Fearful Symmetries, by Ellen Datlow ★★★★☆

Start 8/9/2019

I hate posting so many partial reviews. I am going to post this once I am half way through it. This is another anthology of horror stories. Like The Devil and the Deep, this is edited by Ellen Daltow. It is 2014 winner of the Bram Stoker Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, so I am hopeful (again).

I don’t have much a guide on how to move forward. I am just going to go on a whim (and likely with the shortest ones first because they are the easiest).

Update 8/10/2019

It seems apparent that this anthology has a much clearer tone than Daltow’s Devil and the Deep. This is complemented by the narrator, Fleet Cooper. He knows exactly how to pace himself and just the right way to emphasize each situation. I really wish I would finish Devil and the Deep first, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. I have yet to come across a story I didn’t love (3 so far).

Update 10/1/19

I took a bit of a break because I was getting a little burnt out, and I wanted to change it up. I am back, and I hope to finish this this week. My latest story was great and unnerving like several of these stories. This is, so far, a very effective collection.

Finished 10/2/19

I finally finished this collection. Honestly, I am ending it with a lower opinion than when I started. Don’t get me wrong. There are several stories in here you you need to read because they are amazing. There are others that are enjoyable, but I feel like I read most of my favorites early on. That left me with several stories that just weren’t as good. A lot of them are very effective. Most of them even do at least a little to ignite some fear or dread, but it is a bit of a roller coaster of very high high and some very low lows. The average score is 3.93/5 stars.

Table of Contents

  1. A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files ★★★★
  2. The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud ★★★★★
  3. The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister ★★★★
  4. Kaiju” by Gary McMahon ★★★★★
  5. Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan ★★★★
  6. In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall ★★★★
  7. The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling ★★★★
  8. The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones ★★★★★
  9. The Window” by Brian Evenson ★★★★★
  10. Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford ★★★★★
  11. Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan ★★★☆☆
  12. Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman ★★★★
  13. Power” by Michael Marshall Smith ★★☆☆☆
  14. Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren ☆☆☆
  15. the worms crawl in,” by Laird Barron ★★★★
  16. The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod ★★★★★
  17. Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll ★★★★
  18. Episode Three: On the Great Plains, In the Snow” by John Langan ☆☆☆
  19. Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone ★★★★
  20. Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix ☆☆☆

Story Reviews

01 – “A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files ★★★★

Read 8/15/2019

This was a solid story. Really, I think it benefited from an amazing narration. I had a hard time getting into the story at first, but as soon as things get weird, the narrator knows just how to translate that, even if the writing itself isn’t doing that. Attention is key, particularly at the start of the story.

This story uses one of my favorite horror monsters, demons. I love satanic and demonic stories, so this story had a leg up there. Here, we follow a television crew on an archaeology expedition as they investigate an old Sumerian ruin. Things quickly turn weird as it becomes clear The Seven seek to return–ancient demons, or fallen angels who seek to destroy everything.

This story feels like classic horror with death, mutilation, and possession. As they have to deal with being overtaken by these demons, what can they do to stop this? Will they make it out alive, and is their death the only way to stop the return of the seven? It definitely reminded me of a Cabin in the Woods, so far was we consider sacrifices. Overall, it was good and satisfying, but the ending was sort of lackluster 4.5/5 stars, rounding down

02 – “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud ★★★★★

Read 8/12/2019

LOVED this story. This is everything I want from a horror story. The Atlas of Hell gets its name from an apparent book that works as some sort of portal to hell through which you can retrieve desired items. We learn about it while following the owner of a book store. It begins with him being confronted by some big guy who acts as muscle for a mob like leader. It turns out our narrator has a dark history. What exactly, we don’t know. All we know is his services are required, much to his chagrin. There is no tiptoeing around it: this is real. Our narrator is all too familiar with the likes of this item they are in pursuit of. What unfolds as they go to retrieve it is a dark and deliciously disturbing tale.

The concept uses primal concepts of hell, demons, hate and sin. I love the atmosphere it creates. I am not a believer of such things, and there is something so intoxicating about the world in these types of stories. Part of me wonders if there is something wrong with me to enjoy it so much. In reality, this is just another escape. It is a distraction from the real horrors that we have to deal with. This type of story simplifies things. It narrows all our problems down to a black and white where evil stems from something else that is beyond our control. The reality is much more depressing. We have to live with the fact that the world is what we make it. Fantastic story 5/5 stars.

