When the purest substance on earth, unicorn horn, is used to make a dildo, every demon for millennia wants to get their . . . hands . . . on it.
Two demon brothel madams battle over NYC turf. Each would like to add the aforementioned rumored item to their arsenal and jump into action when it hits Chinatown. The scrap up comes down to a dead Jimmy Wong, an ambitious double-crossing sorceress, and a lesbian store owner of rare books.
The tale comes across plenty noir, but more Lovecraft than detective. There’s much world-building for a short story, stretching this tale to the extremes with what’s left unexplained.
Despite the title of the tale and its inclusion in a supernatural detective anthology, this isn’t a detective story. It’s a supernatural ghost story with elements of Lovecraft in its default to unspeakable horror at its heart. I tend not to be moved by “unspeakable horror” since little tends to make it to the page to suggest horror. I find it akin to someone opening a box without letting you peek and then saying, “It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. Don’t you agree?” I wouldn’t know, you aren’t showing me what’s in the box . . .
Horror works best with immediacy–something at stake with an unsure outcome. The stakes are raised if the hero might possibly not make it out of the situation. The horror is diffused a level if the narrator is telling the story after the fact. [Let me guess, you survived the room full of knife-wielding clowns long enough to tell me this story . . .] It’s diffused even more when the tale is not even told by the person who experienced it. [So, your neighbor went on vacation and saw a shark . . . ok.] This tale follows option 3.
An allegedly ghost-skeptical narrator was at a book club where a person recounted a spirit encounter from decades earlier. This is multiple degrees from immediacy. And despite the narrator’s affirmation that the tale he heard made him a believer, little to the story is compelling in the re-retelling of a vague unspeakable horror.
This is a collection of eighteen vignettes and modern day parables. Few rise to the level of being a true short story in that characters are left undeveloped, backgrounds are unexplored and plots remain overly contrived rather than organic.
Most of the themes revolve around philosophical issues: ethics, the nature of reality and God, and free-will vs determinism. However, repeatedly, they assume their own conclusions without truly offering multiple points of view. Many of the vignettes devolve into an unchallenged Socratic method of one person espousing ideas and another concurring. One-sided philosophical speculations can make for good fodder for stories and novels, but here the ideas remain kernels and are presented unexplored.
Most troubling was the reliance on characters having to narrate how brilliant or clever or devious they were without the actions, thoughts, or dialogue to show it. “Brilliant doctors and professors” would remain without a clear field of expertise which is troubling, as medical doctors are well aware of their specialty and tend to self-identify. The thin character constructions hinder the strengths of the tales and the immersion of the reader.
This collection of four urban fantasies spans major common themes: zombies, vampires, urban legend, and dystopian apocalyptic. However, none of the tales are run-of-the-mill.
The opening novelette, “The Rotting City,” is the strongest of the bunch. The world is generations past an environmental apocalypse that sank most of the major cities of the world beneath the rising seas. The world economics and academics shifted to formerly third world countries. This is the backdrop to an archaeological excavation at Old London under the heavy eye of a xenophobic, dystopian regime. Unexpected ties to Lovecraftian lore brings this tale home. I highly recommend the tale.
“Graveyard Shift” is a forgettable vignette offering a slightly different perspective from the POV of a zombie.
“The Man Who Knew” is equal parts urban legend and supernatural ghost tale. This tale twists and turns to its surprising end.
Finally, “Down in the Cages” provides a new take on vampire/human relations. The vampire politics and mind games make for an interesting inclusion into the vampire canon. This tale is recommended.
This novel is thinly plotted Torture Porn. All scenes involve either torture/ graphic murder, graphic sex of various kinky varieties, urination, defecation or a combination of any and all of these.
Most of the characters manage to be porn stars or serial killers, all of whom have sexually degrading episodes from their past that get used to fill the pages between almost plot-relevant scenes of equally degrading torture porn. The few other characters are not left likable either in that they have no backstory or development or no redeeming qualities. One’s meant to like the police officer who apparently thinks it was okay to punish her husband for masturbating by anally raping him with a nightstick in a non-consensual way. This, described graphically multiplied by all scenes of the book = Hell Dancer.
Lovecraftian elements are window dressing, ultimately not building any true sense of a multi-dimensional world of horror.
This brief anthology of 20 extremely short pieces dubbed “epics” spans fantasy, various folklores, and sci-fi. Few of the tales are long enough for any truly satisfactory development. The standouts are either deeply moving are extraordinarily well grounded, or both.
My favorite tale, meriting 5 stars, is Deborah Walker’s “Beyond the Turning Orrery”. It’s a breathtaking work of beautiful prose in which a highly compromised narrator cannot fully comprehend the full extent to which his tiny steampunk world is contrived:
I picked a copper cricket out of the grass, and held it to my ears listening to the small tick of its tiny internal springs.
“If we’re wound, who winds us?” asked Dom.
I touched his chest. “How can you deny that?” I thumped his chest a little harder. I was afraid for him, and that made me scared.
My honorable mentions each receiving 4 stars are: –Daniel Coble’s “Assault on the Summit” which extrapolates on the Lovecraftian mythos of Tibet’s Leng plateau. In the most remote locations, unknown and possibly alien cultures and beings preserve their sequestered way of life. –Marissa James’ “The Blue Cup” confronts the uneasy relationship between a childhood fantasy and adult reality. –Adria Laycraft’s “The Perfection of the Steam-Powered Armour”, set in a steampunk samurai society, this tale pits a tinkerer and his young son up against the powerful politics that undervalue his small family’s lives.
Part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the fictional Leng region of Tibet or Nepal had its own esoteric beliefs and cultural practices, perhaps not of human origin. As other writers dive into the world of Lovecraft, Leng has appeared more often–usually a place where explorers, researchers and anthropologists disappear [see Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng”]. It’s often hinted that something alien, or perhaps a fungal-based lifeform dwells on the desolate high Himalayan plains.
While not mentioning Leng by name, this tale shares many key ingredients with Leng mythos. Like Jeff VanderMeer’s “Fragments from the Notes of a Dead Mycologist”, all that is found of the 19th Century adventurer is notes and letters. Professor Charles Polk disappears on the slopes of Mt. Nending in 1871. Letters detailing the probable last days of his life are not found for over 140 years.
In letters to fellow academics and to his wife all back in England, the pompous British adventurer notes his troubles in securing Sherpa guides for his ascent up a mountain rumored to have a temple at the summit. Then two Sherpas stroll into the Sherpa village and offer to take him up. Strangely, the villagers fear the two newcomers and deny that they are Sherpas. Polk starts to witness odd behaviors by his guides. They seem to talk and listen to shiny stone orbs when they think the Brit is out of sight range. Also, food, ropes and other supplies start to vanish in the night . . .
This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.