Dark Tales of Sorrow and Despair by Jack Darby
Independently Published (November 2021)
337 pages; $14.99 paperback; $2.99 e-book
Reviewed by R.B. Payne
Many of you know I relocated to Paris, France in 2018. Here, I am connecting with like-minded authors who specialize in dark fiction whether it be horror, thriller, or science fiction. These writers are a diverse group living in Spain, Iceland, Italy, Germany, Romania, Belgium, France, Denmark, Poland, Ireland, Lithuania, and Austria, to mention a few.
These “European Dark Fiction Writers” bring a vastly different perspective to their stories because here, amongst the charming castles and ancient battlefields, history is old… very, very old. Wounds and fears are centuries or eons deep, yet some primordial scars are still oozing fresh blood. The creatures that lurk just beyond the shadows in the cities and forests and mountains of Europe may not be quite so recognizable as the ones you think you already know.
These works may not breach English-speaking markets on a regular basis but are worth your time. That’s why I want to review them for you. So, you can seek them out.
Over the next year, I will be profiling many of these European-centric writers and their works.
Let’s begin with a review of Dark Tales of Sorrow and Despair by Jack Darby, a writer who has been called “Romania’s answer to Stephen King” and “A Master of Romanian Horror.”
Originally published in Romania, Dark Tales of Sorrow and Despair by Jack Darby (the pen name of Ciprian Mitoceanu) gives us a glimpse of life where human spirits have been darkened by lifetimes of struggle and oppression… a place where small mistakes bring militiamen to your home or police (who support the bureaucratic power structure) to your office.
Not showing up to an audit review or forgetting a document — you must be hiding something. Saying that you’re NOT HIDING SOMETHING means you ARE hiding something. Saying that you ARE hiding something… well, that leads to even darker places. Combining this world with supernatural horrors that rise to torment people… you have the basis for some very disturbing stories.
This book contains five tales, each of them a long narrative, slowly building to a gut-punch. I have my favorites, but since there are only five, I will say a few words about each.
“Little Mothers” — This story starts with a child’s simple question. “Where do the dolls come from?” A simple question until you consider that it’s a cold winter’s day and, to quote from the story, “From one shore to the other, stretching for miles and miles, the river was packed full of thousands of small pink bodies.”
This was one of my two favorite tales — the imagery was bewitching, the pacing measured, and the resolution…well, you must read it. I was emotionally disturbed by this story, and even now, it gives me the shivers.
“Gipsy Gift” — On a dark (but not stormy) night, an ex-con confronts a gipsy (also an ex-con) who has a special power. Their paths had crossed in the dark hole known as Jilava prison. The meeting is not an accident, and the ex-con wants the “Papa” Alistar, the aging gipsy, to do him a favor. The gipsy is reluctant, but a double-barreled shotgun is going to induce him to provide a very particular service. In the vein of a be-careful-of-what-you-ask-for story, this one has a few twists that will keep you turning the page.
“Self-Adjustment Mechanism” — A very low-key plague effectively wipes out humankind, leaving us with a couple of survivors and a tender love story. Of course, it’s not really a simple love story and anything like an extinction-level event for humans will have unexpected consequences. With fur.
“From a Mother’s Heart” — For me, this was the most emotional piece in the book, and isn’t that what horror is all about? Yet, at the core of this story is love. A single woman in a small Romanian village comes to care for, and raise, an infant girl, as her own. Fighting against the innuendo and vitriol of family and neighbors and co-workers, she struggles to happily raise a daughter. Then, everything begins to unravel. What will a mother do to save her child? This story poses the question — and answers it.
If I haven’t made it clear, this is my favorite piece in the collection.
“Tapiolocas — A Little Piece of Heaven” — This story starts with a quote that immediately had my attention because it didn’t seem to describe “a little piece of heaven.”
“Welcome to the cement monster that feeds on human flesh and blood.”
—Writing on a wall at El Dorado Prison
Even the most hardened criminals in the most hated prisons in the world can experience fear… terrifying fear. When a gringo singer falls afoul of the law and ends up with a long sentence, he discovers that there are worse things than being incarcerated with killers and crime lords. There are monsters among the beasts… but there may be a way to stay alive.
Dark Tales of Sorrow and Despair is not all darkness, but Jack Darby effectively explores the human condition while infusing it with horror and terror. There are wonderful glimmers of hope and life woven into these stories but have no doubt, these stories touch shadowy places in human experience.
