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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: The Monster's Corner

4th Jan, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Anthology The Monster's Corner (Piatkus tpb) was published in 2011, so this late review is later than most, but thanks to the wonders of eBooks, Kindle, and the like, even tardy reviewers can't deprive consumers of reading opportunities. Well, unless the books are limited edition, print only jobs, but this one isn't.

Editor Christopher Golden sets out his stall in the introduction with the recognition that we are all the heroes of our own stories, even those that are ostensibly monsters, and so in the stories that follow we get the monster's perspective. In David Liss' story Peter falls under the spell of the precocious Mason, a friend of his socially challenged son Neil. Mason claims to be a ghoul which he puts down to her being at "The Awkward Age" but Mason is far more than he suspects and it comes round to bite him in the bum, though not in the way he half expected. This was a beautifully written and eminently engaging story, with sections told from the viewpoint of both Peter and Mason, who does a real number on the adult's head. Initially it feels like a horror genre version of Lolita, but Liss gives it an end twist, one that makes the reader sit up and pay even more attention than before. A great opener for this anthology.

"Saint John" by Jonathan Maberry has a post-apocalyptic setting, with the knife wielding hero stalking the ruined city streets and meting out his own idea of justice to those who invite it. The vision of the aftermath of some plague is powerfully evoked, but the focus of the story is on the person of Saint John, his mind unhinged by past torments, but at the same time possessed of a terrible clarity, so that we sympathise with this deranged killing machine, the story wrapped up with a bittersweet ending that hints at continuity of a kind. Lauren Groff's "Rue" tells of a woman making off with the baby she is unable to bear herself, but although she may cheat the mother and elude the repressive theological regime that rules her land, she cannot deal with the vagaries of human nature. There's an almost fable feel to this story, with its pitch perfect evocations of desperation and depiction of a spoiled land and the plight of those who wish only to be left to their own devices, free of the judgement of others. In the post Roe vs Wade world it possibly has even more relevance.

Short "Succumb" by John McIlveen has a self-righteous hypocrite of a holy man tempted by a succubus, and for the reader the pleasure lies in seeing a bad man get his just desserts, though apart from this there really isn't much to the story. In "Torn Stitches, Shattered Glass" by Kevin J. Anderson, Frankenstein's monster breaks cover to save a Jewish community from the Nazis, but he is emphatically not the golem they'd wished for. It's a clever piece, one that welds the source material seamlessly to the body of the new narrative, allowing Anderson to comment on the various ways in which persecution and bigotry manifest, leaving us feeling sad for the monster who, really, is no monster at all, just somebody looking for a place to fit in.

Sharyn McCrumb's story has a backwoods shaman encountering the legendary Mothman, who is not at all how people believe him to be. "Rattler and the Mothman" is a lovely, tongue in cheek piece, mocking the grandiosity of people and monsters both, full of tall stories and larger than life details, and with a wry ending that brought a smile to my face. David Moody tackles giants in "Big Man", with Glen the victim of an experiment gone wrong and growing uncontrollably, rampaging through the country and destroying everything in his path, the military helpless to stop him. There's a feel here of the old pulp movies, most obviously Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, but while he delivers in spades on the death and destruction front, Moody changes tack to show the human side of his monster, that Glen is simply misunderstood and trying to do his best but hampered by his ungainly form. You could even make a case for his giantism being a side effect of the emotional trauma he has suffered and catharsis the key to a cure.

The "Rakshasi" are supernatural killers forced to atone for past sins by serving a human master, who unleashes them only on those who deserve a terrible death. The protagonist of Kelley Armstrong's story is tired of such a life and develops a plot to get out from under. The central concept is novel and fascinating, while the way in which the humans are manipulated by the cunning rakshasi is gratifying. In "Breeding the Demons" by Nate Kenyon an artist finds that only demons can appreciate his work, but the need for success through excess seems to be undermining his humanity. There's a grim feel to this, with Ian moving through a hideous underworld that is unsuspected by the rest of humanity, while the story's subtext on the need for ever greater shocks to the system and the way in which it makes sense of the title add another frisson to the whole.

