Few realize that the term “anthology” — which we use to denote collections of short stories by different authors, usually following a shared theme or genre — comes for the Greek word for “flower-gathering.” Corpse Blossoms, the first volume in a series of anthologies from the new horror publisher, Creeping Hemlock Press, is more than just a collection of some dead leaves — it’s like an amazingly fulfilling chilled salad. Or should I say a very full, chilling salad? Either way, it’s fiction with an earthy, dark flavor in every bite. And though I’m more than satisfied by the meal, I can’t wait till they toss together their next dish.
Edited by Julia and RJ Sevin, Corpse Blossoms will immediately strike you as a different kind of horror anthology the second you hold it in your hands. If an anthology is a flower-gathering, then the editors have arranged these twisted clippings into a very distinctive bouquet. First off, there’s something inherently gentle about the package — from the charcoal image of the funeral flower on its gray front cover to the high quality green bindings and pastel cover with a copper foil stamp. Usually I don’t judge a book by its cover, but when I examine a new publisher’s first offering, I am interested in the investment they put into the quality and I can’t help but judge whether or not they really know what they’re doing based on the book’s production value, in addition to its general aesthetic unity. This book sends a message: the stories you’re about to read are high quality. And the book has a distinctive character. Corpse Blossoms evinces a soft horror mood that’s really somewhat eerie — like a thing found abandoned in a mortuary, yet quivering with a life all its own.
So do the stories match the quality and character of the book? Are they, in the publisher’s words, “tales of quiet terror and screaming fear by some of the finest authors in the field”? Indeed, for the most part, they are, and though there were many fine horror anthologies published this past year (indeed, we may be experiencing a horror anthology renaissance), Corpse Blossoms holds its own as one of the finest horror anthologies to come out this season.
One of the most interesting elements of the book is the dictum in the foreword, which begs the reader to “read these exceptional stories in the order that they appear for full effect…this is no lottery.” Corpse Blossoms has twenty-four stories, many by longstanding and reputable writers in the horror genre (Gary Braunbeck, Tom Piccirilli, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Steve Rasnic Tem) and many by writers who have made a noticeably significant splash in the horror scene since the turn of the Millennium (Kealan Patrick Burke, Scott Nicholson, Darren Speegle, Bev Vincent, Nick Mamatas, Steve Vernon, Brian Freeman). The fiction is generally harder in tone than you might expect, given the gentility of the packaging. In the stories themselves, the “quiet terror” usually stems from a character whose reality has started splitting apart at the seams, and the writers ratchet up the creep-outs until everything erupts in a moment of “screaming fear” — and for some, explosive gore — in an emotionally powerful way.
I can’t talk about all of the tales, but let me share my thoughts about three that really stuck with me, to give you a sense of the book’s range.
One of the weirdest pieces in this is collection is “The Last Few Curls of Gut Rope” by Steve Vernon. The title is a tad bit misleading, because Vernon’s tale is really a surrealist piece rather than a gorefest (though you won’t be entirely disappointed in the climax if a little gut-wrenching splat is what you’re seeking when you read this one). What makes “Gut Rope” surreal? Well, if you’ve ever read my short-short story, “Domestic Fowl,” then this is “Domestic Fowl” to the 20th power. It’s about a guy who orders eggs at a restaurant and is served a live squawking chicken (“You asked for eggs,” the waitress says, “but the chicken comes first.”) And then it just gets weirder and weirder, playing off the familiar chicken-and-egg formula by “dishing out” many absurdist moments and encounters, until it reaches its bizarrely-feathered conclusion. Vernon is gaining a reputation for his humorous voice, and though this story does not disappoint in that regard, it also reveals a layer of psychological depth underpinning his fiction that is getting deeper and more profound than in the past. It’s one of his best tales yet.
