thing, he reasons. The meteor cracks in two when he pours water on it to cool it down, and there’s white flaky stuff coming from the center. He burns his fingers badly when he tries to touch the white stuff, but he treats them with burn ointment and goes to bed. When he wakes, he feels like he’s got the flu — and then he sees what’s growing out of those burned fingers. Things go from bad to worse for Jordy from there. In fact, things may be going badly for everyone on earth from that point. It’s vintage King, written in his transparent prose and getting more horrific — or at least grosser — with every subsequent paragraph. King has written better work, no doubt, but finding this story is like coming across an extra chocolate truffle you didn’t know you had.
“The Price You Pay” by Kelley Armstrong is about Kara’s friendship with Ingrid. The friendship began in childhood and lasted throughout the girls’ early teen years. They separated in their late teens, and Kara married Gavin and had a child. Now Ingrid has once again appeared, and the girls have resumed their friendship, though Kara is not so eager for Ingrid’s company as Ingrid is for hers. Still, the two young women go out drinking on the night of Kara’s 21st birthday, only to become too intoxicated to drive home safely. While they wait for Gavin to rescue them from a dark country road, they are abducted. While Kara is being beaten by a hooded assailant in a dark basement, we learn of her past, and why she and Ingrid parted company. Soon we begin to question everything we’ve learned so far. Armstrong plays out her plot thread by thread until all of our expectations are turned around.
Bill Pronzini gives us a first-person protagonist in “Magic Eyes” who swears he’s not crazy and that he did not kill his wife. When a story starts with that information, you know you’re in for something special, and Pronzini doesn’t disappoint. The work we’re reading is the protagonist’s journal; Edward Tolliver, its author, is writing it on his doctor’s suggestion, but he’s sure that the doctor will be reading it despite his assurances of privacy. So he drops the occasional line about “magic eyes” or “invaders,” trying to smoke out the doctor. It is only when he concludes that the doctor isn’t reading his journal that Tolliver writes about what really happened that night his wife died. Pronzini’s protagonist is obviously intelligent; and just as obviously . . . well, but that would give too much away. The journal is the perfect mechanism for telling this story, giving us a close-up view of how Tolliver’s mind operates. Tolliver is a finely drawn character, and this story features the best characterization in the anthology.
Simon Clark’s “Murder in Chains” never explains itself. We never learn why the first person narrator wakes up in an underground vault chained to another man by a ring around his throat. All we know is that the man at the other end of the chain radiates brutality, and behaves as if the narrator doesn’t even exist as he tears about the vault until after he’s killed a third man with his bare hands, for no apparent reason. Clark is plainly reaching for the Kafkaesque, but winds up with mere splatterpunk instead.
The always reliable Ramsey Campbell takes the last position in this short anthology with The Watched. Jimmy is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother. As the story opens, he is returning from the grocery shop with a heavy bag of potatoes and getting more tired with every step. When he comes to the hide that is situated on the canal that leads to home, he dodges in to get a break, only to find that someone else is already there: a policeman, who tells him that his neighbors are dangerous drug dealers. He asks Jimmy to keep an ear out for what’s going on next door. It’s not the best idea to rely on a 12-year-old, though, and trouble inevitably follows. But more than that, someone’s been smearing his grandmother’s windows. And there’s been a sluggish dragging sound outside. What’s this all about? Campbell has a way of transforming the ordinary into the frightening, of hinting at a horror without ever showing us more than its outlines, which makes his stories all the more terrifying. It’s a fitting end to a fine anthology.
Dark Screams, Volume One, promises that we’ll be getting solid anthologies for a very low price as the new year progresses. The voices we’ll be hearing from include some of the best talents the field has to offer; you’d think with King, Armstrong, Clark, Pronzini and Campbell in the first volume, the following volumes would have to fall off, but instead they promise stories by the likes of Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Robert R. McCammon, Richard Matheson and others. The stories may not be the best each of these writers has to offer, but they are definitely stories worth reading, and I’m looking forward to reading them.