Anytime you add a Stephen King story to a horror anthology, you’re lighting a beacon. Choosing the story The Last Rung on the Ladder sets a quietly horrific tone and creates some vast expectations.
Placing art by Glenn Chadbourne (a horror-regular artist) amid the shorts was a step toward filling expectations, or maybe it was trying to side step and push focus onto the greater whole of the anthology. Poetry in alongside the stories surely changed the direction, unfortunately for this review, I’ve read so little poetry that I cannot comment on the poems. I read every word, but could hardly feel every rhythm, if I did any and I do not doubt that they were there.
So onto the stories… Chiral Mad 3 begins in expectantly subtle way with Richard Chizmer’s The Poetry of Life, a quiet, slow-paced tale that blows up somewhere just beyond reach. This matches an assumed theme and carries forward into dread and wanting with Hal Bodner’s A Rift in the Reflection. As for the opening of a collection, editor Michael Bailey did his duty, pulling stories the oozed humanity and hopeless situations already underway.
Slow quiet, sometimes too quiet, the tales roll together before butting against the original gemstone of this collection. The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim) by Paul Michael Anderson is rife with simple possibilities, likelihoods and truths. These victims exist. These bastards exist. These would-be heroes exist and lack in all the hard ways. Difficult and frustrating, the story follows two boys, one a normal high schooler and the other an impossible to miss loser young boy. The pain is palpable from between the lines and the outcome is set to DREAD LEVEL 10. Wonderful. Horrible. Compelling.
Things peter and dull somewhat on the shift of horrific tune. Coming around to a change in flavor.
Emily B. Cataneo and Mercedes M. Yardley both draw satisfyingly grim tales that demand imagination and an easy pull of attention. A mysterious terror steals the light and casts it on another unlucky and hopeless family in The Bigger Bedroom by Josh Malerman. This story is industrious in that the author used nothing but space to bring home the desired effect. And it worked.
Age takes the stage soon after and Ramsey Campbell’s Know Your Code offers a view into an inevitability and one common possibility lying therein like a snare trap. Alarming and off putting. Slow and quietly gnawing.
I know these people, person. So do you.
Another turn is taken and the volume lifts. Silver Thread, Hammer Ring by Gary A. Braunbeck masses heroes, villains and a place not so far into the past to retell the tale of John Henry. This is wholly entertaining and surprisingly heart lifting, a rarity amid these tales. John Henry is a hero worth rooting for and falling in to cheer the character on is made easy by the smooth and effectual storytelling.
Max Booth III and Damien Angelica Walters return the focus to the grim, and add a dirty edge, invoking more physical and full-bodied pain on the collection.
To finish, Jack Ketchum’s Seconds slows the flow and whispers sweet nothings until the dark end consumes the pages as it did its characters.
All in all, there is much more here to like than dislike, there’s enough here that it might inch toward awe. Only a few times did my tastes demand for a quicker ending. In the case of the stories by Anderson, Malerman and Braunbeck my head will likely keep them lingering like a grocery list demanding I gather more.