Kelley Armstrong starts things off with “Invitation to the Game.” Vivienne once dreamed of moving up the corporate ladder and becoming an executive at the company, but after the death of her infant daughter she and her husband are thinking of leaving. That’s when she gets the letter—the invitation to the Game. All the company asks is that she play this simple, silly game, some kind of computer game puzzle where she and other executive candidates do a team-building exercise. So why does she have such a bad feeling about the Game, why does she feel like she should get out while she can? I loved this story’s concept, and was drawn into it from the beginning; it’s not much of a scary story, more of a thriller with horrific elements, but I found it very enjoyable nonetheless.
Next up is “Summer of ’77” by Stewart Nan, a short and shockingly beautiful portrait of a serial killer who preys on the teens spending their days at the beach. It’s a downright chilling tale, which has its own great atmosphere and gets you right into the diseased head of a creepy predator. While it’s not very long or substantive, it hits all the right notes, and succeeds from its style and atmosphere.
Taylor Grant’s “The Dead Years” is one of the volume’s highlights, quite possibly my favorite story in the collection. The protagonist, spending an evening at an art gallery, is shocked to see a face he never expected to see again—Emma Grace, his teenage sweetheart who ran away at the end of high school. Presumed dead for 15 years. This woman is not Emma, but, why does she look so much alike? That brilliant and unique idea starts unsettling and creepy, and takes a very dark (but somewhat natural) turn along the way. I give it bonus points for having such a cool concept that it executes almost flawlessly, up until it ends on a grim and possibly unending conclusion.
Unsettling tale “The Blackout” by Johnathan Moore starts off in a morgue, where Detective Nakahara is called in to investigate a body. Or in this case, a lack of body, as a mangled victim has somehow escaped the locked morgue and fled into a Hawaii currently getting savaged by a tropical storm. Hunting down this missing body will involve Nakahara digging down the island’s dark secrets, including a few of his own. This is a suspenseful but easy read, and I found myself pulled along up until the tale’s abrupt ending. The great atmosphere and chilling unease made it a winner despite the abruptness of its ending, but I do feel it could have had a little more closure at the end.
Peter Straub is one of the true horror grand-masters, and his contribution here is the bizzarro short “Variations on a theme from Seinfield.” As a child, Clyde started to notice when his reflection didn’t appear in the mirror. When that happens, he found it necessary to go through the mirror and retrieve it… but the trick is making it back out. In this one, we see some of Straub’s tendencies towards literary excess on display: run-on sentences, a narrative so layered and inexplicable as to become obtuse, parenthetical sentences nested within other parenthetical asides. The story is as blessedly short as it is surreal, so while it didn’t do much for me, well, at least there’s not enough of it to spend much time on.
“Torn” by Lee Thomas is the longest story in the collection, and in a way it feels like everything has been leading up to this. When eleven-year-old Maggie goes missing, the sheriff of Luther’s Bend sets out into the woods to find her. What he and the other searchers find is… well, a damn good series of twists I’m not willing to spoil. Suffice to say that it starts off as an unnerving search through the woods and ends with an epic showdown that’s a gruesome, action-packed romp. It’s also got realistic characters with believable personal conflicts, some nefarious secrets, pressing time constraints, and works as a surprisingly apt metaphor. While the story drags in places, Thomas does a superb job at building suspense, and it foreshadows several secrets that were still unexpected twists. It adds up as a solid tale of small-town horror, and is one of the volume’s highlights.
The Dark Screams series has a reputation as good bang-for-your-buck horror e-anthologies, cheap impulse buys in the $3-4 range that offer a fistful of stories by well-known authors. Some past installments (notably volumes 2 and 8) have staggered a bit, but even at their “worst” the series has delivered on its premise of being affordable entertainment from some of the genre’s greatest writers. And when a volume succeeds as well as Dark Screams 9 does, it’s just about perfection. If you are a fan of short horror and have an e-reader or tablet of some kind, and haven’t started picking up Dark Screams, this is a perfect volume to dive into.
Title: Dark Screams: Volume 8
Editors: Brian James Freeman, Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Hydra (division of Random House LLC)
Release Date: 9 January 2018
What I Read: ebook
MSRP: $3.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC recieved through NetGalley)
ISBN/ASIN: unknown / B071RB1D9H