Reviewed in the United States on October 18, 2019
A few years ago, there was a bit of a dust-up within the horror community over diversity and representation in anthologies. Sadly, it’s been a fairly common problem over the years and horror has largely been seen as a white man’s genre, while some editors believe it’s simply not their responsibility to seek out diverse voices. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous trope that black characters are the first to die in most horror movies. Well, women and writers of color are often the first to be completely overlooked or outright ignored when it comes time for a publisher to put together an anthology. Publishers want big names, like Stephen King or Clive Barker, in their tables of contents to help push sales, which leaves little room for new writers, let alone diverse and marginalized writers.
Frustrated by the lack of representation in horror anthologies, and wanting to create a new anthology that was welcoming new writers, Christopher Golden and James A. Moore, and publisher John M. McIlveen, organized a GoFundMe campaign in October 2016 to raise the money necessary to create The Twisted Book of Shadows. The plan was to pay the writers market rates for their short stories, as well as royalties, and to have those writers enter their stories as blind submissions. The editors and editorial committee would not know who wrote these stories until after they were chosen for inclusion, and the book would not feature any marquee names (i.e., no Stephen King, Joe Hill, or Jonathan Maberry). The editorial committee itself was composed of diverse authors, like Gabino Iglesias, Linda D. Addison, Nadia Bulkin, Rachel Autumn Deering, and others, in an effort to prevent bias when selecting the best of the best from those blind submissions. The call for authors made it clear that everyone was welcome and that this would be a level playing field for all — black, white, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ, straight, men, women, and everyone in between were not only welcomed but actively encouraged by the editors to submit.
Out of 700 submissions, 19 stories were selected for publication, 10 of which were written by women (once again disproving the archaic, ignorant, and historically false assumption that women don’t write horror), with voices from the US, UK, Northern Ireland, Canada, and India.
Given that this is a pretty sizable collection of stories, I won’t review each contribution. However, I will say that the measures the editors and publisher took in order to create a level playing field for all authors here was a clear success. Although not every story appealed to me, taken as a whole The Twisted Book of Shadows is a really strong anthology and I finished the book with a handful of favorites and a nice list of new-to-me authors whose works I’ll need to explore in the near future. This anthology has some very rich textures and flavors that help separate it from your common marque anthology, and the editors hard work is casting a wide net to capture those diverse voices paid off.
My favorite story of the bunch, no contest, is Rohit Sawant’s “Brother Mine,” narrated by the teenage Archana Kapur. Her brother, Tarsem, has a black hole in his head. This one has the most ‘out there’ concept, weaving together some light bizarro elements that grow into a really strong work of cosmic horror. Sawant brings it all to the table here, and beyond having one hell of a kick-ass premise, it’s wonderfully written and deftly executed. A couple supremely tense sequences had me gripping my Kindle for dear life, I was so absorbed by Archana’s experiments as she drops item after item into her sleeping brother’s head, and at least two instances where I sat there going “oh no, no no no, don’t do that!” The payoff to each of those moments were wonderfully realized, and the story itself speaks well to Archana’s status as an outsider, as an Indian immigrant growing up in the US. Every layer of this story flat out delivered and it’s easily one of the best in this antho.
Some other great pieces include Melissa Swensen’s “The Pale Mouth,” which opens the anthology and takes a dystopian tack to the horror elements. The world is constantly bathed in light because monsters live in the darkness. Through Layla’s eyes, we get a sense of this new iteration on an old patriarchal society, and because Layla is what’s known as a Primary, her place is in the home, monitoring the persistent sources of light for failure. If a kitchen light, or the refrigerator bulb, go out, she is held accountable, to the point that her husband regularly questions if she actually loves him and her family, or if she’s actually trying to kill all of them. There’s an intriguing The Handmaid’s Tale vibe to this one, and both the conceit of the story and the subtextual narrative about Layla’s place, and women in general, in this world raise a lot questions and provide plenty of food for thought.
“Midnight Son,” by Andrew Bourelle, uses the setting of the Alaskan wilderness to wonderful effect. Alginak is the last of his tribe and when the construction of an oil pipeline proves too disruptive, he sets off into the wild to live out his last days. No matter how far he wanders, though, he cannot escape the shadow of the white men destroying the life and land of the region he calls home. This story was absolutely superb, its focus on nature and Alignak’s connection to the land was captivating, and the supernatural elements were very subtle, which I really appreciated.
Eoin Murphy’s “The Birthing Pool” was a very effective work of occult folk horror, and although it took me a little while to sink into, it really pays off nicely. “Unto the Next” by Amanda Helms was a neat little ghost story with very well drawn teenage characters testing their wills and bravery as they stay overnight in a haunted house. This was a good read to get into the Halloween spirit!
“Mirror, Mirror” by P.D. Cacek was emotionally devastating, and the first half of it freaking wrecked me. This story was extremely dark and revolves around a parent’s death watch over their infant, who is afflicted with a rare terminal illness. This one struck some raw nerves for me and kept me emotionally on edge the whole way through, and the climax spun off into a direction I didn’t seen coming. This is a tough, difficult read, but ultimately very rewarding. Those who have lost a child or who have cared for a child with a terminal illness might want to approach this one with caution, and despite having two healthy boys that I worry over on the regular, I still found this story heart-wrenching simply because of the very realistic manner the parents featured here dealt with the loss of their little one. This was not an easy read — it’s hard hitting and nearly brought me to tears on a couple of occasions over its slim page count.
While the above-mentioned were the standout entries, the rest were pretty damn good on their own, too. Taken on the whole, The Twisted Book of Shadows was a very strong anthology, and I greatly appreciated the editors’ focus on introducing readers to potentially new talent and underrepresented writers. Golden, Moore, and McIlveen went above and beyond in their approach to soliciting and selecting the stories included here, but it’s hard work that fully paid off. It’s also a great lesson for other editors and publishers to learn from, and I do hope we see more anthologies like this hitting the market in the coming years.
[Note: I received an advance copy of this title from the editors.]