Review of The Abyss Within

I agreed to be part of this launch of this book by featuring it on my blog. The thirteen stories included are by Frederick Pangbourne, Jim Tritten, Jerod S. Smelker, J. T. Lozano, Rebecca Rowland, Tabitha Potts, Jacek Wilkos, Chris Tattersall, Lisa Shea, Kerri Spellar, Jeni Lawes, Cassandra Jones. It is published by Smashbear Books and is a charity anthology in support of Women’s Aid. Smashbear will be donating all profits to this worthy cause. I agreed with some trepidation, as I tend to be over-imaginative, and I carefully read this book in the daylight hours. However, I would say it is more entertaining than terrifying, and there is a helpful list of potential triggers at the back, arranged via story content.

The stories are set in America, and this is a modern twist on the popular trope that horror stories are often set in exotic locations. USA with its wide open spaces and large rural areas lends itself very well to the genre. Several stories drew particularly on this setting, for example ‘Vermin’ by Kerri Spellar, set most of the story at night, the protagonist driving through deserted country lanes, being terrified by glimpses of humans wearing rabbit masks made of real rabbits. Atmosphere is carefully built up, and good use is made of varying the tension, a technique which leaves the reader relaxing only to be horrified all over again. ‘Baba Nooa’ by Jeni Lawes features a spooky forest, as does ‘Stone Hollow’ by Jerrod S. Smelter, in which a strange village has been built in the middle of a forest which is situated in land formerly owned by the indigenous population, who had superstitions regarding it. ‘When The Dead Walk’ by Cassandra Jones shares a remote location, within a small community. It’s worth noting, too, that Americanisms feature in the writing: lexical choices such as ‘candy’ for sweets, and American grammar. These things helped to create the setting in the reader’s mind.

Metamorphosis is a recurrent theme. In ‘Stone Hollow’, a mysterious Creature feared by all turns out to be… no spoilers though, but the character clearly has the ability to change, and not for the better. ‘The Mask’ by Jim Tritten is based on the idea that a mask can become one with the flesh of the person who wears it, and the wearer can assume the personality of the original wearer. The mask’s back story is fascinating, and includes an even more exotic setting, that of Zacatecas in Mexico, and a strange tale from the past, an ancient serial killer. ‘Masquerade’ by Tabitha Potts has the domestic abuse victim turn into the predator, but the reader’s sympathy is with the protagonist, who has been pushed so hard they can only respond in kind but more cleverly. ‘Tea For Two’ by Frederick Pangbourne, is a clever transformation from one role to another, and from apparent human to supernatural being. The reader does kind of see it coming, but in a way that is prepared for subtly, so that it would have been disappointed had it not turned out to be the case. ‘When The Dead Walk’ is a zombie story, but it has a few little twists to keep the interest going.

Another thread is in the time setting. As expected, Hallowe’en is a horror writer’s favourite date on the calendar. It features heavily in only two of the stories, ‘Stone Hollow’ and ‘Tea For Two’, but several of the other stories could have happened around that time of year, and have a Hallowe’en atmosphere, particularly the opening story, ‘Vermin’. This would certainly be a good selection of stories to be reading around this time of year. There are 13 of them, drawing on what some consider an unlucky number.

One of the stories, ‘Crow Girl’ reminded me of Angela Carter’s stories from The Bloody Chamber collection: a feral child with close connections to animals or birds, is taken in by a community, mistreated by them and eventually thrown out, but survives better without them. It is plainly told, like the stories of this type by Angela Carter. This was one of my favourite stories in the book, though I wouldn’t describe it as horror, more adult fairy tale. The girl suffers some abuse, so it links to ‘Masquerade’, however, the latter is in a realistic setting and is very different in tone. Several of the stories feature a strong female character. Even the female characters who come to grief exhibit bravery and resourcefulness, such as Karen in ‘Vermin’, who manages to save herself many times until it is her own kindness which brings about her ensnarement. Gwen, in ‘When The Dead Walk’ shows leadership qualities. Not all these strong female leads are good people though. In the first person narrative of ‘Voodoo Doll’ by Lisa Shea, the speaker is vengeful and hates to see anyone else happy. This naturally rebounds on her.

A story which does not link to any other, but includes some haunting visual images akin to those in ‘Vermin’, albeit very different. ‘Come Play With Me’ by J T. Lonzano, is set on a scuba diving holiday. It includes a prophetic dream, which is of course ignored by his girlfriend. The open boat trip is a haunted one, and the group would have done well to heed his warning. The ending is signalled by the dream, and the reassurance of the scuba company whose representative says “We’ve been doing this for several years and have never lost anyone.” There are other warning too, in the anxiety of the narrator. Scuba diving can be pretty scary, as I know from experience, so it’s already a stressful situation. The story focuses on another motif common to horror, a little girl. Small girls pull at our heartstrings and make us feel protective, so when they turn out to be dangerous, it really scares us. Take for example the flesh-eating half alien half human child in a Ray Bradbury story, or the little girl twins in the film and book The Shining. ‘Vermin’ too, includes a dangerous female child. ‘The Munchies’ by Rebecca Rowland centres on a woman who turns into a self cannibal when she is pregnant, but because she can’t bear to touch her own feet, instead chews her husband’s. It is a very weird story and has some touches of humour, as neither one of the main characters treats it seriously.

Overall, this book is an interesting read, with insights into the human imagination shown throughout. I’ve not commented on every story, so as to leave something for the reader to discover.


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