Written by: Josh Black
Everyone says not to judge a book by its cover, but with Screamscapes I just couldn’t help myself. I needed to peel back the cover like those hands are peeling open the eye and see what kind of craziness lurked within. In this case it was well worth the price of curiosity. Before this I’d only read Pumpkinhead Ted, one of Light’s short stories from Bad Apples, a Halloween anthology. That one left an impression, so at the very least I was counting on more like that. Screamscapes ended up being a lot more – It’s a varied mix of horror subgenres with something for everyone, and aside from an early pacing issue (which I’ll address), the quality of the stories is high across the board.
“Crawlspace” kicks things off. This one is a revenge story about an adulterous man who gets his just desserts (pun intended) when he finds himself trapped in the crawlspace beneath his house. He’s pitted against cold weather, claustrophobia, and, after he realizes why he’s really down there, a pinch of good old-fashioned craziness. The bizarre ending comes out of left field, but makes the rest that much more disturbing if you think about it. The only problem here is that much of the story is repetitive, and some simple actions are drawn out far longer than necessary. It’s doubtless to build tension and bring that frisson of fear and all that good stuff, but it just didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t normally mention something like this, but some people might be put off by it, considering it’s the first story. That said, trust me – It’s well worth sticking with, and none of the other stories have this issue.
“Whatever Possessed You?” is your classic crazy writer tale, in which a man struggling with his writing and seeking a breakthrough gets more than he bargained for. Actually, the poor sap gets exactly what he bargained for. You know reciting unknown and arcane words at the behest of some random dude in a bookstore is a bad idea, right? Cue accidental Faustian bargain. Murder and madness ensue, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
“Gertrude” comes next. It’s very short, so I’ll just throw this line from the story out there: “I have a symbiotic twin named Gertrude, he said, matter-of-factly. “She lives in a cavity under my ribcage, next to my spleen.”
Arboreatum is a period piece, taking place in the America of 1839. It details the travels of a group of people who seek out a New Eden, and find something far different than anyone could have expected. It’s easily the most character-driven tale so far, but plot isn’t sacrificed in the least. It’s very atmospheric and some of the descriptive passages are quite beautiful, as well – in a dark way, of course. Also: Carnivorous trees!
“Nose Hears” is about a guy with talking nose hairs. That’s all that needs to be said, really. It’s another short piece, and it’s pretty awesome.
“The Mole People Beneath the City” is an urban legend kind of story that takes place in the New York subway system. A man relates to a group of fellow passengers a story he heard about people living and thriving in the tunnels beneath the city. But just how close are they, and what are their intentions?
“Pay Back” is another revenge story, this one about an asshole who pretends he’s doing a favor to his mentally handicapped ‘friend’ by accompanying him on an annual excursion to a theme park. He’s a horrible person to have as a narrator, but fret not – you just know things won’t end up well for him. Parts of this story are very funny, and the references to Super Nintendo and Nintendo Power will bring a smile to readers and gamers of a certain age.
“Curtains for Love” is a straight-up ghost story, and a great one. In this story a man and his fiance move into the house across the street from his boyhood home. Before long there’s an encounter with the spirit of the little girl who used to live there, and the past and present collide as the man becomes increasingly obsessed with a tower room and the curtains that adorn it. There are two endings included here, and both of them are fitting in their own way. One is a quiet affair and the other is over the top.
“The Package” is a hilarious Christmas story about a surly and depressed Santa Claus who’s out to increase the size of his diminishing penis at any cost, and he strikes a deal with a hapless lout of the worst variety.
“The Black Door” starts out as a typical horror summer camp story. Upon getting to the camp, a family finds it long-abandoned, but they’re drawn, almost magnetically, to a black door in one of the buildings. Behind the black door is a room out of space and time, a place in which they become enraptured and seemingly stuck. There is a way out, but what will they bring with them?
Overall, Screamscapes is a great choice for pretty much any horror reader. There are quiet moments, splattery scenes, and a big helping of sometimes-wry-sometimes-cheesy-humor to wash it all down. It’s that elusive type of collection where almost every story is as strong as the others. Fans of Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone, or old-school anthology horror films will feel right at home here. If I were to write a one word review, it would be this: FUN. Pick it up, boils and ghouls. You won’t regret it.
Order it right here.