Horror Fiction Sampler Platter: February 2018

This month in the world of short horror fiction:

Some Yuletide trauma leads to an out-of-control E.R.—a  tweener kid lands his first potential hunting trophy—the prospect of immortal women really freaks out some men in 17th century Boston—a young girl gets trapped in a personalized air travel nightmare.

‘Third Shift’, by Terry R. Hill

Tales from the Canyons of the Damned; No. 21; January 26, 2018; edited by Daniel Arthur Smith

It’s 2am on Christmas Eve at a hospital in rural Missouri, and Dr. Abercrombie is in way over his head.  He’s working a triple shift, his body is wracked by a mucus-heavy flu, and a mass casualty traffic pile-up has swamped the emergency room with patients. Sniffling and coughing, trying desperately to triage his way through the broken bodies, Dr. Abercrombie just hopes that his Christmas doesn’t get any worse…even as he can’t stop thinking about that mysterious animal bite victim that was admitted earlier in his shift…

Capturing the high-wire tension of the E.R. better than any NBC medical procedural, author Terry R. Hill practically beg the reader to keep up with his rat-a-tat doctor talk and frenetic pacing.  With enough phlegmy flu descriptions to leave the reader squirming, Hill’s story is an unforgiving reminder that in the hectic, contagious chaos of the E.R., danger is everywhere.

‘Patchwork Things’, by John Horner Jacobs

Cemetery Dance; Issue 76; February 1, 2018; edited by Richard Chizmar

Hunting is traditionally viewed as an American rite of passage, a guidepost on the twisty road to manhood.  11-year-old Franklin knows nothing about hunting, but his Uncle Burl aims to teach him, dragging the kid down to the cypress bottoms early one morning to hunt deer.  It doesn’t take long for Franklin to triumphantly bag his first kill…only it ain’t a deer.  ‘Don’t touch it, Frank,’ Burl said. ‘Don’t think too much on it, either.’

Author John Horner Jacobs’ masterful descriptions of the outdoors put the reader right there in the plywood deer blind alongside young Franklin.  Rimmed with the melancholy tradition of Southern gothic, it’s a dread-filled cocktail topped with a sprinkle of old school superstition. You never forget your first kill.

‘Six Hangings in the Land of Unkillable Women’, by Theodore McCombs

Nightmare Magazine; Issue 65; February 2, 2018; edited by John Joseph Adams

It’s hard to perform an execution when the accused simply won’t die. This poses a problem for a Boston homicide copper tasked with executing Liza Barrow, a single mom who starved her bed-restrained 5-year-old to death. The thing is, Liza Barrow won’t hang (the rope snaps…or simply writhes away, refusing to be tied), she can’t be shot (the bullets simply…disappear), and she grins her way through a grueling turn in the electric chair. But it’s not just Liza who won’t die…stories of women surviving death are becoming more and more common. The word is getting out: the women are unkillable. At least at the hands of men.

With ‘Six Hangings’, author Theodore McCombs has crafted a thoughtful, reflective tale of misogyny and retribution. Set in 1899 Massachusetts and framed by a series of gruesomely depicted attempted murders, it’s a story that is of a very specific time and place, even as it haunts the reader with its relevance to right this very second. The wicked pissa ending really sticks with you.

[Deep Cut]

‘Alita in the Air’, by Martha Soukup

A Nightmare’s Dozen: Stories from the Dark; 1996; edited by Michael Stearns

On a recent used bookstore prowl I discovered this surprisingly strong young adult anthology from 1996.  There are a few PG-13 winners here, but ‘Alita in the Air’ is a real stand out. Young Alita is flying as an ‘unaccompanied child’ to visit her Uncle Roy in Arizona, but upon arrival, she convinces the gate crew that the man waiting at the airport isn’t her Uncle Roy.  The petulant Alita is put on a plane back to Chicago, and what follows is a Kafkaesque nightmare that attempts to capture the now-quaint frustrations associated with pre-9/11 air travel.  Author Martha Soukup follows up her 1995 Nebula win for Best Short Story with this clever little tale that leaves a nice Twilight Zone tang in the back of your throat.