Never Wake edited by Kenneth W. Cain and Tim Meyer
Crystal Lake Publishing (September 2023)
314 pages; $16.99 paperback; $5.99 e-book
Reviewed by R.B. Payne
All the stories in this anthology are let-me-horrify-you good. Some are visceral, some are psychological, some are spiritual, and some are simply LET ME GIVE YOU A TOUR OF MY NIGHTMARE.
I enjoyed every single story in the anthology, which is rare for a tome of this size. Kenneth W. Cain and Tim Meyer are to be complimented for curating a thematic set of stories that can universally throw fear of sleep into every reader.
Whether it’s a malevolent spirit, a haunted house, or an abusive familial dream, we expect stories by Philip Fracassi, Gwendolyn Kiste, and Steve Rasnic Tem to deliver superbly crafted tales, which they do with force and fury.
However, I want to call out four of my favorites in Never Wake, and these are not in any order. They all deserve 5 out 5 shrieks!
“Prayers to Chthonic Gods” by Lyndsay E. Gilbert: Eldritch horror, yes, bring it on. This well-crafted and disturbing tale begins with the ethereal, and yet disquieting, sentence”Somnus grows his own harem.” And the concept of the “butterfly girls” would have roped me into this narrative even if the first sentence hadn’t already accomplished its goal.
In this dream/story, we are observers in a nightscape, where an ancient ritual is taking place. All will not go as planned. This is a tale worthy of Lovecraft… had he been born 30 years ago and had modern-day sensibilities. Or, mythically, it might have been told around a sparking fire in ancient Greece. It’s a dark tale with a shred of light. It flows and grows and twists and turns; the imagery is strong, the language unique. “Prayers to Chthonic Gods” will stick with me for years and years.
“Thank You for Participating” by TJ Cimfel: In this tale, a sleep-challenged man volunteers for the Gardner Empirical Institute’s Sleep Study (perhaps you’ve heard of it? Or perhaps you’ve participated? If so, did you submit your survey on time?)
Reminiscent of the stories of David Ely, this narrative horrifyingly zigzags between a dream-state waking-nightmare and our very own real-life experiences with corporations and customer service. The tension in this story escalated until I wanted to dial up and scream at every call center and customer helpline I’ve ever been put on hold by. Survey by survey, this story is a puzzle which turns into a chiller. It’s a slow burner, getting hotter than hell minute-by-minute, and the resolution will blow your mind.
“Arminggrabber” by Joe Koch: In this wickedly horrid little story, a group of post-blast survivors try to find salvation when they activate a machine they don’t understand. Like all bad choices, there are terrifying consequences.
I loved “Arminggrabber” and I’m not sure I get it completely. You know, just like those dreams that chase you to waking only to have you go “what the f— was that all about?” This little tale is full of nightmarish shifts and gruesome imagery, all which swirl in the madness that is dreaming. It’s original and dares to stay within its paradigm.
“Labyrinthine” by Michael Bailey: And, finally, with full disclosure that I know and have worked with Michael Bailey in the past… and striving to eliminate any and all favoritism…his story rang a bell for me and I wanted to overlook our friendship and simply say that he wrote a hell of a good story.
To me, thematically, this subtle tale is about the difficulties of creating art –– in this case, music. Lacking direct action, “Labyrinthine” demands that you read and think, and then assemble the terror yourself. I don’t want to say more other than I would like to have a copy of the finalized sheet music… especially if dotted with blood, if blood it was.
In summary, all of these stories weave seamlessly together in a fantastic compendium of “if you can dream it, well, it will probably happen to you.”
Kudos to Crystal Lake for another excruciatingly horror-fueled anthology. If I were a horror fan (and I am), I’d order Never Wake immediately and stay up all night to read it. Because you’ll never want to dream again. Or worse yet… you may never want to wake. Or be able to.