Top positive review
Absolutely judge this book by it's cover. Then step inside for the real show
Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2017
Absolutely judge this book by its cover. It’s human nature to do so, no matter what we say to the contrary. Just as it’s human nature to want to see the freak show. This cover is a big top, drawing us in. Gorgeous. Intriguing. Inviting. The Fancy Pants announcer, standing outside the tent, demands our attention, “BEHOLD!” he says, “Oddities, Curiosities, and Undefinable Wonders!” So we enter, punching a ticket to pull back the curtain. Escaping one world of freaks to enter another.
But what this book does better than any I’ve read in years is to bring such conflicting stories together and let them flow as stops on a great journey, never feeling as distant from one another as they are. They are the attractions as we make our way through the big top, forever on the quest for something new to astonish our senses and let us feel as though we are normal – if only for a moment. Finding the similarities between such different stories and creating a path between them is almost a superpower for Editor Doug Murano. We’ve seen it in his past works (Shadows Over Main Street and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories), but Murano takes it to another level with this offering and creates a literary tour through the minds of some of the hottest names in horror today.
We begin with the Oddities. Our first stop, Lisa Morton’s “LaRue’s Dime Museum,” is the exact sort of story you would expect in this collection. It features an Inside Out Man, a tentacled accomplice and a woman who can contort into any shape. But the aberrations are perspective; and we are quickly reminded the view can change depending on the lens.
In fact, the belief that the view can change runs directly into the next entry, Brian Kirk’s “Wildflower, Cactus, Rose,” where we find that the world is a mirror. What you put into it is often what you’ll take out of it and some people will go to great lengths to protect the beauty they brought into the world.
Speaking of getting out what you put in, the main character in Hal Bodner’s “The Baker of Millepoix,” loses the love of his life, but finds a passion for helping people. Henri pours himself into helping others, no matter how much of himself he loses in the process. When you have a gift like Henri does, it would be a sin not to share it with the world.
Jaqueline Ess also has a gift to share with the world, but it is not one her recipients get to enjoy for long. Clive Barker (he made a few small things like Hellraiser, Candyman, and Gods and Monsters) brings us “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament.” This story is right up there with his other works; perhaps it’s even more sinister in some respects. It’s the story of a woman who degrades herself to gain power over the powerful.
We are greeted with Stephanie M. Wytovich’s poem, “An Exhibition of Mother and Monster.” Later, we encounter a second poem by Wytovich entitled, “As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party.” The two poems serve almost as bridge between the sections of the book, bringing us from Oddities to Curiosities and from there to the Undefinable Wonders. Each is a handcrafted masterpiece of poetry, calling to mind that Fancy Pants announcer who wants us to move on and see the next attraction.
The Curiosities abound, beginning with a garden gnome who prefers to remain outside. John Langan’s “Madame Painte: For Sale” wins the distinction of containing my favorite death in this anthology. It was the type of story I anticipated going into the book, but I was rewarded with so much more than I’d expected from it. This typical haunted doll story is anything but typical, as even people who know her story can’t wait to take her home. I suggest letting her stay outside, though.
Next, we stumble directly into an antiques store to find another treasure to bring home. Neil Gaiman (Yes, THAT Neil Gaiman; creator of Sandman, American Gods, and Neverwhere) brings us “Chivalry,” the story of an elderly woman who happens to find the Holy Grail. When Sir Galaad requests it back, he finds that some treasure is worthless and some trash is priceless. Only in understanding what the elderly woman finds worthwhile will he gain the treasure he seeks.
One of the most decorated horror writers of all time, Ramsey Campbell, pops in to frighten us with “Fully Boarded.” His protagonist finds something he definitely doesn’t want to bring home; but oh how he longs to get back there. Campbell weaves a story of several layers of isolation that grab you by the wrist and never let go.
At first glance, “In Amelia’s Wake” seems to have one of the most choreographed climaxes in this book, but Erinn L. Kemper flips it on its side and beats us with it. Only when the tragedy telegraphed from the very first paragraph occurs does the real horror begin. Kemper subjects every character in this story to tragedy and makes each not only memorable, but relatable. This story was a slow burn, but the scars it left on my psyche have brought me back to it several times in the last week.
John F.D. Taff brings us a tale of man seeking vengeance and survival in “A Ware That Will Not Keep.” He finds both, but not without consequences. As is often the case, revenge can get out of hand quickly. The price Lev pays may leave him a prisoner long after he’s found his freedom.
Step this way for a moment and meet Jamie, a woman who will also learn the price of revenge. In Patrick Freivald’s “Earl Pruitt’s Smoker,” Jamie gives in to hive mentality to commit her crime, but she finds the guilt that accompanies it can be too much for one individual to live with.
The final exhibit in the Curiosities section, Lucy A. Snyder slips us some “Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummies” laced with the dreams, guilt, and sorrows of her main character’s life. This tale of a woman retracing her life’s steps with a little help from her friends dug into my soul and wouldn’t let go, long after the effects of the trip wore off.
We move into the Undefinable Wonders and it becomes more than apparent that many of these stories straddle a fine line between sections. How Murano decided for sure where they should sit is a mystery I’ll never understand, but I’ll argue to the death that he chose correctly. This is certainly the case with Brian Hodge’s “The Shiny Fruit of Our Tomorrows” which tells the tale of two drifters riding the rails in search of something but finding what they’re looking for doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for everyone involved.
Charlotte Pratchett continuously plants the seeds for her future, but none of them find purchase until the events of Kristi DeMeester’s “The Wakeful” unfold. This story dug deep into my psyche and produced a monster I didn’t expect, but fully appreciated. DeMeester’s style and tone bring this story to another level, grounding it in a familiar reality when nothing about this should be normal.
In every collection of stories – as in every circus, in every freak show – there is one attraction that resonates with you more than any other. While it probably won’t be the same for you, the one that did it to me was Christopher Coake’s “Knitter.” This story weaves the most tragic story while showing the undying love between two people who were practically made for one another. I have been thinking about their loss for weeks now. I hope I never stop. That’s all I can tell you about this, because I don’t want to create any expectations or allow your own sense of wonder to disappear with this one.
Sarah Read’s “Through Gravel” brings us a new society not so far removed from our own, but different as night and day. A subterranean society picks a new member, but will she signal a new beginning as they hope or bring about the very destruction they long to escape? And will she ever make it home?
Speaking of home, it’s almost time to leave the Freak Show and head home ourselves.
But just where is home? That’s the question at the very heart of Richard Thomas’s “Hiraeth.” The word itself is defined as a yearning or nostalgia for a home to which we can never return. A home that, perhaps, never existed. Jimmy has a home, but it’s not the home that calls to him. It’s not the home he wants. It’s not where the love of his life is. It’s not where he hangs his heart. On a search for that home – the one he desires – Jimmy can’t resist the forbidden fruit and gives in to his weaknesses. He will have to deal with the consequences and one of those consequences just might be losing something he never got to have.
This book is an absolute tribute to how great the horror industry is right now. With a mix of the all-time greats, relative newcomers, and the hottest attractions hitting the scare scene at the moment, Behold! does what so few books could do thematically – it makes each attraction the absolute star of the show while allowing them as a team to make one another shine.
5/5 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED