{Book Review} Ashes and Entropy: Your Cure for the Lackluster Horror Anthology

Ashes & Entropy, the latest horror anthology from Nightscape Press, delivers jaw-dropping cutting edge horror from some of the best and brightest literary talents working today.  Full stop.  This isn’t some average, just fine thank you, there was a good story or two, horror anthology.  Seriously, did I mention its got John Langan, Laird Barron, and Jon Padgett?  Nadia Bulkin, Kristi DeMeester, and Damien Angelica Walters?  

Full disclosure, I backed this anthology on Kickstarter last summer solely based on the list of contributing authors and some really amazing original artwork from Luke Spooner.  (Forgot to mention that, yeah each and every story has an accompanying illustration from none other than Luke Spooner.  See, it gets even better!)  I wasn’t at all familiar with publisher Nightscape Press and its proprietor Robert S. Wilson, but I had heard a rumor that Jon Padgett read an unpublished story entitled “The Yellow House” at the KGB Bar in NYC and that it was going to be included in something from Nightscape Press.  Well, if some of my money could help kick-start that, well so be it.  Robert turned out to be an awesome guy too and during the KS campaign we ran an interview with him here on Signal Horizon.  He even hit some of the stretch goals and seeing the whole thing come to fruition is really great and after reading the book all I have to say is, “Would definitely kick-start again!”

 A sneak peak at some of the incredible artwork by Luke Spooner

Horror anthologies often get short shrift, sometimes for a good reason.  Horror really thrives in the short format, but often horror anthologies- especially the big name brand ones- fail to deliver anything new.  Case in point would be 2018’s likely most widely read horror anthology, Flight or Fright by Stephen King and Bev Vincent.  1,394 starred ratings and 248 reviews on Goodreads, but boy was it just adequate.  Walking through a departure lounge you can grab a copy of the completely adequate Flight or Fright and then stop by a completely adequate Chili’s for lunch.  Its almost all reprints and while it has one of my favorite stories of all time, “Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis, that story is 10 years old and I had a full head of hair when I read it in The Best Horror of the Year Volume freaking One.  “Cargo” is one of the newer stories to boot.  The Stephen King original story is a stinker, but the Joe Hill story is surprisingly good.  Really, really good in fact.  Just like my first experience with Chili’s Southwestern Egg Rolls; sometimes you get a pleasant surprise when you expected merely adequate.

Why do I bring up Flight or Fright?  Because if King and Vincent would have just got off their butts and solicited a couple of the incredible writers you can find in Ashes & Entropy for some new stories about terror in the skies we could have had something that was really awesome and a whole slew on new readers could have gotten turned on to the excellent fiction coming out of modern horror right freaking now.  Enough about adequate anthologies though, lets talk about how A&E delivers the cure.

Ashes starts with a little amuse buche from Tim Waggoner named “The Grey Room.”  Grimy and evocative, from a place that feels just down the road from Ligotti’s bungalow house, “The Grey Room” signals very clearly that this anthology is going to be something both special and horrific.  The setting and some of the imagery will be familiar to fans of Ligotti, but this is no pastiche.  Characters and desires that are very different populate “The Grey Room” making the experience new and exhilarating.  This a theme you will find in almost every story in Ashes: the stories are new, vibrant, and fresh.  Again, there is no room for merely adequate fare here.

Nadia Bulkin has an absolutely stand out story near the beginning with “Flesh Without Blood.”  This one focuses on competition, both of the sibling and athletic varieties, which is a theme that you don’t often run into in genre fiction.  Her characters feel real and there is an excellent mystery hook that pays off at the end. I have always thought that I need to read more of her work, but after reading “Flesh Without Blood” I found myself on Amazon buying her latest collection She Said Destroy.  It was that good.  On the subject of authors who I need to read more of, Max Booth III also has excellent story with “Scraps” that as a father really pulled at me.  

