book reviews by Althea

Dangerous Games – Jonathan Oliver, ed.

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*** “Big Man” by Chuck Wendig
A bit of a Stephen King feel here, I thought. An incident of road rage leads to something a bit stranger and possibly supernatural. It could be seen as an exploration of the negative aspects of the macho idea of masculinity – or just as a freaky contemporary horror story.

**** “The Yellow Door” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Lovecraft tribute alert! One of a group of college friends plans an evening out at a seedy Chinese gambling hall. They regard it as quite an adventure… but when one of them orders the Shoggoth Soup, a slide into madness may be inevitable. Moreno-Garcia does a great job of capturing the horrific feel of Lovecraft’s tales and transposing it into a modern setting. Very successful.

*** “Die” by Lavie Tidhar
Nice setup: two people must enter a white room. On a table: dice, and a weapon. A roll of the dice determines who must attempt to kill who. Failure to comply is met with reprimands from a disembodied voice, and electric shocks. However, the piece felt unfinished, and didn’t really take it anywhere that similar scenarios haven’t been taken before.

**** “Chrysalises” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
This is the first piece I’ve read by “Sriduangkaew” (it’s a pseudonym) since it was revealed that she’s (well, if the author is even a woman – no one knows) a racist, liar, backstabber, and all-around not-very-nice person.
Personally, I believe that a person’s work should be judged separately from their personal life. So, for me, I’m filing Sriduangkaew away with Orson Scott Card. Both authors hold personal opinions which I find repulsive (although they are not the same opinions!) I find both authors’ output to be hit-or-miss, but to have included some excellent writing. I’ll continue reading their work – but I won’t pay for it.

This story is one of the better ones I’ve read by Sriduandkaew. It has wonderfully weird, grotesque and vivid imagery.
In one scenario, a queen is forced into making devils’ bargains with aliens. (Are they actually offering her kingdom protection, or is this more like a ransomware situation?)
In the other scenario, an equivalent situation is affecting a small village. Fighting insects, which must be grown as parasites on the bodies of human children and then nurtured by the memories of adults, are the only protection the village has against an annual attack. Due to the loss of memories, no one even recalls how this terrible ‘war’ began, but the village is slowly losing due to attrition.
It’s set up very, very nicely, and the writing is lovely. I did wish that the two scenarios had been more explicitly linked and tied together at the end.

*** “South Mountain” by Paul Kearney
A group of Union Civil War re-enactors are on a camping trip. One of them is a black man, new to this hobby, seeking to understand his family roots. In the dark southern night, no lights from neighboring towns are visible… and the reader realizes before the characters that something eerie may have happened.

*** “The Game Changer” by Libby McGugan
When a father’s only son is dying of cancer, he’ll go to extreme lengths to clutch at hope. Here, the straw he grasps is an experimental treatment. But hope may come in a more metaphysical (or quantum?) form.
A bit too sentimental for me, but contains an interesting (if unlikely) idea.

*** “Distinguishing Characteristics” by Yoon Ha Lee
We’re used to the idea of mundane young people playing role-playing games, and taking on fantastic, dramatic identities. But what if people in a dramatic fantasy world played a role-playing game?
It’s an interesting idea, beautifully written, and the story contains some interesting ideas. However, it felt inconclusive (almost unfinished) and I just didn’t find myself very interested in the game. Game as sedition? Cool, but I really just wanted to find out more about this world and its politics, and perhaps explore a more traditional narrative arc in the given setting.

* “Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD” by Gary Northfield
Brief comic about a bored spaceman who makes an unfortunate mistake. I was very unimpressed by the execution.

*** “Death Pool” by Melanie Tem
A young man in the foster system, who clearly has some serious emotional issues, goes to a bookie to place a bet on possible celebrity death dates. While there, he seems confused and is weirded out by the whole thing. After placing his bets, he becomes obsessed with the gamble, and believes himself cursed or maybe stalked/haunted by the bookie.
There’s a nice ambiguity here about whether the supernatural is involved, or whether it’s all mental illness. It ends up being a surprisingly incisive exploration about why some people in our society might fail to succeed.

**** “The Bone Man’s Bride” by Hillary Monahan
The idea of giving a yearly tithe to a god or devil; a sacrifice of a healthy young person, is hardly new. However, Monahan gives this trope a surprisingly fresh – and very creepy – twist in this story. Set in a Depression-era dustbowl town (?), we follow one teenage girl who’s destined to be this year’s ‘bride.’ Bloody, nasty and vivid. I look forward to hopefully seeing more from this new writer in the future.

**** “Honourable Mention” by Tade Thompson
There’s a game with a significant cash prize. An outside observer, at first glance, might think that the game was an ‘ayo’ tournament – all the players, after all, are engaged in the traditional African board game. However, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses at ayo. The prize money is given to the contestant who can stay awake the longest.
For one entrant, the prize money is his hope of escape from a life of misery (we assume he’s been a victim of human trafficking). To win, he’s willing to risk everything… and to follow the peculiar instructions of someone’s who’s rumored to have won in the past.
Fascinating depiction of a custom and community that I’m not familiar with – and some truly nasty magic – combine to make a compelling story. Thompson’s a new writer for me; I’ll be interested in reading more of his work in the future.

*** “Loser” by Rebecca Levene
Can’t say too much about this one without giving too much away. It’s a sad tale about making friends with the new neighbour next door – who turns out to be an abused child. And it’s a serial killer story.

*** “Two Sit Down, One Stands Up” by Ivo Stourton
A futuristic Russian Roulette game… the fad of the clubs. The catch? It’s always played against “yourself.”

*** “Ready or Not” by Gary McMahon
A man returns to his hometown after an absence of many years. We’re not sure why, but it seems, although it looks like he’s ‘made good’ that he’s reluctant to be recognized or remembered. Since this is a horror anthology, the reader can guess that there’s a dark secret to be revealed.

*** “The Monogamy of Wild Beasts” by Robert Shearman
This is a seriously weird one. It looks like a replay of Noah’s ark… but there are three modern-day people aboard, and they seem to be cruelly and sadistically killing the animals. As more of the scenario is revealed, it becomes even stranger. I can’t say I actually liked this story, but then again, it’s not like I was really supposed to.

*** “The Stranger Cards” by Nik Vincent
A lawyer is given a pack of playing cards by a serial killer facing Death Row. The lawyer fails to get the man any kind of reprieve or appeal… and then, the killings start again.
This story has both feet firmly planted in its genre, but it’s a solid entry.

*** “All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again” by Helen Marshall
I think that Nick Cave would like this story very, very much. That said: I didn’t love it. The writing is lovely, and the story emerges, lush, heavily draped with symbolism, with weirdness that emerges in such a way as to make the reader wonder what’s ‘real’ and what’s metaphor. It’s very well done; it’s one of those where I honestly have to say, “it’s not you, it’s me.”

*** “Lefty Plays Bridge” by Pat Cadigan
Explores the interpersonal dynamics in a foster home, especially those of two twin girls from an abusive home. The setting: one evening’s bridge game. The undercurrents: vicious.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable anthology of modern horror stories. Many thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read a copy of this collection in return for an honest review.


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