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Just over a year and a go I came across the initial publication from a fledgling small press publisher, April Moon Books, called “The Dark Rites of Cthulhu”. This was a really quite delicious themed anthology centred on the use of dark grimoires, incantations and sorcery throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s work. This book was then swiftly followed by a series of short story collections called Short Sharp Shocks and a novella, Black Star Black Sun by writer Rich Hawkins. To say that I was bowled over by the quality and variety of work being published would be an understatement. Here was a publisher producing consistently entertaining and varied books that covered all the styles that I love in speculative fiction: Science Fiction, Weird Fiction, Lovecraftian and Horror. So, when April Moon Books announced it was re-uniting with editor Brian M. Sammons to do another anthology called “Flesh Like Smoke” you can probably imagine that my expectations were pretty high. Would it be case of lighting striking twice?

Well yes would be the simple answer. “Flesh Like Smoke” is a riotously good collection of sixteen short stories that deal with multiple permutations of shape shifting. From Werewolves to Native American legends to Folk tales to Science Fiction survival stories, this anthology has got something for everyone who loves a cracking good read and great storytellers. Editor Brian M. Sammons has this great knack for presenting anthologies with a nice balance of styles, settings and voices that have quality stamped all over them. The added bonus is the evocative black and white illustrations from publisher Neil Barker that accompany each of the sixteen stories setting the mood.

First off the leash is Edward M. Erdelac’s “Philopatry”. Raw, brutal and bloody, the story follows a local Boston priest as he attempts to bring to justice a vicious killer that is stalking and slaughtering the local population by hiring a local gangster. What better way to eliminate another predator than to use another?  However, predators come in all shapes and sizes and that old adage of a wolf in sheep’s clothing is very much the case here. Erdelac has produced a fast paced and suitably brutal opening story about the nature of the beast and the complicity of the Church in protecting itself from scandal.

Next up is “Her Fathers Skin” by Christine Morgan. I really like Christine Morgan’s style of writing. Her story in The Dark Rites of Cthulhu, set in a mental institution was that gorgeous moment when you read someone’s work and go “I have to read more of this.” It is an epithet that could so easily be applied to all the writers in here but I digress. “Her Fathers Skin” is a hugely entertaining, moody and convincing story set in the time of the Vikings and dealing with a Father wish, an inquisitive daughter and what is the actual wellspring for the Legend of the Berserker. It is just a brilliant story with a real sense of foreboding and dread building up towards the end. Much like the previous story this deals with the idea of legacy and the quite literal interpretation of the sins of the father. If you haven’t had the opportunity to sample Christine Morgan’s writing then get cracking, you will be amply rewarded.

Glynn Owen Barrass’ “Chaney Jnr. Overdrive” is one of those stories that slowly creeps up on you and completely surprises you. This starts out as an almost noir type detective story then rapidly mutates into something else. The best way I can describe this peach of a story is almost like a Cyberpunk Little Red Riding Hood. It is a damn good story that ably demonstrates Barrass’ writing talents and also that shape shifting is not just a process restricted to the physical realm. It, like many of the stories contained herein is really well executed, taut and atmospheric and full of little twists and turns that kept me enthralled. By this point, I was thinking about having a break from the book but then came that moment in every reader’s journey where you go “just a bit more”.  You know, that feeling you get where the writing is just so deliciously tasty that you just have to have one more bite and end up devouring the whole book.

In a book edited by Sammons, I have usually found it to be the point where you encounter new writers work for the first time and just keep going. The case in point is Tim Waggoner’s “Blood and Bone”. This is an excellent story that uses the Dog Eat Dog world of office politics and corporate culling to tell the tale of one woman’s journey to suppress her natural instincts and blend in. I really liked the themes of identity, gender and being true to one’s nature and instinct that underpin the story. I don’t really want to go into more detail about Blood and Bone. It is just a brilliant story well told. Tim Waggoner is definitely on my “to read” list.The same can be pretty much said of “Bruce, Waking Up” by Paul McMahon. This is a great story of a young man, Bruce, being seduced and used for hunting material. It is just a really well crafted tale that is engrossing, taut and scary but at the same time has had a lot of thought put into its’ underlying themes of identity and sexuality. That’s the thing I love about really good speculative fiction, the story is always about something else. And this is reflected again in Cody Goodfellow’s excellent “Purity” and its’ take on evangelical Christianity’s moral stance on chastity and keeping yourself for the right person. However, seeing as this is an anthology about all things metamorphic, “Purity” follows a very different vein on honour and wholesomeness in a closed religious community where the onset of puberty and raging hormones has a very different effect.  It is another excellent story in an anthology that is chock full of brilliantly brutal and beautiful stories.

