Reviews in the Machine: The Black Room Manuscripts, volume four
The Sinister Horror Company has long since established itself as a source for outstanding fiction. I have been introduced to a number of fantastic authors, courtesy of their releases and they are one publisher in particular that I always keep a close eye on to see what might be coming next. The handling of the books has consistently been of the utmost care and respect and I always feel confident that my purchasing dollars are going to a good place whenever I support their authors.
One major centerpiece of the Sinister tabletop has been the anthology series, the Black Room Manuscripts. Having run over multiple editions and years, more amazing fiction than I could keep track of has graced the pages of these books, with a hefty amount of money going to charity on the back of the work of so many spectacular authors.
This year, the Black Room series has come to an end with volume four, the final installment. And Sinister Horror laid down a collection of great stories to go out in fine form. Overall, I found them to range from entertaining to staggering and it reminded me of what I have loved about the series (that I have read), that the stories contained in these collections make a point of straying from the convention and striking out into narrative territory that is maybe a bit less tackled by other authors and publishers. I have always held that there isn’t really that much new to be done out there and that the important issue is the talent of the writer. Despite my holding to this conviction, this book still manages to feel at moments like writing I have never seen before.
If I had any critical comments to make about the book, it would be that some of the stories felt a bit on the ambitious side for the length they had to work with. There were a number of stories where, when I reached the end I was kind of surprised and disappointed to find that there weren’t a few more pages to contexualize everything. But even taking this issue into consideration, even those stories where I wished the ground felt a little firmer underneath me, I still found plenty in the prose to enjoy. The journey of words in all of these stories were enjoyable to experience. I think it’s normal and should be expected with any anthology that some stories aren’t going to work as well for you as others. It’s just the nature of the beast. A story that I might not respond to could be the one that splits the skies open for someone else. You never know.
So with those prefacing statements, I felt it would be appropriate in recognition of this great achievement from Sinister that I go through the book and offer up my thoughts on each individual story. And I want to make sure it is clear how much I would like to pass along my compliments to all the individual contributors to this book. You are of a quality we all should aspire to and the work you contributed here is well deserving of all praise and honor.
THAT THING I DID, by TRACY FAHEY
This was about as powerful an opening to an anthology as I may have seen. It’s the kind of story where you aren’t really sure where things are going until the last few moments when all you can do is bask in the heightened tragedy of the whole thing. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t have to have stereotypical horror elements to make a story terrifying. You don’t need monsters or ghosts.
Sometimes the horror is found in the circumstances.
This story is short but it uses the small space to build a ton of character history and emotional punch. The pacing is perfect and there are just enough crumbs to indicate what’s about to happen. And there is a perfect moment where you almost unconsciously say to yourself, “No, this isn’t going there, is it?”
Of course it’s going there.
EATING THE DREAM, by K.A. LAITY
This one was more of a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I thought the concept of the story was interesting and that a lot of history was packed into a small amount of space. On the other hand, though, I also had a harder time engaging in the story and I kind of wish certain narrative parameters had been more clearly established, earlier on.
The language of this piece is incredibly gorgeous. The tactile imagery and sensations in the story were about as intense and effective as I have seen in a book in a long time. Passages like “The lights of a small town are just right, a bouquet of neon, headlights, and flickering fluorescence. Makes me feel pretty” or “The main transaction is between loneliness and cash”. Lines like that just take me off my feet and remind me about what language can be and why I love doing this in the first place. So many turns of phrase that are just awesome and the poetry of the setting is so powerful, I might just be happy reading it off into the horizon, like the longest Tom Waits song ever written.
All that aside, I did find it harder to pick up on what was going on in the story and where things were going. And please don’t let this arbitrary note deter you from reading this because it’s entirely possible that the problem is with my dumb brain. All I can say is that I think the story could have been stronger if we had known a little more concrete information about not just this universe but also the narrator. It’s a tough challenge here because while using the first person cuts us off from a lot of potentially useful information that a third-person narrative voice could provide, being able to hear the character’s train of thought is really important. Perhaps a hybrid between the two would have worked.
In all, an interesting story that I found compelling for what it seemed to be offering. I just would have liked it to have been executed slightly differently.
