Max Booth III & Lori Michelle (Eds.)
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
One of my favourite tropes in the Horror genre is the notion of the ‘haunted film’ or ‘possessed television episode or special’, some kind of cinematic or televisual content that, if viewed, will inevitably lead the unfortunate soul who watched it into some kind of mortal peril, usually resulting in the death of themselves and their loved ones. It’s been done in a number of films, perhaps most famously Ringu and the American adaption, The Ring, and it’s also quite prevalent in web-fiction, particularly long-form fiction to be found on various Creepy Pasta websites and forums. If it’s done well it can be an incredibly effective structure for a piece of horror writing, and also an unusual narrative device; and because I haven’t seen it used very often in horror fiction, when I saw that Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing had recently published an anthology with stories based around that theme, Lost Films, I was more than happy to accept an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) in return for a fair and honest review.
Lost Films immediately went to the top of my reading pile, and not just because it makes use of one of my favourite tropes. I was also interested because one of the editors was Max Booth III, who has rapidly risen to become one of my favourite Horror writers. I’ve read several pieces of Horror fiction by Mr Booth, most recently in the Welcome to the Show anthology published by Crystal Lake Publishing, where his story True Starmen provides a perfect example of his skill as a writer. Artfully written and with a keen eye for characterisation and atmosphere, it also contains what I’ve quickly come to recognise as his particular trademark: sharp, witty black comedy which, in this particular case, had me laughing out loud in public at a wickedly abrupt and blood-soaked ending. So I was looking forward to seeing what an anthology edited by Mr Booth (and Ms. Michelle) might look like – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The cover to the anthology is a fantastic piece of art by illustrator George Cotronis, a red and black illustration of what looks like a ruined cinema or TV studio, a figure framed in a distant doorway, looming menacingly, framed by some gorgeous art-deco style font for the title and editors. It’s a subtle and rather chilling piece of cover art that readily conveys the theme of the anthology, and certainly draws the attention of potential readers.
The anthology consists of nineteen stories in total, the title page of each one being accompanied by a small piece of interior art in the style of a pencil portrait, illustrating a key scene or character featured in the story. Though I’m certainly aware that the expense means only a small number of publishers can afford to do so, I’m a huge advocate for interior art because, when done effectively, they can really enhance the atmosphere of a piece of fiction. The interior illustrations in Lost Films are a perfect example, as artist Luke Spooner has obviously done his research and read the anthology before starting drawing; each piece is a perfect accompaniment to its associated story, Spooner’s loose, pencil-sketch style readily matching the overarching theme in the anthology of the imperfect nature of memory and the manner in which films (and memories) can be degraded by repeated viewing.
The opening story in the collection, Lather of Flies by Brian Evenson is a brilliant opening tale that really strikes the tone for the rest of the anthology; a cult director, a mysterious film made by the director that no-one has ever heard of, and the obsessive curiosity of a completionist film fan combine with disturbing results. It’s an atmospheric and often unsettling story, as the protagonist is sent on increasingly bizarre leads to try and find a copy of the film, and Evenson creates some memorable characters, particularly the director, Lahr, whose eerily charming and subtly manipulative nature evokes Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. The following story, a full-length novella from Gemma Files entitled The Church in the Mountain, is by far the stand-out tale in the anthology, and readily warrants the purchase price alone. Ostensibly following a young woman as she attempts to locate an old film that she remembers watching when she was a child, itself about a woman returning to her hometown to attend the funeral of her distant mother, it rapidly becomes clear that is it so much more than that. As I read through the novella, I realised it was like an onion, layer after layer slowly peeling away as Files increases the pace and heightens the tension, finally merging the two elements of the story like an editor splicing together two different pieces of footage. It is a haunting and masterful piece of horror fiction that readily makes use of the anthology’s theme, but also weaves in so many different elements – the nature of family, what it means to belong, how sorrow and cultural alienation can cleave families and isolated communities apart, so many other issues – that it demands multiple readings just to understand everything it is saying. In fact, although the novella has clear occult and cosmic horror elements, it is also entirely possible to see them as metaphorical subtext for various forms of radicalisation in persecuted minorities, whether religious, cultural or otherwise. If The Church in the Mountain does not appear in the various ‘Best of Horror’ anthologies for 2018 then it will be a genuine crime, for it deserves an appreciation by a much, much wider audience.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on 8Track by Bob Pastorella is one of the most mind-bending and nightmarish pieces of short horror fiction I think I’ve ever come across – and I absolutely mean nightmarish in the best possible sense. Although it uses a haunted or reality-altering 8-track video cassette as its focal point, the story has this strange ethereal, almost disorientating feel to it; even after finishing it, I couldn’t quite be clear what had caused the chain of events depicted in the story to start, or even to finish (if it truly could be said to finish) and it kind of burrowed into my brain. It’s brilliantly written, and has such a disturbing ending, featuring the titular 8-track tape, that I’m left feeling distinctly ill-at-ease with the odd VHS tape still lying around my house. The tale that follows on, A Festival of Fiends by Brian Asman, is perhaps more clear-cut (pun intended) in its narrative structure, but is just as horrifying: the notion of a film festival held by a small group of serial killers and other terrifying individuals is a genius idea that I’m surprised hasn’t been used more in the genre, and Asman has created a group of characters that are incredibly well fleshed-out and distinctive for a short story. The atmosphere is so tense that you could cut it with a knife at times, and the characterisation so spot-on to be disquieting, as is the rather unique manner in which the films are transported and shown.