The quality threshold contains with “Were?” by Darrell Schweitzer. This takes a fragmentary approach to what would actually happen should you decide to barter your soul for the chance of revenge. I just really liked this story with its take on how far your soul and sense of self would transform when you become all about hunger and satisfying your innate lusts.  “Scoop” by Sam Gafford takes a long hard look at the world of the tabloid press and their penchant for lurid headlines and sensationalist copy about gruesome murders and distorting the truth. As one veteran reporter is about to find out, grabbing the attention of the public will have far graver consequences if one starts digging a little too deep and uncovering the truth behind the fiction. And in this case, it has teeth, lots of teeth. Again, this has a nice build up and reveal and really captures the sordid type of sensationalism that these rags thrive on. Yes again, another writer that I haven’t read that much of and will correct forthwith!

Following this, Sammons selection of stories hits another home run courtesy of Don Webb and D.A. Madigan’s Vietnam War based story of black magic and sorcery, “Hunter’s Moon”. I loved this story’s atmosphere. Dark, brooding and menacing, you just know that that the title character, a G.I grunt with Romani heritage is going to really discover what being “in the shit” in the jungle really means. Especially if you put your trust in a little old time magic and pledge allegiance to dark gods for a bit of retribution. In this case, karma has habit of coming around. The next story is Scott R. Jones’ impressive science fiction themed “The Abraxas Protocol”. I like Jones’ hallucinatory styled prose as he tells the story of humanity in a far flung future where individuals transform themselves into every conceivable form to escape the mundane world of indulgence they have boxed themselves into. One particular person is about to find out that the keeper of the technology has radically different ideas about where humanity should be going and sets in motion the title protocol. The Abraxas Protocol is like a massive shot of adrenaline to the heart that just breaks the anthology off into a wholly new direction and is yet another example of the diverse quality that you get in this here anthology.

The same can be said of Konstantine Paradias’ brilliant “Claw and Fang, Stone and Bone”. This is a stark, raw and brutal story about two warring clans and the measures that they resort to defend themselves. I really liked the dark and menacing tone of this as one tribe finds itself under constant threat of slaughter for encroaching on another’s territory and has to draw on its own ingenuity and reserves to defeat what comes their way. It feels very much like one of those stories that has been passed down from generation to generation and forms the back bone of folk lore and legend. Great stuff! The mood is lightened somewhat by the inclusion of William Meikle’s smashing tale, “ The Weathered Stone”. The more I read of Meikle’s work the more I want to read. He’s just a really entertaining writer who can spin a good yarn and this tale of two warring sorcerers and their claim over a little black book is humorous and yes, fun. I particularly like Meikle’s turn of phrase and ability to get the patter between the characters down right. It also makes me want to know just what lurks in the basement of the Mitchell library in Glasgow!

Sam Stone and David J.Howe’s “Survival of the Fittest” is a cracking science fiction take on how humanity’s tampering with the process of terra forming has had an unnerving consequence for those directly involved. In the process of forcing evolution there are going to be problems and, as a relief crew are about to discover, the notion of who is predator and who is prey is about to take a startling turn. What can I say? I really liked the style and ideas behind this story’s take on transformation and evolution in the cold, unforgiving darkness of space and how it alters people’s physicality and psychology to the point of being the ultimate in predation. It is a tremendously entertaining and taut story. That theme of evolution and change is amplified exponentially by Peter Rawlick’s breathtaking “Things Change”. This has a hint of Lovecraftian themes about it as it follows the parallel evolution of an entity alongside the development of life on earth from the simplest protozoa, to the dinosaurs and the rise of a sentient and malleable race called humanity. To say more would be to spoil what is an exceptional story in a field of excellence.

The fine line between bestial nature and human nurture is explored in “Though it be Darkness There” by Damien Angelica Waters. This is the story of Bel and her struggle to fight against the monster that has always been a part of her at bay, dormant and sated. Waters is a writer whose work I have had limited exposure to and to say that I was bowled over would be an understatement. The story has this almost fragmentary waking dream type feel to it as you experience Bel’s increasingly erratic behaviour and periods of blackout with a gnawing sense of dread that this is all going to go wrong very, very quickly. Again, I can’t fault the quality of the writing here and I have another author whose work I want to read more of.

And, like that, I arrive at the end story in the anthology and come full circle with Brian M. Sammons bleak, brutal and nasty “Blood and Dust”. This follows two Federal agents tasked with investigating mysterious disappearances and deaths in the Oklahoma Cherokee Reservation who come across more than they bargained for. As a closer to the anthology, “Blood and Dust” brings the anthology’s theme nicely back to its horror roots with its’ dark, brutal and brooding meditation on the Native American legend of the Skinwalker.

Flesh Like Smoke is, quite frankly, a superb anthology from April Moon Books and editor Brian M. Sammons. Do yourselves a favour and take a walk on the wild side. You will not be disappointed!

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George Anderson

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