In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight

Review: In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight, eds. Andrew Lennon and Evans Light, 2019.

Cover by Mikio Murakami

I don’t know if it was accidental or deliberate, but the predominant theme of this anthology is grief.

Grief is a peculiar thing, not really horror but painful. But, in some sense, it’s often a sign you were lucky – lucky enough to know something or someone enough to grieve their passing. But, of course, grief can be the start of a more interesting story.

I bought this story for William Meikle’s “Refuge”, one of his Sigil and Totem stories, a series entirely built on grief and loss. Here, Meikle works another variation on that series’ central idea. The narrator is an Arab refuge living in London. He works at a pub where he catches the bad attentions of Wilkins whom he insults. Yes, this is yet another story centered on the modern obsession about racism and discrimination. Meikle conveniently does not make our protagonist a devout Moslem, so he retains our sympathy. There is a bit of invade-the-world, invite-the-world theme here when the narrator replies, to Wilkins’ insult, that he’s in London “Because ignorant fascists just like you blew my family out of their shoes.” The story will take both Wilkins and the protagonist to a Sigils and Totems house where the dead can, in some form, live again. I suppose Meikle is saying we are all bound together by grief, but, frankly, I’m always going to sympathize with the Crusader over the Saracen.

Angel Wings” from Paul Michaels, is another story dealing with grief. The horror is nothing supernatural just loneliness and isolation. Our 11-year old protagonist, Bobby Granger, has lost his mother. His father is distant and contemptuous of the notion, which his wife held, that people have souls. Bobby is a “soft atheist” warring with the need for belief. He comes across what is purported to be angel wings on a school trip to a museum of religious artifacts. He becomes rather obsessed with them with, of course, bad consequences.

Letters” from Michael Bray is about that madness that can come from grief. Miles and Bronnie were a “couple’. Bronnie doesn’t seem unhappy but, one day, she suddenly kills herself. Michael is despondent and a therapist suggests he write his feelings out in letters to Bronnie. He does – and gets letter in returns.

And we get another grieving protagonist in Jason Parent’s “Violet”. Ed grieves for his dead wife.  Their sole daughter is long dead too. Except Ed doesn’t go crazy. He still does have his beloved, if very old and infirm, dog Violet. But a nasty, self-righteous woman in the apartment complex, Gladys, says he should just put Violet down. Ed has some sympathy for the abrasive Gladys.  She is a hospice nurse also caring for her disabled husband. But then, one day, Gladys takes matters into her own hands and kills Violet – “for her own good”. So Ed takes steps.

While I enjoyed a few stories in this collection, the only one of those that stuck in my mind was John McNee’s “The Dogshit Gauntlet”. Grief here leads to something truly weird. Our hero is Paul, a lonely man who has trouble talking with women. Some mornings, when he he’s running late in catching a bus, he goes through a nasty, rundown alley full of dogshit, and there’s always the same woman at a window staring down into it. One morning he chances to meet Maddy when they exchange a few words after she helps him clean some dog crap off his shoe. They meet several times, and Paul begins to look forward to meeting her; they learn more about each other. One morning, he sees Maddy in the alley with a dazed look on her face after she comes out of the alley. She seems frightened. We’ll see the connection between Maddy, that woman, and the alley in a tale of madness and strangeness in this skillful tale of urban alienation and realistic psychology.

More grief in Mark Matthews’ “Tattooed All in Black”. Here the protagonist is mourning the loss of his wife from cancer. Before she died, she told him they would “commune again”.  He comes to believe there is no after life otherwise his beloved Lara would return. He gets a dog. He also takes to waking up every morning at 3:15 AM since he’s heard that’s when spirits return to the Earth. He gets a Ouija board. No communication comes through it. But he meets a kind neighbor woman. But even when they are sexually intimate, he projects Lara on to her. So, he decides to end it all, and we get a surprise ending, but the story is a bit muddled in the telling. Still it’s a story of faith rejected with tragic consequences.

Given that the anthology’s biographical notes say Espi Kvlt is a “nonbinary writer who specializes in speculative fiction . . . and a sex worker by night”, I’m not surprised “Pulsate” is a tale of tattoos and extreme self-mutilation. That narrator, Peter, feels the absence of his sister Delilah, who was never born because his mother seems to have miscarried after being beaten by Peter’s father. One of Peter’s new tattoos takes on the appearance of the woman he imagines Delilah would have been, so Peter takes steps to reify Delilah.

The twisting paths that grief takes people on is no the only theme here.

