Reviewed by David Brzeski
Being, as I am, a huge fan of H. Rider Haggard and the like, I came to this collection with high expectations. That’s not to say that this book is limited to stories set in ancient lost cities, found in the remote, unexplored regions of the world. It has a much wider remit than that.
The collection starts strongly with, ‘Angel of Destruction’, a short tale of the birth of an immortal evil at the fall of Assyria. Cynthia D. Witherspoon is one of a number of writers, unfamiliar to me, who I’ll be watching out for in the future.
I was on more familiar ground with ‘The Door Beyond the Water’, by David Tallerman. Readers will likely recognise the Lovecraftian nature of this excellent story of ancient evil influencing men through dreams, but it also has much of Dunsany, Chambers and Hodgson about it, all of whom were, of course, huge influences on HPL.
Michael G. Cornelius’ ‘Directions’ is a little gem, which has gone on my personal shortlist of best short stories of 2012 for when the time for awards nominations comes around. It does stretch the boundaries of the collection a bit, but this tale of how the witches of Oz met their individual ends and how their destinies failed to live up to their expectations is an absolute delight.
One of the real lost civilizations we revisit in the book is that of the Aztecs. In ‘Quetzalcoatl’s Conquistador’, by Jamie Lackey, we find out what happens when the feathered sepent himself possesses the Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés. Naturally, subsequent events take a different path to that recorded in our history books.
‘Königreich der Sorge (Kingdom of Sorrow), by C. Deskin Rink is the second Lovecraftian tale in this collection. In 1939, Dr. Werner von Eichmann Phd. M.D., following an ancient map, takes his team far North, into the Arctic Circle. They eventually discover a huge trapdoor, one that appears to have been purposely buried and hidden by a Russian expedition a couple of years previously. The story is cleverly presented as a series of reports, sent to his superior, Herr Generalfieldmarschall, Willhem Keitel, and eventually from Major Joseph Müller, whose platoon is sent to find Eichmann’s expedition.
Sometimes less is more. ‘Bare Bones’, by Curtis James McConnell is just four pages, but it was my favourite in the book so far. How can the fully evolved Homo Sapiens skull be two million years old? What can our troubled scientists do with a discovery that completely invalidates everything they know about the evolutionary history of mankind? This one went straight into my personal list of best short stories of 2012.
Cherstin Hotzman’s ‘In Eden’ is a truly original zombie story with a difference. No flesh eating zombies these. It’s the old West, and in a small town named Eden, people were refusing to stay dead. They might go on forever, dead, but aware; their flesh rotting on their bones, until they either leave the town limits, or someone does something about it. Only the sheriff seems to believe that something needs to be done, but if he fails to fix it, who will step up to help him?
‘Rebirth in Dreams’, by A.J. French, was interesting enough to have me searching Amazon for more of his work. It’s a weird metaphysical tale, which, in the words of the editor, is like a collaboration between Hunter S. Thompson and H.P. Lovecraft. Another one for my ongoing shortlist of the best short stories of the year.
Why did he insist that even his son refer to him as Dr. Phillips, and what is the terrible family tradition, passed down from father to son? ‘Sins of our Fathers’, by Wendra Chambers answers these questions in a manner which reminded me of a classic mystery/horror movie. Indeed, I could easily envision the cold, distant, secretive Dr. Phillips as played by Vincent Price.
‘Sumeria to the Stars’, by Jonathan Vos Post is an odd one. The author is a mathematician and Physicist. He packs his story with enough science to plough a highway over the heads of readers better educated than me. However, he manages to keep the science-blinded reader interested. Archaelogical evidence has been unearthed that shows the ancient Sumerians had knowledge of quantum physics and black holes. Teams of experts in various departments try to work out how. Was Von Daniken right? Was the Earth visited by an alien race, or was it time travellers from the future.
Joe R. Lansdale’s ‘The Tall Grass’ is one of the highlights of the collection. Why does the train stop in the middle of nowhere, for no reason? What is laying in wait for anyone who wanders too far away? It’s reminiscent of classic horror tales of an earlier time. Quiet, but creepy.
I made notes on all twenty-five stories as I read them. Then I brutally cut as many as I could from the final review, based on whether, or not I’d come up with anything more interesting to say about them, other than, “I liked it. It was really good.”
There are genuinely no bad stories in this book. Some of them I cut simply because I couldn’t think of much I could say about them without giving away too many spoilers. Several stories made it on to my best of the year shortlist and the book itself is now on my best anthologies of the year shortlist.