edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings and Angela Challis

Shadowed Realms (2005)

Reviewed by Mark Deniz (this review was first published in March 2006)

I haven’t been this excited by a project for quite some time now; as a writer and reader of dark fiction for twenty nine years, the prospect of seventy tales from sixty six authors is what makes a job like this so enjoyable. The ‘box’ is exquisitely packaged, with excellent graphics and sound effects (including a delightful ‘X-ray gallery’) to complement the works of fiction within, and the Box, and its hundred and twenty four pages made clearer for me what it is that I love (and loathe) regarding horror fiction.

After reading the snippets of darkness and braving the Box, I can easily say that there was more that I would categorise as quality dark fiction here than not. Of course there were some stories that were extremely disappointing but, in truth, I never expected all seventy examples of flash fiction to hit the spot. After all we are all different horror readers, who expect and crave different nuances of the genre. I like the gruesome, love the hair-raising, and the story that lingers on, long after the reading, like a ghost itself, haunting the senses. It is comedy within horror writing that I have difficulties with, for if done well it is awesome but when it fails, it seems to fall twice as hard because good humorous horror is so hard to achieve.

The only author who pens more than one story is editor, Shane Jiraiya Cummings, with his “Cruel Summer” series. These include (Sand), (Sun), (Sky), (Surf) and (Shadow) and overall these were very engaging, I felt that (Surf) was easily the best, with (Sky) the weakest link in the chain. The quintet has a pervading disturbance that the events in (Surf) bring to the fore and that (Sky) didn’t deal with with enough impact. A day at the beach will never be the same however…

A major strength with Shadow Box, is that the first ten stories are fantastic and really set up the mood (and your appetite) of what is to come. “Ol’ Ferret Blues (or Weasel rips my flesh)” by Geoffrey Maloney, “Counting Corpses” by Karl El-Koura and “Love Slot” by Ken Goldman are examples of the comedy element working within dark fiction. Maloney and Goldman’s as simply a horror ‘funny’ and El-Koura’s giving us a black comedy denouement.

“The First” (Kyle Seluka) and “Downpour” (Trent Jameson) are full-bloodied nightmares which chill to the core and are matched in quality by “Shadow’s Bride”, an exquisite narrative with beautiful imagery from the pen of Marie Brennan and the deliciously tainted and wonderfully dark and humorous, “The Ghost”, from Eric Christ.

Reading the stories over four sittings, (so as not to lose momentum) I was extremely impressed by the overall quality of the fiction within; the marvellous picture of the human soul in Chris Barnes’ “Entwined” and the power and expression within Nathan Burrage’s “Blurring”, just two of those that impressed. “I Watch” by L.R. Snow is a predictable, yet engaging story containing one of the best characters of dark fiction, the witch.

The supernatural, if written well, is an area that I never tire of visiting and why I was especially pleased with Stephanie Gunn’s “Listen”, which had me looking over my shoulder after reading … just in case. However, looking behind me was not the action I wanted to perform after braving the excellent, “Behind You” by Marty Young.

Halfway through the tales I felt they hit a peak and intensified the desire to read on, to immerse myself in the shadows. “Hush” by Lyn Battersby is fabulously written and is all that is good about the genre. Liam Rands’, “Sweet Josephine”, telling a tale of undying love, is majestic in its delivery and is matched in its misguided protagonist’s view of the world in Nadia Harmsen’s, “Broken Vows”. Poe-esque in nature and probably my favourite of the collection is “Saved by the Bell” by Shelley Lester where we meet the protagonist at the start of a very, very long journey alone.

No horror compilation would be complete without the macabre, the disgusting, the horrific, as it is here that true horror lies. Although I prefer the psychological horror found in “Saved by the Bell” and “Listen”, for their nightmare-inducing stories that live long after the tale has ended, there is also a place for the in-your-face, grim, gruesome and shocking that too grace the pages here.

“Organ Donor”, suggests as much in its title and Stephanie Campisi delivers, as does Charles Richard Laing with “Baby Gal”. “Watching, Wondering” by Michael Kelly, is a wonderful example of that which is under our own roof (and so even more disturbing by default), whilst Kathleen Jennings’ “Custody”, though less likely, is no less unnerving.

Grant Wilson’s “Steady”, deals with a particular nightmare of mine and so succeeds in unsettling me, both in tone and in strength of writing. So too do “Paper Cut” by Thomas Wiloch, Lon Prater’s “A Little Homegrown Hollywood Magic” and Lee Battersby’s “I can make you Famous”, whilst another of my fears is realised, quite dramatically in “Anthills” by Karl Koweski.