Another wildly-imagined contribution to the collection comes from Bentley Little, whose opening paragraph is probably the most creatively hilarious of the book:
He found it in a shack in the desert, a horrible thing of jellyfish and claws, scales and squid, bound into shape by strands of dark kelpy seaweed. It was sitting in the center of the rotted wood floor, and under his gaze it shifted, moved, tried to slink away beneath a sandy bench, all the while making a hideous squeaking squelching sound.
‘Dad?’ he said.
This is from Little’s “Finding Father,” a quirky and emotionally disturbing tale about a trucker who is hunting down his father, who, it seems, is leaving a trail for him to follow in the form of bathroom stall graffiti. The premise of this one is a little hard to swallow, but that’s almost universally true of Bentley Little’s short stories. Little always ambitiously pushes the envelope of horror fiction and writes horror with a contagious sense of frenetic glee that inevitably takes you on such a ride that you not only forgive the absurdity behind his stories, but also gladly join him in his playground of the unreal. This story had me at “jellyfish and claws.” They latched onto me and I went along for an outrageous descent into terror.
I love stories like these; tales that go over the top in a quest for unconscious thrills. Their unsettling humor pushes you over the edge and into some psychic state of disbelief akin to madness. Corpse Blossoms is at its best when it delves into the psychological — rather than supernatural — side of horror. And it doesn’t just go for the outre…or the darkly funny. Many of these stories, particularly those early in the book, evoke the eerie mood of dark fantasy, working to unhinge the reader’s confidence in conventional reality. And the book hosts some shining treasures in this regard. For example, Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Empathy” — one of the longer pieces in the book — ratchets the terror up in sharp increments that build like the tension of a lug wrench tightening a nut bit by bit up to its breaking point. In this exceptionally well-developed story, a man is so emotionally scarred by watching a torture scene on the internet (just out of curiosity), that he can’t stop envisioning the visceral scene playing out again and again, especially on his family. Burke effectively gets us inside the mind of the haunted and obsessed, as the protagonist’s nightmares seep progressively into his waking life. “Empathy,” while somewhat familiar in its plot of traumatic “repetition-compulsion,” is one of the strongest pieces in the collection, written with a rock solid narrative voice and a masterful control over psychological suspense. It’s certainly worthy of an award for best scary novella of the year.
If Corpse Blossoms is a gourmet salad, then the leaves have an occasional brown spots here and there, but that happens when the kitchen doesn’t sanitize out all the flavor. I encountered a few typos as I read Corpse Blossoms (“at” for “ate” in one climactic scene really threw me off), but the fact is, I’ve seen far worse mistakes made by established pro publishers before. In the back of the book, the editors write about their own feelings about each of their story selections — I found this very insightful, lending even more character and editorial panache to the book; it drove home my feeling that this is a publisher who has a strong editorial direction (though perhaps it’s a bit indulgent at times… as an author, I think I’d be mildly embarrassed if readers were explicitly told that my story was sent back several times for a revision, even though that’s a natural part of the process. And I will warn you that sometimes the chatter about the tales in this appendix gives away key elements of the story, so hold off on reading the ingredients list until you’ve finished the bite).
Finally, it’s worth noting that the publishers of this book were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. The fact that they were able to put together such a fine collection and launch a new quality publishing line while being dislocated and traumatized by that terrible chaos is not only admirable, it’s miraculous. As they note in the book’s postscript, this project “served as something to take our minds off of mold-covered walls and ceilings collapsed…something on which to focus, a goal, a signpost, a destination.” This passion is evident everywhere in the book, and if it was their destination, then, well, they’ve certainly arrived! Editors with this kind of dedication to good storytelling and quality publishing really deserve the support of readers who love munching on a good salad of fiction that has a real bite to it. This review has been lengthy, but I’ve only shown you a small part of the menu and shared a few morsels. I highly recommend you order a large bowl of Corpse Blossoms and sample this anthology for yourself.
Corpse Blossoms is a $40 hardcover limited to 500 trade copies, 500 signed copies, and 26 lettered leather copies available from the publisher at Creeping Hemlock Press or from your friendly favorite horror bookseller