Review – “Dark Delicacies 2″ edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb

Review – “Dark Delicacies 2″ edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the country’s premiere horror bookshop – Dark Delicacies, in Burbank.  Some friends of mine, knowing my love of reading, thought that I would enjoy a visit to the shop.  Boy, were they right.  I met the owner, Del Howison, and proceeded to spend an hour discussing everything from zombies, to Stephen King, to Brian Keene.  It was such a pleasure to talk with Del – his love and passion for writing, and the horror genre in particular, were infectious.

While there, Del asked if I had read any of his horror anthologies.  I admitted that I had not – if you’ve read my other reviews, you know that I am not a particularly big fan of short fiction.  After talking with Del, though, I was intrigued by what type of collection he and his other editor, Jeff Gelb, would pull together.  As I looked through the three volumes of “Dark Delicacies”, I noticed that volume two had an unpublished story from Max Brooks, set in the world of “World War Z”.  Being a fan of Brooks, and zombies in general, I was sold.  I picked up the book – which Del was kind enough to sign for me – and headed home.

“Dark Delicacies 2” collects 18 tales of varying degrees of horror. There is a forward by legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen (who seems a little unsure why he is introducing a horror collection – but has good insights into the creative process), a brief intro by Del Howison, and wrap-up by Jeff Gelb.  I’ll dive in to each story in more detail below. As with most anthologies, there are hits and misses here.  Not every author is going to appeal to every reader.  That’s true here, but there were a few standout stories for me – chief among them “Great Wall: A Story From the Zombie War”, “A Host of Shadows”, and “The Unlikely Redemption of Jared Pearce”.

I’m looking forward to my next trip out to Burbank.  I will make sure to stop by “Dark Delicacies” again and chat with Del in person about my thoughts on the stories in “Dark Delicacies 2”.  I’m sure I’ll also walk out with a book or two to add to my “to read pile”.  Sounds like a good way to spend an evening to me.

Sunrise on Running Water – by Barbara Hambly
The collection begins with a vampire story.  I’m not a big fan of vampire fiction, so it wasn’t the best start for me.  It follows Lord Sandridge, a vampire who is fleeing to America – feeling that Europe can no longer sustain the undead.  Unfortunately for him, he has chosen the Titanic as his means of transportation to the New World.  The story itself was fine, and I thought constructing the story around the sinking of the Titanic was original – but in the end, it was still a vampire story.  Just not my cup of tea.

Dog – by John R. Landsdale
In this story, Jim Aaron goes out for a bike ride one morning after fighting with his wife.  Seems that, after coming in to some money, Jim has quit his job, only to find that an unfocused life has led to the deterioration of his marriage.  While out riding, he is pursued by a large dog – and things do not go well.  The story is primarily concerned with Jim’s flight from the dog, and his eventual confrontation with it.  The dog was a metaphor for the lack of direction in Jim’s life after quitting his job.  By coming face to face with that particular demon, Jim is forced to make the choice between starting to live or continuing to die.

The Accompanist – by John Harrison
This story put me very much in the mind of the film “The Prestige” – not so much because the stories are similar, but because the feel was similar.  In “The Accompanist”, Matthew Perdu is an insurance man who moonlights as a piano accompanist in the local theater.  In a time before “talkies” had made their debut, that musical accompaniment was one of the audience’s main links to the emotional core of a film.  In this story, Perdu’s obsession with making that experience ring true for the audience is what drives the narrative.  I don’t know that this story was really a “horror” story in the truest sense – but it was a good read.

Where There is a Will… – by Robert Masello
Michael Mountjoy is the black sheep of the family.  Instead of following in the family business of stone importation, he decided to move to LA and try to become a screenwriter.  When he gets the word that his father has died, he has to head home and face the family issues he had wanted to leave behind.  The biggest problem is that his father was accustomed to getting his way – and his father did not want to die. What I liked about this story was the ending.  A nice twist that I didn’t quite see coming paid off quite well, and made for a good story overall.

Stacy and Her Idiot – by Peter Atkins
This is one of the stories in the collection that I would view as filler.  It’s not a bad story – there is just nothing that memorable about it.  A drug buy gone wrong leads to a run in with a cult preparing to make a sacrifice to a demon.  It’s well written, it just didn’t go anywhere for me, or do anything unique or original with the basic premise.

Amusement – by Tananarive Due
This was one of my least favorite stories in the collection.  Again – it’s hard to call this one a “horror” story per se.  It’s definitely not your run of the mill short fiction, but I don’t really see the horror element – it wants to be more “shocking” than anything else.  It starts with a woman, Nicola, asking her dinner companions – “I wonder how eunuchs go to the toilet”?  It’s as bizarre as it sounds and, lucky for her, her boyfriend just happens to know a eunuch from one of the films he has worked on.  The story didn’t work for me, and I was glad to have it in the rearview mirror.

Great Wall: A Story From the Zombie War – by Max Brooks
“World War Z” is one of the better zombie novels ever written.  If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and pick it up – you won’t be disappointed.  Del told me that this story was to have been a chapter in that book, but was cut before it went to press.  For those not familiar with “World War Z”, it tells the story of the zombie apocalypse through a series of interviews with the survivors and combatants in that struggle.  In this story, we hear from Liu Huafeng, a refugee from the zombie outbreak in China.  Fleeing her home, she ends up helping with the reconstruction of the Great Wall as a barrier against the advancing zombie hoards.  Just like “World War Z”, this story is constructed as a post war interview with Liu, and has the same authentic voice and immediacy that you find in the full novel.  Great short story, and a must read for Max Brooks and zombie fans everywhere.

