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edited by John Pelan
Darkside: Horror for the Next Millennium
This is an interesting horror anthology of new-age stories compiled by John Pelan. I have reviewed and given short spoiler-filled summaries for every story in the book below.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: "Skinwriters" is about two artists. Kurt is a poet, and a pretty good one at that. Rye is a photographer with an odd skin condition in which she bruises easily, but the bruises always fade away by the next day. She bruises patterns into her body and takes photos of them before they fade. The two artists meet at a party, and Kurt is immediately filled with a sense of wanting to touch Rye's incredibly pale skin. After a week or so, they are going out, and Kurt finds he can no longer write poetry except by bruising Rye's body with the words to new poems. Then Rye takes photographs of her body with the poems imprinted on it. To his horror, Kurt finds his writer's block has gotten to the point where he can only write on her body. They basically use each other until Kurt goes to far by stalking her. They get into a fight where he bruises her badly. Only this time the bruises do not fade. She mails him their completed work in the form of her photos, and moves away. He again begins to write. I wasn't really impressed. I prefer stories not steeped in metaphor upon metaphor, and this one is loaded with them. It wasn't bad, but it's not something I'll remember either.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Dr. Harry Jessup is a gynecologist in East Texas, but his area has recently been afflicted with grisly murders involving ice-cold water being inserted into women after sex. He had recently signed on for part time duty as a coroner for the local police force at the request of his friend Sheriff Harley, but the recent murders had pretty much made him a full-timer. In addition, Harry had a young helper named Charlie at the local morgue, and Harry’s retarded younger cousin Brian worked there as a custodian. The story is filled with flashbacks involving a disturbing scene with an old woman forcing a younger man (presumably a younger relative, or at least someone she lived with) to have sex in ice-cold conditions, and also involving ice-cold water to the anus. These flashbacks are meant to show why the killer is now using his own form of “ice sex” after killing his victims. Things really become desperate when a girl Sheriff Harley really liked is found dead. One thing leads to another, and Harley sees Harry’s cousin Brian coming out of the autopsy room with a hot water bottle. Something clicks, and he goes to check out the woman lying there. She has been assaulted again in death. In a rage, the Sheriff heads out to Brian’s house, and along with Harry, they discover evidence that he is the killer. However, in an excellent twist, it is discovered that Harry is Brian’s father AND his cousin. Harry had sex with his aunt Julie as a young teen, and Brian was the result. Their Grandmother killed Julie and then did the stuff described in the flashbacks to Brian and Harry. Brian could not ever sleep with live women after his Grandmother died because he was retarded. Harry, on the other hand, could and did. And as the story closes, he is still on his murderous rampage through East Texas. I liked this story. You have a twist ending, and it also shows that possible real life trauma can be much more disturbing than something like a vampire or a ghost ever could.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: “Wasting” is about the real-life
problem of eating disorders. Ms. Ackermann is a teacher who goes to
the houses of ill children to teach them while they are away from school.
She is reminiscing about her last student, a cancer patient who didn’t
make it, when she comes to the house of Elizabeth “Ellie”
Cook, a brilliant young girl who appears to be suffering from anorexia.
Her mother appears to be a controlling, perfect woman who keeps everything
in the house perfect. By the end of the semester, Ellie has lost more
and more weight, and in increasingly strange ways. She cuts off her
hair, then burns off a few fingers, and at the very end, has ticks suck
out as much blood as she can afford to lose. In the end, it is revealed
that Ellie is the one running the show, and Mrs. Cook is forced by her
daughter to keep everything immaculate in the house. Ellie has decided
that she is going to lose as much weight as possible without disappearing.
Ms. Ackermann runs after the tick incident (the semester was over anyway),
but she learns to accept that she is a heavier woman, and to live happily
with it. I wasn’t too impressed with this one. It is kind of like
the previous story in that it deals with real life issues, but it is
not one I will think about much longer than today.
