Tales From a Talking Board (2017) delivers fourteen shivery stories that involve spirit boards. In the US, we think of them as Ouija Boards, but that was actually a brand name; spirit boards, which involve a surface with the alphabet and an object that glides over it, stopping at letters, have been around quite a while.
This anthology has plenty to please people who like the creepy, and lends itself to a dark autumn night pretty well. Some stories are more gory than others. At least one is flat-out funny. A few tales strain to wrap themselves around the spirit board and at least one has no divinatory prop at all.
I’ll talk about the stories I liked best or found noteworthy. Here is the complete Table of Contents from Tales from a Talking Board:
“YesNoGoodbye,” by Kristi DeMeester. Cassandra and her best friend Dee decide to experiment with a spirit board. It reveals not only Dee’s feelings for her friend, but a dark secret in Cassandra’s life.
“The Devil and the Bugle Boys,” by J.M. McDermott. A group of teenaged boys who are part of a marching band competition start playing with a spirit board, and find out that temptation is not always what you think it will be.
“WeeGee, WeeGee, Tell Me Do,” by Anya Martin. This interesting period piece follows two young women who are thrilled by a vaudeville star and her hit song about the “WeeGee Board.”
“When the Evil Days Come Not,” by Nathan Carson. In a slightly futuristic dystopian world, a disoriented boy meets two girls, and discovers the truth about his life in a horrifying encounter.
“Grief,” by Tiffany Scandal. Losing a child is the most horrible loss a parent can face. Is it normal to blame yourself? Is it normal to reach out to that child’s spirit? Scandal’s story explores these questions.
“Spin the Throttle,” by David James Keaton. A group of teenagers in the back of a pickup truck speeding through the darkness find their night getting stranger and stranger.
“Pins,” by S.P. Miskowski. Helen and her twin daughters are on the run, taking the back roads to avoid exposure, but some things can’t be hidden, as Helen soon discovers.
“Deep into the Skin,” by Matthew M. Bartlett. A tattoo artist finds himself in over his head in his decaying beachfront town.
“The Burnt Sugar Stench,” by Wendy N. Wagner. There is a school of belief that observing something changes it. What happens, then, when a bunch of genuine psychics keep observing the future?
“Worse than Demons,” by Scott R. Jones. What do artificial intelligences and language viruses have to do with spirit boards? Read along and you’ll find out.
“The Empress and the Three of Swords,” by Amber-Rose Reed. As you guessed from the title, this atmospheric piece is one of the stories that does not rely on a talking board.
“Questions and Answers,” by David Templeton. When we ask questions of a spirit board, who answers them? This story reveals that information.
“Harupscate or Scry,” by Orrin Grey. Like Houdini, some skeptics and professional debunkers leave instructions in their wills, in case they come back. And Professor Hartledge’s assistant is following her dead mentor’s instructions meticulously.
“May You Live in Interesting Times,” by Nadia Bulkin. A government minister relies on a spirit board because he is sure he knows who is sending him messages. He is wrong.
Far and away my favorite story was David Templeton’s “Questions and Answers.” This story is not scary, not gory, not creepy. It is one hundred percent funny. Templeton is a local writer, theater critic and playwright in my area, and “Questions and Answers” reads like a playscript, as a group of newly dead people spend their first day of Elementary Occupational Spirit Board Training at Otherside University. Their instructor, Doug, is overly perky, but soon settles down to the safety basics of spirit-board answering. The dialogue zings, the timing is perfect, and there is a plot twist, a reveal, and even a budding romance by the end.
I love Nadia Bulkin’s imaginary country based on her childhood experiences in Indonesia, and “May You Live in Interesting Times” opened a window into that world. Theo is a fish out of water at the beginning of the story, when he is attending school in the US, but he makes a connection with Alice. That connection can’t last, but it changes. Theo returns home and begins to rise in the government, aided by a spirit board. Theo’s ultimate realization, and ultimate decision, is tragic and heroic.
“Worse than Demons” drew me in with an unusual format. The story is told as an interview between a journalist and a famous and eccentric filmmaker and celebrity. The course of the interview ranges over the strange virus, Babel Syndrome, that is spreading, the use of CGI-generated actors via AI, and the film-maker’s own odd story from his childhood, about a talking board. Can there be something among us already that is worse than demons? That’s the film-maker’s final question, and at the of the story, I was wondering that too.
I thought the plot of “WeeGee, WeeGee, Tell Me Do” was a lot like a story from the old Tales From the Crypt TV show, and one character’s predicament was not well developed. A villainous character was basically a stick-figure bully. What was well-developed and engaging was the sense of time and place, which is the 1920s and a vaudeville hall, as Orlaugh and Daisy go nearly every day to listen to the Great Marie Cahill sing her hit about the Ouija Board. I think the story was too long, but I drank in the details, and even though she is not the protagonist, I loved Marie.
“Pins” is another story with a rich sense of place, delivered by tiny details of sight, of scent, of food, as we follow Helen and her daughters on a road trip deep into the American southeast.
“Deep into the Skin” also evoked a specific type of place, too — the fading beach resort town. The story is a conventional horror story, ending with the hero, a tattooist, on the run and looking over his shoulder. I thought it was good. I will mention that is it the goriest story in the collection and features the torture death of an innocent victim. For many horror readers, that’s a feature, not a bug. I thought the particular use of tattoos here was original and fresh.
“When Evil Days Come Not” had the feeling of an excerpt from a larger work or a sequel to an earlier one, but once again, I like the strange world that Paul, our main character, finds himself in. Two local girls, Grace and Signe, take an interest in Paul, and what they uncover leads him to a terrifying confrontation. This was where I felt that there must have been part of the story written before. Nathan Carson’s prose is simple and powerful, so while I didn’t completely understand everything going on here, I certainly enjoyed the ride.
In “The Burnt Sugar Stench,” a psychic and a cop join forces to rescue a kidnapped woman. The psychic, however, knows something more serious than a mere kidnapping is right around the corner. This is a fast-paced urban fantasy with no spirit board and no discernable creepiness. I’m not really sure why it’s here (it is about divination, I suppose) but it was fun and I enjoyed it.
For a prop that has been an artifact of dozens of teen-horror movies, it’s difficult to write a good story using the spirit board as the theme, and this anthology does a good job. Tales from a Talking Board is a seasonal treat meant for crackling fires in the fireplace and dark spooky evenings. Enjoy.