Tue. Jul 27th, 2021

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Reed’s Literary Horror Review ‘At The Gates of Chaos’ (2021) Edited by Scott Dyson.

12 min read
This anthology had me constantly coming back for more. I gladly consumed it.

In the general vicinity of Chaos…

I think the first thing that was really fetching about this anthology wasn’t just the solid collection of stories, but also the fantastic collection of artwork proceeding each story. Kinda gives it the feel of a Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, except for adults. The artwork was fascinating and I appreciate the added effort.

I was disappointed that the madness of 2020 was just a layered-on backdrop for many of these stories. 2020 was an interesting year indeed, between global fires, murder hornets, and the pandemic. This anthology was sold on the idea that “If you think 2020 was chaos, wait till you read this.” And thus, I was expecting far more globally encompassing stories inspired by the madness of 2020. Instead, many just had subtle reminders that 2020 was happening in the background. You get fewer stories about murder hornets and plague, and more stories that just happen to include social distancing and masks. Don’t get me wrong, the stories are still good, I definitely recommend this anthology, I just think they could have been a little more choosy with what went in it.

Importantly, this anthology passes my rule of three. And there are far more than just three stories that make this book worth the cover price. I’d almost be willing to say that the first three stories alone were worth the purchase but it wasn’t quite there for me until the fourth story. So yes, there are at least three stories with purchasing this book, but honestly the majority of the stories inside are worth the cover price.

This anthology also gets my ADHD seal of approval. I know it’s kinda cheating for an anthology, as the stories are all short, but it’s important to remember that the ADHD seal of approval isn’t just about keeping my attention, it’s also about putting the book down and actively wanting to come back to it. This anthology had me constantly coming back for more. I gladly consumed it.

As usual, I’ll give each story a mini-review as I try not to spoil them, but it’s impossible to avoid, so from here on SPOILERS!!!

Artwork by Will Jacques from Equilibrium, AT THE GATES OF CHAOS

The Tunnel, by B. T. Noonan: So far we’re starting off with a bang. The first story is short, yet powerful. It really captures a haunting sense of deep regret. The sort of thing brought on by the horrors of war. The narrator is a former soldier and he is haunted in the most literal sense by his memories of the war.

Some of the pros were a bit fragmented and this did buck me from my reader’s trance a touch. However, this also sets a pretty solid tone for the story which is being told by the fragmented mind of the narrator. I dig the effect, but it may have leaned on it too much.

Still, it’s a powerful first story which means the anthology had its hooks in me.

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4300 Tennessee Avenue, by Jesse D’Angelo: This take on the old ‘haunted house’ trope was good. That’s about all I can give it. It was good enough to keep me reading. It was a bit ‘telly,’ kinda repeated itself, and moved a little too slow for a short. It mostly felt like a layover between the knockout that was the first, and the next.

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Masks Are For Your Safety, by N. M. Brown: This was a pretty solid story. You could absolutely feel the anxiety dripping off every page. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it without completely spoiling it, but needless to say, it’s about a mother’s anxiety dealing with her special child during the height of the pandemic. I don’t want to say more as it has such a fun little twist at the end. One thing that makes it special among the others is how much it leaned into the actual 2020 SARS-COV-2 pandemic. That’s sorta what I expected out of every story and with this you actually get it.

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Sprung, by Wayne Hartshorn: Another fantastic story about very real anxieties. In this case, a woman has to live with the knowledge that her stalker is free in the world, and that local authorities won’t really do anything about it. A brilliant moment is when she runs to the cops to report that her stalker is back, and they fine her for breaking quarantine rule. It’s not just the anxiety of being stalked, it’s the very real frustration of how everyone treats stalking victims like frantic ninnies. This story perfectly captures that sense of dread.

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Dancing With The Dead, by Florance Ann Marlowe: A few awkward word choices in this one. Not enough to buck me from my reader’s trance, but enough to solicit a pause. It’s otherwise very well written.

Zombie horror is hard to do in a unique way. Having the zombie communicate, even managing to emote, really adds to the sense of struggle and desperation, both of which are necessary to make zombie horror successful. This is good, because zombie horror is not only obvious for a collection that takes place in a pandemic, it’s also been done to death in general. Uniqueness is hard to come by and ever so precious. These aren’t even zombies in the classical undead sense, but rather in the neurologically afflicted sense. This also serves to make the surrounding zombie apocalypse unique and even more tangible.

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Time Out In The Long Weekends In The Long Year, by Adam Michael Dodds-Wade: Five pages of a horror short is too much setup. You’ve got 3-6k words to work with, don’t blow most of them on mundanity. The setup for this story should have been summed up in 1 page. By page six, the story was barely moving and I honestly couldn’t care less about what was happening. I didn’t finish it, I just skipped to the next story.

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Good Boy, by Brianna Van Riet: This one had me cackling like a mad fool. It was a cute approach, in the comedic sense, to torture porn as a genre. Mind you (without spoilers) it’s not particularly violent and hardly even constitutes as horror. It just plays with the reader’s perception, managing to fool the reader into a false sense of normality before everything gets deliciously wicked. Quite brilliant, really.

