Review: Scary Kisses, ed. Liz Grzyb

Scary_kisses_cover

(Ticonderoga Publications 2010: ISBN 978-0-9806288-4-5)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, March 2010)

Kisses can take a variety of forms. A kiss can be polite, brief, understated; another may be playful, simply brushing the cheek; there are kisses that are earnest, lip-to-lip, direct yet still decorous; kisses that do not even make contact, merely suggest it; and then there are kisses which devolve into a fevered tongue-tussling tonsil exploration that leaves the protagonists panting and eager for more. Or so I gather. This slim anthology presents an array of kisses, more-or-less embracing the gamut sketched above.

Nicole’s lips are — but it is possible to take a metaphor too far, so I will stop. ‘The Anstruther Woman’ by Nicole R. Murphy opens proceedings with a story difficult, at first, to locate in both time and space: it ultimately reveals itself as modern-day Australia, but it takes its time doing so and exhibits a rather old-fashioned flair to the language. A Southern Highlands Jane Austen, perhaps, with added cryptozoology. As things go (among the collection’s subsequent stories), it’s a fairly quiet story, neither strongly horrific nor overpoweringly passionate, but it works.

Ian Nichols’ ‘Fade Away’ is a short piece which arguably suffers from both too much backstory and too much infodump-as-dialogue between doom-besotted Emily and her sister Cassie, but it sizzles, stings, and satisfies nonetheless.

‘Bread and Circuses’, by Felicity Dowker, sees lovers Noelle and Susan torn asunder. Still, that’s kind of an occupational hazard, come the Zombie Apocalypse. This is a full-on, confronting, wrenching tale that – dare I say it – breathes new life into the zombie canon. One of the highlights of the anthology.

‘Black Widow’, by Shona Husk, had me wondering whether the author’s surname was pseudonymous, because it’s of a piece with the story’s substance. Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but for the ‘Angel’ of Husk’s story it’s the law of survival. There’s a good urgency and pace to this one.

Angela Slatter and L. L. Harnett join forces on ‘The February Dragon’, a well-rounded tale with excellent worldbuilding and a somewhat predictable, but nonetheless fulfilling story arc, as dragon-girl Casco strives to claim her true identity.

‘Growing Silence’, by Matt Tighe, is somewhat akin to ‘Fade Away’ earlier in the volume, in its expression of quiet malevolence through negative space. That said, it’s a quite different story, sinister chiefly through inference.

Astrid Cooper’s ‘The Hidden One’ has security guards Teresa (Tez) and Zeljko, a museum at night, and Egyptian relics, but not a mummy as such. I felt insufficiently steeped in Egyptian lore to appreciate all of the apparent cultural references, nor did I entirely buy the romance as presented, but it has a good sense of pace and mystery.

‘A Darker Shade of Pale’, by David Bofinger, plays the vampire card, and plays it well. Plus, Bofinger achieves the anthology’s best title.

‘The Valley’, by Martin Livings, is one of only three stories here to employ a male viewpoint character. It’s a strong mixture of symbolism and imagery, dark and savagely minimalist.

In ‘Cursebreaker: the Welsh Widow and the Wandering Wooer’, Kyla Ward lays claim to both the longest title and the longest story within the volume. It’s a complicated, detailed piece, which in some respects struck me as too frantic despite its length, too thick with twists. It would, I felt, have functioned better as a novella, perhaps double the length it takes here: there are at least six key players in the story, and it felt that they were each being given too little air-time to betray their true potential. Still, the characterisation is crisp, and if you can follow the plot’s contortions (some of the action sequences, in particular, elide deceptively from one state to another), you may find it to be enjoyably grotesque.

Donna Maree Hanson’s ‘Heat’ would best be categorised, I think, as vampire porn. This is not a criticism, merely an observation.

‘Phaedra’, by Bruce Golden, tells the age-old story: boy meets cartoon girl, boy woos cartoon girl, boy loses cartoon girl. It’s whimsical, bittersweet, and fairly funny.

Annette Backstall’s ‘Date with a Vampire’ carries some delicious one-liners: the story sparkles, the vampires don’t. Thoughtful and amusing.

‘Pride and Tentacles,’ by D. C. White, posits a book group of the Elder Gods. Which, as anyone could have told Yog-Sothoth, is not the best of ideas …  An appropriately irreverent coda to the collection; and who can resist the idea of Nyarlathotep sporting a fake goatee?

I’m not, I would suspect, within the core audience for this collection: neither romance nor horror is exactly my thing. But the stories here are well-told, diverse, and entertaining. None entirely disappoint, and some are genuine standouts: ‘Bread and Circuses’, ‘A Darker Shade of Pale’, and ‘Phaedra’ were my favourites among the anthology’s offerings, but you’ll perhaps find others more to your taste. Provided you buy the book, of course.

It can be ordered direct from the publisher: http://ticonderogapublications.com/.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)

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