“Backseat Dreams and Nightmares”
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is a story about a killer and rapist told from his viewpoint. He goes around stalking, raping, and killing prostitutes. His latest victim is standing under a bus stop sign. He thinks it is clever cover to keep the cops from asking her what she is doing there. He goes up and grabs her. A fat woman tries to save her, but he punches her and almost knocks her out. Then he takes the girls into his car and forces her to drink. He eventually beats her, rapes her, and then rapes her with a knife. At the end of the story, we find out that he has killed and raped an innocent 13-year-old girl who was never a prostitute, but who was simply trying to ride the bus home that night. As the story fades, the man is crying, but we are left to wonder if he will kill again, and I for one believe he will.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is one incredibly sick and twisted story. DO NOT read this right before and definitely not after eating. Priscilla Brentworth is living in a hell on earth that has been concocted by her depraved and psychotic multi-millionaire husband Fenton. He has an anal-oral fetish, likes snuff movies, both acting in and watching them, and has promised to kill their only son Ricky if Priscilla won’t do what he asks of her. So she agrees, and he locks her in the basement. He eventually ends up cutting off first her feet and then her hands and doesn’t allow her any hygiene like brushing of teeth or taking of showers, but that unfortunately is not the worst part. Due to his anal-oral fetish, he likes to sodomize her and also has her lick his feces out of his anus. Some of the mental images I got from this story were definitely not pretty. He sometimes even forgets to feed her for days at a time. But she continues on because she loves her son and doesn’t want him to be killed. This is a big mistake. Her husband ends up dying at her son’s wedding, and it turns out he has known about her down there all along. He comes down to take his Dad’s place in this bizarre game, and he tells his mother he will kill his own son if she doesn’t continue on. She agrees to continue as long as he doesn’t bring bums down to have sex with her like his father did.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Brad is a neglected kid whose parents ignore him and scream at each other all day. He has hidden out in the basement behind the hot water heater since he was little just to stay out of his parents’ way. And since he hasn’t been able to make any friends, he has created imaginary friends he calls imaginates. These imaginates are drawn onto the concrete wall in his hiding spot. The only problem is that some new imaginary people called Imaginates (capital I) have formed from thin air. He didn’t draw them and they aren’t nice. To his horror, Brad finds one day that the Imaginates have decided to attack and destroy the imaginates on the wall. He decides to move the imaginates to a different wall to keep them safe. He draws a copy of one on the other wall, but it doesn’t work. He ends up having to copy them first. He does this by drawing them onto his body with a knife. When he gets to the drawing on the other wall, the leader of the Imaginates has already killed his new imaginates he drew on that wall. And then the Imaginates attack. The story ended that way, which I like. It leaves you wondering whether all of this is in the mind of a disturbed kid or whether Brad was caught in a Twilight Zone of horror.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Aaron Soames is an artist dedicated to his work. He has never had much success until he finally came across “the groove”, a way to put himself into a state of mind to see visions and paint them. Unfortunately, this involves self-mutilation and pain. He first discovered “the groove” when biting off a bottle cap with his teeth. He accidentally cut his tongue, it was painful and bled, and then he saw a vision and painted it. He goes to ever more painful methods to paint his pictures. He slashes his arm from wrist to elbow and keeps it open for a long time, even letting it get infected. He rips out fingernails, rips off skin, uses bleach and rubbing alcohol in his wounds, and eventually completely disfigures himself. In the end, his work done while making these paintings are a critical success, but he pays for it by being in a hospital at the showing due to his total mutilation of his body. This was a decent idea, and I enjoyed the story, but something was missing that would have made it great.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Bucket is a semi-retarded, scarred Zimbabwean who killed his cousin years ago for making fun of him. He was kept in an insane asylum for 11 years, and when they finally let him go, his village reluctantly took him back in. The story opens with Bucket seeing visions of the Tokoloshe, a demon meant to inflict pain on people. Bucket had used his knowledge to call on the Tokoloshe years ago to kill his cousin by flaying him alive. Now, the Tokoloshe was torturing him, asking him to kill a wealthy Texan named Sol Tuttle who was opening a hospital in the village soon. His daughter Celeste had been there a few months now, writing a book about local customs. Bucket did not want to kill this man, who seemed to be a good Christian man. However, he finally does, and when this happens, it turns out Celeste was the “Tokoloshe”. She had a skin defect that when not covered with makeup made her look hideous. Apparently her father was not such a good man and got off on seeing disfigurement and deformity. Unfortunately for the tortured Celeste, she picked the wrong guy to murder her father. After Celeste shoots Bucket and leaves him for dead, he uses his last ounce of strength to summon the Tokoloshe, which goes bounding after Celeste.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This story had a slightly Lovecraftian feel to it. Thomas Redfield is an American going to college in Central America, and his semester has been set up so that he has no classes earlier than 11. Redfield liked to stay up late studying, and fall asleep near dawn after a few beers. