'The Wise Friend' by the legendary horror author, Ramsey Campbell, is one of those dark, creeping tales that you can feel coming from around the corner. Instinctively, you know that just ahead out of sight, something bad awaits.. and you feel both averse to discovering what it is and in a hurry to get it over with.
This book is that scraping sound of something sharp.. but ragged.. being drawn along the inside of your walls as you pace along the outside listening.
It has been so many years since I've read a Ramsey Campbell story, I'd forgotten what it was truly like. I'd retained the summary of feelings. His name continued to stand out in my head as a hugely influential master of horror.. having helped shape my taste in the genre as a teen, but I'd never read a full novel of his that I can recall. They'd always been short stories included in other anthologies. Though, even here.. he'd been impactful.
I certainly wasn't disappointed by this title either, which is loosely about the story of a man who'd discovered as a teen that his aunt at the time had possibly been visiting magical sites which had affected her paintings in a startling way. Now, years later as an adult, his son and his son's girlfriend have become fascinated with the late aunt's work and both have been going back and visiting those sites themselves.
The result is a slow build of cold fear, the kind you want to turn the lights on and chase away. Even as you begin to see what's actually happening about midway through the novel, you realize that isn't really what matters. The story is definitely about the journey and the helplessness you feel along the way.. the absolute uncertainty as to how things will turn out at the end, despite the wealth of knowledge you've garnered.
I've seen mentioned, here and there, that this book is difficult to get into.. but I challenge that statement. What initially gives that impression is the sheer density of Campbell's writing style. Though the story is of average length, there's so much more depth packed into the occurances than one typically sees in modern fiction.
Reading 'The Wise Friend' was like flexing a muscle I rarely use.. like re-learning the motor functions of a limb that's been numb for too long. It made me realize how much current works have just made me a bit of a lazy reader. Even compared to my science or philosophy titles, things are just written in a much simpler, more direct manner today.. and Campbell still knows how to weave a tale expertly in that traditional structure.
If you're a fan of classic 20th century horror authors like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and Richard Matheson, you do not want to miss this book. It's a fantastic glimpse of what the strength of a writer can really exemplify. There's less time spent on how a character looks and dresses to fill a page.. and more time invested in how they make others feel.. how those others might be affected by their very surroundings.. even their own memories.. at times.
Honestly, I can't say enough good things about this book. I have been humbled by reading it and feel as if I'll look on modern horror stories with refreshed eyes.
“This thing we got… I told you, it won’t be easy.”
“Nothing good is ever easy, Isaac.”
There was a pause as unasked questions hovered around us. I considered what life would be like with Isaac, that no matter how committed we might be to our relationship, we could not exist in a vacuum. Struggles would follow us wherever we went, and would spill out to our families, our loved ones, our friends.
He waited. Although Isaac was the one who moved with caution, the one who refused to assume that the easy road would be ours to travel, he waited for me to come to a decision. He wanted me to say yes, but wouldn’t ask the question. He would not lead me anywhere, but would be waiting for me when I arrived—if I didn’t turn back.
“Isaac?” He nodded again and brought me closer. His cheeks were wide, his features strong and he closed his eyes, as though he relished the feel of my fingertips over his face. “Will you love me? No matter what happens?”
Isaac pulled me around him, holding me against his large body, his hand around my waist. His voice was quiet, but filled with strength, with conviction. “Always.”
No one had touched me like Isaac. He had a way about him, something real and honest that was assured by his long, perfect fingers down my back and the slip of his tongue inside my mouth. There was no fear, not when those fingers gripped me tighter, when he slowly lowered my zipper and held my hand as I stepped out of my dress.
He watched me then, and even though a different Riley might have been shy, I liked the way his stare felt against my bare skin. It was me he wanted, only me; only I could sate his hunger, redeem that desperate look that had caught him in a silent pause.
Isaac still held my hand, arm extended with that hard, greedy gaze working over me. He made me feel needed, wanted, he made me feel necessary. And when he pulled my hand to rest it against his heart, I held my breath, waiting to hear what he thought, hoping he wanted me as much as I wanted him. “My sweet… my beautiful Riley.”