03 – “The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister ★★★★

Read 10/1/19

I think this was the last story I started to read before taking a break from this, and I am glad I did. I enjoyed this a lot more the second time I dug into it. I think the biggest flaw is there was a bit of confusion; I wasn’t sure if what was happening was what I thought had happened. This is a story about a couple brothers who live with their grandmother because something is wrong with their mother. It seems there are issues with mental illness here, but the idea is she is a witch who doesn’t know it. That results in her doing things she doesn’t know she’s doing. Couple that with her mental illness and you can get some pretty dark outcomes. It isn’t straight forward in this. The “witch moth” is somewhat confusing, but its role seems to come across. Despite the confusion, it is effective at evoking some fear. 4.25/5 stars

04 – “Kaiju” by Gary McMahon ★★★★★

Read 8/9/2019

This story is an example of what amazing storytelling can do. The term “Kaiju” refers to ancient Japanese creatures like Godzilla. In general, I wouldn’t consider myself a major fan of Godzilla type stories. Its a fine premise, but not one that I would go out of my way to experience. Nevertheless, I would consider this a near perfect story. From the start, the author sets a clear depressing and ominous tone. We don’t understand exactly what has happened, but we don’t need to. We understand the emotions these people are undergoing. The writer eventually makes his way to what is going on (in a way that Broken Record failed to do). All the way it was a disturbing experience. What’s amazing is we are experiencing the aftermath. We are learning the true horrors of the Kaiju by seeing its effect first hand. Will it return? Will we be safe? We really can’t know. Tragedy has struck and there is no telling if it might strike again. 5/5 stars.

05 – “Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan ★★★★

Read 10/1/19

This was a slow burn but thoroughly enjoyable. The story starts off like a retelling of Carrie. A boy in high school has to deal with constant bullying. The story isn’t very unnerving at the start. It feels like a constant series of misdirections. At one point I was ready to rate this as one of my least favorites. In fact, the build up was overdone. In the end, it pays off well enough. We find out who the real psycho is.

This will include spoils for the story. I liked how the psycho was the boy, an overly christian zealot who glorifies suffering. It reminds me of Christopher Hitchen’s take on Mother Teresa. I understand how people may struggle to really appreciate the unsettling nature of this fact, and Cadigan does a great job articulating how these biblical principles, when applied, are outright disturbing. I wish the story dug deeper into this idea. Regardless of the slow build, it pays off well enough in the end. 4/5 stars.

06 – “In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall ★★★☆☆

Read 10/2/19

This story is about a young girl who starts seeing omens that are followed by deaths of other people. The story was interesting, and the point of view was generally effective at conveying the darker tone. Other than that, not a lot stood out for me. 3.5/5 stars rounding down.

07 – “The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling ★★★★

Read Late 8/2019

I literally remember nothing about this story. I remember thinking how excellent the narrator was doing and wishing I cared more. I don’t know if I ought to give this another listen. I don’t know if this was the story’s fault or my own mindset going in. I think I ought to relisten, because a part of this process of reviews is to understand what makes a story good and by extension, what makes a story bad.

Reread 9/12/2019

I reread the story, and I am glad I did. This is a solid story. It isn’t my favorite, but it is hardly forgettable. The story follows a couple men, one a doctor at a mental institution (I think) and the other an old patient turned maintenance for the facility after his release. The doctor is introduced to a man who talks about darkness and evil. We come to learn that the doctor and patient seem to have something special about them. This leads them to realize the visitor was something evil that needed to be stopped. To be honest, I can see why I might have been confused. The story is a little convoluted, and the rules are not clear.

To me, it felt like a mashup of Stephen King works. We have this person who isn’t a person, instead they are an evil entity of some sort, like Pennywise/IT. Then we have our doctor and patient who seem to know things others don’t. They basically have a form of the Shine, the powers that Danny has in the Shining, hence the name, something that will be explored more in depth in the upcoming sequel film, Doctor Sleep. Then there is talk of evil and how it tends to gravitate to a certain place or in this case, certain people. This feels analogous to Derry and by extension Dallas as it is seen in 11/22/63.