“Betrayed” by Mark Zirbel is short, punchy horror, that like Siobhan Bailey’s “Blah, Blah, Blah”, hits and hits hard, and whilst, using interesting techniques, Christian Girard paints a wonderful picture of fear in “Light”.

Another tale that lingers after its conclusion is Shei Tanner’s “Elyssian Village”, a wonderfully written narrative, giving a whole new meaning to the word ‘mercy’. Expounding a godly theme are David L. Kok’s vision of the “Afterlife” and E. Sedia’s “Fredrick Finds God”, in which all manner of expectations can be warped and other than how we may have thought them to be.

Coming to the end of the stories that impressed me within this ‘e-tome’ are “Reclamation” by Deborah McDonnell, a nice, simply evil tale, “The First Time”, a sudden and inexplicable story from Mark Smith and the wonderfully prophetic “Dark Waters” by Amanda M. Hayes. Some solid horror can be found from Steven Cavanagh with his “On the Ocean Wave” and Stephen M. Wilson maintains the watery theme with the grim but engaging Cthulhu inspired “Keep Tahoe Blue”.

“Sharp” by Josh Rountree is a nice, gruesome little tale and chills to the core as does, “It Comes to Us All” by Brian G. Ross, which is both enjoyable and well written, and Stephen Clark’s “The Cellar Cleaners” and the ‘title-track’ “Shadow Box” by Kurt Newton are excellent examples of the atmosphere that can be achieved with good horror.

“Under the Cushions” goes back to the comedy element that works within horror fiction and Meghan Jurado, forced a rare smile on my face, in amongst the nail-biting and goose-pimple moments during my reading.

However not all was positive within the Box and more infuriating than genuinely weak fiction is that which you feel would have benefited from a little tweaking here and there to make it stand out. Examples of this were Susan Wardle’s “Changing”, interesting but ultimately uninspiring, “Tattoo Ink” by Suzanne Church, which though nicely written was uninteresting. “Clown Face” started well although I felt that Daniel Slater ended his tale with a weak metaphor that destroyed all that had come before. Mark T. Barnes promised but didn’t deliver with “Say Goodbye Again” and D. E. Wasden’s “Adaptations” left a feeling of fiction that almost hit the spot. This can also be said for Joseph Paul Haines who put together a horror comedy that almost worked in, “The Last Three Questions of a Blind Quintessential Gourmand” and Samantha Henderson with her funny, yet at the same time bland narrative, “Business Week”. Esteban Silvani, had an interesting concept within the poetic style but the story (“Smooth Trajectory”) failed, due to its rhyming style (which grates) and the disaster of using ‘blood’ and ‘Fudd’ together.

Three stories that were in some ways enjoyable yet overall instantly forgettable were “Thursday Afternoon, Just past Three” by James C. Bassett, “The Capture Diamonds” by Kaaron Warren and, “A French Version of Me” by Gerard Brennan, which suffered from its last line of the narrative.

Even though the latter stories didn’t achieve the tag of good horror fiction, I could at least understand their inclusion in this anthology which cannot be said for all the tales within. “There is a Light” by Deborah Crabtree, “Just Visiting” by Aurelio Rico Lopez III, “Erotica” by Susie Hawes, and “Head Count” by Andrew J. Wilson were pointless, unengaging stories, giving nothing new or worthy to the genre.

Proving that comedy is a difficult art within horror were “Shut Up” by Greg Beatty, Samantha Joan’s, “A Touch of Bad Luck” and “Sarkik” by Ellen Klages, which didn’t raise a smile when reading and the unbelievably poor “Happy Hour” by Tony Williams, which is one of the worst attempts at play-on-words I have ever read.

The weakest entries in the anthology (apart from “Happy Hour”) can be found from Martin Livings (“Playtime”), using an extremely weak villain, reminiscent of ‘Chuckie’, Michael A. Kechula (“Precious Cargo”), Melissa Mead (“Gut Instinct”)and the atrocious “Cats and Dogs”, by Eric Marin.

Even considering the weaker stories within the anthology, it is clear to see that the Shadow Box project was a worthy undertaking, featuring some masterful examples of flash fiction from some truly talented writers. The fact that I have come away from the readings, as enthusiastic as when I began, informs me that contemporary horror is well and truly alive and at only $3 a copy, with the profits going to the Red Cross and AHWA, this is a definite must to add to your reading list in 2006.