Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: THE DEVIL'S COATTAILS weird fiction anthology


THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier . . .
Jason V Brock & William F. Nolan, editors
Cycatrix Press 2011 291 pages
52 Deluxe Hardcovers, Signed & Lettered $194.95
500 Trade Hardcovers $49.95
www.jasunni.com

 
THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS presents a challenge to all reviewers of weird fiction.  It refuses to be pinned down, to be easily classified and tagged through a short description of its contents.  What it does deliver with each and every entry is high quality and great story-telling.  While THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS is not easily summarized, its impressive contents command a carefully detailed review.  A critical analysis could accurately be justified by claiming “The Devil Made Me Do It!”

THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS contains 21 original works, all previously unpublished and is embellished with weird art and illustrations of equally high quality throughout.  It is a follow-up anthology to THE BLEEDING EDGE collection, also assembled by the same team of editors (Jason V Brock & William F. Nolan).

The highly imaginative and evocative cover art by Vincent Chong beckons further exploration and seems to indicate that the inner contents may be very horrific and frightening.  A ghastly horned demon in long overcoat dominates a barren landscape with the only clutter from the discarded pages fluttering in the ill winds.   A lone figure in the background faces away from the demon and seems to be in contemplation.   Should he pick up the scattered pages, some with cabalistic images along with text, and consider their contents? - - or just end it now at the conveniently-placed desolate and apparently dead large-trunked tree that only lacks a noose hanging from its few huge branches?

That is not necessarily what the cover implies or promises inside, but simply one reader’s interpretation of the image.   While the contents of THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS did not completely fulfill the expectations of that initial cover impression and induce shivers -- they did exceed the desire for a collection of good short stories, poems and scripts and surpassed all other expectations through its marvelous diversity of  genres, themes and writing styles.  It doesn’t appear that anything in THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS will shock or increase the heart rate in threatening fashion.  Rather, the horror may emanate from whatever personal baggage the reader brings along for the ride.  It is suspected that many of the stories will strike a nerve, create a reflective ambience, and perhaps haunt the reader long after the story has ended.  That is what occurred for this reader.

It seems clear from the introductory material by S. T. Joshi, Jason V Brock and William F. Nolan that the guidelines for submittal to THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS were deliberately general in nature and sought to avoid any specific categorization.   That is the strength of THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS. 

As S. T. Joshi describes it, “weird fiction” is not a genre, but a “mode of writing” and William F. Nolan later refers to “imaginative fantasy.” Those serve as good a description of the contents as any.  As may be expected, the majority of material in THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS is “dark” and that may be the only thing that distinguishes some of these stories from straightforward mainstream fiction.  “Dispatches from the Dark Frontier”, indeed.  Vive le difference!  The other stories that veer away from darker themes seem to be either light-hearted and humorous or nostalgic.  Their particular placement throughout the anthology provides a welcome intermission. 

The other items that make THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS even more deserving of appreciation are the inclusion of a short biography and photo of the authors following each piece, as well as personal commentary on their own stories (which proved very insightful in more than one instance).

 

Also, when the stories in THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS seek to disturb they do so without utilizing any “gore”, “splatter” or other violent effects.  The style and tone are reminiscent of the late lamented TWILIGHT ZONE television series, a very mature horror/fantasy anthology series that relied on fine script writing and visual effects that implied much more than they revealed writing to achieve a feeling of discomfort among its viewers.   Some of the writers in this collection have a connection as former writers or other association with that series as well.

What’s remarkable about this anthology is that there are few (if any) similarities among the stories.  There is no repetition.   There is no filler.  There is no “formula” employed repeatedly.  All these works stand alone on their own merits.  While none of them would be considered merely “average”, there are at least 13 among the 21 that create the greatest impact and make THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS a worthwhile investment of time.