He stepped back, my fingers trailing away from his chest, and tugged off his shirt, dropping it to the floor, instantly forgotten. Isaac picked me up and carried me to the bed, divesting me of everything that kept me covered, and everything that kept him hidden from me.
I had never seen a naked man before. I’d never been naked with a man before. But there I lay on Isaac’s large bed covered by his long legs and muscular thighs, my small frame underneath him, open to him as he took control and showed me what it meant to be loved.
“You and me, Riley, there’s nothing but this. Nothing else but this, how we are right now.”
Isaac never spoke much of his feelings, the things that rocked his soul, the many worries that kept him up at night. Maybe he didn’t know how to say he loved me, but just then, with Isaac’s warm, solid body right against mine, skin to skin, touching me like no one ever had before, I decided words weren’t all that important.
“Nothing else, my love. Nothing else at all.”
"You're leaving us?" Hermes asked. "What happened to sisters before misters?"
Persephone rolled her eyes. "Hermes, in case you haven't noticed, you're a mister."
"I can be a sister!" he argued, more vehemently than she expected.
'A Touch of Ruin' is book two in the 'Hades & Persephone' series by Scarlett St. Clair. I have already purchased the first, though I haven't read it yet, because I genuinely enjoyed this one and don't want to miss anything. Besides, the next book, 'A Touch of Malice,' is already in the works and I'll need to be ready.. something big is coming..
I've always loved the story of Hades and Persephone. I know by most accounts it's really the story of an abduction and trickery while keeping a captive wife, but I've a bit of a soft spot for Hades. It can't be an easy job, it's surely often thankless.. and while his brothers got glory and adoration, he got darkness and isolation. Disdain even.. though without him, mythologically speaking, the balance would have tipped to chaos.. and he's certainly not in the habit of damaging people for little to no reason, as is so common with his brother Zeus.
For me, this is a little bit of what someone might call a guilty pleasure read. There are things happening around them certainly and there is progress along a timeline which implies a story is being told, but everything that happens just seems to be about showcasing their interactions.. more than following a plot and the two of them reacting naturally. I know that probably sounds a bit confusing, but it just feels like they are the focus and any bits of story that happen to be in the novel are just secondary.
The thing is, I also didn't care. I loved seeing how they felt about each other and I want more.
Hades shook his head. "We do not make up for hurt with hurt, Persephone. That is a god's game--we are lovers."
"Then how do we make up for hurt?" she asked.
"With time," he answered. "If we can be comfortable being angry with one another for a little while."
Hades is this dark, beautiful representation of a God I've always been intrigued with. He's full of power and passion and occasionally unmitigated rage. He can be tender or he can be ice cold, but there's often a glimpse of one while you're looking at the other. He's never one-dimensional and I love that. As for steam factor, he's about a 15 on a 1 to 10 scale. He's right up my alley, even if there's an overuse of "darling" at times I think based on his character, might be filled with more colorful language.
Deep down he's fearful of Persephone seeing too much darkness in him and turning away, which results in him guarding his secrets closely. So closely that they only come out one-by-one often at the hands of another, which she doesn't take very well.
He sighed. "I wanted time to think about how to show you my sins. To explain their roots. Instead, it seems, everyone wishes to do it for me."
Though Persephone's reactions to some things are understandable, she drives me a little crazy. I understand to a degree why she's unaware of certain things, but she's bratty at times and she just doesn't listen to anyone. Her path constantly leads her into trouble because she's unwilling or unable to accept anything that doesn't go the way she wants it to and unfortunately, that makes Hades path rocky too.
Things are definitely unnecessarily more difficult for them because of her stubborn nature and complete lack of restraint. She makes me mad. That doesn't mean I don't like her. It means I get how he feels, she frustrates me.. but she means well. She's kind and loving, she's warm and caring. Ultimately, she just wants everyone to live their best life. It's impossible to hate that. But wow can she be trying on the nerves.
