The Seven Deadliest edited by Patrick Beltran and D. Alexander Ward
Cutting Block Books (May 2019)
232 pages; $13.38 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia
Normally, an anthology based on the seven deadly sins would get a bit of a side-eye from me. I hate to say this, but my thoughts would immediately leap to contrived and cliched attempts to take “sins” and turn them into horror stories built out of shock value, nothing more.
Of course, considering this is a Cutting Block Books product, co-edited by D. Alexander Ward, and considering the contributing authors, I expected a lot more from The Seven Deadliest, and I’m pleased to say it delivered. What makes this collection work so well is the interpretation of “sins” not as “evil actions” which are then soundly “judged” in trite morality plays, but as the weaknesses and flaws we all share as humans. I’m only guessing, but this could also explain the omission of “sins” from the book’s title.
(It’s very possible much of this is touched upon in the foreword by Mercedes Yardley. Much as I love her work, I generally don’t read collection forwards, because I want to go into the stories cold. I also didn’t read the story afterwords, just because I generally don’t).
All of the stories are well-crafted and well -written, but, as it always is with collections, some stories stood out more than others.
In “A Short Madness,” Bracken MacLeod tells the poignant story of a priest burdened by the sins he encounters every day as he tries to minister to his flock, despite the fact that he’s largely lost his faith. Like so many of us, this priest struggles with a growing anger over the injustice which thrives in our world. He wants to do something about it, despite his priestly orders to have faith in the Lord’s justice, not man’s.
When someone he’d grown close to dies in a drunken driving accident, he’s offered the chance to avenge their deaths…though it will mean giving in to his anger and wrath, as he seeks to take justice into his own hands. In this story, MacLeod does a wonderful job portraying someone whose faith has grown weary bearing the burdens of the world. Back in my college days I briefly considered a life in ministry, and I can very easily see myself growing weary carrying that same burden.
“Chisel and Stone” by Bryan Kirk offers a very nuanced look at “jealousy,” and is also very timely in its subject matter. The young, attractive wife of a rich lawyer is determined to “do” something “worthwhile” with her life. Realizing she lives a life of plenty, she wants to give back to the world…but of course, the problem is, all the other rich wives do so many impressive, splashy looking “good deeds.” What could she possibly do which would be worthwhile…and more worthwhile than their endeavors?
Here’s the clever hook with this story: Where’s the jealousy angle? Is Tracy’s determination to engage in some great philanthropic act genuine? Or does she simply want to one-up the “good works” of her fellow rich wives? Is her husband jealous of her good intentions, or jealous of something else? Are her friends really so racist…or are they subtly jealous of her kindness and empathy?
And the subject matter—taking in a young Arabic man wrongfully imprisoned without trial for suspected terrorist ties, and the racist hatred this sparks in Tracy’s community—couldn’t be more timely for the fear-laden world we live in. This is my first exposure to Kirk’s work, and rest assured, I’ll be seeking out more of it.
“Ring of Fire” by Richard Thomas—which tackles “lust”—is by far my favorite story in this collection and, in my opinion, the most skillfully rendered. First of all, like all the other stories, Thomas doesn’t give us a clichéd horror story about someone’s sexual urges leading them to a grisly death. However, this is Richard Thomas we’re talking about. I knew he wouldn’t lean on cliches going in.
Instead, he tackles the intersection of loneliness, guilt, shame, grief, the desire for companionship, and, yes—sexuality. But sexuality through the lens of longing for companionship, for physical comfort and belonging, for intimate connection. I’m not going to say anything else about this story, except that lots of folks claim to write “science fiction/horror” blends, but few get it right. Thomas gets it extremely right in this.
As another side-note: several years ago I read an excellent science fiction anthology edited by late great Alan Ryan called Perpetual Light. The collection’s focus was speculative fiction stories dealing with faith, spirituality, religion, divinity, and other elements of belief. “Ring of Fire” felt like it would’ve fit right into this collection, and, considering the names in Perpetual’s TOC, that’s a compliment in itself.
Finally is John F. D. Taff’s take on “gluttony,” “All You Care to Eat.” Lisa—an overweight woman tired of fighting her desire to eat, tired of her family’s well-intention interventions—makes one last desperate attempt to lose weight, visiting a doctor recommended to her by her equally desperate mother.
Instead of the expected admonitions against over-eating and the advice about physical exercise and diet she expects, however, she receives the odd instruction to eat as much of her favorite food that she wants. Amazingly enough…she loses weight. And then, her doctor gives her even stranger advice: the key to losing all the weight she wants is to “eat what you love.” Not food that she loves. But what she loves.
I don’t need to go any further. You can read for yourself what helps Lisa lose the weight she desires. Once again, this story provides us a different twist on “gluttony.” In a clumsy rendering, you would expect a character to suffer terribly because of their physical appetites, Se7en style, in a clichéd story about overeating. Instead, Taft offers us a weird, bizarre rumination about a strange desire to consume the things we love the most.
Again, all the stories in this collection where well-written. These were just the ones which spoke to me the most. Highly recommended reading.