A CLEAR DAY IN A SEASON OF STORMS, by SIMON AVERY
This was a cool story with a premise that really rattled around in my brain pan for some time after reading it. And sadly, there is very little I can say about it without spoiling the details of the plot. I shall do the best I can.
The story is centered around a married couple who have clearly seen better times in terms of their relationship. As we open, we see them having seemingly reached the realization that even their fairly extreme ideas to try and improve their marriage have failed and as the reader, my immediate assumption was that they were likely finished with each other.
The table is upturned by the introduction of a stranger (I know, cue Ms. Agatha Christie with the sudden thunderstorm and a dark visitor in the rain slicker). If you can look past the superficial, you will find a story that is unique in its scope and execution. I was fascinated by this new character and with how quickly he took on a tone of familiarity with this couple. I’m a sucker for any kinds of stories about the sea and as with the previous tale in this volume, the atmosphere and setting of this is phenomenal.
Great characterization, plot and description. And a great reminder that just because a story has supernatural elements, it doesn’t necessarily have to be horrific.
THE HANGING BOY, by GARY MCMAHON
This was a fun story. I really enjoy it when an author allows a narrative to thrive on a surrealistic landscape and doesn’t make a ton of effort to explain away or justify it. This tale is definitely an example of that, a normal, average day that quickly transitions to anything but. It was a situation for a character of which I had no understanding but was definitely engaged in wanting to know more. Some of the language and dialogue really reinforced the idea with me that this was a kind of modern day fable.
I think it casts an interesting light on the subject of perspective and how our mind can sometimes allow us to see the world in times of stress. In other words, maybe we can’t always trust our own senses if, on a subconscious level we are trying to shield ourselves from what’s really happening.
Plenty of stories will take the tactic of shifting and changing your perspective on everything but I found this one to be particularly clever about it. An interesting and enjoyable read.
MAM’S GIRL, by J.L. GEORGE
I’ll be completely honest and admit that this one went past me a little. But I definitely enjoyed the intrigue of the tale and in trying to unravel what was going on. And perhaps more importantly, the story got me thinking.
It made me ponder the experience of getting old and how we can end up retreating into our own consciousness, to the point where maybe we interact with our own memories. Could those memories actually be self-aware as they swirl around us in the ether? Is it possible that the moment of our death is that in which all those disparate elements are finally brought back together?
Not to do with the story. But it’s the mental journey I was sent on.
TEARS OF HONEY, by JOHN MCNEE
With an opening line like, “For what is pleasure, but an evolution of pain?”, it’s hard for me to not go in with my brain in a Clive Barker kind of mindset. And this is a completely unfair standard to set for a story but unfortunately, that was what was colored expectations from the start.
I was thrilled to find that the story completely delivers on this implied expectation that I had created for myself. l loved the notion of this group of individuals coming together for the purposes of exploring paranormal phenomenon. It isn’t clear at first what they are going to be doing but the tone of the piece kept me engaged throughout.
And for me, what sets Clive Barker aside is how he weaves his dramatic visual canvas on which to draw. This carries over nicely as McNee delivers some imagery that is profoundly disturbing.
if I had any critical note, I would say that the story at the start steps aside from the main narrative to offer up backstory. It provides some insight into the characters that I didn’t think was necessary. I wasn’t really sure where things were going at that point and I thought that section could have been condensed quite a bit.
DECIPHER, by DANIEL MARC CHANT
I think what I found really cool about this was the shifting in time and perspective and how, while narrative modes like this could have created more confusion around the mystery of the plot, Chant manages to layer everything perfectly. I loved the interaction between this couple and seeing how the relationship became so fractured.
Chant does a good job getting into the minds of the characters and using them to craft an engaging story. He did a good job showing the increasing obsession of the wife and demonstrating how this leads to her revelation about her husband that drives the drama underlying in the piece. It all works up to a brilliant ending, one of the stronger ones in the collection, in my opinion. The questions aren’t all necessarily answered and maybe we aren’t left really knowing which one of the couple is more of the monster but I kind of like how that is left open-ended. While some stories leave making me feel like there needs to be more filler to the core of the plot, this moves quickly and is compelling enough to make me really love it in the form it is in.
TAP, TAP, by MARIE O’REGAN
This one had a beautifully creepy atmosphere to it. While dolls aren’t exactly new when it comes to the content of horror fiction, there always exists the possibility of taking something routine and making it great. I think that is what O’Regan has done here, in brilliant form.
