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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

The Beauty of Death

The first I heard of the anthology, The Beauty of Death (Alessandro Manzetti and Jodi Renee Lester eds.) was at a reading slot I shared with Mike Lester at StokerCon, at which he read Black Eyed Susan. It was the 11pm slot on the end of a working week and a conference travelling day: most folk had opted not to hang around. Those of us who did weren’t disappointed. I had never met Mike before, had never read any of his work, but there is something about a story read in the author’s own voice, with the intonation and emphasis that the author intends that lends a story a certain reality. And when that story touches on the lack of care we afford acquaintances, those moments when it’s more convenient to look away, when the story is one that plays out every day and could happen to any one of us, then the reading becomes something special. Turns out, squeezing tears from audiences isn’t Lester’s style. He’s more your causal, ‘make up your own mind’ kind of writer. Black Eyed Susan is quietly discomforting. A chilling little reminder of our own callousness – the monsters that, without vigilance, we’re all capable of becoming. Lester’s reading of Black Eyed Susan was possibly the best advertisement Manzetti could hope for for his collection. If this was an example of the quality of stories in The Beauty of Death, then I was going to be getting a copy. I made a note. Later, when the anthology appeared on Amazon and I saw the line-up, I’ll admit I delayed—for about a nano-second: the time it took to take in the names: Tim Waggoner, John FD Taff, Shane McKenzie, Linda Addison, John Palisano, Lisa Morton, Paolo di Orazio, JG Faherty, Maria Alexander, Peter Straub, Rena Mason, Daniel Braum. Much loved stories by Ramsey Campbell and Poppy Z. Brite. The ToC reads like a Bram Stoker nomination list, but there are also some new names to discover.

Here are some highlights:

The Carp Faced Boy by Thersa Matsuura is not to be missed. Masquerading as a simple story of pride before fall, Matsuura’s artful weaving of mythology and practicality into her tale made it a stand-out for me. With razor-sharp imagery this story is both beautiful and grim.

Carly is Dead by Shane McKenzie is a reprint, although not a story I’d picked up before. I’ve become a fan of Shane’s writing: his style unapologetic and in-your-face. Comic and black, this little gem chronicles the decomposition of a murder victim. Nothing seems out of bounds for McKenzie. Definitely worth a read.

I’d read and enjoyed John FD Taff’s American ghost story, The Bell Witch, the historical tale of a poltergeist haunting made fresh, albeit dark, shifting, and atmospheric. The Bitches of Madison County is nothing like that, which only proves the versatility of the writer. Disturbingly real and with a definite creep factor, Taff’s story in The Beauty of Death examines that line between voyeurism and the lengths a professional will go to get that perfect uninhibited image —naturally Taff steps right over. Unexpected.

Lisa Morton’s In the Garden is a powerful story about the relentless horror of caregiving. My dad has suffered from Alzheimer’s for the past 10 years, so this story resonated for me. I remember once, a counsellor friend of mine, telling the story of a funeral she attended, where she was seated beside a woman whose husband suffered from Alzheimer’s. The woman was inconsolable throughout the service, surprising my friend who had no idea she’d been so close to the deceased. When she leaned in to say as much and to offer some comfort, the woman explained that she didn’t know the man well at all. Instead, she was crying in guilt and shame and despair because she had been sitting there wishing it had been her own husband who had died. Brutally honest, yet written in a style that is almost quaint, Morton reminds us there is more than one way to die.

In In Frigore Veritas by K Trap Jones a death row inmate discovers his own version of the afterlife in a portrayal of death that exquisitely told and as frightening as all hell. A showstopper. I had to put this one aside and think about it a while, so we can add thought-provoking to the assessment.

Nicola Lombardi’s macabre tale is perhaps my favourite story in of the entire collection. A retelling of the curiosity kills the cat proverb, Professor Aligi’s Puppets is Pinocchio for grown-ups. We always know what’s going to happen, like puppets we’re deftly manipulated as the writer leads us willingly backstage, and in spite of this, we believe we are there of our own volition, and that there is still time to walk away. Artfully achieved and excruciatingly chilling. A highlight.

Every Ghost is a Ghost Story by Nick Mamatas reads like a blog post, or a feature article in one of those weekend magazines, becoming rarer now in the days of the internet. I loved both the premise and the treatment of this story because yes, every death must produce a ghost and so many have died. Unexpected and refreshing.