For those that haven’t read much foreign fiction, please be advised that each culture has different storytelling conventions. These tales, lovingly crafted by Mr. Darby, reflect his culture. There are some disturbing images that are not frequently examined in English-language fiction. That’s because Romanian, (or Irish, or Spanish, or Norwegian, for that matter) cultures have different histories and this provides diverse fears and terrors to be examined. Reading these tales from another place is both exhilarating as well as you may learn how others see the world.
The writing style of Mr. Darby is a combination of classic horror, traditional literature, and modern bestseller. The cadence of the language, as translated, is different than English but once you settle in, you’re in for a great read.
I highly recommend that you seek out this volume — it’s easy to support the author by purchasing the book or accessing it via your Kindle.
Lastly, I hope you enjoy learning about new authors from another place. The horror and dark fiction scene is very alive in Europe. The voices here are young and old, fresh and reflective. In their stories you will find supernatural horrors of the past, the human anguish of the present, and unknown terrors of the future.
Embrace the fear!
Three-Question Interview with Jack Darby (Ciprian Mitoceanu) conducted by R.B. Payne
CEMETERY DANCE: Ciprian, you’ve been a writer for quite a while. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to the dark fiction/horror genre? How did you get started?
CIPRIAN MITOCEANU: I was born in communist Romania, in a society where everything was under control, including the thoughts of the citizen. The literature was scarce and of poor quality, subservient to the interests of the regime. Thus, most of the heroes in the books read as children were communists dedicated to the cause. History was falsified, and translations were few and far between.
For those who did not live in Romania at that time, it is hard to believe that there were forbidden books, the possession of which could lead to a fine or even imprisonment. Thus, many books from the West (especially the United States) were translated clandestinely and read in notebooks, with no chance of being printed. And, as I said, reading was risky … The most sought-after such manuscripts (handwritten books, because owning an unauthorized typewriter was a crime in communist Romania) were SF and Horror.
Most Romanians claimed that there were “horror books,” but there were too few who could boast that they held such a thing in their hands. Obviously, the fact that horror literature was banned does not mean that the need for thrilling reading had disappeared, on the contrary … the information was controlled by the state, the press censored, so, according to propaganda, in Romania, there were no serial killers or other serious crimes, but certain rumors circulated, often far more appalling than the facts from which they had begun.
As a result, urban legends flourished during that time. There was a lot of talk about black cars, criminals sneaking into people’s homes, and kidnapping children. Many places had a bad reputation, the supernatural stories were at home. We were inventing stories with ghosts and apparitions to scare each other. It was a great time from this point of view.
In 2000, when I was in the military, I discovered Stephen King’s books. I started with what I had to start with, namely Carrie, Christine, and The Shining. And then I realized that in Romanian urban folklore there are many themes that have never been exploited from a literary point of view. Basically, a whole realm to explore and exploit. Until then, I had written historical novels and science fiction. After discovering Stephen King, I realized that horror literature deserves a chance.
Of all the novels and stories that you’ve written, which one is your favorite? And which one would you recommend to a first-time reader of your work?
It’s pretty hard to choose something. However, I would start with Fatal Mistake, which is available on Amazon. The novel is based on a real case, which happened two decades ago in Romania. A terrifying case, which made a splash in the international press at the time.
I don’t want to reveal more because it would mean destroying the pleasure of reading. The police intervened before things became truly tragic, but the question came to my mind: What would have happened if the individual who inspired me in the creation of Piotr Ivanovich had been ignored by the authorities even after the case exploded in the press, including in the US? This is because in Romania the police investigate slowly, many crimes could have been prevented if the law enforcement officers had intervened in time. And the answer to this question has become a book that has received only positive reviews in Romania.
I would also recommend books from the Dawson Dystopian Universe. Unfortunately, they can only be found in Romanian at the moment.
Can you tell us a bit about your next project? What are you working on now?
I am always involved in a literary project, but I manage to complete very few of the projects I started. If I feel that something is wrong, if I have the impression that the story doesn’t catch on, I’d rather give up than finish a novel just because I started it and it’s based on a great idea. It is not enough for the idea alone to be good; it takes a lot more for a good story.
I am currently working on selecting stories for a new volume of Dark Tales and People of the Blue Planet and Blood from the Stars, two SF novels. Eternal questions: Who are we? Who are they?
I am also working on a horror story “Proof of Manhood” inspired by medieval chronicles.
Thank you very much!
© 2022 by R. B. Payne