Reviewed in the United States on May 12, 2018
Back in the old days, before the Internet and even before television, pulp horror magazines like "Weird Tales" gave many readers their first glimpse at soon-to-become masters of horror, science fiction, and fantasy like H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Today, traditional magazines of that sort are pretty much a dying breed, but a new generation of digital magazines featuring up-and-coming new writers seems well placed to replace the pulps with horror and sci fi fans. Among these digital magazines is "Tales from the Canyons of the Damned," a monthly series that's now up to over 20 issues, available separately on Amazon or in various omnibus editions. This is the third monthly issue from the series, and it shows that the editor Daniel Arthur Smith has finally achieved a digital work that’s a true successor to the pulp magazines of yore.
In the first two volumes of “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned,” Smith relied almost exclusively on his own contributions, understandable owing to the difficulty of getting established authors to provide material for a fledgling product. In this third issue, however, the four stories (the first two issues only had three apiece) include three by other authors and only one penned by Smith himself. That story, “The Tombs,” is a continuation of the Lovecraftian saga Smith began in the earlier issues in which New York City finds itself under attack by … something. Exactly what that something might be isn’t clear in “Tombs” but anyone knowing that the Tombs is the slang expression for the New York City municipal prison, where detainees are held pending trial, can pretty much guess what’s going to happen. Smith is a good, descriptive writer and does a good job establishing the mood, but the ending here is very abrupt, and “Tombs” reads more like a part of a story than a complete story.
Fortunately, the other three stories in this issue are complete. “Natural Born Alien,” by Will Swardstrom was written in 2016 and seems to have been very prescient in regard to our current politics. The title alien is Bob Walters (whose first name is short for something unpronounceable), born after his mother’s ship crashed in Area 51 and now eligible for and running for President and doing surprisingly well on a most unusual platform. Tongue is definitely in cheek here as Swardstrom’s tale is far more very effective political satire than science fiction.
Ernie Howard’s “Float” is a more traditional horror tale, something that might easily have been an episode of “Tales from the Crypt.” It’s the story of an obnoxious Wall Street up-and-comer named Josh who has a low opinion of pretty much everyone around him who isn’t as well off as he is. The one thing he does cherish is his state-of-the-art sensory deprivation tank located in the basement of his apartment building, where he spends his leisure hours in peaceful solitude. As you might guess, Josh’s snarky disdain for his fellow man comes back to haunt him in a most unusual but fitting way. Once things start to go bad for Josh, the story is quite entertaining, but the ending is a bit of a letdown.
Finally, “Ledge Town” by Jason Anspach can best be described as a post-Apocalyptic supernatural Western. The story takes place 500 years after some great cataclysm devastated most of the United States, leaving much of the West a desert inhabited in part by outlaw gangs. The leader of one such gang is a man named Harris, who knows a good bit about what really occurred a few centuries earlier, thanks to some conversations with a stranger who might be the Devil. Anspach attempts to meld three genres into one 20-page story and doesn’t quite succeed. The Western elements work fine and the author’s writing is quite evocative, but the rest of the story never quite comes together, and it reads as if it were condensed from a longer work.
Overall, this issue of “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned” contains one excellent story (“Alien”), one very good story (“Float”), and two better-than-average but somewhat flawed stories (“Tombs,” “Ledge”). But the overall magazine is better than the sum of its parts, since you’ve got four different writers with different styles and themes, and the variety of the offerings that Daniel Arthur Smith as editor has assembled captures the feel of a true anthology magazine for the first time. Even more that the first two issues, these canyons are worth exploring for fans of horror and science fiction.