We also get the good old horror motif where the narrator may be crazy or he may be perceiving something real in Ryan C. Thomas’ “Who Are You?”. Maybe there is really a group of conspiring people in the neighborhood and maybe they killed Melinda after he dated her once. And maybe he was wrong to kill one of them . . . The plot of this effective story is further complicated by the narrator’s sleazy brother.

We go beyond mere sibling underhandedness in Monique Youzwa’s “The Rules of Leap Year”. It takes family feuding to a new level. Every Feb. 29th, the members of a family get together – to kill each other. Twenty-four years ago the family patriarch, disgusted by his children always asking for money and not appreciating what he had to suffer in the war, wrote a bizarre will. If you can successfully mount an attack on the fortified estate and kill its occupant, you get the estate – both the literal and legal one. There aren’t a lot of rules in this deadly contest. But, even where there only a few rules, there’s always a chance to game them. Sort of a crime gothic in its constrictions of space and family.

Also a nasty crime story is Israel Finn’s “The Pipe”. It starts out with the lame progressive cliché of the white father objecting to his daughter’s black boyfriend. That’s just the key to get the engine going on this well-done, visceral horror tale of the hero being forced to crawl through a sewer pipe to freedom and the surprise at the end.

I started out sympathetic to the teenage protagonists of Andrew Lennon’s “Run Rabbit Run”, after they accidentally kill a school bully with a rock. But I lost my sympathy in their dumb actions after that.

I had a similar reaction to Evans Light’s “One Million Hits”. At first, I was willing to cut our four high school seniors – Demarco, Trevor, Kurtis, and Austin – some slack despite their obsession with posting YouTube videos and trying to get candy trick-or-treating at their age. One even blackmails a man – by threatening to tell his wife he smokes – into getting some candy. But, deciding to play a prank on that man, one of them is fatally shot. And then things careen out of control in a series of events that will see several people in the neighborhood dead, mostly shot. There is a not well-developed notion that maybe this all started with “Operation: Halloween Shakedown”, the boys’ unseemly desire to trick-or-treat at their age, their greed, has unleashed some kind of supernatural curse.

I liked Lisa Lepovetsky’s “Kruze Night”, a story of a man trying to recapture his high school days by getting his Thunderbird out of storage and going to “Kruze Nite”, a local gathering of vintage ‘50s and ‘60s cars at a drive in. Though he’s a vice-president at a bank, Hugh Spafford doesn’t get a lot of respect from his kind of bitchy wife. But it becomes clear through the night, given the state of the drive-in and his old friends from high school and their cars, that this is going to be a return to his youth but something much more sinister and supernatural

And there were a few stories that don’t fit in any easy category. Joanna Koch’s “Every Lucky Penny Is Another Drop of Blood”, a weird, surrealistic horror story, reminded me of the mutilations and fashionable transformations in Kath Koja’s Skin and David J. Skal’s Antibodies.  It is about the fashion designs of Elaine Elias:

Jaded by years of insipid, unrealistic beauty codes, the fashion world went wild for Elliane’s shocking aesthetic of the forbidden.

Her designs revel in bizarre mutilations, and Detroit becomes the center of medical tourism to effect those transformations. The plot itself isn’t that great. Astilbe likes Andy. She considers him loyal, energetic, faithful, and a hard-worker even if his money is literally (and metaphorically) dirty hence her constantly cleaning it. However, following Andy to work, Astilbe realizes he’s not really that faithful. Andy takes up promoting Elliane’ fashion collection. Elliane is associated with an underground city around Detroit, a secret city which even has its own coins. Astilbe warns Elliane not to move in on Andy. 

The story is full of perversity. The Paris premier of the House of Elias features:

amputees and accident victims, self-mutilators and garage body-mod hackers, and a host of those naturally wracked by progressive and congenital body changes disdained by conventional culture. Several models were gifted with soon-to-be-fashionable disfigurements at birth. The climax featured conjoined twins who had survived childhood burn trauma clad in a gossamer moth-wing onesie. 

Impossible bodies become the fad, and the love triangle of Astilbe, Eliane, and Andy is fatally and pathetically resolved.

The central power of the story is that its depiction of the perverse corruption of the idea of beauty seems psychologically  and socially (if not medically or scientifically) plausible given modern culture and fashion trends today. For that reason, this is the book’s most profound story – if not its most enjoyable.

Mirrors” by Billy Chizmar is a rather pointless vignette unless it intended to make the normal compromises and disappointments of life seem like a horror story viewed retrospectively. The plot involves a man looking into a mirror before his grandson’s junior high school graduation and contemplating his past.

Josh Malerman’s poem “One Thousand Words on a Tombstone” concludes the anthology.

Yes, there are some annoying stories, particularly in the characters we are asked to sympathize with, but there are enough interesting ones to give it a marginal recommendation.

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