John Skipp, editor
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
Trade Paper, 640 pages, $18.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
This time of year, it is easy to tire of sweetness and light; benign angels bestowing their blessings on mankind. Thank heaven, or somewhere further south, for John Skipp. In his anthology Demons, the angels are of the fallen variety. They don’t want peace on earth and wish good will to men – or women: au contraire. Skipp has compiled 37 devilish delights; temptations that are hard to resist, and the holidays do rather encourage indulgence.
One of the classic tales included in the volume is Margaret Irwin’s “The Book.” The protagonist is a bibliophile who finds an oddity in a shelf at home. Translation is necessary, since the tome is written in Latin. During the process, the character’s personality alters in a sinister fashion; alienating the family dog, as well as confusing the household and co-workers. He becomes bewitched by unholy thoughts: “As he turned over its stiff and yellow pages, he noticed with pleasure the smell of corruption that had first repelled him in these decaying volumes, a smell, he now thought, of ancient and secret knowledge.”
A more contemporary story of diabolical corruption is “Best Friends” by Robert McCammon. An apparent psychopath has committed horrific acts of murder. As the young man is being psychiatrically evaluated, photos of his deeds produce a sickening response: “The second photograph drove a cold nail through her throat; it showed a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room’s corner. A severed leg was propped up not unlike the umbrella she’d just put aside. A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.”
Later in the yarn, comes the discovery that the perceived killer is merely a vessel for malign entities. And highly nasty fiends they are; a trio of terrors with an insatiable hunger. Their favorite fare is infants.
Newborns play a much less passive role in Weston Ochse’s “20th-Level Chaotic Evil Rogue Seeks Whole Wide World to Conquer.” Set in Romania, the savagely spooky tots of this tale are vicious and determined: “First one, then five, then ten, then twenty, then fifty, then a hundred babies unburied themselves from the forest floor. Like miniature zombies from a Sam Raimi movie, after they pulled themselves from the dirt and leaves, they stood and shook their skin free of detritus with some twisted sense of undead propriety even as they regarded him when he plowed past.”
Ochse has fashioned an amoral parable. The anti-hero of the piece and the batch of baleful babes are well matched antagonists. Other matches made in Hell occur in K.H. Koehler’s “He Waits” and “Happy Hour” by Laura Lee Bahr.
Bahr concocts a hilarious riff on “so, a guy walks into a bar…” In this case, the guy is already at the bar when a stunning woman enters. He buys her a drink, with the intent of hooking up, and finds that she is intelligent as well as comely. There’s one little problem: She professes that she is recovering from demonic possession. Though exorcised, there is a possibility of recurrence – with a vengeance. That’s enough to make a pick-up line turn into an ellipsis, but she’s so damn good-looking and sweet. Describing the action further would spoil the romance; suffice to say this is a read to remember.
“He Waits” is ironic and insidious. The whiff of sulfur in the air is an aphrodisiac; the sense of peril, an opiate. A waitress who sees a bleak future meets a mysterious stranger who fulfills her romantic fantasies. There is something about him, however, that sends up warning signs: “People looked around when he spoke, not at us, but around, like forest animals at a watering hole alerted to immediate danger.”
Author Koehler examines the notion of symbiotic relationships, giving it a supernatural spin. There is a nicely ambiguous quality to the narrative: a devilishly delicious teasing of the roles of master and minion.
Amorous alliance also plays a part in “Scars in Progress.” The story, written by Brian Hodge, features lovers who rekindle their feelings under very strange circumstances indeed. Fourteen years after breaking-up, a couple reunites. They have been keeping abreast of each other’s activities via Facebook; lurking and seeing the changes time has wrought. The female half of the duo has altered most in appearance; haunted, gaunt looks are a scary reflection of her occupation: she photographs demons. Desolate and abandoned environs are at the forefront of the pictures, but in the background there be monsters. The old boyfriend joins his ex, and two of her hunter associates, to track down the creatures. Through a lens darkly, he sees: “Sometimes the lighting and telephoto stability had been good enough to show their features. Sometimes I wished it hadn’t. At what point did a face stop being a face?”
The hideous visages are created by the demons. Once they have invaded a human body, abhorrence sets in; mutilation beyond recognition is the goal. It’s hard to embrace hope in the midst of such horrors. Love isn’t always lovelier the second time around, and one’s heart does break for a twosome who keep wondering: “What if?”
Poignant and powerful, “Scars in Progress” is a fine work that exemplifies the excellence of John Skipp’s compilation. Demons is a package full of dark treats for horror readers, beautifully wrapped in grim gray and adorned with a large black bow … But the delivery boy first needs a signature, preferably in blood. After all, red is the color that defines the season.