Book Review: After Death — Ed. Eric J. Guignard (Anthology)

after death cover image

After Death
Ed. Eric J. Guignard
Dark Moon Books
Release Date: April 5, 2013
$3.87 (Kindle) | $15.00 (Paperback)
Paperback, 332 pages
Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Plot Description:

Death. Who has not considered their own mortality and wondered at what awaits, once our frail human shell expires? What occurs after the heart stops beating, after the last breath is drawn, after life as we know it terminates?

Does our spirit remain on Earth while the mortal body rots? Do remnants of our soul transcend to a celestial Heaven or sink to Hell’s torment? Are we offered choices in an individualized afterlife? Can we die again in the hereafter? Is life merely a cosmic joke, or is it an experiment for something greater?

Included within this critically acclaimed anthology are answers to these queries alongside tales and suppositions relating from traditional ghosts to the afterlife of e-coli. Explore the afterworld of an Australian cowboy. Discover what the white light really means to the recently departed. Consider the impact of modern, or future, technology on the dead. Follow the karmic path of reincarnation. Travel from the 999th level of Fengdu’s Hell to the gates of Robot Heaven.

Enclosed are thirty-four all-new dark and speculative fiction stories, individually illustrated by Audra Phillips, and exploring the possibilities “after death.”

Review:

People have always wondered what the definitive answer is to the question, “What happens after we die?” We all die. We know this. We accept it. Most of us try to run away from or otherwise ignore the truth of the matter most of the time. But we all want to know what comes next. Although no one can really know for sure, the stories in this anthology from Dark Moon Books, After Death try to answer that question in a variety of different ways, and with entertaining–and in some cases, unexpected–results. Before I start things off, I want to bring particular attention to the artist, Audra Phillips, who deserves a good dose of praise for her illustrations, which worked to enhance each piece.

The first story, “Someone to Remember” by Andrew S. William, begins with Charon, who mythology buffs will recognize as the ferryman of the River Styx in Hades from Greek mythology. Our main character is chatting with Charon about a girl he’s waiting for. Apparently, one of the reasons why Charon puts up with our ill-fated protagonist is because he misses company (who knew?). There are some clever alterations to some of the things in the underworld, including the transformation of Lethe, usually a river of Hades, into a bartender. The ending is tinged with sadness, but in a tale like this, it would have to be.

Next up is “Boy, 7″ by Alvaro Rodriguez, which has a devastating impact upon the reader in this tale of a kidnapped child who wishes for the death of his kidnapper. It’s pretty sad to hear how he’s hoping to get out of his predicament and the way his mind imagines it, and this ones also seems to take on a tragic ending, but it’s one of the memorable stand-outs of the pack.

I wasn’t surprised that “Sea of Trees” from Edward M. Erdelac was as good as it was, having enjoyed his Merkabah Rider series. This one concerns a guy who has gone to the famous Aokigahara Forest, which is known as a place where many go to commit suicide, so it wasn’t a shock to me why he was headed that way. He lives like a hermit and is overworked until he’s fired. Although the story has no shortage of sad things about it, including the main character’s history and what drove him to feel like death was his only option, the worst part is he thinks he’ll be at peace, but he learns the hard way that he had the complete wrong idea about suicide.

Similarly, I knew that Lisa Morton’s entry would be fantastic, as are all of her short stories, and “The Resurrection Policy” is another one of the stand-outs of the bunch. Basically, if you think that technology is already being used for nefarious purposes, including the government using it to spy on us, it’s only going to get worse (and the scary thing is that the technology depicted in this story isn’t something we’re too far off from). The story opens with a guy trying to remember what happened to him before the stroke he suffered. He realizes he’s dead. But before he died, he arranged to get a “resurrection policy,” which guarantees that he’ll have a clone body after he dies so that his consciousness can return to that. But he missed the last two payments, and as he soon learns, there’s not a hell of a lot he can do about it, especially since the policy makers can read his mind. He definitely gets a body, although definitely way far off from what he expected. He soon learns that there are rules after resurrection, and he pays the price big time. The ending is disqueting to say the least.

“Circling the Stones at Fulcrum’s Low” by Kelda Crich involves a twenty year-old Prometheus-like being who rises from the dead repeatedly only to die again and to have to relive the agony and all the other things she’s gone through, doomed to repeat the cycle, so, again, not the most uplifting of tales, but very well-done and with excellent characterization.

There’s no shortage of stand-outs in this anthology, and another one is “I Will Remain” by David Steffen, which sees a man who has returned to life as a dog. He used to be Ian, and in life, courted Emily, who keeps him as a pet not realizing who is really in there, but nonetheless having a strong bond. He protects her fiercely and has a sharp nose for what he terms “bad people” who give off an equally pungent odour. The reader will feel for Ian’s predicament big time.

I also had high hopes for “Tree of Life” by Aaron J. French, which was also another interesting story, this one about Keter, the sphere of Heaven though to be closest to God in the Kabbalah belief system. The main character continues to hear angels repeating this word over and over until some measure of finality emerges. If you like your stories more on the existential side, be sure to check this one out.

“The Thousandth Hell” by Brad C. Hodson depicts a very grim, brutal, and specific torture that occurs after death, which is specific to every person who ends up there, with the protagonist encountering a special kind of hell. The truth can be downright awful, nasty, and better left unheard. Sadly, our protagonist isn’t spared this from his father, and finds out many disturbing things, including that his dad and ancestors blame him for a lot of things. If you think your family nags you ceaselessly, it’s probably a picnic compared to what this guy goes through, reminding us that things could always be much worse.

“Like a Bat out of Hell” by Jonathan Shipley goes a different route, exploring the answer to what happens after creatures of myth and legends die. It’s another Greek mythology story in which our protagonist Revel is determined to break out of Hell. He speaks to Cerberus, who advises him to talk to the Furies, and things end on a bit of a humorous note, which gives the reader a much-needed respite from the doom and gloom of much of the first half, which is important for readers not to feel as though they’re constantly drowning in a sea of sorrow and fear. Editor Guignard strikes a nice balance between the two.

Keeping in line with the more upbeat range of stories featured in the anthology, it was nice to see John Palisano’s “Forever” as I’ve enjoyed his other works. After a near-death experience, the protagonist sees someone from the other side to provide hope that there is more to the afterlife and that it’s not as terrible as we fear. I thought the use of second person for some portions and first for others was also a great technique as it lended a lot of immediacy to the story.

Master of Horror Bentley Little also goes a different route with “My Father Knew Douglas MacArthur” about an afterlife existence in which there is neither Heaven nor Hell but rather people find themselves in a room. There’s also some humour injected and people are talking about how there will be a park soon, a store, and there’s even a minister here who promises he’ll be able to marry people. Basically, they’re rebuilding a society for dead people, although not everyone is in favour of the idea.

After her story in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, I eagerly anticipated seeing what Jamie Lackey had come up with this time around, and “Robot Heaven” is another creative stand-out from this anthology. Until this point, most of the stories have revolved around human deaths, but this one focuses on robots, because they, too, have an end. Robby, our robot protagonist, is dead, but has a guide to help him navigate through the next steps. The only way to earn a spot in Robot Heaven is to earn the love of a human, which was quite inventive. As well, it’s possible but difficult to create sympathy for robots (Blade Runner, some of Asimov’s works, Data in Star Trek: TNG and movies like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence come to mind), but the author deserves kudos for that.

Taking things back into more tragic territory is “Beyond the Veil” by Robert B. Marcus, Jr., which sees the protagonist relive the first meeting he had with his wife, Angeline. She dies a short time after they get together. He knows his past, present, and future. He knows the date of his own death, in fact, but the worst part is that he doesn’t simply remember what has happened to him. He has to relive it bit by bit.

“A Feast of Meat and Mead” by Christine Morgan is another favourite for me as I’m big on historical fiction. This one deals with Norse mythology and concerns Lord Aelfstan who wants his troops to stay behind because he doesn’t trust the Danes. Osbert is a psychic servant boy who, when asked what he believes will happen, says he foresees the Danes will come and bring battle. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say, it’s another stand-out.

Scottish horror scribe William Meikle’s tale “Be Quiet At The Back” is not only a stand-out, it’s a knock-out. The story shows that our choices affect others and have much deeper consequences for them than we think. John, a teacher, remembers leaving school one day, then nothing. He’s in Hell, having died of a heart attack. He doesn’t realize what his sin is until he’s told what it is and the demons show him just what a prat he was. In contrast to most of the previous tales of the anthology where the reader sympathizes greatly with the plight and situations of the protagonists, this one reverses that, which makes for a great read.

I’ve heard a lot about Peter Giglio and his work, and so I was anxious to see what his story, “Cages,” would be like. In it, the protagonist tries to remember the good times he had with Monica, who was his wife. She was a believer (in God). He remembers her, warts and all, and she was like a God to him because she was his everything and his universe. He wants to see which religion is the “right” one, so he digs up Monica only to find that in death, God is many and one. Although the story reads a bit fragmented, which can make it difficult to get through in certain parts, it’s an engaging look at one man’s struggle to understand the complex theological aspects of death.