I adore monster stories so it went without saying that I would be a pushover for Daniele Bonfanti’s Game, in which a bunch of big game hunters go in search of an almost-mythical beast. This is fiction, so naturally the tables are turned. Bonfanti’s beast is resourceful and cunning, and, it seems, it may also have help. Geoff Brown and AJ Spedding take note: Bonfanti’s story would not be out of place in one of Cohesion’s SNAFU creature collections.

“Panic, shared panic, is a living thing. When it arrives you feel its presence. It is invisible, while it squeezes your heart and lungs and feasts on your guts. Acrid smell of piss. The priest’s voice a bell in the gloom.”

Imbued with a wonderful sense of place, Game has a big cast for such a short story and yet Bonfanti manages to pull it off without cliché. It still has that pulp fiction feel, but the story remains suspenseful and fresh. A blast.

Every reader has their own limit, the point where the subject matter takes them that step too far. For me, we entered that place and travelled out the other side in Edward Lee’s White Trash, the tale of an amnesiac who is retracing his steps in an attempt to recover his memory. It is a text that is wholly repugnant in that strange can’t-look-away manner, and made even viler by the fact it is startlingly well written. Alessandro Manzetti’s Kosmic Blues another such story, a bizarre post-apocalyptic story of exotic cuisine in Paris’ squalid 5th. If he intends to make the reader squirm with disgust, then there is no doubt Manzetti succeeds. I rather wish I had never read it, because now I cannot unread it. Die-hard horror aficionados will devour it.

The Beauty of Death is stuffed with cruel and bitter nastiness all with a focus on death and dying. Remember, this anthology is gargantuan – 587 horror-filled pages. There is O’Rourke’s tale of shifting sands which reminds us of the quagmire relationships remain in when the moment of death comes; Rena Mason’s study of the aftermath of still birth — not for the squeamish; Tim Waggoner’s Fathomless Tides in which the protagonist moves out of his comfort zone to the “halfway point between land and water”; and Linda Addison’s reminder that sometimes it takes a triumvirate to do battle with evil. There is Ramsey Campbell’s old favourite about things encountered in the mist; and Vestige by Annie Neugenbauer, which was always going to be a winner for me given I’m a sucker for a story based on scientific discovery and the inherent selfishness bred in our academic communities. Paolo Di Orazio shows us that addiction doesn’t just afflict the jaded in Candy; J G Faherty gives us a delicious little haunted house story set in the 1950s; while Contractions by Kevin David Anderson is a bizarre end of days tale, with even stranger renewal. In By the River She Wakes by Erin Kemper, a group of misfits, weakened by disease, prepare for a potential apocalypse in the midst of a blizzard, but naturally, or unnaturally, they are not the only ones out there. There is Daniel Braum’s How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone, a cruelly beautiful story, which explores the individual nature of recovery and the complications that process brings to our relationships. (I’ve heard whispers that suggest Braum is an author to watch and reading this story, I’m inclined to believe it.) Renowned husband and wife writing team Bruce Boston and Marge Simon offer readers a modern retelling of the Little Match Girl in Cold Finale, a story that is quiet, simple and memorable. I enjoyed the Larrie’s Tapes by Luigi Musolino, not only because the story takes us to the shores of Lake Como, but there is that bittersweet idea of loving so deeply that you would do anything for another day, another glimpse. And finally, there is The I of the Beholder by Kathryn Ptacek, about Lee-lee—my own family nickname—a young woman isolated and disconnected from society and oddly displaced from her own self-image. Weird fiction at its best, this final story fully embraces the title theme, and is an excellent place to leave the collection.

My only real criticism of the e-book is that there is no easy way to navigate through the stories. The table of contents pages do not link to the relevant stories and nor do the author biographies link to the appropriate text. Revisiting a story a second time is like finding your husband in the aisles at a hardware superstore: time-consuming and frustrating. It’s simple enough to fix, and something I hope the publishers will rectify in future editions.

With so many stories you would expect there to be some overlap, but there is no sameness of stories that you find in some collections, the writers given free rein to interpret the theme as widely as they saw fit. In The Beauty of Death there is something to offend everyone’s tastes. A must-read for horror fans.

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