Today, my Friday Fright Feature is the dark fiction anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations.
Description (from Goodreads):
Darkness exists everywhere, and in no place greater than those where spirits and curses still reside. Tread not lightly on ancient lands that have been discovered by this collection of intrepid authors. In DARK TALES OF LOST CIVILIZATIONS, you will unearth an anthology of twenty-five previously unpublished horror and speculative fiction stories, relating to aspects of civilizations that are crumbling, forgotten, rediscovered, or perhaps merely spoken about in great and fearful whispers. What is it that lures explorers to distant lands where none have returned? Where is Genghis Khan buried? What happened to Atlantis? Who will displace mankind on Earth? What laments have the Witches of Oz? Answers to these mysteries and other tales are presented within this critically acclaimed anthology featuring such authors as David Tallerman, Jamie Lackey, Folly Blaine, A.J. French, Joe R. Lansdale, and many more.
I knew of the anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations and was familiar with the concept before being approached to read it, but nothing quite tops the feeling of when you go into an anthology not knowing what to expect, and you come out with stories that are fantastic, each one containing new wonders you didn’t know you would find. There are stories collected in this volume that will appeal to sci-fi readers, stories that will appeal to fantasy readers, stories that will appeal more to horror readers–in fact, some of the stories are so good that they will appeal to readers of all three genres even if they have a slight tendency or lean toward one most of the time.
Editor Eric J. Guignard, also a genre writer, has selected some truly astonishing tales to be included in these pages, and although there are a few big names, notably Joe R. Lansdale, most of the offerings are from emerging writers who are relative unknowns, but the combined talent that jumps off the page makes this an anthology you can’t afford not to read.
After a thoughtful introduction, we launch into the first dark tale, “Angel of Destruction” by Cynthia D. Witherspoon. Set in the crumbling Assyrian empire, a princess whose husband, fathers, and brothers are all dead awaits the barbarians that will surely come to take her away and plans to fight them. Her servant is more than meets the eye, though, and soon sheds her old hag-like appearance to reveal a new, more youthful one, asking the princess to join her god and not the god of the Assyrians. Although I had a pretty good idea who the mysterious woman-servant Arbella really was, it’s still an entertaining tale of a choice that the princess makes for herself, not for her empire, not guided by her father or brothers or husband or any man telling her what to do. It’s a memorable tale that sets a nice tone for the rest of the anthology.
In “The Door Beyond the Water” by David Tallerman, a shaman, Cha Ne, sees in a dream that a mysterious man is coming, and questions his spirit guide for more information. The new arrival, Montague Evans, is a white man who will arrive before the third moon. There are dual points of view, those of Montague and Cha Ne, that alternate, which lends a wider scope to the story. Cha Ne also has a novice, Cha Poc, who gets sick every time he has a journey through dreams, but Cha Ne has to make a decidedly more arduous journey that will take him to a surprising place.
Next up is “To Run a Stick Through a Fish” by Mark Lee Pearson, which is about a Japanese girl, Izanami, named after the divine mother of the Ainu race, who, legend has it, was the product of a union between a goddess and a dog. After her grandfather teaches her how to summon rain, the villagers start getting spooked by her, and an interesting ending follows. One of the other strong points of this anthology was the diversity of races and cultures highlighted within the stories, which is always important in an anthology of this scope. Far too often anthologies face a danger of being too content to stick predominantly to one era or culture, especially according to the editor’s preferences, which can lead to an unbalanced product, or just too much of the same so the reader feels like he or she has already read many of the stories if they’re too similar.
We get a little bit into a Sioux tale at least for the setup of “Quivira” by Jackson Kuhl, a somewhat whimsical and humorous tale of Tobias Clayton Lyddy, who meets a stranger who insists on being called Clayton while Tobias is to be called Mr. Lyddy. Tobias thinks the stranger, Clayton, looks an awful lot like someone he killed, and things turn out interestingly with an almost Monty Python-esque ending.
“Directions” by Michael G. Cornelius is a multi-pov look at the Wizard of Oz, which of course, starts with the Wicked Witch of the West saying how she never expected a young schoolgirl to be the cause of her demise. She pictured the Wizard being the only one who could destroy her. She keeps dreaming of the death that the Wizard was supposed to bring, something she has mythologized in her mind.
