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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Garden of Fiends, a review

I’ll admit to being sold on this book the moment I saw the line-up, which includes some long-time favourites of mine: Kealan Patrick Burke, Jack Ketchum, and John FD Taff, along with some talented new-to-me writers. And when horror writers of this calibre come together to tackle a subject known to reduce people to the basest rung of the human condition, all my senses pinged. But I had other things to do, work things, so when the book arrived on my desk, I resisted. I would not open it.

Would not.

I made it ‘til the end of the day. After that, my own addiction to horror bedtime tales demanded to be satiated. Giving in to the urge, I palpated a vein, sunk the needle in…

The first story by Kealan Patrick Burke is a love story lubricated with a shot of bourbon, make that three shots, or wine will do if that’s all you’re offering. Rubbing alcohol? Okay. But what happens when the cupboard is bare, the bars are empty, stores are all shut and the night is closing in? Poignant and cutting, Burke’s A Wicked Thirst hooks you from the first line and is the perfect aperitif to this chilling collection.

The One in the Middle by Jessica McHugh is the collection’s showpiece. Editor Matthews writes in his introduction that ‘everything [he] wanted to accomplish with Garden of Fiends, she has in her story.” This is an undeniable truth. Set in some future world I hope never to live in, this story devours you and sucks on the gristle. Weak-stomached readers should look away. I expect to see this one on upcoming awards lists.

In Everywhere You’ve Bled and Everywhere You Will by Max Booth III, the main character, Jeremy, is clean. He’s clean. He’s holding down a job, has a great girlfriend, even a few friends. But once you’ve let “the soft cushion of heroin surround your soul” it never really lets you out of its web, does it? Booth gives us a story that gets under your skin and into your blood.

In the middle of the collection, Johan Thorston’s flash fiction piece, Finger, Just Bite a Finger, offers strange relief, a kind of dark palette cleanser in the midst of the horror. Short and to the point, it shrinks the marrow just the same.

John FD Taff’s Last Call is a surprise addition to this collection, because, at least on the face of it, Taff’s story is suffused with hope. What was it that Poe said? “False hope is nicer than no hope at all?” Fans of Taff’s historical ghost story, The Bell Witch, will find this contemporary tale has all the writer’s usual panache for the strange and ominous. As always, the details resonate: “The haggard, jaundiced sunlight fell onto these bottles and was rejuvenated…”

In Glen Krisch’s Torment of the Fallen, an abandoned girl, now grown, tracks down her addict father. A story that is part haunted house, part supernatural, and with elements of Buffy, I didn’t see the twist coming.

The title story, Garden of Fiends by Mark Matthews has at its heart a family saga. On the one hand, there’s teenager Tara, who just wants free of her overprotective, overbearing dad, so she can hook up with her boyfriend Brett, head to Russell’s and fill up her veins. And then there’s Gregory, who’s positive his sweet-pea can stay clean if only Brett will stay away from her, and her hippy-trippy mother would actually do some parenting for a change. The guilt is pervasive in this one. Gripping and complex, this is the story every parent dreads.

Closing out the collection is Jack Ketchum’s Returns. While Ketchum has put every word in exactly the right place, his character is not and the reason is unthinkable. Once again, Ketchum is lethal.

As a collection, Garden of Fiends does not fail in its brief: exposing dependence in all its agonising horror, and yet retaining compassion for the addict. In its stories, we come face-to-face with the demons driving us to dependence, that inexorable descent into desperation and depravity, and the endless attempts to claw a way to freedom. Raw, brutal and insightful, Garden of Fiends is an important work.

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