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Book: “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen
Publishing Info: Cemetary Gates Media, October 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the author.
Where You Can Get This Book: Amazon
Book Description: Effects Vary features 22 stories of dark fiction and literary horror that explore the shadow side of love, loss, and family. From an aging TV star’s murderous plan to rekindle her glory days, to a father who returns from war forever changed, from human lab rats who die again and again, to a farmer who obeys the dreadful commands of the sky, these stories, four of them award winners, blur the thin line between reality and the darkest reaches of the imagination.
Review: Thank you to Michael Harris Cohen for reaching out an sending me an eARC of this novel!
Halloween season may be over (ugh, it always goes way too fast), but you know me and you know how much I love scary stories. So we aren’t staying away from horror for too long, as today I am taking on “Effects Vary” by Michael Harris Cohen. When this ended up in our inbox, I thought that it was probably about time that I pick up a horror short stories anthology. It has been awhile, after all. And the info I found about it piqued my interest, even though I tend to be a little gun shy about short story collections in general. But the good news is that “Effects Vary” was another positive experience with this format!
The stories in this collection run a real gamut! From different sub genres to different perspective construction to different lengths, the twenty two stories fit together well but all stand on their own in different ways. As always when it comes to short stories, I’ll talk about my favorite three, and then about the collection as a whole.
“Pain Is Your Teacher” : This is one of the shorter stories in the bunch, which is about the length of a drabble (for people who aren’t familiar with fan fiction, that’s a few hundred words at most). A woman writes a farewell letter to her husband as they are settling up their divorce, and as the letter winds down she reveals a last laugh she got upon him after years of abuse. Again, this is a short story, one of the shortest in the collection, but it gets right to the point and goes for the throat almost immediately. I felt like I learned everything I needed to know about Alexander and his nameless soon to be ex wife, and I thought that it was vicious and satisfying in all the right ways.
“Everything Is Forever”: A self proclaimed psychic and mostly charlatan is making an appearance on a TV show and having to explain how one of her recent predictions got things so wrong. As someone who has vivid memories of my nanny watching Sylvia Browne on “Montel”, and as someone who loves a medium story (legitimate or otherwise), I really liked the trajectory this one took. It’s another shorter story in this collection, but even in the limited pages Cohen manages to create a broad narrative and backstory for Joyce the psychic, and creates a tragic circumstance that cuts right to the emotional quick and is absolutely haunting.
“The Ex-Court Painter, Goya, and The Princess”: This one was almost certainly my favorite story in the collection, as it’s unsettling as hell but also has a certain bittersweetness to it. An ex-court painter for Spanish King Charles IV is called back to the palace to paint for the King, even though Goya has taken over. He finds out that the King wants him to paint a portrait of the princess, who as a baby has died tragically shortly after being born. As the painter comes back every year to create a new portrait that imagines how she would have aged, his obsession with the dead princess he has created starts to grow. This one is very creepy, as our ex-court painter becomes more and more fixated on a girl who has been long dead (and who died as an infant no less!), but it also captures grief, regret, and madness in ways that treat more towards melancholy rather than flat out shock or distaste.
The rest of the stories were kind of hit or miss for me, though I do think that there were more hits than misses. Cohen can easily jump from setting to setting and has so many characters and circumstances that all feel well thought out and envisioned, and I thought that all of them did a good job of setting a scene and going on a journey in ways that were quick but satisfying.
If you, reader, are wondering why this has a 7 rating instead of a higher one when I have been generally pretty positive, I will say that there were some ongoing themes in the collection that were really hard for me to deal with, specifically child death. I felt like there was more child death in this collection than I was able to really handle at the time of reading it, as it’s a difficult theme even once in a story. So in a collection of multiple stories that have multiple moments of children dying, it’s probably no surprise that I had a hard time with this. What can I say, I’m unfortunately one of those people that, now that she has a child, is far more sensitive to such things (for examples, I can’t watch Alex Kintner’s death in “Jaws”, and I have to stop watching the opening scene of “Scream” when Casey’s parents come home). This is obviously VERY subjective from reader to reader, so while I had a difficult time dealing with it, another reader may be totally okay with it as a theme in their horror fiction. But it still did have an effect on my reading experience. One could say that effects vary.
Overall, “Effects Vary” is an effective and varied collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. I’m sure that most horror fans will find a lot to like here!
Rating 7: A huge array of horror stories for any horror fan, “Effects Vary” is a varied collection of scary tales.
“Effects Vary” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of now, but it would fit in on “Best Horror Short Stories”.