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Corpse Blossoms: Volume I

Julia and RJ Sevin, editors. Creeping Hemlock Press. $40
(400+p.) ISBN: 0976921707
(December 2005)

book coverCorpse Blossoms is an ambitious anthology from first-time editors/publishers Julia and R.J. Sevin. Its subtitle suggests that it is intended as the first of a series. As much as I appreciate the dedication and effort it takes to put out an anthology, the question for readers is still: Is this book worth $40? Small press horror editors tend to have to learn their craft in public, but that doesn't mean readers should haul out a credit card to pay for any product unless it makes the grade.

One lesson these good folks may be learning is that writers are but one facet of publishing and their advice is, naturally, skewed to their singular point of view. According to the Foreword by Horror Writers Association ex-president Joe Nassise, RJ Sevin, as a newcomer to publishing, "didn't understand the basic framework on which it operated." Well, neither does Mr Nassise if he thinks, as is inferred, that a good pay rate is all it takes to get great stories and produce a fine anthology. It certainly helps, of course, and it also shows a certain level of professionalism, but a respectable per word rate is no assurance an anthology is going to succeed either artistically or financially. Which brings up another point: Publishing is a business. Most independent publishers may do it "for the love" more than the money, but they don't last long if they lose money. I hope the Sevins don't lose money on Corpse Blossoms or, if they do, that such a loss keeps them from learning more and considering future projects.

But, as I was saying, my job as a reviewer is to help you, the reader, decide if any given book is worth your money or your reading time investment. So --

I think the anthology's raison d'être is "unthemed original stories," but I'm not sure. I don't think the title is intended to have any special meaning. It brought the stinky Amorphophallus titanum -- the corpse flower -- to my mind, but I doubt that was the intention. The stories are into three sections and the editors ask that the stories be read in the order presented. I abided by their wishes, but I could never discern any thematic or progressive pattern.

"White Shrouds of Memory" by Ward Cary Parker opens "i: The First Handful of Dirt." The basic idea -- intact human bodies raining down from an air disaster -- may be valid but the story conveys neither the horror of such an event nor the personal emotional connection its writer is seeking. Tom Piccirilli is far more successful at delivering emotional resonance in "An Average Insanity, A Common Agony." The story considers "when you start down a fucking dangerous, ludicrous path, you really go all the way to the end of it," but the story's path doesn't quite hold up at the end. Michael Canfield's "Wednesday," in which a man witnesses mysterious disappearances, might have had more impact if the writer had retained a tighter focus and dispensed with an inexplicable change in the attitude of the protagonist's friend as discuss the protagonist's ex-wife. Brian Freeman does keep his focus with "Running Rain," a story that comes very close to working well, but suffers from the burden of being a "horror story." (The reader knows this is no meditation on loss, it is a Horror Story in a Horror Anthology, and thus there will be a monster. Considering the clues supplied, the monster's identity comes as no surprise.) Despite the annoyances of Larry Tritten's "Whatever Happened to Shangri-La?" -- quoting everyone from Gide to the movie The Exorcist, an overly erudite cop, and a basic misunderstanding of Roman mythology -- it is still an entertaining, funny story. Erin MacKay's "Windows" is an amateurish effort with an unlikable, greedy central character who is rewarded at the end. "Hexerei" by Darren Speegle is a stylish sortie into Germanic black magic and sorcery. Steve Rasnic Tem's "Mysteries of the Colon" is beautifully written and probably evocative for anyone over the age of fifty. It was for me, but I have a feeling that most folks less elderly than the likes of Mr Tem and me may not see its merits as easily.

"The Man in the Corner by Eric Shapiro initiates "ii: Wilting Petals." It is brief and forgettable. Even after three readings I couldn't figure out what Marion Pitman was attempting in "Disposal of the Body". She establishes a respectably written first person voice then tosses off an unfathomable ending. Bev Vincent's "The Smell of Fear" is a well-crafted insane-killer story, but the reader has nothing to latch onto emotionally. In Patricia Russo's "Feed Them", a child finds some weird "cold things" growing in his mother's living room, adores them for no apparent reason, and then convinces his mother to care for them in his absence. The end. The mother is sketched, the child is a cipher. This may be a spoiler, but since the elements are mentioned early in Scott Nicholson's "The Weight of Silence," I think it is fair to say the story left me wondering only if million dollar insurance policies are ever issued on newborns and, if so, what official suspensions might be aroused if an over-insured infant were to die of SIDS. Not surprisingly, the best story of Corpse Blossoms is from Ramsey Campbell. Campbell returns to the terrain of his novel The Darkest Part of the Woods -- nature is not nice -- for a truly eerie story about two brothers who explore "Skeleton Woods." For the masterful Campbell, this is not a topnotch offering, but even second-tier Campbell is better than most first-tier work from others. Gary A. Braunbeck's "Need" is a poignant story about how desperation can overwhelm with grim finality. Marked by fine characterization, the story is somewhat marred by the annoying gimmick of revealing an only (supposedly) partially decipherable official letter bit by bit during the course of the story. Steve Vernon offers an amusing piece of dark absurdity that would have been better served with a title other than "The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope."

I suspect Bentley Little is gleefully pulling our legs with "Finding Father," a grotesque giggle of a story that begins "iii: Bitter Fruit." A truck driver discovers a trail of cryptic scatological messages from his absentee father in restrooms across western American that lead him to a "slinking slimy horror" that makes a "hideous squeaking squelching sound." Kealan Patrick Burke shows himself to be a good writer in search of a worthy story with "Empathy." A man, after watching a video of a real beheading, goes beyond nightmares, beyond insanity, beyond post-traumatic stress syndrome into...dum-dum-dum: "The Grue Zone." Burke's material is viscerally effective but the story itself never got to me. Steve Wedel's "The God of Discord" tells of a maniacal bully who thinks an evil entity wants to enslave the human race and make them play bad clarinet music. There's no question the god is anything but imaginary and no feeling the story is emotionally real. Neither Clifford Brooks' "Because Afterwards, They Pull the Shades" or Lee Clark Zumpe's "The Chatterer in the Darkness" has much integral logic and are not quite stories. The former has a scene of mindless violence, a transitional scene, and a senseless ending; the latter begins with a man who may or may not have hit a dog or a boy with his car somewhere on a mountain highway. Then, for some reason, he may or may not have killed his son with a car because he thinks the child is possessed of demons. Athena Workman attempts a dark folk tale with "Victrola's Way to Pay," but fails to establish the protagonist's age, the setting, or the era then does little more than tell (rather than show) something of her situation. Since the reader has no chance to "buy-in", there can be little reaction as the story progresses. Nick Mamatas' "All That's Left After the Big One Drops" juxtaposes the "before" of pudgy 14-year-old Harold who is trying desperately to stand out from the crowd and be an individual with the story of his life in a government bunker "after" nuclear war begins. Mamatas creates full characters and provides the emotional reality that so many of the stories in this volume lack. Along with his deft turns of some dandy phrases, it is more than enough to make his story a standout in this anthology. Michail Velichansky ends the tome with nicely written end-of-the-world tale "A Ragnarok Without Gods."

In sum, there are a few stories worth reading in Corpse Blossoms, but I don't find enough to make it a worthwhile investment -- Paula Guran (Originally published in Cemetery Dance #54, Spring 2006)