Kate’s Review: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror”

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Book: “Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” by Joh F.D. Taft (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Where Can You Get this Book: WorldCat | Amazon | IndieBound

Book Description: Dark Stars, edited by John F.D. Taff, is a tribute to horror’s longstanding short fiction legacy, featuring 12 terrifying original stories from today’s most noteworthy authors, with an introduction by bestselling author Josh Malerman and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.

Created as an homage to the 1980 classic horror anthology, Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, this collection contains 12 original novelettes showcasing today’s top horror talent. Dark Stars features all-new stories from award-winning authors and up-and-coming voices like Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, Caroline Kepnes, and Alma Katsu, with seasoned author John F.D. Taff at the helm. An afterword from original Dark Forces contributor Ramsey Campbell is a poignant finale to this bone-chilling collection.

Within these pages you’ll find tales of dead men walking, an insidious secret summer fling, an island harboring unspeakable power, and a dark hallway that beckons. You’ll encounter terrible monsters—both human and supernatural—and be forever changed. The stories in Dark Stars run the gamut from traditional to modern, from dark fantasy to neo-noir, from explorations of beloved horror tropes to the unknown—possibly unknowable—threats. It’s all in here because it’s all out there, now, in horror.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this collection!

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” was a long time coming! As has been a theme for some books in the past two years, it was initially supposed to come out at one time, then got bumped back by a number of months due to various issues. It had been on my radar for awhile, as it was sporting the names of a number of my favorite authors (Caroline Kepnes and Stephem Graham Jones, what’s up?), AND was set up as an homage to horror anthology collections over the years (the title alone harkens to “Dark Forces”, a horror anthology from 1981 that is considered a game changer for horror short fiction in many horror circles). Those two things alone were enough to make me shrug off my nervousness about tackling a short story collection, when my experiences with such things are mixed. Granted, lately I’ve had a pretty good run with short story anthologies, but as a pessimist I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop!

I’ll break it down first with the stories I liked best. And the ones I’m picking are a mix of the obvious but also something new.

“The Attentionist” by Caroline Kepnes

Kepnes is one of my very favorite authors, so no duh she ends up as a top story in this collection. “The Attentionist” is a story that has a huge focus on sisterly rivalry, with a heavy dose of the original 1970s “Black Christmas” thrown in for good and horrifying measure. Maeve and Reg are teenage sisters, both desperate for the attention and approval of boys. They both have fantasies about being swept off their feet and live vicariously through each other, especially when Maeve gets a phone call that Reg answers and it leads to a fantasy about a potential boyfriend… But when Maeve picks up the phone, it isn’t a dream boy, but a threatening stalker, who keeps on calling, much to Maeve’s horror… and excitement. Kepnes is so damn good at making creepy and disturbing content go down with ease thanks to snark, sarcasm, and satire, and I was both very unsettled by this story while also being highly entertained. I liked the pacing, the turn on a dime reveals, and the way that Kepnes easily shows the consequences of her teenage girl characters being so deeply warped by society’s message about male approval at any cost.

“All the Things He Called Memories” by Stephen Graham Jones

Another favorite author makes it to my favorites list from this collection! And he did not disappoint, which isn’t surprising. “All the Things He Called Memories” is a blend of a few kinds of horror themes: isolation, the unknown, and the fear of not knowing a person you think you know. Jones sets his tale during the height of the first year of COVID-19, with married couple Bo and Marcy not leaving their home and trying to find ways to pass the time, Marcy suggesting they talk about their fears and the scariest thing they can remember from their lives. Bo talks about the feeling of always being watched whenever he was alone in his house, and feeling a presence around him…. And then, that presence starts to creep back into his psyche. But is it something supernatural, or a symptom of COVID restlessness.. or something worse? This story, like many Jones stories, has a deeply human element to it, with relatable characters and a slow build of creepiness that set my teeth on edge, and as Bo tries to figure out what is going on, Jones lays out many possibilities, only to have a very unsettling outcome that is going to stay with me for awhile. As someone who also has a terrible irrational feeling of being hunted while on the steps in my house, afraid of what may or may not be in the dark, this one was a home run for me.

“Challawa” by Usman T. Malik

I hadn’t read anything by Usman T. Malik until this short story collection, so I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but “Challawa” was fantastic. Karima and her husband Ed have travelled to India, with Karima interested in folklore and history of a small town that was the location of an English backed match factory during the Imperial occupation of Britain. As Karima learns of the folklore and mythology of the region, she is also dealing with her husband’s infidelity, the stillbirth of their child, and how their relationship has been reeling because of it (and other issues). As Karima gets closer to her guide and the lore, the history of violent colonialism bleeds in and leads up to a terrifying realization. This one was probably my favorite in the collection as a whole, as Malik not only has some great South Asian monster lore he’s working with, but also very real horrors of misogyny, racism, colonialism, and the traumas that all come with it. I’m reluctant to use this comparison because this is very much an Eastern story and shouldn’t have to have Western analogs, BUT, there are definitely similar universal themes that made me think of “Midsommar”. But given that I didn’t like “Midsommar”, I’m not going to say that “Challawa” is akin to it in all ways. It stands on its own as something unique and SUPER scary.

And while there were standouts from a couple more authors (I do want to acknowledge Alma Katsu’s story “The Familiar’s Assistant”, because man did that nail vampire themes!), the rest were mixed. There were some that were okay, or at least kept my attention, and there were others that really didn’t work for me, be it because of strange style choices, scattered narratives, or some slight to expansive appropriation of Indigenous cultural stories and themes. That last point aside, I’m sure that the variety of story types and subgenres means that there will be something for everyone in this collection, but as someone who is already wary of story collections the number of misses merely confirmed my wariness. There are certainly gems here, as you can see above, but having to get through the stories that weren’t as interesting was a bit of a chore.

If you are a horror person who really enjoys short story collections (and I know a few!), “Dark Stars” is a pretty good example of that. I’m always happy to find more authors I connect with, and that is something that this book provided for me.

Rating 7: A third really stood out, a third were okay, and a third were not for me. All in all, a mixed collection.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward to in 2022”.

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