"Visitants" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Ulysses Press
The world is a diseased zoo. – from Richard Christian Matheson's Transfiguration
Edited by Stephen Jones
2010, 408 pages, Fiction
Released on November 1st, 2010
When it comes to book anthologies in the horror genre, you can pick from a plethora of choices. There are collections just for vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, new authors or just plain old horror. But how many times have you seen one where the theme is angels? Hell, even in film, there aren't too many horror movies devoted to God's winged servants. The fantastic The Prophecy immediately comes to mind as one of the few, as well as the not-so-fantastic Legion. On the whole, it's virtually an untapped market.
Ulysess Press' Visitants tries to fill that gap and is packed with 27 stories, old and new. While it is implied that there is a horror element to the book with the press release, the majority of the stories lack any sort of terror that you would expect to find. However, all of the tales are dark in theme, either black in comedy or just flat-out depressing, so while it may lack in scares, it does deliver in bringing something different to the genre. Couple that with the book boasting such authors as Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Graham Masterson, Michael Marshall Smith and more, Visitants is more than the typical throwaway anthology you generally find on the clearance rack at Barnes & Noble which generally contains old stories from mediocre authors.
Visitants opens strong with Neil Gaiman's Murder Mysteries, an engrossing tale about an angel called upon to investigate heaven's first murder. I've really liked everything I've read by Gaiman, and this is no exception. The heaven he creates isn't so much a place of eternal happiness, but rather a world you'd find in a Raymond Chandler novel. God's kingdom is a seedy place, where every angel seems to have something to hide.
Another great story in the book—and perhaps the best—is Featherweight by Robert Shearman. It centers on a married couple who are trapped in their car after an accident. Strange things begin to happen both in the car and out. Our protagonist, the husband, is stuck in the vehicle with a wife who is complaining about the feathers growing out of her back, while on the outside of the car, cherubs with sharp teeth continually bang on the windows in an attempt to get inside. The story is delightfully uncomfortable from beginning to end, and I'm eager to check out more by Shearman if Featherweight is any indication of what he can deliver.
Another highlight includes Richard Christian Matheson's Transfiguration, which tells the tale of an ice-road trucker / serial killer / angel. This worked on two levels for me. The first is, as I've recently been watching season three of Ice Road Truckers, it was very easy to visualize the emptiness of the roads the character was driving (and dumping bodies). The second is… it's just creepy. Matheson tells the story from the murderer's point of view and it's unsettling on how real it seems.
Evidence of Angels by Graham Masterton is another favorite. The story starts off bleak, as a young girl gets two major disappointments, one after the other. The first is what she desperately expected to be a baby sister turns out to be a baby brother. The second is she sees an angel and nobody believes her. Masterton does a wonderful job pulling you into the girls' life and feeling for her. And when she has her final confrontation with the person who let her down most, you give her a silent high five.
On the lighter side of things, Jay Lake's A Feast of Angels follows heaven's coroner, Nietzsche, as his services are called for a most interesting death. Joining him are St. Peter and Origen of Alexandria. A Feast of Angels is a short little jaunt at only three pages, but it is very memorable due to the offbeat writing (and perhaps the fact Nietzsche and Origen are introduced by sitting on a cloud splitting a sixer of Stroh's).
Peter Crowther's Things I Didn't Know My Father Knew is a Twilight Zone-esque piece that reunites a man with his dead father after a heavy fog envelopes the town in which the son lives. It's lacking both in horror and a heavy angel influence, but it's just surreal enough to be a nice fit in this anthology.
Being Right, by Michael Marshall Smith, is similar to Things I Didn't Know My Father Knew in the regards that it's missing any sort of scare element. The story follows Dan, a man so self-obsessed with being right that he goes to strange lengths to prove it. But, in the end, he finds there may just be more to life than, well, being right. Yeah, it sounds a bit like an after-school special, but like Crowther's work, it is injected with that Twilight Zone feel, and Dan ends up looking like such a douchebag, you can't help but dig the story.
As mentioned, there are 27 stories in Visitants and this review would be entirely too long if I went over each one. Like most anthologies you have your hits and misses, but in this case the majority of tales are hits. The few that don't work—there were only about three that I didn't care for—are swallowed up by the many that do, so they become irrelevant.
Sure, it may not be what I was originally looking forward to—angels coming down from the heavens and slaying man with Swords of Vengeance—but Visitants contains enough darkly themed tales to make it well worth the read. I have to credit editor Stephen Jones for doing a great job in both his choice of authors and his well rounded selection of stories. If you are looking for a book that will keep you up at night, you will want to look elsewhere. But if you are looking for one that is well written where each story is consistently enjoyable, go ahead and pick this one up.
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