Zofie drew her blade. "Release her or feel my wrath!"
Hermes laughed. "Where did you get her?"
Persephone sighed. "Zofie, put that away."
"Wherever you go, I must go too, Lady Persephone," she glared at Hermes. "To protect you."
Hermes was still laughing. "She knows I'm a god, right?"
Honorable mention has to go to Hermes though. He's a delightfully wicked God of Trickery, but a good and genuine friend. He's loyal, funny, and only slightly removed from his reality by his godhood. He's pretty good at seeing both sides of any situation and he made me laugh frequently.
This was definitely just what I needed. There's enough going on to keep me interested, there are some emotional moments, but it was a light enjoyable.. even sexy.. read. Most of the conclusion was a little fast, but again. I don't care. I had a blast.
"If there be a person alive with more power than myself, then over time circumstances shall eventually degrade until, inevitably, I am their slave. And if our situations were to be reversed, then they shall inevitably become mine.
-- Crasedes Magnus"
'Shorefall (The Founders Trilogy #2)' by Robert Jackson Bennett is a deep-dive fantasy novel about a sort of hobbled together group of rebels, bound by the struggles they've shared and a communal desire to free others like themselves. Though I didn't read the first book in the series, I had no trouble picking this one up and settling right into what was going on.
In a world where people rely heavily on the art of scriving-- the act of imbuing everyday objects with sentience and permissions they wouldn't normally have by nature's rules, there comes a battle between two godlike figures. Crasedes Magnus, the first of the great hierophants and Valeria, the construct who defeated him in their last conflict.. were both left too damaged to affect the changes they intended without help.
Our protagonist is a spitfire named Sancia Grado, who just so happens to be able to physically see the logic of the scrivings sunken into the objects around her and interact with them, convincing them to do things they aren't meant to. She's rough around the edges, she's amusingly sarcastic at times, but she's also capable of great love and loyalty. It just doesn't usually look like what we might expect from a heroine.
"I remember the plan," said Sancia. "I just also remember there's a lot of spots in the plan that say, 'Sancia improvises a bunch of s***.' Which is not, you know, comforting."
Accompanied by her girlfriend Berenice (together, the two referred to as The Muses), the old scriver Orso (who left the Founding Houses and struck out on his own in an attempt to bring technology more equally to the people), and Gregor (the son of one of the Founding Houses.. and a broken thing in his own right), Sancia intends to put a stop to Crasedes as well. Their relationships are all rather beautifully complex. Each carrying their own baggage as they try to alleviate those same agonies in those around them.
As a team, they're a well-oiled machine. They complement each other's skills and temperments, and really.. this is what I find is the core thread through the story. It's a tale about taking on the greatest of odds together. While of course, that is no guarantee of success, Bennett certainly shows the reader how much stronger they are because of their common goals and willingness to put each other first.
"We are all keepers of a secret flame, lighting the way forward."
"Not a flame, I think," he said. "A spark. We intend to start an inferno."
"Yet fires do not care about who they burn."
As great as Sancia is, it's Gregor I find myself drawn to. He's the tragic beauty. It doesn't matter that he's a deadly warrior, that he's covered in scars, and emotionally cold and distant much of the time. There's still something elegant about him, he just feels so lost to me all the time.
I have some minor complaints, of course I do.
Understandably, Bennett's ideas are complex. The very theory of scriving itself is fascinating and in their world it's everywhere. It's used for defenses, both personal and geographical, but it's also used for everyday work. Irrigation. Light. Construction. Every part of their world has been touched by it, maybe not improved.. but progression is not always improvement, is it?
Despite the complexity of the concepts, in my opinion he goes a bit overboard with the information dumps about how everything works. It's constant. Explain a few things to me so I get how it works in theory and then focus on the story itself. Whatever. The result was it made the book a bit more of a trudge than it needed to be, but it also didn't seem to weaken his work on the characters, plot, or relationships at all. So, it's just a personal preference. I would have liked less of that.