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to black out, and then find himself screaming and gesturing wildly to the accompaniment of his neighbors pounding the walls telling him to shut up in Spanish. Redfield is an admirer of a horror writer by the name of Ed Tourmalign, and he gets a letter from the author warning him of something. However, the ink has been smudged, so he doesn’t know what to look for. The only thing he sees is a sticker with the odd words “ystery orm” written on it attached to the envelope. At the same time, he gets a letter from the University telling him he is flunking a class on Serpent Worship in Pre-Columbian Meso-America, but he isn’t taking that class. Redfield goes to try to find Professor Winfield to figure out what is going on, but he finds some strange things in the building housing the Professor’s office. He never does find the Professor, and when he does get home he ends up falling asleep wrapped only in a blanket. When he wakes up, he falls and breaks his arm. Then the shadows begin to move and turn into a snake, which starts to devour his broken arm. In pain, he pulls the arm up to his mouth and bites into the snake, or “Mystery Worm”, which he believes his neighbors have called to destroy him. In the end, we are told the blood spilling into his lap is warm. This leaves several interpretations for the reader. Is the snake (and the Cthulhu-like legend) real, or is Thomas Redfield a seriously disturbed individual who is in the process of chewing off his own broken arm? That’s left up to the reader to decide.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: I normally like Caitlin Kiernan’s work, but this story just wasn’t all that good. Jenny Haniver is a troubled girl who hears voices. Her crazy old Grandmother told her that her Grandfather found her in the sewers as a small child, and that Jenny is a fish person. Grandma also claims she can hear the fish people through the drainpipes. To make matters worse, Jenny’s father beats her periodically when he is drunk, and only apologizes sometimes when he is sober. Jenny’s mother left long ago. As a result, Jenny is now semi-insane. She surrounds herself with fish tanks, has filed her teeth to piranha-like dimensions, and worst of all, she has started trying to grow scales (I think?). She tries to go meet with an old friend named Ariadne, who happens to also be into self-mutilation. Jenny ends up killing herself (saving herself?) by walking into the sea. We are left to wonder if she is insane and has committed suicide or if she will actually turn into some sort of gill woman and swim away. My bet is on the former.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: I really liked this one for some reason. It’s pretty straightforward, but with a twist ending. The narrator (whose name is never given) and his four buddies, Joe, John, Buddy, and Clarrince, have been laid off from their factory jobs. They had been playing poker for eight years, and decided to get together one last time, this time by playing for things OTHER than money. The loser of each hand had to perform an agreed upon penalty. The narrator talks about how everyone killed themselves weeks and sometimes years later after the events of that one twisted night of poker. The last loser had his punishment bestowed upon him by the four other players, and it turned out he was killing the others for seeing “the other side of my face”. This was just a good story that kept me interested throughout, even though I’m not a huge fan of the whole Texas Hold’em craze making the rounds these days.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Elena, the eponymous woman, is one screwed up chick. Tem advances through several phases of Elena’s sex life, each growing more bizarre (and dangerous to her partner!). Elena was probably abused earlier in life, though it is never stated. She knows she is a monster, but she can’t help what she does, and she feels a real NEED to continue with her “experiments”. In the end, she depends on the pimp of a hooker she killed to put her out of her misery and stop her madness. This is a weird little story, but weird in a good way.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Although this story really is short, only two pages in length, it really hits home with the force of a wrecking ball. A father is holding an album in his hands. Only this album isn’t filled with fond memories, at least not for himself or his son Michael. It is an album created by a serial killer named Emil Hinkins who not only tortures and kills little kids, but also makes photo albums of the process. The father has stolen this album from the police and has been concentrating on the last picture of Michael before the monster Hinkins starts to torture him. The father has been trying to will himself into the picture in order to stop the horrible acts that are about to occur. And he has partially succeeded, as a blurry shape has begun to materialize in a corner of the room. His hope is to make himself solid enough in the picture to take revenge on Hinkins for the horrible acts he committed on Michael.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This story was crap. It’s about a woman branded as an adulterer who wants to end her life. That’s all you need to know. Pass.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is another very short story (only two pages), but I liked it. It has the ring of a fairy tale to it. Three sisters are always together, but one dies very young. The two survivors, Alice and Esme, are extremely close. Their mother is very frugal almost to the point of being cruel, scolding them for eating too much food, and keeping the lights very dim at all times to save on fuel. Esme catches a cold because Alice is always stealing her covers. Unfortunately, it turns to the flu, and eventually to fever and death. In the end, while Alice is saying goodbye to Esme, but Esme’s corpse sits up and tells Alice she is trapped and can’t leave. Alice thinks it is a dream, nut Esme replies with the featured Quote up above the summary. Alice ends up kissing her (un)dead sister. The ending was a little strange. I can’t say I understood it very well. If anyone has any insight, feel free to straighten me out.