Review: “Autumn Cthulhu,” ed. Mike Davis

Pros: Some fascinating tales of dread
Cons: Too many vague, ‘unfinished’ endings
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

You can definitely see some patterns in the stories of the anthology Autumn Cthulhu (edited by Mike Davis). There’s a certain style of horror story where the end feels vaguely… unfinished. There are some good reasons why many horror stories end this way; ending a story before the final moments allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, and often that can be more horrifying than anything a writer can come up with. However, it can also be a bit of a cop-out: the writer couldn’t quite figure out how to best end the story, so they just kind of didn’t. Many, if not most, of these stories fall into this pattern. So if that isn’t your favorite type of horror–it definitely depends on the reader–this probably won’t be your favorite anthology.

In Scott Thomas’s “The Night is a Sea”, reporter Emerson checks out a house where a woman mysteriously disappeared (except for one hand) in an explosion that left the house largely unmarked. He ends up caught up in (somewhat random-seeming) events, helping another woman to save the world. Evan Dicken’s “Cul-De-Sac Virus” leaves us contemplating the origin of all of these faceless, nameless inhabitants of suburban developments. In Robert Levy’s “DST (Fall Back)”, a man finds out that his ex-lover, Jasper, is missing, and may have gone mad. This is one of the more successful and self-contained cosmic horror tales in this volume, I think. Richard Gavin’s “The Stiles of Palemarsh” introduces us to Ian. He was supposed to go to Wales on a honeymoon with his wife Cari, but he seems to have gone alone instead. Things unravel quite well from there.

In Damien Angelica Walters’s “In the Spaces Where You Once Lived”, Jack has Alzheimer’s and his wife Helena is determined to care for him throughout it. He keeps talking to something beyond the house they’re living in, something about a doorway. This is a poignant tale that tugs at the heart strings. Wendy N. Wagner’s “The Black Azalea” introduces us to Candace, a widow who’s still mourning her husband’s death. The azalea bush he planted seems to be going black and mildewed, and the blight is spreading. (Trigger warning for a quick-but-nasty animal death.)

Pete Rawlik’s “Memories of the Fall” is a strange little diversion that involves a writer reading a few stories and giving out advice at a school. It’s hard to get into without spoiling anything, so I’ll leave it at that. Another tale about writers is Michael Griffin’s “The Smoke Lodge”. Five writers get together to remember an old friend, and end up confronting his ghost.

Laird Barron’s “Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees” sees a high school cheerleader trying to get tickets to a Tony Clifton show for her father, who’s dying of cancer. The local fixer, Steely J, promises to hook her up with something, but it all goes bizarrely wrong. Most of the stories in this volume have a creepy tone to them; this one is irreverent and weird. It also has one of those mostly-implied endings, to better effect than some of them. Another freaky tale is Nadia Bulkin’s “There Is a Bear in the Woods”. It places us in a bizarre version of America with an ‘Alliance’ and a ‘Church of True Light’. Congressional candidate Rick McFarland gets tricked into getting involved with a weird ritual of some kind. This is another tale with a fairly random ending, but it has its moments:

It seemed natural to walk through an open door.

Jeffrey Thomas’s “After the Fall” sees a worldwide windstorm spring up, followed by the appearance of mysterious, monstrous white fossils in the sky. It’s overly random to my taste, and doesn’t really go much of anywhere. S.P. Miskowski’s “Water Main” introduces us to a woman who’s at the end of her rope with her live-in boyfriend, Jim. She decides to look at another apartment on a whim, and very much regrets setting foot across the threshold. This is another tale that ended just a moment or two too soon, but it really does beautifully convey Nancy’s frustration and annoyance.

John Langan’s “Anchor” is a particularly long tale. The language is somewhat poetic, which is appropriate since two of the characters are poets. Will, the main character, is a fisherman and guide. His father’s friend, Carson, keeps moving around the world, and Will and his father seem to spend a couple of nights standing guard against a bizarre monster that comes looking for Carson. Honestly, I’m not even sure how to put it into words; you’ll just have to read it. It definitely goes on at length, and one story-within-a-story gets a little tedious, but the tale is ultimately beautiful. In Trent Kollodge’s “End of the Season” a seasonal worker on a close-knit island decides to invite himself to the islanders-only shindig going on at a mysterious rumored site. This one feels more satisfying than most of the others, and doesn’t feel unfinished. It goes just as far as it needs to.

Gemma Files’s “Grave Goods” is a fascinating tale of prejudice, culture clash, science, and monsters. Aretha, an archaeology intern, helps out at a dig in Canada on tribal land. Some rather unusual skeletons have been unearthed, and two of the women on the dig are at each other’s throats regarding whether the skeletons must be left in place or taken for study. This was one of my favorite stories in this collection. Another excellent story is Orrin Grey’s “The Well and the Wheel”. Emma must clean out her father’s house after he dies, and she makes some terrifying discoveries. Unfortunately the ending is a bit vague for my taste.

Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.’s “Trick… or the Other Thing” was my least favorite tale in the book. The basic notion–that maybe spilling your angry wish to Nyarlathotep over a drink is a bad idea–is great. But the narrative is choppy, surreal, fractured, and jumbled. I feel like I’m supposed to nod sagely and exclaim how brilliant it is, but really it just gave me a headache:

Where was September and its possibility of remorseless, the August angel who opened the brief flight from misery with spoonfuls and skin?

Daniel Mills’s “A Shadow Passing,” in which a boy’s mother sees things, is okay, but again the ending isn’t satisfying. Ann K. Schwader’s “Lavinia in Autumn (Sentinel Hill)” is a very short poem, which, while good, didn’t leave a lasting impression on me.

Ultimately, I felt like too many of these stories went for deliberately bizarre or unfinished endings, sometimes at the expense of the narrative. That said, there are still some creepy and delicious cosmic horror thrills in here, and you may find it worth a read.

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