Okay, first up, a little bit of an explanation as to why I'm reviewing what would appear to be a non-horror anthology on a horror site. I mean, look at that cover - an attractive young woman, seemingly in the throes of passion while messing about with apples (after all, they are the sexiest of fruits), a tagline on the title that states: 35 women up to no good. Why, sir...it looks like an erotica book, or worse! A romance! Well, think again my friends (not that there's anything wrong with those genres anyway). Many of the writers within these pages are active within horror and dark fiction circles, many of the stories themselves are very dark tales indeed. In fact, if I was forced to give a vague sort of idea of these stories, I'd say that most of them would be right at home in the likes of Black Static, alongside such writers as Laura Mauro, Carole Johnstone, Andrew Hook, Cate Gardner, Ray Cluley and others of that ilk.
Now, I'm not going to go into reasons as to why it's an all-female anthology. I think if you've got this far and you don't understand the nature of the publishing game - with all of its variations on elitism, gender politics and so on - you possibly need to go and do a bit of research before wading in with some comment along the lines of 'uh, people would be up in arms if it was an all-male anthology'. Yes, because none of those exist. Anyway, the point is that sometimes these things have to come into being, but the stories are still to be judged on their quality. It's not a case of publishing someone simply because they are female (or any other minority if it comes to that), it's allowing a venue for publication that might not otherwise exist (because as much as we don't want to admit it, there are biases in some arenas). Because these stories intrinsically are by women and are about women. They cover a massive range of character, status, locale but they share that one thing in common. But not necessarily just for women (and if you're choosing your reading material based on gender, you really are doing yourself a huge disservice).
As is my norm with an anthology, I will briefly talk about the stories that most impressed me (well, except for one and we'll get to that). However, as this anthology contained a very large number of stories ranging from very good to exceptional - in my view - I'm going to have to choose the very best of the best, otherwise we'll be here forever (I will also say that although I recognised some names, I hadn't read a single story by any of the authors, so I was coming to each one with no preconceived expectations). So, let's delve in...
Opening story, MOVING ON, by Diane Cook, is a strong piece of work set in a dystopian society where widowed partners are housed in same sex dormitory buildings while they await 're-homing' with another partner. The environment feels very much like a prison block and we get a sense of the world and the setting through our narrator's account. It's moving, heart-breaking and is filled with a sense of melancholy that I was to find permeated many of the following stories. Strong first story and I'll definitely be looking for more from this author.
The next story to impress me was THE SEA OF TREES, by Rachel Swirsky. It's a tale that takes place in a forest in Japan, where ghosts of suicide victims roam, utilising the well-worn imagery of the pale, dark-haired ghost girl form the films to new and interesting effect. Our narrator is a scavenger and sometimes tour guide, who has her own, deeply held reasons for being in the area. A meditation on death, life, loss, grief and pain, it is definitely one of the highlights in a very strong collection.
THE HEAD, by Holly Lopez, is a dark comedic tale which starts out with an almost light, surreal tone with the finding of a severed head in the front garden of our 'heroine' by a neighbour, who seems more concerned about the possibility that it will bring the neighbourhood down than why it is there or where it came from. As it progresses, the story moves into darker territory, managing to distil that dark-heart-of-a-small-town-under-a-microscope sense that Stephen King is so good at, but doing it within a fraction of the space.
IN THE SILT, by Jessica McHugh, is a very dark story of family secrets, inheritance, possible madness and ghosts, both the 'real' kind and the ones that haunt our minds. It powers along with sure, precise and muscular prose, forcing us to witness every single detail. The dark side of family life told with a completely straight face, it shows how the past can reach out to influence us, even while it is lying to us.
IN THE ANGEL OF DEATH HAS A BUSINESS PLAN, by Heather Lindsley, we are introduced to Angie, who performs counsels supervillains, so that they might get out of the habit of performing monologues to their enemies and deal with them in more direct ways. Anyone who knows the clichés of these things knows that the bad guy always has to give a big speech talking about their big plan for world-domination giving the hero enough time to get out of the trap, fight back or whatever. It's a fantastic idea and would work well as a longer story but what's here is fine. Told in snappy, crisp prose, it rattles along throwing the odd surprise here and there and fulfils the promise of its title.
