By Sarah Hans
Valentinelli, Monica. Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror. FR Press (October 2011).
Ebook: USD $4.99.
Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror is the editorial debut of rpg and horror writer Monica Valentinelli. The cover is slick and professional, and promises stories by reasonably well-known names in spec-fic like Alex Bledsoe, Jason Sizemore and Chuck Wendig.
The book opens with an introduction by Jaeson K. Jrakman, a real-life ghost hunter. Ordinarily, I read a few lines and end up skipping most of an introduction, but I rather liked this one. Jrakman gives a solid history of ghost hunting through the ages and explains some of the devices used in modern ghost hunting. The introduction helps prepare the reader a bit for the language used in some of the stories.
The first story is “What’s the Frequency, Francis?” by Alex Bledsoe. The scene opens in a museum, where a ghost hunter investigates a Victorian device that once communicated with the dead. He convinces the assistant curator to let him read a manuscript titled ‘My Account of Dr. Leondegrance Pugh and the Etherometer Incident’, which details an encounter with the device and its subsequent disabling. This section of the story put me in mind of a steampunk adventure, with a paranormal investigator who makes references to adventures in Tibet and the Congo. The character is so well-drawn that I could almost see him twirling his mustache and smell the pomade in his hair. The story is a bit silly in places, however, which gives it a lighthearted tone. In the end, the ghost hunter discovers a horrible truth that should be chilling, but ends up being at odds with the previously jaunty feel. Even with this small flaw, however, the story is still quite good.
Some of the stories in this anthology fell flat for me. A number shared the same premise: A group of amateur or professional ghost hunters gears up and goes to investigate a haunted house (or woods), where they meet a powerful ghost that kills them all, with varying levels of gore. These stories lacked significant characterisation, so that, by the time the protagonists got around to being murdered, I didn’t feel much of anything for their plight. Some of the stories made heavy use of cliches – I spotted “eyes as big as saucers” twice – or contained enough misplaced commas to be distracting. Overall, it was the heavy use of tropes that made these stories less entertaining for me, however, and many horror fans will probably find them predictable and much too similar.
Fortunately, there are also a number of gems that play with or break the aforementioned tropes. My favourite story in the anthology was probably “The Man Who Built Haunted Houses” by Richard Dansky. This tale isn’t particularly scary, though it is atmospheric and strange. Dansky turns the haunted house cliche on its head, asking, What if haunted houses were built that way, using haunted lumber? It’s an intriguing concept that Dansky pulls off beautifully, with both a unique story and a fascinating protagonist whose strong voice really connected with me.
I also enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s “We Need Johnny”, which does a great job of setting up another typical haunted-house story and then surprises with a twist ending. I don’t want to say too much about the story, because it’ll blow the entire plot, but suffice it to say that it’s a great example of how to take a well-worn trope and make it something new and interesting.
“Immaterial Witness” by Jess Hartley also stood out from the crowd. The protagonist, Liz Bordaine, gives professional ghost tours and she’s uniquely qualified to do so, as she can really see ghosts. Liz is a likeable, believable character, with flaws and quirks, and Hartley brings her to life expertly. Naturally, Liz has become rather attached to a ghost that lives in her apartment. When an amateur ghost hunter shows up and tries to vaporise her friend, we’re reminded that, sometimes, the bad guys in ghost stories aren’t the ghosts at all.
Georgia Beaverson’s “Ghost Catcher” is another story about a medium who can see ghosts, but this one is a little boy. Beaverson has a real way with prose, evoking imagery that is both lovely and grim. Her protagonist, Alex, is pimped by his mother to help people deal with their ghostly problems – those who can pay, anyway. The ghost in this story is perhaps my favourite one in the anthology, but I have a thing for drowned women returning to avenge themselves. If you like Japanese-style ghost stories this one will thrill you.
Ultimately, Haunted is a decent little collection of fiction. The narrow theme of the anthology limits the stories, however, and makes them feel repetitive in places. Even so, there are a number of really excellent stories that make the ebook well worth the low cover price. If you’re a ghost story fan, pick up a copy of this anthology, turn all the lights down low, put on some spooky music, and enjoy.
Bio: Sarah Hans was a morbid child obsessed with vampires, zombies and werewolves. Now she’s a morbid adult obsessed with Elder Gods, Steampunk, and…well, still werewolves. She primarily writes horror stories but has also been known to delve into the world of Steampunk and dabble in science fiction. You can follow her airship adventures or read free flash fiction at her website: http://sarahhans.com/.