Angela Challis (ed.)

Brimstone Press (2006)

ISBN:0-9802817-1-7 

Reviewed by Tim Kroenert (this review was first published in March 2007)

Lovers of dark flash fiction (this reviewer included) may rejoice: this anthology from Brimstone Press, which collects stories previously published in the very fine Australian flash fiction journal Shadowed Realms, is one hell of a delightfully dark read.

Flash fiction (ultra-short stories, in the case of Shadowed Realms, less than 1,000 words) tends to be a somewhat underrated medium, and a craft quite distinct from longer short story writing. At its very best, flash fiction goes some way to bridge the wide gap between short story and poem, requiring by its very nature a strict economy of language and rapid, visceral approach to storytelling.

At its worst, flash fiction can resemble incomplete or truncated stories, or isolated scenes that lack impact without proper context. Luckily there are very few examples of this to be found in Book of Shadows. More often than not these stories successfully achieve a concise beginning-middle-end approach, giving them a completeness that belies their diminutive word count.

Shane Jiraiya Cummings’ story about a disturbed loner seeking revenge on the elemental force that took his family from him, entitled “Stealing Fire”, is a case in point. The central character emerges so fully formed, and the story is packed with so much intense and unsettling emotion, that it feels genuinely epic, despite being only 800 words long.

Then there’s Joanne Anderton’s “The Feast”, in which the narrator calls upon otherworldly forces to curb the slaughter in her family’s village; the tale is brief but thematically dense, and feels both more complete and much vaster than its three-and-a-half pages would suggest. Josh Rountree’s “Seed and Soil”, which sees a mother’s grief facilitate the macabre reincarnation of her deceased daughter, is similarly affecting.

Other stories pan out like gleefully sick jokes, the author playing at narrative misdirection before socking the reader with their twisted punch-line. Few do this as effectively as Shaun Jeffrey’s “Park Life”, about a day at the zoo that turns out to be more than a mere family outing. S Char’s “Phone Call”, in which a man talks his suicidal wife down from a building ledge via the phone, is nicely crafted soap opera with a nasty twist in its tail. Charles Richard Laing’s “Asking Questions” chillingly recreates a torture/interrogation scene, but is, overall, a less effective example of the “punch-line” approach.

Still other tales are simply disconcerting oddities. Eric Marin’s “Doubled” clocks in at 123 words, yet marks one of the volume’s most memorable moments. Without giving too much away, the story opens with the words: “Last night I crossed my eyes until the world doubled, and when I uncrossed them both worlds remained in place.” Over the ensuing paragraphs, Marin plays out this strange scenario both convincingly and succinctly, not lingering a single moment longer than is necessary.

“The Projectile Mind” (Mikal Trimm) sees a grumpy suburbanite exact an act of supernatural revenge against a noisy neighbour. It’s effectively executed but, like Marin’s “Doubled”, seems to exist simply as a showcase for an intriguing premise. Meanwhile, “Status: Complete” (Leslie J Furlong) comprises a fictional “exit” email from a disgruntled engineer; the story takes a “read between the lines” approach to exposition, forcing the reader to fill in the blanks of the email writer’s sick parting gift to their employer.

This, in fact, points to one of the great defining characteristics of the Book of Shadows anthology, and of Shadowed Realms in general. Sure, many stories don’t skimp on explicit gore, but it’s clear from the outset that editor Angela Challis is more interested in dark psychology than blood and guts. It’s this that will leave a truly lasting impression, as she says in the book’s introduction: “Dark fiction is about the buildup of tension, the quickening of the pulse, a disturbing outcome, and a lingering sense of morbidity.”

Challis says she’s interested in showcasing stories that transcend the clichés of the horror genre, and this is wonderfully illustrated by the selection of stories. Take Robert Hood’s “Autopsy”, for example. It’s wonderfully depraved opening sequence, in which the “hero” performs a savage autopsy on a living subject, could be written off as exploitative. However as the story progresses it becomes clear Hood has more than just gore in mind. A few plot twists establish this as a captivating (albeit still utterly depraved) highlight of the anthology; a fine, imaginative piece of storytelling from a great Australian author.

Book of Shadows includes 43 stories in total. It’s a fairly extensive volume and, as fantastic as the flash medium is, it’s a considerable relief that several longer tales have been included (presumably originally published as flash fiction serials) in order to provide some variety of pace.

Perhaps the most effective and memorable of these longer stories is Gary Kemble’s “Ad Infinitum”. With a heady mixture of empathy and sadism, Kemble has his narrator (and hence his reader) awaken into a succession of increasingly disturbing nightmares. Themes of infidelity and guilt, overseas business travel and fears of crime and terrorism haunt each dream, hinting at the nature of the narrator’s waking life and his overarching psychological and emotional state. Kemble, however, takes a surreal, Lynchian approach by keeping the markers of solid reality shifting, so that it’s never entirely clear what’s “real” and what isn’t. The overall effect is at once disturbing and strangely moving.

To name and assess every story in the volume would be a disservice to prospective readers. There is far more to be gained from skulking through the pages of Book of Shadows on your own and discovering for yourself the dark, twisted and/or poignant beasts that lurk in its many nooks and crannies.

Still, as a final rough guide of particularly charming animals to look out for: Terry Dowling’s “The Eye in Room 16” is a spooky tale about childhood fears; Josh Rountree’s “Mean Street” takes a disconcerting yet empathetic tour of the mind of a drug addicted street kid; Mark Barnes’ “Soul Garden” is an exorcism story with a difference, ethereal and dense with dark imagery; and Craig Wolf’s “Fault Lines” is a sick and sad ode to the destructive powers of love.

“Your [the reader’s] quest is to read, enjoy, and add another breath of life to this re-emerging genre,” says Challis. I’d invite you to do likewise and immerse yourself in the many dark worlds of Book of Shadows. You won’t be disappointed.