Also, I would have liked less easy answers. With Sancia able to look at any scrived rig, see exactly how it works and how to manipulate it, that's borderline convenient already. But add in the all knowing beings and the ways they find to share information as they move toward their goals, it's just a bit too much. I really dislike everything being able to be explained in a flash of knowledge at every turn.
"What a thing, to wish to be unmade," he thought. "To yearn to open up one's skull and allow all the bindings there to come unspooling out like lengths of wire..."
Ultimately, none of my small protests matter. The story is gripping. I was invested from the start and remained so throughout. Most of the book has no real time for emotion. That isn't to say the characters don't experience them, they're just pressed for time, pressed for action.. they cannot just still and let themselves crumble. There are moments however, that I found incredibly moving.
While the tension ramped up and time seemed fleeting, every decision became that much more crucial. Reveals, long foreshadowed and slow to come to fruition, made harsh impacts.. both on the characters and the reader. I was deeply unhappy with how certain events unfolded.. and I'm absolutely certain that is exactly why they were the right choices. The author left me feeling as bereft and broken as those within his story seemed to be.. and I can't wait for him to do it again.
Come on.. book 3..
A Touch of Ruin
Demetri must have felt her staring because he finally looked up from his tablet, the article he was reading reflected off his black-framed glasses. She noted the title. It was another piece about her.
“Persephone. Please, come in. Close the door.”
That stone in her stomach was suddenly heavier. Shutting herself in Demetri’s office was like walking right back into her mother’s greenhouse—anxiety built, and she felt fear at the thought of being punished. Her skin grew hot and uncomfortable, her throat constricted, her tongue thickened…she was going to suffocate.
This is it. She thought. He is going to fire me.
She found herself frustrated that he was drawing it out. Why invite her to sit? Act like it had to be a conversation?
She took a deep breath and sat on the edge of her chair.
“What did you do?” she asked, glancing at the pile of newspapers. “Pick one up on every block?”
“Couldn’t help it,” he said, smirking. “The story was fascinating.”
“Did you need something?” she asked finally, hoping to change the subject—hoping that the reason he called her into his office had nothing to do with this morning’s headlines.
“Persephone,” Demetri said, and she cringed at the gentle tone his voice had taken. Whatever was coming, it wasn’t good. “You have a lot of potential and you have proven you’re willing to fight for the truth, which I appreciate.”
He paused and her body stayed tense, preparing for the blow he was about to deliver.
“But,” she said, guessing the direction of this conversation.
Demetri looked even more sympathetic.
“You know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have to,” he said.
She blinked, brows furrowing. “Ask what?”
“For an exclusive. On your relationship with Hades.”
The dread crawled up her stomach, and spread, sizzling in her chest and lungs and she felt the heat abruptly leave her face.
“Why do you have to ask?” Her voice was tight, and she tried to stay calm, but her hands were already shaking and squeezing her coffee cup.
“You said you wouldn’t ask if you didn’t have to,” she stopped him. She was tired of him saying her name. Tired of how long it was taking him to get to the point. “So why are you asking?”
“It came from the top,” he answered. “It was very clear that you either offer us your story or you don’t have a job here anymore.”
“The top?” she echoed, and paused for a moment, searching for a name. After a moment, it came to her. “Kal Stavros?”
Kal Stavros was a mortal. He was the CEO of Epik Communications—which owned New Athens News. Persephone didn’t know much about him except that he was a tabloid favorite. Mostly, because he was beautiful—his name literally meant crowned the most beautiful.
“Why would the CEO request an exclusive?”
“It’s not every day the girlfriend of the God of the Dead works for you,” Demetri said. “Everything you touch will turn to gold.”
“Then let me write something else,” she said. “I have a voicemail and an inbox full of leads.”
It was true. The messages had started pouring in the moment she published her first article on Hades. She’d slowly been sorting through them, organizing them into folders based on the god they criticized. She could write about any Olympian, even her mother.
“You can write something else,” Demetri said. “But I’m afraid we’ll still need that exclusive.”