The pacing of was near perfect as I had no desire to put it down at any point while I read it. The tension is real and palpable as the story moves along, which isn’t easy in any kind of story length. I don’t want to give too much away but the experiences of this woman and her mother quickly escalate from curious to simply terrifying. I’m not generally bothered by horror fiction but some of the imagery in my head at the end of this piece definitely had me feeling unsettled. It’s a perfect example of a creative drive that we should all aspire to. It’s a fantastic idea, delivered with tremendously talented writing. This was one of my favorites from the collection.
BLACK SILK, by BENEDICT J. JONES
Benedict Jones has long since demonstrated his abilities as a great storyteller and he brought his full game to bear in this finale for the Black Room Manuscripts. After a quick start, Jones does a superb job developing tension in this with a great sense of movement to the plot, foreshadowing something terrible yet to come.
I loved the mystery behind this character as she learns more about herself and her past. And the situation she has to live with is pretty sympathetic, a sympathy which Jones will challenge as the story goes on. Everything winds down to a turn at the end that I didn’t see coming and I thought worked extremely well.
This story is a perfect example of how things aren’t always what they seem and before you pass judgment on anyone, it’s important to work your way through, all the way to the end.
DRAGGED DOWN, by RAMSEY CAMPBELL
This was a cool little tale that seemed to be going for a number of different angles at the same time. On one hand, I liked the creepy vibe around the nature of a local tunnel and the various stories that the characters come up with, surrounding it. Is this just a case of characters being asked to mine their own imaginations and making something more than it really is? Or does the tunnel in question actually bear some darker aspects that we can’t really understand?
I have seen a number of stories over the years about the phenomenon of tunnels that have the power where you can be affected somehow if you dare to venture through to the other side. Doing great horror is often about taking something mundane and making it into something unsettling and I think Campbell does this well.
I also appreciated how the dynamics between classmates was represented here. I think it takes a bit more work and guts to portray children as the bullies they can be and demonstrating how a hostile environment can swell into something horrifically worse.
In all, very entertaining and I’m glad I got the chance to read this.
PLACE OF THE DAMNED, by C.L. RAVEN
This was a fun story that managed to pack a lot of action into a short amount of time and space. The premise of exploring a long vacant castle is certainly nothing new, responsible for so much of the gothic imagery we associate with horror anymore. The vibe I felt in this was really similar to what I got from Dusk ‘til Dawn in which there is a definitive line that separates two starkly different aspects of the story. To start out, we have a fairly light-hearted sort of ghost story but this quickly descends into something much more serious. Once the action kicks in, it doesn’t let go.
If I had any complaint it would probably be that I didn’t think the whole ghost hunters angle was needed for the story. It didn’t really add anything crucial to the overall vibe of the piece and if anything, it felt slightly more like ground I have walked a few too many times. Still, while these aspects may have been present, I still found the execution of the story to be top rate, a good, fun read.
BROOKS POND, by MARK WEST
I’m always grateful for anthologies like this for opening my experience to new authors but obviously I also like seeing what work the names I’m familiar with have laid down. I have been a fan of Mark West for several years now and I think he excels at crafting beautiful atmosphere and characters. His work on Brooks Pond is no exception.
We have come to expect it anymore that in stories like this, our expectations will be played on a little and that by the end of the story, we get to see how misled we had been throughout. West does a great job in spinning the tables around and giving all the characters a grim turn in terms of how we see them. And after all of that, he manages somehow to give one character in particular an even darker turn than he had already. Not really a double twist but certainly a clarification of just how dark and depraved some characters can be.
PLANNING PERMISSION, by HANNAH KATE
Write a horror story involving urban planning.
I feel a bit ridiculous even writing that out but somehow this is what Hannah Kate managed to accomplish with this one. And I think it’s a great example of how you can take narrative devices that have been used often and freshen them by putting them into a new context.
Despite being fairly heavy-handed with the exposition at times, I found the mystery to be engaging and interesting. And even though I had an inkling of where things were going, the quality of the prose and skill in the crafting kept me hanging on to the last paragraph.
