Review: Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories by Emily B. Cantaneo

Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories by Emily B. Cantaneo
Trepidatio Pub (May 2017)
203 pages; $13.55 paperback; $3.95 e-book
Reviewed by Kevin Lucia

Reading Emily Cantaneo’s short fiction collection Speaking to Skull Kings is a wonderfully surreal trip into the fantastic unknown. The stories collected straddle all sorts of genres. Each take place in their own universes—realms far stranger than our own, or perhaps only slightly askew of our reality—with their own sets of rules, their own logic. There’s plenty of humanity here, however, and that’s what gives them their power.

Out of the collection, the standouts for me were:

“Speaking to Skull Kings”—The collection’s title story features a strange and almost alien world seemingly in the throes of post-apocalyptic devastation. In fact—not to crib too much from the King of Horror—this story takes place in a world that’s “moved on.” There’s a wonderful blend of fantasy and just the hint of science fiction in this, and the terrible secret of just WHAT the skull kings are, looming at the story’s end.

“A Guide to Etiquette and Comportment for the Sisters of Henley House”—A classic supernatural tale about the difficulty of letting go, told in a way which doesn’t feel derivative at all.

“The Rondelium Girl of Rue Marseilles”—A powerful and moving science fantasy story (a term the late Ray Bradbury used to describe his collection The Martian Chronicles, and I have a feeling he would’ve loved this story) about the price of hubris, of the desperate lengths people will go to create something beautiful, no matter what the cost.

“The Ghosts of Blackwell, Maine”—Another great supernatural story, again featuring the classic theme of holding onto something too tightly, but flipped from the perspective of the living holding onto the dead. A gentler version of John Mantooth’s wonderful short story “Shoebox Trainwreck” in which the dead don’t haunt the living, the living haunt the dead.

“The Heart-Machine”—Another fantastical post-apocalyptic tale about a world in which emotion has died and people can only experience feeling through mystical/technological means, featuring once again a classic theme of holding too tightly to those we love, and the lengths we go to keep those we love close to us.

“The City Dreams of Bird-Men”—Another wonderful genre blend, featuring a city plagued by Darkness, a city whose people dream of their saviors the bird men, and the high price one pays for working magic—even if it’s to save one’s own people.

“Hungry Ghosts”—Probably the most wrenching story of the collection, in it’s own way. On one level, another classic ghost story, of a family condemned to eternally feed innocent souls to hungry ghosts, and the teenage daughter who desperately wants to break the cycle of madness she’s been born into…but when she’s wronged in a very relevant and social media way, she gives into the family “tradition” gladly.

In this collection, Emily Cataneo offers a brand of fantastic and weird fiction that belongs entirely to her and no one else. Highly recommended.

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