“You can’t be serious,” was all she could think to say, but Demetri’s expression told her otherwise. She tried again. “This is my personal life.”
Her boss’s eyes dropped to the stack of papers on his desk.
“And it became public.”
“I thought you said you would understand if I wanted to cease writing about Hades?”
She noted that Demetri’s shoulders fell, and it made her feel better that he was at least a little defeated by this, too.
“My hands are tied, Persephone,” he answered.
There was a stretch of silence, and then she asked, “That’s it? I have no say in this?”
“You have your choices. I need the article by next Friday.”
A Touch of Malice
"Between lifting the poker and smashing it down.. there must have been a moment when I thought about what was going to happen..."
"But if there was such a moment, I don't remember it."
'Broken Flowers' by Kate McQuaile is the story of a woman who decades earlier fled her youthful dreams and a house called Paradise Place with devastating secrets she hoped she'd never have to address again. Upon arriving in London for her estranged son's wedding, she finds herself looking up at the very home she ran from all those years ago. The voice and face of a man she longed to forget, already plaguing her mind.
The narration shifts constantly between characters and unfortunately lacks any distinction of 'voice' leaving the reader to rely on overt statements to remind them who's telling their story, despite the name appearing at the start of some chapters. But the story itself is interesting, if not a bit overreaching at times.
It very much so feels like a novel that was written with plot points first as the writer tried to weave her way toward the scenes she envisioned and moments she felt were crucial. Now, it's not uncommon for a book to be approached that way, but I don't often find myself feeling it along the way as I read.
Nan, our main character, has a strained relationship with her son.. to say the least. I think McQuaile does an amazing job at the emotional narrative between those involved in her story. Most of the interactions seemed very genuine and though I didn't yet know exactly how these people had failed each other, their pain felt reasonable and I wanted to champion their attempts to bridge those gaps.
"I've become one of those pathetic women desperately hoping the man of her dreams will see her as the woman of his."
Almost all the characters have a relatability factor to them, regardless of their strengths or social statuses, they have realistic vulnerabilities. They're likable and I even found it difficult at times to choose how I would have wanted things to work out. For even the 'villains' certainly didn't see themselves as such and admittedly, I didn't entirely either.
"..it seemed that nothing I dished out, regardless of how rude or even cruel, could faze her. In fact, I credit her for turning me into a human being again."
Puzzle pieces were delivered slowly, but sometimes felt ill-placed as if the author felt they were necessary in that moment to turn the direction of the story she wanted to tell. In all fairness, I'm just picky about how these things are handled. I like a natural pattern to emerge and feel that if you have to use another character to insert information in order to create a turning point, you should reassess. But make no mistake, that's my preference and this author still did a wonderful job of driving her story steadily toward the crescendo she foresaw.
Though I traversed the majority of the novel with a relatively accurate expectation as to where certain aspects of the story were going, McQuaile does hit us with a bit of a 1-2-punch in the reveal, which I'd only half considered. From there, the landscape is a steady shift of change. In fact, she did so much 'footwork' in the story throughout the last chapters, I was unsure to the last moment which outcome I was going to get.. and I applaud her for that.
It's certainly not as finessed as classic thrillers like Du Maurier's 'Rebecca' or 'D'entre les morts' (the novel from which Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' was born) by the French duo known simply as Boileau-Narcejac, but I do believe fans of these titles would find 'Broken Flowers' highly enjoyable and I'm happy to recommend it despite my small misgivings.
"You smiled," she noted. "Is something funny?"
"Probably I'm just happy the lion didn't eat either of us."
"You have a very strange sense of humor, Mr. Quatermain."
"Perhaps," he said. "But I persist in thinking it would be considerably less funny if the lion had won."
'The Mistress of Illusions' is the follow-up to 'The Master of Dreams' and the second title in the 'Dreamscape Trilogy.' Author Michael D. Resnick is a former Nebula Award winner, a five time Hugo Award winner, the late executive editor of Jim Baen's Universe, and the late editor/creator of Galaxy's Edge magazine according to his bio.