SHRIVELED TONGUES OF DEAD HORSES, by ERIK HOFSTATTER
I really loved this one, despite the fact that for the first half or so I hadn’t a clue what the hell was going on. Still, the imagery was incredibly vivid so I hung tight. Then, about halfway through, the story came together and began to actually make sense. And then with the final line, we get the rug pulled out and we are once again floundering without a tether. I suspect I could read this six times and come away with six different interpretations.
DEATH WISH, by MARGARÉT HELGADÓTTIR
Mixed feelings somewhat on this. On one hand, I love that we are dropped right into the middle of things and the heart of the story is almost immediately present. On the other, I also would have liked to have had a little more information on the universe this takes place in, of traumas experienced by the protagonist that seem to weigh heavily but are maybe sketched a bit lightly.
Beyond this minor issue, the execution of the story works really well. I liked the sense of confused familiarity between the narrator and the girl he chooses to help. From the start you have a sense that something beyond the obvious is going on and the story does a good job layering the plot out ahead of you.
I kind of wanted more at the end but it closes with a solid last line and some creepy imagery to go along with it.
SIZE ISNT EVERYTHING, by JAMES EVERINGTON
I enjoyed this story, mostly for the atmosphere and the description. I felt like I was sitting in that car for most of the time, the writing was so vivid and evocative. I also would have liked a little more clarity at the ending, just tilting the narrative cards down a little bit more so we can get a better look at them.
That aside, the atmosphere and creeping dread that is present throughout the story is brilliantly done. There’s an intriguing pace to the story as the protagonist finds himself exploring the confines of an abandoned apartment.
Tons of dark foreshadowing, which I am a fan of. And also an incredibly inventive monster, if you want to call it that. Quite Lovecraftian in its design but with maybe even more sci-fi kind of aspects.
PAIN HAS A VOICE, by STEPHEN BACON
Really brilliant. A great examination of the emotional struggles of a child who has to come to terms with the death of a parent as well as the introduction of a new parental figure who may be quite a bit less suited as a parent.
As a writer and a lover of books who also has kids, I appreciated the notion of books being used as a conduit that can connect kids to their parents.
And although the story is pretty grim in the details of the plot, I also found it a nice way of demonstrating a child’s development of inner strength, possibly to the point of standing up to his abusive step-father. Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing the origin story for a psychopath. And the ultimate irony here is that both of those statements could easily be true.
The reality of great fiction is that just because a character is sympathetic, it doesn’t inherently make them a good person. This story really hammered home that point for me.
SWIMMING OUT TO SEA, by PENNY JONES
This one spoke to me as it took place in an environment that felt comfortable to me. It reminded me of summers at Lake Michigan and wading out into deeper waters than we probably should have been allowed. I’ve felt the uncertain pressure under my feet and around my ankles as they are sucked into the sand, always wondering about the fabled rip-tide that could drag you out to sea.
This story is pretty bonkers as it unfolds and it’s a brilliant examination of a persons state of mind and how perceptions can be warped or misled. Jones does a great job leading the reader along, right there with the protagonist, only to have the floor yanked out in due course.
This was a cool sequence of events as this character’s peril just seems to increase with each passing moment. And it leaves you in a powerful moment at the ending.
REANIMATION CHANNEL, by MARK CASSEL
Probably another one of my favorites from the book. The premise of this is incredibly inventive and crafted out to a high degree. And just when I thought I couldn’t get more impressed with the concept behind the plot, it just went and got even crazier and more creative. Somehow, he has managed to take a fairly grizzly monster story and fused it with a kind of tech-y, almost science-fiction feel to it. The mystery is effective and the plot is laid out perfectly to create just the right level of action, mystery and suspense.
It all builds up to an ending that is probably one of the more emotionally satisfying ending points I’ve seen in a story. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall as the concept for this was worked out because I was really impressed with the level of skill that went into crafting a story such as this. Give it a read. And keep it in the back of your mind the next time you go online to do some serious gaming.
CRAFT AIL, by DUNCAN BRADSHAW
This was an incredibly fun and entertaining story. I have read a number of Bradshaw’s works, from his books to his shorter stories and I am always impressed with the breadth of content in his writing. By no means is this a writer who takes on the same subject matter time and time again. And yet, despite the difference in subject, the style always seems to be uniquely his. It’s hard to strike a totally unique tone in your writing but I think Duncan Bradshaw has done quite a bit in this regard.