North is the one we know as Glinda the Good Witch, but for those who’ve read the original, they know that North is Locasta, who was compressed into Glinda, who is actually the South witch. She laments the feebleness of kindness, the diminutive power of sweetness, and describes how her evil sisters reigned over her with appalling ease. She also, as it turns out, has some anger management issues against the humans who asked her to help defend them against the evil sisters. The East Witch also had an unexpected demise, not picturing that a house would do her in. She thinks that people will start to appreciate her now that she’s gone.
South, the point of view of Glinda, is the most interesting, because she describes herself as having been the most powerful being in all of Oz, “more powerful than the charlatan Wizard and his foolish band.” All of the tales of the sisters are tragic, and tinged with a note of despair, but the harsh truths Glinda shines about their mother, and her role as the oldest of the sisters, is the most compelling. Saddest of all is that no one remembers her. Although the novel Wicked and the subsequent Broadway shows it inspired also took the Wizard of Oz tale into a new and interesting perspective, this is one of the best pieces of fiction done on the Wizard of Oz period, and any die-hard fan, particularly those who wanted to know more about the witches, needs to read this story.
Changing things up to the Incan side of things is “Quetzalcoatl’s Conquistador” by Jamie Lackey, whose stories I have read and enjoyed in previous anthologies. Herman Cortes exemplifies selfishness, and Lackey does a great job bringing this out. His lover (advisor and translator, too) Malinalli, who he has renamed Marina for his ease, is dying, but Quetzalcoatl has an interesting role in the way this scenario plays out.
For adding a dash of Nazi World War Two exploration to the mix, “Kingdom of Sorrow” by C. Deskin Rink does the trick. The story, an epistolary, is told through a series of journals about a German expedition to the Arctic Circle in search of a hidden city. The closer they get, the more they start to see stones with runes on them. The chief scientist finds a ruined city, the mythical Kingdom of Sorrow, but it’s more than he or the other men bargained for. They build shelter, look around the place, and try to figure as much as they can. Despite the main character’s insistence that he can always count on rational, scientific explanations, he is filled with a sense of dread and unease. When they eventually pry open a sealed set of doors, let’s just say there’s usually a good reason why doors like this are so hard to open—they’re best to remain shut to keep in whatever they are holding back. There’s a distinct undercurrent of Lovecraftian influence to this tale, which I enjoyed because it was subtly hinted at and not overbearing as it is with other stories I’ve read in anthologies.
Suddenly the point of view changes from Doctor Werner von Eichmann, who it turns out has gone nuts. The men continue to hear repeated pounding from four doors in a chamber and try to flee, but of course they learn the hard way that the damage is already done.
“Gestures of Faith” by Fadzlishah Johanabas has a Greek mythology influence mixed with Egyptian lore for good measure. Thoth, one of Poseidin’s worshippers, isn’t feeling the love from the sea god, and Zeus is also PO’d, we’re told. It’s a good creation story that Greek and Egyptian myth fans will enjoy, and although I was glad the anthology didn’t focus exclusively on those cultures, which have been overdone to death in anthologies and short stories in general even though there are still some authors who deal with those subjects originally, I would have liked to see two or three more tales in the subgenre.
Moving on to the more science fiction-based fare is “Bare Bones: by Curtis James McConnell, in which the protagonist is an archeologist or researcher who has a two-million-year-old skull on his desk—the consequences of the discovery and the subsequent consequences of his actions present a unique moral dilemma, making for an interesting read.
“British Guiana, 1853” by Folly Blaine is another epistolary, told from the point of view of a husband writing to his wife through letters. He’s a British Museum explorer sent on an expedition for an opportunity to study a living relative of Megalosaurus or Iguanodon in the dark heart of South America. The dialect and accuracy of the British 1800s vernacular is intact, which helps this story’s authenticity. His party consists of him, an interpreter, Azco, six “Indians,” two horses, and numerous containers for holding specimens he thinks he’s sure to find. It doesn’t take him long to get sick. Like other tales of its kind, it also doesn’t take long for the protagonist to wander into dark and cavernous underground hidden cities, and he does make rare discoveries, just not the kind he was hoping for. He finds a nest containing four eggs that he thinks are the offspring of the creature he has come to study, and these lizard-like beings have crystals in their skulls. One of the eggs hatches, and he names the baby Gilberth. Much to his alarm, the protagonist discovers that these creatures feed exclusively on blood. This tale has a knock out ending that’s sad but definitely leaves an impact.
Next up, “The Nightmare Orchestra” by Canadian scribe Chelsea Armstrong is all about the fascinating world of nightmares, specifically a father teaching his son how to inhabit them, and explaining why they are where they are. The natural instinct of these nightmare dwellers is to take joy in torturing the dreamer, but the little boy wants no part of it, which creates great tension until the shocking and tragic reveal at the end.