I’m not too sure what it is about these Brits, but they deliver consistently wonderful stories, including Simon Clark, whose “Hammerhead” is another of the knock-outs for me. The title refers to hammerhead sharks, which Hawaiians believe to be divine. Although some of the beginning parts of the story read like a National Geographic article, even though the facts we get about these sharks are interesting, things get rolling when we find out that as with David Steffen’s “I Will Remain,” Damian Keller has returned not as a human but as a shark. In life, as a research scientist, he was on an important research investigation when he made the mistake of revealing to fellow scientist Glenn that he was marrying Ruth, who used to date Glenn. Suffice it to say, things didn’t end up well for Damian, but just when we think we’ve hit the end, it turns out that Damian and Glenn have a more cyclical relationship than just this one encounter. This story has compelled me to seek out more of the author’s work, which I look forward to reading.

Another of the stand-out stories was “Marvel at the Face of Forever” by Kelly Dunn, which reveals a protagonist looking at his own body. He was murdered by a guy named El Cubano only to be raised from death via witchcraft. The protagonist makes it his mission to bring down El Cubano, which leads to an interesting turnout of events.

“The Unfinished Lunch” by Trevor Denyer shows a main character who ends up not in an animal body or something else, but in something that doesn’t even begin to embody the phrase “cruel twist of fate” while the protagonist of “I Was The Walrus” by Steve Cameron seems to remember vivid details about the Beatles that he couldn’t possibly have known. He’s had many past lives, but it’s more than that, and makes for an interesting read.

Another highly anticipated story for me was “The Death of E. Coli” by Benjamin Kane Ethridge, whose novels and short fiction never cease to amaze me with how good they are. This story is no exception, concerning the afterlife of diseases, specifically E. Coli (or as he’s known in this story, Edward Coli), of which the protagonist is one strain, Lamar. Listeria is also personified here, enraged that an outbreak of E. Coli was cured by the UN. Although disease is normally thought of as leading only to negative things for humanity, mostly widespread infection and death, this story takes a much more interesting and unpredictable turn, which is something that makes this story a must-read!

“Final Testament of a Weapons Engineer” by Emily C. Skaftun deals with one man’s terrible regret at forgetting to defuse a weapon in his garage before he passes away, but the question is, will he find a way to save his loved ones from being blown to bits when they inevitably go inside?

I’ve loved much of Joe McKinney’s work since I started reading it a few years ago, and “Acclimation Package” is another serious knock-out, one of the best of the bunch in this anthology. There’s usually a good reason not to bring the dead back to life, which doesn’t always stop people from attempting it, but in this case, it’s even worse because a resurrected person remembers someone else’s life as if it’s his own. The future has changed, and it’s not all pretty. He knows things he shouldn’t. This story calls to mind the sophistication of Blade Runner, particularly as those who seem benevolent turn out to be anything but that. There’s a great trick at the end, and you won’t realize you’ve been manipulated and strung along until the very end. I don’t really need to go on anymore about how good McKinney’s work is, but this is also another absolute must-read.

Each story in the anthology has something unique and different to offer, even the stories that are similarly themed or that take place within the same framework. As with the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, Guignard has produced another highly readable, compelling anthology of dark fiction that is of such a high calibre that I am sure it will also be nominated for a Stoker Award. If you see it at any convention tables or booths during the fall season, buy it on the spot. There are very few horror and dark fantasy anthologies with this amount of incredible, high quality stories, and I know it’s always a gamble with anthologies because even though you may be familiar with some of the bigger names in the table of contents, you’re not to sure if it will deliver (which is understandable, of course), but I’m telling you straight up that if you buy just one horror anthology this year, make it After Death even though there are at least a few that rise above the rest each season, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror and pretty much anything Ellen Datlow edits. After Death is on par with all the most quality, worthwhile anthologies in the genre.

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6 Comments

  1. I think I have this somewhere on my Kindle. Not sure. I’m such a hoarder when it comes to the Kindle Store. It sounds really good, either way so I’ll have to double check. Hard to top those Datlow anthologies, though. :)

    • Hiya Fox, thanks for dropping by! But yes, rest assured this is a great one to start in any format, including Kindle :-) And while it’s hard to top those Datlow anthologies, this one is definitely on par with them ;-)

      -D

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