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The Late Review: Dark Cities

7th Dec, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Aside from the odd short story in one anthology or another, I've seen very little of Christopher Golden's fiction, but I have read several of the anthologies he has edited. Case in point Dark Cities (Titan Books tpb) from May 2017. In his introduction Golden explains why he feels fear and cities go together so well, and then presents us with nineteen stories in support of this thesis.

Scott Smith starts the ball rolling with "The Dogs" in which party girl Rose is saved from a serial killer by a trio of talking dogs, only to find herself trapped in a terrible situation. Talking dogs introduces an element akin to absurdity but it would be a mistake to come to this expecting something lightweight. It's a story that doesn't show the character of Rose any mercy, with truly horrible things happening to her, the author unflinching in what he is prepared to commit to the page and the reader appalled by the sheer hopelessness of her situation. Truly powerful stuff. Tim Lebbon's "In Stone" has echoes of Leiber's oeuvre in the story of a man who discovers the true nature of cities and the way in which they feed on human beings. It's a clever piece, poignant and slightly sad, but underlying all this a dimension of existential horror that is unnerving.

New to the city, Mercy has encounters with dead people and tries to help them find their way, but complications arise when a personal element intrudes. "The Way She is with Strangers" by Helen Marshall is a beautifully written, elegiac story that touches on our feelings of grief and loss and points a way through to something other. In M. R. Carey's "We'll Always Have Paris" a detective investigates a series of weird murders in the wake of a zombie war, but the key to the killings lies in the nature of the city itself. This is a charming story with a fin de siècle feel to it, rich in weirdness and packed with novel ideas. In "Good Night, Prison Kings" by Cherie Priest murdered Holly is given the chance to set things right and avenge her death. The theme is a typical one of ghost stories, but here Priest makes it original by showing the city intervening on Holly's behalf and adding a Beetlejuice element, while the criminal brothers who did her wrong are truly loathsome specimens of humanity who deserve all that comes to them. Ditto for their worthless mother. One from the just desserts school of horror fiction.

Scott Sigler's "Dear Diary" is another ghost story of sorts. Robert drives away his lover and all his friends after reading a diary he finds in his new apartment. What is central here is the character of Robert, the way in which he colludes in his own undoing by acting like an arsehole and alienating all those who care about him, but at the end he finds hope of a kind from an unlikely source. It was a clever and effective variation on a theme. One of the shorter pieces, "What I've Always Done" by Amber Benson is the tale of a man or entity who describes himself as a fixer and the lover who ran away from him. Superficially it's the old cliché about how if you love someone set them free and if they don't come back hunt them down and kill them (I saw it on a t-shirt once), but there's a zest to the writing that catches the attention and delicious ambiguity regarding the nature of the protagonist and what he ultimately does. I liked it.

Jonathan Maberry's "Grit" has a nice noir feel to it, as a waitress friend gets Monk Addison to investigate the death of her nephew. The writing is slick and the ideas fizz off the page, with Monk's uniqueness essential to the story, one in which ghosts help the living avenge them and a drug dealer gets what he deserved. Jogger Johnny has a feeling he's being followed in "Dark Hill Run" by Kasey Lansdale & Joe R. Lansdale, but a meeting with a New Age psychiatrist leads to a revelation about his past that changes everything. I saw where this was going but the journey was a fun one, with some great characters, not least the wonderful Dr. Anderson. It is at bottom a rather routine story, but done with dash and vim. In "Happy Forever" by Simon R. Green a thief who can steal anything tries to recover the woman who once loved him from a house where time stands still. It's a sly, engaging story, with characters and situations that feel archetypal but at the same time very personal and unique.

A group of gifted children create a monster to defend them from the resentful members of their community in Paul Tremblay's "The Society of the Monsterhood" but the narrator's encounter with the monster leads to the question of who really are the monsters in this situation. The story is intriguing and lures the reader in, as we wonder about the reality of this monster and what happens to those who encounter it, the fairness of the whole situation, but the end twist punches you right in the heart. In "The Maw" by Nathan Ballingrud Mix leads an elderly man in search of his dog into an otherworldly area of the city. Ballingrud's vision here reminded me strongly of Silent Hill with its wealth of strange monsters and alien surgeons. The story's end though is transformative, conferring beauty and worth on this ostensibly horrific setting, showing why some of us are drawn to the dark, the beauty found in shadows. A young teacher guiding a class on a "Field Trip" seems to lose her grip on reality in Tananarive Due's story, one which focuses on a pupil whose brother was killed in a random shooting and the trauma that has inflicted on her, with keenly felt emotions and a sensitive portrayal of a woman out of her depth.

"The Revellers" by editor Golden has a man and his friends lured into a party that exists outside of time, the celebrants unaware of the terrible fate that has befallen them. It builds well, with convincing characterisation and, at the end, a moral judgement of sorts on the central character, an insight into his true nature. It was one of the best stories in the anthology, with people I could relate to. Ramsey Campbell's "The Stillness" has a man stalked by a human statue, but this in turn refers back to an educationalist who had rather unusual methods of controlling his pupils. As you'd expect from Campbell it's a genuinely unsettling scenario, made all the more so by the very ordinariness of it all, with the back story conferring a terrible significance on what takes place. There's grotesque imagery aplenty in "Sanctuary" by Kealan Patrick Burke and a boy who suffers at the hands of his parents in a weird other world, but nothing is what it seems. The horror gives way to heartbreak as we realise what is actually happening, with a subtext about the power of art to refashion reality.

Sherrilyn Kenyon's "Matter of Life and Death" has an editor haunted by communications from a dead author. It's an intriguing scenario and an amusing read, but with hindsight I'm not quite sure that the punishment is in proportion to the crime. In "Graffiti of the Lost and Dying Places" by Seanan McGuire the last shopworker in a doomed store ends up as victim of the tide of progress. Again there seems to be an element of unfairness here in Lindy's fate, but hey this is horror fiction I guess. The crux of the story lies in the commentary it makes on gentrification, with the developed parts of the city seeming like vampires that suck away the vitality and life of the old parts. Finally we have Nick Cutter's "The Crack" in which a no nonsense father's attempts to toughen up his infant son take a turn into cosmic horror. You hate the father even as you recognise that he really does love his son in his own peculiar way. The nature of the menace is double edged; on the one hand Benny's constant crying and on the other the crack in his bedroom wall that is letting through something monstrous. There's a delicious end note, with the father getting his comeuppance, deserved or not (you decide). I'm not really sure though why this is a 'city' story, a comment I might make about several stories here.

Such quibbles about the editor's adherence to the letter of his mission statement aside, Christopher Golden obviously knows his stuff and Dark Cities is a solid anthology, packed with stories that entertain the reader and a few special ones that go just that bit further.




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