Dark Stars Edited by John F.D. Taff
A Book Review by Tony Jones
Delicious anthology of twelve stories by some of the biggest names in the genre
The horror world is drowning in anthologies, far too many for even the most prolific reader to keep up with, but Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror was one particular publication which certainly caught my eye. Why? John F.D. Taff brings together an eclectic group of some of the biggest names in world horror under the banner of Titan Books [editor note: the U.S. edition will be released through Tor Nightfire], itself a trademark of quality, delivering twelve slightly longer stories than you might usually find in a standard anthology. It is also a tribute to Dark Forces, a legendary early eighties anthology edited by Kirby McCauley which featured a plethora of either top (or soon to be) authors, including Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, T.E.D. Klein, Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury.
Obviously, many of those legendary names are no longer with us, but such is his astonishing longevity Ramsey Campbell is the living link between Dark Stars and Dark Forces. It’s a shame Stephen King (he had The Mist in the original) is not featured, but hey, if you have Ramsey Campbell then SK is almost surplus to requirements. As well as contributing stories to both books, Campbell also provides an entertaining afterward where he provides brief personal insights into the twelve tales. John F. D. Taff doesn’t hold back with the horror big hitters and has Josh Malerman open proceedings with an amusing foreword where he imagines (the book was brought together in the era of Covid-19) the twelve authors coming together for a photo op, where the giants of the genre shoot the breeze and smile for the camera. I hope it happens for real one day folks. Readers could then have a Sam Torrance moment and insert themselves into the famous pic as in The Shining!
In a market saturated with anthologies it certainly helps to have an author as skilled as John F.D. Taff on editing duties, who also has three of his own collections, the most recent being Little Black Spots (2018) and who has been involved in other anthologies, including The Bad Book in 2021. If you are not familiar with Taff’s work, I also highly recommend his interconnected five novella sequence The Fearing (2019-21) which shows exactly what he can do. As a great writer of short stories, few are better qualified than Taff to steer a ship into scary, disturbing, and psychologically deep waters.
Overall, the strength of Dark Stars is the sheer breadth and depth of the stories which dance around all areas of the horror spectrum, skillfully avoiding cliches and overused tropes with some highly original yarns. For the remainder of the review, I’m going to focus on a few of my personal favourites, but there really is something for everybody on offer here. My absolute number one was Trinity River’s Blues by an author I had never read before, Chesya Burke, which turns the ‘I see dead people’ story on its head with a highly original musical spin. Trini comes from a family which have supernatural ability, with her grandmother being particularly powerful and respected in the local community as a fixer of problems. Bizarrely, the spirit Trini sees most frequently is the legendary blues musician T-Bone Walker and her love for ‘the blues’ gets her in deep supernatural water, a battle which may even cost her soul. Things get even weirder when another legendary musician returns, this time ‘Bird’ himself Charlie Parker. However, this Charlie is not the genius who practically invented modern jazz and his music brings menace within its sweet and seductive sounds. What a terrific story.
The very quirky The Attentionist by Caroline Kepnes was another corker, flipping the reader back to troubled teen life in the early nineties. Oddly, the story is built around two sisters and the fallout of a missed telephone call. Narrated by the younger sister Mauve, sometime after the fact her older sister Reg realised that a boy she liked called and his message was not passed on. Following the realisation, she spirals into a fit of despair, believing and obsessing that the missed message from Davey could have been a turning point in her humdrum life. Moving on Reg begins to take an interest in the dating interests of the younger Mauve. What follows is an angsty, funny, warped, but highly entertaining story about boundaries and why you should never take advise from a sibling. A strangely unsettling, but totally gripping, story from the days before texting and mobile phones.
I’ve read a couple of Alma Katsu’s novels but never her short work and was impressed by her quirky and sleazy take on the vampire mythology in The Familiar’s Assistant. A young man is obsessed with vampires and follows around a woman (Sarah) whom he believes to be the familiar to a vampire, with the story being framed around his attempts to get her to introduce him to the vamp (what an outstandingly filthy scene!) and what occurs afterwards. John F.D. Taff was also on fine form with Swim in the Blood of a Curious Dream, an odd Covid era story where a widowed man and young son are stranded at a truck-stop when a sudden snowstorm blows in and the spirit of his dead wife is not too far away.
Ramsey Campbell is an absolute master of the horror short story and in A Life of Nightmares, vividly brings to life the terror of the first day at secondary school, which then jumps forward in time with fractured and unnerving dream sequences into something otherworldly. I also loved Livia Llewellyn’s Volcano, an unsettling tale of an odd college student (with a great first-person narrative) who gets a summer job fixing upholstery in a basement theatre and stumbles upon an unused entrance. But to what? I’m going to have to reread this one to figure out what happened in the end. Elsewhere in the anthology there are also stories from Josh Malerman, Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, John Langan, Usman T. Malik, and Gemma Files.
Dark Stars has many sweet and very few weak spots and there is a lot of fun to be had here, either by reading the stories in sequence or by picking up your favourite authors first. As I said earlier, Titan are excellent at this and this is a fine follow up to New Fears and New Fears 2, which were both edited by Mark Morris.
– Tony Jones