April 24th, 2006


Damned Nation

Themed anthologies can be fun, especially for a reader who's also a writer. A collection of stories by different authors all interpreting a particular theme in their own ways can be intellectually fascinating as well as creatively inspiring, making you wonder how you yourself might have approached the subject matter.

Robert N. Lee and David T. Wilbanks' Damned Nation takes as its theme the idea of hell on earth. All of the authors chose to interpret the theme literally rather than figuratively -- it is a horror anthology, after all -- and to its credit, there isn't a single Twilight Zone-esque, deal-with-the-Devil, "make me powerful...oh no, I'm Hitler in the bunker" story to be found inside. I imagine the editors got their fair share of them during the submission process, and kudos to them for resisting.

As I've mentioned before, anthologies are usually a mixed bag. You've got the stories that rock your socks, the meh stories, and the what the fuck were they thinkings. Damned Nation has its share of each. No surprise there, since it's very rare that every story that worked for the editors will work for every reader. Taste is personal -- the stories I think were marvelous might be the ones you think are dreck. Of course, you'd be wrong, but it's free country.

A story-by-story breakdown would make even my most dedicated reader's (hi, Gammy!) eyes glaze over, so, as I did with Corpse Blossoms, I'm just going to talk about the ones that fell into the rock my socks category.

The anthology opens strong with what I think may be its best story: "This Is Mars" by A.H. Jennings. The story itself is beyond classification. I don't know how to describe it except to say it's about a couple of friends out for a walk. Any more of a plot overview would give away too much. Suffice it to say that it's extremely well written and very, very clever. Amazingly, it's also Jennings' first published story. He's going places, mark my words. You should buy the anthology just for this one.

"Das Höllenfeuer" by Mark Justice - Justice takes the hell on earth idea into an alternate history where the Germans won WWII. We've all seen a zillion alternate WWII stories, but Justice does well by keeping it intimate instead of epic and giving us both compelling characters and a ticking clock that pulls us to the end. The writing's a bit clunky, but the story itself was so strong that I didn't care. Justice has a lot of potential.

"Tortures of That Inward" by Tom Piccirilli - I think Piccirilli sold his soul to the Devil years ago. I haven't read a single bad thing by him. Ever. This one concerns exactly the wrong person to be chosen as a divine champion on Judgment Day. Or he might also just be a lunatic with an overactive, paranoid imagination. Piccirilli never says -- which is how it should be.

"Terra Incognita" by Randy Chandler - Who knew Chandler could write? And I don't just mean it's a good plot -- this road trip across an alternate, demonic U.S.A. has got actual style.

"The Alchemy from the Towers of Silence" by Gerard Houarner - Houarner is a master stylist (no surprise considering he studied with Joseph Heller). Told entirely as a monologue, this story, about a man cursed with immortality by a vengeful god and chased by doctors who mistakenly think his secret is biological, is fascinating, even if it's not quite a breathless page-turner. But Houarner's strength has always been in the originality of his ideas and the quality of his writing, both of which are on display here.

"Killing Puffball" by Paul McMahon - A cute story about workplace hell and a guy who's trying to stop being so nice all the time.

So that's six stories out of twenty-two that I really, really liked. Not a bad ratio for the first offering from these untested editors. I expect good things from them in the future -- so long as they promise to never include a story that uses the expression "mommy box" ever again.

A word about the product itself: Rack-sized paperbacks printed with POD technology instead of offset just feel wrong. They're too heavy, for one thing, and their spines crease weirdly. I appreciate HellBound Books trying a different format from the usual POD trade size, especially if it means a slightly cheaper retail price, but these are going to take some getting used to.

Who Doesn't Love Getting Fan Mail?

This afternoon I received a lovely email from a writer named T.C. Gardstein about my porn-stars-and-Egyptian-gods erotica story "Comeback" (not a work-safe link). Turns out she does some erotica too, often reading at "Smut" night at the Brooklyn bar and event space Galapagos, and she had some really nice things to say:

Although your "Comeback" story has been up on Fishnet for a few months, I just had the pleasure of reading it. Well done, sir. Strong characters, interesting plot twist, and (gasp!) a solid command of grammar and diction. Speaking as a full-time freelance copyeditor, that alone qualifies you for kudos. But aside from that, I found myself really caring for, and rooting for, the character of Amber Fox. She could well be a worthy of a longer piece...at least a novella.

Isn't that sweet? And Amber Fox may indeed be worthy of a longer piece (ahem), but if it happens, it won't be in book form. I'm holding out for the film option from Vivid Video. Any day now. Annnnnyyyy dayyyyy now.