Transparency first, I have not read the first book in this trilogy. Though, now that I've read this one.. I do intend to. I'll also be eagerly looking for the conclusion when it releases in the future. I can only hope that his passing earlier this year doesn't halt the series entirely.
I have only one complaint about the whole book and I'll get it out of the way here, as this one's strictly personal. I've said it before, cliffhangers should be used sparsely and well. In my opinion, a great writer doesn't need them to get you to read the next book in a series. Before I was a quarter of the way into this title, I was already going to read the next book, but a cliffhanger done the way it was is almost enough to make me reconsider.
By the time Eddie Raven, our main character, reached the end of the book, he'd been dragged through so many worlds and circumstances to prepare him for what was ahead, that when the story just stopped abruptly as he was about to take that next step.. I just stared at the page in disbelief and annoyance. I understand wanting to carry some momentum into the next book, but there are subtler ways. A looming threat can be dangled before the reader, without the old 'step forward/fade-to-black' of a tv series.
After what I'd followed Raven through, it felt like the entire book was just a journey. Literally, just the act of putting heel to toe from wherever book one left off, through some in-between space of little consequence, to the final book where the real conflict will take place. It actually made what he was experiencing feel less important and it clearly wasn't. In my opinion, if you're going to write a journey novel like that, taking that last step is the mistake. Let the story be what it is.. a focus on the growth the character makes, the alliances that are formed, and the things that are learned. Just leave it at that. Don't slap me with a step into the great beyond and a curtain fall. It's insulting.
"..But someone with some clout doesn't want me killed, and evidently I know something so valuable that they spread around some money or some threats or both to make it so no one shot me by mistake."
He smiled. "Do you know how many innocent people get in the way of bullets every day in New York?"
"It's been awhile since anyone accused you of optimism, hasn't it?"
You may think I didn't like the book after all that, but you'd be wrong. I loved it. Resnick is every bit the classic sci-fi writer one would expect from his fifty plus years in the industry.
He transitions with ease between all the worlds Eddie Raven slips in and out of, always reacclimatizing us around Raven's home and giving his character the stable point with which to center himself that he so desperately needs to keep going. I'll tell you, as a reader, we need that too.
The story keeps up a dizzying pace. Every time Raven is almost comfortable somewhere, he's moved elsewhere. He hops through time and space, reality and fiction. There are a couple of people who seem to be helpful, at the very least they have information they encourage him with even if they rarely share it. And at least one enemy that seems to dog him through more than one world.
At first glance, the cover had reminded me of the Salvador Dali art I loved so much. It's surrealism continued to draw my eye and I must say, nothing could be more well suited for the front of this book. The actual representation of course is obvious, but as with this type of artwork, the book keeps you off-balance as much as our protagonist. I spent much of the read both knowing I understood what was going on.. and somehow still feeling as if I had no idea.. because the landscape was ever shifting.
"You're smiling, Count," said Mina.
"A happy thought," he replied.
"Of torture and bloodshed?" asked Van Helsing.
"Only limited to people who annoy me..."
It's rare for me to enjoy dialogue as much as I did, but Resnick's Eddie Raven is wonderfully witty. More than once he made me laugh aloud with some smooth snarky comment and I loved the way he'd dance around truth in these other worlds.
I'd highly recommend picking up this title, particularly if you're a fan of classics like Larry Niven's 'Ringworld,' Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,' or even 'Heavy Metal' the movie.
'Cirque des Freaks and Other Tales of Horror' is a collection of short stories by Julian Lopez that all delve in and around the dark and mysterious for certain, though I didn't find all of them to read like horror. Perhaps that's just my perspective.
The anthology is fun though, the topics are fairly wide-ranging and there are some gems inside. It felt like a bit of a throwback to classic anthologies like the 'Hot Blood Series,' macabre.. but with plenty of allure.