If only one inclusion can be considered for top honors (a tough choice) then that would be “. . . And Dream of Phaedian Fancies. . . ” by Gary A. Braunbeck which begins by proclaiming itself a “voice over script to accompany a film's final cut.”   It’s a clever device that Braunbeck employs to insert commentary that helps to make his points and also further enhances the feel of a documentary.   One lonely individual deposits a bundle of flowers on the doorstep of an abandoned home in a small village.  The reader is left to wonder why as the commentary provides further details on the individual but no clear explanation for his actions.  From there, the occupants of the village observe and interpret these actions which lead to what amounts to a public gathering, the reviving of a troubled ghost, and a disastrous outcome.   It’s a clever and sly observation by Braunbeck regarding perceptions as well as group mentality.  He also manages to pull the reader in and imply that they are also responsible for what happens.  This is both highly creative and simply brilliant.

Second place for top honors is shared by two stories:  “Object Lesson” by Jason V Brock and “The Woods Colt” by Earl Hamner, Jr. 

In “Object Lesson” as the last remaining parent passes away, the son is haunted not by wraiths but by memories of lost opportunities. Some of the reflective moments and thoughts that occur to the main character at odd times (especially during the approach to the hospital where his mother is in critical condition) will seem very real to anyone with a similar experience in their past -- and may linger long enough to create their own haunting moments of reflection and regret.  Be forewarned.    “The Woods Colt” finds another surviving son at the funeral of his mother.  He returns to the old, abandoned family mansion for one last visit (before it is sold) and finds insight into his own secret past and relationship to the other members of a very dysfunctional family. 

The surreal “Knife Through The Veil” by Marc Scott Zicree details a revenge-driven family member who continues to repeatedly pursue a killer, after death, to achieve final satisfaction/resolution.   It’s a former television script for ROD SERLING'S AFTER TWILIGHT -- a proposed series that the networks declined to produce.

One of the most disturbing tales in this anthology relates a fictional brush with the unknown as experienced during Victorian London by writer/poet/translator Oscar Wilde and aspiring artist/companion Frank Miles, who experiences an encounter with a strange transference in “The Hidden Realm” by W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Snyder.   Equally troubling is a real-world look at the current casual attitude towards AIDS by gay couples and its potential hazards in “If You Love Me” by Paul G. Bens, Jr.  The desire to prove someone’s love for another through challenges or ultimatums can have undesired consequences.
 
 

A family member experiences the dying moments of others in “Dying to Forget” by Sunni K Brock and learns the true details of their father’s passing in the worst possible way.    An alien/mutant with a valued skill (the ability to decode not just text, but also intent) experiences contemporary prejudice and fear among co-workers in “Too Good to Be Human” by J. Brundage.  “On The First Day” by James Robert Smith concerns itself with a paranoid fantasy with evangelical/prophetic undertones as they relate to a global spider invasion.  “The Moons” by modern horror master Ramsey Campbell makes its case for independent thinking versus the group mind when an assemblage of youngsters become lost among the sand dunes and pine barrens of a coastal village.  The children of privilege, who expect to always be looked after, are blindly led astray while a less fortunate child is not as trusting of kindly appearing strangers.

Two stories have historical themes and utilize their careful research to tell compelling tales.  “Gunboat Whores” by John Shirley contains a portion of his upcoming novel about the young Wyatt Earp, who made a dramatic career change after losing his wife and stillborn child.  “Crimean Vespers” by Richard Selzer is a haunting love story that merges a one-night stand in pre-Communist Russia with Greek mythology and also allows its author to honor both his father and writer Anton Chekov.

Among the more light-hearted tales in this collection, the best is “Can You Imagine” by Paul J. Salamoff, that features a "when I was your age" rhyming poem for the digital age of entertainment and gaming.

Those are just the high points of this anthology.  Also found within the pages of THE DEVIL’S COATTAILS  are entertaining tales of demon summoning,  ghost friends, mosquito women, cat women, ash can racing, a haunted camera, and a poetic re-telling of the Circe legend from the likes of Dan O’Bannon,  Melanie Tem, Jerry E. Airth, Steve Rasnic Tem, Norman Corwin, Nancy K. Kilpatrick, and William F. Nolan. 

 

 

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