Moving through the collection, I Hate All That Is Mine from the pen of Leigh Harlen is a mind-bending and reality-bending story about an indie horror film that reminded me of a particularly horrific and disturbing version of Groundhog Day, as the protagonist encounters her roommate’s film again and again, each time changing for the worse – initially subtly, but then in more and more distressing ways. The looping nature of the film is a fantastic device for subtly heightening the inherent tension, leading to an ending that simultaneously makes me want to see more, and yet terrified of what that additional material might lead to within the story. Elephant’s That Aren’t is another great story, this time by Betty Rocksteady that uses the anthology’s theme to take a look at the nature of inspiration, and how families can simultaneously inspire and stifle; as art student Lindsay becomes more and more desperate to find inspiration for her flagging art project, to try and prove that she could be as good an artist as her mother, her obsession and depression seem to begin to affect reality itself, aided by fragmentary memories of an old childhood film.
Another highlight of the anthology for me was Archibald Leech, The Many-Storied Man by John C. Foster. It’s difficult, in a way, to properly describe Foster’s contribution to Lost Films because it seems to cross into so many sub-genres at once – psychological horror, body horror, cosmic horror – and yet manages to blend them all superbly into a fantastic piece of horror fiction. The titular Leech, some kind of agent for one of the many three-letter intelligence agencies that dot the globe, is sent to a remote village to investigate why a top-secret government facility has fallen off of the map. The realities of what he finds in the town are horrifying enough, and the abrupt, noir-style ending is brilliant, but the character of Archibald Leech is the star attraction of the story, and one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in horror fiction. The character-building is fantastic, bringing to mind things like Twin Peaks as Foster forces the reader to question who or what, exactly, Leech is and what his goals are; memories fragment, bizarre supporting characters appear, and there are more than a few hints that this might not actually be the ‘true’ reality for Leech at all. Superbly written, and I look forward to seeing what Foster does with the character in the future, and what he writes in general. The Fourth Wall by Kev Harrison certainly takes an interesting, and contemporaneous, angle to the theme of the anthology, looking at the simultaneously intimate and isolated work of an adult webcam worker; as Valentina begins to have disturbing dreams about a man assaulting her, she finds that videos are being recorded by her webcam without her knowing, and they may have a connection with a client.
Coming towards the end of the anthology, Things She Left In The Wood is a brilliantly tense and claustrophobic tale of familial conflict, isolation and abuse by Jessica McHugh that has a heart-breaking and chilling ending that I really enjoyed. If a horror tale can leave me feeling uncomfortable and challenged after reading it, then I know it’s been especially effective, and that was exactly the case with Kristi DeMeester’s Stag. Interweaving a fractured nuclear family, the nature of obsessive devotion to religion in a way that is really only lip-service, and a young girl growing towards puberty, DeMeester paints a picture of her protagonist, Carol-Ann, trying to come to terms with a family that is slowly falling apart, becoming obsessively focused on a stuffed Stag’s head mounted in her living room. It’s a brilliantly incisive portrait, unrelentingly personal at times and with a wicked edge, and was easily unsettling enough even without the addition of its ending. Finally, The Fantastic Flying Eraser Heads by David James Keaton is a great story to end with; the idea to set a horror story within one of the last remaining video-rental stores in America meshes perfectly with the theme of the anthology, and there’s a huge amount of potential in the setting, and characters, that Keaton effectively mines to provide a strange and thought-provoking story that brought to mind the many times I had watched Donnie Darko and then spent countless hours afterwards, late at night, fruitlessly trying to track all of the implications and inferences in the plot.
If Lost Films represents the general quality of horror fiction that Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing are submitting to the marketplace, then I believe they have a very bright future in front of them. Lost Films is a brilliant horror anthology, containing well-written, highly engaging and often intensely horrifying and disturbing stories, all based around a theme that has yet to be well-mined by the genre. Accompanied by fantastic cover art and superb interior illustrations, editors Max Booth III and Lori Michelle have produced an anthology that should sit on the shelf of any discerning fan of the horror genre. In addition, the anthology contains Gemma Files’ The Church in the Mountain which absolutely needs to be read by everyone even remotely interested in the Horror genre. I look forward to seeing what Perpetual Motion Machine publish next; and whatever it is, I can guarantee it will be at the very top of my reading pile.