Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers
Tracy L. Carbone, Editor
Trade Paper, 252 pages, $12.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
New England: Home of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. And other horror scribes, including those whose works are assembled in Epitaphs – The Journal of the New England Horror Writers. Some of the stories pay closer attention to the East Coast locale and vibe more than others, but all are interesting in their own right. Of the twenty-six offerings, four in particular warrant individual consideration. Each uniquely addresses the theme of letting go: of a loved one – or of life.
In Christopher Golden’s eloquent and haunting “All Aboard,” a marriage erodes after the death of a child. The differences in how the spouses mourn ruptures their relationship: “That dreadful autumn, Sarah Cooper woke nearly every night in the small hours of the morning and lay in the dark, back toward her husband, the memory of their dead son filling the space between them.”
Sarah’s descent into morose and morbid thoughts is fueled not only by a longing for her lost kid, but also by a sense that her place in the household has diminished. She feels isolated, and reacts with remoteness; emotionally cutting herself off from her mate. Her perception of the situation is superbly summed up: “He barely saw her anymore. She might as well be made of glass–a window where a woman used to be.”
Another union is acutely tested in “A Deeper Kind of Cold” by K. Allen Wood. Attachment, resentment, and resignation duke it out in this SF-horror yarn. Logan Ash is severely injured, and things go from bad to worse when a contagion arises. The diseased tissue is destroyed, which basically eradicates Logan as well: “His body from the neck down was then encased in a plasti-cast and put on a low-level freeze. To keep the infection from spreading to his brain, his head had been quarantined from the rest of his body; surgically severed at the jugular by a cryogenic shunt, and kept alive in a sterile, hermetically-sealed Life System.” Stacy, his great love, has suffered for other reasons during the course of their relationship. Now, at the end of her tether with this crisis and its horrific aftermath, she takes action. Quietly poignant, yet containing a sequence riddled with gore, “A Deeper Kind of Cold” is executed with precision.
The line between life and death is also blurred in Rick Hautala’s “Perfect Witness.” The first person narrator is bewildered. His cognition is addled, but he remembers being assaulted during a robbery. To reveal much else would lead the way to spoilers, but this must be said: Even the reader who easily guesses the motif that drives the story will still be rewarded with a deft take on a certain superstition.
Hautala’s protagonist experiences a mental disconnect from the people surrounding him. In “Alone” by P. Gardner Goldsmith, the central character’s isolation is both physical and cerebral. This riff on the I Am Legend/Last Man on Earth theme is concise and highly disquieting. Its opening paragraph conveys a psychological bleakness that drips with inevitability: “He was alone. The soft, ratty recliner embraced him like a diseased paramour, its tattered and decomposing arms wrapping around him as if in a love embrace. The beer moved automatically to his lips, flat and bitter. The last of the lot. The last beer he’d been able to find. It had been sitting in his clutch for an hour, warm as soup, foul as brine, but he held it nonetheless, as if tenaciously gripping a vestige of himself.”
Epitaphs is an anthology that sees the writing on the headstones rather than on the proverbial wall. The quartet of tales chosen for deeper scrutiny is a sterling example of what the New England Horror Writers have to offer.