This story is bonkers, right out of the gate and with very little exclamation you are dumped into the middle of the craziest situation you could probably imagine in a story. And somehow, without giving a ton of backstory, he still manages to make all of this craziness seemed completely normal. I had a lot of fun trying to disentangle what was going on and what direction the story was going in.
Bradshaw exercises a deft slide in perspective in this, moving from one character to a completely new one at about the midpoint of the story. And while, by all rights this shouldn’t have worked, it serves to function in the story perfectly. The dark and violent notes of the opening are only smoothed over by the humor and absurdity of the second half.
Definitely one of the high points of the collection for me.
ZWIGLI’S LAST PAPER, by ELIZABETH DAVIS
I’m feeling a fair amount of guilt when it comes to this one and it is for this story that I think I have had the most difficult time phrasing how I feel about it. Because I think it’s clear how much time and attention and craft that went into the construction of this story. This is not some paper-thin narrative that someone threw together and patched up with some packing tape. I can only imagine the Herculean effort it would have taken to both conceive of and execute this
It just isn’t for me.
Ultimately, I just feel like there isn’t enough context for the story, told in a mostly epistolary fashion. The mode of the narrative made me think quite a bit about Lovecraft’s At The Mountain Of Madness, or even Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The problem for me was that I didn’t understand what was happening around the existence of these writings. I didn’t really know why I was reading it or what this person had done to warrant the collection of her writings. Ultimately, there was just too much work for me to engage with this and I was not successful. And I take full responsibility for this. The failing here is mine, not the author.
I would strongly encourage you to give the story a go. Plenty of people will be able to find a connection here that I have not.
LAUREL, by TERRY GRIMWOOD
This was a well paced and written piece of historical fiction. It’s a skill set I have never had and I’m always impressed with writers who can do such a good job putting a narrative so authentically into an era lost to all of us. It’s easy to just say that a story is set in the past, it’s another entirely to avoid the anachronistic and make a piece feel like it’s oozing the time period it’s set in. It was an exciting read.
It’s also an example of what I have said of the book overall, that this was one that I would have liked to have seen with a slightly more firm ending to it. The frame story in this felt less successful to me and I’m not really sure why, other than it seemed to not function as well as a part of a coalesced work of fiction.
Still, a fantastically layered story. Kind of a mashup of Lovecraft and the Great Escape.
TIDE WILL TELL, by V.H. LESLIE
This is a beautifully written piece with a lot of great descriptions. I felt like the tactile descriptions of the environment of the story was done to near perfection and this river sounded like one that I might be walking or jogging along. I also liked the glimpses we got at the relationship of the married couple in this story as I know first-hand how stressful it can become in a relationship when going through the process of trying to have a child. I don’t know if this was something intended by the author. I kind of doubt it but this is one aspect I took away from it.
Centered around a man who comes across a sack floating in the river, sure for a moment that he sees something moving in there. Or did he? I’m not really sure. I would have liked to have seen a little more context for these characters. But even though I suspect the heart of the story went over my head a little, the reading was quite pleasurable, in a fictional landscape that felt familiar and comfortable.
THE LAST HORROR, by JR PARK
Great tale to close out the collection. The layering of the story was a joy to try and read through, with perspectives shifting and dropping out brilliantly. In this, we have a writer trying to figure out a story about a writer who is also trying to write a story. And while on the surface, this may seem destined for disaster, the vibe of the story is brilliant. At times I found myself wondering if any of this was real or if the narratives I was seeing merely existed in the middle layers of a sort of literary nesting doll. How many more layers are there, both above and below? To take that even further into the rabbit hole, in some higher level universe is there someone reading a book about me reading a book about a writer writing about a writer?
Like a great Lynch film, this is a story best experienced driving through without a roadmap. Setting your preconceptions too firmly would likely only serve to detract from the experience. It was a narrative that had me thinking for long after I got to the final lines and for much longer after.
And that’s a wrap on both this review as well as this series of fantastic anthologies. I would like to extend my thanks to the folks at Sinister Horror for the outstanding work they continue to put out and for being a bright and tragically underappreciated light in this industry. This has been a great series and the world of horror fiction has only served to benefit from them, all four volumes.
Do yourself a favor and give some of your time for a deep and heavy book that will entertain and open your mind to narrative possibilities you may have never considered before.