Masters of Horror: Damned if You Don’t
Triskaiedka Books

April 7, 2011,$2.99
Review by Darkeva

Gambling, sex, overeating, greed, drugs – pick your poison. We all suffer from addictions, things that we refuse to give up even though we know they’re bad for us. Some addictions don’t seem so earth-shattering, say, for instance, watching TV for an insane amount of time followed by surfing the net, which leads, inevitably, to people who check their emails a million times a day and their Facebook accounts even more than that. Just because we refuse to acknowledge them or somehow make them out to be smaller than they really are or even to rationalize them, it doesn’t mean these addictions aren’t always there.

It’s with this idea in mind that Ken Kusptis put together this anthology of tales that deal with every possible addiction you can imagine. The story that grabbed my attention the most was F. Paul Wilson’s “Topsy,” which explores the eponymous main character’s inability to stop eating and his insatiable appetite – a fascinating social commentary on the “Super Size” instant gratification universe in which every desire, no matter how ugly or unhealthy, can be satisfied endlessly without any regard for the damage it causes to people.

The next story to knock my socks off was “Showdown with Deacon Blues” by Kusptis himself. His main character, Deacon Blues, is an ex-bodybuilding former convict who turned to a life of God after his release, and runs a local twelve-step program for recovering alcoholics. But what do you do when alcohol itself shows up to your meeting in the form of a woman called Brandy? It looks at not only how alcohol ruins lives, and how it ruined Deacon’s life, but also shows that despite all of his former vices, he still managed to redeem himself.

In “The Turning” by Harry Louis Mora, Jason finds himself in Hell with Satan tormenting him for the bad decisions that led to him getting there. I liked the twist at the end, because while expected, it still delivered a great impact and the story packs a punch.

Another story that took me by surprise was “Plastic” by Joseph Pinto, which depicts a married man unsatisfied with his sexual life who has turned to sex dolls. They’re the only thing that turns him on despite the fact that he has a flesh and blood wife next to him in bed every night. It shows things from the man’s perspective as he rationalizes why he feels he has to do what he does, with a different doll each night, but when his wife displays a secret of her own, things take a turn for the much more interesting.

“Skin Deep” by Carson Buckingham is another story that astonished me and had quite an impact, this one going into the life of Lucinda, a young girl with a wart who begs her parents to get her the money to remove the unsightly mark, only she develops an obsession with her appearance after that, making a list of all the things that are “wrong” with her that she thinks need to be “fixed.” She becomes obsessive and devotes all of her energy to devising a plan to help her generate more income but in a way that makes it look as though she’s helping her parents out financially so they won’t blame her for the dip in her grades.

Buckingham could have gone into much safer territory or provided a far more shallow approach to convey his message that some people will go to any lengths into the pursuit of absolute physical perfection, particularly the plastered “Housewives” that currently dominate the airwaves in their respective territories, but by choosing to explore Lucinda’s twisted little mind and how she normalizes this disgusting habit makes for a far more entertaining but ultimately tragic and painful story. It’s one of the best stories in the anthology, if not the best, and one of the best short fiction pieces I’ve read, period.

I’m also a fan of Blaze McRob whose entry, “Shredded” is no less impressive than the rest of the anthology. In his tale, we meet a sixty-three-year-old man who is preoccupied with one goal: to remain, as the kids say, shredded, which means he wants his muscles in peak condition, and basically to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday. His biggest sin is unsurprisingly that of pride, which as well all know ultimately leads to people’s downfalls (Lucifer, anyone?), but the mentality displayed here by the protagonist, and the things he shouts to himself to keep going are stark, painful, and screaming of someone who needs help.

“Sins of the Flesh” by Nomar Knight is another definite highlight, which depicts a man, Peter, who has, in true Saw-like fashion, imprisoned a few people in a room together, unable to get out, but they don’t have to do things like chop their feet off to get free. His idea of torture is far worse for the main character, who also happens to be his mistress, but she’s his cocaine-addicted mistress and is an absolute slave to the drug, begging and pleading for him to give it to her. She is prepared to pay the cost, no matter what it may be. But while the story leads the reader one way and suggests that she’s going to break out with trickery, things go a completely different (and much more satisfying) way by the end – definitely well worth checking out.

“The Tortured Room” by Marissa Farrar makes the hallucinatory scenes in Trainspotting look like Pee Wee’s funhouse compared to the torment that the main character, a heroin-addicted prostitute, uses her last twenty bucks to score another hit only this one is unlike anything she’s ever taken before. It’s visceral, it’s stark, it’s real, and it’s frightening, but ultimately, it has a message of hope at the end, and for that, I applaud the author, because too often these types of stories end predictably with the victim’s “punishment” for drug abuse being that they die or suffer some kind of eternal torment in Hell, which is, let’s face it, overdone and passé.

I also truly enjoyed “Obsessed” by Armand Rosamilla, which is a fantastic little tale of a Dwight Schrute type character from The Office who insists on being left alone on the top floor where he works, something that his boss is dumb enough to accommodate. But a co-worker decides to be adventurous for a day and ends up pestering the protagonist, Jim, who has never missed a day of work in sixteen years and isn’t about to start now. Jim’s fixation is on a one-hit wonder release from the ’80s by a singer called Kimmi Klub, an alias for someone he would never suspect he was so close to in reality without even knowing it. Another well-written tale, this story will definitely surprise you by the end.

Of course, no horror anthology dealing with addiction would be complete without an offering from Scott Nicholson, which comes courtesy of “Doomsday Diary” in a tale that sees the main character transcribing his thoughts in a diary leading up to the events of the Apocalypse. Too bad the end of the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

While it’s unsurprising that most of the anthology’s stories focus on drug addiction, it has enough other addiction stories to even things out and mix things up to create a balanced and diverse set of works that cohere well together. Best of all, the book combines veteran horror scribes like F. Paul Wilson with many lesser-known (but equally talented) newcomers (or at any rate, people who I’d never hear of prior to reading this anthology). We don’t have enough horror anthologies that deal with the topic of true addictions, and how real they can be, which is why the editor included appendices at the back of the book that urge people who suffer from alcoholism or related disorders to re-examine their lives and take a second look at what might seem okay on the surface, but could be masking something far more grim.

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