Reviewed in the United States on July 5, 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 situated to replace the pulps of old 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 some 25 issues, available separately on Amazon or in various omnibus editions. This is the fourth monthly issue from the series, and editor Daniel Arthur Smith has compiled an impressive list of contributions from several new authors to the series,
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. By the time of this fourth issue, however, the four stories include three by other authors and only one penned by Smith himself. Both Smith’s story, entitled “Eye in the Sky,” and a story written by Jon Frater, entitled “Sole Survivor,” are parts of an overall story arc begun by Smith in the first volume of “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned.” Over the course of several issues of the magazine, Smith has crafted a saga straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, in which the people of New York City find themselves under attack by … something. That something (or more precisely, those somethings) still hasn’t been made clear yet, but most of Smith’s tales in these magazines simply describe encounters between people and … something, encounters that rarely end well for the people involved. That’s what happens in “Eye in the Sky,” in which a TV news helicopter has a close encounter with the something. As with most of Smith’s stories in this arc, his writing is descriptive and suitably creepy, but “Eye in the Sky” reads more like an excerpt from a longer work than a dramatically satisfying standalone story.
“Soul Survivor” also takes place in Smith’s dystopian version of New York City, but its author, Jon Frater, has done a better job of writing an actual story, this one involving a man who holes up in a luxury high rise apartment after the attack and winds up befriending, or at least imagining he has befriended, one of the somethings that periodically appears through the thick mist outside his apartment window. The story actually succeeds as a standalone tale, one that bears a strong resemblance to Stephen King’s “The Mist,” but throws in a number of other pop culture references en route to a bittersweet ending.
The other two stories in this volume have no relationship to Smith’s story arc, or to each other. “Bloom,” by S. Elliot Brandis, is more of a fantasy than either horror or science fiction. A small native village on a tropical island has apparently survived for decades after an earlier near-catastrophe by engaging in an annual ritual in which one young woman is selected each year to take part in a “bonding ceremony” with the ocean. Although most readers will be able to guess, at least in general terms, the story’s outcome, especially for those familiar with works like “The Lottery” or “The Wicker Man,” the author reveals the full nature of the bonding ceremony in language that is quite moving and mystical. “Bloom” has the murkiest ending of any of the stories in this volume, but it’s also the best.
Finally, the volume contains “The Hereafter” by Hank Garner. This story concerns a reality TV crew on a show similar to “Mythbusters,” who go around the country exposing supposedly occult phenomena as fakes. They meet their match, however, when they visit a haunted swamp in Mississippi. Tongue is definitely in cheek here, as Garner has fun taking on reality television and the stereotypes of the rural South (as well as turning the title of his story into a pun). The ending, where the exact nature of the swamp curse is revealed, is a bit of a letdown, but the colorful descriptions of the various locals the crew encounters (including the patrons and staff of a diner called “Possum’s”) make up for the bland ending. A sidenote: most writers of a stoary like “The Hereafter” would treat the locals either as Jethro Bodine-style morons or sinister “Deliverance” rednecks. Garner does neither; these are just friendly people trying to keep the crew out of trouble.
Overall, this issue of “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned” is probably the best of the four I’ve read so far. If I were rating these stories separately, I would give “Bloom” five stars, “Soul Survivor” 4.5 stars, “The Hereafter” four stars, and “Eye in the Sky” three stars. As an editor, Daniel Smith has again proved quite adept at assembling talent, but his insistence on including works of his own that don’t quite succeed as standalone tales is the magazine’s only real drawback. Still, for fans of the creepy and the macabre, this issue of “Tales from the Canyons of the Damned” is a welcome throwback to the good old days of the pulps.