It definitely starts with a bang. The first story, 'A Masked Camaraderie,' is an intriguing experience set at a masked ball in early 20th century Venice, where a group comes across a set of masks they don for the party that opens them up to unseen things. It's a rich mixture of sensuality and darkness, right out of the gate.. and I feel it really sets the tone for the collection.
'The Mariachi's Serenade,' is a bittersweet tale of love across generations. It has traditional ghost story elements with tragic longing intertwined throughout. What I love about this story and many in the book, is how visual they are. Lopez does a fantastic job of putting you right in the moment, letting you witness the scenes with such clarity.. I was left feeling I could easily commit them to illustrations.
"His gentle, masculine echo penetrated the narrow alleys and streets of the plaza, where all noise retired and descended into the night. It spiraled to the sky, where the stars and the endless dark surrounding them met to infinitely seal all secrets."
Likewise, as with the imagery.. he does a superb job of translating and conveying the emotions within his stories. He can write the pretty words like you see above, but he isn't so focused on them.. on trying to sound 'artistic'.. that he forgets the impact of simplicity. When he uses those terms, he uses them to his benefit and they stand out because they're infrequent.
There are a ton of really well done tales of irony and comeuppance. 'Queen of Hearts,' about someone rather spiteful and the deal they make that isn't quite what they expected. 'Loving Death,' a rather sweet story about the ferryman. The questions put to him and the result of his truthful answers, reminding me a bit of the fated glance backward in Persephone's story.
I loved 'The Mastaba of Niankhkhnum,' as well. I don't see a lot of stories set in the mythos of ancient Egypt and never one done with such a slow, seductive build. It's darkly rich and beautiful in its way.
"It yearns for my embrace because it hungers for you-- your secrets and your pose. It wants to re-create you."
My absolute favorite though.. was 'The Archangel's Canvas.' And I can sort of see, abstractly.. how one might interpret it as horror. It just didn't read that way at all to me. It read like a love story, preceded by a fall. There are these ominous warnings, but then.. perhaps because of the influence the main character is under, it just feels like bliss.
There are a couple that are a bit disappointing of course. A freakshow that has been done before, most fantastically in a 1932 black and white film, but again since, a number of times. A museum, that's a more graphic scene oriented version of 1953 cult classic film staring a master of horror. But all in all, it was a wonderful selection of stories and I truly enjoyed reading them.
The Crystal War
Bill’s boots gouged through the sand as he was dragged from the vehicle that had stolen him from the safety of his camp; the hands gripping his biceps were huge and rough. A black scarf had been wrapped over his head, covering his eyes, and a gag stuffed in his mouth.
The toes of his leather boots bumped up then down as the sand’s softness was replaced by cement underfoot. The footsteps of those who dragged him echoed and it registered; he’d been taken indoors.
Hands repositioned themselves on his arms as he was slammed backward onto a cold metal table. Struggling, he tried to yell, but no sound got past the gag. Restraints, large and cold, closed over his wrists and ankles. He bucked and kicked before feather-gentle fingers touched his temples, a sensation vastly different from the rough grip that had previously held him.
The scarf over his eyes was lifted away to reveal slender fingers. He blinked in the harsh light, waiting for his blurry vision to focus. When it did, his heart sunk, and he froze. Struggling had been futile. The woman above him was the rumored head of the New Resistance.
Bill stared into the strange, amber eyes of the woman he had heard about. Over the past few months, whispers had traveled throughout the west; rumors of her beauty and cruelty, and above all, her power: his small army of Resistance fighters had been preparing for her imminent attack.
Everything he had heard about her magnificence was true; golden eyes that sat in a perfectly structured face; tan and well-defined, but not too sharp to be feminine. White-blonde hair stood in spikes over her arched brows. Gunmetal-gray hoops in her ears reflected the light of a small crystal fragment set into a dome lamp over the table. She was dressed head to toe in utilitarian black tactical clothing, but he could still tell that her body was a work of art. He couldn’t guess her height; she seemed tall, with beautifully defined curves and a tiny waist.
“Stop staring, prisoner,” she whispered in a melodic voice. “Looking upon me can’t save you.”
