I was excited to read this upcoming release from Crystal Lake Publishing, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories. I was also fortunate to get an advanced reading copy of the anthology. Crystal Lake is making quite a name for itself in the horror and dark fiction categories since their opening in 2012.
This year Crystal Lake walked away with two Bram Stoker Awards at Stoker Con in Las Vegas, one for Mercedes Murdock Yardley’s Little Dead Red and Alessandro Manzetti’s Eden Underground. One of the authors in Gutted, Paul Tremblay, also won a Bram Stoker Award at the event, and received a shout out from horror giant Stephen King on Twitter.
King isn’t the only giant around these parts. Gutted also features stories by Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, and Ramsey Campbell. Gutted also has its share of stunning interior artwork for each story and a stunning cover that speak directly to what you’ll find between these pages—withered loveliness faced with brutal decay.
Stephanie M. Wytovich’s prose poem “The Morning After Was Filled With Bone” set the tone of beauty in the grotesque, followed by one of the strongest stories in the collection, Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave by Brian Kirk. Kirk’s portrayal of a father desperate to help his daughter is at once alarming and moving, leaving you with a lingering disquiet.
Neil Gaiman’s story presents us with the problem in one of C.S. Lewis’ most well-known book series, leaving me with an image of the lion and the witch that I will never forget.
Mercedes M. Yardley’s “Water Thy Bones” shows the strong connection to the theme of this anthology and to Wytovich’s prose poem with its theme of the beauty, the clean purity of bone, prominent under paper-thin skin. It also echoes true love, acceptance of self and of a becoming that is painful, but essential. The story’s ending felt reverent, enduring and I got a freakish sensation that this was a truly beautiful ending.
The next story is Paul Tremblay’s Choose Your Own Adventure style story, “Arrival”. I loved the CYOA books as a kid and Tremblay’s version doesn’t disappoint. Each decision the reader is presented with takes you to a different part of the house that the protagonist will explore. Once inside each room, hidden among description and a touch of character’s history is a ghost of a puzzle piece. I recommend visiting each room and not trying to opt out and leave the house.
“Changes” by Damien Angelica Walters portrays the tragedy that can befall a relationship when neither party wants to share their pain with the other. In this case, the relationship is between mother and daughter. Each character’s point of view is expressed with empathy and reading it, I knew if one of them had been a bit braver—a bit more open—the story could have ended differently. The real fear here is of rejection by someone you love when all others have already done so. It’s fear of reprimand and the determination to maintain a strong façade in front of everyone. Walters’ story was horrific, and all too probable.
If I had not read the Table of Contents first, I would not have guessed that “Coming to Grief” was a Clive Barker tale. It wasn’t the story you typically see transformed to film, rather upon rereading, it reminded me of “Human Remains”, one of the stories in Barker’s Books of Blood Volume Three.
I was drawn in by Kevin Lucia’s “When We All Meet at the Ofrenda” as it was full of familiar imagery and folklore. What is an ofrenda? It’s the objects put on a ritual altar, typically used in Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The protagonist, I felt for him too, being separated from his love. But not for long…
“Hey, Little Sister” by Maria Alexander caught my attention as well. To make things up to his beloved sister, a man gives into a bout of needful revenge. Afterward, he has to make an afterlife-ending choice.
I reached out to the owner of Crystal Lake Publishing, Joe Mynhardt and asked how he managed to get the likes of Gaiman and Barker in his anthology. He said that it was thanks to the editors of Gutted who had a contact with someone close to Barker. (Lucky!) And well, they reached out to Gaiman’s agent and asked.
All of the stories in this anthology have a beauty, whether it is in language or tone or in finessing a hard-hitting theme to disarm the reader. It’s worth picking up this collection.
You can buy Gutted beginning June 24th from Crystal Lake Publishing.