I don’t know if these connections were intentional, but I find it an interesting variation. This wouldn’t be the first story (that I’ve read) in this anthology to use King for their story telling. In any case, it makes for an interesting story that feels ominous and creepy. Nevertheless, the story doesn’t offer anything particularly new, which makes it less effective than the other stories in this collection. 4/5 stars.

08 – “The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones ★★★★★

Read ~8/10/19

I think this was the only story I read twice because I loved it. Sure, Graham is cheating a bit by using my love of Stephen King, but who cares! This story is about a book club discussing the Stephen King story about the man in the black suit when a spindly man shows up uncannily similar to the man in black in the story. Not only do I love that I know this story (its a personal favorite of King’s), I love how dark Graham takes it.

Some might suggest King’s story is a hopeful one because a world with demons means theirs a world with angels. Of course, the skeptic knows that isn’t true. Any piece of your religion could be true and that is not proof of all of it being true. The fact that there are monsters does not necessitate the need for guardians, and that thought is so dark and terrifying. I absolutely love this story. It is by far my favorite because this story really gets to the heart of my thoughts on horror and being afraid.

There are a lot of people who don’t like horror, or when they experience it, they struggle with leftover fear. I don’t believe in the supernatural. but I am only human. Ever since Sixth Sense, I have had a fear of a little dead girl grabbing my foot from under my bed. Even before this, I remember having nightmares about the monster under the bed. To this day, I often get nervous when getting into bed. I experience similar feelings during other times but not as often. I enjoy the fear though. The fear proves I still have an imagination. What I refuse to do is let that control my life. In these moments, I force myself to act perfectly natural and reasonably. Not just because it isn’t justified, but because if these monsters exists, my running or jumping into bed won’t save me. If these monsters exists and want me, I have no chance. 5000/5 stars.

09 – “The Window” by Brian Evenson ★★★★★

Read 8/9/2019

I decided to read this story first for the sole reason that it was the shortest. That makes it easy to read without too much commitment while also giving me a feel for what is in store in this collection. I was not disappointed! This is another example of an author who sets a clear tone.

Like “Kaiju”, this is a retelling, but there is still fear. Fear that the narrator had in the moment that we can empathize with. Also, fear that would come after. This strange unreal experience may be a figment of his imagination. He doesn’t think so (I don’t think we are supposed to think that either), but is his survival really something to be happy about? He has now experienced something that most of us would prefer to think is fiction. He now lives in a world where his deepest fears might actually be real. For most people, the monsters go unnoticed, but as soon as we notice they are there, whose to say they won’t notice us too?

I was very happy with this story. My first reaction was to give it 4.5 stars, but I can’t do that without having something to criticize for which I have nothing. Maybe it wasn’t as horrific as I would have liked, but that is okay. It horror elements were there even if I wasn’t overcome with fright. 5/5 stars.

10 – “Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford ★★★★★

Read 10/2/19

I was beginning to worry that I was getting burnt out on this collection with low review after low review. I am happy to say I loved this story. It does force me to ask what makes a good story? What role does plot play because this story stands out not for its plot which is lacking but for its overt weirdness. In what feels like a take on Hanzel and Gretel, a few kdis go to spy on an old lady. What happens is disturbing and weird in the best way possible. I absolutely loved it for its weirdness even if it left me somewhat confused. 4.75/5 stars.

11 – “Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan ★★★☆☆

Read 10/1/19

This story was so-so. It was about a haunting or the idea of one. The main character starts to hear sounds that shouldn’t be. This story struggled to keep my interest, and it was lacking in the scares or dread. Not terrible, but not my favorite either. 3.25/5 stars.

12 – “Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman ★★★★

Read 10/2/19

This was another weird one. A young women gains a teaching job at what I think is a private school, but she struggles with insecurities about her ability to do the job. All of that is made worse when weird things begin to happen with the kids. I liked this story because I could relate to the main character feeling insecure and struggling to make the right decisions. 4.5/5 rounding down.

13 – “Power” by Michael Marshall Smith ★★★☆☆

Read 10/1/19

I really didn’t enjoy this story. The most horrific thing about this story is the toxic masculinity of the main character. It is about a man who has an inflated idea of his self worth, and in the end he gets whats coming to him. That’s pretty much it. It didn’t accomplish much of anything. 3/5 stars,.