 Luke Spooner’s illustrations look great on both eReaders and tablets

The contributions from Laird Barron, John Langan, and Jon Padgett are all top notch examples of their work yet each one manages to have some different beats that keep the works fresh.  Langan’s “Breakwater” is easily the most noir work of his I have yet to read and is probably the most traditionally noir of the entire anthology.  It is always a fun experience to read an author that you already enjoy working in a slightly different genre, but here it’s not just fun but rather downright awe inspiring when Langan drops an amazing noir story shot through with the cosmic horror that he does so well.  “The Yellow House” by Jon Padgett is likewise a familiar flavor presented in a new way.  Returning to Dunnstown, the location of many of his stories, “The Yellow House” feels much different and I’m not exactly sure why.  Maybe it is a different character perspective or maybe its a focus on a more emotional element.  With this and some of his other recent work, like “Little Delta of Filth” on PseudoPod and the Broker of Nightmares chapbook, I get the feeling that Jon is spreading is dark wings a bit and flying a bit further from the dark nest he built with Secrets of Ventriloquism.  Its great to see an author whose work is already stellar hit some different notes and expand in new directions, and you can read it here first and not have to wait for his next single author collection!

Likewise, Barron’s story “Girls Without Their Faces On” takes us to familiar territory for Laird: Alaska, but more specifically a world that could be adjacent to those he as explored in The Croning and “The Broadsword” but with a couple of twists in both character and action that make this tale both fresh and exciting.  Kristi DeMeester’s story “For Our Skin, A Daughter” is also top notch short fiction writing from a prolific author that is quickly becoming known for her dark blends of cosmic horror, fantasy, and weird ethereal yet powerfully evocative prose.  A taste of her excellent fiction can be found over at PseudoPod, in fact a really great piece just dropped a few days ago!  So, if you haven’t yet had the chance to enjoy her work, Ashes & Entropy makes a great introduction.  Damien Angelica Walter’s contribution, “What Finds Its Way Back,” is again more top notch prose from another exciting author. The staff here at Signal Horizon really enjoyed her latest single author collection and she does not seem to be letting up on delivering dark and lusciously detailed stories that always leave an emotional impact.

Some of the stories included in A&E were very surprising and exciting because of the risks involved.  Matthew M. Bartlett in “Dr. 999” spins a tale out of internet reviews of a hair product.  At face value it’s the kind of thing that sounds like it wouldn’t work, but yet again Bartlett pulls horror from some unlikely places and shows his skill at weaving flash fiction pieces into a greater whole.  “Red Stars/White Snow/Black Metal” by Fiona Maeve Geist is different in its frenetic pace and high action shot through with weird religious and philosophical monologues.  I didn’t think I would like it, but like so much in A&E it just plain works and winds up being one of the most interesting reads of an stellar group.  “The Kind Detective” by Lucy A. Snyder starts as a low stakes police procedural and takes a turn that is absolutely unexpected, totally weird, and by no means describable outside the text.  Again, one that I didn’t think I would like became one of my favorites right in the middle and left me wanting to describe it to friends, but completely unable.  All I can say is, you have to read it for yourself.  

“The Levee Breaks” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy and “We All Speak Black” by Lynne Jamneck are both excellent as well, two wildly different stories taking us to some settings that we don’t often see in horror fiction.  “The Levee Breaks” requires quite a bit of effort on the part of the reader, but was wildly rewarding because of it.  I’m not very familiar with Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s work, but if this is any indication I am going to be picking up more in the future.  Lynne Jamneck’s “We All Speak Black” takes us to a post-apocalyptic Lovecraftian South Africa where many of the tropes and themes that we take for granted as horror readers are turned on their heads to excellent effect.

Ashes & Entropy kind of snuck in there during the last days of

2018 and because of the busy season many of us may have missed it, but despite its late entry it is without a doubt one of my favorite anthologies of short horror fiction from 2018.  Out right now in eBook format on Amazon and coming very soon in physical form this is one that you have to own.  If you are down with eBooks I recommend you click on our affiliate link to the right and buy today or if you would rather wait for the physical copy don’t delay and pre-order a copy directly from Nightscape Press.  You will not be disappointed.

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