Bill was in a lab, but he couldn’t see much. The halo of light from the single crystal above was dim and focused, but beyond the table he where he lay, details quickly melted into shadows. He could barely make out the hulking shapes of the men who had dragged him from his guard post; only the beautiful, terrible woman was clear. He tried to speak, but his lips fought uselessly against the fabric still in his mouth.
“Do you wish to say something?” asked the woman.
He nodded, and she removed the binding from between his dry lips—he licked them before speaking. “I’ve heard of you,” said Bill, awed. “These past couple of months, everything’s changed.”
“It has. I am changing things. And this is just the beginning.”
“Are you going to make me into one of your slaves?”
“I must have your absolute loyalty. I’ll accept nothing less.”
Bill swallowed, feeling ill with the certainty that he wasn’t going to get out of this, and he saw her smile, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking.
“Why not?” She blinked momentarily releasing him from the power behind her eyes. “You’re a good soldier; I’ve done my research. You’re exactly what I’m looking for right now. You will come and work for me, just as they have.” She made a sweeping gesture toward the men around them.
“Forgive me, Miss…”
“Forgive me, Miss Raven, but what makes you think you can you ensure my loyalty?”
“It’s just Raven,” she corrected, her expression unchanging. “And the answer is simple. It’s all about consumption.”
“Yes. Everyone is a consumer. Press the right button, and anyone’s loyalty can be controlled. Even yours, soldier.”
“My name is…”
“Not important,” she cut him off.
Bill sighed. He’d had more than enough of being controlled; given over from his foster home to the Eastern Forces, trained to mine for crystals, months of being a type ‘B’ soldier on blue compound, only to be stolen in a raid by the Resistance, and retrained as a guard, led to believe that he was at last working for a higher cause. And now this.
Raven gestured to the soldiers standing in shadow, and Bill craned his neck to try and see what was happening, only to close his eyes, feeling his stomach drop when one of the men approached, holding up a faintly glowing blue syringe.
So, more of the same, then.
“What’s his poison?” asked the man with the syringe.
“Primarily stimulants,” instructed Raven. “Food as a secondary, pre-established reinforcer.”
The man leaned closer, and Bill saw by the light of the glowing crystal fragment that he was young, with a healing but grisly-looking scab that ran the length of his left cheek, ending near his eye.
Bill jerked in his restraints, even though he knew it was futile, and gritted his teeth as the needle pierced the skin of his upper arm. The fire of the compound made its way through his blood, causing him to sigh in relief. It still felt good, every time, even after being off it for months now. It had only taken him a few weeks back at the Eastern Fortress to become addicted to the compound itself, and months for the Resistance to detox him.
Heart racing, his stimulant craving spiked. He refused to beg until the Raven girl held a small vial of pungent-smelling coffee under his nose—then he screamed with want. The compound created an itch that the right thing could scratch, and it felt so good.
“Would you like this?” she asked in a silky, taunting voice.
“Yes,” he whimpered.
“Open up, then.”
Bill opened his mouth, sick with anticipation of the bitter cordial that would bring relief to his burning blood. Every pump of his heart demanded it. He greedily swallowed the wetness on his tongue, but it didn’t taste like coffee.
He opened his eyes and saw that the Raven girl held a vial that was empty but for a glowing residue.
She’s given me Shine.
Bill stared at his tormentor. It was too late to spit out the horribly addictive drug. Gulping with a heedless greed he usually reserved for coffee, he’d swallowed a good mouthful of it.
Too much. She had him.
Knowing that Shine would quickly supersede his moral compass, he tried to hold onto his terror, his ideals; he tried to retain any part of himself. But as he looked into her expressionless eyes, he began to feel the drug taking hold. Soon, the fear faded, along with all thoughts of fleeing. The world shrunk, leaving room for her alone in his mind. His senses sharpened, overwhelmed by the power of her presence and the Shine’s euphoria.
The rest of the world faded away, and nothing else mattered but his new queen.
I will serve this woman forever.