Not one to be left out of the party, we get a Genghis Khan story in “The Funeral Procession” by Jay R. Thurtson, which starts off with a slow build and ends with a killer bang.
“Requiem” by Jason Andrew is for the sci-fi folk, conjecturing about what would happen if humans discovered intelligent life forms off of Earth, which is what happens here, and this tale, like most of the ones in this anthology, has a tragic bent, which is to be expected given the subject matter.
Mixing things up with a Babylonian tale is “Gilgamesh and the Mountain” by Bruce L. Priddy, which is supposed to continue The Epic of Gilgamesh. This tale is told in narrative verse, so if that’s not your particular cup of tea, you may not dig it. It’s an ambitious undertaking and hard to pull off, but is I would say the most poetic offering of the anthology.
Other notable highlights include “In Eden” by Cherstin Holtzman, which deals with one of the most interesting eras, the Wild West, and frankly I was surprised there weren’t more tales of this theme in the anthology considering its recent profusion as a subgenre. In any case, this story starts off with a sheriff clutching his wife’s corpse in his kitchen. He knows the West is dying, and his friend proves him right by killing him, too. But the West refuses to die—the town, Eden, still has its inhabitants who although dead, are somehow alive in some kind of purgatorial existence. The sheriff has some dangerous plans for the town and things take an interesting turn near the ending.
I went in with high expectations for “Rebirth in Dreams” by editor and writer A.J. French, because I’m a huge fan of the previous anthologies he’s been a part of, but I was new to his fiction and eager to see what his own writing was like. His work has clear Lovecraftian influences, and Guignard aptly describes this story as a fusion of Hunter S. Thompson with Lovecraft. “It’s a path of self-exploration, one of transcendental knowledge, and of discovering ancient secrets. And mezcal…lots and lots of it.”
French starts off the tale with the sentence “Dreams have much to tell us about the existential condition of being.” True indeed, particularly for his protagonist, who becomes obsessed with dreams and the knowledge they contain in his teens, and later develops into a reclusive adult who reads about symbols, pagan rites, and paths better left un-trod. He hears about people who use drugs and other mind-altering substances to influence their dreams or divine new information from them, and thinks smoking pot is sacred, as is opium, etc, and he describes the legends associated with why.
It doesn’t take him long to find a “Mexican witch” who owns a store selling these mind-altering substances, who sells him mezcal, which is agave brewed from the rugged fields of the Oaxaca Valley, which she says is guaranteed to “drive your mind from reality.” He finds out the hard way that he should have heeded her words as a warning, not a dare, although one could argue he gets what he asked for.
Another interesting historical tale comes in the form of “The Talisman of Hatra” by Andrew S. Williams, which is about Princess al-Nadira, who is torn between the loyalties to her family and to her people. She’s high priestess to a goddess that protects her people, Atar’atha, goddess of love (aka Aphrodite). Some say the Princess is the goddess’s human vessel, her avatar. The city and kingdom seem to thrive, but nothing lasts forever, and soon a big war comes that wipes most things out, the Sassanids fight for control of the Persian Empire, and they want to take it from the Parthians, long the rulers of Persia, who the Princess’s people long relied upon. Although there were no surprises here, it’s a richly woven tale that historical fantasy fans should enjoy.
“Sumeria to the Stars” by Jonathan Vos Pos is another treat for the sci-fi fans, which follows a new discovery of a tablet that leads scientists and experts to believe that the Sumerians knew calculus and quantum physics, or someone gave them a cheat sheet, i.e. an alien race. Although I liked the bits about the tablet and cuneiform, the story felt like a history lesson to me, and had a bit too much mathematical jargon, but despite that, it’s a well-written tale and one has to bear in mind the story was originally a novella.
Joe R. Lansdale’s offering comes near the end with “The Tall Grass,” about a guy who sees some unusual looking grass outside his train window. The train has stopped and the conductor warns him not to venture outside. He does anyway, and finds there’s a good reason why the grass is so tall and an even better reason not to go in it.
To finish things off we have “The Island Trovar” by JC Hemphill, which is a treat for the horror readers that I don’t want to give away too much of, but suffice it to say the villain is scary, and the protagonist ends up being scarier.
Overall, this is a very strong anthology with several impactful pieces that will appeal to a wide spectrum of genre fiction readers. Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations has a little bit of something for everyone, and left me very impressed and enriched after having read it.