Rating: 5 out of 5
John Langan’s anthology Sefira and Other Betrayals includes eight stories–a mix of previously published works and original stories–on the theme of betrayal, in the genre of horror. This is literary horror, and while at times it can be a bit thoughtful and slow, there’s always something interesting going on.
Sefira is a tale of a woman hunting down the succubus with whom her husband betrayed her. Lisa is undergoing a mysterious transformation as she follows the demon, her eyes turning black, her teeth turning to glass. Despite her anger toward her husband, she’s trying to sever the curse that will destroy him if Sefira has the opportunity to eat his organs. She’s a fabulous protagonist, bitter and strong, determined and independent. I absolutely love this tale. The author has a perfect sense for just what dribs and drabs of information he can slip in–and how–to keep the reader constantly experiencing revelations without getting confused.
In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos explores a character who was forced out of the military due to her part in the torture and death of an Afghan civilian. She’s employed by an old colleague who’s now part of a private security firm, to help capture Mr. White, a mysterious figure who aided and informed the torture. Of course, Mr. White is not at all what he seems. I appreciate that this story in no way implies that this being is ultimately responsible for the torture; in fact, it was the characters’ carrying out of that torture that was responsible for his interest. The blame lies squarely on the humans involved. The ending is quite intriguing.
In The Third Always Beside You, a brother and sister suspect their father is having an affair. They manage to scare up the truth, but the consequences are… unsettling. This is kind of a ghost story, and it’s subtle and engaging. This story is largely “normal,” with little paranormal to it until the very end. The relationships between characters is very central to all of these stories.
The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons takes place in the 1880s. A writer named Coleman is going to see a man named Mr. Dunn, a former arms dealer who is now heavily into spirituality. Along the journey Coleman meets Cal Earnshaw and his wife Isabelle. Earnshaw is dying, and Dunn has promised to prepare him for his journey to the next life. But when the group arrives at Mr. Dunn’s home, Coleman finds mysterious, inked paper balloons that float about and seem positively repulsive when he tries to touch them. He and Isabelle become progressively more worried about what Mr. Dunn is doing with Cal. This is a nifty story with a nice arc to it.
Bloom is a fascinating bit of cosmic horror. Rick and Connie find a cooler by the side of the road. It sort of looks like the kind of cooler that organs are transported in, but inside of it is an organ like no other. Both of the spouses start having strange dreams, and this all seems connected to research Rick’s father had been doing when he developed Alzheimer’s and seemingly went off the deep end with his theories. This is a delightful piece of cosmic horror and while this story is complete in itself, I’d have loved to see more about what happened next.
In Renfrew’s Course, Neil and Jim are taking a walk through the countryside and looking at the ruins of a castle once occupied by a reputed wizard. Strange things start to happen to both of them–glimpses of themselves both younger and older–as they traverse the mysterious path. At first the delineation of whose point of view we’re seeing from seemed confusing, but this eventually worked itself out. This is a story of love and loss, and revisits the topic of Alzheimer’s again. This is a painful and amazing story.
Bor Urus introduces us to a man who believes that when terrible storms surge, the veils between the worlds grow thin. The thing is, he’s right. He has a faint brush with the supernatural and it changes him. When he has a full-blown encounter, things get real. Once again this is really about relationships, but there’s a delightful shiver of danger throughout.
At Home in the House of the Devil is a tale of a man who accidentally gets his girlfriend hooked on heroin, then is dismayed to see her slide downhill. When things are at their worst, he receives a visit from a man in a white suit and red shoes. Religious guilt weighs heavy on him, and the devil wants his due. The devil is an intriguing figure here, and his take on humanity is horrifying.
These are tales of the intersection of relationships with the horrors of the paranormal. Sometimes it’s a lot of the supernatural (Sefira), and sometimes it’s just a little (The Third Always Beside You). Either way, it’s delightful!
Content note for explicit sex.
When I had my own meeting with the devil, I no longer believed in him.