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is another pretty short one involving brother Juan (aged 14) and Benito (aged 8). Juan is looking for some revenge on eighteen-year-old Tyrone. Tyrone beat Juan up for talking to his girlfriend. As payback, Juan and Benito lug a large rock up to the top of their apartment building and wait for Tyrone to come home on the bus. Juan doesn’t care if the stone kills him. They wait for a long time and finally decide that if Tyrone isn’t on the next bus, they’ll go in and watch TV. Only one person gets off the bus, and it isn’t Tyrone. But it IS Tyrone’s mother. Juan starts to leave, but then Benito sees a cruel smile come across Juan’s lips, and Juan pushes the stone and the story ends. We are left to wonder if she dies, but the real point is that Juan heeded the advice his father gave him (from the quote above). “Make sure he knows that even if he wins, the price he had to pay was way too high.” In this case, the price is the life of Tyrone’s mother. I liked this story, even at its short length, or maybe because of it. Life in the ghetto isn’t always pretty, and some tough choices have to be made. Juan realizes that killing Tyrone’s mother will cause more anguish to Tyrone than if Tyrone himself dies.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This was an okay but seriously messed up story about a guy who has had several operations to look more like a woman. This man tortures his wife (or possibly a relation or someone else even?) by forcing her to wear a corset while he (she) is away at work. The she-man also has a torture chamber he uses. The wife (or other relation) envies this sick abomination of a human and fools herself into thinking she loves him (it?). She tries to move into his body and we are led to believe from the story that she can do this for periods of time. It is also possible this is a coping mechanism for the woman after she is cruelly tortured day after day.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Rachael is a disturbed girl who moved from Tennessee to San Francisco. She believes that a man who she sees in her dreams is haunting her and causing her life to go to hell in a hand basket. Her gay friend Eric, whom she loves, laughs when Rachael tells him about it. As time passes, Rachael eventually realizes that the man in her dreams is her dead stepbrother Dwight, who sexually abused her when they were younger. Her dreams become more and more real, and she eventually slits her own throat. As Eric and a neighbor lady burst in, they see what has happened and call an ambulance. The neighbor lady sees that the window has been broken and Eric realizes that Rachael might have been telling the truth after all… This was a good idea for a short story and it was well executed. I enjoyed it I even liked the somewhat cliffhanger ending.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Vincent is a husband to Monica and a father to three year old Gretchen. Their life is shattered when an inept old man runs Gretchen over as she is walking with her mother. Vincent and Monica had trained Gretchen on a potty-seat, and after the funeral, they discover one last bit of urine left there. Neither wants to empty the potty trainer, as it is their last tangible link to their dead daughter. Vincent makes the decision to empty it, but Monica screams at him not to. He backs down, and eventually he comes home to a house smelling of cleaning fluids and the potty trainer put away. He thinks Monica got over it, but he comes to find out that she is keeping the urine in a jar in her purse. He takes the jar and throws it onto some subway tracks as she screams at him. In the end, Vincent comes to recognize he is a monster, because the only person he cares about is himself. This wasn’t really a horror story to me. I didn’t really get into it at all. So far it is one of the weaker stories in the book.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Lyle is a father of five and the husband to Cathy. They live in suburban Chicago, and Lyle takes the train to work every day. At some point, a woman started sitting next to him on the train. One day, she tried to get into his Montero, and he drove off. He learned the mystery woman’s name was Kathe, pronounced like his wife’s name but spelled differently. This kept on until one day he gave her a lift home. She lived near him. Eventually, he noticed his wife changing, becoming blurry, and the other woman becoming more distinct. In the end, he brings Kathe home one day and the kids call her Mommy. Lyle believes he has gone mad and just accepts what has happened. Things get worse when his new neighbor on the train is a version of himself. He refuses to talk to the man and thus avoids his own “replacement”. I liked the vague ending. Has Lyle really gone mad? If not, who is this woman Kathe and what has become of his wife Cathy? It was an interesting little story and I enjoyed it.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is another story about a person who was abused as a child. Her father had apparently beaten and molested her. She was abducted from a Wal-Mart parking lot by Devon, a psychopath who liked “creating new orifices” in his victims. Liza had been willing to take his pain. Devon was basically a replacement for her dead father. Devon had at first abused her regularly, but lately she had just been cleaning up what was left of his victims and finding new ones. Eventually, she knew he was done with her and would kill her when he got a chance. So when it came time to dump the next victim’s body, she left it in the car and when she found a new victim, she kept him. She would be the new master, and she would train the boy well. This story was okay, but I always feel a little uneasy reading about child abduction.