Behold! Oddities, Curiosities, and Undefinable Wonders edited by Doug Murano
Crystal Lake Publishing (July 2017)
280 pages; $16.99 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Chad Lutzke
This is Crystal Lake Publishing’s second anthology with Doug Murano acting as editor—the first being Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. It’s also their second anthology that brought in some very big names, which no doubt aided in healthy sales, securing a nice spot at the top of Amazon’s anthology charts. The ironic thing is, those big names (Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and Ramsey Campbell) brought the weakest stories to an otherwise very solid collection.
I like that.
Don’t get me wrong, the veterans’ contributions don’t fail to deliver, but they certainly aren’t the main course. More like the attractive hors d’oeuvres that bring the masses, luring readers in to get a taste of newer blood.
What’s to be expected in an anthology is that not every story is going to hit the mark. This collection is no different; however, the stories I put on the bottom of the list don’t feel like filler, they just don’t scratch that itch for me. I should point out that I’ve peeked at what others are saying in reviews, and there are readers enjoying the few pieces that weren’t as memorable for me. And to me, that’s a well-rounded book.
Some standouts for me? Brian Kirk’s “Wildflower, Cactus, Rose.” Kirk wrote the most memorable story in Gutted, and he brings that same heart-wrenching look at a woman who’s going through something none of us can relate to. Here, a woman suffers the disfiguring consequences of reconstructive surgery, with the result becoming a hidden blessing and a change of perspective for both her and her daughter. The most impressive part of this story—other than the underlying message that comes to light by the end—is Kirk’s ability to make this young female narrator believable. Kirk’s female voice is convincing and never strained. Kudos.
“The Baker of Millepoix” by Hal Bodner is not an easy read. It contains all the language and style one would expect from a period piece, but as the story unwinds we’re taken on an entertaining venture as a baker creates goods that contain a special ingredient giving divine properties to the food. The popularity of the shop rises as the baker struggles to keep up with demand. But for them, he’ll do anything.
“A Ware That Will Not Keep” by John F.D. Taff. Quite possibly the most unique story in the bunch. Great use of a nonfiction setting that we’re all familiar with but with an otherworldly component. A man held captive in a Nazi concentration camp slowly creates a living golem made of clay—using mud and the ashes of the dead—with the hope that it will help him and every other innocent soul there to escape the clutches of those who oppress them. The instructions given to the golem? To kill everyone against him and not to let him die. The creature is a dedicated servant to the extreme.
“Knitter” by Christopher Coake is a tale regarding hidden creatures that are responsible for the life and death of things, their creation and destruction. This one is heartbreaking and reminds me of a long lost fairy tale—a fantastical story of origins with a somber creep factor.
“Through Gravel” by Sarah Read. With so much to explore, this one could have easily been much longer. But it sits well as a short piece, too. An underground society who call themselves the Kindred grow flowers and offer them up through the cracks in the city above for those seeking something more out of life. Those people are pulled down where they join the endless search for more Kindred. Very interesting concept with a great underlying message—a common theme for most of the stories in Behold!—those meaningful statements that linger deep under the horror and the gore, the unpleasant and the disturbing.
Others worth mentioning are “Earl Pruitt’s Smoker” by Patrick Freivald and “The Shiny Fruit of Our Tomorrows” by Brian Hodge
For me, the greatest thing about this anthology is what I stated above–the lesser known authors are not carried by the veterans but proudly skip ahead, leading the way. And while the anthology is lightly themed, none of these bits are similar in any way other than offering solid entertainment in exchange for your time.