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Lockdown and Macabre, by James Miles: A touch repetitive but not problematically so. I was rather impressed with how this captured a side of the pandemic that isn’t often discussed, that being the sense of paranoia and struggle the virus instilled into a lot of our population. The fear and anxiety of staying clean isn’t something that really made it into American discourse. The SARS-COV-2 pandemic really is a survival story, we just don’t tend to think of it that way as most of us will survive it. But for some, that struggle is life and death at the brink of madness. Thus far, this is the best depiction of that side of the pandemic I’ve ever read.

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Equilibrium, by Valkyrie Kerry: I absolutely love stories that ride the line between insanity and reality. Has John lost his mind or has he finally tuned in to the wavelength of the forces that determine our fate? The best part is, this question is never firmly answered by the author. You have to decide, all on your own, what is real from everything you just read. Therein lies the horror.

~

Obtrude, by Nelson Hurley: Don’t get me wrong, I really did love this story, I just felt it lacked a level of originality. I enjoyed it, but it was, in all respects, a bit obvious. That story has already been told before. To the point there are two major motion pictures about the same thing. The Fog, and The Mist. Something lurking in a miasma that skews our perception has just been done before. It was a good job of it, all the same.

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Two Bobbies, by Chris Stenson: If I had any criticism to make of this story, it’s that it wasn’t done yet. It was incredibly interesting and well written, it just felt as though the ending was lacking. And not just the ending, but the body of the story. There was more to say here and I think it could have been simply amazing if it was said. However, it was still good,

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America’s Pastime, by Scott Dyson: I feel like this was really the first story that stuck to the “Gates of Chaos” theme. It was bonkers. There are two things that stood out, apart from the marvelous ultraviolence. The first is the brilliant commentary using baseball as “the American pastime” (when we know America’s past time is really violence). The second is the uniqueness of the story. You almost get the feeling that the narrator was fighting for the very soul of our nation. Not that there was any sense to it, rather it was brilliantly senseless. But that just fits the narrative about “the American pastime.”

This one is a solid contender for the best in the collection.

~

Four Brothers Three Sisters, by Rob Harman: It’s fascinating how Harman managed to capture the feel of Final Destination without reproducing it. Death is the ultimate stalker and it comes for us all. But what if you were given warning, knowing that there was nothing you could do? What was marvelous about this story is how well it captured that sense of terror with the most simplistic plot I’ve ever read. The author says so much with so little. Truly amazing.

~

Samhain, by James Miles: Before I even read this, I muttered to myself, “Don’t fuck this up.” Dangerous territory going after one of a critic’s favorite subjects. Immediately endeared me to it by declaring “The Dream Slasher” as “filmdom’s favorite night slasher.” I do agree, a risky maneuver that paid off. The obvious slasher of choice would be Michael Myers given the Halloween theme, one that I surely wouldn’t falt Miles for.

I love the way the season and festival is captured in its absence. Halloween basically didn’t happen in 2020 due to the pandemic and it was dearly missed. There’s a sense of melancholy captured in this story that is absolutely perfect. We all felt it.

Now this is what I call opening the gates of chaos. The melancholy absence of celebration quickly turns into a violent struggle for survival against the spirit of Sow-win.

~

Long Story Short, by Jesse D’Angilo: Too late… I hate to say that the title was kind of ironic. Look, this was well written and showed its presence deeply. The characters are interesting and well-rounded, the work shows itself rather than telling. Hell, the reason I read for seven pages is because I desperately wanted to get into this story for the writing quality alone. But after seven pages, the plot had barely moved and I just couldn’t be forced to care about the subject. Perhaps if the writer had sped up the tempo a bit, I could have gotten through it but ultimately I skipped this one.

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Helena, by N. M. Brown: Sweet, simple, and terrifying. There is not a lot to this story and there doesn’t need to be. The story itself is mostly setting up the anticipation of what’s to come. The setup might seem mundane, but as the reader, we know better. Brown uses subtlety quite well to sew that anticipation. Finally, once the story has its hooks in and has strung us along, it executes a sucker punch that may floor you.

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Vasectomus, by Jim Falcon: This is a pretty interesting story and it certainly is chaotic as anything… but the first half of the story almost seems to have nothing to do with the second half. It’s like the author was setting up something completely different, didn’t know what to do with it, and just went off in another direction. There is an attempt to tie them back together but it just doesn’t work and seems disjointed. That’s okay, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, it’s just confusing as all hell. It does hurt the story a little and bucked me from my reader’s trance. I thought I’d missed something or accidentally skipped to a different story.

Now, the second half of the story is still good and interesting enough that I kept reading and enjoying it, the execution was just lacking. I’d still recommend it to anyone reading the anthology, it just wouldn’t be high on my recommendations. At the very least, it’s far from forgettable, and that’s good.

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Fame Immortal, by Rob Harman: An excellent close to the Anthology. It was both witty and clever, summoning up a truly horrific fate for the narrator. I do cherish a little literal wordplay, and this level of wordplay is hard to come by. Bravo.

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My Summary on the anthology as a whole is that it didn’t disappoint. While not every story brings me to the gates of chaos, as promised, certainly enough did and in striking form. Even those that did not were still every bit worth the purchase. I can absolutely recommend this collection to anyone

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