Words, Words, Words – by Gary Brandner
This story reads like it could have been an episode of “The Twilight Zone”.  In fact, in some ways, it echoes back to the classic episode “Time Enough At Last”.  In “Words, Words, Words” we are introduced to Hamilton Baxter – moderately successful author who has been plagiarizing his material from various sources for years.   On his latest trip to the library to begin a new book, things begin to go horribly wrong.  Whether from forces outside of himself, or by virtue of his own mind, events are conspiring to end his career as an “author”.  I rather enjoyed this story.  It was a simple, yet effective concept – perfect for a short story.

Between Eight and Nine O’clock – by Ray Garton
This was another of those stories that, while not bad, did not really grab me or break much new ground.  Eric Volker is in a loveless marriage and has arranged to have his wife killed – hoping to be free to be with his girlfriend.  The story itself was fairly predictable, and most veteran horror and/or mystery readers will see the “twist” at the end coming from a mile a way.

First Born – by John Farris
Greg Wales is a successful actor who has it all – fame fortune, and loving family.  There is a problem, however.  He made a deal 20 years ago with a strange little man – a deal that gave him the fame he craved, but was to be repaid with his firstborn child.  The story was an entertaining riff on the old “crossroads” myth of selling your soul to the devil for success, and it had potential.  Where it failed for me was in the ending.  It was far too “deus ex machina” for my taste.

A Host of Shadows – by Harry Shannon
This was another of my favorite stories in the collection.  It opens with a doctor, leaning over a patient saying, “This may hurt a bit”.  That, as they say, is an understatement.  The story is a claustrophobic and truly frightening examination of the true nature of torture.  It will make you anxious and nervous – great things in a horror story.  The writing is sharp, the story is compelling, and the ending is exactly what it should have been.

What The Devil Won’t Take – by L.A. Banks
I should have liked this story more than I did.  It was an interesting concept – twelve men, all judges, use an ancient book to raise a demon; a demon that even the devil does not want in hell.  They don’t realize it at first, but the demon is going around setting all of the wrongs the twelve judges have committed, to right (i.e. – killers that were set free on technicalities are hunted down and killed in the same manner as their victims).  The problem is – I just didn’t connect with the story.  Even the ending, which wanted to feel very “The Usual Suspects” just didn’t grab me.  I guess even a good story can’t work for everyone.

The Y Incision – by Steve Niles
“The Y Incision” is billed as “a Cal MacDonald Crime Story”.  Steve Niles has published a series of stories about Cal MacDonald, a hard-nosed detective who operates in a world of both natural and supernatural elements.  Here’s the problem – I’ve never read any of those novels.  This was little like coming in to episode 3 of a new series on TV – you can pick it up, but you get the feeling that there are few things you should know, and if you did, the story would be really good.  As it is, I still enjoyed this story.  MacDonald is hired to investigate a series of strange disappearances, but all is not what it seems.  I don’t know that I would call the story groundbreaking, but the “villain” in the story was truly creepy and original.  I may have to pick up some of Niles’ other works and see how they read.

The Unlikely Redemption of Jared Pierce – by Joey O’Bryan
This was another of the strongest stories in the book.  The titular Jared is a man with pain in his past.  Once involved in a drunk driving accident, he has been trying to get his life back together – but that’s all shattered when he is kidnapped on New Years Eve and forced to participate in a macabre drive that would at home in any of the “Saw” movies.  The story is about the demons that we all have to live with in our lives, and the choices that we make.  It’s a very strong story and the last page features the best use of a tequila worm I have yet to find in literature.

Queen of the Groupies – by Greg Kihn
This is a straight up ghost story.  A band begins to see an apparition of a woman who was killed in an earlier incident on the same bus.  I can’t say that I really cared for this story.  It didn’t really break any new ground as far as the ghost story genre goes.  Ghost stories need a little something unforeseen or unique to make them work these days.  Just a ghost on a bus was not really enough for me.

Season Premiere – by James Sallis
I didn’t care for this story at all.  I understood it, but I just didn’t get it.  It dealt with an outcast man, a plague of rats, and a broken TV (there was more – but trust me, it really didn’t make the story that much better).  I chalked this one up to filler again, and moved on.

I Am Coming To Live In Your Mouth – by Glen Hirshberg
I liked this story a lot.  It had a subtle Stephen King vibe, borrowing a little of the feel from “Insomnia” or perhaps “The Regulators”.  Kagome is a devoted wife helping her husband in his fight against cancer.  As he nears the end, she begins to see a strange man, face hidden under his hat, appear in the house.  This, on top of her mother-in-law’s denial and her confusing relationship with a family friend, make for more drama than Kagome needs.  The story is a good examination of loss and letting go.  Well written – I recommend it.

The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) – by Caitlin R. Kiernan
This collection ends with a bang.  Kiernan creates a truly “Hannibal Lechter” worthy main character, that will change the way you look at violins for a long time.  More than that, however, the story has an emotional punch that uses the power of music and family in a way that’s hard not to be affected by.  A great way to end “Dark Delicacies”.

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