Since the first volume came out in December of 2014, the Dark Screams collections of short horror fiction have earned a reputation as one of the best new series in the genre. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re competitively-priced bargains, though not having print editions does create a barrier for non-electronic readers.) Each ebook contains five short horror tales, from a combination of old horror pros to up-and-coming new authors. It’s an understandable achievement given the editorial pedigree—Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar of the excellent specialty publisher Cemetery Dance Publications, who have the industry connections to snag stories from some of the best horror writers in the business. The series is now on its fifth volume and shows no sign of slowing down.
“Everything You’ve Always Wanted” starts things off, a tale about one-hit-wonder of a film director. After making one indie horror film that became a minor cult classic, his big-budget career flopped, leaving him behind his rent and no motivation. That’s when he’s invited to be the guest of honor at MonsterThon, a horror convention that dominates the Indianapolis convention center. It’s the spark that could re-ignite his passion, could kick-start his failed career. Meeting his fans in the build-up to a 25th anniversary celebration of his work is everything he’s always wanted. But these things tend to come with a price, and that taste of glory may be more than he wanted to pay…
Author Mick Garris is no stranger to the silver screen, having earned his chops as a filmmaker and screenwriter for various Stephen King adaptations and creating the Showtime series Masters of Horror, giving the story the ring of authenticity. This story would have been the perfect fit for a Masters of Horror episode. As a written story, it starts off well but begins to drag 2/3rds of the way through, becoming a bit too repetitive and over-the-top. As both the opening salvo in the collection and the story that takes up over half (53%) of the volume, it needs to pack a lot of punch. While it’s still a story worth reading, a little tightening up to remove the repetition would have made it into a knockout.
“The One and Only” by J. Kenner is a classic ghost story set in modern New Orleans, with the scion of a Texas oil baron heading to the Big Easy with his friends, hoping to score some chicks and get over a bad breakup. But there’s shades of fate in his past, like his nanny’s “second-sight” prophecy that he’ll stay in New Orleans forever. The story’s very predictable, but well-written enough that I didn’t care; Kenner’s prose has plenty of atmosphere and makes this ghost trope her own thanks to a bit of voodoo flair.
Kealan Patrick Burke’s melancholy “The Land of Sunshine” sees a man struggling in a failed marriage; he’s trapped by his guilt after cheating on his mute wife (it’s implied), who then attempted suicide (it’s also implied). That’s a lot of interesting psychological baggage to unpack. For a story packed with fantastic atmosphere and deep symbolism, I’m surprised it didn’t grab me; maybe I need to read it again and look for the dense story’s deeper meaning, or just get lost in the lush prose, I wasn’t entirely captivated. It does make me want to look into Burke’s other works.
Del James’ entry, “The One and Only,” is a haunted car story. It’s a story about how love develops across a relationship, and those relationships themselves: one man’s adoration for his ’68 Camaro SS (with a big-block 396), and that same man’s love for his wife, with many important moments in their lives taking place in that Camaro. Car stories tend to be predictable, following the same set of tropes, and while this one did feel very familiar it was both touching and full of some neat surprises. It’s the perfect kind of short-story, strong with some nice twists.
The editors saved the best for last, though, with Bentley Little’s “The Playhouse.” When a realtor heads out to look at the foreclosed house she’s selling, she finds herself drawn to the little playhouse in the backyard. When she’s away, all she can think about is how she needs to get back to the playhouse. And when she’s in the playhouse, losing track of time takes on a whole new meaning. This would have been great as a Twilight Zone episode, with childlike nostalgia blurred with grim unease. An odd and haunting tale, the effortless prose drew me in and the surreal playhouse sold me.
Dark Screams Volume 5 builds on the success of previous volumes, with the editors picking top-notch horror stories from old pros and new stars alike. I’ve said it before, but collections are a tough beast to manage, since not every story will necessarily work for every reader. It can also be tough when the collection isn’t linked thematically, but I’ve always found that “horror” is enough of a theme to hold a collection together. With this volume, I found all of the stories worth reading, and several of them were downright excellent (Little’s, Kenner’s, and James’). It’s a short collection of only five stories, but it’s also priced in impulse-buy territory at $2.99—less than it costs to buy a latte or stream a rental flick. Horror fans should not hesitate to pick this up.
Title: Dark Screams: Volume 5
Editors: Brian James Freeman, Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Hydra (division of Random House LLC)
Release Date: 6 October 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC recieved through NetGalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 9780804176651 / B00TNDLRRA