Review: “The Unspoken,” ed. William Meikle

Pros: Elegant stories about and adjacent to the subject of cancer
Cons: Typical anthology issue that not every story works for every reader
Rating: 4 out of 5

William Meikle edited the anthology The Unspoken, a collection of horror stories–some about cancer and some adjacent to cancer. Apparently profits go to benefit a cancer charity.

Tim Lebbon’s Just Breathe introduces us to 8-year-old Nia. Nia’s mummy is dying of cancer, and Nia doesn’t understand that you can’t just “fix” dead things. This one is dark and elegant.

In Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Photographs of Boden, all photographs of Boden’s life are developing a fast-spreading smear on them, and people’s memories of those events seem to be changing with the photographs, rewriting him into a much less pleasant person than he has been. This one mostly uses cancer as a metaphor for the sickness spreading through the photographs.

There’s a story by John Shirley that gives a better depiction of Hell than I’ve seen in most stories. The characters all worked for a company that knowingly sold cancer-causing agents without properly warning people.

There are two stories back-to-back, one by Stephen James Price and one by Anna Taborska, in which people with cancer diagnoses and horrible pain end up sacrificing people to unholy entities in return for better health. I preferred Taborska’s, which didn’t rely on an unexplained obsession to kick the plot into gear. Also, in Price’s story the protagnonist has a way of quickly getting rid of all charnel evidence, yet he doesn’t bring it with him when he looks for people to kill, instead relying on a much more risky path.

Scott Nicholson’s Heal Thyself depicts a sort of spiritual cancer being worked out through past-life regression. But it turns out there may be some ulterior motives at work.

Stephen Laws’s Harbinger is elegant and interesting, starting off with escalating disappearances across the landscape, but I couldn’t really draw a cancer correlation here. I also wish it had explained itself a little more. In the case of David A. Riley’s A Girl, a Toad, and a Cask, again, I couldn’t see the cancer tie. Still, it’s an entertaining story of a young girl, a witch, and some mercenaries who don’t know what they’re getting into!

In some stories cancer is an alien affliction, such as William Meikle’s The Unfinished Basement, which is a nice piece of cosmic horror.

In Barbie Wilde’s Polyp we get kind of a humorous horror tale of a very determined polyp monster. Johnny Mains’s Cankerman shows us a chillingly different explanation for how cancer spreads.

Guy N. Smith’s The Big One left me a little confused; the shape of the story isn’t familiar and it’s tough to understand why things worked out the way they did.

There’s even one story, Gary McMahon’s Bitter Soup, in which we get to see a kind of “cancer of the world.” It’s intriguing and fascinating, and I would love to see a longer book based on it.

Overall this is a solid book with a number of intriguing takes on cancer, both physical and metaphorical. It’s horror, so some boundaries will undoubtedly be pushed or broken, but It handles its subject matter with care. I definitely recommend this one.

Content note for gore, threats of rape, in-depth descriptions of colonoscopy and prep, as well as racism/slavery depictions.

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