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Douglass is a grown man who always has and always will do ANYTHING to be the center of his Mom’s attention. He killed his brother when they were kids because his brother always was the center of his mother’s attention. Likewise, he killed his father when the father was an old, dying man because his mother could no longer take care of him after two years in his condition. And lastly, he had unknowingly killed his wife and two children because he had to stay away from his mother for periods of time longer than he had wanted. This was an okay story, but nothing special.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Dr. Hooker is a psychologist working with Patricia, a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. Apparently her parents were twisted devil worshippers who did disgusting things to her and let others in their coven do the same…or worse. To mask the pain, Patricia had developed multiple personalities, including one of a dog! Her parents had died ten years before in a car wreck, and she was 38 at this point. However, something supernatural happens in that as soon as one of the personalities tells Dr. Hooker exactly what has happened to her, that personality is very, very worried about Patricia’s safety. Her parents had told her she would be sorry if anyone ever found out. After the session, Dr. Hooker finds Patricia being viciously murdered in his waiting room by a crazed man wearing a pentagram…and the Doc is next on the list.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This one centers on Copper, a sculptress whose works are always created as her latest lover poses for her. Apparently Copper, her brother Tony, her friends Consuela and Michelle, and other members of their group were on some serious drugs in college. They had all heard of the myth of Isis and Osiris, and they played it out in real life while drunk on tequila. Apparently Copper, in the role of Isis, had seduced Tony, her younger brother, playing the role of Osiris. After this, she fulfills her role by aborting her child and then passing its parts around for her friends to EAT it. This ritual act leads to new and everlasting life, which is why Copper still looks so young at the age of 34…
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This story is told as if it is happening to you, the reader. I liked it in that this POV isn’t used all that often. Your wife has been killed by some punks who threw a brick off of an overpass and straight into her windshield. You grieve, and you are angered by one too many people saying “it was God’s will” that this terrible thing happened to your wife. You develop psoriasis, you are laid off, and you start seeing a hideous woman waving at you from windows. Then an Indian woman offers to help heal you, only to find in the end that the universe has a PURPOSE in mind for you. Soon after your apartment burns down and you seek the woman out. She is apparently killing people who need killing. You drive out onto the freeway where your wife was killed and get a brick thrown at you, only it miraculously misses. You go after the punks who threw it and kill them. This is your new PURPOSE.
For some reason I really, really liked this story. You feel for the main character, because that main character is YOU.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Charles Kern went to the main library to find a book he had once read, and what he found there instead was a crazy man around the age of 50 who said he “listened” to the books in the library. He described to Charles how the writers of the books read their works aloud in a cacophony of sound, and how he had finally learned to concentrate on just one at a time. Charles dismissed the man with a wave and went to the bathroom. Unfortunately, he was stabbed and robbed while there. Charles died, but not before showing the old man his diary. The old man tucked it away on a high shelf in a far-off corner of the library, and Charles found out just how true the man’s words had been. I liked this story, but it didn’t appeal to me as much as others. It was definitely an original idea, however.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: Steven Saterfield is a pedophile who is just now trying to get out of a sanitarium. His attorney had managed to get him off on a plea of insanity, but he disliked the nuthouse and preferred to spend the rest of his sentence in a normal prison. His doctor, Cynthia Bragg, had been working for months with him to try to cure him of his sickness. It turned out he had been sexually abused by his mother, and then mentally abused by his grandmother. Those two things had caused his sickness. Dr. Bragg, since his treatment was not working and as a last resort, turned to Ben and Claire, two programmers who had designed The Treatment, a virtual reality program which cured nutcases like Steven. Only these two were not what they seemed. They were brother and sister, and also lovers who had been abused as children. As a result, they used The Treatment not to cure people in the good sense of that word, but to “cure” them of ever thinking of anything sexual again. The twist at the end was interesting, and the story was a good one.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: I’m not sure what Mr. Ligotti was going for here. Is this teleplay meant as a commentary on the Universe and who is controlling it? Is something else happening? Unfortunately I have no desire to find out. Pass.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: I’m also a little unsure of this one. The narrator is Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City bombing. In the story, he is a Government agent who does all kinds of undercover dirty work. This is a sort of X-Filesish conspiracy, but I’m not sure where any horror fits in. It was okay, but I’ve read better.
SPOILER-FILLED SUMMARY: This is a semi-confession of members of a Satanist group which claims to have been behind all of the bad shit going down in this world from 1966 on. Serial killers, assassinations, wars, terrorism, etc. are all described and claimed, and a black mass is also described. This story was okay, but I prefer things to be more straightforward with less psychopathic bullshit.
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