Dana Stabenow's heroine Kate Shugak gets involved in a court case where three child prostitutes are accused of murdering their pimp, but the "Siren Song" enables them to manipulate the legal process to their own advantage. It's a clever story, made all the more so by the oblique method of telling, with events before and after the trial used to throw a different light on proceedings, and at the end the reader is left to decide if the girls'behaviour was justified by the terrible circumstances in which they found themselves, or whether their pragmatism and amorality is just the first step leading to an even more cruel life of crime. The monster lurking under the bed is the subject of Chelsea Cain's story "Less of a Girl", but the narrative raises questions as to who is the real monster here. It's an insight into teenage angst that I could well have done without (said with tongue firmly in cheek).

Changelings are the subject of "The Cruel Thief of Rosy Infants" by Tom Piccirilli, the title character a well intentioned protagonist who believes that he is doing the right thing by exchanging human children for fae. Beautifully written, it's a story that seems part of something much bigger, with human society seen through other eyes and a rich backdrop that gives the story depth. Medusa lures beautiful young men to "The Screaming Room", but when they are turned to stone in Sarah Pinborough's account this is only the beginning of their suffering. Medusa here is in many ways the archetypal abandoned woman, the Miss Havisham of Greek mythology, wanting love so badly but only able to get it through terrible means. She is to be both pitied as much as feared. There really are witches in "Wicked Be" by Heather Graham and they just want to be left alone, but if you cross them then it's at your own peril. With a potted history of the witch persecution written into the story, this is a powerful cry for toleration and warning against those who use authority to pursue their own ends, but of course we can just like it for the joy of seeing another bad lot get what's coming to him.

"Specimen 313" is just the sort of madcap story experience has taught me to expect from Jeff Strand. A scientist breeds carnivorous plants, with unlooked for complications. It's a gleeful send up of things like Little Shop of Horrors and a joy to read from first line to last, even if it does seem slightly lightweight compared to many others in this anthology, but then you need a bit of light relief. Tananarive Due's "The Lake" exercises a malign influence on all who swim in its waters, but nobody tells newly arrived Abbie not to go skinny dipping. Due gives us an entertaining story with hints in the text that Abbie is not quite the innocent she believes herself to be, such as the calculating way in which she recruits young men to work on her house. Superstition and folklore collide in a tale with echoes of Lovecraft's batrachian monstrosities. From the first page of "The Other One" by Michael Marshall Smith we know that Kerry is dissatisfied with her life. Smith is painstaking in his portrayal of his protagonist, giving Kerry's complaints an edge that makes them seem credible, glitches with which we can identify, but in the end the problem is that she consists of nothing greater than the sum of her complaints. There's nothing she really wants, just dissatisfaction with what she has, and it costs her dearly.

Next up we have to my mind the best story in the book, certainly the most unusual, not least because the title and author's name seem to bleed into each other. "And Still You Wonder Why Our First Impulse is to Kill You: An Alphabetized Faux-Manifesto" transcribed, edited, and annotated (under duress and protest)" by Gary A. Braunbeck does what it says on the tin, presents things from the viewpoint of the monsters, who are getting a bit pissed at the way in which humans relate to them. What makes the story special though is the off the wall approach, a series of vignettes alphabetically presented, with asides on science and music and literature, the narrative going off in all directions like a glorified catherine wheel, and underlying this Braunbeck reveals a great truth about humanity's relationship to monsterkind. It's vivid and inventive stuff, simply wonderful, with humour aplenty and pyrotechnical language to bring it all home. Finally we have "Jesus and Satan Go Jogging in the Desert" by Simon R. Green, another tongue in cheek piece, with Satan doing his tempting thing and Jesus explaining where he is going wrong, but their relationship entirely amiable, both of them recognising that their Father is not an easy taskmaster. It was a great end to a thoroughly enjoyable anthology. 




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