I was going to leave this one until last, but since I've mentioned all the others as they appear throughout the anthology, I guess I should maintain that format. GIRL, WITH COIN, by Damien Angelica Walters is, without doubt, the absolute highlight in this collection for me. Raw emotion, powerful imagery and a deep sense of loneliness, hurt and strength pervade the story of Olivia, a performance artist with a unique canvas - herself. Born with the rare genetic disorder of being unable to register physical pain, she transfers the emotional pain of her young years into the creation of various self-mutilating artistic installations. As the story flips between past and present, we get a sense of why Olivia does this and how deeply someone who feels nothing on their nerve endings can still be hurt. I utterly loved this piece, it blew me away, so much so, that it inspired me to seek out Damien's collection, SING ME YOUR SCARS. Wonderful, heart-rending stuff, the real deal.
BETTER PLACES, by Rebecca Jones-Howe details casual and brutal sexual abuse on a hapless woman during the height of a zombie apocalypse. It's a harrowing piece of work, very difficult for me to read as I'm not very good with that sort of thing, but it gives you a glimpse of how utterly vile such acts are - no matter how bad you think it is, you can never know unless you've experienced it, but the skill of the writing here gives you some insight into that brutal situation. Lifted above mere rape/revenge fare by both the writing and the way it plays out, it's a tough read, but, a powerful one.
Now, I did say there was one exception to listing the stories that impressed me and it is this; SPOTTED HYENAS: A ROMANCE, by Joyce Carol Oates. By far the longest story here, almost novella sized, I have to say I was a little nonplussed with this one. Don't get me wrong, I felt the idea was fine, if a little drawn out, but some of the writing and phrasing felt very off, awkward and all over the place. Perhaps it's just me and having never read any of Oates's stuff before - though of course I've heard of her - I could just be unused to her style, but I found that it was pretty much the only story here I didn't particularly care for. I also felt it didn't quite fit in with the other authors as I found their writing to be superior. Never mind though, one story out of 35 - pretty good, if you ask me.
Back to the good stuff. ROOEY, by Kelly Luce, follows Maxine as she tries to recover from the tragic death of her little brother Rooey. We are given the circumstances surrounding his death in small, piecemeal fashion, as we move from Maxine's memories of her little brother, to her current attempt to cope and then immerse herself in her brother's 'leavings' - wearing his clothes, visiting his grieving girlfriend. It's a beautifully written, poignant tale of grief and regret, of how one tiny decision can have such tragic consequences and if only another decision had been made. Wonderful, powerful stuff.
For something a little more light-hearted, there's Jennifer Pelland's THE KENNEL CLUB, which envisages a far future where men have cast off the shackles of society and technology and have gone 'back to the wild'. If a woman wants to conceive of a child naturally, she has to go through the distasteful - at least, as far as someone who has never experienced the act believes - process of mating with a male. This involves capturing one in the wild. It's a lovely little sardonic tale which actually has a big heart despite its seeming disparagement of the male gender (always scratch the surface of these things). I'd actually read a longer version of this if it were available, I think there's a lot more to explore here.
VAMPIRE, by Tina May Hall is an almost stream of consciousness work which alternates between the decades (centuries?) long journey of a vampire across a graveyard to find sustenance and the immense passage of time as she performs the tiniest of tasks, and memories of a life before becoming a member of the undead. The journey of the vampire parallels that of the woman, from her teens into old age and by the end, it is not clear if one is a dream by the other. What is clear is that it is about life, and death, as most stories are and has some intensely moving passages towards the end.
I'll finish up here, as the review threatens to become unwieldy. I genuinely enjoyed pretty much all of the stories I haven't mentioned, these - aside from the Joyce Carol Oates one - being the standouts for me.
It's a diverse, interesting anthology, and I'd suggest that anyone who likes quiet, subtle and emotional writing could do worse than what's on offer here. Great job by the editors H. L. Nelson and Joanne Merriam, a really professionally put together book. Can't wait to see what you all come up with next.