Review: Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets edited by Eugene Johnson

Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets edited by Eugene Johnson
Crystal Lake Publishing (October 2018)
570 pages; $18.99 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Dave Simms

Sometimes an anthology accomplishes what it sets out to do and nails the concept perfectly. That doesn’t happen often in the glut of tired, generic tomes with the same old names rehashing the same old tropes and writing. But, what if someone suggested using those tropes in an alternate history, utilizing some of the most famous names, monsters, and personalities in the genre and creating fantastic tales that run the gamut from fun and entertaining to chilling and all-out weird?

Eugene Johnson and Crystal Lake Publishing gathered some of horror’s biggest names to pair up with newer talents and produce nearly 600 pages of great storytelling. This will surprise no one who is familiar with Crystal Lake Publishing, which churns out one quality product after another and can claim to be one of the top three presses today. Tony “Candyman” Todd introduces the anthology, which sort of says it all and speaks volumes for the tone of many of the stories between the covers.

While every single story has something special to offer — something extremely rare in a book — there are a few standouts that need some extra love here.

“Unpretty Monster” details the real reason behind the sinking of the Titanic. Mercedes Yardley has been a standout in the new breed of horror and this one is great in its speculation, execution, and style.

Beth Massie seems incapable of penning a bad story, and while she takes on a subject that is pretty out there compared to the well-known subjects and characters within this book, her ghost story works and will disturb the reader with a smile. “The London Encounter” by Vince Liaguno would normally not fit into this reviewer’s wheelhouse, but the writer encapsulates the later life of Judy Garland (and a Faustian deal with a character not quite expected) with style and wit.

“Scent of Flesh” by Jessica Marie Baumgartner  focuses on Annie Oakley and her battle with otherworldly creatures in a story that is just out there enough but keeps one foot on the ground. Easily one of the standouts in the collection. Other reviewers have noted that “Mutter,” by Jess Landry, is their favorite story in the book. They are dead on with this opinion. First, the story about the Hindenburg crash is chilling. The characters make the horrific gears go and her execution here is perfect. It will likely be included in those “best of” compilations, if there’s any justice in the voting world.

Of course, there’s the reprint of Joe Lansdale’s “Bubba Ho-Tep.” Many folks have seen in the movie but haven’t read the source material. It’s definitely worth the read and very different from his other stories, which is tough to accomplish. Ending the anthology is Neil Gaiman’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” a not so subtle nod to Bowie that hits all the right notes and delves between them as well, creating its own key.

The other stories should not be dismissed at all, as there was not a clunker in the bunch, and every reader will gravitate towards something the calls to them.  

Prediction: this highly recommended book will be on the final Stoker list, and other lists, with great reason.

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