14 – “Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren ★★☆☆☆

Read 10/2/19

Meh. This story was hardly the worst, but it relied on a premise that was weird in all the wrong ways. It is the story of a ghost hunter and photographer. The premise just feels dumb, and it didn’t work for me. 2/5 stars.

15 – “the worms crawl in,” by Laird Barron ★★★★

Read 10/1/19

This was an interesting story. It wasn’t the scariest, but it was one of the more intriguing tales. It is about a man who is killed but comes back. He is something. Some type of monster. I didn’t find the story that straightforward, but it reminded me of Beowulf. In particular, it reminded me of something I read in high school that told this story from Grendel’s Mother’s perspective. At the time, it made me question my Christianity and the meaning of sin when considering instinct. In any case, it makes for a nice twist on the story telling. The biggest flaw here was that it was confusing at times what exactly was happening or why. 3.75/5.

16 – “The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod ★★★★★

Read 8/10/2019

The biggest set back for this story was a bit of confusion that I had as I listened. The main set up seems clear: a women rides to no where as she escapes some dark past. The story flashes between where she was (and how she got there) to her current escape. Now that it’s finished, I see how it fits together. The author does a great job setting up clear tone of disturbing moments. We don’t know what is going on, but we certainly feel the fear felt by our narrator. She joined this rural town where the people are strange. It reminded me of Midsommar where a seemingly normal town has some seriously dark secrets.

There are still some questions left, but I don’t think it hurts the story for it. This is case of mystery befitting the situation. All that matters is we understand our main character and can feel the terror she seeks to escape. 4.5/5 stars rounding up.

17 – “Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll ★★★★

Read 10/2/19

I read this story twice because I forgot to write about it after. This was the last story I read of the anthology, and I liked it. We are reading about a team of people in Antarctica who find themselves under attack by their own team members. The story is told by a man who himself is just beginning to be overtaken by whatever this curse is. The story did a well enough job conveying the denial and fear of the man as well as the fear of those around him who understand whats going on even less than himself. Perhaps the most terrifying thing is that it forces you to attack those closest (emotionally) to you, and there is no real escaping the disease. Knowing is all it takes, and by reading this you are as damned as the characters in the story. I enjoy this sort type of story that tracks ones loss into madness. One might even say this is a fate worst than death. 4/5 stars.

18 – “Episode Three: On the Great Plains, In the Snow” by John Langan ★★☆☆☆

Read 10/2/19

This story was a mess. It felt more like a time travel story than a horror story. There are ghosts from different times on different plains. There are even dinosaurs. The idea is intriguing, but in the end it just doesn’t work. I can also think of better stories along the same line of thinking (e.g. Fish Night). I didn’t like it much, nor do I feel like it belongs in this collection. 2.5/5 stars, rounding down.

19 – “Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone  ★★★★

Read 8/13/2019

This was another great story, but coming off the “Atlas of Hell,” it’s hard not to see this story as not as satisfying. Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend this story. A young girl is investigated by some government entity after her mother is found dead. The story then becomes a slow reveal of what took place. Everything about the tone of the story is on point. It is creepy and well executed. My problem revolved around the reveal. The way the story is structured seems to suggest it was going in one direction, but as we get further along it seems as if that isn’t the case. The problem was I am not sure what the author wanted us to think, and I found my self overthinking it, unable to really appreciate the quality of the story telling as it unfolded.

I did a reviewed what I could find about the story online (it is hard to find a lot of discussion on individual short stories). It appears this story reappeared in Datlow’s, The Monstrous. Aptly named, it is a horror anthology of monsters. The question arises, are the monsters the flies, or are the flies merely there when the true monster is.

I may return to this one more time, but for now, I’d give it 4/5 stars.

20 – “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix ★★☆☆☆

Read 10/1/2019

This story did not work for me. I got the premise because I read review on goodreads, but I really didn’t get the connection between the main character and Shay Corsham. I could reread this to try and follow better, but it had its chance and didn’t work. 2/5 stars.

5 thoughts on “Fearful Symmetries, by Ellen Datlow ★★★★☆

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